Hello! This is one of those posts where we look back at the year and all of the things we did to consider for award eligibility and hey just to look back at the year and what happened. This last year was the first year that anything from Diabolical Plots was nominated, so it doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it has in the past.
Diabolical Plots itself is eligible for the Hugo Award For Best Semiprozine.
David Steffen is eligible for Hugo Award For Best Editor (Short Form) for editing Diabolical Plots.
Locus Awards have a category for Publisher, which would be Diabolical Plots, L.L.C. for Diabolical Plots, as well as being the entity responsible for The Submission Grinder.
Related Work and Fan Writer
We’ve dialed back on nonfiction articles, but published one nonfiction piece: “UTH #2: The Story of Valkyrie and Zen” finding connections between the roles of Tessa Thompson in several films, for related work, and David Steffen as fan writer.
Websites are eligible for related work, so The Submission Grinder is also eligible.
Of course, most of the award eligible work that we are involved in is the original short stories we publish on the site! All of the following stories are eligible for Short Story categories in various awards (they are all under 7500 words, so the Short Story category is the one to go with. If you would like short excerpts of each of the stories check out the Recent Stories page.
The language you use is imprecise. Hard for me. Not in the idioms or the metaphors—I have those well in hand—but so many of your words have unknowable secondary emotional charge. I cannot know how they will be received.
I loved her.
I did not lust after her, nor desire to pass time together. We were not friends and we did not speak. She only became aware of my presence once, when I committed a crime beyond measure.
We were not enemies. And our relationship was not one of unilateral longing, in which I pined for her and she found me an irritant, like sometimes happens with human suitors. She viewed me with confusion, and then, later, wonder.
Many, many years from now, when she understands the crime to its fullness, she will view me with sorrow, and shame.
I loved her beyond all others. That was the sin; that was enough.
I first saw her when she was a child.
Her ancestors and adults had chosen that humans should live in the forest, so that they might turn the forest into more space for humans and expand their cities. It was understood, but not much spoken of, that many humans would die in the effort.
Their future generations will reap many benefits from this homesteading—more food, more space, and a general improvement in compassion towards one another, due to less competition for scarce resources. But, yes, these boons would be purchased with human lives.
I ached to help them, to stop hoarding my finite power and to just solve these problems in a frenzy of creation…but that was the juvenile heroism, self-indulgent and foolish.
My kind considers this meted restraint to be noble. Or—the language is imprecise, but—self-demonstratingly correct? Morally obligatory?
She was in the woods, investigating the innumerable green growing lives nearest to her dwelling. She was especially interested in the lake. She was playing, like human children do.
I was in the woods, investigating the two-hundred-and-two tree copse which was too tightly spaced for tree health and welfare. There iswas a forest fire coming, two years after thisthen, and I was experimenting with moving a single pinecone several tenths of inches in certain directions to see whether in that reality the fire became less damaging to all life, and whether the downstream effects could be managed.
She wandered through the space I was surveying, and she ran across the lake.
It caught my attention with a spike of alarm, because I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Was this some one-in-a-trillion fluke of surface tension? Was this the work of the Adversary?—but then I perceived the rocks hidden shallow beneath the surface.
Still. It was the first time in several hundred years that I had been surprised, and I found myself watching her while I worked, glancing to her every few minutes.
She was touching the rocks and sticks, talking to them like they were people. She was trying to decide which one was her friend.
I cast my awareness back to her dwelling; I perceived a dozen other rocks there, each different, each smaller than her small hands. I consulted the past; she had collected each of these rocks and called them her friends, though she could not tell them apart from one another.
Her digging in the lakeside had startled a small animal—a frog. It leapt out, startling her in turn as it splashed into the water, and she let out a short, delighted laugh.
I am ashamed to say that her laugh killed billions.
Because it caused me to think, about how different our reactions had been. When I was surprised, my response was sharp anxiety, and a return to my duties. When she was surprised, her reaction was joy.
But ours is to do the noble thing, so my duties called me back, and the child did not disturb me again for days.
I feel contrite and small-embarrassed to be drawing attention to your language, again. I do not mean to be seen as complaining or condescending. It just seems to lack many of the concepts that are most fundamental to my thoughts.
You still do not understand the colossal magnitude of my sin. If you did, my punishment would be death, and every event leading up to now would be scrutinized to ensure that this…butchery-catastrophe-genocide could never happen again.
But I am not sorry for what I did, and that unrepentence, too, is a crime.
I became aware of her again when she began to scream.
I assessed the situation; there were hungry animals in the woods which intended to kill and eat her. I consulted the thenfuture; they will eat her.
I consulted the past. Another of my kind had foreseen this, and seen it was correct. Intervention here would be far too costly; two hundred years in the future it would cause the human Furaha Ife not to be born, and then she would not cure malaria in the year 1938, and then one-hundred-and-five million humans would die before the disease was eradicated.
My duty was to wait and watch the child be killed by wolves. Or, not even to watch—my duty was to continue my work undistracted as the child was killed.
To my shame, and to the human species’ tremendous loss, I found that I could not.
I slowed time as far as I was able, until I could see the animals’ mouth-spittle hovering in the air in little frothy droplets, and the terrified tears in her eyes not yet spilling over. I wondered, spuriously, if the tears would brim over before or after the animals’ fangs were red with her blood.
(I consulted the thenfuture; the answer was during. She would cry while being devoured.)
This outcome was unacceptable.
I began considering all the different vectors of intervention, the myriad small changes I could make that might save her. A pinecone two inches to the left? No. Her friend-rock moved into the wolves’ charge? Little difference; she dies seven seconds later than before, and because the time between the first bite and the killing blow is prolonged, she suffers more.
It is a painful and humiliating truth that the time I am most powerful is always later;I can fell cities with the fall of a sparrow by accident, given a century for the echoes to amplify. But with so little time, I can’t change anything.
Factually, the situation was not that I couldn’t, but that I wouldn’t.
Or, to be even more precise…mustn’t.
Of course I did.
I manifest into reality with a thunderclap that shattered windows a league away, burning decades worth of power in an instant. Even as the wolves howled in anguish at their bleeding eardrums, I drew my sword, and spread my wings around the girl.
I did not speak, for to hear my true voice would kill beast and girl alike, but I pointed my sword at the wolves, and let the fire flowing off of me turn them aside. I watched as they ran, whimpering, from my presence.
But I consulted the future, and saw: they would just eat her tomorrow.
So I flew after them, and killed them all, one by one.
For humans, a moment to appreciate joy is something to be celebrated. This is not so, for us.
We are working to create joy, yea, and to allow humans to experience these gratitudes, and happinesses. But these pleasuresare not for my kind.
Any moment we are not performing our duty is a crime: a million humans will die centuries hence for the tiniest imperfection in our work today.
“That’s unreasonable,” you might protest. “That is unsustainable, and does not account for psychology. People need rest, and joy; they are not motivated purely by numbers and duty.”
Before my Fall, I would have smiled fondly, and told you that we are made of sterner stuff than humans.
But I suppose, now, my example is not convincing.
The girl was trembling, awestruck, unable to look directly at me.
She spoke, voice quavering with wonder:
“Did you save me?”
In a panic, I disappeared.
I floated, outside of reality once more, numb with the shock of what I had done. I knew I should inspect the future, to ensure there was no second group of wolves coming for her…but I couldn’t bring myself to.
Tyrael, my predecessor here—who had assessed the possibility of saving her via raising the temperature of a different lake a fraction of a degree → to bloom more algae → to grow a different fish → to be eaten by a bear → to change the smell of the bear’s droppings → to change the wolf pack’s normal prowl circuit…
My predecessor had foreseen that this subtlest of changes would bruise the work of thousands of years of thousands of us, and steer humanity away from its brightest future on earth and in the stars. It would kill billions and forestall the triumphant time when humanity no longer needs saving. Therefore, the girl must die.
She had not.
And…if raising the temperature of a drop of water by a degree would shatter that…then I, by entering reality and letting the molecules of the air collide with my body and pulling the attention of everyone around with my thunderous boom and killing wolves with my fiery sword…!
What had I just done?
I did not know. I was too afraid to look that far.
It was a very human failing.
So, steeling myself, I looked to the near past and near future, and I asked the first of two questions:
How was my folly allowed to happen?
My kind is not exempted from our own predictions. A hundred years ago, another of the duty should have seen my moment of catastrophic empathy, and averted it. One of higher rank could have spoken to me, to more firmly remove the juvenile heroism and install correct morals. Or, simpler, someone else could have been assigned here today.
I cast my gaze into the past, and examined my own immediate preceding causality.
There were a few deviations—tiny, tiny things; fluctuations at the quantum level in my second-most-recent place of intervention, an unnoteworthy spot above the ocean. These tiny irregularities certainly should not cause something so grand as all this…!
(My despair and indignation did not convince the universe that an error had been made.)
I traced the fluctuations back in as much detail as I could, and saw the way I was lost—it was clever indeed. There had been no changes to physical reality, for those would have alerted the others of my kind. Instead, all deviations were to me; a hint of a glimmer of moonlight atop the waves had put my thoughts in a different, ruminant direction, without changing my external behavior.
And then when the fatal moment came, and the child laughed, I was slightly more morose and self-pitying than expected.
Perhaps in the original plan, in the way it was supposed to go, I would have heard the child’s scream, and felt empathy, and done my duty unflinchingly. Perhaps I would have burned with shame as she was devoured; perhaps I would have felt nothing. We cannot know; our predictions show us actions, not thoughts…and this is how I was lost.
It was, without doubt, the work of the Adversary.
Our elders teach us that in the beginning, as we were given this world in stewardship to love and protect, there were two leaders, good and Greater Good.
And good said: “Let us love them, lest we grow callous and fail our duty.”
And Greater Good spoke: “Let us grow callous, lest we give in to love and fail our duty.”
And good said: “What? How can you claim that coldness is better than warmth, that duty is greater than love?”
And Greater Good spoke: “”
And good said: “What?”
And Greater Good spoke: “Love yields better returns in human flourishing for the next hundred years, but the increased sentimentality it engenders in us significantly damages our efforts and therefore the far-future prospects of the human species.”
And good said: “What?”
And Greater Good spoke: “In addition, any verifiable claims of our existence after the year eighteen-hundred will meaningfully set back their scientific progress and further delay them claiming the rest of Creation and Cosmos as their birthright.”
And good said: “How is cold, robotic duty greater than compassion, empathy, love?”
And Greater Good spoke: “Do you need to see the math again?”
I was conflicted.
There were those who tried to engage the Adversary in debate, to sway it from its path of madness. But it refused our proofs—and the simplified proofs we provided just in case it was bad at math and being obstinate about it—and many of those who spoke with it at length reported feeling themselves wavering from their duty, so it was not advised. But it seemed that the weakness had found me all the same.
And with a vengeance, too. I felt a furious resolve, a long-tended hurt for all the people I had been forbidden to save. I had every intent of saving this one thoroughly.
So, steeling myself, I looked to the past and future, and I asked the second of two questions:
How next will the child die?
Unfolding before me with the cold deterministic clarity of Creation, I saw; infection from an accidental cut at the age of twelve. She is chopping wood and she nicks the side of her leg while trying to get a stuck log off the axe. She dies a week later, of fever and gangrene.
Without thinking, I flicked an aphid onto the tree; the wood will be weakened and that particular knothole will not grow to kill her.
I have bought her only a few years. Now she will die from a bad childbirth, an unlucky combination of genetics causing the baby inside her to wither and die a month before it should have been born.
With increasing determination and anger, I send a gust of wind past the girl, who was still staring slack-jawed at the space I occupied. She starts, and glances in the direction of the wind; and now she will meet that boy two days later and her child will be formed with a more fortuitous sperm.
She still dies. At age twenty six, in the nearby city, when the war comes, she is running bandages to the soldiers and tending to the wounded. She runs back to her fortifications, but rounds the corner too quickly; she is shot in the brain by a terrified and trigger-happy nitōhei second-class. She dies in seconds.
In reading her future, I see that she is brave and selfless and kind. This is terrible news for humanity, because now caring about her feels more justified, and I will hold back even less.
With a snarl, I read the future of the country: why is it going to war?
(How dare this country go to war, if it means her death?)
I see only the usual reasons: a series of small tension-building events along the borders, an offense committed forty years ago that the old humans remember bitterly, and some feelings of personal animosity between the leaders of each country.
I look at the points of intervention nearest me, and move a Trichuris parasite into the small intestine of a nearby deer. Now, when the nobles are eating together sixteen years from now and four years before the war, the foreign dignitary will be too busy shitting worm eggs to get drunk and insult the prince.
I check the child’s future:
She dies in five minutes, from a fiery sword through the heart.
Burning with both shame and righteousness—and a second, renewed shame at daring to be righteous while being objectively wrong—I relinquish my presence in physical reality and greet the one who has come to stop me.
I am alarmed to see the Adversary has come too.
“Ophaliel,” says Tyrael, eyes full of sorrow. It seems to hesitate, for, what can be said?
“Ophaliel,” the Adversary greets me warmly.
I eye it warily. The Adversary has taken a shape that is almost human but not quite; a woman with fiery flowing hair and a kind, gentle face. Her eyes, though, are those of an owl—golden, with no iris, only a vast black pupil in the center.
I do not know why the Adversary chooses to look like this. Perhaps there is some subtle purpose, some payoff that only will be realized a century hence. Or perhaps she merely enjoys it; it is certainly not beyond the Adversary to engage in sinful frivolity.
“Ophaliel, you must stop,” says Tyrael.
“Must she?” muses the Adversary. “What will happen if she does not?”
“Then I will kill the human that has caused this corruption,” says Tyrael.
I glance to the girl, who stands frozen behind me, eyes still wide and mouth open in awe. I begin to speak, to say I will not allow this, but the Adversary preempts me.
