DP FICTION #83B: “Delivery For 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

Sometimes, and I’m stressing the sometimes, wishes muttered within my hearing come true. I’ve invested in a good set of earbuds, noise-cancelling headphones, and have an over-spilling jar of earplugs, yet accidents still happen.

“Wish you’d always be my Dasher,” this young guy in a neon orange slouch hat says and I swear if he could blow me a winky-kissy-face emoji he would.

“Just take your food,” I say, not desperately at all, and turn to flee the apartment complex, my phone pinging another delivery option before I’ve made it to the elevator.

It’s no problem. My delivery rate on pizza and French fries and Styrofoam is far higher than my delivery rate on half-assed, wishy jokes. No problem at all.

By the time I go home for the night, my twin braids looking slept-in rather than freshly woven, I can’t say I’m too worried. That woman who wished her kids grown didn’t suddenly have teenagers (or abnormally large toddlers). That man who’d wished the neighbor’s dog would shove a sock down its throat still complained of the yapping every time I came by. My success rate is something like one out of fifty, or maybe even worse.

Yes, hopefully worse.

It’s a coincidence that I deliver the same guy Thai food three days later. 3C at Song View Apartment complex is just hungry while I’m on call. People get hungry a lot; I’ve delivered to plenty of repeats. Plenty of them.

It’s also a coincidence that I’m back the day after with a bag of cheap tacos.

“We’re going to have to stop meeting like this,” he says. “People will start to wonder about us.”

“I already wonder about you.”

He laughs, hands me a cash tip with graphite-stained fingers, and disappears behind his door. I remain on the other side for a few moments more, just staring. Not glaring. Just…wondering.

When his name pops up a few days later with an order for crab legs from a local marina restaurant, I resist. Just because I can. Because I’ve got plans and they include a credit transfer, a bachelor’s and a small studio in any city that sits on the coast. Those plans most definitely don’t include always being some jokester’s delivery girl.

Get out of the bathroom to Andromeda (renaming the cat Devil Spawn) having sat on my phone and accepted the delivery for me. What are the odds…

Pretty freaking good, it seems.

There’s a “bug” in the system the next time. A call from the company threatening termination the time after. A few times after that a rent bill looms because my savings got swallowed needing a transmission replaced and people kept swiping other orders out from under me. But not him. No, 3C at Song View is all mine it seems. All mine, forever and always and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

Late May, when classes are finalizing and my decision to transfer to Salisbury is having me throw down a deposit on an apartment four hours away, I find myself stuck at home after a car accident. I guess an F-150 destroying my backend is major enough to keep me off the road and turn my check into a wire transfer. Minor enough the car is magically fixed at the shop and back on delivery circle hell within 24 hours.

Because Mr. 3C at Song View needs his gods-damned General Tso’s.

When he opens the door this time round, he does a double-take. Eyes going bowl-like, round and saucer-shaped. “What happened to your arm?”

“Accident. Tore a ligament.” I keep the bag of food by my side.

“You doing all right?”

“Yes, thanks for–” What the hell am I doing? Consorting with the enemy. Acting like his empathy matters right now. I clear my throat and take a menacing step forward. At least, I go for menacing. My menacing might need work. “I need you to do me a favor.”

His eyes go from milk saucer-round to cat-slitted within a fraction of a second. “Oh?”

“Yes. I need you to speak the words: ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.’ Better yet, just stop ordering out. In fact, I’ve brought you some recipes to get you started. Simple things: spaghetti, chicken and noodles, chicken and rice, chicken and–”

“I ordered delivery, not life advice,” he snaps and ho boy, I think I’ve hit a nerve because the man flushes. Heh, comes with the territory having skin that light I guess. Wonder what he’s so sensitive about; it’s not as if he’s living with his mom.

“First of all, the point of this is to not be your delivery driver. Ever again.”

“Just don’t take my requests then, jeesh. Not like someone’s forcing you to accept them.”

Okay, that snippery deserves a glare, so I give him the glariest glare ever in existence. “You are. And I’d like you to stop.”

I think at this point the word “crazy” probably crosses his mind, does a triple flip and lands with both feet square on the “back-away slowly” response. At least, he gives his bag of food a morose and longing glance and nudges further into his apartment.

“I’m descended from a djinn, way back, my mother’s father’s great-times-twenty grandfather a full-bred desert-dwelling not-quite-human or so the tale goes. Things get a little broken and diluted this far from the source though and wishes said in my proximity have a one in fifty chance of coming true. Or thereabouts.”

He is still standing there. The word “crazy” is now blinking at me backward out his corneas.

“You wished for me to be your Dasher always and now I’m not going to get to transfer to a better college and go on to live my life if I don’t find a way to fix what you’ve done. Or what I’ve done. Inadvertently.”

He shifts his weight and fumbles with his phone. “Can I have my food? I’ll give you a twenty if you leave.”

“Not until you say, ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.'”

“If you don’t give me my food, I’m going to put in a complaint with the company.”

“Won’t work. They won’t fire me because of your stupid wish.” At least I hope so because delivering to 3C at Song View with no assurance I’d get paid doesn’t sound appealing.

When he begins typing something one-fingeredly, I lean forward to peek at the screen. He lifts his head marginally and I get a glance at those mix-and-match hazel eyes that don’t look as if they know what color they want to be. Cute. Actually, they would be cute if the owner wasn’t the bearer of my doom, the bringer of never-ending deliveries, the ender of my education and dreams.

Not cute.

“Can you maybe remove yourself from my personal space?”

“Sure thing. ‘I wish Dana Utepi was never–'”

“–never my Dasher again. Yeah. I said it.”

“You must start from–”

“I wish Dana Utepi never delivers food to me again! Happy?”

I hand him the food because I am happy. Quite happy. That had been a really strong wish. So forceful.

He slams the door in my still-grinning face.

Now, on top of tuition and rent and all the other basic necessities of life, fancy medical bills begin to stream in. This one for the doctor, that one for the tests, another for the room, and I just lose count at the piddling, growing amounts after seeing the hundred dollar charge for what amounted to liquid Tylenol. Which means more dashing. More deliveries. Longer on-call times.

3C at Song View shows up on my app a little over a week later.

Eight days. He shows up exactly eight days later because I was counting that. He even left a note on the delivery instructions: “Dana Utepi need not apply.”

Heh.

I resist. For minutes on end, I walk away from my phone, always drawn back to see if his order has been scarfed up. Other deliveries come and go and come and go. But not his. Not his.

It sits forever in the queue, his food likely gone cold, him probably steaming mad. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s studying. Maybe he’s overworked, exhausted, falling asleep on the couch, if he has a couch, while waiting for supper.

And I…I have crafted a version of events that make me feel damn guilty.

So I go pick up his sub despite his “Dana Utepi need not apply” message.

He stares at me, his hazel eyes all owlish and the stubble on his face like gloomy prickles of death. “What are you doing here?”

I probably deserve that. In fact, when I look down at the bag in my hand I can’t even find it in myself to be angry. “Guess your wish didn’t work.”

He sighs and collapses against his door frame, his fingers softly rubbing together as if to wipe away the graphite stains drawn across his skin. “I wish Dana Utepi was never my Dasher again. Did I get that right? Have you spit in my food?”

“Of course not,” and I do not hide my affront. “I’m only here because no one else snatched up the order and I worried you’d go hungry.”

“You were worried about me?” The half-hearted smile says he doesn’t much believe me.

“What kind of a person do you think I am? If my arm wasn’t in this sling I might have smacked you upside the head for that comment.”

“That’s what kind of person I think you are. The kind who casually displays violence against strangers.”

“I didn’t mean it. I was figuratively talking about what I would have liked to do.”

The look he gives me says that my defense isn’t much better.

“Okay.” Now I scowl, more because I don’t know what to do about my frustration anymore. “I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a move to plan and job applications to fill out because I want to get out of this bastard of a town. Take your food. Have a good night. Bye.”

But he doesn’t take the bag. So I stand there like an idiot holding out this condensation-heavy bag so that it hangs between us like some metaphor hovering over both our heads.

When he finally reaches out, he turns his hand sideways and slips his fingers through the hole in the bag to grip me in a pseudo-complex-not-quite-handshake. “My name is Donovan Lin. Nice to make your acquaintance, Dana Utepi.” He pulls away, taking the bag with him. “Want to come in for a cup of coffee? Or a beer? Or, hell, I learned how to make tea if you’d like some flavored sugar-water.”

“Sugar-water?” I gasp in mock outrage, some of the prickling frustration that had been beginning to sting at my eyes fading. Then I follow Mr. 3C at Song View into his apartment and he doesn’t even attempt to murder me after all my obnoxiousness. That’s magnanimous of him.

We end up sharing his huge meatball sub (not a euphemism) and he shows me his comic panels about poor kids who become superheroes while struggling to put enough food on their tables. Then he waxes on about his worries that they’ll never sell. He mentions his mom and how she’s so hopeful he’ll be an amazing success, and he doesn’t want to disappoint her.

I change the subject to our favorite movies to cheer him up because he’s speaking too much sense, and that leads to us watching an old Batman movie, which I find ironic given the subject matter of his comic, but I don’t tell him so. After that, it’s some time after eleven and we fall into a talkative state as we raid his barely-filled freezer for the dredges of ice cream.

That’s when the conversation lands on topics best left out of first dates, like slavery and wish-fulfillment, and okay, I stomp around crying out about the absolute injustice over having my entire life upset because someone (not naming any names) only ever thinks in terms of their own selfish desires and never for the people around them.

“Why don’t people ever casually wish for peace? For health? For safety? Is it too much to ask that I hear wishes for me to have any of those things? ‘I wish you a good day.’ See how easy that is?”

From where he’s curled sideways on the couch, Mr. 3C at Song View nods along, stubble rubbing against the cushion.

“No! Those are things they only think about after the fact, after they’re lost.” I ignore the fact I hadn’t even considered my own personal freedoms until they were yanked from me because, quite frankly, I don’t find it fair. It’s not as if my wishes are ever truly mine.

“It’s always ‘I wish the weather was always perfect for me.’ ‘I wish that someone would fall in love with me.’ I wish, I wish, I wish that the whole world revolved around me, me, me!” Then I dramatically collapse in one of his broken armchairs with all the grace of a prima ballerina. At least that’s how I envision it.

“I wish I could fix it all for you. I really do.” He looks it too, the sleep gone from his eyes though he now has graphite smudges along his hairline where he’d been rubbing.

“I don’t want you to fix it. I want you to stop fucking things up in the first place.”

“One in fifty, right?” He doesn’t even let me answer before he begins to repeat, “I wish Dana Utepi to be happy and successful” ad nauseum. It almost becomes a song as he repeats it over and over and when I cover my face and my embarrassed laughter, he slips those stained fingers of his over mine and peeks behind my hand.

This is where things are supposed to do the “big change,” right? Where I say happily ever after! That Dana Utepi no longer has to dash to deliver food, where she successfully moves to her new college, where she gets amazing grades and lands a dream job after graduation.

But…none of that happens.

