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

The Best of Toasted Cake 2015-2017

written by David Steffen

Toasted Cake is back!  After the last Best of Toasted Cake list for the year 2014, Tina Connolly decided to put her idiosyncratic podcast on hiatus.  With a young child in the house and books on deadline, Tina needed to find more time.  But she has missed it enough, and she has decided to run Toasted Cake for a school year run, and revived the podcast in September for that reason.  So, this list covers the last few months before hiatus in 2015, the one story Toasted Cake slipped quietly into the feed in 2016, and the fall portion of the school year run of the revival, for a total of 35 stories considered for this list.

Toasted Cake has already raised author pay rates, so now pays at least 1 cent/word, which is also exciting.  It sounds like Tina might want to run the podcast longer term if there’s some Patreon support, so if you love some weird flash fiction you might want to consider tossing in a couple bucks a month.

Toasted Cake did publish one of my own stories, my only original story published in 2017, “Cake, and Its Implications” published  just before the end of the year, a funny flash story about an android who loves cake.  But of course I don’t consider my own fiction for these lists.

Note that I did end up including a story that Toasted Cake reprinted that I originally published (#2 on the list).  I decided to make the list one item longer than it would usually be to accomodate for this, so that a story I published wouldn’t bump another off the list.

Every short story that is eligible for Hugo nominations this year which were first published by Toasted Cake are marked with an asterisk (*).

Welcome back, Tina, and long live Toasted Cake!

 

The List

1. “Un Opera nello Spazio (A Space Opera)” by Oliver Buckram
A space opera that’s an actual opera.

2.  “St. Roomba’s Gospel” by Rachael K. Jones
A sentient Roomba lives in a church and tries to help preach the gospel to the congregation.

3.  “Copy Machine” by Shane Halbach
What would you do if you could copy yourself?

4.  “Carla at the Off-Planet Tax Return Helpline” by Caroline M. Yoachim
The story is exactly what the title sounds like.  🙂

5.  “Beholder” by Sarah Grey
In a world where everything is defined by social media popularity, how do those of us who are less savvy get along?

6.  “So You Have Been Claimed By a Magical Cat” by Beth Cato*
Also exactly what the title sounds like. 🙂

Honorable Mentions

“Gunfight Over an 8-bit Rhythm Two-Step Skank at the O.K. Corral” by Ken Brady

 

 

 

The Best of Cast of Wonders 2017

written by David Steffen

Cast of Wonders is the YA branch of the Escape Artists podcasts, edited by Marguerite Kenner, covering all speculative genres and aiming to appeal to YA audiences.  I think their definition of YA is significantly broader than most, which I see as a positive thing–I had very broad tastes when I was a young adult, so it makes sense to me anyway.

After Cast of Wonders joined Escape Artists in 2016, they increased their pay rates which helped them become qualified as a SFWA-qualifying market, which is a great sign of progress.

In 2017 they produced weekly episodes very regularly, and during their Banned Books week they published a story a day for an extra stretch of bonus content, for a total of about 63 stories

Cast of Wonders reprinted one of my own stories in 2017, titled “Always There”, about a grandmother who has maybe died but not yet admitted it (it is an episode on the subject of grief).

 

Every short story that is eligible for Hugo and Nebula nominations this year which were first published by Podcastle are marked with an asterisk (*)

The List

1. “Lost In Translation” by Afalstein Kloosterman*
The ancient texts prophecying the chosen one are… hard to translate.  This has caused some problems seeking the fulfillment of those prophecies.

2.  “Random Play All and the League of Awesome” by Shane Halbach
Teenagers with debatable superpowers form a semi-superhero team.

3.  “More Than Machines Will Fall to Rust” by Rachael K. Jones*
A pair of friends become superhero and archenemy, can they rekindle their friendship?

4.  “The Scent that Treason Brings” by Holly Schofield*
A bookbinder in a hive society decides to rebel against the oppressive leadership.

5.  “Cross the Street” by Marie Vibbert*
When city design makes it harder and harder for poor people to survive, it can become an obstacle to even get from place to place.

