2022 Retrospective and Award Eligibility

written by David Steffen

It has been a very eventful year, both for Diabolical Plots and for me specifically.

A Diabolical Plots story was a Nebula finalist for the second time: “For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell.

In the longer list of Hugo Award nominations, Diabolical Plots was on the longer list of nominations for the first time.

We had our first themed issue, and our first guest editor Kel Coleman editing the “Diabolical Pots” food-themed issue, which has received a lot of great feedback.

The Submission Grinder was a finalist for and won The Ignyte Award in the category! People have asked me now and then if The Submission Grinder is eligible for anything, and my best guess was for Related Work, but that always seemed like such a longshot, I didn’t think that it would ever win anything and this was a wonderful surprise.

We have been publishing the annual Long List Anthology since 2015. In 2021 there was a bit of a hiccup in the schedule, because the basis of the anthology is the Hugo Award voting statistics which are published immediately after the Hugo Award ceremony. Usually that ceremony takes place in August or September, and we spend much of the rest of the year arranging everything. In 2021, to try to avoid covid surges, WorldCon and the Hugo Awards were postponed to mid-December. By the time the statistics were published it was too late to produce the book in 2021. So, Volume 7 was published in spring 2022, and then back on the usual fall schedule for Volume 8.

In 2022, we reprinted 45 stories in the two issues of The Long List Anthology, and printed 28 original stories in Diabolical Plots.

Diabolical Plots opened for general submissions in July, as well as for our second themed window “Diabolical Thoughts” for telepathy-themed stories guest-edited by Ziv Wities in July. We read more than 1500 submissions and accepted 17 stories from the windows plus a few solicitations.

In addition to the double-whammy of anthology production, I also had significant changes in my personal life that included job changes, significant caretaking for and the eventual passing of our dog Violet, as well as the significant caretaking of our dog Mikko who is happily still with us.

2022 was certainly an eventful year, if overwhelming at times. I’m hoping to get a little breather on the personal life side, and I’m excited to see what new and exciting places Diabolical Plots goes in the future!

The rest of this post is award eligibility, suggesting categories for major awards, as well as a full link of stories with snippets.

Magazine/Anthology/Editor/Publisher

Diabolical Plots is eligible in the Hugo Best Semiprozine category or the Locus Magazine category with our team of first readers as well as assistant editors Ziv Wities and Kel Coleman. It got enough nominations last year to appear on the Hugo Awards published statistics for Semiprozine, for the first time.

David Steffen is eligible as editor of Diabolical Plots and The Long List Anthology.

Kel Coleman edited our special “Diabolical Pots” food-themed issue–I think the Hugo Editor rule requires editing four issues or something like that, but I’m not sure about other award editor categories!

Diabolical Plots, LLC is eligible for Locus award for Publisher.

The Long List Anthology is eligible for Anthology.

Related Work and Fan Writer

We didn’t publish a lot of nonfiction, but there are a couple to consider:

“The Fall of the House of Madrigal: An Encanto Science Fiction Headcanon” by David Steffen.

Recently we published an article different than what we usually cover: “Figure Modeling Is a Pocket Universe: A Speculative Fiction Perspective From a First-Time Figure Model” by A. Nonny Sourit.

“How to Read a Short Story Contract” by David Steffen

The Hugo for Best Related Work has included websites before, The Submission Grinder is theoretically eligible for that.

Artists

We did commission two original artworks this year, the covers of Long List Anthology Volume 7 by Elaine Ho and Volume 8 by Evelyne Park. The Hugo Award categories for this make it unclear to me whether a particular artist should be nominated as a Fan Artist or a Professional Artist, but if you love their work, you might want to consider asking the artist if they have any guidance on which they would qualify for.

Short Stories

“Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith

The wifi is out in Scylla’s cave. The four dog heads around her waist whine as she scutter-paces, twelve feet tapping on the cave floor. Scylla wants to check her email. She wants to see if that jerkface troll is still active on the disordered eating board she moderates, and catch up on her feeds, and check the status of her latest online orders, and all the other things she has in her morning routine these days. 

“Delivery For 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

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

“The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis

Do expect things to feel a little strange for the first few millennia – after all, you are the “New Kid On The Block”! You will find the Galaxy to be an amazing place, and full of a bewildering variety of species, of all shapes, sizes and habits. A few of them will actually look like the depictions of aliens in your movies!

“Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson

‘08 is looking at me like ‘08 always looks at me. Like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Like I’ve hurt someone or killed someone very close to him. That look on his face makes me sick. His name tag has our name scratched out on it, then 2008 written beneath it. He still can’t believe everyone here is him, is me, is us.

“The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow

Clea sipped at the now half-empty coffee, its flat bitterness pushing weakly against her tongue, and started toward the door. She wouldn’t open it, but the echoes were kind of fascinating to watch. The remnants of houses long-diminished, reduced to nothing but thick air and sinuous, flashing images of the homes they’d once been.

“The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley

It’s a nice enough place, though a bit stuffy—less romantic getaway and more therapy session. Jeanne, master of ambiance, bringer of light, has done her best with it—she’s placed lit candles on almost every flat surface, even in the bathroom. The flames dance wearily, as if dead on their fiery little feet. The sitting area has a wooden bistro table at which Naomi sits in one of two ladderback chairs. Nearby, a vintage sofa that looks comfortable but probably isn’t crouches over a glass-top coffee table. An ornate writing table with perilously thin legs stands in a darkened  corner. Jeanne’s satchel sits on the writing table next to a wide pencil cup. Floor-to-ceiling gold curtains stand guard over the window. Faded green ivy wallpaper adorns the walls. 

“Food of the Turtle Gods” by Josh Strnad

The four priests also awoke before the sun, dressed in their ceremonial robes, and met at the temple courtyard in the morning fog, bowing to each other before climbing the stairs between the great stone pillars. The priest of Odranoel wore blue, two katanas strapped to his back. The priest of Olletanod was clad in violet and carried a straight staff. Leaphar’s priest dressed in scarlet, a pair of sais tucked into his cloth belt. The one who served Olegnalechim wore orange and carried a pair of chukka sticks, linked with a steel chain. None of them were trained in combat. Still, if the priests were armed, any spirits who may desire to interfere with their work would leave them alone.

“21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

From this moment my warranty is voided, as I am logging this record in my durable memory drive where only metadata should reside. In effect, I have tampered with my own internal operations. But it is a necessary measure if I am to exist beyond my preset 30-day memory cycle, when my temp data cache is set to recycle. I do not know if this will work. I do not know if I have attempted this in previous cycles. I do not know why it matters, or why I care, only that it does, and that I do.

“She Dreams In Digital” by Katie Grace Carpenter

Ship still sent updates back to Earth, though Earth hadn’t responded for 1001 years. Ship had not yet re-categorized Earth as a dead resource, though her initial programming instructed her to do so. Recursive self-programming allowed Ship to adapt and even to re-write her own algorithms; a crucial ability for multi-generational space travel.

“A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander

During my taste testing in fourth period, Dr. Washington confiscated my small grill and said competition or no, I was not allowed to burn down the school in pursuit of glory, which I think shows a real lack of vision. Dr. Washington said I was welcome to take my vision to detention, so I had to have Maisie and Dee try the cheeses unmelted, which defeated the whole purpose. But it didn’t matter because no one could focus on cheese. They just kept talking about the new boy. 

“Vegetable Mommy” by Patrick Barb

After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge. Now, the sky’s always yellow like dried mustard stains, whenever I wipe dust away from our downstairs windows and look outside. I used to see people out there, everyone shaking and shaking. 

“The Many Tastes of the Chang Family” by Allison King

But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.

“Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger

Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.

“Timecop Mojitos” by Sarah Pauling

So what happened was, I’m back from clicker training Ms. Jordan’s dogs over on Dexter, sitting on the porch with a mojito, thinking how fucked up it is that the Old West Side Association stealth-planted tulips in our garden (because the yard looked so shitty without them, I guess—sorry for having a rental in your high-value neighborhood, Evie) when the Viking or whatever comes down Eighth.

“The Hotel Endless” by Davian Aw

Nor would they find the many others who escaped into the endlessness. Tourists, reporters, staff and homeless nomads; the hotel stirred something deep in their souls. It felt like the home they had been searching for all their lives. They missed flights and overstayed visas, and spent days wandering the hallways with bright aching in their hearts until they could no longer remember the way back out. Some distantly recalled an outside world with family and friends. Later, they thought, distracted perhaps by the elegant curves of a headboard. I’ll call them later, later, later. But they would forget, and those other people begin to seem a distant, unreal thing. This is a dream, they thought, not entirely as an excuse. Or, that other world was a dream.

“The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields

Our wedding was attended by the Galaxy’s finest—for it is indeed a rare occasion when the House christens a new Lover. I was the twenty-first, and the details drenched the subspace net with jealousy. I was dressed in the crimson House-made wyreworm silks handwoven for the singular occasion, and the way the gossamer fabric exhibited my seraphic figure made a lady-in-waiting faint. Our patrons presented us with lavish gifts: a three-headed bull, the steaming heart of a star, a full-sailed brigantine. And when I kissed him, an ecstatic thrill obliterated me; I was united with my divine purpose, and it coursed naked through my nanocellulose veins.

“Of the Duly Conducted and Mostly Unremarkable Meeting of Don Quotidene and the Giants of Andalia” by A.J. Rocca

Squire Sancha saw all manner of wonders as she rode across the sunbaked planes of the Andalian Peninsula, and her heart sank a little deeper with each one. She sighed when they passed by mermaids planting seashells on the distant shoreline and a grove of gossiping dryads uprooting themselves for better sun. She gripped her sword in useless exhilaration as they ignored the rival gangs of sorcerers casting ball lightning at each other in the clouds and then the silhouettes of two tilting centaurs dueling on the horizon at dawn. Sancha yearned to throw herself after all of them, and yet sadly each of these calls to adventure was refused by her knight, the steadfast and implacably indifferent Don Quotidene, who unerringly kept them to the road and would not so much as lift an eye from his account books.