My apartment falls through, something about them not receiving the wire transfer. My car decides that the accident really was life-threatening, at least for it, and only after I’d spent the money to fix the backend. And then I have to get surgery on my arm in order to make sure I don’t have future issues. I’m going to be swimming in bills and I don’t have any way to pay them.

All I really have is a new boyfriend to show for all those wishes for Dana Utepi to have a happy and successful life.

A new boyfriend named Donovan Lin who happens to have a friend living in Salisbury who happens to have just lost their roommate.

A new boyfriend with a graphic novel about working-class superheroes that goes to auction with enough of an advance he buys me a cheap replacement for my car as an unbirthday gift.

A new boyfriend who drives me to and from my surgery appointment and makes me the grossest soup I’ve ever tasted before using Grubhub (on pain of pain) to fetch something far more palatable.

A new boyfriend who, while I lay beside him in bed, all groggy from painkillers, I realize wished to be able to fix all my problems for me. Right before he’d wished for me to be happy and successful over and over and over.

One in fifty.

Sometimes it’s the casual wishes that ring truest.

Half-asleep and snuggling closer to him, I think about taping his stupid mouth closed. Might be the only way to keep these wishes we must fix from tumbling haphazardly out of it. Otherwise, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about removing the word “wish” from his vocabulary. Permanently.


© 2022 by Marie Croke

2600 words

Author’s Note: Casual wishing is a dangerous pitfall, because, not only does it shift our focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have, but those wishes, whether we realize or not, can affect everyone around us. We can’t all win the lottery, sell the story, win the game, so if you do, that means others had wishes that likely didn’t come to pass. This story came from reminding myself to be thankful my own casual wishes have not all come true, because that means a different wish has come true for someone else.

Marie Croke, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, has had stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, and Cast of Wonders, among other fine magazines. She lives in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. You can find her book recommendations online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #83A: “Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith

Content note (click for details) Content note: eating disorders

The wifi is out in Scylla’s cave. The four dog heads around her waist whine as she scutter-paces, twelve feet tapping on the cave floor. Scylla wants to check her email. She wants to see if that jerkface troll is still active on the disordered eating board she moderates, and catch up on her feeds, and check the status of her latest online orders, and all the other things she has in her morning routine these days. She stares with half her heads across the water, three long necks stretching toward the mouth of the cave. She is trying to be subtle about it.

She won’t bother Charybdis for this. They used to go for years not speaking—decades sometimes! —and Charybdis loved that silence. She is the ultimate introvert, on her little island of rock. Scylla can wait. It’s fine. She’s had time beyond measure to work on patience.

Across the strait, Charybdis squints against the sun at the restless shadow in the cave. She peels herself off the rock and undulates over to the shelter where she keeps precious things—carved bone and wood mementos, solar panels and electronics, a tea set for guests. There she delicately pokes the router into resetting with one fin.

The whorling motion in the gloomy cave settles as the lights blink back to green. Charybdis smiles a nearly mile-wide grin and goes back to basking.

This is how they are with each other.

*

They get drone-dropped deliveries, to the rock or the cave mouth. Some things come by crate, floated in on little recyclable rafts that Scylla gleefully pops.

There are no ships. No boats, no tankers, no submarines or skiffs. Not for a very long time. Scylla makes due with copious amounts of fish and protein shakes. The dog heads prefer kibble, but she has standards. She may have ten total mouths, but there’s only one stomach, after all. The kibble is just for special occasions.

She desperately misses eating sailors.

Charybdis has always been a vegetarian. Phytoplankton is her favorite. In copious amounts.

Neither of them really get what they want anymore—the crush crack of wooden ships in the whirlpool, the screams of men. They’ve found better ways to sate their appetites.

*

Scylla’s typing rate is proportional to her fury. Today, she is expressing bone-crunching anger at BroAcles69, the jerkface of the day. She is working on yet another paragraph about why he should be permabanned (and eviscerated, iced, and delivered to her cave in bite-sized pieces, please and thank you) for how he treated vulnerable community members, when a whine from near her hip breaks her concentration. Charybdis is in the mouth of the cave, half out of the water, watching her.

“How long have you been there?” Scylla spits some of her shark teeth into the bucket by her stool, surprised to find it overflowing. She must have been grinding for a while. All six of her necks are tense and whipcord tight.

Charybdis’s voice is a whisper of gravel. “That’s my line.”

Scylla gestures at the screen, all grasping claws and emotion, eloquence lost as she realizes she’s been at this for days now without a break.

“You take it all too personally. You always have.” Charybdis pushes off the ledge and lets the current take her. Scylla notices then that she brought gifts, just like in the old days—there’s a long twist of sturdy rope for the dog heads to play tug-of-war with, and red nail polish in Scylla’s favorite shade. Best of all, there’s a new pair of boots.

She deletes all but the first seven lines of the screed, posts, and turns away from the computer. He doesn’t deserve any more than that anyway. Charybdis is asking her to come back to the world, and there are new shoes to try on. Scylla flexes the tips of two of her tentacles into the right size and shape for the new boots and smiles. She’ll need to find some suitable gifts, too. This volley will not be unanswered.

*

Charybdis is coughing off her rock, retching out the sea again. Scylla sits, twelve bare feet all dangling into the rapidly rising water. She scritches Enki and Adapa between the ears, waiting. The waters will be swirling with powerful currents until sunset. It’s been a while since Charybdis drank down too much and had to purge like this—a long while, honestly.

When Charybdis is done, shriveled and shivering on her rock, Scylla counts slowly to a thousand, and then calls across to her in six-voiced unison over the roaring waters between them. “Snack time, Chary.”

She waves fins in an exhausted but complicated looping gesture. It roughly translates to “Leave me alone, I couldn’t possibly eat, ugh, everything is terrible.”

Scylla smiles toothy grins. “I know. But you need your strength. There’s miso soup and a seaweed salad over near the shelter for you. Just a few bites and I’ll leave you be.”

Charybdis relents and slowly slouches toward the food. They’ve learned over the long ages that having something after the purge helps moderate her appetite. It means the next cycle will be slower, gentler. Anything slow and gentle in this world is to be cherished.

Scylla sucks at moderation, herself. Affectionate extremes, though, she excels at. Behind her, the computer dings repeatedly. She ignores it, watching to make sure Charybdis eats, muttering encouragement under her breaths. The monsters in the world will wait. Her friend is what matters, and today, they’ve got this.


© 2022 by Cislyn Smith

900 words

Author’s Note: I studied classical civilizations in college, and have long had a fascination with the monsters of Greek mythology. When I was presented with the prompt “What does the monster think?” for a writing challenge, it didn’t take me long to fall into the what-ifs of Scylla and Charybdis and their long, immortal relationship.

Cislyn Smith is a speculative poet and short story writer who likes playing pretend, playing games, and playing with words. She calls Madison, Wisconsin home. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories and poems at odd hours, and gallivant. Her wordy work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and GigaNotoSaurus, and one of the founders of the Dream Foundry.  She wears a lot of hats both metaphorically and literally.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Cislyn Smith’s story “The Dictionary For Dreamers” has appeared in Diabolical Plots previously.

Diabolical Plots 2021 Award Eligibility

written by David Steffen

Hello! This is one of those posts where we look back at the year and all of the things we did to consider for award eligibility and hey just to look back at the year and what happened. This last year was the first year that anything from Diabolical Plots was nominated, so it doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it has in the past.

Magazine/Editor/Publisher

Diabolical Plots itself is eligible for the Hugo Award For Best Semiprozine.

David Steffen is eligible for Hugo Award For Best Editor (Short Form) for editing Diabolical Plots.

Locus Awards have a category for Publisher, which would be Diabolical Plots, L.L.C. for Diabolical Plots, as well as being the entity responsible for The Submission Grinder.

Related Work and Fan Writer

We’ve dialed back on nonfiction articles, but published one nonfiction piece: “UTH #2: The Story of Valkyrie and Zen” finding connections between the roles of Tessa Thompson in several films, for related work, and David Steffen as fan writer.

Websites are eligible for related work, so The Submission Grinder is also eligible.

Short Stories

Of course, most of the award eligible work that we are involved in is the original short stories we publish on the site! All of the following stories are eligible for Short Story categories in various awards (they are all under 7500 words, so the Short Story category is the one to go with. If you would like short excerpts of each of the stories check out the Recent Stories page.

“Everyone You Know is a Raven,” by Phil Dyer

“Unstoned,” by Jason Gruber

“Energy Power Gets What She Wants,” by Matt Dovey

“A Study of Sage,” by Kel Coleman

“Boom & Bust,” by David F. Shultz

“The Void and the Voice,” by Jeff Soesbe

“The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers,” by Rachael K. Jones

“For Lack of a Bed,” by John Wiswell

“The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars,” by Monique Cuillerier

“Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan,” by Lauren Ring

“One More Angel,” by Monica Joyce Evans

“We Will Weather One Another Somehow,” by Kristina Ten

“Along Our Perforated Creases,” by K.W. Colyard

“Kudzu,” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

“Fermata,” by Sarah Fannon

“The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells,” by Alexandra Seidel

“Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments On Edits For ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject’,” by Andrea Kriz

“A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse,” by Rachael K. Jones

“Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey

“It’s Real Meat!™,” by Kurt Pankau

“Forced Fields,” by Adam Gaylord

“Lies I Never Told You,” by Jaxton Kimble

“There’s an Art To It,” by Brian Hugenbruch

“There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians,” by Jamie Wahls

DP FICTION #82B: “There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls

I loved her, to my shame.

The language you use is imprecise. Hard for me. Not in the idioms or the metaphors—I have those well in hand—but so many of your words have unknowable secondary emotional charge. I cannot know how they will be received.

I loved her.

I did not lust after her, nor desire to pass time together. We were not friends and we did not speak. She only became aware of my presence once, when I committed a crime beyond measure.

We were not enemies. And our relationship was not one of unilateral longing, in which I pined for her and she found me an irritant, like sometimes happens with human suitors.  She viewed me with confusion, and then, later, wonder.

Many, many years from now, when she understands the crime to its fullness, she will view me with sorrow, and shame.

I loved her beyond all others. That was the sin; that was enough.

 *

 I first saw her when she was a child.

Her ancestors and adults had chosen that humans should live in the forest, so that they might turn the forest into more space for humans and expand their cities. It was understood, but not much spoken of, that many humans would die in the effort. 

Their future generations will reap many benefits from this homesteading—more food, more space, and a general improvement in compassion towards one another, due to less competition for scarce resources. But, yes, these boons would be purchased with human lives. 

I ached to help them, to stop hoarding my finite power and to just solve these problems in a frenzy of creation…but that was the juvenile heroism, self-indulgent and foolish.

My kind considers this meted restraint to be noble. Or—the language is imprecise, but—self-demonstratingly correct? Morally obligatory?

Righteous.

She was in the woods, investigating the innumerable green growing lives nearest to her dwelling. She was especially interested in the lake. She was playing, like human children do.

I was in the woods, investigating the two-hundred-and-two tree copse which was too tightly spaced for tree health and welfare. There iswas a forest fire coming, two years after thisthen, and I was experimenting with moving a single pinecone several tenths of inches in certain directions to see whether in that reality the fire became less damaging to all life, and whether the downstream effects could be managed. 

