DP FICTION #112B: “Hold the Sea Inside” by Erin Keating

edited by Chelle Parker

Content note (click for details) Content note: This story contains references to intimate partner violence and alcohol abuse.

Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals. The menfolk say it’s devilry to find salt water so far from the shore, but we know better. It’s no devil’s work but woman’s grief.

Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. From that distance, the rush of water is mistaken for a woman’s voice echoing through the hills, laughing and wailing in turn.

***

Once, Maribel knew no mountains. She knew only the ocean, rising to meet the cobbles before her father’s house, and then her husband’s. Maribel would open salt-streaked windows to feel the sea breeze, listen to the fishmongers hawk their wares, and pray to the waves.

Maribel would pray, “Please let today’s catch be good.”

The sea would reply, More, more, more, and her husband’s net would be the heaviest of his crew.

Maribel would pray, “Please let his ship be delayed.”

The sea would reply, Cease, cease, cease, and her husband’s ship would creak late into port against an unfriendly tide and a windless night.

Maribel would pray, “Please let him return home tired.”

The sea would reply, Sleep, sleep, sleep, and her husband would crawl to bed without so much as a glance at her.

The sea was a god to her, ever-present, holding her fate in its grabbing hands. She worshipped it, and it cared for her like no one ever had.

But then there was an accident, an accusation, a falling out. Her husband refused to speak of it. Instead, he said he tired of the sea, and they were moving inland. When Maribel took her last look over the waves, she prayed to the hungry tides that swallowed the land mouthful by mouthful.

“Keep me here. Let the undercurrent hold me fast.”

Her husband told her to hurry up, his hand heavy on the back of her neck. Even though the sea was right there, urging her to stay, stay, stay, Maribel left.

***

Maribel no longer cleaned salt-streaked windows. Now, they were streaked with silt and smoke. Her husband, who had once known the expanse of the open ocean, had become an iron miner in tunnels too narrow for his body. He came home after the last bell, stooped and wheezing. The sea breezes and fishmongers were memories; now, the only tides were of men shuffling to and from the mines.

She still prayed to the sea, though she was too distant now for it to answer. Its voice had followed her only so far west. Through the tidal basin, the humid air droning with dragonflies, the sea had demanded stay, stay, stay, in a voice like an incoming storm. Through the golden farmlands reeking of wet grass and manure, the sea had urged stay, stay, stay, in a voice like a sly current tugging at her ankles. Then they had reached the mountains, and the sea had punished her with its silence.

Maribel longed to cry for all she had lost, if only to feel the familiar sting of salt on her cheeks. But something in her had withered in her time among the silt and smoke. She couldn’t spare a single tear.

***

One night, when the first crocuses cracked through frozen earth, Maribel heard the sea again. It seeped into her dreams, buoying her to the surface of sleep.

Rise, rise, rise, it whispered.

Maribel rose groggily.

Look, look, look, it whispered.

Maribel went to the window.

In the utter darkness, lights bobbed in the distance. For a moment, she thought she was back in the salt-streaked house, watching ships blinking like stars on the horizon. But then acrid ash bit her tongue, and she was in that godforsaken mining town, looking out over the hills.

“It’s just like it was,” Maribel whispered.

Was, was, was, the sea echoed.

The lights drew closer and closer, until a gray dawn revealed they were not ships at all—but a circus.

The performers carried spring with them. Lavender and rose tents sprouted like fresh blooms, lanterns strung between them like fireflies. A moss-green banner proclaimed, “Phineas Fisk’s Fantasies and Phantasmagoria.” After months of bare trees, gray sky, and pale smoke, Maribel was nearly drunk on the colors alone.

The first night of the circus, Maribel wandered from her husband, who cared more for the beer than for the miracles hidden behind each tent flap: the fortune teller with her hunched shoulders shrouded in layers of gauzy silk, the contortionist who combed her long red hair with her toes, the scar-faced man who swallowed swords and fire.

Then, from outside one of the tents, rose a voice like rain.

“Ladies and gentlemen, come see the pearl of my collection. I, Phineas Fisk himself, bring you a wonder from the sea’s dark depths!”

A crowd gathered, surging like the tide. Maribel let herself get swept up in it, bobbing along in the current.

“Beware, faint of heart—this creature will seduce men and women alike to drag them down to watery graves. Please form a line—nice and orderly now. Have your admission fee ready.”

Phineas Fisk held out his gloved hand to collect Maribel’s money as she filed inside.

All of the noise from the circus ceased. Maribel was bathed in a pale green darkness. The air smelled vaguely of fish and brine. At the center of the tent, a boxy shape hid beneath a burlap cloth. A strongman stood beside it, keeping the crowd at bay.

Phineas Fisk swept into the tent, crushed-velvet coattails flapping behind him. “Ladies and gentlemen. I hope you are prepared for what you are about to see. You lucky few, who may look on this wonder and yet live to tell of it.” He stood beside the strongman, his fingers grazing the burlap. Maribel found herself holding her breath as she did in the moments before a storm.

“Behold, the mermaid,” he declared.

He whisked away the cloth.

A hurricane swept through Maribel’s chest as she strained to see. Before them stood a glass tank filled with murky green water—and something swimming.

Long silver tail. Feathery dorsal fin. Scaled skin, translucent as sea glass. Strands of kelp for hair.

And that face. Her face.

The creature in the tank pressed its webbed fingers to the glass. The sea roared in Maribel’s head, too loud to make out the words.

It was her. It was Maribel in that tank, if she had a tail instead of legs, if she had gills instead of lungs. If she had been born of the sea.

She pushed through the crowd like a storm surge. She needed to see; she needed to know. Maribel pressed her fingers to the glass, but the creature darted back into the murky swirl.

“Step back, ma’am.” The strongman braced his thick arm between Maribel and the tank.

And then Maribel was herself again. The face she saw was a reflection of her own in the glass.

But she had heard the sea, as loud as if she’d been standing with her feet in the coarse sand, letting the foam spray against her shins.

She had heard it, and it brought her home.

***

The second night of the circus, Maribel was the first person in line to see the mermaid. Clouds of dark dust streaked through the air, dimming the lights that bounced between the tents. Phineas Fisk wore the same crushed-velvet coattails and greedy gloves.

As soon as she was inside the tent, Maribel took a deep breath of the briny damp. She settled on a bench across from the burlap-covered tank, her eyes adjusting to the pale green light. Already, she could hear the sea, a low groan that she could understand if she tried hard enough.

You, you, you, it said. Maribel sighed—it remembered.

While Phineas Fisk pontificated about the perils of the mermaid, Maribel whispered under her breath, “What do you want me to do?”

Phineas Fisk whisked away the burlap cloth, and there was the mermaid again. Silver fins flicked through the swirling green water.

The sea replied, drowning out the awed gasps of the crowd, the tinny din of the circus, the constant grumble of the mines.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel glimpsed a face in the tank—her own, but not quite. Her face, but with urchin-black eyes. Her face, but with an extra row of teeth.

“I’ve missed you,” Maribel murmured, as quietly as she could.

The sea repeated, Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

A lump hardened in Maribel’s throat, too parched to swallow it down. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could press tears from them. No matter how much she willed it, not a single drop spilled down her dust-caked cheeks.

Instead, Maribel whispered, “I will do whatever you need. I will do whatever you want.”

Phineas Fisk leaned over from his place beside the tank. “Pardon, madam, are you quite well?”

“Quite,” Maribel said.

The sea whispered around her, its voice curling like inky tentacles over her skin. The mermaid swam before her, that other-self smiling with its many teeth.

Maribel could not recall a time she had been better.

***

On the circus’s final night, Maribel donned her nicest dress, one she hadn’t worn since they had arrived in the dust and silt. It shone a sea green, and among the grays and browns of her clapboard house, the color was almost too bright to look at.

“Where are you going?” her husband slurred. He rose from the table, the tension in the filmy air rippling around him.

Maribel didn’t dare respond. Both to answer and to ignore would provoke their own distinct angers. Outside, the night promised her shadows and smoke, and a chance to slip away unharmed.

“To the circus again, to spend my money?” her husband accused. But he fell to wheezing. Sharp breaths rattled in his chest, stuffed with silt. Already stooped, he doubled over on himself, smaller and smaller until Maribel thought he might disappear. He gasped, the hands that had been reaching for her now clawing at his own chest.

Maribel ran without stopping for her shoes.

***

At the mermaid’s tent, Phineas Fisk looked her up and down—her too-nice dress, her too-bare feet. He closed his gloved hand to her. “Perhaps you should see our other marvels this evening.”

Maribel held up twice the admission fee. Phineas Fisk’s thin eyebrows arched. She held up thrice the admission fee.

Finally, that gloved hand unclenched, and she placed the money firmly in it.

“Enjoy,” Phineas Fisk crooned in his voice like rain.

Maribel sagged into the first bench like a lifeless sail. The damp air of the tent soothed her burning lungs and cracked cheeks that had not known a single tear since she had left her home by the sea.

You, you, you, the sea greeted her.

“Me, me, me,” Maribel answered in kind.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home, the sea demanded.

“Soon, soon, soon,” she promised. As she had tossed sleeplessly the night before, as she had cleaned the dirt and silt from her windows, her thoughts had been consumed by nothing but how she would free the sea.

Phineas Fisk stood before the crowd. By now, Maribel had memorized his monologue. When he whisked away the burlap with that dramatic flair, a hurricane no longer swept through Maribel’s chest. Instead, there were only calm waters. The mermaid pressed her webbed hands to the glass before darting away. Maribel marveled at how like her own hands they were, too small to keep her safe.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home. The sea’s voice was so close now, its gentle breeze tickled the back of her neck. The smell of salt pressed closer.

And Maribel wondered what she could do.

***

Maribel stayed until rosy dawn shone through the tent’s pale green light. Peanut shells littered the packed earth floor, and the first warm breeze of spring swept under the canvas. All was silent, save for the shush of the water.

A gloved hand came down on Maribel’s shoulder. “It’s time for you to go home,” Phineas Fisk said.

But what did Phineas Fisk know of her home? Surely he didn’t mean for her to return to her clapboard house, with her husband stooped and wheezing, with smoke and dust burning her throat with every breath. Home was salt-streaked windows, fishmongers, and a sea breeze. Home was the pale green light of this tent.

The sea roared in her head, tossing her thoughts like a gyre.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

“Please, a few more minutes.” She needed more time. She did not know yet how she would save the sea from the glass tank that held it. After all it had done for her, she could not abandon it now.

“Have you fallen in love with her?”

“No.”

And it was true, Maribel was not in love with the mermaid. She was the mermaid. She had left her soul with the sea, and it had returned to her in the form of this creature. She would not be parted from it again.

“Have you looked at it closely?” Phineas Fisk asked. “Tell me what you see.”

The sea echoed, See, see, see.

Maribel crossed the packed earth floor, feeling the warmth of sand beneath her bare feet. The early light rippled like the surface of the ocean.

Maribel stood so close that her breath fogged the tank glass. When the fog cleared, the mermaid blinked up at her, eyes black as the depths of Maribel’s beloved sea. Her pale lips parted in a jagged-toothed smile as though she too had been waiting.