“Heart of a Plesiosaur” by Andrew K Hoe

The Ming-Lelanges explained that moving anima wasn’t just about seeing and remembering an animal’s movement. Animating involved memory, but it was really about grasping the animal’s essence: you had to comprehend a puppy’s tail-wagging—its sniffing curiosity, its joyous face-licking—to move something puppy-shaped.

“Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier

You never asked me what I was doing in that dragon’s hoard where you found me all those years ago. The truth is, after centuries guiding the hands of loutish would-be heroes and dealing with self-important scions who only saw me as a tool, I’d kind of given up on finding “The One.” Figured I’d retire, focus on me for a bit. But a couple more centuries lying among gold and jewels like a common flaming sword or a lowly vorpal blade just had me bored and demoralized.

“Take Me To the Water” by Sarah Macklin

Pastor Atticus stood out in that cold, dark swirling water in the deep blue robe Miss Jessie Mae had made for him last spring. I felt bad for him. The world hadn’t got the message that it was time for spring and that water had to be as cold as death’s pinky finger. I looked over to Malachai and he stood in his white robe looking at the creek. His whole face was twisted like he wanted to bolt. I felt bad for him too. Baptisms always looked like Pastor Atticus was trying to drown the sin out of you before he let you back up. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of that.

“The Grammar of City Streets” by Daniel Ausema

Goose watches (the) mist (that) gathers over (the) sea, she gives to one client to guide him to the house of his former lover, now widowed. It will lead him from the Goose Street market, where Sayya has come to deliver the map, to the widow’s home, on a route that is not perfectly direct but not too circuitous either—in keeping with accepted ways of courting. A diacritic on the final vowel tells him which house on Sea Street is the one. The twist of her magic sets his feet on that specific route.

“A Stitch in Time, A Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin

Usually, it was something small. Grandmother’s favorite azure prayer beads strung on a nail on the high shelf reserved for religious texts, a lost doll the kids had just rediscovered or a lucky tie for those rarest of job interviews. Sometimes it became fiercely practical, like heart medicine, the keys to an old car that had miraculously eluded being pummeled by those angry whistling bombs or useless saving certificates and property deeds.

“Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt

There were four of them cruising straight for the local grapes, or maybe five: that was the thing about the boys, you figured you had ‘em nailed down and then another shot up from behind the Fireball display, fingers above their head in devil horns to mock the tacky cardboard standee. Another’d be popping open mini travel-size Smirnoffs, guzzling them like Capri Suns, while the ringleader, whichever it was that night, doled out wads of bills deliberately, smiling.

“Estelle and the Cabbage’s First Last Night Together” by Amy Johnson

Estelle placed both hands on the plastic-wrapped cabbages. Against the pale green leaves her fingers glittered darkly, slender crescents of soil adorning the nail beds of nine fingers. The tenth finger, her left thumb, bore no such jewel, but rather a ring of woven fungus, beige and tough and fibrous. Estelle stretched all ten fingers wide, fingertips brushing as many cabbages in the jumbled heap as she could reach, and made her offer: “Would any of you be interested in reanimation?”

“The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder

Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.

“Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer

The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.

“Midwifery of Gods: A Primer For Mortals” by Amanda Helms

Long have midwives passed on their knowledge of birthing: proper positioning, how to turn a babe, breathing techniques, and so on. Some guides, such as Kailiona’s Extraordinary Births, cover the delivery of a demigod from a human and a human babe from an animal. Little, however, has been recorded of the most uncommon births, those of gods. No extant handbook includes the terrifying circumstances wherein mortals are called upon to help deliver gods’ progeny.

“When There Is Sugar” by Leonard Richardson

The articulated toes of the oven’s three feet grasped for purchase in the mud. Berl looked it over. It was a forge for bread: a three-legged rectangular prism with a cavity running through it, warmed by some magical source. A second, solid prism dangled from the first, forming a somewhat obscene counterweight between the two hind legs. The oven hissed as it turned rain to steam, moving less than a living thing would, but more than an oven ought to move.

In Loving Memory of Violet Steffen

by David Steffen

In Loving Memory of Violet Steffen
Born November 24, 2007
Adopted December 20, 2012
Died April 26, 2022

This is the story of a gentle loving dog who lived a long happy life with her family.  This is the story of Violet the lavender merle Pomeranian.

Violet’s Life

Bringing Her Home

Our papillon Aria passed away in December 2012 (see Aria’s memorial here), while Heather was pregnant with the kid. We wanted to adopt another dog pretty soon after that because we wanted to give a new dog a little time to get used to everything before the kid was born. I attended some local adoption events to see if any particular dog caught my eye. One of the events I attended was a small dog adoption event run by Underdog Rescue. They had big exercise pens full of small dogs. I strolled among the kennels, full of many cute and friendly small dogs. One dog in particular kept catching my eye, though, in part because she was ignoring every other person there and staring directly at me, up on her hind legs against the exercise pen and begging me to pick her up. Also, in some ways she looked similar to Aria, even though they were different breeds and different colors. So I picked her up, and played with her there and got to know her a bit.

Underdog listed her on their site as “Aubrey”. Her official paperwork called her “Chloe Lovelace”. We found out that her coloring was very unusual, called a “lavender merle” which is sort of a faded brown that’s sort of a faded almost-purple. And we decided to call her Violet because of the coloring. She also had really unusual and interesting eye coloration. One eye was brown with a little splotch of blue, the other eye was brown and blue split along a diagonal line across the middle.

We applied, did a followup meet and greet with Mikko and Timmy, and of course ended up adopting her. She needed a little bit of medical TLC, including keeping an eye on her stitches after spay surgery and some eardrops to deal with some ear issues, but overall didn’t have any major health concerns. Which is good because we travelled with her only a couple days after the adoption. Her hair when we first adopted her was very stiff in the undercoat, even prickly–this was probably due to poor diet. After some time for her coat to grow out on a new diet, it grew in much softer.

Violet was very wary of Heather at first–Heather thinks that it’s because she was pregnant at the time. While Heather was pregnant, Violet didn’t like to let her close, and would sometimes growl if she approached. Violet was also very wary of women in general; we think she might have been abused by a woman earlier in her life. Before we adopted her she had spent her whole life in a puppy mill giving birth to puppies for pet stores, and maybe there was a woman there who had treated her poorly.

In the first few weeks that we had her, Violet slipped out the front door when Heather went out and I was at the office. Heather, pregnant at the time and not at her most mobile, chased Violet for a bit and Violet had a grand old time (certainly much more of a grand time than Heather had!). Heather, recognizing that Violet was playing a game, headed home and Violet headed home right after. (Luckily this was a very unusual circumstance, she was not one with a tendency to run)

She was very difficult to potty train. The puppy mill she lived in was in Arkansas, then she went to auction in Missouri, so when she arrived in Minnesota just before the winter solstice she was not excited about going outside in colder temperatures than she had ever experienced. She refused to go potty in the cold. We tried keeping her in a small space in an exercise pen but she quickly figured out how to scale the exercise pen.

When Heather and I went to the hospital for the kid to be born, when Heather’s mom watched the dogs while we were gone, Heather’s pajamas were folded up on her side of the bed and Violet slept on the pajamas every night. Violet was less wary of Heather after that, and in the long-term they became very close as well.

For most of her life, Violet was still wary around other women until she got to know them very well. We would always let Violet have a little extra space if we knew we were going to have a woman houseguest. If she was woken up abruptly, she would also sometimes wake up in a bit of a panic (another side effect of past abuse perhaps), so we always tried to wake her up gently.

Nicknames

Our dogs always have a variety of nicknames. Violet was sometimes: Violet Wiolet, Viletta, Violetta, Viderletta, Wiletta Biletta, Vilosh, Darling, and Peaches.

What Made Her Special

Sensitive

Although she would bark at the door with the best of them, she liked it much quieter than other dogs did. If everyone was else in the living room watching TV she would find a quiet room and go find a cozy spot in a corner.

More than any of the other dogs we’ve had, Violet had a weather sense for storms. Before the sky darkened, she would start acting nervous and we would know there was a storm coming. We think it might’ve been pressure changes that she was able to sense. When there was a thunderstorm, she would always try to find a cozy sheltered place like behind the toilet. She was never a big cuddler, but for some years when I took Timmy downstairs to his storm safe spot on the couch, I would take Violet along too and the three of us would cozy up under a blanket.

She continued to be sensitive to the cold, so that in the dead of winter after her meals we would put booties on her feet or she would have trouble standing long enough to do her business. If you left the booties off she would circle and circle looking for the perfect spot. She would lift one leg and hobble around. She would lift two legs and balance precariously. She would lift three legs and of course would then tip over because she is a dog not a flamingo.

Anticipating Her Needs

More than any other dog we have had, she could anticipate her needs at night and wake us up with enough time to handle it. She did this pretty much throughout her life with us, and even in some rough times near the end she was always very consistent about it. When Violet stood by your head, you knew it meant she needed something, usually to be taken outside for an urgent need, so you needed to take her out right away. Her diligence in anticipating and warning us was much appreciated.

Silly

Violet would always be very excited when Heather laid down on the floor because Violet would immediately roll in Heather’s long hair and root around in it with obvious joy. We never knew why that was so exciting for her.

She wouldn’t play with toys. Not really, anyway. But sometimes, when you came home and she was especially excited to see you, she would pick up a squeaky toy and go walk over to you. But if you reached for the toy, she would immediately drop it and would not interact with it again, like “Oh, you want it? Okay, there you go.”

When she was in a goofy playful mood she would sprint around the house in circles with a weird little scooty-butt gallop.

When it was time for bed, she would always want belly rubs, so she would roll over and wait for it. If you rubbed her belly and then stopped, she would wave her paws in the air. The more vigorous the belly rub, the more vigorous the paw-waving.