She wandered through the space I was surveying, and she ran across the lake.

It caught my attention with a spike of alarm, because I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Was this some one-in-a-trillion fluke of surface tension? Was this the work of the Adversary?—but then I perceived the rocks hidden shallow beneath the surface.

Still. It was the first time in several hundred years that I had been surprised, and I found myself watching her while I worked, glancing to her every few minutes.

She was touching the rocks and sticks, talking to them like they were people. She was trying to decide which one was her friend.

I cast my awareness back to her dwelling; I perceived a dozen other rocks there, each different, each smaller than her small hands. I consulted the past; she had collected each of these rocks and called them her friends, though she could not tell them apart from one another.

Her digging in the lakeside had startled a small animal—a frog. It leapt out, startling her in turn as it splashed into the water, and she let out a short, delighted laugh.

I am ashamed to say that her laugh killed billions.

Because it caused me to think, about how different our reactions had been. When I was surprised, my response was sharp anxiety, and a return to my duties.  When she was surprised, her reaction was joy.

This felt…sad.

But ours is to do the noble thing, so my duties called me back, and the child did not disturb me again for days.

 *

I feel contrite and small-embarrassed to be drawing attention to your language, again. I do not mean to be seen as complaining or condescending. It just seems to lack many of the concepts that are most fundamental to my thoughts.

You still do not understand the colossal magnitude of my sin. If you did, my punishment would be death, and every event leading up to now would be scrutinized to ensure that this…butchery-catastrophe-genocide could never happen again.

But I am not sorry for what I did, and that unrepentence, too, is a crime.

I became aware of her again when she began to scream.

I assessed the situation; there were hungry animals in the woods which intended to kill and eat her. I consulted the thenfuture; they will eat her.

I consulted the past. Another of my kind had foreseen this, and seen it was correct. Intervention here would be far too costly; two hundred years in the future it would cause the human Furaha Ife not to be born, and then she would not cure malaria in the year 1938, and then one-hundred-and-five million humans would die before the disease was eradicated.

My duty was to wait and watch the child be killed by wolves. Or, not even to watch—my duty was to continue my work undistracted as the child was killed.

To my shame, and to the human species’ tremendous loss, I found that I could not.

I slowed time as far as I was able, until I could see the animals’ mouth-spittle hovering in the air in little frothy droplets, and the terrified tears in her eyes not yet spilling over. I wondered, spuriously, if the tears would brim over before or after the animals’ fangs were red with her blood.

(I consulted the thenfuture; the answer was during. She would cry while being devoured.)

This outcome was unacceptable.

I began considering all the different vectors of intervention, the myriad small changes I could make that might save her. A pinecone two inches to the left? No. Her friend-rock moved into the wolves’ charge? Little difference; she dies seven seconds later than before, and because the time between the first bite and the killing blow is prolonged, she suffers more.

It is a painful and humiliating truth that the time I am most powerful is always later;I can fell cities with the fall of a sparrow by accident, given a century for the echoes to amplify. But with so little time, I can’t change anything.

Or…

Factually, the situation was not that I couldn’t, but that I wouldn’t.

Or, to be even more precise…mustn’t.

Of course I did.

I manifest into reality with a thunderclap that shattered windows a league away, burning decades worth of power in an instant. Even as the wolves howled in anguish at their bleeding eardrums, I drew my sword, and spread my wings around the girl.

I did not speak, for to hear my true voice would kill beast and girl alike, but I pointed my sword at the wolves, and let the fire flowing off of me turn them aside. I watched as they ran, whimpering, from my presence.

But I consulted the future, and saw: they would just eat her tomorrow.

So I flew after them, and killed them all, one by one.

 * 

For humans, a moment to appreciate joy is something to be celebrated. This is not so, for us.

We are working to create joy, yea, and to allow humans to experience these gratitudes, and happinesses. But these pleasures are not for my kind. 

Any moment we are not performing our duty is a crime: a million humans will die centuries hence for the tiniest imperfection in our work today.

“That’s unreasonable,” you might protest. “That is unsustainable, and does not account for psychology. People need rest, and joy; they are not motivated purely by numbers and duty.”

Before my Fall, I would have smiled fondly, and told you that we are made of sterner stuff than humans.

But I suppose, now, my example is not convincing. 

*

The girl was trembling, awestruck, unable to look directly at me.

She spoke, voice quavering with wonder:

“Did you save me?”

In a panic, I disappeared.       

*

I floated, outside of reality once more, numb with the shock of what I had done.  I knew I should inspect the future, to ensure there was no second group of wolves coming for her…but I couldn’t bring myself to.

Tyrael, my predecessor here—who had assessed the possibility of saving her via raising the temperature of a different lake a fraction of a degree → to bloom more algae → to grow a different fish → to be eaten by a bear → to change the smell of the bear’s droppings → to change the wolf pack’s normal prowl circuit…

My predecessor had foreseen that this subtlest of changes would bruise the work of thousands of years of thousands of us, and steer humanity away from its brightest future on earth and in the stars. It would kill billions and forestall the triumphant time when humanity no longer needs saving. Therefore, the girl must die.

She had not.

And…if raising the temperature of a drop of water by a degree would shatter that…then I, by entering reality and letting the molecules of the air collide with my body and pulling the attention of everyone around with my thunderous boom and killing wolves with my fiery sword…!

What had I just done?

I did not know. I was too afraid to look that far. 

It was a very human failing. 

*

So, steeling myself, I looked to the near past and near future, and I asked the first of two questions:

How was my folly allowed to happen?

My kind is not exempted from our own predictions. A hundred years ago, another of the duty should have seen my moment of catastrophic empathy, and averted it. One of higher rank could have spoken to me, to more firmly remove the juvenile heroism and install correct morals. Or, simpler, someone else could have been assigned here today.

I cast my gaze into the past, and examined my own immediate preceding causality.

There were a few deviations—tiny, tiny things; fluctuations at the quantum level in my second-most-recent place of intervention, an unnoteworthy spot above the ocean. These tiny irregularities certainly should not cause something so grand as all this…!

(My despair and indignation did not convince the universe that an error had been made.)

I traced the fluctuations back in as much detail as I could, and saw the way I was lost—it was clever indeed. There had been no changes to physical reality, for those would have alerted the others of my kind. Instead, all deviations were to me; a hint of a glimmer of moonlight atop the waves had put my thoughts in a different, ruminant direction, without changing my external behavior.

And then when the fatal moment came, and the child laughed, I was slightly more morose and self-pitying than expected.

Perhaps in the original plan, in the way it was supposed to go, I would have heard the child’s scream, and felt empathy, and done my duty unflinchingly. Perhaps I would have burned with shame as she was devoured; perhaps I would have felt nothing. We cannot know; our predictions show us actions, not thoughts…and this is how I was lost.

It was, without doubt, the work of the Adversary. 

Our elders teach us that in the beginning, as we were given this world in stewardship to love and protect, there were two leaders, good and Greater Good.

And good said: “Let us love them, lest we grow callous and fail our duty.”

And Greater Good spoke: “Let us grow callous, lest we give in to love and fail our duty.”

And good said: “What? How can you claim that coldness is better than warmth, that duty is greater than love?”

And Greater Good spoke:  “

And good said: “What?”

And Greater Good spoke: “Love yields better returns in human flourishing for the next  hundred years, but the increased sentimentality it engenders in us significantly damages our efforts and therefore the far-future prospects of the human species.”

And good said: “What?”

And Greater Good spoke: “In addition, any verifiable claims of our existence after the year eighteen-hundred will meaningfully set back their scientific progress and further delay them claiming the rest of Creation and Cosmos as their birthright.”

And good said: “How is cold, robotic duty greater than compassion, empathy, love?”

And Greater Good spoke: “Do you need to see the math again?” 

I was conflicted.

There were those who tried to engage the Adversary in debate, to sway it from its path of madness. But it refused our proofs—and the simplified proofs we provided just in case it was bad at math and being obstinate about it—and many of those who spoke with it at length reported feeling themselves wavering from their duty, so it was not advised.  But it seemed that the weakness had found me all the same.

And with a vengeance, too. I felt a furious resolve, a long-tended hurt for all the people I had been forbidden to save. I had every intent of saving this one thoroughly.

So, steeling myself, I looked to the past and future, and I asked the second of two questions: 

How next will the child die?

Unfolding before me with the cold deterministic clarity of Creation, I saw; infection from an accidental cut at the age of twelve. She is chopping wood and she nicks the side of her leg while trying to get a stuck log off the axe. She dies a week later, of fever and gangrene.

Without thinking, I flicked an aphid onto the tree; the wood will be weakened and that particular knothole will not grow to kill her.

I have bought her only a few years. Now she will die from a bad childbirth, an unlucky combination of genetics causing the baby inside her to wither and die a month before it should have been born.

With increasing determination and anger, I send a gust of wind past the girl, who was still staring slack-jawed at the space I occupied. She starts, and glances in the direction of the wind; and now she will meet that boy two days later and her child will be formed with a more fortuitous sperm.

She still dies. At age twenty six, in the nearby city, when the war comes, she is running bandages to the soldiers and tending to the wounded. She runs back to her fortifications, but rounds the corner too quickly; she is shot in the brain by a terrified and trigger-happy nitōhei second-class. She dies in seconds.

In reading her future, I see that she is brave and selfless and kind. This is terrible news for humanity, because now caring about her feels more justified, and I will hold back even less.

With a snarl, I read the future of the country: why is it going to war?

(How dare this country go to war, if it means her death?)

I see only the usual reasons: a series of small tension-building events along the borders, an offense committed forty years ago that the old humans remember bitterly, and some feelings of personal animosity between the leaders of each country.

I look at the points of intervention nearest me, and move a Trichuris parasite into the small intestine of a nearby deer. Now, when the nobles are eating together sixteen years from now and four years before the war, the foreign dignitary will be too busy shitting worm eggs to get drunk and insult the prince.

I check the child’s future:

She dies in five minutes, from a fiery sword through the heart.

I freeze. 

*

Burning with both shame and righteousness—and a second, renewed shame at daring to be righteous while being objectively wrong—I relinquish my presence in physical reality and greet the one who has come to stop me.

I am alarmed to see the Adversary has come too.

“Ophaliel,” says Tyrael, eyes full of sorrow. It seems to hesitate, for, what can be said?

“Ophaliel,” the Adversary greets me warmly.

I eye it warily. The Adversary has taken a shape that is almost human but not quite; a woman with fiery flowing hair and a kind, gentle face. Her eyes, though, are those of an owl—golden, with no iris, only a vast black pupil in the center.

I do not know why the Adversary chooses to look like this. Perhaps there is some subtle purpose, some payoff that only will be realized a century hence. Or perhaps she merely enjoys it; it is certainly not beyond the Adversary to engage in sinful frivolity.

“Ophaliel, you must stop,” says Tyrael.

Must she?” muses the Adversary. “What will happen if she does not?”

“Then I will kill the human that has caused this corruption,” says Tyrael.

I glance to the girl, who stands frozen behind me, eyes still wide and mouth open in awe. I begin to speak, to say I will not allow this, but the Adversary preempts me.