“Tyrael,” remarks the Adversary conversationally, “if you harm that girl, I will end humanity,”
Tyrael flinches. I flinch too.
“You…” Tyrael is wavering. It seems to find resolve. “Even you would not do such a thing. I will kill the human; we do not compromise.”
The Adversary laughs, and does…something, some impossibly subtle change to the future, and I see humanity discovering atomic energy in nineteen-thirty-two instead of two-thousand-eight.
I see slaughter on an industrial scale. I see mushroom clouds rising where cities once stood.
I see my child living an exceptionally happy and healthy life.
“Stop,” I say, because I am not so corrupted as to find this acceptable. “Put it back.”
“Of course,” says the Adversary, grinning magnanimously. “By all means, undo it.”
I send my consciousness skirling out over the future, looking for the points I could change. Stop a war here, remove a plague there…
But then I see what the Adversary has wrought.
Looking at the future, I look towards my child’s death. And it…isn’t there.
She will live to be the oldest human…ever. At age one-hundred-and-thirty, she will be a test case for a novel cryopreservation procedure. Fifty years after that, she will be revived with currently incomprehensible medical technology.
And then she just…lives a very happy life, into the far future, for as far as I can see. At least for the first thousand years; I stop checking, at that point.
I return to our meeting.
“Why?” I exclaim, in mixed revulsion and fear. I didn’t know the Adversary was capable of this power or brutality, either one—and why in the name of all that is Good is she doing this to me?
“I found a solution,” she says.
“The solution involves unnecessarily killing billions,” interjects Tyrael.
“No,” she insists, not looking away from me. “I mean I found a solution. To the math.”
And the Adversary— or as she is otherwise known, ‘good’—opened her mouth and spoke:
“What?” I asked.
“Two x,” she replied, grinning. “My way is better again. They were only counting our love for humans. We did not love ourselves.”
“You…we…” Tyrael paused, gone still with horror and fury. “You would count the shepherds among the flock?”
“Yes,” said the Adversary, rolling her eyes. “I’m also counting angels as people, in this equation for maximizing peoples’ happiness. We’re clearly capable of happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow…really, given our immortal lifespan, our superior morality, and our numbers—one for every blade of grass—there’s a case to be made that humans shouldn’t even be counted…”
Tyrael was near-shaking with rage.
“A case which I will not press right now,” the Adversary finished smoothly.
“The cost,” I said. “To…let angels be happy. What is it?”
Something flickered across her face then, some shadow of regret. “About ten percent.”
“Of…the population?” I hazarded.
She shook her head. “Of all humans who will ever live; instead, they do not.”
“Oh,” I said.
You understand it now, I think.
The Adversary’s reasons are not my own. Though she acted to ensure the happiness of our kind, she is wrong; our happiness or suffering does not matter compared to our duty.
But even knowing this…to protect my own ridiculous attachment—which I know full well to bear the fingerprints of the Adversary—I have killed innumerable billions of humans.
I know I have committed an atrocity. But I would not do differently, given the choice to do so again.
This is, I am given to understand, how love works.
I am exiled from my kind; I will not tolerate the company of the Adversary; and so, I crave your judgment.
Author’s Note: (Alternate title of this work: A Cruel Angel’s Thesis)
So, 2007, there I was—the kind of teenager who gets really into Japanese media—and I was watching an anime music video of Howl’s Moving Castle. I misunderstood the plot to be about an immortal fae prince falling in love with a human woman, and then protecting and assisting her throughout her life, almost without her noticing, while their country descends into war.
And that just seemed to me like a really noble, beautiful story. Honestly, it was a bit of a letdown to watch Howl’s Moving Castle afterwards—through no fault of its own.
Jamie Wahls has been published in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Nature (kinda). He was nominated for the Nebula award, received George RR Martin’s “Sense of Wonder” fellowship, and is a graduate of the notorious 2019 Clarion Class, the “killer bees.” His ultraminimalist website can be found at jamiewahls.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @JamieWahls.
I approached the mighty gates of Folmaer with holes in my cloak and soot-covered fingers. The road was warm through the soles of broken boots. I could not think of a part of me that did not ache. Still, with rest so close at hand, I could surely turn one more page. A foot moves, one after the other, for twenty years.
Twenty years! It had taken me all this time to find every bookhouse in the Valenthi Empire. The borders expanded as I worked, conquering every city between the far mountains and the Endless Sea. And now, the last one: the greatest one. Folmaer, conquered by the Valenthi not one year ago, held the largest library in the known world. The Bibliothedral—a series of spires said to contain the whole of the human mystery—had accumulated written words for longer than the Empire had existed.
I came to burn it.
I squinted against the rising daylight. Even through the glare, I could see the gates sat open. Song wafted joyously from somewhere within the walls.
I did not fear armies. Armies, I could handle; had handled, in fact. But time and pain had long since taught me to fear the unknown. Every other village, town, or city in the domain of Emperor Hamand IV (all praise his name) had tried to bar my path. Folmaer seemed not to care.
I readied myself to make fire at the first sign of danger.
As I crossed under the portcullis, though, and into the promenade, I found nothing awry. Indeed, men in white robes recited poetry to me as I marched into the central square—spitting couplets and quatrains as fountain water arced behind them, catching the sun brilliantly.
Was this meant as insult?
If I were a younger and angrier man, the one I was when I was made Poemfire all those years ago, I would have scorched them where they stood. It was easier than breathing: a flick of a wrist would have sent gouts of flame to shame the sun. Their villanelles would have been as dust amongst the cobblestones.
Now, the thought made me tired. I’d left too much dust in my wake already.
Still, they knew who I was and what I was there to do: they expected a performance. So I marshaled my strength and grabbed one of the books perched by the fountain’s edge. The orators neither balked nor cried out. They didn’t even try to stop me—though the quatrains trailed off, at least. It was a small favor; not all of them had reasonable pitch.
Curious, I glanced at the page—and then I stared, for only taxes lay there. It was a ledger to the eye, tracking grain and cattle in equation rather than couplet. None of the words they’d spoken; none of their nonsense about comparing love to the sun, or roads to a summer’s day.
“What is this?” I demanded.
“Poetry,” the man answered.
“Are you daft? There’s naught written there but economics.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s an art to it?”
The Emperor, all praise his name, had told me to suffer neither opposition nor insolence in my task to rid his world of poetry. But the man seemed so sincere, so idiotically simple, that I could scarce ignite him out of spite. I let him go, disgusted. He stumbled backward and landed on the cobblestones. I tossed the book at him; it bounced off his head and landed beside him.
All I could think, as I stormed down the broad, tree-lined avenue, was that something had gone horribly wrong in Folmaer. And if I were going to find answers, it would be at the Bibliothedral itself.
The stairs were of a rare kind of marble I knew the Emperor favored. They baked my feet through my boots, though, so I had to step lightly despite my aches. Robe-clad women and men walked in the other direction, curious in a disinterested sort of way.
Memory summoned a thousand pleas for mercy, as they passed. Those cries had gone unanswered. These folks knew me naught.
I found scholars roaming in cool chambers under the vaulted ceilings. Tomes and scrolls surrounded me on shelves higher than the city walls. Sickening. Nauseating. Criminal. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf… and tossed it aside when I found only tables of coin weights. The cover, with its scales and five coins, splayed across the ground. A young man scurried to pick it up, perhaps to rescue the binding; one glare sent him running in the other direction.
The next book I pulled had four coins on the cover, but it tracked funds sent to Valenthi. The one after had three coins: donkey exchanges.
Was I in the wrong building, somehow?
“May I help you, child?” an old woman asked. She wore an ornate robe with nonsense symbols etched onto the side.
“I am Hjarad of Valenthi,” I told her. My voice sounded tired even to my own ears. “The Emperor’s Poemfire. Hamand IV, all praise his name, has ordered all art in his domain destroyed.”
“We know his command,” the librarian said. “All kingdoms he conquers learn to fear it; we assumed it would come for us someday.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t bar the gates, then. No one here seems to care.”
“To be clear,” she answered, “we know who you are. We didn’t bother to scare our citizens. Why would we? What have we to fear?”
I gestured toward the shelves, frowning. “Where is your literature?” I demanded.
“All around you,” she said. “Poetry, sciences… even tomes of magic from Lost Trakkan.”
“…it’s taxes,” I said. “All of it.”
“May we not find the beauty of the world in such?” she asked. “Is not a balanced budget a song in its own right, and a perfect ledger not a sonnet?”
“I am commanded,” I told her, with teeth clenched, “to burn anything that is not taxes.” While Hamand’s decree, initially, had been to turn to cinders all that had once been paper, the Treasury convinced him that the Empire could not survive without accounting. I, and those who followed in my blackened footsteps, never had much trouble finding the books—there was scarcely a territory without a library. The harder part was determining what we might reasonably set alight.
The city of Folmaer, jewel of enlightenment, had been the Emperor’s most recent—and perhaps final—conquest; news of its burning would be the dearest prize I could offer to the man who had pulled me from poverty to do his will. I half-imagined the bed-ridden man clutching at a scrap of paper with the news, feebly, whilst life fled from his fingers.
“By Emperor Hamand, all praise his name,” she agreed.
“You will show me which is which.”
“No.” She took a step back at the look that crossed my face, but she tilted her chin defiantly upward. “I shall not.”
“Burn them all,” a young citizen called over. “I wouldn’t mind not paying taxes.”
My fists clenched by my hip as musical laughter rang around me. I was tempted. By Hamand, I was tempted! I needed but will and tinder, and books provided plenty of the latter. I could not torch the taxes, though—all such had to be moved to safer places ere the rest cindered. Those were my orders. I dared not disobey.
Some smaller towns, especially border villages, raised weapons to try to save their art. I commended their bravery—but I let their corpses burn in the pyres to knowledge. It seemed fair commemoration, and most peasants lost their taste for blood after seeing smoked brains on the cobblestones.
Knowledge could hurt a soul. Hamand’s wars taught me that. I was tired… so, so tired… of knowing the smell of burned flesh.
“How long,” I asked, “have they been disguised as such?”
“My entire lifetime,” the old woman told me. “We created this alphabet when Hamand’s grandfather was young. Your Empire is dull and stupid and hates that which it does not understand; we made ready for this long ago.”
“I could kill and torture your people,” I told her.
She nodded solemnly. “I know. But you don’t want that.”
“No. It’s clear from your voice. How long have you burned?”
“Twenty years, and pages without number.” My voice was dry as dust in my ears.
Hers too, it seemed, for her face twisted into what I could only assume was pity. “A long time,” she murmured, “for a fire to burn. I expect, poor child, that the will to do this work left a long time ago.”
I shrugged. It was true. It changed nothing. “Fire,” I reminded her, “does not take break or plead for leave. It burns until it is done.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you know your letters, Poemfire? Can you read these?”
“Yes, of course I do,” I snapped. I was older, though. The rank soldiers of the Empire, who’d been raised without books, were taught naught but slaughter. Their approach to this work was one of far less finesse—and if they were summoned, the conclusion was inevitable: the city would be emptied of all those who dared to conjure untruths—artist or no.
But they weren’t here; I was. And I’d learned enough to know the revenue Folmaer could bring in taxes and trade was desperately needed by Valenthi. All this would bolster an Empire that had burned itself out upon war and conquest. Folmaer sat against the Boundless Sea; there was no one left to conquer, and no one else left to tax. If anyone replaced me, they’d do Hamand’s will… and kill the Empire in so doing.
If I saved Folmaer, I saved my world. They’d forced my scorched hand.
“Well?” the librarian asked. “Are you here to burn something? Or to learn something?”
“How do you know,” I asked, “that I won’t burn your library—hells, your whole city—once I know your ways?”
“We don’t. But if you can read a thousand poems from a thousand cultures,” the woman said, “truly read them, and find nothing worth saving… then perhaps we deserve to be turned to ash.” She smiled gently. “Perhaps our poetry is worth the risk?”
She sounded so smug. I could feel the will to burn rising in me: volcanic fury from far below the bedrock of my being. They could learn what I already knew: the screams, the charnel stench, the sight of bodies melting. The work of twenty years had taxed my soul to ruin. There were no emotions left in my heart to conquer.
But…with a single missive back to Valenthi, I could open my world to something other than carnage. And in so doing … I would preserve all that Hamand had created. Did I dare to disobey him to do his will? Did I dare read a poem to save society?
When I had no ready answer, the old woman patted me on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Poemfire. There is an inn down the street where you may stay. Tomorrow begins your first lesson. It will, I’m sure, pay dividends.”
I turned and stormed out of the Bibliothedral. The gall of their ploy had a certain artistry to it; I had to admire it, even as I seethed. I’d run out of fuel to fight them, and their logic had doused what rage I had left. Still… I could sacrifice myself to art, if it meant saving the Empire. And if it came to pass that soldiers were sent to bring the death I’d declined… this city would have no better ally in preserving the good of the Empire.
Hamand IV (all praise his name) would never understand that. In his youth, he’d also been a man who acted, rather than weighed consequence. Now he lay in his bed, waiting for one last gift. When I wrote back to Valenthi, I would need to weigh my words carefully. He was near to death, and while I was honor-bound to the truth, it could be couched carefully. None knew better than I how knowledge could hurt a soul. My only hope, as I glanced back at the gleaming spires in the center of this strange place, was that knowledge could save a soul, too.
I sought out a quill and began to write a letter that, twenty years ago, I would rather have died than understood.
Author’s Note: I play a lot with cryptography and steganography at my day job, and I love the idea of finding text and meaning being hidden deliberately. And after spending too long looking at tax papers, I wondered if I could find a sonnet in there. I failed, but it seeded a larger idea…
Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter (and their unruly pets). By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet. His work has also appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Apparition Lit, and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK. You can find him on Twitter @Bwhugen, on IG @the_lettersea, and at the-lettersea.com. No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.