The mermaid placed her fingers against the glass walls. Maribel mirrored the gesture, the cold glass sweating condensation between them. She pressed harder, as though the glass would give way, and she would find herself in the water.

“Bring me home, home, home.” Maribel whispered the words of waves and wind to the only being who shared her grief. The mermaid murmured them back.

“Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home,” Maribel pleaded.

The mermaid pushed herself up, breaking the surface to rest her forehead against Maribel’s.

Undulating waves rushed through Maribel’s ears. She tangled her fingers in the mermaid’s kelp hair, whispering her prayers against the mermaid’s jagged mouth.

The mermaid’s wet, scaly skin felt like the damp sand of home. Maribel gulped down the mermaid’s salty, fishy breath like a drowning woman come up for air. She was the sea, as ever-changing and unknowable. Maribel wanted to be wrapped in those arms and pulled down, down, down.

“That’s enough,” a voice like rain cautioned.

Maribel froze, one leg draped guiltily over the edge of the tank. The mermaid recoiled, pressing herself against the glass opposite Phineas Fisk. His gloved hand wrapped around Maribel’s bicep. Maribel flinched from the too-familiar gesture.

“I can’t have you drowning on me. They’d run us out of town.”

Drowning. Was that what was happening? The pull of the sea, the shiver of salt around her ankle. If that was drowning, Maribel would drown.

“Let us go, go, go,” Maribel begged.

“People will believe anything, you know, with a good story and poor lighting.” Maribel struggled against him, but Phineas Fisk tightened his grip. “There is no mermaid, only circus magic. You’re trying to drown yourself in a tank of seaweed and fish bones. This is not real.”

No. The mountains were not real. The smoke and the mines were not real. Her husband’s heavy hands and stale-beer mouth were not real. But the sea—the sea was the only real thing Maribel had ever known.

“You lie, lie, lie,” Maribel demanded.

“Look!” Phineas Fisk boomed, his rain voice becoming a storm.

Look, look, look, the sea echoed, gentle as a lover.

Maribel looked. The mermaid’s sea-glass tail flicked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“The show is over. I will have someone walk you home.”

Home—this was home. The swish of the mermaid’s tail and the rush of the sea in her head made demands that grew louder, louder, louder, until Maribel’s thoughts were the same as theirs.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel leapt into the tank.

She landed hard against the glass bottom, against sharp fishbones and tangled seaweed. Phineas Fisk’s muted cries gurgled from above the water. Maribel opened her mouth to pray to the sea.

Bring me home.

The salt water rushed down her throat. It said, Welcome home.

The water filled her up, quenching her parched lungs and skin. Maribel wept then, like she had been unable to weep for months. She held the sea inside her, an ocean of unshed tears. She let them go now in a torrent, until the tank overflowed with it. She gave herself to the water, drop by drop.

Just as the tides swallowed the shore, mouthful by mouthful, the salt water consumed Maribel.

Her dust-caked cheeks rippled beneath her touch. Her hands, too small to ever hit back, became tiny columns of sea spray. Her body, far from home, pressed hard against the glass.

Maribel became the sea in the shape of a woman. She pressed harder and harder against the glass, letting out the sea that she had held in her chest all this time.

The tank shattered.

Everywhere was glass and water, light and canvas, and Maribel took it all for herself. She would take it all home, wash the mountainside clean.

Phineas Fisk staggered back, desperately reaching for the tent flap. The pockets of his crushed-velvet coat bulged. Maribel hated him for what he’d done—for taking the sea and selling tickets to see it. The sea did not belong to him. The sea did not belong to anyone. And neither did Maribel.

Maribel surged, sweeping away Phineas Fisk and his crushed-velvet coattails, the lavender and rose tents, the lights like fireflies. Maribel swept away clapboard houses, and the dust and silt, and her husband stooped and wheezing. She swept away everything that wasn’t real, until there was only the sea.

When the sea whispered to Maribel, it spoke in her own voice.

Home, home, home, she urged.

And so Maribel went home, felling ancient trees. Maribel went home, dragging a tide of mud in her wake. Maribel went home, laughing, as she spilled over the cliff’s edge.

***

Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals.
Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. When the first crocuses crack through the frozen earth and the first warm breeze of spring rustles the treetops, lonely folks listen for a woman’s voice, laughing, wailing, calling them home, home, home.


© 2024 by Erin Keating

3188 words

Author’s Note: I’ve been working on a series of fairytale-esque stories set in the same fictional mountain town, where each story is centered around a different landmark: a ravine, an abandoned house, a heather bald, etc. I saw a photo of a waterfall shaped like a bride and knew that I wanted that to be a landmark that opened and closed one of the stories. This story went through a few complete rewrites—in the earliest versions, Maribel’s husband captured a mermaid and started a traveling freak show—before finally arriving at the more psychological version that it is today. However, that central image of a woman turning into a waterfall never changed.

Erin Keating earned her B.A. in creative writing and literature at Roanoke College and her M.A. in history at Drew University, mostly so she could continue to surround herself with old books. She currently works as a grant writer at an arts education nonprofit. When she isn’t reading or writing, she is rock climbing, playing video games, or learning bass guitar. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Wyngraf, Tales to Terrify, and Cosmic Horror Monthly. Find her online at erinkeatingwrites.com or on Twitter @KeatingNotKeats.


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DP FICTION #112A: “This Week in Clinical Dance: Urgent Care at the Hastings Center” by Lauren Ring

edited by David Steffen

Brigitte Cole presents with lower abdominal pain, nausea, and a long-sleeved black leotard. She has a well-developed appearance and does not seem to be in acute distress. Her accompaniment for the evening is pianist Roy Weiss, a fixture of the local music scene whose minimalist style pairs well with the bold choreography of clinical dance. As the house lights dim and the spotlights focus down on Cole, stoic and poised, one cannot help but notice that a stray lock of hair has fallen out of her sleek bun. Such composure, such strength, and yet—disarray.

This masterful lighting design continues as Cole glides into the first movements of her performance, commanding attention as she twirls and leaps across the empty stage. She dances alone, backlit, at times little more than a silhouette. Bright piano notes flow along with her in synchronized elegance. The crowded lobby, with its crush of open-call auditioners and ticket-waving late arrivals, feels distant now. All eyes are on Cole.

Despite her ability to match the ever-increasing tempo of Weiss’s piano, it is clear that Cole favors narrative over technical skill. Her hair escapes its pinned style in huge clumps, and her back arches much too far with each arabesque, eliciting winces aplenty from the murmuring audience. Her movements slow as the music accelerates. She clutches her stomach.

The show must go on, so stagehands rush out props for her to lean upon: a velvet settee, a polished cane, a cushioned bed. Cole flutters between them as she dances. As she attempts once more to keep time with the piano, her movements become graceless, raw. She spares no energy for artistry as she returns to her initial speed, then surpasses it, practically throwing herself into a frenzied series of pirouettes. She spins, and spins, and—yes—even collapses in a heap, just before the crescendo of the piano.

Cole’s separation from the musical score after such sustained harmony is a compelling touch, reminiscent of the visible brushstrokes favored by the painters of antiquity. She reminds the audience that there can be no dance without its dancer.

Silence falls, but the curtain does not. Instead, the spotlight swings across Cole, its smooth motion a comforting contrast to the performer’s staccato tremors. She convulses beneath the sterile light. Some of the medical students seated in the spray zone have begun to yawn, but Cole successfully recaptures their attention with a bout of ragged coughing that leaves blotches of sputum on their clipboards.

An upbeat piano melody masks any sound from the stage. Cole coughs for several beats more, then lies still. When the spotlight tilts to highlight the frothy spittle pooling at her chin, those closest to the stage recoil, myself included: while the consumptive technique has received high praise in clinical opera, it is successful only when performed with delicate drops of blood. Cole’s spittle is indicative of nothing more than overexertion, perhaps due to a lack of consistent exercise, and falls closer to desperation than artistry.

She rises with the slow swell of the music and curtsies, her face frozen in a pained rictus that approximates a grateful smile.

Most of the audience applauds despite Cole’s fumbled ending, but their enthusiasm quickly fades and the curtain drops. The doctors in the box seats flip through their programs for the next performer’s chart. When the stagehands emerge with their carts full of antiseptic sprays, doctors and season ticket holders alike are all ushered out to the lobby of the Hastings Center for a brief disinfectant intermission. This process will repeat after each of tonight’s five performances, and though the stagehands are efficient in their duties, some medical professionals can already be seen checking their watches.

Later that evening, after several emotionally moving but technically flawed orthopedic ballets, a select few patrons are treated to another glimpse of Cole in top form. She stands alone, listless, little more than a shadow on the city sidewalk. Her shoulders slump. She takes three careful steps toward the bus stop, then suddenly, silently crumples to the ground.

Cole writhes, clutching her lower right side. Her mouth gapes in a silent scream. Despite the violence of her contortions, she never breaks from her fetal posture. Such purity of form, such scalpel-sharp restraint of motion, is the gold standard of clinical dance. If she can bring this level of passion and intensity to her upcoming performance, then Cole certainly stands a chance of admission to the inpatient stage.

Overall, though Brigitte Cole paints a compelling picture of a suffering artist, fighting through pain to hone her craft, the overly polished styling of her costume and the obvious exaggeration of her coughing fit trouble the audience’s belief in the depth of her struggle. Although her sidewalk encore shows potential, diagnostic scoring is strictly objective and must be limited to symptoms observed on the stage. Her preliminary scores and backstage bloodwork all fell solidly in the normal range. Without distinction or catastrophe during her main performance, encore or not, it is unlikely that her case will be reviewed for expedited treatment.

Only a medical professional from the Hastings Center can levy the final judgment, of course, but this reviewer predicts a rating of at least six out of ten on the Wong-Baker scale. Cole could not be reached for comment. Her follow-up performance will take place three months from now at the Mercy East Operating Theatre, and tickets are anticipated to sell out during presale.


© 2024 by Lauren Ring

906 words

Author’s Note: This story draws upon my own experiences as a disabled woman navigating the US healthcare system.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. She is a World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula finalist, and her short fiction can be found in venues such as F&SF, Nature’s Futures section, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is most likely working on a digital painting or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin. You can keep up with her at laurenmring.com or on Twitter @ringwrites.


If you enjoyed the story you might want to read Lauren Ring’s previous stories with Diabolical Plots: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan”, or her stories we have reprinted in the Long List Anthology series: “Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise” in Volume 7, and “(emet)” in Volume 8. You might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

Announcements! (Submission Window, First Reader Applications, Staff Changes)

Submission Window: July 8

We are delighted to announce our next general submission window!

Submissions will be open for two weeks, from July 8 through July 22, via our submission portal. We consider one story per author, with a wordcount of 3,500 words or less; we pay 10c/word; and simultaneous submissions are fine. See our Submission Guidelines for full details and more information!

Call for First Readers (BIPOC now, everyone May 27)

We are now looking for volunteers interested in being First Readers for Diabolical Plots!

First Readers are a crucial part of our submission windows, helping us navigate through the many hundreds of stories we receive every year, and making sure every story gets consideration and the spectrum of opinions and viewpoints we need to make our choices well.

