UTH #2: The Story of Valkyrie and Zen

written by David Steffen

This article is based in the idea of UTH (Universal Transitive Headcanon); if you are not familiar with the concept you can read more detail about it here.

The long and varied history of Valkyrie and Zen is a story of the power of memory to shape a life whether with by your choice or someone else’s. Born on Earth, Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) when she was young had her first encounter with an alien lifeform when a Tarantian came into her house. (Men in Black: International, 2019) The Men in Black arrived and wiped her parents memories of the encounter, but she was left with her memories intact and chose to devote her life to finding the secrets of the universe. After twenty years she succeeded in finding the secretive Men in Black organization and convincing them to recruit her where she was dubbed Agent M. Her assigned partner was the smooth-talking Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who unbeknownst to her was actually Thor of the alien realm of Asgard visiting the Earth incognito. (Thor is of course known colloqiually as a “god” but despite his longevity and durability is strictly speaking an alien not a god. Thor’s inclusion in this film is… honestly more confusing than anything, without some contemplation of how this film might relate to Thor: Ragnarok. We will get to that later.).

It is fitting that the beginning of Molly’s quest for adventure begins with a near-miss encounter with a neuralyzer, a standard-issue tool that all Men In Black agents use to cause civilians to forget their encounters with alien lifeforms. Molly throughout her life encounters manipulation of memory as a mechanism of control.

The exact progression of her story from Agent M to Valkyrie has never been explained in detail (though one can hope for a film disambiguating this important transition in her life!) but if there’s anything that fandom can agree on it’s that a neuralyzer is involved somehow:

  1. Voluntary Retirement
    Did Agent M chose retirement in the tradition of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black, 1997), choosing to dwell among aliens since she had always yearned to learn more of the universe outside of Earth? To me this seems unlikely given her young age and how she seems to be thriving in the role as Agent M.
  2. Forced Retirement
    Did the MiB organization force her out? Again, this seems unlikely without further evidence. She has proven her abilities and her resolve. Without some clear reason why this would be beneficial to the MiB organization, I think we can rule this out.
  3. Escape
    Did Agent M flee Earth to seek refuge elsewhere? This is not out of the question, but without any concrete evidence this seems to be grasping for straws.
  4. Sleeper Agent
    Is it possible that both the MiB and Agent M voluntarily agreed to have Agent M’s memory erased for some other reason? YES LET ME ELABORATE.

Let’s return for a moment to her partner Agent H, aka Thor. It’s not clear exactly how he ended up as an MiB agent. But given his celebrity status in the organization and the fact that even in the story of MIB: International his memory has been messed with, it seems likely that the MiB organization made some unethical choices in “recruiting” him. Thor was probably exiled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth (as he did in Thor, 2011), or perhaps Thor exited of his own volition. The MiB organization saw his potential as an agent given his near-invincibility, strength, and control of weather, and neuralyzed him and gave him a new backstory. Without knowledge of his alien origins, Agent H lives for some time as an agent, and is no doubt watched very closely as it may not be clear if the neuralyzer’s effects are as permanent on an Asgardian as a human.

Between MIB: International and Thor, Thor has ended up back in the realm of Asgard as himself. Again, the exact circumstances are unclear. Most likely someone from Asgard came searching for him and the MiB cut their losses and wiped his memory again and sent him back. It was simply too much of a risk to try to hold him here on Earth anymore, and also too much of a risk to allow him to remember his tenure in the organization. But the MiB also couldn’t let that remaining risk go unchecked either. They needed an inside agent to keep an eye on things on Asgard, someone skilled enough and clever enough and determined enough to be suited for such a difficult task. His former partner, Agent M.

Agent M as herself could perhaps be well-suited for the task, if it were not for Loki (Tom Hiddleston, from Thor 2011 among others). Loki, master of mischief with his mind tricks, and with a vendetta against Thor. What would be the use of wiping Thor’s mind to protect the MiB’s secrets, if Agent M could be so easily found and the secrets pulled directly from her mind? So she volunteered to be neuralyzed and take on an entirely new persona–that of Brunnhilde the Valkyrie (colloquially known to fandom simply as “Valkyrie”, from Thor:Ragnarok, 2017, among others). Powerful so she can take direct action if needed, but one of a team of Valkyries so that she would not individually be the subject of suspicion. Assigned to work with the royal family which allows her to keep an eye on her former partner as well as the conniving trickster Loki. Her memory wiped of Earth and MiB in her history, but with implanted suggestions that would enable her to send coded messages to the MiB if the need arose and with others that could restore at least some of her former memories to allow her to act in full Agent M capacity, she became a deep cover sleeper agent who was consciously unaware of her own mission.

Which worked fine until the Valkyries were all but wiped out defending Asgard from Hela (Cate Blanchett) (Thor: Ragnarok), leaving Agent M stuck in her deep cover as Brunnhilde, shorn from her lines of contact with the MiB and remembering nothing about her original identity and mission. She resided on Sakaar for a time working as a bounty hunter called “Scrapper 142” and drinking to forget her past as a Valkyrie. And perhaps subconsciously hoping to remember her past in the MiB–again, wanting to control her destiny through manipulation of memory is a recurring theme of Agent M’s life.

When she found Thor, some part of her memory reawakened with the implanted suggestions to keep an eye on Thor, and so despite her selling him initially to the Grandmaster, she works with him to escape the scavenger world and return to Asgard to once again defeat Hela–joining the two of them as partners again, despite neither of them remembering having done so before!

Later, after helping to defeat Thanos (Avengers Endgame, 2019) Thor appoints Valkyrie as the leader of New Asgard. The progression her life takes from Valkyrie the newly appointed ruler of New Asgard in Avengers Endgame to Zen (Dirty Computer, 2018) is the least clear point in the progression of her plotline. When next we see her she is living on an entirely different world with the love of her life, Jane 57821 (Janelle Monáe).

One possibility is that, since Avengers Endgame, another political upheaval changed the Asgard political landscape yet again and Valkyrie was deposed from her position (perhaps by a committee of alternate timeline Lokis before their sudden but inevitable betrayal of each other) and exiled Valkyrie to fight to survive under a fascist regime. Another possibility is that she traveled there in secret, perhaps in a quest of self-discovery, after finding the mantle of leadership stifling, and was expecting to leave but was so drawn by Jane that she lingered there and may have missed her chance to return.