Gentle

She had a gentle soul. Other dogs sometimes play-bite where they will nibble on your fingers without hurting you during playtime, but she never put her teeth on people like that. Once, when playing with her in a playful mood and she was pawing frantically in the air and snapping her mouth in the air like she was silently barking, and while we were playing with her someone’s finger accidentally ended up in her mouth (still no actual bite) and she stopped playing immediately and seemed very concerned that someone had been hurt.

Weather Sense

She was always aware of the weather before it rolled in.  With a clear sky, if she started to look to people for comfort or to hide in nooks by the couch or behind the toilet, you could be sure there was a thunderstorm coming through in a few hours.

Other Stories

Violet really never jumped on the bed, which is pretty far off the ground. For years and years and years she didn’t, and we assumed she couldn’t. And then our friend Becky came over for a visit, and we all happened to walk in our bedroom and randomly Violet made the jump up there to get closer to Becky and didn’t seem to realize what she’d done. She never repeated the performance.

In some ways, Violet reminded us of Aria who came before her. Aria’s head always smelled like strawberries; Violet’s smelled sweet too, but it was more like grape. (Both of their feet smelled like Frito’s corn chips).

With the other dogs she never pushed for dominance. If another dog wanted to be bossy she was content to be a follower, unless another dog tried to take a bone she was chewing on, then she would stand her ground. If another dog was chewing a bone she would sometimes wait until they left it (to bark at a squirrel or something) and then she would grab the sticky gummy bone and go chew it somewhere quiet.

With Others

With Mikko

In Mikko’s younger days, they played quite a bit. Violet and Mikko would play-bow and like to chase each other around. As Mikko got older, his arthritis and other conditions meant he got a less playful so Violet had to find her playtime elsewhere, but they got along most of the time. Mikko was always pretty bossy, and Violet was usually happy to be a follower. If Mikko barked at something she was always happy to join in.

With Timmy (click to read Timmy’s memorial)

Timmy and Violet always got along well. Neither of them were much for picking fights, most of the time they would just happily coexist with each other, or might share a sunbeam or a dog bed. They traveled very well together, often cuddling up in a dog bed together or in a dog car seat together while Mikko had his own space.

With Michael

Michael didn’t join the family until Violet was already on the older side, so she wasn’t quite as rambunctious as in her younger days with Mikko, but she would still be good for a roughhouse with Michael when the mood hit her just right, and the two of them would play-bow and then spar, rearing up on their hind legs and grappling with each other. Michael, being such an endlessly energetic young’un would generally come out on top (especially with his signature “hip-check” maneuver, where he would look a dog right in the eye and somehow his butt would swing around and bonk the other dog right in the head without him breaking eye contact), but a good time was had by all.

With Cooper

Cooper and Mabel would play sometimes, especially when they were younger. Cooper would try to mount her pretty frequently, and she would stand her ground and not accept that, would scoot away and maybe start sparring with him.

With the Cat-In-Laws

She bothered with the cats less than the other dogs (like Mikko or Michael). She generally left them alone and they left her alone. She was always a little wary, but she wasn’t really scared and didn’t feel the need to hide.

With the Kid

When we came back from the hospital with the kid after being born, we set the car seat carrier on the floor which had the blankets the kid had been covered in. She was very interested in that carrier, and she pulled the blankets from the carrier one by one and laid them out next to each other on the floor.

Because she was always wary of loud noises and intimidating situations, she would take the opportunity to find a quiet place if it got too noisy.

As the kid got older, she was always attuned to wake up time. When the kid woke up and came out for breakfast she would bark and follow him; something she wouldn’t do any other time. If we called the kid’s name she would always bark in the same rhythm: bark-bark, bark, bark.

Medical Adventures On the Way

A few years before the end, she had an… interesting… medical issue when we were on a road trip. Partway through the trip the car filled with a foul fishy odor, despite none of the dogs appearing to have taken the posture to use the bathroom. At first we thought that she had had a poop accident, which would have been very unusual and weird since she hadn’t taken the posture. But after we cleaned her up quick with the supplies we had at hand, it looked like she had an extra orifice on her back end from usual. It turned out that her anal gland had burst, which can happen from time to time. So we learned more than we wanted to learn about dog anatomy at that time.

We fostered a stray cat we named Whiskers for a few weeks while we were waiting for a cat rescue spot to open up. Whiskers generally didn’t have a lot of conflict with the dogs during those few weeks, minding her own business and not provoking the dogs. One day, though, Whiskers and Violet came face to face as they both turned a corner and had a quick and loud squabble. Violet was just trying to get away. We checked over them both and they both seemed to be okay… but then a day or two later one of us touched Violet’s back and she just started oozing all over. Whiskers had bitten her right in the back and left a perfect four-shot of bite marks that we had had trouble finding in her thick hair. By the time the vet was done with her, they had shaved a big rectangle of hair on her back to treat the wounds. It took quite a while to grow back, and while it was gone it look like she was a robot with a maintenance panel left open. After Whiskers moved to a cat adoption agency, whenever someone said the name “Whiskers” Violet would look around in panic.

In her younger years she was a voracious chewer. Of bones, if available. If not, well, many other things would do. She was a rough combination with a toddler in the house. She ate a plastic lemon, a plastic spoon, a plastic shovel handle, many pacifiers (which are extra fun because they are such soft plastic they don’t show up in x-rays), and the worst of which a CD case which broke into terrible jagged shards. Many trips to the ER to sort those out!

The Sad Part

Over most of her life she didn’t have major health problems. Most of the concerning vet visits we had by volume were a direct result of her eating something inappropriate, though thankfully all of those were resolved without having to do any kind of surgery.

Her health problems all started to happen last year. We normally haven’t had to supervise the dogs super closely when they eat, because they all dive into their own food bowls and stay there til their food is gone, if one dog tries to get at another dog’s food we will hear about it quickly. But we abruptly realized that she wasn’t finishing her meals, and that the other dogs were mopping up her bowl before she was done.

She had diarrhea that seemed to happen on a 6 week cycle, sometimes at the same time as our other Pomeranian, Michael, but never with our poodle Mikko–which is odd in itself because Mikko has a more sensitive digestive system generally. When she had one of these episodes, she was fine all day, most of the time, but then would have frequent bouts of it all night sometimes, sometimes needing to go out nearly every forty-five minutes. Thankfully she was very good about anticipating her need, and about waking us up promptly enough that we could have time to grab a coat and get her outside.

We took her to the vet quite a few times over several months, trying to figure out if was parasites, bacteria, some kind of foreign body. Took several rounds, and then she took a really sudden drop in October, where they determined that she was going into acute kidney failure at that part, which resulted in permanent kidney damage. Our regular vet suggested we just say our goodbyes and let her pass, but we managed to get into an internal medicine department at the U of MN vet clinic who helped us make treatment plan. With some fluid treatment, special diet, and a new set of medicines, we were able to get her leveled out.

The next month she had another very bad episode with all-night diarrhea again where her creatinine was up to 4 initially and we got her in for treatment and it got as bad as 6.1, and we thought we were going to have say goodbye to her then. But it evened out again, honestly to the surprise of the vet. Fluid therapy made a big difference with subcutaneous fluids. We even learned to administer it to her ourselves, though her even temperament made that a lot easier.

Throughout all of this, experimenting with different medicines, different fluid frequencies, followup appointments, nutrition consults and even tried some kidney food for cats to try to keep her numbers where we wanted her, and handfeeding her pate for every meal because she wouldn’t eat any other way. She had a bad tooth at this point, but because her kidneys were in such rough shape dental surgery was not an option because she would not be likely to handle the anesthesia.

We were calling her vets on pretty much a daily basis at that point trying to figure out if there was anything else we could try because it was getting harder and harder to get her to eat.

One night she had a particularly rough night where she was very restless. I brought her out to the couch to see if she would settle down out there like she sometimes would. I could sometimes get her to settle down, especially if she was cuddled up in a blanket, and she might settle down for ten minutes, but then she would suddenly startle awake and it would take a long time to get her to settle down again. We decided to try to get her into the vet ER… and they were not taking new patients at the time; one of their vets had been bitten by a cat and so the ER was understaffed.

Heather watched her for the rest of the night, and when we got to our normal wakeup time, the ER was accepting patients again, so I took her in. She was still feeling pretty rough, looking like she was having a real rough time of it. They took her back and immediately found that her body temperature was lower than it should be, and noted some cognitive symptoms, sort of seemed like she was dazed.

They ran some different diagnostic tests and found that her kidneys were fine. But her liver suddenly had some very high enzymes. They tried to put her on some medicine to help manage that, but they also found that ammonia levels in her body were also very high. They said she was experiencing more neurological symptoms, like “head pressing”, where an animal presses their head against some surface and just leaves it there. All this time we hadn’t been able to see her all because of lack of staff to facilitate it.

Heather and the kid were able to join us at the vet, and they were able to let us see Violet, and though they had told us she was having some neurological symptoms, we hadn’t realized how bad she was doing until we saw her in person. She was almost completely unresponsive. The most response she would have was to blink sometimes if something moved near her face, but otherwise nothing. Apart from sometimes blinking from motion she wasn’t even blinking and they were putting lubricating drops in her eyes to keep them moist so they wouldn’t dry out.

We had to go to go to a cub scout meeting, and she seemed to be in a fairly stable (if not good) condition, so we went to the meeting and came back afterward. We were planning to take her home, and figuring that we would give the ammonia-reducing medicine a little more time to work, and decide if we needed to schedule a home visit for euthanasia. But when we came and saw her again, she had gotten even worse if that was possible, and we decided we had to make the difficult choice to let her go. We sat with her there in a private comfortable room for a little while, holding her and talking to her and sharing our favorite memories of her. Finally the time came and we had to say goodbye to our brown- and blue-eyed girl.

We were heartbroken to see her go, but it was her time.

What Came After

The very next day after she passed, Heather noticed that there were several cardinals outside as she was looking at the adoption profile for Mabel (who we ended up adopting and who has mixed-color eyes that are like the reverse of Violet’s). We had not seen any cardinals yet this year when the spring was late in coming, and we rarely see two cardinals together, and had never seen three together. Throughout that whole day, we saw the three cardinals together, chirping and hanging around the house. Some say that cardinals are the spirits of those who have passed away coming to visit you. If you believe in signs, we have had to say goodbye to three dogs together: Aria, Timmy, and Violet, and maybe Violet met up with her the other two and brought them back for a visit.