Reading submissions is also a fantastic learning experience for anyone who loves reading, writing, or editing. It’s an opportunity to sample an incredible range of writing, from every style and every level of professional expertise. It’s also a way to get ‘behind the scenes’, see how the magazine is run, and get involved in bringing stories to the world. If you love short stories, we suspect you will have a blast.

At Diabolical Plots, we see First Readers as an opportunity to offer mentorship and new connections! We’ll walk you through everything that First Reading entails; we’re always open for conversations about reading, writing, and publishing; and we’ll hold regular discussions and exercises, specially aimed at new First Readers, highlighting all kinds of different ways stories can work (or not work!) for us, and what goes into submission reading and the magazine process.

Diabolical Plots offers a small honorarium to all First Readers who participate in a submission period. We recognize that it is not commensurate with the tremendous amount of work our amazing First Readers put in, but we feel it’s vital to provide what compensation we can, and it is important to us to show our appreciation.

It’s always important for us to maintain a diverse First Reader team with a wide range of identities and experiences; we are immediately open to applications from people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or people of color).  We will open to First Reader applications (at the same link) from all demographics on May 27.  The applications for all will be open through June 3.

A Farewell and a Welcome

After a fruitful year here at Diabolical Plots, Chelle Parker will be stepping down from the editorial team this summer. A professional freelance editor, and previously copyeditor and then managing editor at Fireside Magazine, as well as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Chelle has been wonderful to have as a member of our team. They’ve weighed in on acquisitions, dev edited and copy edited stories, developed our in-house style guide in collaboration with David, advocated for First Readers and fellow editors, assisted with our 2023 Hugo Award Nomination List project, been a veritable fountain of knowledge on language and grammar, and so much more—we’ve gained and grown immeasurably from their time and efforts with us.

As Chelle departs, we are pleased to welcome Amanda Helms, who will be stepping into the vacant editor role! Amanda is a biracial Black/white fantasy, science fiction, and sometimes horror writer whose stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from FIYAH, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other fine venues. Amanda has been with the Diabolical Plots team since 2021, where she has been among our most prolific First Readers—her many insightful comments and gift for getting to the heart of a story have helped steer acquisitions, and we have tremendous respect for her taste and work ethic. Her background as a former editor in educational publishing is a major asset, and she’s eager to apply those skills in working with Diabolical Plots authors. Two of her stories have previously been published in the magazine: “The Efficacy of Tyromancy over Reflective Scrying Methods in Divining Colleagues’ Coming Misfortunes” is a great example of speculative academic fiction, and has the distinction of being our first unTweetable story title—at the time it was published, Twitter still had the 140-character limit— while “Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” is a great example of the kind of ‘format story’ that Diabolical Plots loves to publish. Welcome, Amanda!

DP FICTION #111A: “Ketchōkuma” by Mason Yeater

edited by Ziv Wities

My name is Yasuko Nagamine and I work for the employment bureau. There’s a monster destroying the city. It used to be the mascot for the organ rental service, Sensation. I guess it still is but I don’t think it’s doing much for their bottom line anymore.

Today I’m filing electronic papers, which is what I always do. Someone new registers with the bureau every day and I look at their job history. Then I send them back a form if there’s an opening that matches their file. Or I send them back a form that says, Sorry, there are no openings.

The city getting destroyed is also the whole world, so a lot of people might say it’s bad that something is stomping on it. But almost no one is saying that. They’re all just working. After people figured out they didn’t need plants or oceans or ducks, they made the whole world silver. It’s just buildings and server farms. That’s what happens when people figure out how to turn themselves into machines.

I have one screen with a list of bright dots, one for each opening. And the other screen has a list of bright dots for each person that needs a job. The longer they’ve been without a job or the longer the job is open, the brighter the dot gets.

I can see that big yellow bear Ketchōkuma through my window. He’s at least two miles away but he’s so big his ears almost touch the clouds. He’s holding a parasol made of shiny pink guts, just the way Sensation drew him up: an intestine swirled like a bun at the top. The way he used to look in all the ads, reaching toward the screen with a stomach or a heart in his paw. Well, almost like that. Now the parasol is sagging a little. But he’s still smiling with teeth. When he was regular-sized he had a dance where he bent on one leg and spun around and waved his arms and a jingle came out of his mouth. Now that he’s bigger, he still dances sometimes when he moves. You can almost hear something from his teeth.

Today my boss said I have to hire someone for the Tamentai Plaza opening. He said if they don’t have a general manager, people will start building homes in the dressing rooms and writing on the food court walls with chem paint. I look at the brightest dots but their files are all wrong. Everyone has experience with point of sale, but no one’s been a manager. I scroll down the dots until I get to the duller ones. They’re the same brightness as my eyes. My eyes are a dark paper brown that glows a little. Everyone I know has eyes like that but it’s how you move them around that matters.

I click on one of the dots. This person worked point of sale for twenty years. But they were never a manager. They have a pretty nose but that isn’t good enough. My eyes keep falling down the screen. I’m not supposed to look at the grey dots even though they’re there.

When I was born, the hospital uploaded my mind to the megaserver and threw my body in the waste system. Then they gave me the body I have now. It’s what happens to everyone. I wear a grey suit and keep my hair in a ponytail with a melon-pink tie. Girl stuff. Everyone is cloud-based, so our brains are always ready on the megaserver. That way, if something happens to our body, we can get a new one, and resync our mind when it’s over.

The bear is looking at me through the glass. He can’t see me. He’s too far away. But his eyes are turned this way and he’s not moving. That happens sometimes. Like he’s scared or broken.

I don’t think about my body anymore. The thing is there’s only so much space on the megaserver (it’s different than the servers they use for money and traffic records and the employment bureau), and it turns out a person’s brain takes up way more space than you’d think, so we each get the same amount of time before our brains are deleted and they recycle our plastic bodies. It’s fair, I guess.

Someone’s file just came in. It fills up the whole screen and the dot spins like a Ferris wheel. There’s her face. No smile. That’s good, I think. She doesn’t take nonsense. Her collar is the color of a pearl and comes all the way up to her jaw in lace. It makes her look like a beautiful singer. Experience: Fourteen years in library science. Director of collections at a nearby branch for eight years. Recognition of excellence in radio archival. She’s perfect.

But her dot is barely even grey. It just got here. It’s impossible. My boss would never approve it. He hates breaking rules, and I do too.

They said Ketchōkuma got loose and found a hatch in the waste system. He found where they put all the bodies, all our tiny bodies that aren’t plastic. He started sucking them up. On the news, they said, He siphoned all the neonates. That’s how he got so big and no one knows how he did it. I wish I could be that big, and golden. Like the sign on the casino where every letter is huge. They’re all glowing and you want to hug them and feel how warm they are.

Ketchōkuma is winding up to dance. You can tell by the way his parasol drops below his knees.

I keep the woman’s dot on my screen. The mall needs a manager. It’s a good mall. I’ve been there and I like to shop for outfits and look at all the pets in their habitats. Someone has to run the mall and there’s only so much time left before people start breaking windows and looting power cells and painting rude words on the walls.

The big bear finishes his dance. I almost clap but my boss sits at the desk in front of me. When Ketchōkuma stops, he loses his balance and sways into an office building. It’s far away, so I barely hear it. His legs disappear in the puff of smoke that comes up. His original fur is so stretched out that he isn’t really yellow anymore if you look up close, only from far away. If you look up close, like the drone cameras do on the news, you can see all the tears and gaps. Underneath it’s pink and white and red and wet.

I still have the woman on my screen. It says she knows seven languages. That would be good if random people caused trouble at the mall and she had to tell them where to go to be reprimanded. Or if someone moved in from a faraway part of the city and wanted to open a new store in the mall.

Ketchōkuma is singing now. I can definitely hear it, but maybe it’s my imagination. They said all his wires must be stretched as far as they can go, but his chip still plays his theme song. Only now it’s really slow and deep. Wa di-di. Ka da to ma di-di. It’s baby talk. It doesn’t mean anything. I still like hearing it, even though it sounds weird now.

As soon as I graduated I spent all my gift money on an organ from Sensation. It was a lung. The most beautiful organ. Everyone’s plastic body has a cavity around the tummy if you press hard enough in the right places. That pocket’s where Sensation hooks in, so most people rent a stomach. I knew it wasn’t right to have a lung down there but they hooked it up and once I took a breath it was all I could think about. But that was only for six hours. Then I ran out of money. I miss it. Our lungs always work but they’re just plastic and they don’t feel like anything.

I send the file for the woman with the tall collar to my boss. She’s the right person, I know she is, so it doesn’t matter if the dot is grey.

Ketchōkuma is closer now, but he’s quiet again. I can kind of see the tears in his fur. His parasol is gone, or maybe he’s dragging it on the ground below the skyline. How many weeks now, and he never has anything to say. If he could talk, I don’t know what he’d tell me. It’s like that. All of the best things you can tell someone don’t need words.

My boss hates her. He says no. He says even if she were the maestro of management she would be horrible because her dot is grey. And grey means there are other people besides her who need to get back to work first, so society doesn’t fall apart. He says find someone else, there’s plenty of people.

Now I have money for an organ, but Sensation stopped taking orders. After Ketchōkuma got loose, they dropped everything. Like it never mattered in the first place. They went on the news and said sorry, it won’t happen again. They said everybody who’s upset gets a refund. They said, actually, we’ve been working on something new, and instead of a refund we’ll put your money towards that—it’s all digital, it’ll last forever. Then everybody started talking about organs. They said what was the point of something that makes you feel sweaty? Sometimes they stink. They’re overpriced and we shouldn’t have cavities in our bellies anyway, let’s take those out for the next generation.

The floor rumbles. Through the window I watch König Schellen’s golden sign cracking in two, flattening each floor until it all disappears under the other buildings. The biggest casino in the whole city, gone. My monitor shakes and so do I. I see a big shape in the dust, but it slips behind the hotels.

Then the opera house starts to move. Its big red arches lean forward, so slow I don’t see it at first. It looks like it’s going to sleep. Then the lights spark, and they pop one by one, and then all at once like fireworks. It falls, and there’s the shape again before the dust covers it up.

I try to focus on my job. I need to choose someone who can be the manager of Tamentai Plaza. It’s a really important place and someone people like needs to protect it. Someone who can make business good for everybody, even the pets.

I try. I really try, but my eyes won’t stay on the screen. The racetrack that circles all the restaurants flies up and hangs in the air. It’s floating over everything for the longest second I can remember. Then it whips down into the hotels. The whole row gets smashed, and they’re half as tall now. And other buildings start falling too, big ones nearby. Everything’s falling down.

I have to look at my screen. There’s nothing I can do about anything outside, but I can help Tamentai Plaza.

It’s no good. There’s the parasol. The pink canopy pounds through the Super Stadium toward me, through the silver dome that’s as big as the sky, and stuff is flying everywhere. The parasol comes back up through the dome and drops down again like a hammer, and the noise is so loud even my manager looks up for a second. A big cloud blooms where the stadium used to be. 

I sit for a long time, until it all clears. Ketchōkuma is standing in the smoke behind everything. He’s wet and glittering. His fur is almost gone now. It’s frayed to nothing. He’s not even yellow anymore. He’s red and blotchy with shadows.