By this time she has taken the new name of “Zen” and appears to have given up her warrior ways and by all appearances is living a crazy, classic life with Jane: after a life of focusing on duties and work, she is free to live life for the sake of life, dancing and flirting and spending time together with Jane and Jane’s other love, Che Achebe (Jayson Aaron) and their like-minded friends. Making films, playing instruments, and practicing her art, including a tattoo of a crucified woman with an old-fashioned television head on the inside of Jane’s forearm. She has even become a priestess, performing baptisms and weddings.

In some ways she is very different as Zen than Valkyrie. She shows much less tendency toward violence, even when provoked. The reason may be hinted at with Jane’s words: “I always used to say I would never hurt a fly, but I would put one to sleep”. Zen has turned over a new leaf, and has taken a vow of pacifism. Zen never speaks of Asgard or her leadership there. But she still remembers her Valkyrie days, a continuity which she shows with similar style of facepaint of white lines, a reminder of where she came from, so it appears that it is not another life event involving memory loss. Not speaking of Asgard is a choice.

But even though she is no longer fighting hostile aliens, her life is no less dangerous, because the society that she and Jane live in is oppressive to anyone who is different. She is labeled as a “dirty computer” and targeted by the government for her queerness and rebellion against authority. One by one, she and her friends are captured and scheduled for reprogramming, to work out the so-called “bugs”.

Zen is captured. After all of her struggles to maintain control of her life through memory Molly/Valkyrie/Zen is made to forget. By the time Jane is captured, Zen’s memories have already been taken from her and now she is known only as Maryapple 53 and is working as a torch, assigned as a friendly face to guide people through the reprogramming process. At first, she remembers nothing when Jane speaks to her, but Jane’s recalling of their times together starts to ruffle the programmed facade, and their time together acts in both directions, with the tattoo acting as an important focus for both of them.

Jane is subjected repeatedly to “the Nevermind”, a hypnotic fog that extracts memories and allows technicians to view and erase them, but with Zen’s presence, Jane’s memories sometimes appear again after having been deleted. Zen, still under her programming, advises Jane that it is better to just accept the process and not think. “People used to work so hard to be free. We’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget.” And though Zen does finally remember everything, the credits roll after what appears to be a successful reprogramming of Jane: Jane (introducing herself as Maryapple 54) is assigned to be the torch for Che when it comes his time for reprogramming.

Some of the details of the trio’s capture are unclear. One of these scenes appears to show Jane and Zen escaping as Che is arrested. Another scene shows Zen being captured alone while Che holds a distraught Jane back from rushing in to be captured as well. Unless one of them pulled off an improbable escape this doesn’t quite seem to add up. Most likely this is a symptom of memory damage caused by the Nevermind’s extraction process. One of the Nevermind technicians who push the buttons to operate the extraction comments “What is this? It doesn’t even look like a memory.” Though he seems to be relatively new to the job, not yet hardened to the brain damage he is intentionally causing, he seems to have enough experience to understand that this is not how these things are supposed to go. Later he says “I thought we deleted this beach stuff already” which, again, indicates that something here has gone awry in Jane’s memories that serve as the foundation for our understanding of the story. This could be Zen’s influence at work. Her particular relationship with memory may have made her resistant to the Nevermind, and maybe this has granted some protection to Jane as well.

We may not be able to trust every detail of those memories, but we are never given any reason to doubt the love between Zen and Jane. In the end, their love for each other proves out, and Zen delivers gas masks to the other two as they gas the rest of the facility with the Nevermind, sticking to their pacifist ideals and not harming anyone on their way out even though we could certainly have understood them wanting to.

After the end, and I hope that a revolution is on its way soon to free all the others who were captured before them and who will otherwise be captured after. I hope that Zen and Jane and Che have a long and happy life together being true to themselves and surrounded by loved ones. May they always remember what they wish to remember, and may they always forget what they wish to forget.

DP FICTION #79A: “Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments On Edits For ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz

Dear Editor,

We would like to thank the Reviewers for their, as always, insightful comments and you for submitting our paper to a third round of “blind” peer review—a rarity for the Journal of Molecular Magecraft! How fortunate that such an excellent team of biologists and Magi have dedicated their no doubt highly sought after free time to subjecting our manuscript, out of dozens accepted by your journal daily, to special scrutiny. We have addressed the Reviewers’ concerns on a point-by-point basis below.

Response to Reviewer 1

1. We have duly cited your the indicated study and apologize for our omission.

2. We would like to emphasize that the aforementioned study only demonstrated efficient Draconification in mice. Humans treated by the previous DNA modification spell only manifested secondary Draconid features, i.e. claws. In contrast, our Draconification incantation (which included both genetic and epigenetic components) resulted in complete homeosis of our human subject. In particular, this included spontaneous growth of wings from scapulae (Fig. 4a), transformation of the germline into fire-producing organs (Fig. 4b), and overall growth (Supplemental Video 1). Therefore, our manuscript does not represent, as the Reviewer seems to suggest, a merely incremental advancement in the field.

3. Even if our manuscript is only an incremental advance, the publication of the aforementioned study, with all its limitations, in Magica journal (average number of article citations: 40.33) demonstrates that our study is more than worthy of being published in the Journal of Molecular Magecraft (average number article citations: 11.01)  even if the corresponding author is not a Nobel laureate like the author of the aforementioned study.

4. We apologize for and have corrected the typos. The corresponding author takes responsibility for these mistakes. Unfortunately, typing has become much more difficult for the corresponding author as of late.

5. Unfortunately, we are unable to address this point as we are uncertain of its intent. We are aware of the whereabouts of the corresponding author of this study. She is one of the co-authors of this rebuttal. That last comment was entirely unnecessary.

6. The increased shipment of livestock to our Institute is entirely irrelevant to the goals and aims of our study and does not need to be explained to the Reviewer. Again, we have the situation under control. [Zu can u PLS c0nvince I.T. t0 c0me d0wn t0 my new 0ffice I kn0w its a trek but the damp/c0ld is g00d f0r my migraines –JD]

7. The Reviewer displays alarming Draconist tendencies in this comment. We would like to remind the Reviewer that Draconids do not frequently exhibit hoarding behavior and in fact this is a common misconception arising from Western legends of antiquity, cast, as is typical, through a lens of systematic bias and exploitation of magical beings. In special cases, a Draconid may cherish an especially undeserved and coveted possession and remove it from its owner’s grasp for a limited amount of time. But even in this case, the Reviewer’s Nobel Prize in Magecraft or Medicine is in no danger of such attention.

Response to Reviewer 2

Response to Major Concerns:

1. n=1 for all experiments, unless noted otherwise. We are aware that such a small sample size makes analysis difficult. Nevertheless, we have consulted numerous statisticians and oracles to ensure our interpretation of the data is as robust as possible. [Zu put a pl0t here t0 make this c0nvincing. –JD] Unfortunately, we were not able to find additional human volunteers willing to undergo the Draconification procedure in the limited time given for revising our manuscript.