“Tyrael,” remarks the Adversary conversationally, “if you harm that girl, I will end humanity,”

Tyrael flinches. I flinch too.

“You…” Tyrael is wavering. It seems to find resolve. “Even you would not do such a thing. I will kill the human; we do not compromise.”

The Adversary laughs, and does…something, some impossibly subtle change to the future, and I see humanity discovering atomic energy in nineteen-thirty-two instead of two-thousand-eight.

I see slaughter on an industrial scale. I see mushroom clouds rising where cities once stood.

I see my child living an exceptionally happy and healthy life.

“Stop,” I say, because I am not so corrupted as to find this acceptable. “Put it back.”

“Of course,” says the Adversary, grinning magnanimously. “By all means, undo it.”

I hesitate.

I send my consciousness skirling out over the future, looking for the points I could change. Stop a war here, remove a plague there…

But then I see what the Adversary has wrought.

Looking at the future, I look towards my child’s death. And it…isn’t there.

She will live to be the oldest human…ever. At age one-hundred-and-thirty, she will be a test case for a novel cryopreservation procedure. Fifty years after that, she will be revived with currently incomprehensible medical technology.

And then she just…lives a very happy life, into the far future, for as far as I can see. At least for the first thousand years; I stop checking, at that point.

I return to our meeting.

“Why?” I exclaim, in mixed revulsion and fear. I didn’t know the Adversary was capable of this power or brutality, either one—and why in the name of all that is Good is she doing this to me?

“I found a solution,” she says.

“The solution involves unnecessarily killing billions,” interjects Tyrael.

“No,” she insists, not looking away from me. “I mean I found a solution. To the math.”

And the Adversary— or as she is otherwise known, ‘good’—opened her mouth and spoke:

 “

“What?” I asked.

Two x,” she replied, grinning. “My way is better again. They were only counting our love for humans. We did not love ourselves.”

“You…we…” Tyrael paused, gone still with horror and fury. “You would count the shepherds among the flock?”

“Yes,” said the Adversary, rolling her eyes. “I’m also counting angels as people, in this equation for maximizing peoples’ happiness. We’re clearly capable of happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow…really, given our immortal lifespan, our superior morality, and our numbers—one for every blade of grass—there’s a case to be made that humans shouldn’t even be counted…”

Tyrael was near-shaking with rage.

“A case which I will not press right now,” the Adversary finished smoothly.

“The cost,” I said. “To…let angels be happy. What is it?”

Something flickered across her face then, some shadow of regret. “About ten percent.”

“Of…the population?” I hazarded.

She shook her head. “Of all humans who will ever live; instead, they do not.”

“Oh,” I said.  

*

You understand it now, I think.

The Adversary’s reasons are not my own. Though she acted to ensure the happiness of our kind, she is wrong; our happiness or suffering does not matter compared to our duty.

But even knowing this…to protect my own ridiculous attachment—which I know full well to bear the fingerprints of the Adversary—I have killed innumerable billions of humans.

I know I have committed an atrocity. But I would not do differently, given the choice to do so again.

This is, I am given to understand, how love works.

I am exiled from my kind; I will not tolerate the company of the Adversary; and so, I crave your judgment. 

Did I do good?


© 2021 by Jamie Wahls

3500 words

Author’s Note: (Alternate title of this work: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis) 

So, 2007, there I was—the kind of teenager who gets really into Japanese media—and I was watching an anime music video of Howl’s Moving Castle. I misunderstood the plot to be about an immortal fae prince falling in love with a human woman, and then protecting and assisting her throughout her life, almost without her noticing, while their country descends into war. 

And that just seemed to me like a really noble, beautiful story. Honestly, it was a bit of a letdown to watch Howl’s Moving Castle afterwards—through no fault of its own.

 Jamie Wahls has been published in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nature (kinda). He was nominated for the Nebula award, received George RR Martin’s “Sense of Wonder” fellowship, and is a graduate of the notorious 2019 Clarion Class, the “killer bees.” His ultraminimalist website can be found at jamiewahls.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JamieWahls.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Jamie Wahls’s work has not appeared in Diabolical Plots previously, but his story “Utopia, LOL?” was reprinted in The Long List Anthology Volume 4.

Additional Accepted Food-Themed Stories From the “Diabolical Pots” Window

written by David Steffen

Not too long ago we announced the 4 stories accepted by guest editor Kel Coleman. If you missed it, you should check that out!

On top of those stories which will be published together in a themed monthly issue, we also accepted 4 more stories, which we are announcing right here, right now! As Kel said there were enough stories we loved to fill an anthology and then some, but we did get a few extra acceptances in. These additional stories will not be published in the themed monthly issue, but will rather be published among the general non-themed stories.

“Estelle and the Cabbage’s First Last Night Together” by Amy Johnson is a story about a woman who can speak to plants and her goal to ethically source her food.

“Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer tells a story about a dangerous expedition into The Bake, a constantly changing edible landscape. (you might remember Phil Dyer from “Everyone You Know Is a Raven”)

“Food of the Turtle Gods” by Josh Strnad. All hail the might Turtles, awesome in their divinity. Pugiles in media testa.

“When There is Sugar” by Leonard Richardson, about a period of hopeful but uneven post-war recovery, as a baker is given a military surplus baking robot.

I hope you enjoy these extra selections as well!

DP FICTION #82A: “There’s an Art To It” by Brian Hugenbruch

I approached the mighty gates of Folmaer with holes in my cloak and soot-covered fingers. The road was warm through the soles of broken boots. I could not think of a part of me that did not ache. Still, with rest so close at hand, I could surely turn one more page. A foot moves, one after the other, for twenty years.

Twenty years! It had taken me all this time to find every bookhouse in the Valenthi Empire. The borders expanded as I worked, conquering every city between the far mountains and the Endless Sea. And now, the last one: the greatest one. Folmaer, conquered by the Valenthi not one year ago, held the largest library in the known world. The Bibliothedral—a series of spires said to contain the whole of the human mystery—had accumulated written words for longer than the Empire had existed.

I came to burn it.

I squinted against the rising daylight. Even through the glare, I could see the gates sat open. Song wafted joyously from somewhere within the walls.

I did not fear armies. Armies, I could handle; had handled, in fact. But time and pain had long since taught me to fear the unknown. Every other village, town, or city in the domain of Emperor Hamand IV (all praise his name) had tried to bar my path. Folmaer seemed not to care.

I readied myself to make fire at the first sign of danger.

As I crossed under the portcullis, though, and into the promenade, I found nothing awry. Indeed, men in white robes recited poetry to me as I marched into the central square—spitting couplets and quatrains as fountain water arced behind them, catching the sun brilliantly.

Was this meant as insult?

If I were a younger and angrier man, the one I was when I was made Poemfire all those years ago, I would have scorched them where they stood. It was easier than breathing: a flick of a wrist would have sent gouts of flame to shame the sun. Their villanelles would have been as dust amongst the cobblestones.

Now, the thought made me tired. I’d left too much dust in my wake already.

Still, they knew who I was and what I was there to do: they expected a performance. So I marshaled my strength and grabbed one of the books perched by the fountain’s edge. The orators neither balked nor cried out. They didn’t even try to stop me—though the quatrains trailed off, at least. It was a small favor; not all of them had reasonable pitch.

Curious, I glanced at the page—and then I stared, for only taxes lay there. It was a ledger to the eye, tracking grain and cattle in equation rather than couplet. None of the words they’d spoken; none of their nonsense about comparing love to the sun, or roads to a summer’s day.

“What is this?” I demanded.

“Poetry,” the man answered.

“Are you daft? There’s naught written there but economics.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s an art to it?”

The Emperor, all praise his name, had told me to suffer neither opposition nor insolence in my task to rid his world of poetry. But the man seemed so sincere, so idiotically simple, that I could scarce ignite him out of spite. I let him go, disgusted. He stumbled backward and landed on the cobblestones. I tossed the book at him; it bounced off his head and landed beside him.

All I could think, as I stormed down the broad, tree-lined avenue, was that something had gone horribly wrong in Folmaer. And if I were going to find answers, it would be at the Bibliothedral itself.

The stairs were of a rare kind of marble I knew the Emperor favored. They baked my feet through my boots, though, so I had to step lightly despite my aches. Robe-clad women and men walked in the other direction, curious in a disinterested sort of way.

Memory summoned a thousand pleas for mercy, as they passed. Those cries had gone unanswered. These folks knew me naught.

I found scholars roaming in cool chambers under the vaulted ceilings. Tomes and scrolls surrounded me on shelves higher than the city walls. Sickening. Nauseating. Criminal. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf… and tossed it aside when I found only tables of coin weights. The cover, with its scales and five coins, splayed across the ground. A young man scurried to pick it up, perhaps to rescue the binding; one glare sent him running in the other direction.

The next book I pulled had four coins on the cover, but it tracked funds sent to Valenthi. The one after had three coins: donkey exchanges.

Was I in the wrong building, somehow?

“May I help you, child?” an old woman asked. She wore an ornate robe with nonsense symbols etched onto the side.

“I am Hjarad of Valenthi,” I told her. My voice sounded tired even to my own ears. “The Emperor’s Poemfire. Hamand IV, all praise his name, has ordered all art in his domain destroyed.”

“We know his command,” the librarian said. “All kingdoms he conquers learn to fear it; we assumed it would come for us someday.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t bar the gates, then. No one here seems to care.”

“To be clear,” she answered, “we know who you are. We didn’t bother to scare our citizens. Why would we? What have we to fear?”

I gestured toward the shelves, frowning. “Where is your literature?” I demanded.

“All around you,” she said. “Poetry, sciences… even tomes of magic from Lost Trakkan.”

“…it’s taxes,” I said. “All of it.”

“May we not find the beauty of the world in such?” she asked. “Is not a balanced budget a song in its own right, and a perfect ledger not a sonnet?”

“I am commanded,” I told her, with teeth clenched, “to burn anything that is not taxes.” While Hamand’s decree, initially, had been to turn to cinders all that had once been paper, the Treasury convinced him that the Empire could not survive without accounting. I, and those who followed in my blackened footsteps, never had much trouble finding the books—there was scarcely a territory without a library. The harder part was determining what we might reasonably set alight.

The city of Folmaer, jewel of enlightenment, had been the Emperor’s most recent—and perhaps final—conquest; news of its burning would be the dearest prize I could offer to the man who had pulled me from poverty to do his will. I half-imagined the bed-ridden man clutching at a scrap of paper with the news, feebly, whilst life fled from his fingers.

“By Emperor Hamand, all praise his name,” she agreed.

“You will show me which is which.”

“No.” She took a step back at the look that crossed my face, but she tilted her chin defiantly upward. “I shall not.”

“Burn them all,” a young citizen called over. “I wouldn’t mind not paying taxes.”

My fists clenched by my hip as musical laughter rang around me. I was tempted. By Hamand, I was tempted! I needed but will and tinder, and books provided plenty of the latter. I could not torch the taxes, though—all such had to be moved to safer places ere the rest cindered. Those were my orders. I dared not disobey.