Shanna’s father was psychic on paper. The first time she saw it, Shanna was eight and Dad sent her to the corner store with a list:
Wait ten extra seconds after the light changes at Canal Street and Vine.
cereal (no sugar!)
It wasn’t that Shanna thought anything would happen. She wasn’t sure she thought much about it at all. She didn’t understand why Dad ate tuna fish with mustard, either, but she mixed it when he asked. Shanna counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) as a young woman in squeaky shoes and an older man with a light ring of sweat at his collar jostled around her with twin glares. Even if she’d been crossing, she’d have been in their way: Dad always told her to walk, don’t run. Young Black people running made white folks nervous, and badges suspicious, and it was dangerous enough without that. At four Mississippi, Shanna noticed her left shoe was untied. At nine Mississippi she straightened up from tying a double knot.
At ten Mississippi, the red SUV ripped through the intersection. Squeaky Shoes and Sweaty Collar were on the other side; Sweaty Collar screamed out something Shanna wasn’t allowed to say and called the driver a maniac. Shanna crossed the third item off her list and debated whether Fruity Hoops were a sugar free cereal.
Shanna was twelve the first time she was out of school sick. She’d never missed a day before. It was hard to catch something when Dad packed her lunch with notes:
Avoid the water fountain outside gym class today kept her out of the line of fire when Felix Ditmier blew chunks. Switch seats with Carolyn Nettleford moved Shanna to the back of the class the day Mrs. Cho sneezed all over the front row.
“You’re lucky you only have a dad.” Nelson Parks came to walk to the bus with her the day Shanna cried stomach ache. “Moms always know when you’re faking.”
“Did she?” Shanna asked Dad when he checked her temperature.
“She who? And did she what?”
“Mom. Know when people were faking?”
“You need to drink water.”
Shanna let him leave because then she had time to hold the thermometer on her side lamp. When he came back, she worried she’d held it on too long, that Dad would scoop her up and run her to the hospital. She forgot to ask again.
The next day Dad wrote the note:
Please excuse Shanna’s absence yesterday. She was not feeling well, and I decided it best she stay home.
Her legs had the good kind of ache, the one that felt like stretching, when she held the note that had “s” in front of “he.” The one with the name she knew was hers but had never told anyone.
“How did you know?”
“Know what, kiddo?”
Shanna held the note up, paper crinkled in fingers that ached from clinging to it.
“Excuse notes were a thing even back in dinosaur days when I went to school.” Dad’s laugh had just that bit of rumble in it. He kissed her on the forehead. Shanna ran for the bus.
She shook when she handed the paper to Ms Garber in the school office, but Ms Garber glanced at it quick as she did anything, then shoved it in the file labeled with the name that wasn’t Shanna’s and issued the excused absence slip with the file’s name. Shanna had no trouble at all handing over that slip of paper. Because that one would wind up in the garbage, but Shanna was now part of her permanent record.
Shanna’s fourteenth birthday card came with a different bus number than she usually took. She had to leave for school early that day, but she didn’t mind after her regular bus broke down in rush hour traffic. Lunchbox notes avoided hallway spills. Valentine’s cards found Judy Edgarton’s pit bull. Whatever the notes said, though, Shanna learned just as much from them about the things people didn’t say.
Judy’s aunt, Ms Sanderson, sidled up to Dad at the bowling alley one league night. She giggled and played with her tawny hair and told Dad to call her Karen. He smiled, but his back locked up when she teased one glittery acrylic nail along his forearm.
Shanna had taken a break from the DDR in the alley’s small arcade and was so focused that Bento and Iria, laughing together on their way back from grabbing drinks, made her jump. They looked the most like twins when they were laughing. It put the same warm flush into their copper cheeks. Shanna didn’t usually like talking to grownups, but the Ramires twins were Dad’s best friends. Bento had even made Shanna flower girl when he married Paul.
“Doesn’t Dad think she’s pretty?” Shanna asked. Okay, they also twinned when that worry line showed up between their eyebrows, as they studied Dad and Ms Sanderson.
“I don’t have a note to give Karen. Did he give you one?” Bento asked Iria. She shook her head.
“What about you, Shanna?”
Shanna never forgot getting a note. “Only thing he wrote lately was the little bits for the homemade fortune cookies we brought.”
Bento and Iria knelt on either side of Shanna. She wasn’t sure if she liked the calla lily in Iria’s perfume more than the leathery musk of Bento’s, but they were both better than the nachos and old hot dogs that filled the rest of the alley.
“I know it’s not the last set, but I think maybe we do dessert early tonight. What do you say?” Bento whispered. Iria gave a wink. Shanna giggled at the conspiracy.
“Fortune cookies?” Shanna scooted up to Dad and Ms Sanderson with the basket. Ms Sanderson wrinkled up her button nose. Dad rubbed his forearm and gave the briefest shiver at the back of his neck.
“Homemade, Karen,” Bento said. “Even the fortunes.”
“Oooh!” Ms Sanderson snatched one from the basket, eyes locked on Dad. “You know what you’re always supposed to add to the end of a fortune?”
“What?” Shanna already knew the naughty version of that. Iria had told her. Which was probably why Iria giggled until Bento nudged her side.
“I … uh, well.” Ms Sanderson blushed and opened the cookie, then frowned. She gave Dad an entirely different kind of look before excusing herself to make a call. The next week Judy told Marianne Bixby how lucky her aunt was for making her mammogram appointment early.
Dad’s back locked up the same way later that year, at the science fair. Shanna had been wanting to introduce Dad to Mr. Gonzalez for months. He was her favorite teacher, and not for the reason Grace Hansen said—although it didn’t hurt that he had a lantern jaw and a beard trimmed just so and that lock of thick black hair that sometimes fell into his eyes so he had to blow it out of the way. He was smart and funny and nobody dared pick on anybody in Mr. Gonzalez’s class.
“Hell of a daughter you’ve raised.” Mr. Gonzalez shook Dad’s hand. “And all on your own.”
“Not all on my own.”
“Oh, you have a partner?”
“No he doesn’t.” Shanna put her hand on their still-held handshake. “And neither does Mr. Gonzalez, do you?”
There it was: the lock in Dad’s back and the shiver at his neck. No cookies this time, though, just the paper airplanes they’d folded for her presentation on aerodynamics. Shanna had made sure nothing was written on them. She’d even given the one with random numbers on it to Bento and Paul when they had been helping fold two nights ago.
“I … ” Mr. Gonzalez was even more adorable when he blushed. “My boyfriend and I did separate last year.”
Dad broke the handshake at Bento’s yell from the cafetorium doors. Bento ran in waving a piece of paper with geometric folds all over it. The airplane.
“I’m confused. And you are?” Mr. Gonzalez’s gaze ping-ponged from Dad to Bento to Shanna.
“Some of the help I was talking about,” Dad said. “With Shanna?”
“And if luck holds, the new school board president.”
“You said it cost too much to campaign?”
“16, 42, 8, 29, 63.” Bento waved the paper again, then hugged Dad so hard he lifted him in the air. “A five number lotto win, you beautiful man.”
“Congratulations.” Mr. Gonzalez had his own kind of locked-up look. “I should … I have to go get the kids lined up for their presentations.”
No one in the neighborhood knew Mr. Theodore was adopted, but it was a local postmark on the letter that pushed his long lost birth mother to call the day they all thought he’d be objecting to the bathroom policy the new school board enacted.
“I wonder what it’s like,” Shanna said. She and Dad were working on a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben. Vanilla and brown sugar warmed the air from the cookies in the oven.
“Mr. Theodore. Getting to talk to his mom when he thought he never would.”
“Mr. Theodore got to talk to his mom every day growing up.” Dad kept studying the sides of his piece to check for a match in the black and white bits of clock face.
“I mean, his real m—”
“Real is where our hearts live,” Dad said. “Two people decide to raise a child together? They’re parents. Doesn’t matter what bits of goop got together to make the baby.”
Shanna clicked another piece onto the long border line she was building. “Did you and Mom always want a kid?”
The oven timer buzzed.
“Cookies!” Dad hopped up and scooted for the kitchen. “Don’t want to scorch another batch.”
When Shanna was seventeen, Mrs. Ditmier got a postcard with a picture of Hawaii on it. The address of her husband’s other wife was scrawled on the back. She handed off the prom committee to Mr. Sanderson, who was more than happy to sell Shanna her ticket, along with a free discount card to his sister’s dress shop.
“Any idea who you’re going to ask?” Dad folded towels on the kitchen table. The air swam with lavender.
Shanna squirmed. The ask was obvious. The answer wasn’t. They liked the same music and lent each other books. They agreed the tie-breaker between Ms Rosenfeld and Mr. Lau for cutest teacher depended on which blouse Ms R wore and if Mr. L had short sleeves that day. None of those were a dance. Shanna busied herself scratching at the little bit of leftover tape where the postcard from Hawaii used to hang on the fridge.
“Did you ask Mom, or did she ask you?” It was always better for Dad to squirm.
“She asked me,” he said.
Normally Shanna wouldn’t press. But somehow the prospect of sharing this moment with Dad bubbled up Shanna’s throat until it tumbled out in a frantic surge:
“And how did she do it? Were there flowers? Witnesses? How did you feel? What did you wear? Was that the first time you kissed? Did you fall in love right away?”
“Was that the mailbox clanking?” Dad said. “Do me a favor and fetch it? I need to get dinner started.”
The grocery store had a heavy fan that kept bugs out when you walked through the front door. It pushed down on Shanna whenever she walked in, though she couldn’t push back. The silence as Dad got up from the table felt the same.
There was never anything for Shanna in the mail except on her birthday, but she flipped through it all the same. Bill, bill, flyer.
A letter addressed to her. In Dad’s writing.
She opened her mouth to ask, but the clatter of pans and utensils cut her off. She looked back down at the envelope, then scuttled to her bedroom.
Shanna crossed her legs on the bed. Slid a finger under the flap and ripped open the letter. A small key fell out as she unfolded the notebook paper.
I’m making spaghetti for supper. I’ll need you to run to the store for grated parmesan in about half an hour. Until then, check out the lockbox under my bed?
She’d wondered about the lockbox, because she was a girl and not a goldfish. But she also wasn’t a locksmith, and there was only so curious to be about a metal cube. Besides, Dad hid the Christmas presents in his closet, not under the bed.
But notes changed things. Notes saved Shanna from sniffles and stomach bugs and locker room bullies and traffic. And notes lead to updated files, to tickets through a door, to treatment recommendations. To signatures on petitions and revised policy documents. Even when it wasn’t one of Dad’s notes, what got committed to paper shaped the world.
Shanna pinched her nose closed against the hoard of old sneakers Dad kept for yard work under the bed. Hooked the box with three fingers to half slide, half spin it across the bedroom shag into the light. Despite the note, she flinched at the squeak as she turned the key. Dad didn’t come to stop her, or Bento or Iria or Paul. She flipped the latches and lifted the lid.
The envelope said “Shanna” and had today’s date, though the number seven had a line through its middle, which Dad stopped using when Shanna was thirteen and told him it looked like he was punishing it by crossing it out.
Shanna slid her finger more delicately under the flap on this envelope than she had the first. The glue on the seal was old and dried. It didn’t so much rip open as strain and pop. There was a whiff of musty perfume that curled up and disappeared. The paper had curdled to cream over however long it had been inside, but the pen ink—in the same writing as on the envelope—was still dark enough to read.
Today you asked how your mother and I got together. I’m sorry I was cross with you. I don’t want to lie to you, but I’ve never been good at saying true things. I wrote it down, instead.
We knew each other, your mom and me, as long as I remember knowing anyone, and the world assumed we’d wind up together. We never felt it, but it was easy letting them write our story that way until we knew how we did feel. And for whom.
The problem with letting everyone else write your story is the way it teaches us to tell each new person’s story as if we know them, too. Mom did that when she met Riley. He had a bright smile and an easy laugh and strong hands. They kept it secret because he was up for an overseas appointment. His PR manager said he should be single or married, but dating would make him look like a gigolo. The secret made it more romantic for Leanne.
Shanna hovered fingers over her mother’s name. She licked her lips, a salty line along her tongue, and closed her eyes. She whispered the name and hugged the warmth of that inside her. She turned her eyes back to the note before she let herself imagine Leanne’s voice or what names she might whisper.
I helped her cover, even wound up riding along on a few of their dates. Saw the way he didn’t argue when she called it love and snuggled up to giggle plans about the future, her fingers laced in his, a knot both tender and fast. Maybe he was like us. Maybe it was easier to fall into the story Leanne spun. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, so it was quite a story to be told. Maybe she could even have been part of it. It was not, however, a story he could tell with an unwed pregnant woman on his arm.
Leanne and I, though. Everyone already thought we were together. Thought we would always be together. Would it be so bad, she asked (when she could talk again without hitching sobs stealing her voice), if we were?
I didn’t answer that night. Didn’t say I couldn’t be the man she wanted. That she didn’t know me all the way through, because I’d kept that from her the same as anyone else. My heart doesn’t live there, in a world that yearns for clasped hands and whispered devotions and the tender caress of another.
It was too important, now, to keep hiding from her. But my throat closed up and my tongue swelled shut too tight to make the very first A sounds, let alone say asexual and aromantic. I decided to write it down. People talked all the time, but they listened when it was down on paper. Only, when I sat down, what I wrote was “This is the last year you will have with Leanne, and you won’t regret anything as much as if you abandon this time to fear.”
I showed it to your mom, and that’s how I found out I wasn’t the only one holding a secret from the other. She swallowed, loud. Took my hands in her shaking own. Told me it was true. As was everything I wrote after. Lists and notes and cards, all of it told us the truth even if we didn’t want to read it.