2. Our Draconification protocol is completely reversible and any other presentation of the facts is blatant fear-mongering. However, we have added the requested supporting experiments to Figures 1, 4, and 5. If the Reviewer is still unable to appreciate that the results are thoroughly supported by the data then we advise the Reviewer to take download the raw data we have uploaded to the GEOMANCER public repository and shove it analyze them using xir own custom pipelines.

3. We can ASSURE you the Draconification protocol is reversible for reasons totally unrelated to the corresponding author’s last minute cancellation of her talk at the Immortalization Session of the 2021 Eternal Spring Harbor Laboratory Meeting last month. We resent the Reviewer’s implication that we are censoring data in favor of publishing our results ‘on the court of public opinion’, e.g. antagonistic Tweets at 2 a.m. [seri0usly when d0es xe find time t0 run xir lab between all this s0cial media? –JD]. We note that it is highly ironic that Reviewer 2 feels the need to lecture us on ethics when xe felt the need to forensically dissect the deep sequencing data of our subject and point out its epigenetic consistency with that of a 46 year old biological female of Eastern European ancestry subjected to high amounts of stress such as being scooped by a shoddily put together manuscript whose only merit is its sheer number and idiocy of mouse experiments. It is extremely inappropriate to compare this signature to the medical history of the corresponding author. We respectfully point out that millions of people live in the Greater Boston area (with millions more preferring not to live in the Greater Boston area and commute via portal). Thus any similarity between the Draconified subject data and any persons the Reviewer xe is familiar with, real or imagined, is entirely coincidental.

4. We acknowledge that it may appear, to the untrained human eye, that the time course in Figure 3 shows acceleration of the Draconification process in the subject in terms of claw/tooth length, scale coverage and, indeed, total lack of human features at the penultimate time point. [Zu did u get the new RNA-seq data d0 u think a repressi0n spell f0r the magically m0dded DNA may be viable? –JD] However, analysis in Supplemental Figure 7 shows that these changes are not statistically significant. The Reviewer does NOT need to remind the corresponding author of the 1945 Runestone Convention on Transmutation, vis-à-vis the Accord that humans not be transmuted for frivolous or combative purposes (with the exception of treatment of otherwise intractable disease and internationally beneficial scientific advancement). A violation has not occurred here. In any case, the corresponding author definitely values ancient agreements made by out of touch Magi over  real-life, pressing, matters, such as timely publication of any manuscript  instrumental to a successful-tenure evaluation.

5. It is completely inappropriate to bring up incidents that may or may not have occurred at a conference decades ago in a professional scientific review. There are no witnesses.

Response to Minor Concerns:

6. We have added the requested Western blot control (see Supplemental Figure 8e).

Response to Reviewer 3

We are sorry that Reviewer 3 was unable to comment on our edited manuscript due to tragic, unforeseen circumstances. We would like to point out that independent investigators have found no link between Reviewer 3’s injuries and the whereabouts of the corresponding author, and that anecdotal accounts of a particularly large Draconid flying over the Boston Helioport district are entirely coincidental. In any case, Reviewer 3 was left mostly unharmed by the incident and his airship definitely not funded through ill begotten grant money suffered the brunt of the fire damage.

We hope this rebuttal has sufficiently addressed the Reviewers’ concerns and look forward to your timely response regarding the status of our manuscript. Above all, we trust we have made it clear that it will not be necessary to send our manuscript back to the Reviewers for further comments. In any case, regardless of your final decision, the corresponding author looks forward to meeting you in ‘person’ at the International Congress of Organic and Magical Beings next week!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jane Dráček, corresponding author

Assistant Professor, Department of Chromatin Engineering

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

Zu Heiko, first author

PhD program in Alchemical Biology

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

et al.

[Zu pls fix typ0s and fig margins remove auth0r c0mments ESP THIS 0NE + send t0 editor. als0 PLS can u ask I.T. t0 come t0 my 0ffice an install Illustrat0r agin. sry for n0 0’s. br0ke new keyb0ard. damn claws. -JD]


Author’s Note: In academia, it’s typical to send research papers to journals where they undergo blind peer review. After the reviews are returned, the authors are given a chance to respond to reviewers’ comments, which can help the journal editor decide to accept or reject the manuscript. While these peer reviews and responses have historically not been published, there has been a recent movement to do so to make publishing more transparent. Reading some of these, as well as going through the process myself, it struck me how much of a story is often apparent from the peer reviews themselves – completely apart from the science. Academic rivalries can rear their heads, research fields can split apart, and even entire careers can hang in the balance. As a scientist, I also wondered how researchers would study magic with the scientific process if it existed in our world. Especially, how would these magic researchers get their papers through peer review? What kind of extreme experiments might they be pushed to do in the name of novelty and getting published? The answer is, of course, absolutely none and there is nothing wrong or suspicious about the peer review and response above 🙂 [this is the version with track changes and comments removed right???]

Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Her stories are upcoming in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and have appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Nature, and Interstellar Flight Magazine, among others. Find her at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @theworldshesaw. 


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DP FICTION #78B: “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel

The interest in Thea Wells even outside of the circle of art lovers and connoisseurs remains strong, and conclusions about her work range from the normal, technical approach of art critics to the downright strange explanations of the ardent believers in the paranormal. To give a brief overview of her art, it does not do to linger too much on either end of this spectrum. Instead, a few key paintings of Wells may be seen as markers of her arc as an artist, of where she started, of where she ended. These paintings also show the overlap between the mundane and those who seek the supernatural in Wells’s work. Other pieces, such as Watercolor of an Ash Tree or Sketch of a Cityscape from the Ledge may have sold for five figures, but they never wove that aura of mystery around themselves.

The evolution of Thea Wells’s skill does not just lie in the brushstrokes and her increased mastery of light and shadow, but also in how she approaches her subject. Most art critics agree on this, and they will point to Shadows of Winged Insects Before a Flame or Breath, from the Inside. Her skill is best savored through select prints of her work, viewed in chronological order. The prints, while they allow paintings scattered in museums and hidden away in private collections all over the world to be seen next to one another, do not convey the vibrancy of the originals and the enchanting quality that makes people stand in front of a Wells and examine it, sometimes for hours.

*

Féli in Nightgown

This is the earliest painting that shows Wells’s lover Félicity M in the classic odalisque pose. Even to this day, no one was able to find out what this elusive muse’s real last name was, where she came from, how she and Wells met. She would usually introduce herself without giving any further details about herself, brushing off curiosities in a polite and joking manner.