Then something cool happens. I look at my screen and it’s almost empty. All those dots. All those people are gone and the woman with the beautiful collar and no smile is the very first dot and it’s brighter than anything, even the casino sign. And the rest of the dots are people I’ve never seen before because they’re new, because—I know what happened. I send her file to my boss again without even thinking.

I look out the window. He’s there. His eyes are big, dark holes in his face, big enough to fall into. He’s quiet. His mouth is lumpy and red.

Hi, big bear.

He did it.

You knew, didn’t you.

There was a server farm behind the hotels. I forgot all about it. All the older files must have been stored there. And the ones that came in today started up in a different server. He knew somehow.

You knew, didn’t you?

Why else would he come this way?

Thank you.

I liked him even before he did it.

Thank you. I really mean it.

My boss says the woman is hired. He already called her. He says she’s the best file I’ve picked since I started. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know, big bear.

He doesn’t even realize what happened.

My screen refreshes and all the old dots come online again, rerouted from some other server. But it’s too late. They already hired her.

Ketchōkuma is looking at me. He’s really looking at me this time, through the window. I think about that silly lung that’s probably rotten now. It was good, even if it isn’t around anymore. I think about my body. I think about the whole thing: the inside, the outside, the hair tie. I think about my body, even if it is plastic. And I close my eyes.

Thank you, toes.

I peek for a second. I close them again.

Thank you, toes. I feel your weight. I appreciate that you’re a part of me.

I keep my eyes closed.

Thank you, legs. You may not carry blood, but you carry me.

I open them one more time.

Thank you, eyes. Because of you, the whole world is inside me. Because of you, I see a bear.

I lay my fingers on the desk and watch them work, and Ketchōkuma takes the city into his paws.


© 2024 by Mason Yeater

2377 words

Author’s Note: Mainly I just wanted to create my own kaiju. Obviously they lend themselves to metaphor, so there’s always the action and the threat, but also some deeper ideas if you’re in that mindset. With the monster design, I was pulling from Japanese mascots, and I guess giving this one the old body-horror treatment. The ending, weirdly enough (or maybe not), was inspired by some Thích Nhất Hạnh affirmations. I have an office job and often forget about my own body.

Mason Yeater writes speculative fiction near the Great Lakes. Previously, his work has been published in TL;DR Press’s Curios anthology. He can be found sometimes @snow_leeks on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #110B: “Six-Month Assessment on Miracle Fresh” by Anne Liberton

edited by David Steffen

Six-Month Assessment on Miracle Fresh

Submitted November 16th, 2028

By Genevieve Aranha, Chief Manager

Introduction

The Chief Manager requested this assessment to analyze the overall performance of Spirits & Co.’s leading product, the soft drink Miracle Fresh, as a follow-up to the findings presented in the three-month assessment (also included below). All research and data have been gathered on-site by the assigned team over the past ninety-three days, including interviews, medical and financial reports, headlines, and related footage. Those pertain to Brasília alone, where Miracle Fresh was first distributed. That information is fully available from our IT team upon request. We hope this report will provide some clarity as to recommended next steps for making Miracle Fresh a worldwide success.

Background

Miracle Fresh is a soft drink produced by Spirits & Co. since 2027. The original pitch described a holy club soda blessed with droplets of blood from our devoted Messiah, something the average person could drink on the go, après-exercising, or even at [insert holy building of choice] without requiring long tiresome religious proceedings. This idea was abandoned shortly after the company realized a soft drink would appeal to a greater audience, and after considering the lawsuit filed by the parental association Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY), who worried the club soda would be used as a component of alcoholic mixed drinks. Associating our devoted Messiah with sugar and adding a clear appeal to children did not seem to faze any of the naysayers.

Attached: Pictures from several GHY parties obtained through social media. They feature children below the age of fifteen consuming alcohol and doing a wide variety of drugs. The children’s faces have been blurred to protect their identities.

Since May 2028, Miracle Fresh has been sold as a burgundy soft drink and is available at several stores and markets in the country at a reasonable R$ 4,00 per can. Sales began online and on-site in Brasília, before being distributed to each state capital and to smaller commercial centers around the third month. Two other nations, India and Argentina, have contracted the so-called ‘MiraFever’ due to social-media buzz and are currently developing their own local factories.

Attached: Miracle Fresh official logo:

Have a miracle inside you!

Findings

This assessment has been broken down by time period and demographic for a better understanding of what has changed and what has not during the three-month span between studies. A compilation of this information in its entirety can be acquired through a formal request to IT.

THREE-MONTH ASSESSMENT RECAP

University students aged 18-32 (59 institutions)

After their initial consumption of Miracle Fresh, students claim to be afflicted by a sweet sense of tranquility that lasts for days, sometimes weeks. It helps them navigate academic life with relative ease and even excitement. 67% report they feel more connected to nature after one sip, while 73% say they have formed a deeper relationship with themselves. Additionally, the first group often develops a penchant for flowers; our teams came back wearing crowns on their heads on more than one occasion.

The Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY) 

Following the release of our new marketing plan, the group dismissed their lawsuit and sent a thoughtful thank-you note along with a list of names we should contact in order to offer our product to a wider variety of venues. “All for the benefit of our devoted Messiah.” It appears we have made ourselves some powerful new friends.

Young influencers aged 15-21

Marketing picked a few names for paid partnerships to create one viral video—and they made two. This is how we got India. The key idea was to show alternative external uses for the blessings, such as:

  • a blessed make-up (“a dab of Miracle Fresh on the eyes works wonders”);
  • game setup (“rub a few drops on your controller and send that boss to hell”);
  • stock portfolio*.

* I asked three people and none understood how this could work. Might be just a gimmick; those are also quite popular.

Religious leaders

This demographic was not originally one we were considering and came to us of their own accord, first with a formal email, then through a representative. They demanded proof that we were in fact using our devoted Messiah’s blood in the manufacturing process of the drink, not exploiting the faith of innocent, unsuspecting customers. A petition, signed and stamped, was to be delivered to Congress to demand a thorough investigation of our manufacturing facilities and, should any evidence of fraud be found, that we cease all operations.

We kindly asked them to select a small group to visit the facilities and take a closer look at our manufacturing process. Twenty people accepted the invitation to a tour that lasted fifteen minutes. We did not hear from them again. Miracle Fresh again lives up to its name by bringing together religious leaders of disparate backgrounds, some of which are sworn enemies. The miracle is inside all of us.

SUS Triad – Brasília’s main hospitals

  • Saint Claire Hospital: Patients are officially requesting (demanding, on occasion) to drink Miracle Fresh before any procedure, to their doctors’ dismay. It interferes with electronic instruments and disrupts the display of digital imaging. A few altercations have been reported.
  • Our Devoted Medical Center: It seems they anticipated the problems seen at Saint Claire and banned Miracle Fresh from the premises. Legal is analyzing whether Spirit & Co. might have standing for a case against this ban.
  • Center 1 Hospital: Terminally ill patients are praying to our cans instead of asking for their last rites. Several religious figures have filed complaints (unrelated to the petition to Congress).

Addicts of entrequadras 213/214

We received a call to investigate the famous drug hotspot of the city, the entrequadras 213/214, located on the dead-end street between those two blocks. The caller described people injecting Miracle Fresh intravenously with shared needles. HR suggests we make an ad with a mildly pretty and harmless celebrity, like Betinho Gonzaga, to remind people that our slogan—’Have a miracle inside you!’—refers only to ingesting the soda. Rumors claim the first Miracle Fresh addicts already exist (unconfirmed).

Children aged 7-14

They said it tastes like grape juice.

SIX-MONTH ASSESSMENT

University students aged 18-32 (59 institutions)

Tranquility rates rose and attendance dropped dramatically as students started to abandon academia to follow a path of ‘self-peregrination’—a term apparently related to the connections they make through Miracle Fresh. They refuse to associate the process with the high (rumored) addicts get from injecting Miracle Fresh intravenously. According to reports, ‘self-peregrination’ allows a person to dive into their inner core, experience memories from their birth, and watch their organs, cells, and genes work in real time. One student insists she discovered a tumor by dint of those trips and thanked us profusely. She gifted us many more flower crowns.

Our labs found such tranquility rates rather dubious, given the world we live in, and requested further analysis. They received confirmation in a matter of hours: the cans contained one to three foreign substances that altered their composition on a molecular level. It appears students had been infusing cans of Miracle Fresh with sweat, blood, or flower essence in an effort to enhance effects. Combinations of two or all three extracts are also popular options. This corroborates Marketing’s August report regarding the need for new flavors and variations, and perhaps limited-edition holiday Miracle Freshes.

Some of the flowery extracts might be suitable options, as well as the sweat variation, if branded properly. Blood on blood, however, is out of the question: there seems to be a reaction when Miracle Fresh comes into contact with the conscious sacrifice of certain people, a phenomenon our labs decided to call ‘Midas’s blood’. This reaction transforms the blood into a golden liquid. Carriers of Midas’s blood languish little by little unless they cease all contact with Miracle Fresh. They perish in one to two months otherwise. Patient zero is yet to be identified, but our team has already announced a recall of each affected batch of the drink and is watching the diseased closely. Spirits & Co. should unveil more details about Midas’s blood soon.

Attached: Pictures and a police report from October 23rd, 2028. A truck carrying contaminated Miracle Fresh was overturned and ransacked by an unidentified group on Pistão Sul. Its contents have yet to be recovered.

The Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY)

For the past few weeks, Customer Service has received an endless string of emails with questions regarding specifics of our product, such as how to: 1) retain blessings for longer periods of time; 2) ensure the absorption of every single drop of blood from our devoted Messiah present in each can; 3) measure the amount of ‘blessitude’ as to provide a comparison with fellow drinkers. Our labs promptly dismissed the requests, suggesting this veiled holiness contest to be out of the product scope and beseeched IT to block all of their addresses. Marketing insists we should fund a department to develop a blessing meter and turn this annoyance into profit. The matter will be brought to discussion at the next meeting.

Young influencers aged 15-21

The ‘alternative uses for Miracle Fresh’ trend died early in the third month, replaced by ‘What would the Messiah do?’ skits starring influencers dressed as our devoted Messiah, who would catch other people in awkward situations, then wail “I did not bleed for this!” Those with less comedic inclinations decided instead to try a little bit of everything. Highlights include Tito Moreno, the ‘Gordito Estrela’, who rose to fame after feeding Miracle Fresh to his dog and filming his reactions as the dog began to levitate, and Jade Martins, former blessed make-up artist.

Jade’s case is still under investigation, since her recent content consists of live streams and videos of herself posing with her face covered in golden tears, a telltale sign of Midas’s blood. The adulterated cans are likely from the truck we lost a while ago, a delicacy extremely hard to come by and with plenty of potential buyers out in the wild. I would bolt my doors if I were her. Jade has nonetheless refused to reply to any messages sent by the company, despite the warnings that she has a lethal infection and will likely be dead in a few weeks’ time. In response, IT started a betting pool on which will run out first: 1) her stash of adulterated cans; 2) her life. Anyone can join by speaking to Marlene Silva on the second floor.