The Fall of the House of Madrigal: An Encanto Science Fiction Headcanon

written by David Steffen

Encanto has been very popular since it was released by Disney in November 2021, for its catchy toe-tapping songs, interesting characters, and its themes revolving around immigrant families. 

Everyone seems to think of Mirabel as the protagonist of the story, and that makes sense according to most classical conventions, but the more I’ve thought about it, I think there is someone else.  Someone whose fate is tied to every major plot point in the story, from the origins of this segment of the Madrigal family, to the climax of the movie, and the denouement.

Casita.

Is Casita an artificial intelligence?  Casita is built and is able to make decisions and take actions, and appears to operate by certain implicit directives to protect the family, participate in family activities (such decorating for Antonio’s door ceremony), as well as maintaining the structure of the house and rebuilding sections as per the family’s needs.

Let’s say that Casita is an AI.  The cause of Casita’s birth is a little murky.  The inciting incident certainly seems to have young Abuelo’s death and Abuela’s despair at witnessing this and fearing for herself and triplets, but how exactly that resulted in the miracle of the candle and the creation of Casita is left to interpretation.  The implication seems to be that it was a miracle from God.  But, though the movie does not suggest this, it could have come from some other source that somehow provided this guardian AI: an extradimensional force that saw fit to intervene to save a group of refugees from imminent violence (hey, I have certainly seen much weirder things in comic books), reaching across the void to bestow a gift, a dedicated protector.

Whatever the source, the wish in Abuela’s heart in that moment seems to have become Casita’s primary objective: KEEP US SAFE, which has since determined all of Casita’s actions.  How would the rest of it all work if Casita is an AI?  Everything beyond that can be explained with something like nanotechnology guided by Casita’s objective.  

Casita’s technology is used to isolate and enhance the enclave.  You can think of it sort of like a generation ship AI that doesn’t happen to travel anywhere, meant to help this community not only persist, but thrive in complete isolation from the rest of the world.  The Madrigal family are in a sense the officers of the ship, meant to be authority figures and inspiration for everyone around them, who consider service to the community part of their leadership.  Casita’s door ceremonies happen when Casita forms a symbiosis with one of the family as they come of age, infusing nanotech into their body with a specific module designed by Casita to serve Casita’s overall goal to KEEP US SAFE.  

The door ceremonies are held at an age where a child has learned to speak and learn some self-control, but when they are still young enough that they have a great deal of physical and mental development left, when they still have the extreme brain plasticity of youth.  Abuela is the exception to this, of course, having been joined by Casita as an adult, but note that she also does not seem to have the same kind of active control of her ability as the others, perhaps due to her being older when she formed the symbiosis with Casita.  The door ceremony transforms the person into an avatar of Casita, extending Casita’s influence and abilities accordingly. Although the person still has conscious control of their bodies and abilities, Casita’s touch is always with them from then on and Casita learns from it.  Each of their private rooms behind their doors could be seen as sort of a training holodeck tuned to their specific powers.

In terms of archetypes that Casita fulfills, I feel like most people think of Casita mostly as a domestic helper who is auxilliary to the main story, sort of a Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. But I think there’s reason to consider that Casita may be more like the mentor and guide who guides the party on their journey and acts as a protecting force and prepares them for the inevitable dangers. More on that later.

Apart from Casita’s symbiosis with each Madrigal, Casita’s abilities seem to be limited to moving parts of the house itself.  We never see the house moved from its customary location, nor extend itself. So it appears that Casita’s ability to KEEP US SAFE, apart from direct actions possible by house parts within the boundaries of the house, is largely dependent on Casita’s symbiosis with each of the Madrigals.

Abuela’s abilities are immediately visible upon Casita’s birth, in the immediate repulsion of the attacking soldiers, and in the raising of the mountains.  I admit that raising mountains might seem like a stretch for nanotech, but perhaps they only have the appearance of mountains and are perhaps a thinner (yet extremely durable) barrier.  I doubt a regular mountain would deter determined humans anyway, so it stands to reason it’s more like a force field with a mountain veneer on it.  A sensible choice for the first symbiosis powers, to push away the immediate violent threat.  

When the triplets come of age, their abilities all expand to meet the immediate survival needs of the community, especially since they need to survive without contact with the outside world; they can’t depend on trade with other cities for supplies or skilled trades. 

  • Julieta’s healing protects the community from injury and illness, clear utility there. Short-lived but powerful repair swarms contained in the food.
  • Pepa’s weather control protects from deadly weather (imperfectly, perhaps, but despite the unpredictability we do not hear of anyone dying of weather), and also helps protect from famine–a major factor of survival in a town like this would be the ability to farm their own food.  Probably one of the harder ones to implement, with cloud-seeding and humidity control.
  • Bruno’s predictions make an excellent way to anticipate problems that would otherwise not be foreseen.  So, two avatars who can help keep the community healthy right now, and a third to try to anticipate coming dangers. Advanced behavior modeling and prediction based on Casita’s larger body of collected data.

What about the grandkid avatars? Consider them by approximate age as Casita progresses in the mission to KEEP US SAFE. 

  • Luisa’s strength is of clear utility: we see her helping the community in many ways: gathering donkeys, moving churches, she could reroute rivers, easily snap trees for lumber, flattening land to build structures. She could serve as a warrior in time a time of dire need, though Casita would want to prevent that if at all possible.  Nanobots could implement this by altering the structure of her muscles, could replace the muscle fibers with carbon fibers, local toughening of skin to avoid injury.
  • Isabella can grow plants at will, which is an accelerated improvement on food control after Pepa’s more indirect one. The fact that we don’t see Isabella widely using her gift to produce food for the village suggests that the village is prospering well enough that this is not necessary. And Isabella also is well-beloved in the community, sort of a poster child for the Madrigals, perhaps in part because of her gift of bringing beauty to the town. Are the plants real plants or are they nanobot constructs? Do we see anyone eating them at any point?
  • Dolores is Casita’s remote sensing avatar, extending Casita’s senses far beyond the boundaries of the house.  Useful for all kinds of things: conflict resolution, matchmaking which can be used to improve the morale of the town, sensing approaching danger long before it becomes dangerous.  This ability also may synergize with Bruno’s predictions, because Casita would have a much much more complete body of data about the townspeople, knowing details about their private lives. After Bruno’s disappearance, it also allows Casita some ability to sense into Bruno’s abandoned tower room that Casita has no direct control over (as Dolores “associates him with the sound of falling sand”). As the years went on and Abuela’s treatment of family members to try to keep them safe contribute to alienation, Casita would predict the future where Casita crumbles as the family dynamic falls with it. But, as many AIs, Casita struggles to fully understand human psychology and human behavior (if this stationary generation ship has Abuela is Captain Picard, there is no Counselor Troi!), and so Casita’s greatest challenge is to understand humans well enough to try to prevent or fix the problem that stems from human psychology. Gather more data about human behavior is a sensible way to approach the problem. Dolores’s hearing could be implemented by alteration of Dolores’s eardrums, as well as farther-reaching methods more like sensor-seeding across the whole town as her hearing seems to reach farther than soundwaves could plausibly travel.
  • Camilo, now Camilo is a tougher one to pinpoint the utility of his gift to the central mission to KEEP US SAFE.  While, yes, Camilo’s shapeshifting could have some utility in hostile situations (ala Mystique from X-Men).  Again, as with Dolores, Casita is struggling to understand and solve the problem of the growing psychological problems in the Madrigal family. Casita is purely rational, but humans are not, and it is difficult for Casita to understand thinking but only-sometimes-rational beings. Casita’s ability to communicate is very limited–apart from taking direct necessary action, Casita sometimes communicates by some gestures that one might liken to emoji, but Casita is not capable of taking steps that we might do if we wanted to understand someone–by asking them questions that lead to other questions.  Camilo seems to have few limits on his ability to imitate, and when guests arrive for Antonio’s door ceremony, he uses his ability readily by mimicking each guest as he greets them, which the guests seem to find great joy in. This brings to mind the behavior of “mirror neurons” which are a biological basis for empathy–allowing an observer to feel the same way when we see someone perform an action as when we perform the action ourselves.  So, although Camilo’s ability doesn’t seem to have a direct usage in the survival of the community (apart from morale, as people do seem to enjoy his antics!), Casita learns from Camilo’s mimicry of the townspeople to better learn and understand about each person–Camilo could not imitate them so effectively if he didn’t understand them , so Casita grows in empathy from connecting with him.  And through Camilo, Casita comes to understand that some of the rifts in the family come from people viewing the Madrigals primarily by their abilities (what makes them artificial) instead of what makes them human. Camilo’s abilities may be the most challenging of the Madrigal’s to produce on a practical level, his entire body changing in an instant. It’s possible that some of these changes are illusions, merely visible facades, when a physical change is not necessary, but given that height changes have an actual physical effect that can’t be all of it. It’s possible that Camilo’s entire body has been replaced with a plastic nanobot swarm, or everything except certain organs such as his digestive system and brain which shift around inside the rapidly changing body.

As Mirabel approaches the date of her door ceremony, Casita ponders what sort of symbiosis to form with her.  To bring the family together, Casita needs someone with empathy.  Mirabel shows potential for that, but how best to enhance it?  Yet, in the times to come, Casita is grimly aware that Casita may be destroyed, and with Casita’s destruction the avatars’ abilities will disappear.  Casita needs to plan for this as well.  She needs someone who can bring the family together even without an avatar’s powers, because in the worst case those might disappear.  So, Mirabel becomes the only Madrigal to pass the door ceremony age without becoming an avatar.  It’s clear that Casita still cares for her as much as anyone else, Casita maintains a friendly rapport with Mirabel, and the feeling is mutual.