6.  “Single Parent” by Sarah Gailey*
Great story about a widowed father trying his best who is called into his kid’s room and finds a real monster there.

Honorable Mentions

“Contractual Obligations” by Jaime O. Mayer*

“Brothers in Stitches” by Dantzel Cherry*

“Strong as Stone” by Effie Seiberg

The Best of Lightspeed Magazine Podcast 2017

written by David Steffen

Lightspeed Magazine is the award-nominated science fiction magazine edited by John Joseph Adams, and their podcast is  produced by the excellent Skyboat Media.  They publish about half of the stories they publish in text.  They published about 47 stories in 2017.

The stories eligible for the upcoming Hugo award season are marked with an asterisk (*), with novelettes eligible for the season marked with a double asterisk (**), and novellas with a triple asterisk (***).

The List

1. “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” by Rachael K. Jones*
Hilarious (in a very dark way) story of a ship of cyborgs trying to pass as a human restaurant ship in a remote part of the galaxy.  Soon it becomes very clear that the priorities of the individual cyborgs are not aligned.

2.  “Infinite Love Engine” by Joseph Allen Hill*
Fun and hilarious over-the-top space opera.

3.  “The Dragon of Dread Peak” (and part 2) by Jeremiah Tolbert***
Sequel to Cavern of the Screaming Eye (should probably read that one first), this continues the adventures of a band of teenagers questing in the pockets of dungeon-space that open randomly.

4.  “Cake Baby (a Kango and Sharon Adventure)” by Charlie Jane Anders*
Strapped for cash space crew for hire takes a job to get DNA from radiation-proof babies born into a religious group that denies modern technology.  Very fun story.

5.  “Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill*
“You must wait here,” the Highest of the High Priests told her, before returning back through the magical doorway in her childhood home.  But time works differently on different sides of a magical portal.  How long would she have to wait?

Honorable Mentions

“Remote Presence” by Susan Palwick**

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best of Podcastle 2017

written by David Steffen

Podcastle is the weekly fantasy podcast published by Escape Artists.  At the beginning of the year it was co-edited by Graeme Dunlop and Jen Albert.  Partway through the year Graeme retired from the position and his co-editor seat was filled by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.  As well as weekly full-length feature episodes, they also publish occasional standalone flash stories as bonus episodes, as well as triple flash stories for the occasional feature episode collection.

Because of an author pay-rate change in 2016, they qualified within 2017 as a qualifying market for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which means they have to meet certain criteria.

In February Podcastle once again participated in the Artemis Rising event across the Escape Artists podcasts, publishing fantasy stories written by women and nonbinary authors.

Podcastle has had a solid year; it was super hard to winnow the full list of 75 stories down to the necessary count.

Every short story that is eligible for Hugo nominations this year which were first published by Podcastle are marked with an asterisk (*), novelettes are marked with a double-asterisk.  If the original publisher was someone besides Podcastle, the original publisher is noted in parentheses for award-eligible fiction.

The List

 

1.  “How I Became Coruscating Queen of All the Realms, Pierced the Obsidian Night, Destroyed a Legendary Sword, and Saved My Heart’s True Love” by Baker & Dovey* (first published in No Shit There I Was)
Included in an anthology of bar-style exaggerated story, an over-the-top fun exaggerated epic fantasy.

2.  “The Chaos Village” (and part 2) by M.K. Hutchins**
Neuro-atypical man ventures into the chaotic ever-shifting area feared by most to explore.  Sequel to Golden Chaos.

3.  “Home is a House That Loves You” by Rachael K. Jones*
Everyone turns into structures of their choice when they get older.  You can live on to support your family long after your fleshy body passes away.

4.  “All of the Cuddles With None of the Pain” by J.J. Roth*
Artificial companions mimic human babies that won’t grow up and leave you behind.  But sometimes they become human…

5.  “Winter Witch” by Matt Dovey*
The witch can’t fix everything, but sometimes she can make a difference.

6.  “Zilal and the Many-Folded Puzzle Ship” by Charlotte Ashley*
An intricately built boat can be reconfigured in many different ways.