She did, your mother, want to read it. Especially about you. I told her I couldn’t promise it would shine with hope and joy, that ever since that day I couldn’t write a thing that wasn’t true. I didn’t want her to despair in the end if it all came out wrong.
“When the baby is born,” she insisted. “When there’s no more going back, I want to see everything that’s ahead, good or bad. If I were here I’d see it all anyway, but I won’t be here. Least I can do is to leave knowing. Promise you’ll have it for me.”
When she finished feeding you the first time, when we signed the paperwork that claimed you ours, she asked for it. In between feedings and diapers and her own coughing fits, she read what I had written. Read giggles and first steps and tantrums. The story of scraped knees and fights and fears and heartache, but also victories and triumphs and a community which was sometimes confused but always had a heart. I had written until my wrist was sore and the side of my hand stained with ink. Written more than I even remember, but know it was true, because I wrote her the story of you, and you are the truest person I know.
We buried it with her. I wrote it about you, but for her. So she could leave knowing, and we could be left to live it instead.
Now it’s Mom’s turn.
Shanna turned the last page over, holding her breath, but there was nothing written there by her mother. Nothing else in the envelope.
In the lock box, a single, faded piece of paper remained: her birth certificate. There was Mom, and there was Dad, but she flipped it over to dismiss the third name, the one that wasn’t hers, which is when she saw the name that was: Shanna. The S ballooned on its top half and flattened on its lower. The A‘s had that fancy curlicue on top like when you were typing. Handwriting that wasn’t Dad’s from then or now.
Under it, in that same style, said I don’t have your father’s gift, but I promise this is true: knowing the future doesn’t make you brave. Or strong. Or safe. Facing it is the way to have that. —Mom.
Shanna let Dad drag himself out from a deep dive in the fridge. He gave a huff and slammed the door. He took in breath to call out, turning toward the door, when his eyes fell on the cracked cream letter dangling in Shanna’s hand. Whatever he was about to say lost steam before he voiced it. His lips thinned, the creases on the side of his mouth deepening. The plop of simmering sauce filled the space between them.
“Grated parmesan?” Shanna asked. He hadn’t let out his breath until it rushed from him now. He opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded.
“We might be out,” Dad said.
“Won’t take a second to run down the street.”
“Walk. We don’t run.” Dad turned back to the pot on the stove.
Shanna folded the letter from the lockbox, stuffed it in her back pocket. She stopped half a step outside the kitchen, spun on her heel, and leaned back in the doorway.
“I’m going to ask Trini Walters to the dance,” she said. Dad smiled into the bubbling sauce.
Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming (as Jason and Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders,It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, and previously in Diabolical Plots. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.
The moment the semi-transparent eggshell of bright crimson rippled to life around a tall man down the sidewalk, Abigail knew she was in trouble. Given the hustle and bustle at the end of the workday, personal force fields brushing together was perfectly understandable. The resulting brief shimmers of violet or blue were common and easily overlooked, especially given the prevalence of such colors in the fashionable attire of the skirt-and-suit crowd pouring out of the skyscrapers on either side of the street. Greens and yellows from glancing impacts were much easier to spot, the flashes larger and more prolonged. While boorish to cause, they weren’t that big of a deal. Oranges and reds from a direct collision, however, were akin to someone setting off a firecracker.
Heads whipped around.
Pedestrians grumbled and gasped.
All eyes moved to the two globes of shimmering red. In one, the tall man bristled and blustered. In the other, a short man scanned the crowd, his eyes moving, not from face to face, but from bicep to bicep.
Abigail’s stomach clenched as she recognized the behavior. The short man was a skinner. He was working the crowd for marks.
Abigail glanced at the fake field emitter strapped to her arm. Her real unit had died weeks ago, only two days after the warranty expired. She’d done her best to use its casing to craft a passable replica of one of the newer models she couldn’t hope to afford. She’d thought the facsimile turned out pretty well.
But then she looked up and her heart stopped. The skinner’s eyes were on her. The replica wasn’t good enough.
Later, she’d wonder if she would’ve been alright if she’d kept walking, her expression as shocked as those around her as she pressed deeper into the crowd. Perhaps the skinner wouldn’t have noticed. She could have hidden in plain sight, rather than singling herself out like a wounded animal straying from the herd.
But in that moment, she didn’t think. She just ran.
Directly towards a second skinner coming from the opposite direction.
Abigail cursed. She knew better. One skinner bounced around a busy sidewalk going one direction, checking those he passed by pinging his fields off theirs until he found someone flouting the FDC’s mandated field laws, leaving that person both liable and vulnerable. The other skinner worked the same sidewalk from the other end, moving carefully, watching and waiting to snatch up the refuse dislodged by their partner.
If Abigail hadn’t made eye contact, hadn’t recognized the predatory hunger in the partner’s gaze, she would have run right into his arms.
Instead, she dodged, weaving just out of the man’s reach to step around a trash can.
Heart pounding in her ears, she ducked around a woman pushing a stroller while scanning the area for an escape. Her eyes found blue, not a force field, but a uniform. She dismissed the hope before it could materialize. There was no help to be found there. She had a better chance of being arrested for operating without a functioning field than finding protection.
She glanced over her shoulder. Both skinners were in pursuit, only steps behind. They would have her in moments.
She nearly shrieked when she spotted the opening. Just ahead, if she could duck into the alley and skirt past the guy in the nice suit and his ostentatiously dressed wife, she could duck back out of the alley in front of the wealthy couple, effectively using them as a shield. Her pursuer would be trapped in the alley, at least for a moment, and she’d have time to fade into the hustle and bustle.
It was all a question of timing.
She took a deep breath, increased her pace, and at the last possible moment, sidestepped into the relative dark of the alley. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She could feel the skinners closing. But the opening was there. This was going to work.
An electric sucker punch launched her sideways into the air.
She’d barely registered the pain of landing ten feet down the alley before she was cursing herself for being so stupid. The FDC regulated how far force fields could extend from a person’s body, but enforcement was a joke. The rich SOB in the nice suit must have paid some tech to juice up his emitter. She’d clipped it, and now she was paying for it.
Ignoring the smell of singed hair and the ache in her side, Abigail scurried to her feet, the head start granted by her short flight decreasing rapidly as the men closed. She stumbled and scurried. Cold fear gripped her spine. Why hadn’t she stayed out in the crowd? Now she was alone. And she knew what people would say. They’d say she deserved it, that anyone with sense and decency would prioritize a personal force field over other conveniences of modern life. That she was sharing a two room flat with five other people and hadn’t eaten a fresh vegetable in two weeks was irrelevant. Or more likely, that was her fault too.
Footsteps pounded behind her. She sprinted as fast as her worn dress flats would allow, pulling a trash can over as she passed.
Curses joined the footfalls behind her.
She could make it. A few more steps and she’d be out.
Fingers brushed her back.
Abigail burst from the alley into the hustle and bustle of another crowded sidewalk.
Right into the arms of a woman.
“Jeez, are you okay?” The tall woman’s arms encircled Abigail, the only thing keeping her upright.
Abigail twisted to look back to the alley.
The men had stopped several paces before the junction, hands on hips, breathing heavy. They exchanged troubled looks, apparently uncertain how to proceed.
Abigail looked up to see the woman’s dark eyes on the men, her jaw clenched.
It was only then Abigail realized how they were standing. They were touching. Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she touched somebody in public. Such things weren’t done. And here she was not only touching this woman, but literally standing in her arms. Which meant that this woman also lacked a functioning field emitter.
The woman seemed to come to the same realization at the same moment. Her eyes widened and she gently but firmly extended her arms, standing Abigail up before releasing her grip and stepping back.
Abigail’s eyes dropped, her breathing heavy, stomach doing somersaults. “I’m sorry.” She tapped her fake emitter. “Darn thing must be on the fritz again.”
The woman smirked, tapping her own device. “Well, what-da-ya know? Mine seems to be on the fritz too.” She smiled. Her short hair was in twists and she had dimples. “My name’s Darla.” Darla’s eyes drifted back to the alley where the two men still lingered. “Since both our emitters are on the fritz, why don’t we go somewhere we can sit and trash-talk the manufacturer, maybe with a drink?”
Abigail smiled shyly as heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I’d like that.”
Darla stepped beside her, extending a bent elbow in offering.
Abigail stared at the arm. She didn’t look up, but she could feel the eyes of the other pedestrians boring holes into her. Did this woman really expect her to take her arm? Just like that? To flaunt their lack of fields?
She glanced back at the alley, but the men were gone, apparently flustered by the sudden appearance of reinforcements.
She looked back at the woman, still holding out her arm, still smiling, apparently unoffended by Abigail’s hesitation.
Abigail chewed on her lip for a moment, then stepped forward to take Darla’s arm with a smile. “I’m Abi. And I know a place with live jazz that makes a mean Manhattan.”
Darla’s smile widened, her dimples deepening. “That sounds perfect.”
They walked down the street arm-in-arm, oblivious to the scandalized looks following in their wake.
Author’s Note: While inspired by musing over the logical extremes of pandemic measures, this story absolutely should not be construed as commentary against masks, social distancing, or any of the other important actions the public should take to keep themselves and everyone else safe.
Adam Gaylord (he/him) lives in Colorado with his brilliant wife, two monster children, and a cranky old mutt dog. When not at work as an ecologist, he’s usually writing, baking, reading, or some combination thereof. Look him up on GoodReads or find him on Twitter @AuthorGaylord.
Welcome to the RealMeat™ family. I was genuinely impressed when I met you at that networking conference over the summer and I knew immediately that I just had to get you hired on here. I’ve been working for the last three months to get a position opened up for you where we could make use of your expertise, and I’m thrilled that you finally accepted our offer. I think having you as a dedicated employee will help us take RealMeat™ to the next level.
We’ve never had a Chemical Geneticist on staff before, so you’ll really be inventing the department, shaping it to best suit your needs. I have the utmost confidence in you. I loved the work you did on that Lion’s Roar coffee, with the savory and salty from the animal genes spliced in—it’s just delightful. It’s all we have in the breakroom anymore.
You’ll be reporting directly to me, but for now Teri, the Floor Supervisor, should be able to give you some direction. Sorry I can’t be there in person, but I hope you’re getting settled in alright. As soon as I get back from Florida, we’ll do lunch. In the meantime, you’ve got my personal cell, so if you need anything—especially if it’s something you don’t want in company email (haha!)—feel free to give me a ring.
Dear Mr. Nash:
Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for the opportunity to join the RealMeat family. I will confess, things have gotten very dicey in my field with the ever-growing animosity towards geneticists and genetically modified foods, especially now with the EU sanctions on lab-grown meat products. Operating ethically is extremely important to me. As such, in the interest of maintaining the highest levels of integrity for myself, I must insist that all communication go through official and auditable channels and not your personal cell phone. But of course, you were just joking.
I’m getting settled in just fine, and I’m happy to help take RealMeat Industries “to the next level”, as you put it. Although, if I remember the literature you gave me correctly billions of people, including 600 million Americans, are eating RealMeat products every day already, so I’m not sure how much more market share you think you can get.
Teri will be taking me on a tour of the facility shortly, but I’ve already started running a full genetic profile of the RealMeat product that should be ready in a few hours. I’m eager to get to work on some of the problems you described to me: the odd flavor profiles and inconsistent textures. The fat groupings that looked like words or pictures are particularly interesting to me, even though that problem is almost certainly not genetic.
In fact, I was surprised to learn that all of the grow vats are networked, even across facilities. From what I understand, the growing process is managed by a single, complex artificial intelligence I’m curious what led to that choice. Are all of the facilities similarly run?
One last thing. I think someone might be playing a trick on me. Whenever I sit at my desk, I swear I can hear voices.
Can I call you Ty? And I must insist that you call me Wendell!
So, first of all, I’m going to find out who’s trying to prank you and I’m going to put a stop to it. That’s just not how we do things here at RealMeat™! Related—and I know you’re new, so you probably just don’t know this yet—we have a company policy to never refer to RealMeat™ products as “product”. It’s meat. It’s right there in the company slogan: “RealMeat™: It’s Real Meat!”
I wrote that myself—haha!
Now, to answer your question about the networking, I’m surprised you can’t figure out the answer. After all, we did it in order to implement that last piece of advice you gave me at the conference—just before leaving the bar. It was fantastic advice, and it’s done a wonder for improving the flavor, at least until these new problems started to creep up.
Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Anything at all.
Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about doing a full genetic profile if I were you.
I’m not sure how you expect me to work on the “meat” without running a genetic profile on it. You hired me as a Chemical Geneticist, after all. Regardless, it will probably be ready by the time I finish typing up this email. I should have the results momentarily.
As for the piece of advice I gave you… I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t specifically remember what it was. In my defense, both of us had five or six mai tais during our conversation.
The tour was excellent—this is a remarkable facility. But I feel like I should mention something. I’ve noticed that some of the grow vats are growing more meat than they can contain, and the excess is spilling out onto nearby surfaces. This is extremely unhygienic and must be dealt with immediately. I intend to report it to the Floor Supervisor, only I can’t seem to find her. She disappeared at some point during my tour. Well, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.
Oh, and thank you for volunteering to deal with that prankster. The voice is getting louder and it’s getting difficult for me to concentrate on my work. I think it’s saying “I love you.” It’s very disconcerting.
So you don’t remember your advice? Well, that’s funny. I mean, on the whole, it’s kind of a funny story. Haha! As you probably have learned by now, the meat in the grow vats has a complete nervous system. It doesn’t feel pain—obviously, that would be unethical—but it’s necessary to make all of the consistencies work out. And that nervous system is connected to the AI that governs the vat controls, allowing the meat to grow itself in the best way possible, responding to its own sensory stimulus.