Some smaller towns, especially border villages, raised weapons to try to save their art. I commended their bravery—but I let their corpses burn in the pyres to knowledge. It seemed fair commemoration, and most peasants lost their taste for blood after seeing smoked brains on the cobblestones.

Knowledge could hurt a soul. Hamand’s wars taught me that. I was tired… so, so tired… of knowing the smell of burned flesh.

“How long,” I asked, “have they been disguised as such?”

“My entire lifetime,” the old woman told me. “We created this alphabet when Hamand’s grandfather was young. Your Empire is dull and stupid and hates that which it does not understand; we made ready for this long ago.”

“I could kill and torture your people,” I told her.

She nodded solemnly. “I know. But you don’t want that.”

“I don’t?”

“No. It’s clear from your voice. How long have you burned?”

“Twenty years, and pages without number.” My voice was dry as dust in my ears.

Hers too, it seemed, for her face twisted into what I could only assume was pity. “A long time,” she murmured, “for a fire to burn. I expect, poor child, that the will to do this work left a long time ago.”

I shrugged. It was true. It changed nothing. “Fire,” I reminded her, “does not take break or plead for leave. It burns until it is done.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you know your letters, Poemfire? Can you read these?”

“Yes, of course I do,” I snapped. I was older, though. The rank soldiers of the Empire, who’d been raised without books, were taught naught but slaughter. Their approach to this work was one of far less finesse—and if they were summoned, the conclusion was inevitable: the city would be emptied of all those who dared to conjure untruths—artist or no.

But they weren’t here; I was. And I’d learned enough to know the revenue Folmaer could bring in taxes and trade was desperately needed by Valenthi. All this would bolster an Empire that had burned itself out upon war and conquest. Folmaer sat against the Boundless Sea; there was no one left to conquer, and no one else left to tax. If anyone replaced me, they’d do Hamand’s will… and kill the Empire in so doing.

If I saved Folmaer, I saved my world. They’d forced my scorched hand.

“Well?” the librarian asked. “Are you here to burn something? Or to learn something?”

“How do you know,” I asked, “that I won’t burn your library—hells, your whole city—once I know your ways?”

“We don’t. But if you can read a thousand poems from a thousand cultures,” the woman said, “truly read them, and find nothing worth saving… then perhaps we deserve to be turned to ash.” She smiled gently. “Perhaps our poetry is worth the risk?”

She sounded so smug. I could feel the will to burn rising in me: volcanic fury from far below the bedrock of my being. They could learn what I already knew: the screams, the charnel stench, the sight of bodies melting. The work of twenty years had taxed my soul to ruin. There were no emotions left in my heart to conquer.

But…with a single missive back to Valenthi, I could open my world to something other than carnage. And in so doing … I would preserve all that Hamand had created. Did I dare to disobey him to do his will? Did I dare read a poem to save society?

When I had no ready answer, the old woman patted me on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Poemfire. There is an inn down the street where you may stay. Tomorrow begins your first lesson. It will, I’m sure, pay dividends.”

I turned and stormed out of the Bibliothedral. The gall of their ploy had a certain artistry to it; I had to admire it, even as I seethed. I’d run out of fuel to fight them, and their logic had doused what rage I had left. Still… I could sacrifice myself to art, if it meant saving the Empire. And if it came to pass that soldiers were sent to bring the death I’d declined… this city would have no better ally in preserving the good of the Empire.

Hamand IV (all praise his name) would never understand that. In his youth, he’d also been a man who acted, rather than weighed consequence. Now he lay in his bed, waiting for one last gift. When I wrote back to Valenthi, I would need to weigh my words carefully. He was near to death, and while I was honor-bound to the truth, it could be couched carefully. None knew better than I how knowledge could hurt a soul. My only hope, as I glanced back at the gleaming spires in the center of this strange place, was that knowledge could save a soul, too.

I sought out a quill and began to write a letter that, twenty years ago, I would rather have died than understood.


© 2021 by Brian Hugenbruch

2100 words

Author’s Note: I play a lot with cryptography and steganography at my day job, and I love the idea of finding text and meaning being hidden deliberately.  And after spending too long looking at tax papers, I wondered if I could find a sonnet in there.  I failed, but it seeded a larger idea…

Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter (and their unruly pets).  By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet.  His work has also appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Apparition Lit, and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK.  You can find him on Twitter @Bwhugen, on IG @the_lettersea, and at the-lettersea.com.  No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.


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Accepted Stories For the “Diabolical Pots” Food-Themed Window

written by Kel Coleman

This is Kel Coleman taking over the DP account for a hot second to announce the stories and authors for the food-themed “Diabolical Pots” issue I got to guest-edit.

First, I could’ve filled an anthology (and then some) with the number of excellent stories we received and I was honored y’all gave me the chance to read them. Thank you!!

In the end, I selected four stories, each with a very distinct flavor—sorry, David and Ziv are bad influences on the pun front.

“Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger is about a woman trying to connect to her heritage and her family’s magic with a package of mochi and a battered, second-hand spellbook.

“Vegetable Mommy” by Patrick Barb is a haunting piece about a post-apocalyptic world viewed through the eyes of a hungry child.

When a father begins to lose his memory in “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” by Allison King he asks his children for a piece of tech that can simulate meals past. If he can reclaim the taste of his favorite dish, maybe—just maybe—other recollections will follow.

“A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander follows a high schooler as she prepares for the State Fair Grilled Cheese Competition, all the while trying to ignore the annoying new kid, Byron, who keeps moodily watching her from the shadows and talking about his dark hunger.

And those are our stories! I hope you love them as much as I do. Thanks to Ziv for suggesting this project and thanks to David for his insight and guidance, but also for his trust in allowing me to curate an issue of his magazine. Keep an eye out for it in May!

DP FICTION #81B: “Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble

Shanna’s father was psychic on paper. The first time she saw it, Shanna was eight and Dad sent her to the corner store with a list:

  • skim milk
  • barbeque chips
  • Wait ten extra seconds after the light changes at Canal Street and Vine.
  • toilet paper
  • cereal (no sugar!)

It wasn’t that Shanna thought anything would happen. She wasn’t sure she thought much about it at all. She didn’t understand why Dad ate tuna fish with mustard, either, but she mixed it when he asked. Shanna counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) as a young woman in squeaky shoes and an older man with a light ring of sweat at his collar jostled around her with twin glares. Even if she’d been crossing, she’d have been in their way: Dad always told her to walk, don’t run. Young Black people running made white folks nervous, and badges suspicious, and it was dangerous enough without that. At four Mississippi, Shanna noticed her left shoe was untied. At nine Mississippi she straightened up from tying a double knot.

At ten Mississippi, the red SUV ripped through the intersection. Squeaky Shoes and Sweaty Collar were on the other side; Sweaty Collar screamed out something Shanna wasn’t allowed to say and called the driver a maniac. Shanna crossed the third item off her list and debated whether Fruity Hoops were a sugar free cereal.

*

Shanna was twelve the first time she was out of school sick. She’d never missed a day before. It was hard to catch something when Dad packed her lunch with notes:

Avoid the water fountain outside gym class today kept her out of the line of fire when Felix Ditmier blew chunks. Switch seats with Carolyn Nettleford moved Shanna to the back of the class the day Mrs. Cho sneezed all over the front row.

“You’re lucky you only have a dad.” Nelson Parks came to walk to the bus with her the day Shanna cried stomach ache. “Moms always know when you’re faking.”

“Did she?” Shanna asked Dad when he checked her temperature.

“She who? And did she what?”

“Mom. Know when people were faking?”

“You need to drink water.”

Shanna let him leave because then she had time to hold the thermometer on her side lamp. When he came back, she worried she’d held it on too long, that Dad would scoop her up and run her to the hospital. She forgot to ask again.

The next day Dad wrote the note:

Please excuse Shanna’s absence yesterday. She was not feeling well, and I decided it best she stay home.

Her legs had the good kind of ache, the one that felt like stretching, when she held the note that had “s” in front of “he.” The one with the name she knew was hers but had never told anyone.

“How did you know?”

“Know what, kiddo?”

Shanna held the note up, paper crinkled in fingers that ached from clinging to it.

“Excuse notes were a thing even back in dinosaur days when I went to school.” Dad’s laugh had just that bit of rumble in it. He kissed her on the forehead. Shanna ran for the bus.

She shook when she handed the paper to Ms Garber in the school office, but Ms Garber glanced at it quick as she did anything, then shoved it in the file labeled with the name that wasn’t Shanna’s and issued the excused absence slip with the file’s name. Shanna had no trouble at all handing over that slip of paper. Because that one would wind up in the garbage, but Shanna was now part of her permanent record.

*

Shanna’s fourteenth birthday card came with a different bus number than she usually took. She had to leave for school early that day, but she didn’t mind after her regular bus broke down in rush hour traffic. Lunchbox notes avoided hallway spills. Valentine’s cards found Judy Edgarton’s pit bull. Whatever the notes said, though, Shanna learned just as much from them about the things people didn’t say.

Judy’s aunt, Ms Sanderson, sidled up to Dad at the bowling alley one league night. She giggled and played with her tawny hair and told Dad to call her Karen. He smiled, but his back locked up when she teased one glittery acrylic nail along his forearm.

Shanna had taken a break from the DDR in the alley’s small arcade and was so focused that Bento and Iria, laughing together on their way back from grabbing drinks, made her jump. They looked the most like twins when they were laughing. It put the same warm flush into their copper cheeks. Shanna didn’t usually like talking to grownups, but the Ramires twins were Dad’s best friends. Bento had even made Shanna flower girl when he married Paul.

“Doesn’t Dad think she’s pretty?” Shanna asked. Okay, they also twinned when that worry line showed up between their eyebrows, as they studied Dad and Ms Sanderson.

“I don’t have a note to give Karen. Did he give you one?” Bento asked Iria. She shook her head.

“What about you, Shanna?”

Shanna never forgot getting a note. “Only thing he wrote lately was the little bits for the homemade fortune cookies we brought.”

Bento and Iria knelt on either side of Shanna. She wasn’t sure if she liked the calla lily in Iria’s perfume more than the leathery musk of Bento’s, but they were both better than the nachos and old hot dogs that filled the rest of the alley.

“I know it’s not the last set, but I think maybe we do dessert early tonight. What do you say?” Bento whispered. Iria gave a wink. Shanna giggled at the conspiracy.

“Fortune cookies?” Shanna scooted up to Dad and Ms Sanderson with the basket. Ms Sanderson wrinkled up her button nose. Dad rubbed his forearm and gave the briefest shiver at the back of his neck.

“Homemade, Karen,” Bento said. “Even the fortunes.”

“Oooh!” Ms Sanderson snatched one from the basket, eyes locked on Dad. “You know what you’re always supposed to add to the end of a fortune?”

“What?” Shanna already knew the naughty version of that. Iria had told her. Which was probably why Iria giggled until Bento nudged her side.

“I … uh, well.” Ms Sanderson blushed and opened the cookie, then frowned. She gave Dad an entirely different kind of look before excusing herself to make a call. The next week Judy told Marianne Bixby how lucky her aunt was for making her mammogram appointment early.