7.  “Six Jobs” by Tim Pratt
Recruited for magical work at a young age, moving from job to job.

8.  “Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light” by Malon Edwards* (first published in Shimmer)
A compelling dark story with less common monsters.

Honorable Mentions

“Blackbird Pastry” by Megan Branning*

“The Names of the Sky” by Matthew Claxton*

“A Whisper in the Weld” by Alix E. Harrow

“Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

 

The Best of Pseudopod 2017

written by David Steffen

Pseudopod is the weekly horror podcast edited by Shawn Garrett and Alex Hofelich. 2016 marked some major moments in the podcast’s history.  2017 marked a major landmark for them when they were added to the SFWA list of professional short fiction publications, after raising their flash fiction pay rates to be in line with their pay rates for longer fiction, which means that all four of the Escape Artists podcasts are on the list–Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders.

After running a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016 for their 10th anniversary to fun an anthology, that anthology went live in 2017, Of Mortal Things Unsung which included many Pseudopod favorites as well as some brand new original fiction.  (My story “What Makes You Tick” that had previously appeared on Pseudopod was reprinted in the anthology.)

In February Pseudopod once again participated in the Artemis Rising theme across the Escape Artists podcasts, publishing horror stories by women (including some originals picked out from a special slushpile just for this purpose).

Pseudopod publishes episodes weekly, with occasional Flash on the Borderlands episodes that collect 3 similar-themed flash stories for a single episode, for a total of 66 stories published in 2017, by my count.

Stories that are eligible for this year’s Hugo and Nebula Awards are marked with an asterisk (*), all of which would be credited to Pseudopod as the original publisher.

The List

1.  “Under the Rubble” by John Wiswell*
This story as told by survivors in a collapsed grocery store, which collapsed for reasons unknown.

2. “The Hole at the Top of the World” by Benjamin Blattberg*
What is at the top of Mount Everest?  What will happen when the summit is reached?

3. “Granite Requires” by T.J. Berry*
Each kind of stone requires its own sacrifices, some much more extreme than others, to everyone who lives in this small town.  Granite is among the most demanding.

4. “The Corpse Child” by Chris Kuriata*
It is believed that there is a cure of a sick child that involves placing the corpse of a child underneath their bed for the night.  Does it really work?

5. “Passover” by Caspian Gray*
In a concentration camp, a worker finds a body that won’t burn.

6. “An Unsent Letter From an Unnamed Student” by Aaron Fox-Lerner*
Who decided who is the monster?  What if both sides think that they’re haunted?

7. “Indiscretions” by Hillary Dodge*
All the little details in Mary’s day tell her something is wrong.  But what is it?

 

Honorable Mentions

“Four Hours of a Revolution” by Premee Mohamed*

“A Howling Dog” by Nick Mamatas*

“When First He Laid Eyes” by Rachael K. Jones

 

 

 

DP FICTION #34A: “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” by Rachael K. Jones

For our one-year anniversary, my boyfriend Kit gives me a knobbly sweater knit in irregular rows of beige, dark beige, and light beige, studded with white yarn blobs shaped like aborted ponies. The left arm—clearly shorter than the right—is tourniqueted midway by red plastic gift ribbon knotted into a bad bow.

Everything but that arm gently undulates of its own volition like jellyfish tentacles, simultaneously guileless and sinister.

“I made this for you, Hakim!” His slightly crooked teeth flash against his black skin like freshwater pearls. “It’s merino wool. Now we can match!” Indeed, Kit is wearing an identical sweater, minus the gift bow. “Go ahead and put it on so I can see how it looks on you.”

Every relationship experiences those crucial moments that make or break you, where you decide whether to commit or bail. This is clearly one of them.

I’ve been smitten with Kit since we met on the dance floor at Boneshaker’s, me in the black suspender tights and feathered fascinator I usually wore for Drag Queen Night, and him in a tacky red-and-blue thrift store sweater that made me think Hipster Independence Day. He bought me a mai-tai with a pink plastic elephant perched on the rim, and I invited him into my booth. Later, I invited him home. Two weeks after that, we moved in together.