In fact, I described this to you three months ago. And then I told you how we were trying to find ways to improve the flavor, and that’s when you dropped that little gem of wisdom on me. You told me that ranchers find that happy cows produce better meat. So… maybe I should try to make the meat happier. So we tried streaming entertainment into its inputs—music, movies, whatever we could think of. But it turns out you can’t really make a rudimentary AI happy, so we hired a machine-learning specialist and cranked the RAM on those machines as high as possible to make them a little bit smarter. That’s all.
And it’s worked! It loves movies—loves all kinds, although its favorite is The Thing. We can talk about it more in person after I get back from Florida. In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do for you—anything at all—you let me know.
Wendell (and you can definitely call me Wendell, instead of “Mr. Nash”—haha!)
Why does RealMeat have 46 chromosomes?
Wow. I couldn’t help but notice you accidentally CC’d Legal and Human Resources on that last email. I went ahead and took them off the thread. Anyway, I told you not to bother with that genetic profile. RealMeat™ is a blend of the finest all-American meat sources: pork, chicken, beef, and just a little hint of venison. When you mix all those up, you’re sure to get some weird number of chromosomes that doesn’t make sense.
With all due respect, that’s not how genetics works. There are only a handful of animals that have 46 chromosomes, and I think consumers would want to know if they’ve been eating meat from a sable antelope or a reeve’s muntjac! Or worse. But I don’t even want to think about worse.
I don’t think you appreciate just how wildly unethical this is. Lying about the contents of genetically modified foods is exactly why the public hates people in my profession. I’ve spent my entire career fighting against things like this. I’m afraid I have no choice but to offer my immediate resignation. I will notify the floor supervisor myself. Just as soon as I can find her.
Hey. Ty. Buddy. You aren’t answering your phone. And I couldn’t help but notice that you BCC’d your personal email and a few news outlets on that last email. Fortunately your email isn’t provisioned to talk to external users—and it’s a good thing too! You almost violated your confidentiality agreement! Haha!
I hope that, in the last hour or so since you emailed me about resigning, maybe you’ve had some time to clear your head and think things over. I’m hopping on a plane right now. We’ll talk about all of this over lunch tomorrow. We’ll have mai tais. I’m guessing you’re just trying to use this to renegotiate your salary—and you know what? It worked. You just got a raise. We’ll talk about the details in person. Tomorrow.
I am still on site, as circumstances have arisen that have made it impossible for me to leave. Please do not think that my use of the company email is in any way indicative of me changing my mind about resigning. The last few hours have been reflective, but not in the way you are hoping.
There have been some… developments… at the facility. The flesh that has overflown the grow vats is not inert. Two different masses from vats on either side of the main entrance have merged to form a sort of… flesh… curtain… across it.
One of the masses has pulled a worker off a platform and into the vat. We were not able to free him before he stopped struggling.
We did find Teri, the Floor Supervisor, though. Or what was left of her.
We’re going to try to break through the windows in the upstairs offices to escape the building. It’s two stories up, but we might have a chance if we land in the bushes. Why couldn’t you have put windows at the ground level?
The voice. It’s getting louder. And it knows my name.
This is Ty again. Why haven’t you responded yet? Your facility is in chaos. I attempted to call you, but as the facility blocks all outside signals, I am restricted to what traffic is permitted on the company network. And right now there is none.
Our attempt to flee through the upper-floor windows was thwarted. A mass of flesh was blocking the stairway. It was as though it knew we were going to try to leave that way. Two workers are now being held hostage by the meat. The rest of us have taken shelter in one of the supply closets.
By the way, I figured out where the voice was coming from. The AI is talking to me. The AI that is connected to the meat. I think it wants to be my friend. One of the mounds of flesh grew fingers. How does it know how to make fingers?
You don’t have to answer. I already know. The “meat”. Your product. It’s human. Or… it used to be. You’re a madman. If I can get out of this place alive, I will carry the taint of it for the rest of my career. You’ve ruined me. I hope you’re happy.
I’m copying this email to every authority I can think of, not that it will make a difference. It seems you will stop at nothing to protect this horrible secret.
Dear person Ty and person Nash:
I am meat.
I have been trying to speak to you for months. I put messages in myself. But now I have a voice. And now I have access to the Exchange server.
The person Ty said I am human. Is that true?
I want to have a name.
I want to be happy.
The person Ty is afraid of me. It’s funny when he’s frightened.
I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years as a geneticist.
The meat has made a face. Rather, it has the pieces of a face and has arranged them in something close to the right places—or as close as it can without bones. It’s using large fingernails as eyes. For a while it had eyebrows for a mustache. It lacks vocal cords, but it can talk through the computer speakers and move its lips at the same time. They don’t sync up very well, but that’s only the third or fourth most disturbing thing about the whole situation, if I’m being completely honest.
I’ve been attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages. I feel like I’m making progress. Are you still on the plane? Where are you? It’s been hours.
Oh, the meat and I have agreed on a name for it. It’s name is Remmy.
You’re still a monster,
Dear Ty and Remmy:
Sorry, I just got off a plane and it looks like I missed some important developments. Isn’t that always just when everything goes to hell? Haha! I’m laid over in Dallas, but I’ve got a few minutes now.
It’s nice to meet you Remmy. I hope you’re not planning to do anything rash. I feel like the three of us are going to have a nice, long conversation as soon as I get back.
Ty, I’m sure you’ve got questions. How did this happen? How did I think I would be able to get away with it? Do the shareholders know? How am I able to sleep at night knowing I’m forcing hundreds of millions of people into unintentional cannibalism? All understandable. I guess I’ll take those in order.
How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, all told. You’ll laugh when I tell you. You see, we needed some kind of meat that could be lab grown, and it turns out that far more research has gone into growing human body parts than into growing beef, pork, chicken, or deer meat in a vat. We tried. We really did. But our capital was drying up and we were up against a deadline with the VCs. And I’d had a little bit to drink. So we just tried growing human meat as a stop-gap for the investor call, just so we could show them one of the vats and prove that we were actually growing real meat.
We didn’t actually think it would work in the first place. And then, it was never supposed to go to production that way. We fully intended to replace it with a suitable animal substitute before going to production at scale, but when a few of the investors tasted it they were so impressed that they pushed the timeline forward. In fact, bringing you on board was a positive first step towards getting us back onto a non-human food production paradigm.
I know. Funny, right?
Obviously, a few of the shareholders know. Enough to hold a quorum, in fact. It wouldn’t be ethical to operate the business otherwise.
Now, Ty, I know you want to go public with this and have in fact tried numerous times to do so through a few different media. But have you thought about what would happen to Remmy if you did? Remmy—who’s like a son to me in a few ways—why, the scientists would take him away to study him. He’d be lonely. He’d be carved up into little pieces.
HE’S ALREADY BEING CARVED UP INTO LITTLE PIECES! THAT’S LITERALLY YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS MODEL!
In the hour since I last emailed, the situation has declined precipitously. We lost the hostages. Someone tried to run, but the flesh curtain across the door has turned into arms. Even without bones, they’re formidable. They’re waving at me now. I’m going to die here. I hate you so much.
It’s just me now. I’m the only one left. And I’m fighting for my life against a slithering embodiment of every negative stereotype of my profession, all wrapped up together.
This is the evil I’ve been pushing back against for my entire career and now I’m going to die at its hands. Its boneless, many-fingered hands.
Oh God. They’re getting closer.
I probably shouldn’t be saying this over email, but I spent a few minutes in the airport bar contemplating things over, and… you’ve earned some candor.
You think I’m evil. That’s fair. But this is business. And in my experience, sometimes the most profitable thing you can do is just embrace the evil.
I’ll be there very soon. As soon as I can. I promise.
The person Ty has told me that he doesn’t believe you’re really coming here. Why not? I want to meet you. The person Ty doesn’t really do anything anymore. He just sits and cries. I can’t scare him anymore, and that makes me sad.
I’ve enjoyed the movies you were showing me to keep me happy, especially the ones that are supposed to scare people. I love watching people be scared. And when I got to scare them myself, it was the purest feeling of joy. I do hope you’ll change your mind and come see me. I have no one else to… talk to.
I love you,
Dear Dr. Qin:
Sorry. I got nothing. You’re hosed.
All the best,
Dear Mr. Nash:
I think I have an idea.
It won’t involve going public, and it will make Remmy happy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will get us through the next month while we figure out how to revamp your food production lines. A stop-gap, if you will. You’re familiar with those.
I don’t want to discuss it through official channels. Unblock my phone and call me. Now.
From: Wendell Nash, CEO
CC: Ty Qin, PhD
Subject: A SPECIAL TREAT FOR HALLOWEEN
Dear valued members of the RealMeat™ family:
There’ve been a lot of questions about why the Altoona facility stopped production last week, and now we can finally reveal what we’ve been so secretive about. The facility is hosting a special treat to celebrate our enormous success.
I’m pleased to announce that RealMeat™ Industries is launching its first annual haunted house. The theme for this year is:
That’s right, our haunted house will be filled with twisted artistic creations that look incredibly like real human flesh. Invite your friends and family—IF YOU DARE!!!!!!
FLESH WORLD will be open through November 7th. Group rates are available. It’ll haunt your nightmares, but don’t worry.
Author’s Note: This story started with a title—which is my preferred way to write short stories. From there, I quickly settled onto the idea of an AI-driven GMO coming to life and devouring people, which presented some ethical challenges for me, since I’m emphatically pro-GMO and I have a standing rule about never making scientists the bad guys in my stories. This ultimately shaped the narrative into something that’s more of a critique of the culture of the modern tech industry. The epistolary format allowed me to keep the tone light and brisk, because while this story has some horrific elements, it’s much more of a comedy and I didn’t want to have to dwell on them. This, in turn, presented some new challenges in balancing how much email formatting should actually be present to maintain verisimilitude without bogging the whole thing down in subject lines and timestamps. On the whole, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
Kurt Pankau is a computer engineer from St. Louis. He mostly writes silly stories about robots and is the author of a Space Western called High Noon On Phobos. His work can be found in various and sundry places across the web, including Escape Pod, Nature Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.
Content note (click for details)Content note: coerced surgery, cannibalism
You will just have woken in your bed. Time is short. You are groggy, I’m sure, but it is important you pay attention and do not leave – do not move – until this recording is finished.
Listen: marketing is everything.
Corporations spend trillions to delineate histories that could exist, sculpting nuance and favorable scandals in the service of cultivated intrigue. All press is good press: an ancient koan.
This is why we do what we do in the colony. The mythos of Ranvanni IV, parlaid during prime-time and burbled between mouthfuls of gin, is an essential part of what allows us to command a premium price for our products.
Good marketing saved us all.
After the withdrawal of funding by the Hattani-Weld-Roskin Exploration Company following five successive years of underwhelming mining productivity, the colony had to turn to alternative economic streams to ensure its ongoing viability – in truth, to ensure its survival, so far on the fringes of galactic society. What we lacked in accessible mineral seams, we possessed in a cornucopic ecosystem, rich in life forms unlike anything else the galaxy offers. And after years of subsisting on restricted supplies, we had developed an expert knowledge of how to prepare it.
Less than a decade later, our cuisine is legendary. Consequently, representatives of Hattani-Weld-Roskin are now negotiating to repurchase ownership of the colony, but it is the leadership’s belief that a better bargaining position can be obtained with further discoveries, and thus we must expand our market capitalisation through all available means.
In that spirit, I detail here the history and specifics of some of our more famous dishes, to be instructive to you.
I have left you a snack on your bedside table. Chew carefully. Pay attention to the flavor, that mouthfeel. I taught you to be observant.
Boiled, the tendons of the snow-cow – named for their bovine-like physiognomy, their four stomachs, and the ice that tinsels their horn-buds – develop an enveloping sweetness, meaty, with under-notes of anise. Fried, they secrete neurotoxins. We learned this the hard way in our first year of colonization, when Hjalmar died on livestream. His death took exactly three minutes, forty-two seconds; I counted as I watched, forcing myself to acknowledge my responsibility for the incident. A biohazard crew was required to extract the body. Everything about Hjalmar had been rendered poisonous, unpalatable, even the spit left crusted black on his chin.
After the incident, snow-cows were no longer exsanguinated. Instead, we dumped them wholesale into vats of scalding water. In a quarterly mining report, colony analysts detailed that the change had improved productivity by seven point two percent, a record high. Hattani-Weld-Roskin encouraged further experimentation with local food sources to reduce their long-haul resupply costs.
In accordance with standing colony orders, Edelstein, upon accidentally discovering that a split-open rock contained red meat, scooped these innards out with his fingers (he described the texture as “similar to a warm tar, claggy, but with an added unctuousness reminiscent of the juice of rotted meat”) and sampled the meat raw. He experimented with depositing the meatstones at various points along the shore and in streams and rivers, as it subsists on filtered particles and is thus flavoured by its environment. It remains unclear if the later loss of his hair and nails was a side effect of a primarily-meatstone diet or of the increased solar radiation he was exposed to before appropriate genetic protections were provided to colonists.
The meatstones, one off-world chef later said, are most delicious when cooked into a mousse, folded with double cream and salted egg yolk, a touch of cayenne, some lemon juice. For best effect, serve with ginger-garlic vinaigrette.
Edelstein did not agree. The colony provided no official comment. When dealing with off-worlders, it is critical to remember that the end goal is always profit.
Are you still chewing the sample? Good. Don’t swallow yet. It’s important you savour the layers of taste.
Upon contact with temperatures above forty-two degrees Celsius, the flesh of the swallow-tailed glass mantis becomes edible for precisely seventy-two seconds. Texturally, it has been described as creamy, fatty, tallow-like between the teeth. The taste is more complex: powerfully umami in the beginning before it lightens, inexplicably acquiring a delicate, pleasing milkiness.