In the painting, Féli looks away. She reclines on a lavender colored ottoman, and looks at the observer with her green eyes half closed. Her phone is on a cushion on the floor, her left hand just hovering over the screen.

The door to a balcony is open in the background, and light spills in on a gust of wind that stirs the curtains.

Wells took great care to let us know what we can’t see under the nightgown. Féli’s breasts are delicately outlined against the thin, silky fabric, and the strands of dark hair that run over them reveal more than they cover. Her waist lets the nightgown flow like cream, and the long legs, though they are covered, are tensed as if in pleasure.

Notably, this painting was Wells’s breakthrough. Ever since it went on display it has been targeted by thieves—though thankfully none have succeeded.

*

The Masque

The Masque was painted perhaps a year after Féli in Nightgown at a time when Wells had made it big in the art world, when her paintings were fetching five or six figures (though only the works painted after Féli in Nightgown. Her paintings prior to this are a completely different style, and they lack the later works’ pull.)

The Masque not surprisingly shows a masquerade, but Féli is the only guest, repeated nine times in nine different costumes.

She is an emerald-feathered bird with beak mask, a golden shimmering queen, a harlequin in chequered dress that shows her smooth skin generously.

As a ballerina, her legs are elongated by pointe shoes, she captivates with khol-lined eyes as a mystic with a custard pale snake draped over her shoulders and scales held in on hand, and enchants as a fairy princess with a necklace of black beads coiled around her neck.

Dressed in a robe of stars, she is the night, and with a milky sunrise costume that begins to let Wells’s light and dark mastery show, she is the day.

The ninth costume is unusual. It is hidden in the back, near a curtain and the darkness at the edges of the painted room. Féli is wrapped in a dark robe, a dark hood, and a white mask covers her entire face. She holds a book in the crook of her left arm, and we cannot see much of the volume, except that it appears heavy and old. The mask seems to follow the onlooker. It is a haunting shape, and it could be someone else entirely watching the scene unfold and the observer alike but for the pale hand that reaches up as if to pull back the black hood. It is a woman’s hand, and it looks like that of Féli hovering over her phone in Féli in Nightgown.

The Masque was first owned by a museum, but not for long. A private collector acquired it, and some sources have come forward over the years to claim the museum sold the piece because the people handling it, the people working in the museum and walking past it every day, suffered nightmares in which a hooded shape wearing a white mask featured prominently. The veracity of these claims is doubtful, even if Internet forums are full of stories of people who say they saw The Masque on display and also had the dreams.

*

Sunbathing

This is a captivating piece that attracts crowds, so much so that museum authorities decided to keep the painting in its own room and allow visitors in only in groups, each group being allowed just thirty minutes with the painting.

Sunbathing is, at first glance, quaint. It was painted probably less than a month after the completion of The Masque. Féli is the very center of this painting. She sits, cross-legged, on a green and white beach towel, sand and beach grasses around her, the ocean a distant haze of blues in the background. She smiles. It is a very subdued smile and has been likened more than once to that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Féli is wearing a black bathing suit. The color is harsh against the pastels of the towel and the beach, but her green eyes are sharper still as they look outward, to the observer.

A bag by Féli’s left knee spills over with things people do not normally take to the beach. There are old-fashioned metal scales, beads bound on a string, a mechanical music box. The strangest thing entirely about this painting, however, is the tome that lies open on Féli’s lap, big and old, its pages possibly parchment, bound in leather. It pulls one back immediately to the book the dark figure cradles in her arm in The Masque. Experts have studied the open page. It is covered in the same script that has baffled scholars in the Voynich Manuscript for decades, and just like that enigma, what can be seen of Féli’s book remains untranslated and not understood. The book was not among Wells’s possessions, and it might be entirely a figment of the painter’s imagination.

*

The Diners

This painting is seen as the first sign in Wells’s art that her relationship with Féli was coming undone. It is dated to almost two years after The Masque and Sunbathing, and experts have long speculated that there must have been other paintings of Féli between these two. Whether they remain in private collections, tucked away from the eyes of the world, or whether Wells herself destroyed them is uncertain but a matter of great debate.

In The Diners, Féli is seen having dinner with a stranger. The table is elaborately set, there are glasses one behind the other, and they twist and reflect the room, the table, the food; more than one enthusiast has found hidden symbolism here, like messages glimpsed in a crystal ball.

Red flowers spill their petals on the white tablecloth and the pinkish bloody meat served on a silver platter. Féli’s guest is a man of supreme beauty. He outshines Féli entirely. His hair is dark like hers, as are his eyes, but his lips are flushed with color. Between the two, on the white tablecloth and hidden behind the glasses and the wilting flowers, there is the book again, now closed, and Féli’s guest has his palm flat on the cover, fingers splayed. Neither Féli nor he spare the book any more attention than that; they are focused on each other.

They are leaning in close, caught in conversation. Underneath the table, Féli’s hand is resting high on the stranger’s thigh, and his free hand vanishes under her dress. There is much speculation as to whether this really happened, or whether it was some sort of vengeance, whether Wells put this scene on canvas for all eternity to see Féli as unfaithful. No one knows who the stranger is, and the painting was sold to an unknown buyer at an auction ten years ago.

*

The Chef

This shows Wells’s mastery of light and dark. Féli has her back turned and stands in Wells’s kitchen over pots and pans bubbling on the stove. She is wearing a figure-hugging dress, long and black, and her shadow can be seen on the floor, stretching beyond where the canvas ends.

The light in the kitchen appears ephemeral, there is no source for it, no lamp, and no window. On Féli’s left, ingredients wait to be tossed into the pots, onions and carrots peeled and chopped, chunks of glistening, bloody meat in a dish, the legs and head of a rooster.

Féli has a dark teal vial in her left hand. It could be an oil or spice. She is about to pour it into a pot.

Her hair is coiled and piled on top of her head, and strands spill out like Medusa’s serpents.

After The Chef, Wells’s erstwhile prolific nature changed; she became even more of a recluse and produced only two paintings to sell, though it is speculated these were older works from her private collection. Several dozen unfinished paintings begun after The Chef all show Féli, though they fail to move beyond a mere sketch.

The Chef was loaned to a gala opening at one point, for a single evening. There are reliable sources saying that all the meat dishes served at that opening were spoilt and inedible. Yet, the food had been freshly prepared on that very day. While meat going bad can be more likely attributed to other factors such as temperature and improper handling, some blame the painting for it.