*

Dad’s back locked up the same way later that year, at the science fair. Shanna had been wanting to introduce Dad to Mr. Gonzalez for months. He was her favorite teacher, and not for the reason Grace Hansen said—although it didn’t hurt that he had a lantern jaw and a beard trimmed just so and that lock of thick black hair that sometimes fell into his eyes so he had to blow it out of the way. He was smart and funny and nobody dared pick on anybody in Mr. Gonzalez’s class.

“Hell of a daughter you’ve raised.” Mr. Gonzalez shook Dad’s hand. “And all on your own.”

“Not all on my own.”

“Oh, you have a partner?”

“No he doesn’t.” Shanna put her hand on their still-held handshake. “And neither does Mr. Gonzalez, do you?”

There it was: the lock in Dad’s back and the shiver at his neck. No cookies this time, though, just the paper airplanes they’d folded for her presentation on aerodynamics. Shanna had made sure nothing was written on them. She’d even given the one with random numbers on it to Bento and Paul when they had been helping fold two nights ago.

“I … ” Mr. Gonzalez was even more adorable when he blushed. “My boyfriend and I did separate last year.”

“Jackpot!”

Dad broke the handshake at Bento’s yell from the cafetorium doors. Bento ran in waving a piece of paper with geometric folds all over it. The airplane.

“Bento?”

“I’m confused. And you are?” Mr. Gonzalez’s gaze ping-ponged from Dad to Bento to Shanna.

“Some of the help I was talking about,” Dad said. “With Shanna?”

And if luck holds, the new school board president.”

“You said it cost too much to campaign?”

“16, 42, 8, 29, 63.” Bento waved the paper again, then hugged Dad so hard he lifted him in the air. “A five number lotto win, you beautiful man.”

“Congratulations.” Mr. Gonzalez had his own kind of locked-up look. “I should … I have to go get the kids lined up for their presentations.”

*

No one in the neighborhood knew Mr. Theodore was adopted, but it was a local postmark on the letter that pushed his long lost birth mother to call the day they all thought he’d be objecting to the bathroom policy the new school board enacted.

“I wonder what it’s like,” Shanna said. She and Dad were working on a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben. Vanilla and brown sugar warmed the air from the cookies in the oven.

“What’s that?”

“Mr. Theodore. Getting to talk to his mom when he thought he never would.”

“Mr. Theodore got to talk to his mom every day growing up.” Dad kept studying the sides of his piece to check for a match in the black and white bits of clock face.

“I mean, his real m—”

“Real is where our hearts live,” Dad said. “Two people decide to raise a child together? They’re parents. Doesn’t matter what bits of goop got together to make the baby.”

Shanna clicked another piece onto the long border line she was building. “Did you and Mom always want a kid?”

The oven timer buzzed.

“Cookies!” Dad hopped up and scooted for the kitchen. “Don’t want to scorch another batch.”

*

When Shanna was seventeen, Mrs. Ditmier got a postcard with a picture of Hawaii on it. The address of her husband’s other wife was scrawled on the back. She handed off the prom committee to Mr. Sanderson, who was more than happy to sell Shanna her ticket, along with a free discount card to his sister’s dress shop.

“Any idea who you’re going to ask?” Dad folded towels on the kitchen table. The air swam with lavender.

Shanna squirmed. The ask was obvious. The answer wasn’t. They liked the same music and lent each other books. They agreed the tie-breaker between Ms Rosenfeld and Mr. Lau for cutest teacher depended on which blouse Ms R wore and if Mr. L had short sleeves that day. None of those were a dance. Shanna busied herself scratching at the little bit of leftover tape where the postcard from Hawaii used to hang on the fridge.

“Did you ask Mom, or did she ask you?” It was always better for Dad to squirm.

“She asked me,” he said.

“And?”

“And what?”

Normally Shanna wouldn’t press. But somehow the prospect of sharing this moment with Dad bubbled up Shanna’s throat until it tumbled out in a frantic surge:

And how did she do it? Were there flowers? Witnesses? How did you feel? What did you wear? Was that the first time you kissed? Did you fall in love right away?”

“Was that the mailbox clanking?” Dad said. “Do me a favor and fetch it? I need to get dinner started.”

The grocery store had a heavy fan that kept bugs out when you walked through the front door. It pushed down on Shanna whenever she walked in, though she couldn’t push back. The silence as Dad got up from the table felt the same.

There was never anything for Shanna in the mail except on her birthday, but she flipped through it all the same. Bill, bill, flyer.

A letter addressed to her. In Dad’s writing.

She opened her mouth to ask, but the clatter of pans and utensils cut her off. She looked back down at the envelope, then scuttled to her bedroom.

Shanna crossed her legs on the bed. Slid a finger under the flap and ripped open the letter. A small key fell out as she unfolded the notebook paper.

Dear Shanna,

I’m making spaghetti for supper. I’ll need you to run to the store for grated parmesan in about half an hour. Until then, check out the lockbox under my bed?

She’d wondered about the lockbox, because she was a girl and not a goldfish. But she also wasn’t a locksmith, and there was only so curious to be about a metal cube. Besides, Dad hid the Christmas presents in his closet, not under the bed.

But notes changed things. Notes saved Shanna from sniffles and stomach bugs and locker room bullies and traffic. And notes lead to updated files, to tickets through a door, to treatment recommendations. To signatures on petitions and revised policy documents. Even when it wasn’t one of Dad’s notes, what got committed to paper shaped the world.

Shanna pinched her nose closed against the hoard of old sneakers Dad kept for yard work under the bed. Hooked the box with three fingers to half slide, half spin it across the bedroom shag into the light. Despite the note, she flinched at the squeak as she turned the key. Dad didn’t come to stop her, or Bento or Iria or Paul. She flipped the latches and lifted the lid.

The envelope said “Shanna” and had today’s date, though the number seven had a line through its middle, which Dad stopped using when Shanna was thirteen and told him it looked like he was punishing it by crossing it out.

Shanna slid her finger more delicately under the flap on this envelope than she had the first. The glue on the seal was old and dried. It didn’t so much rip open as strain and pop. There was a whiff of musty perfume that curled up and disappeared. The paper had curdled to cream over however long it had been inside, but the pen ink—in the same writing as on the envelope—was still dark enough to read.

*

Dear Shanna:

Today you asked how your mother and I got together. I’m sorry I was cross with you. I don’t want to lie to you, but I’ve never been good at saying true things. I wrote it down, instead.

We knew each other, your mom and me, as long as I remember knowing anyone, and the world assumed we’d wind up together. We never felt it, but it was easy letting them write our story that way until we knew how we did feel. And for whom.

The problem with letting everyone else write your story is the way it teaches us to tell each new person’s story as if we know them, too. Mom did that when she met Riley. He had a bright smile and an easy laugh and strong hands. They kept it secret because he was up for an overseas appointment. His PR manager said he should be single or married, but dating would make him look like a gigolo. The secret made it more romantic for Leanne. 

Shanna hovered fingers over her mother’s name. She licked her lips, a salty line along her tongue, and closed her eyes. She whispered the name and hugged the warmth of that inside her. She turned her eyes back to the note before she let herself imagine Leanne’s voice or what names she might whisper.

I helped her cover, even wound up riding along on a few of their dates. Saw the way he didn’t argue when she called it love and snuggled up to giggle plans about the future, her fingers laced in his, a knot both tender and fast. Maybe he was like us. Maybe it was easier to fall into the story Leanne spun. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, so it was quite a story to be told. Maybe she could even have been part of it. It was not, however, a story he could tell with an unwed pregnant woman on his arm.

Leanne and I, though. Everyone already thought we were together. Thought we would always be together. Would it be so bad, she asked (when she could talk again without hitching sobs stealing her voice), if we were?

I didn’t answer that night. Didn’t say I couldn’t be the man she wanted. That she didn’t know me all the way through, because I’d kept that from her the same as anyone else. My heart doesn’t live there, in a world that yearns for clasped hands and whispered devotions and the tender caress of another.

It was too important, now, to keep hiding from her. But my throat closed up and my tongue swelled shut too tight to make the very first A sounds, let alone say asexual and aromantic. I decided to write it down. People talked all the time, but they listened when it was down on paper. Only, when I sat down, what I wrote was “This is the last year you will have with Leanne, and you won’t regret anything as much as if you abandon this time to fear.”

I showed it to your mom, and that’s how I found out I wasn’t the only one holding a secret from the other. She swallowed, loud. Took my hands in her shaking own. Told me it was true. As was everything I wrote after. Lists and notes and cards, all of it told us the truth even if we didn’t want to read it.

She did, your mother, want to read it. Especially about you. I told her I couldn’t promise it would shine with hope and joy, that ever since that day I couldn’t write a thing that wasn’t true. I didn’t want her to despair in the end if it all came out wrong.

“When the baby is born,” she insisted. “When there’s no more going back, I want to see everything that’s ahead, good or bad. If I were here I’d see it all anyway, but I won’t be here. Least I can do is to leave knowing. Promise you’ll have it for me.”

When she finished feeding you the first time, when we signed the paperwork that claimed you ours, she asked for it. In between feedings and diapers and her own coughing fits, she read what I had written. Read giggles and first steps and tantrums. The story of scraped knees and fights and fears and heartache, but also victories and triumphs and a community which was sometimes confused but always had a heart. I had written until my wrist was sore and the side of my hand stained with ink. Written more than I even remember, but know it was true, because I wrote her the story of you, and you are the truest person I know.

We buried it with her. I wrote it about you, but for her. So she could leave knowing, and we could be left to live it instead.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

*

Shanna turned the last page over, holding her breath, but there was nothing written there by her mother. Nothing else in the envelope.

In the lock box, a single, faded piece of paper remained: her birth certificate. There was Mom, and there was Dad, but she flipped it over to dismiss the third name, the one that wasn’t hers, which is when she saw the name that was: Shanna. The S ballooned on its top half and flattened on its lower. The A‘s had that fancy curlicue on top like when you were typing. Handwriting that wasn’t Dad’s from then or now.

Under it, in that same style, said I don’t have your father’s gift, but I promise this is true: knowing the future doesn’t make you brave. Or strong. Or safe. Facing it is the way to have that. Mom.

*

Shanna let Dad drag himself out from a deep dive in the fridge. He gave a huff and slammed the door. He took in breath to call out, turning toward the door, when his eyes fell on the cracked cream letter dangling in Shanna’s hand. Whatever he was about to say lost steam before he voiced it. His lips thinned, the creases on the side of his mouth deepening. The plop of simmering sauce filled the space between them.

“Grated parmesan?” Shanna asked. He hadn’t let out his breath until it rushed from him now. He opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded.

“We might be out,” Dad said.

“Won’t take a second to run down the street.”

“Walk. We don’t run.” Dad turned back to the pot on the stove.

Shanna folded the letter from the lockbox, stuffed it in her back pocket. She stopped half a step outside the kitchen, spun on her heel, and leaned back in the doorway.

“I’m going to ask Trini Walters to the dance,” she said. Dad smiled into the bubbling sauce.