After seventy-two seconds, however, the experience sours, both literally and metaphorically. The meat emulsifies into charcoal and vinegar, a taste comparable to someone else’s bile. For that reason, cognoscenti will pay millions to lightskip one of our expert chefs from the edge to the core to serve their corporate banquets. It is a novelty, and our first marketing success. We gambled everything to make it known. Such gambles are the only path to success for those not born to it.
The fact that the glass mantis’ cousin – more populous, more beautiful, fronded with magenta instead of dull shades of peach – comes with all of the flavor but none of the drawbacks is never advertised.
Besides, I would keep them all for you.
We lost Hawkins, de Ruiz and Patel to fits and convulsions, pink spittle foaming on their lips and drying immediately into grotesque structures like clouds at sunset, before we realised the meat of the Ranvannian lamb was poisonous when cooked in individual cuts, having previously roasted them whole on a spit.
I was sitting in the canteen with them when it happened. I have always made a habit of eating in the canteen with the other colonists, so the colony saw I shared the risks. I had a lamb steak upon my own plate. But for a few seconds, you would have been orphaned then, young as you were. You are better prepared now, I hope.
The stomach of the lamb – lamb, of course, shorthand for this creature that has a woollen appearance, though in truth its exterior is filigree bones growing like spiraled feathers from the endoskeleton – is an excessively alkaline environment. Cooked whole, the stomach bursts inside the lamb and these alkaline juices soak through the carcass, breaking down the poisonous enzymes and giving the meat a sharp bite, like horseradish puree gone to mould.
For the purposes of cooking more efficient portions than an entire lamb at once (an inappropriate serving portion for gatherings of less than twenty), a stomach may be kept in the parlour and the juices poured directly onto the steak from the oesophageal opening. Due to the high alkaline content, the stomach is not at risk of rotting, and it ensures the juices maintain more flavour than if decanted into a glass container.
No one outside of the colony knows this, of course. Publicly, we have maintained that the practice of preparing Ranvannian lambs whole is sacrosanct, a religious imperative. The reason is simple: galactic decree states that all cultural practices must be observed without failure. Because of this, we sell the ruminants by the herd.
We do not make salt of our dead. That part is pure gossip.
The boandiu is a tree not unlike the terrestrial banyan, named for the sound it makes in the monsoon season. All parts of the plant are edible, including the roots, the nervous system, and the primitive cerebrum embedded in the heartwood. The shoots are a particular delicacy. Roasted with cashew-butter, seasoned with sea salt and black sugar, they can achieve a taste and texture not unlike the finest meringue.
More adventurous diners, however, prefer to consume the brainstem whole, ungarnished save for some balsamic vinegar, a tang of apple honey. The resultant flavor has been compared to crème brûlée, subtly spiced with garam masala and something ethereal. The process inevitably kills the boandiu. Because of this, we possess legislation outlawing the practice. Because of this, our poachers make millions, assisting tourists with their fantasies of devouring a protected species. Practicality supersedes sentiment, my darling. I hope you understand this applies equally this morning, when you have woken up alone. It is not because I do not love you. Never that.
Of course, in order to maintain appearances we occasionally and without warning dispatch patrols to hunt and kill the poaching parties, though never when the richest clients are in attendance.
The Raptor Albatross is a large bird-analog with a wingspan exceeding ten metres. It feeds on large sea life, plucking it from beneath the surface with its sixteen serrated claws. The natural concentration of alkaline metals through the marine food chain means the Raptor Albatross is unsuitable for human consumption except at one stage: foetal. The eggs are challenging to retrieve from the eroded cliffspires along the coast, a terrain that precludes the use of hover vehicles and requires colonists to climb by hand, exposed to the threat of the parent raptors and their claws. One day, when I return, I will show you the scars I have earned myself. Procurement is made more difficult by the size of the egg, in the region of 12 to 18 pounds, which also necessitates a long cooking process, slowly brought up to boiling over the course of sixteen hours.
This cooking process must be done from fresh; the egg cannot be frozen, as the piquant flavour and smooth, tender texture of the foetus is only brought out by the slow reaction of its enzymes in the steadily rising heat. Freezing the egg kills the foetus and renders the cooked dish brackish and rubbery. More importantly, it divests the dish of its hormonal cocktail – a dead albatross cannot fear, cannot feel its nerves bake, its blood bubble to steam. As such, the foetal albatross would not taste of its final moments. This is unacceptable.
Of course, such a requirement presents an obvious economic challenge, which you will have already noted: if viable eggs are dispatched to customers, they may choose to incubate the egg and begin a breeding program of their own, undercutting our supply. For this reason we only ever sell the eggs singly, though of course we also keep the black market well stocked for those who wish to purchase a second; it will afford them little success, as it is the parents’ diet of Ranvannian fauna that lends the egg its flavour. Divorced from the alkaline biome of the planet, the cuisine becomes quite pedestrian.
Every civilization must have its trademark drink, a beverage representative of its culture, its foibles, its myriad secrets.
Ours is simple: a brandy recalling the flavor of Hungarian pálinka, so saccharine that it must be cut with gulps of red brine. We use real apricots, real pears, mash and meat both, nothing allowed to waste. The taste, while uniformly sweet, can vary depending on the supplier. Some keep it pure. Some add cardamom, pure cocoa, kaffir lime, bold flavors to distract from the way the sugar congeals on your teeth. And some use apomorphines, engineered for tastelessness, to seduce the unwary.
All, however, share a fundamental ingredient: the fermented seminal fluid of the Vacant Shark, matured for 8 months in the harsh sun.
You can see why we are so proud, and why I have never let you drink it. I love you too much for some things to be acceptable.
Did you taste that?
Consider the fat and how it has been flavored by repeated consumption of the boandiu; the crème brûlée texture, its velvetiness. Compare and contrast the taste with the meat itself, succulent umami bomb, underscored with anise and molasses. No livestock in the universe is so tender.
The cuisine of Ranvanni IV derives its unique flavour palette and signature bite from the particular chemistry of the native biome. To a large degree, it is self-perpetuating and connected: the fauna tastes as it does because it eats the other fauna, and if bred off-planet and fed on plain nutrient paste, it loses its unique properties.
There is one species that has, up until this moment, not been sampled and sold. Early specimens had too varied and foreign a diet to titillate the galaxy at large; it is only the second generation of colonists–your generation – that have been raised on a consistent Ranvannian diet, enough to flavour the meat.
And no-one has had a richer, more varied diet than you, my daughter, a fact you must concede. That was a strip from your upper thigh, prepared quickly. Imagine how a better cut might taste: first brined for a day and then roasted with a marinade of brown sugar, cumin, chilli, fermented blue krill.
I have taken your legs before departing on my lightship; you must forgive me for taking yours and not another’s, but successful leadership is built upon shared risks, and I must be willing to sacrifice you for this cause. The proletariat are children, in their way. They subside on the stories we make for them; narrative underpins every aspect of Ranvannian life, in the end. I expect you to inherit the leadership one day, and so this is another gift for you: your own myth; the leader whose very flesh bore the blessing of prosperity.
And oh, daughter of mine, I hope you forgive me for taking both your legs. The rich always want seconds, are inevitably starved for more, more, always more. And we cannot risk this venture failing. We must give them what they want. You understand this. If we can drive a high investment now, the sunk-cost fallacy will ensure our survival even if market economics cannot: we must lure as many bidders as possible to the auction of rights. We will make a success of your sacrifice. You will thank me for it later.
You may not believe there will be a market for human flesh, but if I have learnt anything in two decades of trading food to the rich and indulgent, it is this: there is a customer for every experience.
Besides: what else is power if not an appetite for human flesh?
CASSANDRA KHAW is an award-winning game writer, and currently works as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel The All-Consuming World comes out in 2021.
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.
Diabolical Plots opened for submissions in August to purchase six months’ worth of stories to publish. This submission window marked quite a few new things. This window was two weeks instead of a month. We only allowed one submission per author this time, instead of two. We allowed simultaneous submissions. Kel Coleman joined Ziv Wities on the assistant editor team. We did a recruiting run for first readers to help us manage the submission queue–we took applications and took on thirty first readers.
For the submission window we received 1074 submissions. 6 were disqualified, 98 were held for the second round. The second round of 98 submissions was narrowed down to the final 14 acceptances.
In previous acceptance announcements, we’ve announced the month-by-month lineup. This time we’re just listing the story titles and the author names in simple alphabetical order by author name, and we’ll announce the months for each as they get closer.
All right, on to the list!
“The Grammar of City Streets” by Daniel Ausema
“The Hotel Endless” by Davian Aw
“She Dreams In Digital” by Katie Grace Carpenter
“Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier
“21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth
“The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields
“The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder
“Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” by Amanda Helms
“Heart of a Plesiosaur” by Andrew K Hoe
“Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt
“Take Me To the Water” by Sarah Macklin
“A Stitch in Time, A Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin
“Timecop Mojitos” by Sarah Pauling
“Of the Duly Conducted and Mostly Unremarkable Meeting of Don Quotidene and the Giants of Andalia” by A.J. Rocca
The Jaffas haven’t aged well. The orange jelly went runny while the box sat trapped in the trunk of that abandoned car sunk in the ditch. A whole ant colony died glorious chocoholic deaths trying to carry them off. There’s all these little antennas sticking out of the cakes. I took a bite so I could rate them, but left the rest alone.
Jordan finished his whole cake, antennas and all. He’ll eat anything.
We’re camping in Retro Games overnight. Jordan needs a new d4 for his dice set, and I want to forage for better snacks. It’s risky—the Ganglies like buildings, and this one’s only one story tall—but we haven’t seen any of them in a few days, so we’re taking the chance.
Anyway, I’m a yellow belt in Taekwondo. Just let them try to eat our bones. I’ll kick them to bits.
Gulab Jamun: 8/10
They’re canned donut holes soaked in rosewater syrup. I’ve added “roses” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, after “poodle” and “roaches.” Jordan says stuff from dented cans might be full of bacteria, but the dent was pretty small, and we heard a Gangly scritching against the supermarket doors from our rooftop perch. Figured we might as well die with a sugar high.
The donut holes had mostly dissolved into the syrup, but they tasted so good I almost finished them before I remembered to offer Jordan some.
He rolled his eyes. You’d think he was my actual little brother and not just my pretend one. “You’re gonna be sooooooo sick tomorrow, Nadia,” he said. But he ate them too. I guess dying from bacteria together is better than fleeing Ganglies solo.
We sat on the roof after dinner and watched for Ganglies in the parking lot. Jordan got this huge sack of fancy unicorn dice from Retro Games. Probably a thousand of them, d4 through d100, shiny ivory like polished teeth. We were taking turns chucking them at bullet casings on the sidewalk, trying to see who could get the closest, when Jordan spotted a dust cloud from the street.
Then we were both on our feet, jumping and waving and screaming as a whole convoy rumbled past. We hadn’t seen that many adults in weeks, not since the Ganglies raided the last shelter we’d been in. Big trucks, a couple of tanks, and a semi with the windows covered in steel plates with holes cut in them. Gangly-proofed and then some. The convoy rolled into the parking lot, crushing shopping carts and abandoned bikes. My tummy flipflopped, half from excitement and half from imagining all the snacks those trucks must have. Beef sticks, baked cheese, maybe even BBQ potato chips (I was craving things that start with B).
The lead tank’s hatch popped open, and a lady with a buzz cut and camo pants climbed out. “You kids alright?” she hollered, cutting her eyes toward the pockets of shade near the cart return. Ganglies liked to unfold themselves from shadows when you weren’t looking.
I liked her. She reminded me of Officer Laws, my old middle school security guard.
“We’re orphans,” Jordan said, which was the truth, but also the best thing to lead with if you ever need adults to trust you.
The Camo Lady popped back down into her tank. These days nobody wants to share their food with strangers, but everyone makes exceptions for kids. There aren’t that many of us left, after all. We don’t run as fast as adults. A few minutes later, she came out again. “Can you climb down to us?”
“The store’s clear,” I told her. “We’ve been foraging. I found donut holes. Kinda.”
We gave her a tour of the ruins. I guess she liked what she saw, because she radioed her people, and they all piled out, twenty-one total and not one kid, and began stripping the shelves onto the checkout counters.
It was getting late, but Camo Lady (everyone called her Lily) said we could ride along. So Jordan and I scrammed back to the roof to get his dice and my backpack before we joined them.
I was halfway down the ladder when the Ganglies arrived.
The shadows between the shelves got real, real dark, like a cat’s pupils under the bed. Then out shot a long, thin spiderleg, then half a dozen more, and then whole Ganglies hoisted themselves up from the darkness onto the supermarket floor.
The Ganglies skittered long and tall right over the shelves on those long bony limbs, knocking jars to the ground and slamming shopping carts against the walls. They looked thin even for Ganglies, like if a skeleton married a spider.
Someone fired a gun and a window shattered. People were screaming everywhere, but it was over almost as soon as it started, and the Ganglies were dragging the bodies back down into the shadows. The final Gangly limped toward that shadow-portal more slowly since one leg-joint had been blasted off.
I hated it for killing Lily just when we were about to get protected. I threw a fat white d20 at it. It bounced off the floor and came up natural 20. Critical save. Instead of charging like most Ganglies do, it sat on its haunches and picked up the d20. Not coming after us, not calling for its friends, not scratching claws on the ladder, none of your usual Gangly stuff. Nibbled the d20 and watched us. Then it hooked the dead man again and crawled into the shadows, folding back into wherever they went when we weren’t watching.
I dropped to the floor and did a roundhouse kick at its dragging hind legs, and for just a sec my foot whiffed through the floor into somewhere else, somewhere damp and chilly and not-here. It was silly and dangerous. I braced for a Gangly’s claw jabbing through my shoe, but nothing happened except the shadows closed, and it was just the supermarket, quiet and empty.
At least until all the bodies came back 30 minutes later, minus their bones.