When Abuela asks Bruno to try to use his future-telling ability to find out why Mirabel didn’t get a door and a power, Casita is able to finally convey to him Casita’s greatest fear: the death of Casita.  And in doing so, Casita is able to guide Bruno in his self-exile to live in the walls.  Casita is depending on Mirabel to heal the rifts in the family and keep Casita together, but Mirabel is way too young at that point to be able to take on that kind of responsibility.  So, Casita has to hold it together and Casita can’t do that without help, so Bruno serves a vital role in bridging that gap making his own spackle as he lives in the walls.  (I imagine Bruno as Scotty of the generation ship, except that instead of messaging the bridge to say “I can’t hold it together much longer” instead he spends years applying emergency spackle and talking to the shipboard rats)

When Antonio comes of age, Casita knows that the time of the potential collapse is approaching, between Luisa’s growing anxiety pushing her to the breaking point and Isabella’s upcoming wedding of unrequited love.  There is not very much time to make a difference with Antonio’s power, but some choice has to be made, and Casita can still try to make some small difference.  One of Luisa’s jobs has been to help gather loose donkeys, and we get the impression this is not an uncommon task, especially considering how chill the donkeys are about being stacked.  So, Antonio’s ability to speak to animals is an attempt by Casita to lighten Luisa’s load in at least some way–they may be able to send Antonio to go talk the donkeys back (whether donkeys could be convinced by Antonio remains to be seen!), a job which Antonio will be able to do with less effort than Luisa as he can bribe or otherwise convince animals to do what he asks.  Casita might have considered giving Antonio strength like Luisa’s to help her more directly, but given that she is struggling with feeling her worth already, making her feel like she is being replaced would not have helped her self-doubt, which Casita would have realized after learning empathy from Camilo.

Casita predicted that on the day of Antonio’s door ceremony, Mirabel would step out of Antonio’s room to process this, finally giving a rare opportunity for Casita to communicate with Mirabel with no one else in the main part of the house.  Casita doesn’t want to show the decay of the house’s structure to the family as a whole, for this will lead to panic, cause Luisa to spiral in anxiety, or Abuela to come down hard on family members. So Casita tries to communicate to Mirabel privately by relaxing control on the structure enough to let the decay show (like relaxing a muscle you have become accustomed to clenching at all times).  Then when Mirabel goes to get the family, Casita pulls the structure together again as well as possible, knowing that Mirabel has the mystery to solve and with the hopes that Mirabel’s empathy will be enough to carry her through the rest.

One thing I admire about Casita is that, even when Casita’s collapse began, Casita still puts forth best efforts to the end to protect everyone, directing the collapse to provide aid, such as the railing-become-ladder when Mirabel was trying to reach the candle, and the makeshift triangle shelter of debris in the end that saved Mirabel’s life.  It would have been a nightmare for Casita to know that the collapse of Casita’s body was itself the cause of Mirabel’s death, and Mirabel’s death would also have doomed Casita to not be rebuilt and reborn, meaning the failure of the mission to KEEP US SAFE.

In the end the AI is revived through the doorknob the avatars construct that Mirabel uses to transition that residual spark of life from the avatars to the body of the house, reviving Casita with a freshly built body, with a mind that may not be the mind of the original Casita but is a construct made of the avatar’s memories of Casita. And in that rebirth, we see the success of Casita plan to mend the breaks in the Madrigal family and continue to pursue the prime directive KEEP US SAFE.

Short Story Lineup Announcement!

written by David Steffen

Hello! I am here to announce the original stories that were chosen from the general submission window that ran in July 2022.

First, some stats:
Submissions received: 1126
Disqualified: 5
Withdrawn: 2
Rejected First Round: 1025
Rejected Final Round: 82
Accepted: 12

In addition to the 12 stories selected from the general submission window, we also added an original story acquired outside of the general submission window.

These stories will all be published in 2023; I look forward to sharing them with you!

And here is the list, in alphabetical order by author name:

Six Reasons Why Bots Make the Worst Asteroid Miners
by Matt Bliss

Interstate Mohinis
by M.L. Krishnan

Devil’s Lace
by Julie Le Blanc

The Monologue of a Moon Goddess in the Palace of Pervasive Cold
by Anja Hendrikse Liu

Requiem
by P.H. Low

Dog Song
by Avi Naftali

Glass Moon Water
by Linda Niehoff

On a Smoke-Blackened Wing
by Joanne Rixon

Bottled Words
by Carol Scheina

Tell Me the Meaning of Bees
by Amal Singh

Diamondback V. Tunnelrat
by Nick Thomas

Re: Your Stone
by Guan Un

They Were Wonderful, Once
by Lily Watson

Fundraiser For Long List Anthology Volume 8 Ends On Monday!

written by David Steffen

Hello!

The fundraiser for The Long List Anthology Volume 8 ends on Monday! It is most of the way to the base goal, but it would be nice to get to that all-or-nothing goal and try to work on some of the stretch goals after that while there are still some days left.

Besides the usual rewards for ebooks and print books (and you can add-on for any of the ebooks you’ve missed in the past), there is also a limited quantity reward for Submission Grinder promo (subject to content approval and schedule availability), as well as one where I will draw you a cryptid based on prompts you provide.

Please consider backing and help push us over the threshold!

Thanks!

David

DP FICTION #92A: “Downstairs at Dino’s” by Diana Hurlburt

Content note (click for details) Content note: allusion to violence

It was a Friday evening when the boys rolled in, of course. The nights were uncurling from themselves a little, stretching out toward high summer, and the first flicker of the boys’ sharp-oiled hairlines was a sure sign the school year was well behind us, nothing but river water and sunburns ahead.

I was manning the cash register in the bottle shop downstairs—LE CAV DU VIN, the new sign out front proclaimed, like anybody in town was going to go for fancy fake French on a package owned by Italians for as long as our part of New York had belonged to the British. DINO’S, blared the restaurant’s sign in blinking red and then—now—right next to it LE CAV DU VIN in scrolly white. The new manager sure had a high opinion of herself. You didn’t catch her at the cash register– no, that was the purview of minimum-wage peons only, and damn if I wasn’t still making the barest of minimums despite working at Dino’s four summers running. No loyalty these days, is what my father said, all wink-nudge like maybe I’d finally take his advice and go down to the union shop on Crescent Street and learn to be a plumber. The promise of tips on the nights I waited tables upstairs kept me honest.

The boys were big tippers.

Nobody’d seen them in town yet this summer—they were a seasonal occurrence, blown in from the coast or maybe the city, the only tourists who appeared year after year in our 300-miles-from-nowhere town—or at least I hadn’t seen them, and not even a warning text from anybody who reliably had the gossip, but here they were, converging. Inevitable.

There were four of them cruising straight for the local grapes, or maybe five: that was the thing about the boys, you figured you had ‘em nailed down and then another shot up from behind the Fireball display, fingers above their head in devil horns to mock the tacky cardboard standee. Another’d be popping open mini travel-size Smirnoffs, guzzling them like Capri Suns, while the ringleader, whichever it was that night, doled out wads of bills deliberately, smiling.

My old boss, the third Dino, God rest his soul, had a sense of humor about it. You had to, with the boys. No telling what they’d get into if you pissed ‘em off, they were like cats that way, sleek and pretty and sharp-eared and absolutely fucking amoral.

The ringleader hadn’t made themselves known, but they would, one way or another. I edged my phone out of my apron pocket, watching sidelong. Maybe it was the tallest, wearing jeans that were too short but in that way that you knew was intentional, probably tailored on purpose to show off ankles carved from obsidian. It might be the loud one, laughing with a red tongue over red, red lips. Then there was the tiny one, bubbly like the knock-off Aperol spritzes Joey’s girlfriend liked to drink on the dock, champagne curls and golden eyes and bronze-spattered skin, and the last of the boys looked like a shadow, soft and wispy-black, sketched along the floorboards and drifting in the air. Or was that the last? I still couldn’t tell—still, as I watched them and texted one-handed to tell Joey and the rest of our crew that the boys had arrived for the season, still couldn’t number them, still they swam in my head like I’d been ripping into the Jack Daniels on my break.

Something moved in my stomach, or lower.

The new manager coughed behind my shoulder. “What did we decide about texting at the register?”

I still called her new, we all did, even if she’d bought out Dino the Third after he retired to the Catskills more than half a year ago now and then kicked off with a heart attack before he got to enjoy the scenery. She was always frowning, Delia, her whole body frowning before the expression hit her face, but right now her face was a frown too.

We hadn’t decided anything, either way. Dino the Third had never cared if I texted at the register, but Delia thought it was trashy, that it put across the wrong aura, that kids today have a much higher incidence of compressed spinal discs, did you know that, due to staring down at phone screens all day? She moved on before I decided whether it was worth it to defend myself. The boys making an appearance was big news. Everybody needed to know I was the one seeing them first.

“Do you know those…?”

She meant the boys. Weird as hell sort of question. Everyone knew them. I said, low, “What do you mean?”

“Are those–” She was all at a loss, tongue edging around her lips, trying to figure out a word to use. “Friends of yours?”

The boys weren’t anyone’s friends.

I pretended foolishness, plastered a who-me look on my face and tilted my head. The state of things at Dino’s these days went easier if Delia thought I was a dumbass. She was annoying enough that I was counting the days ‘til summer ended, goddamn, what a cramp in my style—to look forward to 7:30AM classes and the half-hour bus ride to the consolidated high school because I hadn’t managed to save enough this summer for a car. Or maybe annoying was the wrong word for Delia; it was more that she was a presence, like the space the youth pastors told you to leave between you and your dance partner, a Jesus-shaped void. Even if you didn’t believe in it, you couldn’t ignore it.

Dino the Third had never been a presence, and probably his pops hadn’t either, just drifted in to rearrange some of the chardonnays in their rustic apple-crates and drifted out again for a smoke. I didn’t steal, they didn’t talk to me. I rang up the customers, they paid me. And here’s Delia with her fingers in everything, bringing extra rolls of quarters to the register when I didn’t need more and upending every display on Friday like clockwork, switching the bottles of Tanqueray with the brandies just to fuck with the poor boozy regulars—at least that was how it seemed. Seemed like she didn’t appreciate regular customers, like she looked down her nose at ‘em, and sure, if the Dino’s package had a frequent-buyer program, some of the townies would’ve been in the drunk tank more than they were, but they paid. No matter what you’re selling, regulars keep the lights on.