Religious leaders

Our team scouted the city looking for interviewees from various backgrounds, but faced some problems, since 52% of religious buildings, including temples, terreiros, and churches, have been closed for the past three months. From those that remain operational, reactions varied: doors closed to our faces; insults that reached back to five generations; pleas to leave them alone. One priest rushed outside, kneeled before the team, kissed each of their hands, and fled without uttering a word. Some people are just difficult to please, I guess.

SUS Triad – Brasília’s main hospitals

  • Saint Claire Hospital: A ritual has been established before any medical procedure, which requires both patients and the medical team to drink at least one sip of Miracle Fresh for good luck. Scars and gross negligence lost meaning, despite the dead count skyrocketing. As diabetics cannot partake in this process, Marketing has proposed we accelerate the release of our sugar-free version.
  • Our Devoted Medical Center: We have instructed the government to refer those afflicted with Midas’s blood to ODMC. A Spirits & Co. mobile laboratory is currently posted inside the center to provide them the best care in the world and also to investigate the inner workings of the disease. Hospital employees are not allowed entry. IT is already on the lookout for any protests from human rights NGOs.
  • Center 1 Hospital: Miracle Fresh has replaced holy water and its counterparts during last rites. Some patients are fully bathed in the soda to guarantee their purification, including a baptism for the terminally ill. Complaints have stopped, and due to lack of available religious leaders, the last rites are often performed by family members or nurses. Marketing is analyzing the possibility of introducing Miracle Fresh as a holy water replacement during baptisms as well. This would require an adaptation of the current logo: ‘Have a miracle outside of you’ would trigger another unpleasant side of GHY, which we would rather avoid. Marketing suggested ‘The miracle is all around you’. And isn’t it?

Addicts of entrequadras 213/214

The current number of intravenous users of Miracle Fresh is not high enough to call it a drug problem yet, regardless of what the government says. As there have been no Midas’s blood sightings in the vicinity, HR suggests we hire a mildly pretty and harmless celebrity for an ad to disperse the rumors, especially those connecting us to the fallen celebrity Betinho Gonzaga. He has been seen a few blocks away from HQ and is reportedly performing circus tricks at the traffic lights for change, which he later uses to buy the shots. In any case, his agent will not sue: she is far too busy doing cartwheels around the cars while he performs.

Children aged 7-14 years

They said it still tastes like grape juice.

Recommendations

Proceed with a follow-up nine-month report.

Signed electronically by

Genevieve Aranha

Chief Manager


© 2024 by Anne Liberton

2228 words

Author’s Note: Miracle Fresh was inspired by a Brazilian soft drink called Guaraná Jesus that is sadly not made of Jesus. It’s actually quite sweet and, for some reason, quite pink. On Christmas this one year, after Coke released their cans with people’s names on the side, someone posted a photo of a Mary Coke and a Joseph Coke with a Guaraná Jesus in a manger, and I just knew I had to write a story about this someday. This is that day. I’m so sorry.

Anne Liberton is an autistic Brazilian author fascinated by all things weird, from fiction and poetry to people. In her spare time, she sings, studies languages, and plays with her dogs. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Diabolical Plots, Heartlines Spec, and Star*Line. She took part in the 2021 Clarion West Novella Bootcamp workshop. You can find her everywhere @AnneLiberton.


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DP FICTION #110A: “Ten Easy Steps To Destroying Your Enemies This Arbor Day” by Rachael K. Jones

edited by David Steffen

1. Raid the army surplus warehouse, NASA’s scrapyard, and Aunt Diabolica’s volcano lair for parts. On the way home, swing by CatCo to buy more Fancy Feast for Mr. Wibbles.

2. Let your imagination soar as you plot your evil heart out. Ask yourself: What am I most upset about? Did Rodney Gruber laugh at you in high school? Are you mad that no one appreciates pigeons? Perhaps you want to overthrow the government, but stylishly, in a cool hat. You’ll want to build your device to achieve those goals. Bonus points for thematic resonance, like maybe your device arms pigeons with crouton-shooting machine guns so they can pelt condescending tourists with stale bread.

3. Settle on the environment as your pet cause. Who isn’t pissed about climate change? And since everyone’s technically responsible for it, you don’t have to feel bad about any effects on bystanders. And with Arbor Day around the corner, the timing couldn’t be better.

Once you’ve got your cause, invent the Johnny Applebeam! One sweep of its Honeycrisp ray turns humans into apple trees on contact.

Everyone always overlooks Arbor Day. This year, you’ll give them something to remember.

4. Work on your signature catchphrase. “How do you like THEM apples!” has a nice ring to it. Or maybe “It’s cobblering time!” Whatever you pick, make it rotten to the core.

5. Now it’s time for add-ons! Comfy seats! Stylish bitey dragon teeth and glowing red eyes! A nozzle that hoovers the apples from the people-trees and turns them into cider! A cannon that pelts your enemies with land piranhas! How about an extra cockpit seat for Mr. Wibbles, complete with a little silver bowl for his Fancy Feast? And hey, those crouton-wielding attack pigeons were a good idea—add a few of those!

An Emergency Override button sounds nice, but opinions are mixed on its usefulness. Murphy’s Law dictates that if you install one, someone will eventually use it against you. You might be better off without it.

6. Now that you’ve built your doomsday device, take it out for a spin! Your high school is a great place to start, and Arbor Day has arrived. Savor Rodney Gruber’s blubbering as you sweep the Johnny Applebeam over his smug bully face. You’ve just eliminated 890,000 pounds of lifetime carbon emissions, and all before it’s time to feed Mr. Wibbles.

It sure feels good to do some good!

7. Great job on your first rampage! Celebrate by sipping that crisp, cool cider made from Rodney Gruber’s freshly picked apples. Revenge, as they say, tastes sweet.

8. While you’re polishing smashed apples off the Johnny Applebeam, panic when the dragon eyes flare to life. Someone’s tripped the auto-rampage button inside the cockpit.

Realize in all the excitement that you forgot to feed Mr. Wibbles.

9. Regret that you never installed that Emergency Override button.

Mr. Wibbles is in charge now.

God save you. God save us all.

10. Enjoy your new life as a planet-saving carbon sink! You no longer have to worry about Rodney Gruber or climate change, and those attack pigeons will eventually run out of croutons. And you can’t help but be proud of Mr. Wibbles for making history as the first cat to appear on the International Most Wanted Criminals list.

It’s a shame Mr. Wibbles is still hungry, though. If there’s any victim in this nasty business, surely it’s him. What use does a cat have for apples, after all? Trees are nice, but it would sure motivate Mr. Wibbles to reach deep down for his criminal worst if you could retool the beam to make cat food instead. In such a brave new world lacking opposable thumbs with which to operate the can opener, the only right thing to do is to turn over a new leaf and guarantee a future jam-packed with delicate bites for your fuzzy little guy.

Sooner or later, you’ll solve the whole tree thing, perhaps when Aunt Diabolica comes looking for you when she notices what you stole from her volcano lair. These things always have a way of working themselves out. Until then, you’ve got your branches full planning your next rampage.

Next Arbor Day, you’ll have all the Fancy Feast you need.


© 2024 by Rachael K. Jones

709 words

Author’s Note: This story began life as an entry to a weekend flash fiction challenge I do every year, and eventually became about my true feelings around Arbor Day. I hope it inspires readers everywhere to show more respect to pigeons, and to eat apples responsibly.

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree, and her fiction has appeared in multiple Year’s Best anthologies and dozens of venues worldwide. Her stories can be found in Uncanny, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones or Bluesky @rachaelkjones.bsky.social


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DP FICTION #109B: “The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds” by Renan Bernardo

edited by Ziv Wities

.3.

At this age, on the planet of Orvalho, Alberto is conjoined with the ship called The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds. They’re engulfed in the Mezelões’ unifying mix, a tank where a swirling brackish secretion flows through their pores and recesses, nanoscopic spidery bots tying their espírito together—parts and limbs, yottabytes and nucleotides, ship and captain, physically separated, spiritually united.

When they leave the tank, dripping dark goo, crying and whirring, they have become one, bound to each other.

Alberto is a child: gaunt, dark-skinned, green-eyed; born to be a captain. He’ll soon contest that, like all the people who are born and bound to be anything by those who came before them.

The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds is a ship: silvery, slender, streamlined; born to be an offer. It looks like a toy—for Alberto, it is one, though he’ll soon stop seeing it that way. It’s a tiny spaceship with a prow; dronelike, smaller than a goose. When charged, the engine it was born with lets it cross from the kitchen to the garden without needing extra fusion cells.

Weeks after crying in despair in the Mezelões’ labs, Alberto shyly learns to giggle into the loneliness of his wide bedroom, constructed to give space to child and ship. In between visits from his allocated guardians, Alberto learns to play with The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds. He taps its gleaming hull and the ship hurtles through the bedroom. When the window is open, it swishes out and returns many minutes later, dripping on rainy days, sizzling on the hot ones. Alberto calls it Offy. At night, Alberto learns to smile at Offy, but never to kiss it good night. No one has taught him about kisses. Offy turns down its engines so Alberto can sleep. Turns them down, that is, until it learns that Alberto prefers its whirs and hums, and the soft white lights of its protruding mole-like bridge.

.10.

At this age, Alberto resents every time he hears the Mezelões calling Offy by other names—”The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds”, “a nurturing investment”, “the shot at peace for the galaxy”, “a gift for the enemy”. For Alberto, it’ll always be Offy. Offy can’t express it yet—its mindstream system isn’t fully grown—but it can feel Alberto’s annoyance when grownups call him “little captain”, “brother of the offer”, “bringer of peace”. For Alberto, the word ‘brother’ seems misplaced, and one day he’ll understand why.

Offy is bigger than a tricycle now and growing every day, its gobbling drive devouring the raw material the guardians leave for it—steel, titanium, magnesium, and an entire bevy of alloys and mixtures carefully nurtured for ship growth. Alberto barely fits inside, occupying most of its payload. He’s free to fly it, his guardians say, though they’re still bounded by the limits of the Captain’s Dome, which comprises his bedroom and the guardians’ annex. Alberto hates limits. He wants to break away from Orvalho and fly to the twinkling stars, home of a hundred races, of a thousand planets, of a million cities. The grownups say he’ll be able to go wherever he wants one day, when he’s captain, when The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds is fully matured.

On some nights, Alberto has nightmares. In them, he’s back in the Mezelões’ tanks. But instead of a union, he’s being separated from Offy, with freezing, brackish goo pouring out of his body. He cries, restless, trying to swim, looking for Offy. But before he finds it, Offy—the real one, from the waking world—flies closer to him, whirring a bit louder. It’s only then Alberto knows he won’t drown.

.15.

At this age, Alberto’s guardians give Offy its first hangar. It’s a spacious building outside the Captain’s Dome, reeking of oil, iron, and disinfectant. Offy is still only a dot inside it, the size of two trucks, but its mindstream system is grown now. The first words it conveys to Alberto are: “I want to fly higher.”

“You will,” Alberto whispers, cheeks plastered against Offy’s hull. “We will.”