That’s when I learned that Kit didn’t just wear those sweaters ironically.

So yes, I’m well aware of Kit’s sweater problem. But this one is undulating.

By now, Kit can read my hesitance in my lack of enthusiastic sweater-wearing. He worries the knit between his fingers, on the verge of tears. “Don’t you like it? It’s hypo-allergenic merino wool. I remember how that scarf I crocheted you for Hanukkah gave you hives all around your neck. This one won’t do anything like that. I promise.”

The sweater’s right arm undulates up Kit’s cheek and brushes away the tears.

“No, Honey, of course it’s not that,” I say. “It’s… well…”

Here’s the thing: Kit is the sensitive sort. Cries at the end of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic season finales, especially the one about the royal gala. I’ve found out the hard way that you can’t just tell him what you’re really thinking, because he tends to take it badly. Better to dial the truth back a few notches. Make it about literally anything else. “I just got back from the gym, and the super-soft absorbent yarn might get all sweaty if I put it on.” The sweater’s arm flagellates my chin three-four-five times. I think it’s trying to strangle me.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. This wool’s naturally anti-bacterial and water-repellent because they don’t strip out all the lanolin. You can wear it in the rain, like a true Scotsman!” During that last bit, he slips into a Sean-Connery-From-The-Highlander voice, because he knows I think it’s sexy when he uses accents.

And you know what? He’s right. I do think it’s sexy. I don’t want to lie to my Kit. So I do the most romantic, stupid thing I could possibly do. I tell him the truth. “Kit, that sweater’s fucking moving. It’s trying to give me a back massage I definitely didn’t consent to. There’s no way I’m going to give it access to my whole body.”

Kit’s mouth opens and closes a couple times. He swallows, that big Adam’s apple bobbing up and down under his soft black skin. His eyes shine huge and teary like when he’s four margaritas in, or when his feelings are hurt, and the feelings-hurter is moi. He’s working so hard not to cry that he can’t squeeze out more than one syllable at a time. “Bu—but it’s our anni—anniversary, and I—I made it—just—for—you…”

And that’s when I realize I love Kit. Like really, seriously, crazily love him, in the let’s grow old on the front porch and yell obscenities at the neighbor’s kids sort of way. He’s worth the endless My Little Pony reruns, and the tacky sweaters (don’t tell him I called them tacky), and even the hyper-sensitivity that creates situations like this at least once a week.

And by Lady Gaga’s meat dress, he’s worth even this tacky homemade Lovecraftian horror. So against my better judgment and sense of self-preservation, I put it on, because that’s True Love.

Kit is so relieved he practically melts into my arms. “It looks so dashing on you, Baby,” he says in his best Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond voice, because most of his fake accents are Connery-related. The hug he gives me makes it all worthwhile, until just like True Love, the sweater’s fibers begin burrowing into my skin.

I ignore the tingling sensation of epidermis melding with hypo-allergenic merino wool, and give Kit the one-year-anniversary kiss he’s been waiting for. “I love you too, Sweetheart.”

He smiles so sweetly at me, and his eyes hood seductively. But when his lips part, he coughs hard, like a cat with a hairball, and something damp and wooly flops behind his teeth. He leans over, coughs and sputters, and with every hacking cough another inch of sweater crawls up out of his throat until with one last retch the whole thing flops wetly at his feet. I look on with horror as the damp thing spreads itself out to dry like a moth from its cocoon, growing larger and fluffier: another hideously tacky sweater, this one bedazzled with Cupids, still damp from his saliva. Kit looks a little embarrassed.

But I’ve already made up my mind. I know what he wants to say. I pick up the Cupid sweater. “How gorgeous. You made this for me, didn’t you?” I pull it on over the first sweater.

“You really mean it? You like them?” He tries to say something else, but he gets all choked up again. After a second hacking fit, another sweater—asphalt gray with orange paisley swirls—crawls out instead. My poor boyfriend wilts a few inches and avoids my eyes.

The new sweater wiggles and flops around my feet, but I don’t hesitate. I’ve made my choice. “I love them.” Then I pick up the paisley one and layer it over the other two.