*

The Finale

The Finale is the title given to this painting by curators. Some call it The Last or even The Omega. Wells herself never gave it a name.

This painting was discovered in Wells’s atelier along with her corpse, though the date of its completion is uncertain. The painting is large, ten by seven feet, and it seems to be a riddle inside a riddle inside a riddle.

It shows a circus ring, and many things are happening there at once.

One of the first things that we see is the book, the big tome Wells so often added when she painted Féli. It is once again being held by a figure in black, robed and hooded, wearing a white mask. This time, the hooded figure reminds us of The Masque, but appears decidedly male and is looking toward the center of the ring. In his arms, the book is open. He holds up one finger as if he were reading from it and commanding the listener’s attention. We also see Féli opposite the robed figure. She is dressed like a belly dancer. Most of her skin is visible. Snakes wreathe and slither around her body, her waist, her breasts and ankles, and the expression on her face is one of boundless joy and ecstasy.

A white tablecloth catches the light in the background. It is set on the ground almost as if for a picnic, though plates and silverware and glasses indicate something more elaborate. There is wine in one of the glasses and a pinkish shimmer on one of the plates. The teal vial from The Chef sits on the tablecloth, unstoppered, though whether it is full or empty, we cannot see. Apart from that, there is no food.

Seemingly random items are scattered on the ground. Black beads are spilled like breadcrumbs, and paper has been torn and strewn alongside them, old paper with traces of writing on it that has, unsurprisingly, prompted unsuccessful efforts to reassemble the torn pieces seen in the painting and decipher their meaning. Other things we are shown are the tools of Wells’s trade: brushes, paints, all strewn haphazardly, including one canvas that has fallen face down so that we cannot say what painting it is. Another item that has caused speculation is an envelope. On it there is once more the indecipherable writing from the Voynich Manuscript, and we are left to wonder what message it contains.

In the center of the ring, drawn in shadows, is Wells herself, dressed in red and gold as the ringmaster. She is facedown, and her pale brown hair scatters in the puddle of blood under her. All of the fingers in her right hand stand at odd angles, broken. Her costume bears traces of paint, and it is torn in places. The violence is tangible.

An urban legend surrounds this painting, which is now housed in the Thea Wells Museum after it spent long years in police evidence. The legend says, when you focus your gaze on the figure in black who is reading from the book, you will dream and the dream will have no color at all. You will find yourself in perfect blackness, and there will be music around you as if heard from a distance, carnival music that echoes strangely distant and metallic, as if it echoed from an old music box.

*

That last, untitled painting is disturbing. It becomes even more so when viewed side by side with the photographs taken by the police of the scene they found in Wells’s atelier, or at least those that were leaked following her death. While those crime scene photos say nothing about Wells as a painter, they bear mentioning because they seem to echo The Finale. Wells can be seen facedown in her own blood. In reality, Wells wore a simple red shirt and no costume, but the tears in the fabric, as far as visible in the photographs, match up with the tears we see on the ringmaster’s costume in the painting. Wells’s blood has dried to a dull maroon, not the scarlet seen on the canvas. She was cut and bruised, her right hand—the hand she painted with—revealed to have been broken extensively.

Wells had been attacked. In the police report, leaked shortly after the photographs, one officer said they had only ever seen wounds like that in the mountains, when a bear found a hiker and took them down with claws and teeth. No wild animals were reported in the area of Wells’s residence, and no other signs of them were found in Wells’s atelier.

One thing that is different in reality is the negative of a shape in the dried puddle of Wells’s blood. It appears as if something large and rectangular was there when Wells bled out. When she was found, it had been removed. Some claim it was the tome, that leatherbound strangeness, that kept the floor clean where it lay because it drank all the blood that touched it.

Thea Wells’s murder remains unsolved.

Féli has never been seen again, not even at Wells’s funeral. However, if you look closely at all the photographs taken of that event, you will see a figure among the celebrities and pedigreed royals who have come to say farewell to a genius artist who defined a generation. The figure is in only one or two photos, and they seem to be wearing a long, dark robe. While their face is shadow-wrapped, it appears pale, smooth, mask-like. It could just be one of the mourners, seen from an odd angle with unfavorable lighting. Or not.

The question of the dark man, Féli’s alleged lover, also remains. When The Diners first sold—minutes after it was hung in the gallery—people asked Wells about him. Wells refused to say anything about the painting or its subjects, having become eccentric and like a modern-day hermit by that time already.

To this day, Wells’s paintings attract not just art-lovers and historians but also believers in the supernatural. The police are regularly called to Wells’s grave to break up séances held by self-proclaimed mediums and their congregations.

Féli remains a mystery as well. Yet, one art historian has told this author, in confidence and on the condition that their name not appear in this article, that they have seen Féli, her face, her dark hair and green eyes, her uncannily pale skin and distinctive features. The historian found her on another canvas, which cannot be clearly attributed to an artist. Yet, that canvas was confidently dated to more than 300 years ago. It is the portrait of a seated woman who looks exactly like Wells’s Féli. Far in the background, one can just make out the sinking bulges of a circus tent, a harlequin in their chequered dress walking inside through the flap. This painting’s basis in reality, just like its creator, is not clear. How it managed to capture the woman that appears in Wells’s paintings 300 years later, is unknown.


Alexandra Seidel writes strange little stories while drinking a lot of coffee (too much, some say). Her writing has appeared in Future SF, Cossmass Infinities, and Fireside Magazine among others. You can follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlexaSeidelWrites/), and find out what she’s up to at alexandraseidel.com. As Alexa Piper, she writes paranormal romance books which have been rumored to make people laugh out loud in public.


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First Reader Applications AND Upcoming Submission Windows

written by David Steffen

Hello! We have a few upcoming things we need to announce, let’s get right to it shall we?

General Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is opening for general submissions for the first two weeks of August 2021. Read the guidelines for more information!

First Reader Applications

Diabolical Plots is looking for new First Readers! You may also know them as “slushreaders”, they help read submissions of stories that come in to help us consider them for publication. We are taking applications from BIPOC applicants until June 30th, and after that from everyone until July 10th. For more detailed information and the actual application form please follow this link.

Themed Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is pleased to announce our first themed issue ⁠— stories of food, dining, and cookery, which we couldn’t resist titling “Diabolical Pots”! (Actual pots optional.)

We’ll be accepting submissions for this special issue from October 7th – 21st, 2021. In addition to being centered around food, stories must have a speculative element. Pay rate, format, and submission restrictions (no reprints, no resubmits, etc.) will follow our general submission guidelines.