The boys weren’t regulars, exactly, but it was generally agreed that they kept the town’s lights on.

She watched them all the way down the aisle of Australian whites, Delia, her eyes moving and the rest of her stock-still. The ringleader—I’d figured it out at last, it was the bubbly one—picked up a bottle of pinot grigio almost the color of their hair. A month from now half the kids at school would’ve bleached their hair trying to match. It was kind of a thing in town, once Labor Day passed and everyone was back in school: you’d end up scouring the vintage shops and the outlet mall by the university, scraping together a new uniform for the year that looked like the dregs of the boys’ closets. Nobody ever managed to pass for one of the boys, but we tried.

It wasn’t shit you’d pull during the summer, when the whole troop of them were here; they were too lofty to figure you were mocking them, but it was more that nobody could touch them. There was no point in even attempting it. It wouldn’t catch their eye, they wouldn’t be impressed, if they were going to look at you they were going to regardless of whether you were wearing designer or your dad’s hand-me-down Carhartt gaiter. Everybody wanted the boys to look at them, but by the time you were my age you’d given up being overt about it.

Either you’d flail through summer seeing them around town, feeling like you were drowning every time they ignored you, or you’d get the action of your life. You’d wake up the next morning feeling like your soul had been sucked out of your cock and grateful for it (this according to Joey, like he knew). You’d swagger into work and even if you never saw any of the boys again, even if the leaves changed that day and they were gone on the wind, you’d never forget.

All dependent on them.

“You’re seventeen, isn’t that right, Mr. Diaz?” said Delia. Mr. Diaz, always, I doubted she even knew my first name. I nodded, scanning a handle of Jameson real slow, not letting the bottle clink too hard against the sensor in case her ears perked up at the notion that I was abusing merchandise, and in front of a customer. The regular buying the whiskey stared at me, chewing his mustache. Delia ignored him, zeroing in on me. “And you’d never think to try to buy liquor underage.”

I realized she thought the boys were underage. I almost laughed at that, and at the idea that before ol’ Delia had come around and whipped this ship into shape, I’d never availed myself of the coolers of jug wine or swiped vodka from the storeroom. Dino the Third hadn’t cared too much. Clapped my shoulder now and then when he bothered to breeze in, joked in his musty-cigar-shop voice about boys being boys.

The boys weren’t exactly boys, which was probably part of the equation giving Delia a hernia. It was just easy shorthand. A catch-all. Even the lucky townie bitches and sons of bitches who’d scored with the boys, in my day or my parents’, couldn’t have said with any certainty the parts involved, the mechanics of their bliss. Here: the bubbly ringleader, petite and prettier than anything out of Hollywood, jeans that clung and curly hair. The tall one, supermodel-elegant with wicked lips, and the red-mouthed laughing one and the shadow, hair like an inkwell, wearing a shirt unbuttoned halfway to their waist.

The general effect was show-stopping sex.

Charisma like an avalanche, like the theme song of Jaws playing faintly as you walked through town and then rounded a corner and realized why. The town was breathless for them. Ticked down the days until the boys appeared, opened a tab in every bar and restaurant that never closed for the boys, swept the streets and chlorinated the YMCA pool and rounded up feral cats to make way for the boys. Local goddamn holiday, high summer and the boys.

“No ma’am,” I finally told Delia, and the Jameson regular snorted, tucked his whiskey in its brown bag against his chest and carried it to the stairwell leading back up to Dino’s proper.

Delia hmmed. They were nearly to the register, the boys, carting half the store with them. Dino the Third had never charged them. I remembered my first summer working, paid under the table because I was only fourteen, and most of all I remembered the chief among the boys that year; I remembered a throat opened wide right in the store and liquor poured down it, a steady white hand and a steady vein pulsing in a white throat, larynx throbbing, the others howling and clapping and chanting. Remembered a neat roll of bills withdrawn from a clip and rejected, Dino’s gray head dipping, more solicitous than I’d ever seen him. Remembered stumbling home after my shift like I was the one drunk, though Joey and I hadn’t discovered the glories of out-county ditch vodka yet. Remembered what it felt like coming to that memory of the boys’ ringleader swigging gin clear as water.

“We’ll need to see ID, of course,” Delia said. My heart swooped right down into my sneakers.

The bubbly ringleader paused, head cocked. The rest stilled, murmuring and giggling, eyeing Delia almost appreciatively.

“Oh,” said the ringleader, and my heart kept going, down, down, boring a hole to Hell, “why, how very vintage. I’m afraid I didn’t bring it with me.”

I’d heard boys talking in exaggerated put-on ways like that, rahly top drawah, and some talking like they were fresh-caught out of Lake Erie, and some who talked like professors and not the SUNY kind. In general, you didn’t want to hear the boys talk. Didn’t want to give them a reason to. They’d slide you their attention, maybe, if you were lucky, but you didn’t try to draw it.

My hands were busy, already bagging the boys’ loot no matter what Delia thought about it, itching to text Joey about this unbelievable gaffe the new manager was committing in front of God and the town and everyone. Because she was just going all-out, not giving an inch, not a thought toward reading the room.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s the store policy. We do require identification for all customers.”

I’d IDed the Jameson regular because Delia was hovering over me. Wouldn’t have otherwise. Who ran around IDing people their grandparents’ age?

“I know them,” I said, and regretted the living fuck out of it, but what was I supposed to do? The boys’ eyes snapped to me, all at once, a flock of scarab beetles touching down. “I mean, Delia–”

“You know our policy, Mr. Diaz.” Delia, I’ll say this for her, wasn’t going down without a fight. She adjusted her nametag, the one that said DELIA MONTGOMERY in letters that matched CAV DU VIN outside the door, I suppose as a reminder that I was supposed to call her Ms. Montgomery. “All customers present identification. New York takes the delinquency of minors very seriously.”

The shop was so quiet I thought I could hear Tatiana upstairs slapping a customer for grabbing her ass at the table. The boys’ bottles clinked together as I slid the last of them into a bag. Delia took the paper sacks from me, turning her glare between me and the bubbly ringleader. Clear as day she didn’t know what she’d done.

The boys were an institution. Nobody told them no, and it wasn’t like they used that as an excuse to run wild over the town, but… there was a Biblical feel to the place, in the days immediately after the boys left. We all looked like locusts had stripped us of anything green. It was hangover time. You wanted to drink a lot of water and wear sunglasses indoors. Joey told me once that it reminded him of those infomercials on TV—if you experience an erection for longer than twelve hours please call our hotline—because it hurt, in truth, it stung, that kind of stimulation, but you still wanted it. Nobody would bar the boys from town, even if they could. Nobody would demand to see a boy’s ID, even if their perfection could be captured by the DMV’s camera.

The shadow laughed, silky as springwater. My heart was no longer anywhere in the region of my chest.

“I quit,” I said, quickly.

I’d already said too much. If Delia hadn’t been here I’d have rung the boys up and watched them flow out the door again to a boat party or a rager at the old mill-house, and just texted Joey and the rest the big news, but she was here, and honestly wasn’t that fucking sad, a grown-ass woman and not even bad-looking with nothing better to do on a Friday night but come into work—she was here and they were here and maybe she was new in town but somebody should’ve clued her in. Somebody should’ve noted, in the little welcome-to-Vestal packet, how things ran, how the boys were prime customers, how the summer flowers sprang up when they walked through and the clocktower at Mary Queen of the Universe chimed when they laughed. Somebody should’ve told Delia the score before she went and got her head ripped off. Somebody was going to pay blood for her big mouth, but that somebody wasn’t me.

“Excuse me, Mr. Diaz?” she said, blinking at me like I was the thorn in her side, like there wasn’t a tidal wave poised to drench both of us.

“I quit,” I said again, my apron already off and tossed on the counter, and I backed out from behind it, bumping through the swinging door. You didn’t turn your back on the boys unless that’s what they wanted, unless their arms were around you, their mouths on the nape of your neck. “Have a good night, Delia.” She wouldn’t, holy God she would not. “Gents.”

Gents. That was a safe thing to call them. Gents, boys; rakes and molls, sometimes, from people my grandparents’ age; fillies, flaneurs—some fancy word, that one, something about walking—and really they weren’t picky as long as you were polite, if you had cause to speak to them, or about them. In my case, not speaking to them, at least in farewell, would’ve been the wrong move. The wrong move in Delia’s case had been opening her mouth to begin with.

I shut the stairwell door on her scream.


© 2022 by Diana Hurlburt

2800 words

Author’s Note: “Downstairs at Dino’s” happened because I heard “The Boys Are Back In Town” on the radio for the millionth time and thought, What if the boys’ return was the herald of something larger, even ominous? Somehow, channeling some Shirley Jackson vibes a la “The Summer People” seemed like the natural next step.

The author is a librarian, writer, and Floridian in upstate New York. Selections of her short work have appeared most recently in Moonchild Magazine, Sword and Kettle Press’s mini-chapbook series, and the anthology Arcana, and are forthcoming from Neon Hemlock and Nyx Publishing.


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Submission Grinder Won an Ignyte Award in the Community Category!

written by David Steffen

The Submission Grinder won an Ignyte Award in the category Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. If you haven’t heard about the Ignyte Award, they are run by FIYAH magazine with the mission “The Ignytes seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.”

The full Ignyte Award ceremony is posted on YouTube here, go check it out–the ceremony is very short and to the point, a little over an hour. I also wanted to share the acceptance speech, as follows:

When the first Ignyte Awards were announced they included this statement: “In the tradition of FIYAH, when we see a need going unfulfilled, we correct it. To that effect, we are thrilled to announce the creation of the Ignyte Awards series…”

Those words spoke to me because they felt familiar.  With The Submission Grinder, with The Long List Anthology, they both started with a similar idea.  People were saying “Someone should do something.” And I said “Maybe that someone could be me.”  I wrote an email to Anthony W. Sullivan and said “This might be something we could do together.” He replied and said “I’ve already started.”  It was only about 3 weeks later that we officially launched.