He’s my Kit, after all, and some sacrifices are totally worth it.


© 2017 by Rachael K. Jones

 

Author’s Note: The so-called “Sweater Curse” is a real superstition among knitters. It states that at some point in a new romantic relationship, a knitter will choose to make their beloved a handmade sweater, and the sweater will destroy the relationship. Interestingly, research finds there may be some truth to it–that for dedicated knitters, making a new romantic partner a handmade sweater often precedes a breakup–although hypotheses vary on why. I personally think it relates to the clash between the TLC that goes into making a handmade gift for the person you love, and the fact that amateur handicrafts can be objectively awful to outside eyes. You see the days and weeks of love you put into the design and knitting, but your beloved just sees a tacky sweater they’re now expected not to just accept, but to wear… in public. If they reject the sweater, they reject you, and the groundwork is laid for the kind of fight that can shatter a relationship. For the sweater-receiver, this is a moment of decision, where you decide whether you can accept the good along with the tacky. As an author who has written stories for particular people before, I can relate to the creative anxiety that underlies the Sweater Curse. Fortunately, my friends are very gracious sorts, and those anxieties have never borne out.

 

headshot-8-28Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee, Tiptree Award honoree, and winner of Writers of the Future. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #28B: “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-11

 

Dear Ziza,

You already know what this is about, don’t you, dear Sister? The robot raccoons I found clamped along my ship’s hull during this cycle’s standard maintenance sweep?

Oh, come on. Really? You know I invented that hull sculler tech, right? They’ve got my corporate logo etched into their beady red eyes so my name flashes on all the walls when their power is low. I admit some of your upgrades were… novel. Like the exoshell design–I’ll never understand your raccoon obsession. Impractical, but points for style. I hadn’t thought you could fit a diamond drill into a model smaller than a Pomeranian’s skull, so congrats on that. Not that they made much progress chewing through my double-thick hull, but I’ll give credit where credit’s due.

Still, it was unsisterly of you, and it’s not going to stop me from dropping the terraforming nuke when I get to Mars. Come to grips with reality, sister: you’re in the wrong. You always have been, ever since we were girls. Especially since Mumbai accepted my proposal for Martian settlement. Not yours.

I’m sending back the robot raccoons in an unmanned probe. Back, because yes, I’m still leagues and leagues ahead of you. I only lost a day cleaning up the hull scullers. I’ve kept the diamond drills. I bet they’ll chew right through that Martian rock.

I’ve also included a dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because I know it’s your birthday tomorrow. Happy birthday!

Now go home.

Love your sister,

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-12

Dear Anita,

Remember that summer when Father dropped us off at the northern rim of the Poona Crater on Mars? Alone. For two weeks. “This rustic camping trip will be a great learning experience,” he said. “My precious daughters will bond.”

When I learned that there were no pre-fab facilities and that we were responsible for erecting our own dwelling, sanitation pod, and lab, I started plotting ways to poison our father. You, on the other hand, I am still convinced, were determined to thoroughly enjoy the experience just to spite me.

But Father was a conservationist, and now that I am older, I can appreciate that he was trying to instill that same spirit in us. “Not all life jumps out and bites you in the butt,” he used to love to say. And we learned the truth of that when we unearthed a family of as-yet-undiscovered garbatrites in the red dust on one of our sand treks.

We spent hours watching them under high magnification under the STEHM, trying to communicate with them, recording their activities and creating hypotheses about the meanings of their habits. I have to admit, there was a point when I stopped cursing father and started to secretly thank him. And where I sort of, kind of, could maybe see why you weren’t so bad after all.

I don’t think I’d ever seen you so dedicated to anything before this. You missed meals and stayed up throughout the night trying to communicate with the elder garbatrite. The one you named Benny. Exhausted, you fell asleep at your desk and left the infrared light on too long and effectively fried the poor critter. You cried for days and you even held a formal funeral for Benny, something his fellow garbatrites didn’t seem too pleased about.

With that in mind, how could you possibly want to drop a terraforming nuke on a planet you and I both know is already teeming with life? Creating a new habitable world only has merits if it’s not already inhabited.