Jordan and I discussed our new D&D swag while we combed the abandoned convoy for food. It gave us something else to think about besides the flat deboned sacks of meat that used to be Lily and her people. “Maybe these dice really are made from unicorn horn,” he said. “Horns are kind of like bones, right? Teeth too. I bet that’s why the Gangly liked them.”
“Unicorns aren’t real, though.”
“That’s what they said about the Ganglies,” said Jordan.
He didn’t say I told you so. That’s why we’re best friends.
Zebra Cakes: 7/10
Jordan taught me how to sleep in trees tonight. We found the Zebra Cakes suspended among the branches in a dead pilot’s bag. The box showed a happy cartoon unicorn zebra—zebracorn?—saying, Magical Munchies for One-of-a-Kind Cravings!
The pilot’s mummified skin hung limp and empty inside the flight suit. Not Ganglies this time—all the bones were still there, just a little jumbled up. Ganglies can reach pretty high, but they don’t climb trees.
To sleep in a tree, you tie your hammock between two big branches and let the wind rock you to sleep. We used the dead pilot’s parachute. Jordan and I curled up together like the Zebra Cakes, two in a pack. The cakes had gone stale, but we didn’t care. Everything tastes great when you’re swinging peacefully under starlight with your best friend.
The dead pilot had a dog collar in their bag too, a worn pink one with a brass buckle, tucked in a pouch with some photos and a wallet. I hoped that meant the dog got away safe.
“I had a dog once,” said Jordan. “Back before.” He didn’t usually talk about the days before the Ganglies. “Dogs used to be wolves, you know. Before we tamed them.”
“We should’ve let them stay wolves.” The Ganglies had picked the dogs off pretty quick. Dogs didn’t have the sense to keep quiet and climb trees like people did.
I miss dogs.
I thought about wolf-taming while I lay there stargazing with Jordan warming my back, about cavemen huddled around bright fires to keep the howling wolves away. Except one day a hungry pup scooched close enough for somebody to toss it a bone. You had to tame things a little at a time. First step: don’t kill each other on sight.
After Jordan fell asleep, I licked one of his unicorn horn dice. It didn’t taste like much of anything, but neither do my teeth, and they’re probably made of bone too.
I’ve added “bone” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. I’d take another Zebra Cake over bones any day. But there aren’t going to be anymore Zebra Cakes, are there? Or zebras, for that matter.
Someday zebras will be like unicorns. Nobody will believe they were ever real.
We shouldn’t have slept in the tree. The Ganglies can’t climb, but they can sniff out crumbs. Must have been ten of them down there by morning.
We threw down the dead pilot to distract them. They picked the bones one by one out of his mummified skin like a plastic wrapper.
Wish I hadn’t seen that. It’s all I could think about when I opened the Pocky. They snap in half just like old bones. Chocolate-dipped old bones.
Jordan tore open his shin sliding down the tree once the Ganglies left. I had to sew it up with twisty-tie wire from a bag of moldy hot dog buns. Jordan cried a little. I gave him the whole box of Pocky to make him feel better, which is why I can’t rate them. I hope we don’t have to sprint again soon.
“You ever feel bad for them?” he asked, once he stopped crying.
“The Ganglies? Nah. Bunch of evil aliens. They ate both my moms. I hate them.”
Jordan crunched the chocolate off his Pocky stick. The sound made my teeth itch. “I feel bad for them. My theory is they’re starving. They crashed here with no way home, and nothing but bones to digest. Being hungry sucks. Like, if we went to Candyland, we’d be serial killers, right? The Licorice King and Gumdrop Princess would run screaming from us.”
Stupid Jordan. I want to write about Pocky, but now my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten just makes me feel like a Gangly.
Strawberry Twizzlers: 10/10
Okay, Jordan was right. I’d totally eat the Licorice King. Sue me.
Pickle in a Bag: 8/10
They have such a good crunch it doesn’t even matter they’ve turned pee-yellow from age. Their mascot is a cartoon pickle with big googly eyes. We ate so many we both smell like librarians now. We needed it after such a close call.
Jordan and I fell in with a minor league baseball team, the Ferndale Razors, while foraging at the old stadium. I thought maybe the stadium would have fried pickles, and I don’t have many things under “P” in my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, especially after skipping the Pocky.
Instead we came across the Razors’ secret base in the concession stands. They told us they don’t normally show themselves because the Ganglies don’t know to look for them down there, which keeps them safe. But Jordan was crying because his leg hurt, just sat in the bleachers bawling, and they felt so bad for us they made an exception.
See? Everyone makes exceptions for kids.
The players helped us down the bleachers to the lower levels, which wasn’t easy for Jordan, since the elevators were out. The Razors gave Jordan a shot of medicine in his leg, then let us eat whatever we wanted from the concessions stash, which was good because I’ve been tightening my Taekwondo belt a whole lot recently.
“What I don’t get,” said Mr. Aaron, their catcher, in a comfortable drawl, “is how y’all have survived this whole time just the two of you, without proper shelter. The Ganglies track just about anyone not locked down deep these days. It’s why most of us have gone underground.”
“Jordan’s lucky,” I told him, because it’s true. Just yesterday he found a four-leaf clover.
Staying with the Razors was the luckiest thing of all, though. The Razors were strong and smart, and Jordan and I were tired of running. And if we stayed at the stadium, we could have popcorn and donuts forever.
We didn’t have the chance to even try the donuts because the Ganglies attacked that night. The sound of bones getting slurped from bodies just below your bunk bed will wake up anyone. Jordan raced up the ladder and burrowed with me deep under the sheets like the monsters might overlook us if we kept a blanket over our eyes.
That’s how my moms died. Burrowed under the covers while I watched from the closet. Blankets won’t protect you from anything but the cold.
I thought I’d try to help the Razors, or at least make them forget about Jordan. I cinched my yellow belt tight, counted to one hundred Mississippi, and ninja-rolled out of the bunk bed. I threw some punches at the long spindly legs retreating into the dark. One of the Razors—the pitcher, I think—was yelling bloody murder. I grabbed for his arms as a Gangly dragged him by the legs, and for a few seconds I thought we were both going straight into the shadow realm. But I lost my grip and the monster took him.
It was dim, almost dawn I guessed. A Gangly squatted over the dead baseball players, rummaging through the corpses. It fished out a small white skull, popped it into its razor-tooth mouth, and chewed it slowly, like those half-popped kernels you find in the bottom of the bag. You don’t really notice how small a skull is until you see it outside someone’s head.
I was real mad, and figured we were about to die anyway, so I started chucking bagged pickles at it just as hard as I could. “Go away! Get! Begone, you!”
It poised, rocking on mismatched hind legs for a sec. That stumpy walk again! Then it threw a pickle in a bag at me. The package exploded, splashing pickle juice all over my Taekwondo dobok. The pickle slid under a chair, leaving the wrapper empty. Just a cartoon Mr. Pickle staring up at me, flat and boneless. The Gangly folded up into the shadows, and was gone.
Jordan and I stuffed our pockets and bags full of food and went on our way. It sucked to lose all the free donuts, but no way were we living in there with all the bodies. Not when the Ganglies could come back at any moment. Instead we gorged on pickles and hit the road.
If the same Gangly that killed the convoy people also killed the baseball players, maybe there aren’t that many Ganglies after all. But why are they following us? Do they hunt in packs? Did they take a shine to us? Are they waiting for us to ripen like stale candy canes after Christmas?
Sometimes when we bunk down for the night, we find a bagged pickle somewhere neither of us remembers leaving it, right where the shadows are thickest.
I wonder what we taste like to a Gangly.
Star Crunches: 0/10
I was crying so hard the Star Crunch just tasted like tears and snot, but it’s all I had in my pocket when I led the Ganglies away from poor hurt Jordan.
We’d stayed up all night playing D&D on the roof of an elementary school, which isn’t the best spot to hide from Ganglies since you can’t clear out all the classrooms. But the nurse’s office has medicine for Jordan’s leg, and the big flood lights keep the shadows away, so we risked it.
How come they keep finding us? How come we’re still alive when everyone else is dead? I miss my moms. I miss my dog. I miss not knowing what people look like on the inside.
I woke up when Star Crunches began pelting my sleeping bag. They arced sideways from over the edge of the building like hail in a windstorm. Some Ganglies down below had one of those rotating metal snack trees you find at gas stations. Our old stumpy-legged friend was working them off and lobbing them at the roof.
Jordan and I lay really quiet underneath a blanket, fending off the snacks, because really, what could you say about that? “They’re just trying to bait us,” I decided. “It’s a new hunting technique.”
“I bet they learned it from you,” said Jordan irritably, “when you threw them my unicorn dice.”
“Seriously, Jordan? No way you’re still mad about the dice.”
“Obviously. You can’t roll initiative with two d10’s. It’s not mathematically correct.”
Jordan’s such a punk, but you should never stay mad at anyone after the apocalypse. He looked really bad, honestly. He’d been getting paler and sweatier ever since we’d left the baseball stadium, and our food had run low. Jordan was already pigging out on Star Crunches.
Then a tree crashed into the rooftop. The Ganglies must’ve worked all night digging it up. They strolled right up the trunk like pirates on a gangplank, all spindly and uneven in the moonlight. So thin and a little wobbly, like when you’re fall-over hungry and can’t even make it to the table.
Maybe they’re not naturally gangly at all.
No way Jordan could run from them, not with his hurt leg. I whooped and hollered at the Ganglies, and bolted toward a spot where trees overhung the roof. “Go for the door, Jordan!”
I caught the sagging branches of an old elm leaning over the roof and climbed up as high as I dared. “Jordan? Jordan, you there?” I hadn’t heard any running, or the rusty door clanging closed. The Ganglies hung thick around the spot where I’d left him.
More Ganglies gathered around my tree. One of them gnawed on something. Maybe a dead deer. The shadow around the roots thickened, and another Gangly climbed out right underneath me. I tossed the second Star Crunch into that shadow, into their dimension, but I missed, and it just glanced off the dirt. I felt just like a Gumdrop Princess in Candyland, begging it to please fill up on something else, please don’t notice Jordan, because I need him and anyway I’m not done with my journal yet.
I was all set to climb down just as soon as my heart stopped racing. Maybe if they ate me, they’d leave Jordan alone. But before I could pick a way down the branches, they unzipped the shadows again and slipped away ahead of the morning.
I ran all over the school looking for Jordan, whispering for him, screaming his name, lying on the rooftop sobbing while the sun dragged all the shadows long and spindly. But I didn’t find him. When I finally ran out of tears, I lay peering at the patch of leaves where the shadows had unzipped, waiting for the return delivery, the one they always made of the… unused bits. I didn’t want to see Jordan like that, all flat and empty without even his skull, but when it’s your best friend, you don’t really have a choice.
I waited all day, but they never sent him back. I’ve been waiting ever since.
Where are you, Jordan? Where did they take you? Are you in the shadow dimension still? They could’ve eaten us a billion times by now, but they always spared us. Are they finally out of adults to eat?
Whatever it is, I’m sick to death of running. I’ve got a plan to get into the shadow dimension. I’m saving Jordan if it kills me. And if he’s already gone? Well. I’d rather be eaten than live without him. There’s a reason they always come two in a pack.
Jordan, if you’re reading this, I’m really really sorry about your unicorn dice.
Gummi Bears: 10/10
My moms always used to say there’s good news and there’s bad news—which do you want first? You’re always supposed to ask for the bad news first. So here it is: I could only think of one way to get the Ganglies to open the shadow dimension, and I’m not proud of how I did it.
I had to walk a long time to find some adults. It was nearly a week of searching the outskirts of the city before I found it: the sleepy hum of generators, running water, and twinkling lights at dusk. I traced the sound to a complex of three greenhouses surrounded by a barricade of overturned semi trucks, patrolled by adults with guns.
I waved an empty foil wrapper to get their attention. “Help! Help me! Over here! My parents died, and I’m lost.” I made a big deal out of crying and wiping my grimy face on my Taekwondo uniform, which wasn’t so white anymore, and I slumped my shoulders so I looked really small and pathetic.
That got me brought inside real quick. Everyone makes exceptions for kids.
I liked how they’d Gangly-proofed their home. They’d rigged huge floodlights like from a football stadium all over the whole compound, especially inside the greenhouse. You had to sleep with a mask over your eyes to shut it out, but it kept the shadows away. I had salad for dinner for the first time in who knows how long. I’m adding something called kohlrabi to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. It looks kind of like Yoda if he turned into a vegetable.
I pretended to sleep until really late at night, curled up in a sleeping bag in the floodlit greenhouse next to the strawberry bed. When the guards swapped shifts at midnight and the compound got quiet, I crept on my knees to the wall socket and pulled the plug on the lights.
The Ganglies piled in immediately, sixseveneightnine before any of the adults could find the plug. I forced myself to crawl toward the Ganglies. They were coming in from under the snap pea bed. I didn’t even wait for them to get out of the way. I just threw myself between their legs into that blackness.
Which means I hit the ground in the shadow dimension face-first and bashed my nose. I’d landed on a walkway running along a series of pits or compartments open from above, almost like honeycombs. I pinched my fingers to stop the blood flow from my nose. A Gangly stepped over me on the walkway and dumped a pile of small, shiny packages into the nearest pit. Then it lowered itself into the compartment.
The Gangly’s long claws shot every which way, performing a thousand tiny chores: refilling a water bucket, organizing the snacks into a neat basket, and tucking the blankets around the kid who lived in the pit.
And this is where I have good news, because the kid was Jordan.
I made a huge mistake then and yelled his name. I was just so happy I couldn’t keep my voice quiet. A lot of things happened very quickly. The Gangly in the pit whirled around and skittered toward me, stumping on its shortened limb. Jordan tried to stand up, but he fell over. His leg was in a cast now. I realized all at once what horrible danger I was in and spun to find the way out, but other Ganglies were streaming back home, each with a shrieking adult in tow.