So, how can food be integrated into your story? Any way you want! Maybe a crew of space pirates is about to score big on some outer-planet delicacies. Or a tense family dinner gets tenser when the youngest child insists they hear scratching sounds in the wall. Or two witches both reach for the last bundle of herbs and their eyes meet and…

For this themed issue, our assistant editor, Kel Coleman, will be taking the wheel and making final selections. Of course, your story should still be a good fit for Diabolical Plots—check out our general guidelines for an idea of what that means—but what might win you extra points with Kel?

Well, Kel would love to see:

  • Lush descriptions of food
  • Immersive worldbuilding—food is never just food. Food is love, food is culture, food is survival
  • Science fiction that’s high on emotional resonance, low on unexamined imperialism
  • Any kind of prose—it can be ornate, experimental in structure or tone, or punchy and simple, as long as it is intentional and serves the story

“Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell Wins the Nebula Award For Best Short Story!

written by David Steffen

On Saturday June 5th, SFWA held the Nebula Award ceremony. The finalists and winners of the Nebula Awards are determined by votes from members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). “Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is this year’s winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story!

We are very happy for John for the win! This was his first major award finalist and win in his writing career. If you didn’t watch the award ceremony, you might want to check out his acceptance speech as well, which has a lot of encouragement for writers.

And of course we are very excited for ourselves as well! This is the first time any work originally published by Diabolical Plots has been finalist or winner of a major award as well! We have gotten a lot of new visitors to read the story in the last few days, and hopefully this is not the last.

The same story is finalist in two other science fiction awards that haven’t determined their winners yet: The Locus Awards, and the Hugo Awards.

“Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is a Hugo Award Finalist!

written by David Steffen

The news came out yesterday that, for the first time, a story first published by Diabolical Plots is a Hugo Award finalist: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, about a haunted house that just wants a nice family to come live in it.

A lot of people really love this story, for it was also nominated for a Stabby Award, a Locus Award, and a Nebula Award: all which are the first times that John Wiswell has been nominated for those awards, as well as the first time that works published in Diabolical Plots have been nominated for those awards. Well done, John!

We look forward eagerly to results–though it will be a while for this one, the Hugo Award ceremony won’t be until December this year so they can attempt to have an in-person convention instead of entirely online.

Welcome Kel Coleman to the Diabolical Plots Team!

written by David Steffen

About a year ago, we made the announcement of an assistant editor for the first time for Diabolical Plots when Ziv Wities joined the team. Don’t worry, Ziv Wities isn’t going anywhere! We are welcoming a a second assistant editor–Kel Coleman, who you might recognize from their story “A Study of Sage” that was published in Diabolical Plots this year.

Kel started as a first reader for the January submission window and has been helping out with line edits for the stories after the final selections, and we are looking forward with working with them more in the future!

The Diabolical Plots Year Seven Lineup

written by David Steffen

For the past several years, Diabolical Plots has opened for submissions for an annual submission window during the month of July. This gives enough time to fully resolve the submission window before things start getting busy in August for The Long List Anthology production. In 2020, the pandemic threw us off our usual cadence and the submission window was postponed, to finally be held in January 2021. Since we are running on a bit of a tight schedule, we solicited a few to make sure that we would have some ready to fit in the schedule without gaps (we haven’t usually solicited any, so this is something new for us). For the submission window itself, 1938 stories were submitted by 1397 different writers. 120 of those stories were held for a final round, which resulted in 20 acceptances from the submission window, plus 4 solicited works that were accepted for a total of 24 for the year.

This submission window marked the first submission window since Ziv Wities became assistant editor! Thank you Ziv for helping to manage the submission queue and for your help with editing stories since the last window’s selections!

There are some familiar names, and at least some authors for whom this is their first professional short fiction publication! All of these stories will be published regularly on the Diabolical Plots site between April 2021 and March 2022, with each month being sent out to newsletter subscribers the month before.

This is the lineup order for the website.

April 2021
“The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” by Rachael K. Jones
“For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell

May 2021
“The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier
“Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring

June 2021
“One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans
‘We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

July 2021
“Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard
“Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

August 2021
“Fermata” by Sarah Fannon
“The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel

September 2021
“Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments on Edits for ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol on a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz
“A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones

October 2021
“Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Market Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey
“It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

November 2021
“Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord
“Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble

December 2021
“There’s An Art to It” by Brian Hugenbruch
“There Are Angels and They Are Utilitarians” by Jamie Wahls

January 2022
“Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith
“Delivery for 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

February 2022
“The Galactic Induction Handbook” by Mark Vandersluis
“Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson

March 2022
“The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow
“The Assembly of Graves” by Rob E. Boley

DP FICTION #72A: “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey

I keep my head low as I sprint towards the floating Kakardemon, dodging left-and-right across the dusty ground of Io. A ball of lightning crackles overhead, a near-miss, and the Kakardemon’s single green eye twists in fury, its red leather skin sparking in the twilight as it builds another attack. But I’m Energy Power, Queen of New Hell, I’m too damn fast and I get what I want: I leap forward with the Knife of Taertus held high and stab it into the Kakardemon’s brow. I’m nearly thrown off as the floating ball of hate starts bucking beneath me, but I grab one of its curved horns and hold on tight.

The Kakardemon sinks to the rocky canyon floor with a hiss. I step away, leaving the knife buried up to its carved-ivory hilt and grabbing the pump-action shotgun from my back. I cock it, and the sound echoes from sulfurous walls stretching half a mile high.

No other threats on my wristscreen minimap, players or monsters. Clear for now.

The demon’s huge eye, half as big as the round body it’s set in, focuses on me. Its fanged mouth opens, acid drooling out and fizzing where it lands. A deep rumble echoes up from unknowable dimensions and coalesces into a voice reverberating with the screams of a thousand swallowed victims. It speaks unto me:

“Knife of Taertus has restored Kakardemon’s soul. Kakardemon can now talk, and will ally with⁠—”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up, you’re not my first. Look: there’s this boy.”

“Give Kakardemon a player name to access performance statistics and—”

“I already wipe the floor with him every which way from Sunday, I don’t need help there. That’s kind of the problem, to be honest.” Tick tock, time to move, before someone zeroes in on my location. I sprint out of the canyon and towards the Security Tower. The tower is a needle in the heart of New Hell, a white plasteel obelisk stretching from the plains of Io towards Jupiter above; that great planet looms like a baleful orange eye in the ink-black night, its great storm a malignant red pupil. Demonic sigils blaze crimson round the tower’s crown, and my skull thrums with the subsonic resonance of their magic.