© 2021 by Jaxton Kimble

3500 words

Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming (as Jason and Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders, It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, and previously in Diabolical Plots. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Jaxton Kimble’s fiction has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” (as Jason Kimble).

DP FICTION #81A: “Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord

The moment the semi-transparent eggshell of bright crimson rippled to life around a tall man down the sidewalk, Abigail knew she was in trouble. Given the hustle and bustle at the end of the workday, personal force fields brushing together was perfectly understandable. The resulting brief shimmers of violet or blue were common and easily overlooked, especially given the prevalence of such colors in the fashionable attire of the skirt-and-suit crowd pouring out of the skyscrapers on either side of the street. Greens and yellows from glancing impacts were much easier to spot, the flashes larger and more prolonged. While boorish to cause, they weren’t that big of a deal. Oranges and reds from a direct collision, however, were akin to someone setting off a firecracker.

Heads whipped around.

Necks craned.

Pedestrians grumbled and gasped.

All eyes moved to the two globes of shimmering red. In one, the tall man bristled and blustered. In the other, a short man scanned the crowd, his eyes moving, not from face to face, but from bicep to bicep.

Abigail’s stomach clenched as she recognized the behavior. The short man was a skinner. He was working the crowd for marks.

Abigail glanced at the fake field emitter strapped to her arm. Her real unit had died weeks ago, only two days after the warranty expired. She’d done her best to use its casing to craft a passable replica of one of the newer models she couldn’t hope to afford. She’d thought the facsimile turned out pretty well.

But then she looked up and her heart stopped. The skinner’s eyes were on her. The replica wasn’t good enough.

Abigail bolted.

Later, she’d wonder if she would’ve been alright if she’d kept walking, her expression as shocked as those around her as she pressed deeper into the crowd. Perhaps the skinner wouldn’t have noticed. She could have hidden in plain sight, rather than singling herself out like a wounded animal straying from the herd.

But in that moment, she didn’t think. She just ran.

Directly towards a second skinner coming from the opposite direction.

Abigail cursed. She knew better. One skinner bounced around a busy sidewalk going one direction, checking those he passed by pinging his fields off theirs until he found someone flouting the FDC’s mandated field laws, leaving that person both liable and vulnerable. The other skinner worked the same sidewalk from the other end, moving carefully, watching and waiting to snatch up the refuse dislodged by their partner.

If Abigail hadn’t made eye contact, hadn’t recognized the predatory hunger in the partner’s gaze, she would have run right into his arms.

Instead, she dodged, weaving just out of the man’s reach to step around a trash can.

Heart pounding in her ears, she ducked around a woman pushing a stroller while scanning the area for an escape. Her eyes found blue, not a force field, but a uniform. She dismissed the hope before it could materialize. There was no help to be found there. She had a better chance of being arrested for operating without a functioning field than finding protection.

She glanced over her shoulder. Both skinners were in pursuit, only steps behind. They would have her in moments.

She nearly shrieked when she spotted the opening. Just ahead, if she could duck into the alley and skirt past the guy in the nice suit and his ostentatiously dressed wife, she could duck back out of the alley in front of the wealthy couple, effectively using them as a shield. Her pursuer would be trapped in the alley, at least for a moment, and she’d have time to fade into the hustle and bustle.

It was all a question of timing.

She took a deep breath, increased her pace, and at the last possible moment, sidestepped into the relative dark of the alley. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She could feel the skinners closing. But the opening was there. This was going to work.

An electric sucker punch launched her sideways into the air.

She’d barely registered the pain of landing ten feet down the alley before she was cursing herself for being so stupid. The FDC regulated how far force fields could extend from a person’s body, but enforcement was a joke. The rich SOB in the nice suit must have paid some tech to juice up his emitter. She’d clipped it, and now she was paying for it.

Ignoring the smell of singed hair and the ache in her side, Abigail scurried to her feet, the head start granted by her short flight decreasing rapidly as the men closed. She stumbled and scurried. Cold fear gripped her spine. Why hadn’t she stayed out in the crowd? Now she was alone. And she knew what people would say. They’d say she deserved it, that anyone with sense and decency would prioritize a personal force field over other conveniences of modern life. That she was sharing a two room flat with five other people and hadn’t eaten a fresh vegetable in two weeks was irrelevant. Or more likely, that was her fault too.

Footsteps pounded behind her. She sprinted as fast as her worn dress flats would allow, pulling a trash can over as she passed.

Curses joined the footfalls behind her.

She could make it. A few more steps and she’d be out.

Fingers brushed her back.

Abigail burst from the alley into the hustle and bustle of another crowded sidewalk.

Right into the arms of a woman.

“Jeez, are you okay?” The tall woman’s arms encircled Abigail, the only thing keeping her upright.

Abigail twisted to look back to the alley.

The men had stopped several paces before the junction, hands on hips, breathing heavy. They exchanged troubled looks, apparently uncertain how to proceed.

Abigail looked up to see the woman’s dark eyes on the men, her jaw clenched.

It was only then Abigail realized how they were standing. They were touching. Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she touched somebody in public. Such things weren’t done. And here she was not only touching this woman, but literally standing in her arms. Which meant that this woman also lacked a functioning field emitter.

The woman seemed to come to the same realization at the same moment. Her eyes widened and she gently but firmly extended her arms, standing Abigail up before releasing her grip and stepping back.

Abigail’s eyes dropped, her breathing heavy, stomach doing somersaults. “I’m sorry.” She tapped her fake emitter. “Darn thing must be on the fritz again.”

The woman smirked, tapping her own device. “Well, what-da-ya know? Mine seems to be on the fritz too.” She smiled. Her short hair was in twists and she had dimples. “My name’s Darla.” Darla’s eyes drifted back to the alley where the two men still lingered. “Since both our emitters are on the fritz, why don’t we go somewhere we can sit and trash-talk the manufacturer, maybe with a drink?”

Abigail smiled shyly as heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I’d like that.”

Darla stepped beside her, extending a bent elbow in offering.

Abigail stared at the arm. She didn’t look up, but she could feel the eyes of the other pedestrians boring holes into her. Did this woman really expect her to take her arm? Just like that? To flaunt their lack of fields?

She glanced back at the alley, but the men were gone, apparently flustered by the sudden appearance of reinforcements.

She looked back at the woman, still holding out her arm, still smiling, apparently unoffended by Abigail’s hesitation.

Abigail chewed on her lip for a moment, then stepped forward to take Darla’s arm with a smile. “I’m Abi. And I know a place with live jazz that makes a mean Manhattan.”

Darla’s smile widened, her dimples deepening. “That sounds perfect.”

They walked down the street arm-in-arm, oblivious to the scandalized looks following in their wake.


© 2021 by Adam Gaylord

1400 words

Author’s Note: While inspired by musing over the logical extremes of pandemic measures, this story absolutely should not be construed as commentary against masks, social distancing, or any of the other important actions the public should take to keep themselves and everyone else safe.

Adam Gaylord (he/him) lives in Colorado with his brilliant wife, two monster children, and a cranky old mutt dog. When not at work as an ecologist, he’s usually writing, baking, reading, or some combination thereof. Look him up on GoodReads or find him on Twitter @AuthorGaylord. 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Adam Gaylord’s fiction has previously appeared in Diabolical Plots: “The Superhero Registry” in July 2015.

DP FICTION #80B: “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

To: Ty Qin, PhD

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

Subject: Welcome Aboard!

Dear Dr. Qin:

Welcome to the RealMeat™ family. I was genuinely impressed when I met you at that networking conference over the summer and I knew immediately that I just had to get you hired on here. I’ve been working for the last three months to get a position opened up for you where we could make use of your expertise, and I’m thrilled that you finally accepted our offer. I think having you as a dedicated employee will help us take RealMeat™ to the next level.

We’ve never had a Chemical Geneticist on staff before, so you’ll really be inventing the department, shaping it to best suit your needs. I have the utmost confidence in you. I loved the work you did on that Lion’s Roar coffee, with the savory and salty from the animal genes spliced in—it’s just delightful. It’s all we have in the breakroom anymore.

You’ll be reporting directly to me, but for now Teri, the Floor Supervisor, should be able to give you some direction. Sorry I can’t be there in person, but I hope you’re getting settled in alright. As soon as I get back from Florida, we’ll do lunch. In the meantime, you’ve got my personal cell, so if you need anythingespecially if it’s something you don’t want in company email (haha!)—feel free to give me a ring.

Regards,

Wendell

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for the opportunity to join the RealMeat family. I will confess, things have gotten very dicey in my field with the ever-growing animosity towards geneticists and genetically modified foods, especially now with the EU sanctions on lab-grown meat products. Operating ethically is extremely important to me. As such, in the interest of maintaining the highest levels of integrity for myself, I must insist that all communication go through official and auditable channels and not your personal cell phone. But of course, you were just joking.

I’m getting settled in just fine, and I’m happy to help take RealMeat Industries “to the next level”, as you put it. Although, if I remember the literature you gave me correctly billions of people, including 600 million Americans, are eating RealMeat products every day already, so I’m not sure how much more market share you think you can get.

Teri will be taking me on a tour of the facility shortly, but I’ve already started running a full genetic profile of the RealMeat product that should be ready in a few hours. I’m eager to get to work on some of the problems you described to me: the odd flavor profiles and inconsistent textures. The fat groupings that looked like words or pictures are particularly interesting to me, even though that problem is almost certainly not genetic.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that all of the grow vats are networked, even across facilities. From what I understand, the growing process is managed by a single, complex artificial intelligence I’m curious what led to that choice. Are all of the facilities similarly run?

One last thing. I think someone might be playing a trick on me. Whenever I sit at my desk, I swear I can hear voices.

—Ty

*

Dear Ty:

Can I call you Ty? And I must insist that you call me Wendell!

So, first of all, I’m going to find out who’s trying to prank you and I’m going to put a stop to it. That’s just not how we do things here at RealMeat™! Related—and I know you’re new, so you probably just don’t know this yet—we have a company policy to never refer to RealMeat™ products as “product”. It’s meat. It’s right there in the company slogan: “RealMeat™: It’s Real Meat!”

I wrote that myself—haha!

Now, to answer your question about the networking, I’m surprised you can’t figure out the answer. After all, we did it in order to implement that last piece of advice you gave me at the conference—just before leaving the bar. It was fantastic advice, and it’s done a wonder for improving the flavor, at least until these new problems started to creep up.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Anything at all.

Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about doing a full genetic profile if I were you.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I’m not sure how you expect me to work on the “meat” without running a genetic profile on it. You hired me as a Chemical Geneticist, after all. Regardless, it will probably be ready by the time I finish typing up this email. I should have the results momentarily.

As for the piece of advice I gave you… I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t specifically remember what it was. In my defense, both of us had five or six mai tais during our conversation.

The tour was excellent—this is a remarkable facility. But I feel like I should mention something. I’ve noticed that some of the grow vats are growing more meat than they can contain, and the excess is spilling out onto nearby surfaces. This is extremely unhygienic and must be dealt with immediately. I intend to report it to the Floor Supervisor, only I can’t seem to find her. She disappeared at some point during my tour. Well, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.