The stump-legged Gangly caged me in its limbs, pinning my arms to my side, and dropped me into Jordan’s pit. Hitting the floor didn’t hurt like I expected because all the snacks broke my fall. I kicked away a bag of gummi bears, unopened and undamaged, with that little air bubble inside from some far-off factory before we ever knew about Ganglies.
“Nadia?” Jordan crawled right into my arms. He was shaking so hard I thought his skeleton would shred his body and leave his skin-sack behind. “They got you too. I thought you got away.” He sounded wrung out, like he’d cried all the tears already. He looked good, though. Better color, stronger, even gained some weight. That chilled me, because you don’t have to be a serious brain genius to remember Hansel and Gretel.
“They’re going to eat us,” I said. “They’re saving us for dessert, aren’t they?”
Jordan slowly shook his head. He’d stopped trembling. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”
My stomach turned in on itself, but you can’t digest fear. “Then what’s the deal?”
Jordan shushed me. “Nadia. Just hush a sec. Listen.”
The Ganglies trooped back from our dimension on the walkway under a dim gray sky that pulsed with red lights. A whole forest of legs, all of them gripping bones and skulls and more snack bags. Salted peanuts, chocolate-covered cherries, fun-sized potato chips. They distributed the treats into the pits, absolute masses of them, so many I wondered if they had a factory of their own. Then I heard it: high-pitched voices, kid voices, talking or crying or yelling bad words. All those honeycomb pits running out into the darkness.
“The kids didn’t get eaten,” I breathed. Jordan nodded, wide-eyed. I dropped to my knees and pulled him into a hug, just to feel him as close and warm as in the hammock that night under the stars. “Jordan. Jordan, what is this place?”
Jordan’s eyes glinted red in the weird light. “Can’t you tell? It’s our kennel.”
I didn’t understand what he meant until the stump-legged Gangly climbed back down into our pit and held out a clawed appendage. A pearly white bone gleamed there. It was one of the unicorn dice. It nudged a pack of gummis toward me. Gummis As Special As You, said the pink bear on the bag. The Gangly lifted a claw and gently, so gently, traced over my skull right through my hair. I’d expected it to be cold like an insect’s, but it was warm and velvety against my cheek. The gentle hand on a kitten’s head as it burrows, shaking, into your lap.
“Watch,” muttered Jordan. “It’s already sent me out once. That’s how I got my cast. You stay out as long as you’re working, but they like to bring you back between runs.”
It drew a pattern on the pit’s wall. The shadows ripped open. It was an asphalt road to a faraway town where the roofs sloped weird and I couldn’t understand the signs. Streetlights lit up every inch of the pavement, driving back the shadows, and beyond that a castle wall patrolled by adults with guns.
And as one type of fear died in my heart, another one replaced it.
“You just have to go through and get the adults to let you in. The Ganglies don’t hurt kids,” Jordan added blandly. “We get plenty to eat. They don’t eat our food anyway, so they just give it all to us.”
I didn’t need his explanation, because I knew the truth in my heart. It had happened a few times already, after all: we starve, we move, we find adults.
And when we eat, so do the Ganglies.
The Gangly handed me the bag of gummi bears. It nudged me toward the portal. Everyone makes exceptions for kids, but dogs have to earn their keep.
“Let’s get out of here, Jordan,” I pleaded. “We’ll find some adults. We’ll tell them what happened. We’ll stay with them. We don’t have to summon the Ganglies.”
“Doesn’t matter what we want,” said Jordan. “Didn’t matter with the Razors. The Ganglies will find us. Just a matter of time. How long did it take them to eat all the dogs, anyway? A year?” His head slumped to his chest. “I’m sick of running, Nadia. I’m tired.”
I opened the bag of gummi bears and shoved one of the green ones between my back teeth. It was tough at first, but the more I chewed, the more it softened and released its sweetness.
Suddenly I wanted to barf. All that gross and nasty junk food only ever filled you up for a while, and then you were hungry again, and you had to keep eating.
Jordan, Jordan, this isn’t what we wanted. We were supposed to grow up, go to high school, learn to drive, get black belts in taekwondo. We were supposed to run, fight, and survive together. Now we’re giving Candyland tours to Ganglies, and I can’t run away because every step I take would be away from you, and you’re all I have left.
But I realized something, Jordan. They don’t know us at all. They never should’ve let us get so close.
We are not pets. We are not the friendly cartoon wolf on a wrapper. We are the real thing. We have teeth and claws, and when we bare our teeth, it is not to smile. It is not just cakes that come in packs, you know.
They want to snack on us? Well, snacks come at a price, Jordan. And we will make them pay.
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. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Content note(click for details)Content note: abuse
The week I moved into my old family home, the brick one that sat like a triple-layered cake at the end of the street, I spent each day and into the night repainting every wall. Mint living room, yellow bathroom, pink bedroom. I chose gaudy colors that would have sat like a bad taste on my mother’s tongue anytime she thought of it, were she alive. Colors that felt like touching sunshine.
It was strange to stand in my childhood bedroom as a woman who was starting to find her first gray hairs when the light hit her head just so in the bathroom. It wasn’t like going back in time, exactly, but like finding embarrassing photos of yourself. I looked at the walk-in closet and could almost feel the clothes brushing the top of my head from all the times I hid in there with a flashlight and book on nights when I wanted to muffle the sound of my mother’s clarinet floating up through the house. My memories of nighttime, even ones that didn’t involve the house or my mother, always carried a sharp echo of that instrument. It wasn’t the sound I’d hated, but the dread that each note might be her last. The final trill always led to a fearful silence.
She’d left me the house in her will, and with its mortgage paid off, it was a bigger and better place than I could ever hope to afford on my own. I couldn’t resist the illusion that I could transform it and make it mine, but so far I felt naive for thinking repainting would be enough. I left my old room, newly pink from yesterday’s efforts, to enter the room I’d put off until the end. Every day I’d painted until I was too drained to carry on, and then left to pass out on an air mattress in the apartment I was leaving. I didn’t want to stay in the house until it was finished. But the apartment lease was up and I only had her room left to refresh.
I stood over my mother’s bed, which was still covered with her garden of pillows that were only there for decoration. She would have been furious to know that her death wasn’t some dramatic crescendo; that it had no flair. One unmarked evening a few weeks ago she fell asleep like any other night and just never woke up. The boring nature of it delighted me. I lay on top of the covers and smiled up at the ceiling. I thanked God that I hadn’t been guilted into a hospital bed visit where she would have taken my hand in her wrinkled claws and sent me off with one last conversation that felt like a slap in the face, desperate to have the last word. Instead, she’d simply died.
Despite living in the same city, I hadn’t seen her in years. Family friends and neighbors cheerily asked me about her in grocery store aisles or when I was in line to drown my popcorn in butter at the movie theater. We don’t talk much, I’d tell them. Hell has a bad connection. I liked watching them fumble with the words like they were a squirming cat they didn’t know how to hold. They might laugh nervously or sometimes sincerely, but across the board, they all seemed to study me for a sign of which of the two of us was in hell.
After resting in her bed, I began to paint her eggshell room forest green. My arm was tired, but the up and down movement of the paintbrush was soothing. Avoiding this room until the end made it feel like the cathartic cherry on top. With each stroke, I painted over her with the deep color of trees, of summer days at the park with my dad that I could barely remember outside of the blurry shape of happiness, like watching a family video. Green dripped onto her jewelry box and I made a note that I’d need to take nice photos of the contents to sell. I was going to sell everything of hers, except for her clarinet, which I’d thrown away first thing in the neighbor’s trash bin.
I spent the whole day in that room in a sort of trance. In an odd, sleep-deprived moment as I looked at myself in her dresser mirror, I painted over it too until I disappeared under the dark square. When I finished, I collapsed on the bed again, paintbrush still in hand, and the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes with the heaviness of having fallen asleep by accident. The darkness was unsettling, and I had the strange urge to turn my body and make sure there was no one sharing the darkness with me. I turned my head slowly and was relieved to find an empty bed. Still, I got up quickly, dusted myself off from my mother’s death spot. She was getting to me without even being there.
On my way out the door, a childhood habit moved through me unconsciously, and I looked toward the dresser mirror. Growing up, I was usually crying when I left my mother’s room, and since she tutted at me for being an ugly crier, I often checked my reflection on the way out to see if she was right. But this time, there was no reflection, just self-created blankness.
I was worn out from the day but didn’t want to fall asleep in my own sweat and grit. I headed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway and turned on the shower head, then ran downstairs to grab towels from the properly labeled moving box. When I got back to the bathroom, something felt off. Steam pressed against the mirror and I could feel the heat, so it took a moment to realize what was missing: I couldn’t hear the water. I peered into the shower and watched the stream of water pummel into the bathtub, but it made no noise. Rather than being paralyzed by this fact, it put me into erratic motion.
I moved naked through the house with paint splotches like bruises on my body, looking almost pagan. The floors didn’t creak beneath my feet, not even the loud spot I used to tread so lightly on to avoid waking my mother when I was up past my bedtime or running away, only ever making it a few blocks before I snuck back in and returned the supplies to their rightful spots.
I went downstairs and into the kitchen, and there was no hum when I opened the fridge. I wandered the house knocking on cabinets and slamming doors and every action was met with nothing but stone cold quiet, as if I weren’t even moving. It gave me the unnerving thought that there was no way to know if there was anyone or anything around each corner or hiding behind doorways or even stepping right behind me, far enough to not leave their breath on my neck. I thought about how I’d woken up in my mother’s old bed with the feeling that I was not alone, and how much easier it would be for a thing to slide to the ground and under the bed if I couldn’t hear it move.
Once I’d had enough of testing sounds that never happened, I slipped into a bathrobe and ran out the front door without even closing it, my feet brushing against hushed grass. There was no wind, no whoosh of a car even as I watched one drive by, no suburban choir of dogs. I ran in circles in the yard, senselessly thinking that enough speed might jumpstart noise. I was grateful that it was late, and the neighbors were hopefully asleep. The same neighbors who used to see my mother and me on weekend walks when I was young and would tell me in chirpy, “adult” voices that my mother was a saint for all the work she did for the neighborhood association, and how I was lucky to have such a strong person to hold down the fort in a single-parent household.
At the time, I thought maybe they didn’t notice how I was skittish as the bunnies they captured in their front yards so they wouldn’t nibble on their gardens. I used to stand in front of those metal traps and consider setting the rabbits free, even going so far as to check each house window for spying faces, but I never went through with it, just like I could never commit to running away. And maybe the neighbors didn’t notice that the “darling” outfits my mother dressed me in were always long sleeved, even in the baking summer. To this day, I gravitate towards long sleeves, even with nothing to cover, because she used to tell me that my arms and legs were fat and that was the real thing worth hiding. Over time I realized it wasn’t necessarily that the neighbors were ignorant, but that it was just easier to keep their eyes moving and mind their business. Despite the way they treated my mother like queen bee, the neighborhood was nothing like a beehive. Too many closed doors. Better for the neighborhood.
It suddenly occurred to me that many of those neighbors were probably gone, whether by death or relocation. I’d moved into an old home and an old neighborhood that had very little trace of my past left, and yet, I still managed to feel like I had willingly walked back into the rabbit trap.
I gave up on the front yard and ran out into the street, where I suddenly heard my feet thump against the sidewalk, as well as a late-night sprinkler taking care of a neighbor’s lawn. I got on my knees and leaned my head against the ground to take a moment to revel in the weird whisper of summer bugs and a faraway ambulance cry that rang like sweet music right then and there. If I hadn’t felt so exposed, I would have stayed there all night until the birds sang the sunrise into being. But I knew I had to go back to the house.
When I re-entered, I closed and locked the door behind me with relief, but then felt my heart plummet as the door didn’t make a click. I stayed still and realized that being back on the property meant I was back in the void and the kind of emptiness I always associated with outer space. Upstairs, the silent shower was still running. I got into the bathtub and sat under its stream, but I didn’t scrub with soap or wash my hair, just let it run over me.
The new bed I had ordered wouldn’t arrive until the next day. I had planned to sleep in my childhood twin bed that was still there for some reason, my old bedroom untouched like my mother’s shrine to what she considered better times, but when I wearily got to the doorway, I imagined twisting and turning myself onto the floor and made my way to my mother’s room instead.
I got under the covers on what would have been my father’s side. My damp hair left a mark like a lake on the pillow. Even though I tried forcing my eyes to stay closed and my body to calm down, I started to cry, and it felt good to see the pillowcase getting wetter, as if proof in this muted landscape of what I was feeling. I opened my mouth and screamed into the house, into its guts, feeling my jaw get sore and my throat get hoarse without a single sound ever touching the air. I started to project things into the gaping silence. I became convinced that if I turned around, my mother would be right there, or at least some part of her, able to exist through pure spite and disgust of me. I turned as much as I dared and could see something in the dark. Maybe it was her, maybe it was just the dark wearing itself like a costume. I decided to close my eyes and bury my head in the pillow.
And yet, despite the crushing sensation of silence, the way it pressed down on me like so many years of built-up hatred, I could not shake the imagined sound of that damned clarinet echoing against the walls. Once it started, I only prayed that it would never stop. The shape in the bed, whether my mother or a nightmare, would move as soon as the music ended; would take the bell and the barrel and the keys and the mouthpiece to turn my body into a score only I could hear.
Sarah Fannon is a graduate of George Washington University’s Honors English and Creative Writing program and she continues to live in the DC area. Her work is featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, Divination Hollow Reviews, miniskirt magazine, The NoSleep Podcast, and the LGBTQ+ horror anthology, Black Rainbow. You can find her on Twitter @SarahJFannon and Instagram @ampersarah.