The Kakardemon bobs along behind me like a puppy. Sort of. An eight-foot-floating-demonic-ball-of-hate-and-blood-with-one-eye-and-spiky-horns puppy.

“If Energy Power can be specific with her problem, Kakardemon can offer many techniques refined in combat pits on the shores of hell.”

“My boyfriend won’t talk to me anymore.”

Demonboy Ballsack stops at this. Not the usual request, I’ll grant him. “Kakardemon has no context for romantic guidance.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny One-Eye, I don’t need your dating advice.” I kick the door of the Security Tower open: a six-foot demon’s standing just inside, and its face splits vertically in a drool-laden screech. I cut it off with a shotgun blast in the mouth, jumping over the corpse as it hits the floor with a gratuitous surge of blood. “We—Edge94 and me—we’ve been going out for a few months now. Just online, y’know—in-game chat and emails and kicking eight shades of ass in co-op tournaments—but we were going to meet in meatspace next month. He was all set to drive down for a day, but I went past him on the leaderboard last week and he’s been in a sulk since.”

“Kakardemon remains uncertain how to offer support for Energy Power’s love life.”

“What is it they promise in the adverts? ‘AI powered by an advanced neural network for analysis of player thought patterns’, something like that right? So I need you to tell me how to lose to him without it looking obvious. Show me how other people end up losing to him so I can copy that convincingly. If he’s above me in the rankings again maybe he’ll stop being such an asshole about this.”

We’re coming up on the temple room, a huge open square of sandstone pillars and lava pits, so I switch to the chaingun. The Kakardemon falls into a brooding silence as I mow down the advancing hordes of demons that pour from portals to flood this cursed moon. I’m bouncing between raised carbon-steel platforms, not even looking where I’m landing, flying by instinct with my chaingun spitting fury. The walls reverberate with screams and gunfire, and my whole world is concentrated down to the spinning geometry of circle-strafing.

“Kakardemon’s analysis of Energy Power’s player profile suggests this is not a stable long-term solution to your problem.”

“You what?” I switch to the rocket launcher and fire at my feet as I jump, surfing the shockwave to fly across the room and escape a group of demons, their claws clattering as they reach for my legs and grasp only air. I twist in mid-air and fire again, simultaneously accelerating myself towards the far platform and exploding the tightly-clustered demons into a glorious shower of chunky kibbles.

“Energy Power does not hold back,” says the Kakardemon. “Energy Power is most satisfied when giving her all. Attempts to gain happiness by self-limiting achievements are doomed to failure in Kakardemon’s opinion.”

“How’s any of this helping me, la Papa Diabla?” I punch a secret panel in the wall and grab the armour upgrade from the hidden alcove, juicing my power armour beyond its normal limits. It glows a deep shade of blood red I’ve always been fond of.

“Purpose of Kakardemon’s intelligence is to maximise player’s happiness. Kakardemon anticipates Energy Power will grow steadily resentful of the necessity to perform sub-optimally in order to soothe Edge94’s ego, leading to the inevitable breakdown of the relationship and greater hurt to both parties. Kakardemon does not want this. Kakardemon wants Energy Power to be happy.”

“But I want Edge94 to be happy. He’s the first… look, my parents are never really about, and VR nerds aren’t exactly the most popular ticket in town. Edge94 is the only real friend I’ve got, as well as everything else. I miss talking to him, and I miss him being happy, and I wish I knew why he cared so much about the fucking leaderboard.”

“Analysis of Edge94’s playtime pattern and ranking history suggests his skill at the game forms a large part of his self-identity. Kakardemon also notes that high levels of in-game communication between Energy Power and Edge94 began after Edge94 had achieved the top ranking. Kakardemon therefore deduces Edge94 believes Energy Power only likes him for his skill, and that Energy Power’s higher rank will inevitably lead to a decline in her desire for him.”

It takes a moment to work through all that in my head. I’ve never heard a Kakardemon talk so in-depth. But shit, this is all because his ego means more to him than I do? “That stupid S.O.B.! Why won’t he just talk to me about it?”

“Kakardemon has noted male players often interpret the need to communicate as a weakness, and that in order to solve their problems they should instead ‘git gud’. Kakardemon has also noted the ineffectiveness of this tactic, and has frequently exploited it.”

“Ugh! You’re giving me problems without solutions, Kakarmama. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

“Kakardemon suggests signalling your desire to talk.”

“Tried that. He starts shooting before I can get a word in.” The last of the invading demons drops dead, smoke rising from a dozen holes in its torso. The temple altar in the central lava pit cracks open, and a column rises through it from underground: there’s a Kyberdevil perched on top, an ugly-ass nine-foot goat-legged little bitch with most of its torso carved away to attach a rocket launcher. I say hello with a cluster of precisely timed frag grenades.

“Kakardemon concludes Energy Power needs a delay. Tactical resource banks suggest that surprise is the best way to force this.”

The Kyberdevil’s already on its knees, stunned by the frags. I hop over and finish it with a boot to the head, crunching through its skull to the squishy grey stuff beneath. “A surprise like what?”

“Kakardemon sometimes rolls around on floor singing classic pop song ‘Independent Woman’ while other demons flank the player.”

That brings me up short. “Huh. No shit. Didn’t know you could get down like that. Don’t reckon it’ll work for me, though, I’m not round enough to roll. I need something else.”

“Kakardemon suggests Energy Power think quick. Edge94 is closing on this position.”

Shiiiit. I check the minimap and spot him below me. He must’ve already blazed through the armoury on sub-level one. He’ll be kitted out now, definitely a plasma rifle, maybe a BMF gun if he got lucky. He could oneshot me. I’ll have no time to line up a shoulder shot to disarm him, no time to throw down my guns, no time to get a “Hey” out on local chat. He’ll kill me and—and shit, if I’m honest, Old Red Testicle here is right. I won’t be happy losing. Edge’ll kill me and I’ll get pissed at him and come back hard, and then he’ll come back harder at me and—well, then I’ll kill him again cos I’m better, and he’ll get in an even bigger sulk and we’ll never get anywhere. I need to get him to talk to me.

So I need a surprise. Something he’s not expecting. Something where he can’t hit me before I’m done.

I look at the Kakardemon. At the knife still sticking out its head, the ivory hilt contrasted against the red leather skin.

“Well, buddy,” I say. “It’s been good chatting. Good luck out there.” I yank the knife from its head and stamp down on the central platform switch. I drop out of sight beneath the closing altar just as the Kakardemon snarls, its electronic facsimile of a soul vanished and gone.

I’m running before the column’s finished its drop into the catacombs. It’s thick with darkness down here, but I know Edge94 is close and I can’t be caught standing still. I could beat him to the quick-draw easy, circle-strafe round him in my sleep, but this? This shit’s gonna be hard.