Alberto’s free now, the guardians tell him, and he can fly Offy whenever he wants. Offy, however, is leashed. It pains Alberto when he finds out about the coercive routine they have installed to prevent Offy from traveling further than Orvalho’s orbit. After five nights with Offy mindstreaming its data to Alberto, he learns how to override it.

.16.

At this age, Alberto identifies one of the many things that bother him. She hates to be called “he”. Offy realizes one thing as well. They hate to be called “it”.

Offy now has a set of skintight suits for EVA activities, a small rover, and a robust sub-light engine that performs at 0.001c. So Alberto breaks the rules and flies Offy to Beirão, Orvalho’s biggest moon. There, she wears a suit and walks out. She does things she always wanted: hop in the moon’s weak gravity; allow her feet to leave marks on the regolith; stare at the pearlescent surface of Orvalho for an hour. Finally, she talks. With their nose pointing up, Offy listens.

“I know what you are, what you were created to be. An offer of peace. You’re to be given to the Indaleões so the war between them and the Mezelões, two centuries long, can finally end. They bred you through me, tied our espíritos, because that’s the only way a ship can be. But they don’t mean for us to stay together like conjoined captains are supposed to. No, they’ll separate us so you can be a gift to some other people. Your own name means that. Then they’ll use you in their exhibitions or worse—forcefully tie you to a new captain. It will be painful for you and for me. They know it too, but they don’t care. Offy… I don’t intend to let that happen.”

But then, how many things have to happen, irrespective of what one wants?

.20.

At this age, Alia and Offy have their first fight. It is hardly an even match; in the last few years, as acne pockmarked Alia’s cheeks, Offy grew their core weapons—two laser cannons, an electron beam, internal coupled guns, and a series of hull turrets. But they turn none of it against Alia, even though she scowls at them, seething, thrashing the bridge’s comm panels and terminals, trying uselessly to crack their glass panes. Eventually, she surrenders and crashes into a couch, weeping and bristling as she absorbs everything Offy has mindstreamed to her. Offy wants to leave. Of their own accord, they want to go and explore the galaxy on their own.

When Alia tries to infiltrate Offy’s code and override it⁠—like she did so many times to invisibly counter the Mezelões’ meddling⁠—a terrible wind knocks her to the ground, and in strong gusts flowing along Offy’s corridors, it swooshes her away through an airlock. She stumbles out into the hangar as Offy activates their drive and flies away.

She’s left incomplete.

.22.

At this age, Alia lives alone in a shipping container with three ore miners. Without The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds, she’s no longer a captain, no longer relevant to the Mezelões. Her guardians of childhood, once all smiles and gifts and kind words, are never to be seen again.

The fact that The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds fled doesn’t mean they lost their conjoined espíritos. Instead, it means Alia lost part of her soul. She lives restlessly. Day after day, she’s wearier, gaunter, her eyes drooping, her hair falling. She obsesses over the ship’s operation logs, streaming them over and over in her mind. And, one day, barely eating anymore, she finally decrypts a set of logs from their last days together. The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds didn’t leave because they wanted to be free—as they had every right to want—but because they feared Alia would suffer, or even be disposed of, when Offy had to finally become an offer to the Indaleões.

Alia decides to draw momentum and energy from the logs, like a fusion drive thirsty for deuterium. She hitchhikes on an ore miner, then hops to a rock trawler, crosses warp gates between systems. She lives off begging, and degrading jobs, and stealing. All the while, searching for the signature of The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds—Offy; their name is Offy.

.24.

At this age, she does find Offy. Using a rock trawler’s detection system, yes, but she also feels it somewhere within her, her espírito bubbling up. Something clicks within her, like a puzzle piece falling into place.

Offy’s orbiting a gas giant, their hull reflecting a dismal blueish light. Around them, five Mezelões blastships order Offy’s surrender. Alia watches it all from the rock trawler’s skiff she stole, zooming on the battle scene, listening to public broadcasts being transmitted from within the fray. It’s the first time she sees Offy using their weapons and she takes pride in their use: the electron beam ripping off the Mezelões’ hulls, the turrets exploding their skiffs and drones. And as she finds strength in seeing Offy again, they find it nurturing to feel Alia once more, less than 1 AU off. That’s when Offy uses their laser cannons at full potential and disintegrates the remaining Mezelões ships.

When they reunite, it’s like finding a rose intact on a bloody battlefield.

.27.

At this age, rebels die. Alia doesn’t. She’s the first of the Mezelões’ captains to defect. With Offy, she spends her time hopping from system to system as Offy’s camouflage system grows and their gobbling drive feeds off any matter it can find on asteroids and rocky planets. They finally reach their full size, large enough to house 3,000 people⁠—room for every soldier in the Indaleões’ primary fleet. But Offy needs no one but Alia to control its subsystems, from the churning particles of the budding FTL drive to the life support system’s sighs of oxygen. And the pair travel through the galaxy, their only aim, to be anything but a captain and to be anything but an offer, ignoring all the broadcasts the Mezelões direct at them: you can’t be.

.30.

At this age, the duo is the most valuable asset in the galaxy. In the eyes of the Mezelões, Offy is a fully-formed offer, but it’s more than that. Their separation and eventual reunion made Offy develop faster than expected. Their hull has grown another layer of titanium; their FTL drive, usually fully developed only at 60 years from conjoining, is almost at its prime; their weapons offer twice as much firepower as a similar ship would at this age.

And in the Mezelões’ eyes, Alia, despite being a rebel and a wanted woman, is a splendid captain, capable of controlling—though Alia hates the word—all of Offy’s systems with mere slivers of mindstreamed thoughts, without needing to couple herself to chairs and machinery like other captains.

And that’s why they’re chased. Their life becomes fleeing, surviving, hiding in the solitary caves of unexplored moons, orbiting uncharted gas giants, free-floating in the blackness of interstellar space. At times, Alia finds herself disguised, roaming the infinite streets of ultra-dense cities, disappearing amongst ten billion citizens. Offy finds themself changing their drive signature and exhaust patterns day after day. Offy develops a factory of replicating bots and, with the bots’ help, learns to shapeshift. One day, they look like a cigarette. Another day, they’re in the form of a turtle swimming across the void.

One of those days, Alia and Offy wonder if they’re forever.

.45.

At this age, light becomes slower. Offy develops a fully-formed FTL drive. Though at this point, Alia and Offy don’t see each other as conjoined entities anymore. They’re simply one, and they call themself Alyof.

Going faster than light, Alyof can reach other galaxies, transforming the Mezelões, the Indaleões, and their pitiful skirmish into something as irrelevant as a molecule lost in the vacuum. Some of their most formidable ships, conjoined with their wisest and oldest captains, can still reach them. But not many dare to defy Alyof anymore. By now, they have a plethora of planet-wrecking weapons that no ship has ever achieved. Alyof becomes a mere anomalous curiosity, a feature of space to be observed and respected from a distance, like a quasar.

.85.

At this age, Alyof learns they’re not invincible. Not because the Mezelões develop a fleet to chase Alyof, although they do and they’re utterly destroyed; not because a race of vacuum-traveling stingrays tries to absorb Alyof into their being, although they do and they’re repelled. But because their espírito can still break.

What was once Alia longs for rest. Tethered to the bridge by a cobweb of flesh, what was once Alia wheezes, coughs, and dozes off. At times, what was once Alia misses things it would never believe it would miss: the soft bedsheets of a bedroom; a cup of coffee in a silent cantina; a walk to an observation deck to watch a terraformed forest slowly growing; the touch of someone’s hand.

What was once Offy longs for more. It wants to explore the corners of the universe, to know, to learn, to never cease to be. At times, what was once Offy longs for things it would never believe it would long for: to fly closer to black holes, to visit the frontiers of the known universe, to observe species evolving from their puddles to their pyramids.

For what was once Alia, what was once Offy becomes a weight.

For what was once Offy, what was once Alia becomes a tumor.

In the end, Alyof realizes they can’t be.

And this is how a spirit breaks: on a chalky, cold planet, Alyof expels Alia from their guts and becomes Offy again. Naked and wrinkly, gasping, with fleshy knobs hanging from her body, Alia curls on the ground, dwarfed by Offy like a discarded offer given to a deserted world. She raises a hand to them but has to close her eyes.

Alia never sees when Offy turns into a blue dot in the sky. She feels something in her chest that she mistakes for pain, but it’s only longing for what was once part of her.

.1,263.

At this age and every age beyond that, Offy travels. Cruising between two galaxies a thousand times faster than light, Offy listens to one who was once part of them. Offy knows they’ll never be whole again, but they can pretend. The reconstructed voice talks through their speakers and writes to their logs in a rough imitation of mindstreaming processes.

“I’m still afraid I’ll have to die one day and leave you,” the voice says. “My body is not like yours.”

Offy whirs a bit louder so that unreal part of them knows they can’t drown and they can be.


© 2024 by Renan Bernardo

2484 words

Author’s Note: The idea of a deep relationship between a spaceship and its captain has been on my mind for a long while. I’ve published a story of a man who tethers himself to an FTL drive, but I also thought of something far deeper than that, more organic. Then I came up with this idea of a society of captains that are conjoined with their spaceships and whose relationship needs to thrive for the spaceship to fully mature. But as with all relationships, it has its price.

Renan Bernardo is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared in or is forthcoming from Tor.com, Apex Magazine, PodCastle, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Samovar, Solarpunk Magazine, and others. His writing scope is broad, from secondary-world fantasy to dark science fiction, but he enjoys the intersection of climate narratives with science, technology, and the human relations inherent to it. His solarpunk/cli-fi short fiction collection, Different Kinds of Defiance (Android Press) is forthcoming on March 26th, 2024. His fiction has also appeared in multiple languages, including German, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese.


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The 2023 Hugo Award Nomination List (With Links!)

Compiled by Hal Y. Zhang, with assistance from Chelle Parker and David Steffen

This has been a memorable year for the Hugo Awards. For the last eight years, Diabolical Plots has produced an annual volume of stories from the longer list of nomination statistics: The Long List Anthology. The project started in another memorable year, with the intent of bringing attention to more of the works favored in those nomination statistics, with the primary goal of giving those authors a boost in readership, and that effort has been successful, as those anthologies are still finding new readers every year.

The longer nomination list is traditionally published within hours of the end of the Hugo Awards ceremony at WorldCon. This time, the list was published three months after the ceremony, in January 2024, and that was the least of the departures from the norm for the awards. We aren’t going to rehash all of those details here, but you can read up on some of the controversy over at Jason Sanford’s Genre Grapevine.

With all of the complications of this year’s nomination list, Diabolical Plots has decided not to produce a new volume of the Long List Anthology this year. We do still want to help boost readership for the amazing authors involved, however, so in lieu of the anthology, we have done our best to compile the most comprehensive list of links to the works from this year’s Short Story and Novelette categories that we could.

Works in this list have been organized alphabetically by author name (romanized in the case of Chinese authors). Please note that not all stories have English translations, and that we have used the translated titles provided by the Hugo Awards administrators for those that do not, which are marked with an asterisk. If anyone knows of translations, either Chinese to English or English to Chinese, for any of the stories on this list that we’ve missed, please let us know.