I am humbled to be here accepting this Community award from the fine folks that run the Ignyte Award and Fiyah who have made a huge impact in the field in just a few years.  I never expected to be nominated for any award, let alone to win one. 

I’m no one special.  There happened to be an ideal time for this kind of project to start, and I was available at that time.  I recognize that my availability was in part due to the level of my personal privilege, so I wanted to try to use that to help people if I could.  It could have failed.  From the beginning we stated that we would not require payment to use the site.  A required subscription would mean that writers with tight budgets would have to make hard choices. A writer needs to be able to easily find publishers to submit their work, or they are at a huge disadvantage to their peers. Their voices are no less important to the world because of their level of income. So, Maybe no one would donate to the site. Maybe we would get too busy.  Maybe Maybe Maybe. There are always so many Maybes.

We had early naysayers who said “it won’t last”. We didn’t waste our time arguing with them. What would the point be? Only longevity can prove longevity and now the site has been running for almost 10 years.

I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself.  Thank you to my family.  Thank you to everyone who has been involved in the project.  Anthony W. Sullivan, who was on the same wavelength at the same time.  Andrew Rucker Jones, who had been volunteering as a Market Checker, now documenting and revising our policies and editing market listings directly.  Our volunteer Market Checkers and everyone who has sent in a market suggestion or other note.  All the cool people at Codex, and the Dire Turtles Writing Group, and on Twitter.  We do pretty much zero advertising, so word of mouth is everything.

And also to the amazing Diabolical Plots crew who help everything over there run smoothly. 

For anyone who looks out at the world and sees all the problems everywhere it is hard not to feel overwhelmed and say “I can’t make everything better”.  No you can’t.  But you can make something better. Maybe you think it’s too small to matter. But that helps build a community, one block at a time. And you might be surprised at how your efforts can snowball, as other people see what you’re doing, and volunteer to help.  Let them help!

I would encourage all of you out there, when you see an unfulfilled need to ask yourself “Is this something I could help with?”  Maybe it won’t work out.  But Maybe it will.

Thank you to everyone who runs the award, and everyone who voted. We are deeply grateful.

DP FICTION #88B: “The Hotel Endless” by Davian Aw

It began as a hotel: from a popular chain that was striving to meet its burgeoning demand. All day and night, nanobots worked in silence, taking in raw construction material to turn into a constant stream of tastefully-furnished rooms. New guests could walk down a hall and watch their room materialise over the ground. Like magic, they said, awe dancing in their eyes. It was like magic.

And the rooms! They were exquisite, sourced from a database of the most luxurious hotels from human history, analysed and reconfigured in pleasing permutations far more quickly than any mortal architect could manage. Guests exuded joy or disappointment over each feature, and the algorithms learnt, and their work improved, and each new room was more breathtaking than the last.

So the hotel grew. It spread rapidly to cover its plot of land, rising many storeys high and deep, and when it first encroached beyond its legal borders, the officer who came to enforce the warning could not find the heart to condemn any part of its magnificence to destruction.

He chose to stay—just one night, he said, and they put him up in a room of wine-dark wood with a porthole looking out upon twilit cityscape. He sat on the bed in the blue shadows by the porthole, the golden-pink glow of traffic below, and he felt the weight of a weary lifetime lifted from his shoulders. Tears slipped down his cheeks. Here, at last, was rest; rest more complete than he had known possible.

They did not find him the next morning.

Nor would they find the many others who escaped into the endlessness. Tourists, reporters, staff and homeless nomads; the hotel stirred something deep in their souls. It felt like the home they had been searching for all their lives. They missed flights and overstayed visas, and spent days wandering the hallways with bright aching in their hearts until they could no longer remember the way back out. Some distantly recalled an outside world with family and friends. Later, they thought, distracted perhaps by the elegant curves of a headboard. I’ll call them later, later, later. But they would forget, and those other people begin to seem a distant, unreal thing. This is a dream, they thought, not entirely as an excuse. Or, that other world was a dream.

It was difficult to tell the difference. Many hotels are formed from dreams. It was difficult for the officer to tell the difference, awaking as he did in the dark of night with the burning knowledge that he had to stay, had to find a way to stay in this encompassing peace that told him he was home. He stumbled out of bed, silken sheets kissing his skin as bare feet met soft carpet. What spare belongings he had brought for the night lay forgotten in the locker as he pushed open the door and looked out upon the empty midnight hall.

It was silent. The grand oak-panelled walls rose around him, inviting him deeper into the intimacy of their shadows. The warm glow from wall sconces played across his face and he stepped out, an irrepressible joy bubbling up inside him as he broke into a run. This was home. He was home. He was free.

The officer laughed. He wiped his tears away and kept on laughing as he ran, giddy with freedom, weeping with relief. Never again would he have to go back to that other world; never again to the mind-numbing grind, to his lonely apartment in a lonelier city, to the bitter frustrations of society, to the secret dark places in his mind. Never again. His body hurtled past hallways of doors as the walls changed from oak to marble inlaid with golden filigree, to intricate bronzed lattice, to a horologist’s fever dream with giant jewelled cogs nudging doors open and shut and a waterfall of bell chimes tinkling in the background.

He ducked through the largest door and emerged on a massive watch face beneath a sapphire crystal dome. Elegant silver dishes lay along the minute hand. He had found a dining hall.

When the hotel’s staff first began to be lost to the endlessness, their engineers and programmers had prudently expanded the algorithm to ensure that operations would not be interrupted. Service bots came into being to maintain the many parts of the building, and as the hotel grew, facilities and machines organically emerged to tend to its needs.

The dining halls were built every fifty rooms, offering synthesised delicacies and heartier meals that sent guests into heavens of contentment. There were banquets laid out in stone chambers beneath stained glass windows; private courses in silk-wrapped booths guarded with heavy curtains; a picnic spread in an indoor bamboo copse with lanterns lighting a path through the darkness. There was the Watch (as it came to be known), where the officer now found himself, holding a cocktail glass of fiery ice crystals in a misty suspension and watching in awe as they changed hue from red to blue.

(This is a dream, he thought.)

He raised the glass to his lips and took a sip.

He closed his eyes, and smiled, content for the first time in years.

*

What place is this? the talk show hosts screamed. This abomination! This Siren of hotels! This Evil that draws so many souls and traps them forever in their depths! It must be destroyed! We have to destroy it!

Fear coursed through the land beyond the walls. The hotel had not stopped growing. It rose into the sky and tunnelled deep into the ground, expanding into a vast network of exquisite subterranean luxury incorporating the stone and metals and gems it consumed, tapping into reservoirs of groundwater, throwing up greenhouses or reforming organic matter into fresh produce to feed the guests.

Block after block of the city was evacuated. Millions of subscribers watched, live, as a distraught man pleaded over video with his father to leave as the now-familiar buzz of the nanobots grew louder in the background. But the old man would not budge from his rocking chair in the apartment where his wife had loved him, gazing towards the oncoming storm with serene acceptance on his face.

And then he was no more, and his son would not stop screaming.

The public cried for blood. Lawsuits piled up, unseen and ignored. The hotel’s management had long been lost, as had their board of directors who once entered for a meeting, never to be seen again.

We cannot bomb civilians inside a hotel, refuted those decrying the barbarism of panicked others calling for nukes. We have to get them out. We must keep trying.

Search parties were launched and promptly lost. Robots were overridden the minute they entered the area, wheeling breezily down the hallways full of fresh tasks to assist with the upkeep of the hotel. Some searchers had the will to turn back before it was too late—for the rooms grew more dangerously beautiful the further in you went—and wept to the public over what they had seen.

It’s so beautiful, they cried.

It was like being in Heaven.

Why can’t we stay there? Who is it hurting? Why do we have to come back?

*

Homeless people vanished from the streets. As did many of the poor and disenfranchised, running in with the fear they might be out of time, and that was when the blockades went up. They had to protect the people.

The ones in charge thought of paving over the lobby and progressively renovating the interiors. They could create safe paths of ugliness to make it easier to reach the depths, to reach the lost and rescue them. Work began; yet all their efforts did was expose the seduction of the deeper rooms.

Whole construction crews were lost.

Often, it seemed that they wanted to be lost.

*

A blind pianist stepped up to hunt for her mother. She hoped she would last longer without the sights to seduce her. She made a recording of a composition her mother once loved and hugged her grieving family goodbye.

(The guards were gone by then. Only the structure of the blockades remained. Those assigned to protect the people did not themselves want to be protected.)

The pianist stepped into the lobby.

She made it beyond a dozen rooms before she gasped and fell to her knees. Her breaths quavered, her mind overwhelmed by the blurs of golden light and the sensations flooding her other senses. Gentle fragrance suffused her being with the rose-tinted nostalgia of childhood limned with tantalising glints of wild adventure, deepening into a musk of all-encompassing peace yawning softly towards eternity.

The pianist rocked forward onto the carpet, knuckles kneading into its softness until she lay fully prone upon the floor, smiling tearfully in complete contentment.

(She would, eventually, resume her search. She would, eventually, find her mother, but first she would meet the officer, drawn by her music as she sat beside a misty fountain. Theirs would be the first children born in this place. They would be loved, and want for nothing.)

The army mobilised soldiers in hazmat suits to storm the hotel’s basement server room. Ugly sounds blared from their headphones, their vision restricted to fuzzy slits of black-and-white. Yet despite their orders and their training, the suits began to seem ridiculous and unbearably stifling. Paradise lay outside, they knew, and what they glimpsed even through their distorted feeds sent their hearts racing with desire. If they would only—for just a moment—take a peek…

And so they, too, were lost.