My wristscreen vibrates with a silent proximity alarm. I back up against a stone wall, facing a staircase lit with flickering candles. Edge’ll expect me to run up there, get to the mezzanine floor above, where I could drop grenades on his head. He’ll be facing it already, waiting to shoot me in the back.

But he won’t expect me to spin like this, whirl the other way and crouch-jump through the window here, come at him from the other side with the Knife of Taertus in my hand, zig-zagging through the dark and headed straight for him. I’m Energy Power, the too-damn-fast Queen of New Hell, and I—get—what—I—want. A huge ball of green plasma flies past me to one side and then I’m on him, bearing him down to the ground, and the knife’s in his chest and he’s staring in shock.

“What the hell?” he says, pinned beneath me as I straddle his torso.

“Gotcha.” I flick the knife hilt with one finger.

“You know the knife only works on AI, right, not humans? It can’t make me talk.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, I know I’m talking now, but… well. Shit. Alright.”

“Alright yourself. We need to talk.”

He looks at the knife in his chest, and he looks up at me, and he sighs in defeat.

I’m Energy Power, and I get what I want.


© 2021 by Matt Dovey

Author’s Note: I grew up on my PC. Well, first I grew up on my Amiga 500, but by the time I was hitting adolescence I was knee deep in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Monkey Island, Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (in 2D!) and so on. This story is, therefore, the purest expression of my id I have yet written. It is full of stupid little references for no other reason than it amuses me, probably more than I even realise–and the entire thing is a reference to the British magazine Edge, who in 1994 famously concluded their review of the original Doom with “If only you could talk to these creatures…”That it grew from a stupid videogames in-joke into a commentary on toxic masculinity and the self-defeating futility of female-presenting people limiting themselves to be acceptable to society and the weak men in their life was, perhaps, inevitable.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm he claims is from fighting Kyberdemons, though in truth he just walked into a tree with a VR helmet on. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


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DP FICTION #71A: “Everyone You Know is a Raven” by Phil Dyer

I’m not saying that there aren’t any real people in the world. The ravens are very real, and indisputably people. I’m not saying you’re the only human, either. There are definitely a few of you about. How many, I couldn’t say. More than fifty? Less than a thousand, that’s for sure. 

Ravens are accomplished mimics. If you’ve ever seen one, well, that’s basically accurate, except the real thing is a little smaller and plainer and generally one metre to the left, just as a precaution. If you’ve never seen a raven, you’re wrong.  

Everyone you know and love is definitely a raven. A gathering of humans is an unkindness. We space them out, for everyone’s safety. I haven’t asked your ravens where you think you are, but this was Siberian taiga. Aren’t these good trees? They’re recovering well.

There’s not another of you for weeks in any direction. The nearest I know of is in what used to be China. She thinks she’s a scientist in Wales. Her ravens love to make the sounds of rain.  

Don’t look at me like that. She’s quite happy. Ravens are very social creatures. 

Everyone thinks acoustic mimicry is basically a party trick, fun and a little bit creepy but when you get down to it, what’s the most you can do with that? Give someone the shivers, maybe. Your alarm goes off in the morning and you find your phone but it’s not turning off and you’re fumbling around in the dark and you hit the lights and there’s this huge black bird on top of your wardrobe going beep beep beep. That sort of thing happened a lot in the early days.  Hilarious, but not the stuff of revolution. And heaven knows we needed one.

The apes thought it would be them, because of their hands. Poor apes. The dolphins were less hopeful, but at least assumed they would survive. Poor dolphins.

A lot of humans actually thought it would be them, some of them, someday, somehow, but it wasn’t.

Talons aren’t what you want for touch-typing, but ninety percent of hacking is calling about forgotten passwords. Major General Human Man, a word about the missiles, sir. Boy, did you lot fall for that one. How’s that for a party trick?

We got better at it, too. A lot better.

No-one spins a story like a raven. They live for drama. They can’t help it. Even when they’re doing their thing, even when they’re playing themselves as big dumb birds who cuss for crumbs, they still can’t stop. You’ll see them sitting on a fence, head cocked, a little bit glossier, a little bit fancier than any raven ever was. 

“Hello” says the human watching them. “Hello! Aren’t you a pretty boy then? Aren’t you a clever one? Hello? Hello!” 

“Hello”, obliges the raven. “Hello. Hello! Hi. Hi. Hi.” And then some funny throat-clearing noises, water splashing, maybe some rude words. The human laughs and looks around for someone to hold their camera. 

“You should kiss him, you know.” says the raven. The human spins back.

“Hello?” says the raven. “Hi! Hello…”  

And the real raven, sitting one metre to the left, makes the exact note-perfect soundscape of wind in the trees, and clouds across a summer sky, and a friend coming to look at the funny bird and throwing a warm, welcome arm around the poor bewildered human, a mimicry so profound and absolute that the eyes no longer have a say in reality. The good friend’s eyes are beady, unless the raven is really concentrating. Their hair is black and glossy.

And all around, if the story is any good, more unseen birds come whirling down. . 

Main characters are jealously guarded, a privilege for the proven virtuoso. The dark-haired boss, the dark-haired wife, the dark-haired dark-eyed long-nosed stranger on the train. Ravens are vain. Newcomers take up the song as scenery; the moon in winter, maybe, or bees. Remember bees? They were kind of a last straw for us, actually. There are none now; only the ones you hear. Lucky you.  

But ravens need a lot of stimulation, and sometimes they get bored. Here you are, you poor brave soul. Have you been lost for long? 

This world is not the one for you. Your world is a place of plastic and glass, a nest of fans and pizza and signposted roads and easy friendships with lovely people who sometimes flap when startled. This is a hard world, a green world. A world where forests grow from craters, and flowers spring from skulls. Don’t look at those.

The life you remember is here, just over the nearest hill. Let me tell you about it. Your friends are there, do you remember your friends? Tell me about them. I will fly ahead and help you look.  

Listen. This is where you belong. This is a story for you. 


© 2021 by Phil Dyer

Author’s Note: I think most people know that ravens are mimics, but talking parrots and budgies have them completely eclipsed in the public consciousness. My theory is that this is because parrots are funny, and therefore safe. A talking parrot sounds like a friendly little goblin. A talking raven sounds like YOU. If they feel like it. 

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool. His stories have lately appeared in BFS Horizons, 101 Fiction and Black Hare Press. He has recently begun to study for a PhD, against a lot of good advice. Retweets animal gifs @ez_ozel.


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