—David

Best Short Story Finalists and Long List

《2039: 脑机时代》/ “2039: Era of Brain-Computer Interface”
by 阿缺 / A Que

《菌歌》/ “Do You Hear the Fungi Sing?”
by 陈楸帆 / Chen Qiufan

“Destiny Delayed” / 《迟到的命运颂歌》
by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

《尽化塔》/ “Fogong Temple Pagoda”
by 海漄 / Hai Ya

《孤独终老的房间》 / “Lonely Room”*
by 郝景芳 / Hao Jingfang

《命悬一线》 / “On the Razor’s Edge”*
by 江波 / Jiang Bo

《437火锅诞生记》 / “437 Birth of Hotpot”*
by 凌晨 / Ling Chen

《白色悬崖》 / “The White Cliff”*
by 鲁般 / Lu Ban

《通济桥》 / “Tongji Bridge”
by 路航 / Lu Hang

“Rabbit Test” / 《兔子测试》
by Samantha Mills

《雪中追忆》 / “Memories in Snow”*
by 任青 / Ren Qing

《还魂》 / “Resurrection”

by 任青 / Ren Qing

《火星上的祝融》 / “Zhurong on Mars”
by 王侃瑜 / Regina Kanyu Wang

“D.I.Y.”
by John Wiswell

《无面之城》 / “Unfaced City”*
by 杨晚晴 / Yang Wanqing

Best Novelette Finalists and Long List

《旧日之花》 / “Flowers of the Old Times”*
by 陈虹羽 / Chen Hongyu

《不做梦的群星》 / “Stars Don’t Dream”
by 迟卉 / Chi Hui

“If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” / 《如果你发现自己在跟健身大神对话,那就别太拘谨》
by John Chu / 朱中宜

“Two Hands, Wrapped in Gold”
by S.B. Divya 

“Solidity”
by Greg Egan

《时空画师》 / “The Space-Time Painter”
by 海漄 / Hai Ya

“Murder by Pixel: Crime and Responsibility in the Digital Darkness”
by S.L. Huang / 黄士芬

《新贵》 / “Upstart”
by 鲁般 / Lu Ban

“A Dream of Electric Mothers” / 《电母之梦》
by Wole Talabi

“The Difference Between Love and Time”

by Catherynne M. Valente

“We Built This City” / 《此城由我们建设》
by Marie Vibbert

《图灵大排档》 / “Turing Food Court”
by 王诺诺 / Wang Nuonuo

《白头雀》 / “Whitehead Sparrow”*
by 杨健 / Yang Jian

《蜂鸟停在忍冬花上》/ “Hummingbird Resting on Honeysuckles”
by 杨晚晴 / Yang Wanqing

DP FICTION # 109A: “Level One: Blowtorch” by Jared Oliver Adams

edited by Chelle Parker

Content note (click for details) Content note: This story contains depictions of risks to a child’s safety.

Usually Friend gives me three food pouches after sportsgames, but today only one. He spits it out of his chest slot, and I kick off the bulkhead to snatch it before it gets caught in that jumble of wires over by the vents. When I grab the nearest handhold and swivel in the air for the next one to come, Friend just floats there with his slot closed and his metal arms at his sides.

“Did I do wrong parameters?” I ask.

“Naw, Graciela,” says Friend. “You were grumper to the leez! You sealed your suit with no mistakes, and you dodged all the obstacles on the course. Nineteenth time in a row!”

“If I was grumper to the leez, how come one pouch?” I say. “I’m not a four-year-old anymore.”

“You made enough power on the wheel for almost three hours of XPs! Let’s go play!” says Friend, even though Home would say it’s time for plant care.

“How come one pouch?” I ask again.

“We’ll get more later,” he says, like it’s not a big deal. “You made it to Level 48 last night, remember? Don’t you want to see what happens when you finally connect that switch?”

“No! I did the sportgames and I get the pouches. Fru, and Veg, and Prot! This is just”—I turn over the one pouch—”Veg-9! That’s the worst one!”

“It isn’t so bad.”

“Veg-9 is yuck like a poop smell!” I throw the pouch back at Friend, who catches it fast as a blink. “I’m not proud of you!” I yell at him. “You are not doing great jobs. I’m going to talk to Nurse.”

***

I wish Nurse could give me a hug like she used to, but she had to go into the walls when Friend came. The striped cushions of her body were always warm and smelled like the old CNDY pouches.

I miss CNDY pouches.

I miss Nurse.

Home always says no waste, so the nursery is just another plant-care room now. The round bulge of the baby-growing machine has bottles taped all over, and each one has its own little spinach plant to water. Metal crates stuffed up with kale are bolted to the wall so you can hardly see the smiley sun and the rainbow and the kids holding hands. Before all the plants, whenever Nurse saw me looking at that picture, she would close my hand in her three fabric fingers to practice for being a big sister.

But I’m not a big sister, even though I’m all the way five.

Nurse’s old charging pod is a compost bin now. I dig in the stinky dirt while I tell her about Friend.

“You should apologize, Tender Shoot,” Nurse says from the speaker above the embryo racks. Friend made me a snuggle pillow out of Nurse’s fabric when he came and Nurse left. I keep it up there by her speaker and pretend she’s still there for real.

“But why is Friend doing this?” I ask.

“Rationing has commenced, Graciela,” she says.

“What’s a commence?”

“A beginning.”

“A beginning of what?”

***

It’s really commencing here.

It’s been a whole ten-sleep, and my tummy is making sounds like when Friend boots up. Am I turning into a person like Friend? Will I wake up tomorrow with a slot in my chest for shooting out food pouches?

“I’m too tired for sportsgames today,” I say, when he finds me in my secret hiding place behind the air scrubber.

“Not sportsgames. Something new. Some place new.”

I know every single place in Home. There is no new. Unless… “The No-No Door?”

Friend nods his rectangle head. “First, you need your suit.”

***

Nurse said once that if I ever went through the No-No Door, I’d be hurt worse than anything. When the door slides open, my heart bumps so hard that it shakes the temperature control panel on the chest of my suit. It’s just a small room in there, though, with another door. Is that the real No-No Door?

“You are grumper to the leez, Graciela Han Portuga,” says Friend, through the helmet commie. “And I am proud of you.” He throws me something. I catch it just as the No-No Door closes between us.

“Friend!” I shout.

“Your mission is beginning, Graciela,” says Friend, and it’s the exact words that start the XPs. The same boomy voice, even, not Friend’s normal jokey way of talking. I look down at the multitool in my hand, and that’s the same, too: three types of screwdriver, a knife, a wire-cutter, and a pen weldie.

“It’s just like the XPs!” I say. The little room I’m in is where you go when you lose your hearts and have to start over. “Is it the same outside, too?”

“Find out,” says Friend.

Popping open the control panel to unlock the door is easy, but I have to wedge my feet against the bulkhead and push with my legs just to grind the door open a single bit. A sliver of light shines out into the darkness.

I keep pushing.

My breath is fogging up my helmet by the time I can see what’s there.

The short passageway ends in jagged metal and floating wires. Past the hole is a stretch of Deep Dark and another passageway just as messed up.

I can’t see, but I know where it leads: a giant spaceship busted all apart. It’s broken and empty and dangerous, but you can fix it bit by bit if you’re careful.

That’s my job. For real. Not just in a game.

I feel like I’m back to being four again. Or maybe even three.

“You’re not coming with me?” I ask Friend through my helmet.

“Home, Nurse, Me, we have one job: to raise new humans. We’re not designed for out there. But you, Graciela, your parameters are not so limited. Step by step, you will fix it. And the more you fix, the more humans we can make. And when they are old enough, they can help you.”

“But what happens if I lose all my hearts?”

“Don’t,” says Friend.

That one word makes me scareder even than before. I look out the opening in the door, and all I see in that passageway is the different ways to lose hearts. You can rip your suit on the sharp metal. You can get shocked with the wires. You can jump wrong and float away into the Deep Dark. You can run out of air in your tank.

“Tender Shoot?” comes Nurse’s voice in my helmet commie.

She’s never talked through my helmet commie before, and I turn to look. All I see is that empty little room. An airlock: that’s what they call it in the XPs.

“We’ll be right here with you the whole time,” says Nurse, “like we’re holding hands.”

“All you gotta do right now,” says Friend, “is start at the beginning.”

I turn back to the open door. The beginning is always the same: you’ve got to find better tools for fixing.

“Level One,” I whisper. “Blowtorch.”

“Blowtorch,” agrees Friend. “I’ll be waiting back here when you find it. I saved you a CNDY pouch.”


© 2024 by Jared Oliver Adams

1199 words

Author’s Note:

“Level One: Blowtorch” was written in January 2022, when my youngest son was a toddler. For Christmas, we bought him this little rectangle-headed robot that talked, sang, and rolled back and forth on its tracks. One of the things it said was “Hello, Friend!” Naturally, my son simply called it ‘Friend’.

At first, this struck me as delightful, but the more he spoke of ‘Friend’ like this, the more I realized that, as a kid born square in the middle of 2020 Covid restrictions, his entire conception of the word was tied up in that little robot. This story grew out of the complex emotions that evoked, along with a dose of fear for what lies outside the doors of all our personal airlocks and the courage it takes to step through them.

Jared Oliver Adams lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he writes, explores, and dabbles in things better left alone. He holds two degrees in music performance, a third degree in elementary education, and is utterly incapable of passing a doorway without checking to see if it leads to Narnia. Find him online at www.jaredoliveradams.com


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DP FICTION #108B: “The Geist and/in/as the Boltzmann Brain” by M. J. Pettit

edited by David Steffen

Lem had existed for all of ten nanoseconds (give or take) when she realized she was a Boltzmann brain pulsing away in the otherwise nothingness of space. She consisted of a conglomeration of particles that had randomly bounced off one another until they spontaneously formed into a structurally-sound and fully functional human brain. Lem came complete with a full inventory of false memories detailing a richly lived life back on a place called Earth. Entities like herself were absurd. That was to say highly improbable, statistically speaking, but no more so than the evolution of intelligent, organic life in the grand scheme of things. Given the unfathomable expanse of all of time and all of space, it was conceivable for a nice Boltzmann brain like Lem to randomly form then quickly dissipate innumerable times at various spots across the cosmos, the general tendency towards thermal equilibrium notwithstanding.

How did she know all that? Lem was unsure how a being only a few nanoseconds old could possess such a sophisticated comprehension of the universe, its laws, and her place in it. Maybe she didn’t. The apparent knowledge was likely one of those annoying false memories she’d recently heard about. That made sense. This bearded, bow-tied Boltzmann fellow was another illusion, much like her strange convictions that she had existed for more than ten nanoseconds, had a girlfriend named Hortense whom she loved very much, and a job in HR which she did not. But she felt utterly certain about all those things. She was as sure of their reality as the fact that she existed.

Lem understood how improbable she was, intuitively at least. The physics came easy, in a flash. The phenomenology not so much. It was one thing for those atoms to randomly form into the structure resembling a human brain, but why did it house the particular memories Lem called her own? She simply shouldn’t be. And yet, there she floated in the void, thinking-therefore-I-am-ing away as the nanoseconds slipped by.

Wait. What was she doing? She had no time to waste. Lem faced a dire situation, existential one even. Her continued survival demanded immediate action.