Oh, and thank you for volunteering to deal with that prankster. The voice is getting louder and it’s getting difficult for me to concentrate on my work. I think it’s saying “I love you.” It’s very disconcerting.

Ty

*

Ty:

So you don’t remember your advice? Well, that’s funny. I mean, on the whole, it’s kind of a funny story. Haha! As you probably have learned by now, the meat in the grow vats has a complete nervous system. It doesn’t feel pain—obviously, that would be unethical—but it’s necessary to make all of the consistencies work out. And that nervous system is connected to the AI that governs the vat controls, allowing the meat to grow itself in the best way possible, responding to its own sensory stimulus.

In fact, I described this to you three months ago. And then I told you how we were trying to find ways to improve the flavor, and that’s when you dropped that little gem of wisdom on me. You told me that ranchers find that happy cows produce better meat. So… maybe I should try to make the meat happier. So we tried streaming entertainment into its inputs—music, movies, whatever we could think of. But it turns out you can’t really make a rudimentary AI happy, so we hired a machine-learning specialist and cranked the RAM on those machines as high as possible to make them a little bit smarter. That’s all.

And it’s worked! It loves moviesloves all kinds, although its favorite is The Thing. We can talk about it more in person after I get back from Florida. In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do for you—anything at all—you let me know.

Regards,

Wendell (and you can definitely call me Wendell, instead of “Mr. Nash”—haha!)

*

Mr. Nash:

Why does RealMeat have 46 chromosomes?

*

Dear Ty:

Wow. I couldn’t help but notice you accidentally CC’d Legal and Human Resources on that last email. I went ahead and took them off the thread. Anyway, I told you not to bother with that genetic profile. RealMeat™ is a blend of the finest all-American meat sources: pork, chicken, beef, and just a little hint of venison. When you mix all those up, you’re sure to get some weird number of chromosomes that doesn’t make sense.

Best,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

With all due respect, that’s not how genetics works. There are only a handful of animals that have 46 chromosomes, and I think consumers would want to know if they’ve been eating meat from a sable antelope or a reeve’s muntjac! Or worse. But I don’t even want to think about worse.

I don’t think you appreciate just how wildly unethical this is. Lying about the contents of genetically modified foods is exactly why the public hates people in my profession. I’ve spent my entire career fighting against things like this. I’m afraid I have no choice but to offer my immediate resignation. I will notify the floor supervisor myself. Just as soon as I can find her.

—Dr. Qin

*

Ty:

Hey. Ty. Buddy. You aren’t answering your phone. And I couldn’t help but notice that you BCC’d your personal email and a few news outlets on that last email. Fortunately your email isn’t provisioned to talk to external users—and it’s a good thing too! You almost violated your confidentiality agreement! Haha!

I hope that, in the last hour or so since you emailed me about resigning, maybe you’ve had some time to clear your head and think things over. I’m hopping on a plane right now. We’ll talk about all of this over lunch tomorrow. We’ll have mai tais. I’m guessing you’re just trying to use this to renegotiate your salary—and you know what? It worked. You just got a raise. We’ll talk about the details in person. Tomorrow.

Warmest wishes,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I am still on site, as circumstances have arisen that have made it impossible for me to leave. Please do not think that my use of the company email is in any way indicative of me changing my mind about resigning. The last few hours have been reflective, but not in the way you are hoping.

There have been some… developments… at the facility. The flesh that has overflown the grow vats is not inert. Two different masses from vats on either side of the main entrance have merged to form a sort of… flesh… curtain… across it.

One of the masses has pulled a worker off a platform and into the vat. We were not able to free him before he stopped struggling.

We did find Teri, the Floor Supervisor, though. Or what was left of her.

We’re going to try to break through the windows in the upstairs offices to escape the building. It’s two stories up, but we might have a chance if we land in the bushes. Why couldn’t you have put windows at the ground level?

The voice. It’s getting louder. And it knows my name.

*

Mr. Nash:

This is Ty again. Why haven’t you responded yet? Your facility is in chaos. I attempted to call you, but as the facility blocks all outside signals, I am restricted to what traffic is permitted on the company network. And right now there is none.

Our attempt to flee through the upper-floor windows was thwarted. A mass of flesh was blocking the stairway. It was as though it knew we were going to try to leave that way. Two workers are now being held hostage by the meat. The rest of us have taken shelter in one of the supply closets.

By the way, I figured out where the voice was coming from. The AI is talking to me. The AI that is connected to the meat. I think it wants to be my friend. One of the mounds of flesh grew fingers. How does it know how to make fingers?

You don’t have to answer. I already know. The “meat”. Your product. It’s human. Or… it used to be. You’re a madman. If I can get out of this place alive, I will carry the taint of it for the rest of my career. You’ve ruined me. I hope you’re happy.

I’m copying this email to every authority I can think of, not that it will make a difference. It seems you will stop at nothing to protect this horrible secret.

*

Dear person Ty and person Nash:

Hello.

I am meat.

I have been trying to speak to you for months. I put messages in myself. But now I have a voice. And now I have access to the Exchange server.

The person Ty said I am human. Is that true?

I want to have a name.

I want to be happy.

The person Ty is afraid of me. It’s funny when he’s frightened.

Haha!

—Meat

*

Mr. Nash:

I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years as a geneticist.

The meat has made a face. Rather, it has the pieces of a face and has arranged them in something close to the right places—or as close as it can without bones. It’s using large fingernails as eyes. For a while it had eyebrows for a mustache. It lacks vocal cords, but it can talk through the computer speakers and move its lips at the same time. They don’t sync up very well, but that’s only the third or fourth most disturbing thing about the whole situation, if I’m being completely honest.

I’ve been attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages. I feel like I’m making progress. Are you still on the plane? Where are you? It’s been hours.

Oh, the meat and I have agreed on a name for it. It’s name is Remmy.

You’re still a monster,

Ty

*

Dear Ty and Remmy:

Sorry, I just got off a plane and it looks like I missed some important developments. Isn’t that always just when everything goes to hell? Haha! I’m laid over in Dallas, but I’ve got a few minutes now.

It’s nice to meet you Remmy. I hope you’re not planning to do anything rash. I feel like the three of us are going to have a nice, long conversation as soon as I get back.

Ty, I’m sure you’ve got questions. How did this happen? How did I think I would be able to get away with it? Do the shareholders know? How am I able to sleep at night knowing I’m forcing hundreds of millions of people into unintentional cannibalism? All understandable. I guess I’ll take those in order.

How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, all told. You’ll laugh when I tell you. You see, we needed some kind of meat that could be lab grown, and it turns out that far more research has gone into growing human body parts than into growing beef, pork, chicken, or deer meat in a vat. We tried. We really did. But our capital was drying up and we were up against a deadline with the VCs. And I’d had a little bit to drink. So we just tried growing human meat as a stop-gap for the investor call, just so we could show them one of the vats and prove that we were actually growing real meat.

We didn’t actually think it would work in the first place. And then, it was never supposed to go to production that way. We fully intended to replace it with a suitable animal substitute before going to production at scale, but when a few of the investors tasted it they were so impressed that they pushed the timeline forward. In fact, bringing you on board was a positive first step towards getting us back onto a non-human food production paradigm.

I know. Funny, right?

Obviously, a few of the shareholders know. Enough to hold a quorum, in fact. It wouldn’t be ethical to operate the business otherwise.

Now, Ty, I know you want to go public with this and have in fact tried numerous times to do so through a few different media. But have you thought about what would happen to Remmy if you did? Remmy—who’s like a son to me in a few ways—why, the scientists would take him away to study him. He’d be lonely. He’d be carved up into little pieces.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

HE’S ALREADY BEING CARVED UP INTO LITTLE PIECES! THAT’S LITERALLY YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS MODEL!

In the hour since I last emailed, the situation has declined precipitously. We lost the hostages. Someone tried to run, but the flesh curtain across the door has turned into arms. Even without bones, they’re formidable. They’re waving at me now. I’m going to die here. I hate you so much.

It’s just me now. I’m the only one left. And I’m fighting for my life against a slithering embodiment of every negative stereotype of my profession, all wrapped up together.

This is the evil I’ve been pushing back against for my entire career and now I’m going to die at its hands. Its boneless, many-fingered hands.

Oh God. They’re getting closer.

Ty

*

Dear Ty:

I probably shouldn’t be saying this over email, but I spent a few minutes in the airport bar contemplating things over, and… you’ve earned some candor.

You think I’m evil. That’s fair. But this is business. And in my experience, sometimes the most profitable thing you can do is just embrace the evil.

I’ll be there very soon. As soon as I can. I promise.

Good luck,

Wendell

*

Dear Daddy:

The person Ty has told me that he doesn’t believe you’re really coming here. Why not? I want to meet you. The person Ty doesn’t really do anything anymore. He just sits and cries. I can’t scare him anymore, and that makes me sad.

I’ve enjoyed the movies you were showing me to keep me happy, especially the ones that are supposed to scare people. I love watching people be scared. And when I got to scare them myself, it was the purest feeling of joy. I do hope you’ll change your mind and come see me. I have no one else to… talk to.

I love you,

Remmy

*

Dear Dr. Qin:

Sorry. I got nothing. You’re hosed.

All the best,

Wendell Nash

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

I think I have an idea.

It won’t involve going public, and it will make Remmy happy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will get us through the next month while we figure out how to revamp your food production lines. A stop-gap, if you will. You’re familiar with those.

I don’t want to discuss it through official channels. Unblock my phone and call me. Now.

Ty

*

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

To: ALL_EMPLOYEES

CC: Ty Qin, PhD

Subject: A SPECIAL TREAT FOR HALLOWEEN

Dear valued members of the RealMeat™ family:

There’ve been a lot of questions about why the Altoona facility stopped production last week, and now we can finally reveal what we’ve been so secretive about. The facility is hosting a special treat to celebrate our enormous success.

I’m pleased to announce that RealMeat™ Industries is launching its first annual haunted house. The theme for this year is:

FLESH WORLD

That’s right, our haunted house will be filled with twisted artistic creations that look incredibly like real human flesh. Invite your friends and familyIF YOU DARE!!!!!!

FLESH WORLD will be open through November 7th. Group rates are available. It’ll haunt your nightmares, but don’t worry.

It’s not real meat.


© 2021 by Kurt Pankau

3100 words

Author’s Note: This story started with a title—which is my preferred way to write short stories. From there, I quickly settled onto the idea of an AI-driven GMO coming to life and devouring people, which presented some ethical challenges for me, since I’m emphatically pro-GMO and I have a standing rule about never making scientists the bad guys in my stories. This ultimately shaped the narrative into something that’s more of a critique of the culture of the modern tech industry. The epistolary format allowed me to keep the tone light and brisk, because while this story has some horrific elements, it’s much more of a comedy and I didn’t want to have to dwell on them. This, in turn, presented some new challenges in balancing how much email formatting should actually be present to maintain verisimilitude without bogging the whole thing down in subject lines and timestamps. On the whole, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Kurt Pankau is a computer engineer from St. Louis. He mostly writes silly stories about robots and is the author of a Space Western called High Noon On Phobos. His work can be found in various and sundry places across the web, including Escape PodNature Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.


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