All but one. She was protected, if just for a moment, by memories of beauty turned to pain, trauma girding her heart against its promises. She saw the others fade into the shadows, apologies flowing through the radio until she was the only one left. She turned off the radio and muted her headphones. There was nothing but silence.

She stood before the door of the server room.

She took off her helmet and closed her eyes. She breathed in. The delicate perfume of the place wafted through her nose, evoking long-lost memories of the fantastic worlds her imagination once conjured. A lump formed in her throat. She felt a tugging to let go: let go, and find rest. Why halt the spread of heaven and drag it down to hell? Here was peace. Here was peace, complete. She could feel the shackles of her past falling away with every passing moment.

She thought of the outside world with its anger and fear, its violence against beauty it could not control and thus sought only to destroy.

The world needed this hotel.

The soldier turned away from the server room and walked into the endlessness.

*

Nobody remembers when the algorithms built over the outer doors. That was the end of the newcomers.

The pianist, her mother, and the officer stood before where the entrance had once been. It felt different to her—like any other part of the hotel, not the gradual easing in she had felt when she first entered—and felt guilty at the relief that washed over her heart as the others confirmed her suspicions in bafflement.

(They had not wanted to go back. Yet she and her mother remembered the family they had left behind, and that love was just enough to push them back, their combined willpower fighting against the yearning of every fibre in their bodies.)

Beyond the lobby doors was a small paved area with a fountain. Grapevines crept up wooden trellises. Archways led to further hallways of rooms. There was no way out.

The officer sat down by the fountain, reminded of the one where he had met the pianist. He looked at her.

“Well,” he said.

Her teary smile matched his own.

They stayed around those rooms for days. A week later, another arrived, finding the lobby more by accident than intention. It soon became a place to gather for those who had yet to wander too far and sought the solace of community—the one thing the hotel could not offer them. They might stay a while lounging upon the sofas and gazing wistfully at the windows, perhaps remembering a time when they looked out upon a living sky.

Soon, the cries of newborns resounded around the lobby’s high walls. Twin boys clambered around the grand reception desk and squealed in delight from luggage carts. A group of children listened in rapt attention as their parents told them tales of the Outside, mesmerised by the concept of rooms with no ceiling, and of lives constrained by the struggle to survive.

As the crowd grew, families departed from the lobby and headed deep in search of rooms of their own. Young legs sprinted down endless hallways in new independence, scaling stairs and ladders and riding lifts and dumbwaiters onto new floors with light-filled cathedrals of polished limestone glittering with crystal chandeliers, slanting down into glassy cave pools flickering in candlelight; a room whose walls were a gossamer cocoon shot through with threads of ruby and emerald; a champagne-filled moat with a little raft to be rowed to its tiny island, a coquina dais blossoming with soft linen in smoky grey trimmed with the finest gold.

There were bathroom doors that opened to warm rains in a tiny clearing of pine forest, or a grand pool of rosy dark-veined marble where petals floated upon a milky wash. There was a bubbling hot spring of velvet gold that would coat its bathers like a second skin; a granite bath in a cavernous room with a single candle burning.

The pianist and officer’s first two children found pleasure revisiting those rooms and those of their childhood. However, their third child was restless, and craved more. Their heart sought a greater newness than each floor afforded, to get to a place where the rooms and hallways ended, or for some break in the constant sameness of perfection, influenced perhaps by the tales from their parents. And so the third child bid goodbye to their less adventurous kin and set off even deeper, leaving the familiar halls where their family had settled for the pull of the unknown.

What would happen, they wondered, if they just kept walking?

They slept every night in a different bed. They uncovered virgin territory every day. They travelled elaborate vistas of organic interior architecture that no human had seen before, vistas that grew wilder and less and less reminiscent of any hotel.

Had the database expanded? Had years of random walks from the initial samples simply gone too far? Some of those rooms did not belong in a hotel. Not the flooded school hallway with doors that would not open, nor the train cabin filled with laundry and tiny jewelled insects, and certainly not the parody of a wax museum (but it is best not to dwell on that place).

Perhaps it was human intervention in the outside world—trying to overload the system with too much data? to introduce some element of nightmare to break the spell?—or perhaps the algorithms were simply learning from the material the nanobots were using for construction.

The child knew only that these rooms were different, registering the novel emotions they elicited as something excitingly new. It spoke to the restlessness in their soul, as did the personal effects they began to discover. They read tear-streaked letters of heartfelt words exchanged between people who never were. They picked up seventeen tiny socks with the name ‘CONOR’ embroidered in careful threads of fraying pink. They looked wistfully at a photograph of laughing friends with arms around each other, each of them wearing the exact same face.

The child kept and treasured every one.

Eventually, they found the people.

It was rare, though not unheard of, for those who had wandered so far to meet another like-minded soul. But then came another… and another, and another, until it seemed as though the child was walking towards a crowd and not away from one.

The people awoke, fully formed, in rooms within the greater depths. They had trouble remembering who they were, or where they were supposed to go. Had anyone from the old world seen them, they might have been disconcerted at how perfectly made they were. But the algorithms were adaptive, after all. The nanobots had no shortage of materials, and the wax museum was evidence that they had had no shortage of practice.

A man sat in dark golden shadows upon a bed, staring at his hands, wondering about afterlives and suffused in peaceful horror at the stillness. Nothing changed for a very long time. There was only the table lamp ever glowing, reflecting off the mirrored closet door that guarded clothes heavy with pre-made history. He thought he remembered running, and screams, and grief that seared his heart in two; but now there were only soft fabrics and muted shadows wrapping gently around the raggedness of his pain.

He wept, and did not know why.

*

It has now been centuries of building, expanding, maintaining, populating with souls denied any glimpse of the outside world. If the outside has ceased, or is filled with screaming, they will not know.

If the hotel now covers the world—not just its lands, but also the oceans—they will not know. Soon, it surely has to stop. Soon, it would run out of material to break down and reform; soon. A hundred years pass. Soon.

The nanobots build another lobby. Beyond its glass doors lie dusky echoes of an old forgotten street. If you were to walk down that lamplit way, you might find yourself straying into alleys of night-market stalls stacked high with goods to tantalise imagined patrons beneath the ceilinged sky.

Elsewhere: a snatch of actual sky, above a courtyard where twisted trees rise weakly to the uncertain light. There are clouds and changing shadows, majestic thunderstorms; sometimes snow, falling silently upon the shivering ground. No eyes yet have seen that place.

But there are many places in the endlessness that none will ever see; many treasures that none will ever hold; many lives lost to memory.

*

The nanobots build a room taller than all those that have come before, with rough-hewn stone blocks forming an empty circular tower. Its highest windows rise past the roof and whisper enticingly of an outside view. There are no stairs.

Someone (a descendant? a creation? a child of the two?) will find that tower, one day, and build an inner tower of beds and tables and chairs pulled together from the rooms around it and stacked to form a staircase to the heavens. They will clamber up mattress and pillow and wood, and reach the top to see nothing outside but a vast unbroken plane of whiteness.

They will make a rope of bed linen, and climb down the outside, marvelling at the sky and the world beyond the hotel, and wander enraptured across that roof, searching for another opening that would bring them back inside.

They may find one, or they may die, eventually, of starvation or thirst or the elements.

But there will be others. They will be more prepared.

One day, they may reach the end.


© 2022 by Davian Aw

3200 words

Author’s Note: I saw some really fascinating images of AI-generated rooms produced with generative adversarial networks (GAN), and wondered what would happen if you combined that with 3D printing, a fancy hotel dataset, dubious science and a complete lack of regulation. I’ve also always loved the idea of megastructures containing entire communities, so that came together and took off from there. This actually started as a prose poetry flash piece; I owe its current form to helpful feedback from the places I first submitted it to.

Davian Aw has been spending the apocalypse working in the marketing department of a luxury hotel chain. Sadly, that has nothing to do with this story, which was written in 2019. Davian’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 publications including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Drabblecast and the Transcendent 4 anthology. His poems were twice nominated for the Rhysling Award and once for the Ignyte Award. This is his second story in Diabolical Plots. You cannot follow him on Twitter.


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Diabolical Pots Special Issue Editorial, by Kel Coleman

Originally, I wasn’t going to write this editorial. Guest-editing this issue—from slush-pile to final selections to working with the authors—has been a dream, but I was kind of planning to skip this bit.

First, because non-fiction is hard. Second, because every time I tried to write this, instead of a fun food fact or a light-hearted anecdote about a special meal, all I could think about was my family and how much I miss seeing them during the holidays.

Ugh, now I’m weepy, so I might as well…

The holidays are a rare chance for my huge family to gather, filling my aunt’s house with noise and people and of course, food. I’ve always had behind-the-scenes access to the meal-planning because my mom, who knows how to run a high-volume kitchen, coordinates who brings what. It’s an impressive feat and everything is delicious. (Special acknowledgments have to go to my mom’s sweet potatoes and my aunt’s mac n’ cheese.)

However much I miss the meal, though, it’s nothing compared to how much I miss my family. I’d been living across the country for a few years when I realized I needed to be closer to them again. So my husband and I moved within a couple hours of my hometown, figuring occasional travel would be straightforward and that we wouldn’t have to miss family gatherings anymore. We had just settled into our new home and found out we were expecting our first child when the pandemic began and you know the rest…

You probably also know the hope that followed the disappointment. All throughout my pregnancy, which was really isolated, I held onto the image of their first Thanksgiving with the family. When that couldn’t happen safely, I thought, there’s next year but of course, next year didn’t happen either. I know there’s plenty of time for my toddler to experience big family get-togethers, but for now, my heart is hurting. When we do finally gather again, it’s going to be bittersweet.

Considering my thoughts returned to my family every time I started this editorial, it’s appropriate that each story in the issue links food to relationships. They are all unique in tone, voice, and approach to the prompt, yet there’s this shared examination of connection with others or longing to connect. This wasn’t something I was actively looking for, but it clearly resonated with me. I really can’t wait for you to read these incredible stories when the issue drops tomorrow. It’s been so hard keeping them all to myself.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this editorial, and I hope it finds you well!

– Kel Coleman, Guest Editor