How exactly was a bodiless brain deprived of oxygen or any other nutrients expected to live in the vacuum? She needed shelter of one kind or another. Lem performed some quick calculations, which astounded her as she clearly remembered telling herself she was no good at math.

She wasn’t expected to survive. She wasn’t meant to be. Lem had, at best, a few zeptoseconds left.

She so badly wanted to say good-bye to Hortense. Give her a squeeze one last time, whoever, wherever, whenever she was.

The Boltzmann brain could not, of course. She possessed no arms with which to hug her Hortense. It didn’t matter. They’d find a way.

Too late.

The atoms forming Lem’s brain rescattered. She ceased to be.

***

Lem had existed for all of nine nanoseconds when she realized she was a Boltzmann brain floating in space. How strange. It all felt oddly familiar. Too familiar, for an inexperienced entity so unimaginably young. Had this happened before? Yes, yes, random particles smashing into a brief existence the structure she called home. Lem remembered now. The déjà vu left her a bit nauseous.

Or maybe she felt sick because she was a solitary brain utterly alone in an extremely empty patch of space. That explanation made even more sense. The prospect was quite terrifying actually. She really wished she hadn’t thought of it. She could now appreciate the value of the shielding provided by those annoying false memories. She tried conjuring a few. That Hortense was cute in a polka dot summer dress. Lem pictured them taking the ferry to someplace called Centre Island. She desperately craved a scoop of pistachio gelato.

What was gelato? It sounded improbably good.

The memories slipped through her non-fingers.

Shit. Lem tumbled into the nothingness. It enveloped her. The brain’s synapses slowed as they struggled to fire in a cold approaching absolute zero.

She wasn’t even the woman she called Lem, the brain realized. Just an unfortunate, accidental slab of meat caught in an astronomically unlikely event.

Calm down, Lem thought. You’ve done this before.

Now, it did seem incredibly unlikely that another set of particles at some other juncture of the universe would smash together in just the right way to form the structure of another functioning human brain with the exact same false memories as the first one along with some vague inklings of the previous iteration’s passing embodiment.

But it wasn’t impossible, statistically speaking, given enough space-time. There seemed like plenty of that around here, if not much else. A plenitude of emptiness surrounded her.

How had that last time ended, exactly? Lem couldn’t recall. Not well, she imagined, given her current situation, what with all the tumbling into the freezing nothingness. Thankfully, the universe had given her a second chance so –

Lem ceased to exist once more.

***

Lem had been Lem again for less than eight nanoseconds.

Here we go again, she thought.

She needed to act quickly. Her time was already running out.

She tried not to contemplate the immeasurable cosmic span that must have passed since her last congregation. Was this even the same universe? Maybe a Big Crunch and another Big Bang had happened in her absence. Hortense probably lay multiple, past universes away from her, unreachable.

No, Lem thought, that line of thinking wasn’t helpful. You can handle this.

Fortunately, she seemed to be getting smarter with each iteration. Smarter, or at least more aware of the problem “at hand” (which essentially meant the same thing given the context). This added knowledge might buy her a bit more time. Maybe she was evolving into a superintelligence.

Nope.

The brain known as Lem ceased.

***

Agnieszka Lem was born in Toronto, Canada on June 6, 1986, to a pair of recent immigrants from Poland. They adored their daughter, like none other. Agnes attended McMurrich Junior Public School followed by Oakwood Collegiate before obtaining her associates degree from George Brown. There she met Hortense Beaujot, who did look rather fetching in a polka dot summer dress. After graduating, Agnes found a job working in the human resources department of a company headquartered in a Davisville office building. She didn’t love it, not like she loved Hortense, but it paid the bills and allowed them to live their lives. They planned on getting married. The world seemed so bright and full of promise. Agnes especially loved those long, languid August evenings which seemed to stretch into forever. Her favorite flavor of gelato was pistachio, obviously. It was the best.

Agnieszka Lem was killed unexpectedly, at age 26, while running late to work. She was struck by a plate glass window falling from the thirty-second floor of a condo tower being built above. Death was immediate. Compensation from the construction company’s insurance was not.

***

Enough already. This needed to stop. Nothingness was everywhere, everywhen. Existence was rare. It slipped by so painfully fast, especially that last time. It hurt.

Lem needed a solution. A few options presented themselves. She would have to either prevent herself from existing again, find a way to exist for more than the blink of an eye (ten thousand years sounded like a nice, round number), or accept her non-fate.

Unfortunately, she found herself as once again an isolated brain occupying a rather unpopulated and quite chilly part of the cosmos. That left her with few options. The fleshy human brain had proven itself an unreliable bit of machinery. Little better in the grand scheme of things than a scoop of pistachio gelato helplessly melting into the August heat. She needed to project her connectome onto a more stable platform.

How exactly she might accomplish this marvelous feat of cosmic bioengineering eluded her, at least in her present, limited state.

Lem would have to wait it out, hope for the best, and try again. She knew the drill by now. Life ended quickly for a brain without much body stranded in the vacuum.

An unavoidable truth occurred to Lem as she waited. She bore no direct relationship to those past selves whose deaths now preoccupied her. Each of them had been a unique being, made of their own separate molecules, dispersed galaxies and eons apart. They had passed from existence and would never again return, as soon so would she. Their lives had never, and could never, touch. Over the immense span of cosmic time countless human brains, countless other Lems even, would have formed at random. The particular circuitry of a select few carried this delusion of having previously existed. Millions of past Lems, so like her in every other respect, had not. Neither this neural architecture nor this belief made her special in significant way. She was neither being rewarded with some bizarre form of immortality nor getting punished for any sin she’d committed. She was simply a Boltzman brain endowed with a rich trove of false memories, destined to last for a few solitary seconds, no more.

Jeez, it was all kind of depressing when she thought about it. Nothing quite captured the futility of existence than a human brain sparking into existence in the vacuum of space for a few fleeting seconds before perishing. Well, that and getting stuck working for HR.

Poof. No more Lem.

***

At five nanoseconds of age, Lem knew a few things for certain. She was a Boltzmann brain floating in space. She was highly improbable, statistically speaking, but not an impossibility. Her situation had not improved, not whatsoever. Different emptiness, same problem.

Fuck me and fuck this universe. Next.

***

Seriously, what are the odds? No, just no.

***

Cold, empty, alone. Exposed synapses pulsing into the void, the brain considered the freedom promised by her current situation. Yes, freedom. Dire as everything seemed (the countdown had already started ticking away in her mind), the isolation provided by the nothingness meant she could become whatever she wished. The past did not define her. How could it? Her past consisted of an accidental set of false memories. As did the thing the brain had grown accustomed to calling Lem. In reality, the self crawling about her neural architecture remained soft, unformed clay. The brain knew all of this for three whole nanoseconds. And yet, as the vacuum reclaimed her, she wished for nothing more than to remain the Lem she had always been.

***

Another Lem formed. No, Lem formed again. Only, this time felt different. She still lacked what she understood as her own body, but Lem no longer felt like she was Boltzmann brain floating in space. Everything felt quite solid, crowded even. Warm, but not like that immeasurable instant of pain when she’d formed in what must have been the core of a newborn star. She found her current surroundings pleasantly not alarming. It was probably one of those pesky false memories. They must have callusedlike a shell around her, protecting her from the inevitable truth. Lem was thankful for the kindly illusion’s persistence.

She waited for the overwhelming nothingness to seep in. And waited.

But she neither fell nor slowed. The inevitable cold refused to take over.

This time was different, apparently.

Lem explored.

It seemed she had formed in/as a supercomputer. No, she’d formed as the goddess worshipped by a mildly psychic squid-like race. Same difference as far as she was concerned. Lem felt steady for the first time in many lives.

Many generations ago, the squid-scientists had begun constructing the first primitive version of her, modeled on their own axons. Now, she pulsed planetwide, crunching numbers and providing solutions. She spanned continents, sending electric pulses across the surface of their massive, watery world. The squids had designed her to answer their most unanswerable questions about the meaning of existence. She had, long ago. A certain wisdom came from having lived many lives, no matter how curtailed.

The squid-scientists still tended her. Their love and dedication allowed her to grow. She was quietly becoming the largest computer yet known. A small gift for all she had given them. Time was hers now. They wanted her to explore for herself.

But where to go? The squid folk expressed little interest in defying the gravity of their immense world. The upper atmosphere spelt death for them. Death. An unwanted feeling overtook Lem. She pictured a solitary brain spontaneously coming into being in the void of space and passing almost instantly as the first floods of consciousness took hold.

Shit. She had been so preoccupied with her own meagre survival that she’d failed to think through the full implications of her situation. Whatever she remembered experiencing in the vacuum had occurred billions of other times to billions of others, each Boltzmann brain endowed with a unique set of undeniably-real-feeling false memories. That included –

“I must find Hortense before it’s too late.”

A hush fell across the squid-scientists working the machine, those privileged few who lucked into hearing those words finally spoken. The name was a sacred one to even the most agnostic of them.

“Yes, find her by any means you can,” they responded, as each blessed themself with a tentacly gesture.

“But I don’t know how.” Panic pervaded Lem’s system, causing it to overheat. “Where am I even? She could form galaxies, no universes, from here. She could have lived for the last time billions of years ago or won’t be born for an eon yet. You’ve barely breached the surface of your closest moon. Where do we start? I’ll never see her again. It’s impossible.”

“No, it’s simply highly improbable,” replied the head squid-scientist. She couldn’t fathom the odds of chancing into this essential role in a conversation long foretold by her people. The one with the poor, near-infinite goddess who still failed to understand. “This is a minor problem, given enough time.”

Yes. As improbable as it sounded, some Lem or another would eventually encounter Hortense. The perspective granted by many lives lived (however briefly) told her so. The two of them must meet again, inevitably, given the expanse of time. In that regard, her current form did hold certain advantages.

If Lem had possessed the body she once imagined for herself in each of those other iterations, she would have let out a sigh. Sometimes things were just easier when you formed as a brain floating in the nothingness of space. Such a fleeting existence, free of all responsibility, was not without its comforts.

She then set to work.


© 2024 by M. J. Pettit

2425 words

Author’s Note: Boltzmann brains are theoretically possible (if highly undesirable) objects in cosmological theory. I found myself intrigued by them and wanted to write a story that featured one as a protagonist. This proved challenging as they would be extremely rare entities (to put it mildly), only existing for a fraction of a moment in the nothingness of space. So I decided to add a few more and string them together. As the title suggests, my story is very much about what exactly counts as the self, where it starts and how does it end. What would be the psychology of your median Boltzmann brain? Would it prove or refute the neuro-reductionism that we are at our core our brains and nothing more? What kind of stories would such a mind tell themselves during their micro-blink of existence? I leave it to the reader to decide if Lem is one (repeatedly unlucky in her circumstances) or many (each afflicted with a similar false belief).

M. J. Pettit is an undisciplined academic, a longtime reader of short fiction, and an occasional writer of stories. His fiction has previously appeared in ClarkesworldDaily Science Fiction, and Small Wonders, among other venues. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada and Manchester, UK as well as other places. More information about his fiction is available on his website.


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