If you won’t see reason, then I’ll just have to make it impossible for you. The Council for Martian Settlement may have accepted your proposal, but let me remind you that I’ve never been keen on following the rules.

So, you found the hull scullers, eh? I knew those diamonds would distract you from my real plan. You’ve always been so… materialistic. But hey, someone has to be.

On another note, the cookies were to die for! They were even better than Mother’s, but I’ll never tell her that. I really appreciate you thinking of me. I have a proposal to make. On our next monthly meal exchange, I’ll make your favorite, a big old pot of Anasazi beans and sweet buttered cornbread, if you’ll send more of those cookies.

XOXO

Ziza

P.S. My sweet raccoonie-woonies, Bobo and Cow, liked the cookies too. They also send their love.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-15

Sister:

Come now, Ziza. Let’s not make me out to be some kind of villain. Of course I remember that summer. I remember how we licked the condensation inside our lab windows to stay hydrated because Father’s Orion Scout childhood romanticized survival stories. It’s the real reason we’re such die hard coffee drinkers nowadays. He ruined the taste of water for us.

And I remember the garbatrites. How could I ever forget? That dusty red boulder we found in the sandstorm provided just enough shelter to pitch our emergency pod while we waited out the squall. Nothing to do but talk with each other, or play with the STEHM. Which meant we chose the STEHM, obviously. It’s the closest look I’ve ever gotten at you, all those disgusting many-legged organisms crawling on your skin and hair, in your saliva, your earwax. You’ve always had an affinity for vermin.

But I’ll be forever grateful you suggested taking samples around the boulder. When we first saw the garbatrites, their tiny little dwellings drilled into rock like mesa cities–that might be the closest I’ve ever felt to you, each of us taking one eyepiece on the STEHM, our damp cheeks pressed together, our smiles one long continuous arc. When the light brightened or dimmed, they danced in little conga lines. We weren’t sure if it was art, or language. Is there really a difference?

There’s something I realized when Benny died. The sort of revelation you only have when you’re nudging together an atomic coffin beneath an electron microscope with tiny diamond tweezers just three nanometers wide: life is short. Life is painfully short, full of suffering and tragedy and wide, empty spaces. And those rare spots hospitable to life are just boulders tossed into an endless red desert, created by accident or coincidence. The only real good we can do in life is to spread out those boulders, minimize the deserts where we find them. Make a garden from dust. Plant our atomic coffins and let them bloom. Terraform whole planets, so we’ll have more than just the blue boulder of Earth.

That’s what you never understood, dear sister. It’s why when you spent your youth chasing pretty men, I betrothed myself to science, burned my hopes of human love in the furnaces of my ambition. Do you remember when Asante, my poor besotted lab assistant, proposed to me at the Tanzanian Xenobiology Conference? How I laughed! As if any children he could give me would approach the impact my terraforming nuke will make on our species. Never forget, Ziza, that this mission is my life’s work, my legacy. You will not stop me.

In other news, I got the Anasazi beans and cornbread, still warm and fresh in their shipping pod. How did you know I had the craving? That was a kindness. I remembered you while making salaat today.

I was less pleased about the virus installed in the shipping pod’s warming program. Nice try, but I saw through that in about five seconds. Here’s a tip: next time, beta test it on all the shipboard systems I invented, not just the navigation. My sanitation program does more than filter my own crap.

I’m sending you an e-manual on Programming 101, and an ordering catalogue for Anita Enterprises in case you’d like to support the family business.

XOXOXO,

Anita

P.S. Go home.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-28

 

Anita,

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last spoke, and of course, you know why. When you told me to go home, I knew that you were serious, but I never thought you’d resort to using the health and welfare of our dear mother as bait to get me to turn around and head back to earth.

I’m still trying to figure out how you managed to simulate for video not only our mother’s countenance, darkened and marred by some mysterious illness, but her voice, the cadence like smooth stones tumbling in water and her accent. When she pleaded for me to return home, telling me that she was afraid to die alone, of course I turned back.

How much time did it take for you to create those videos, one arriving each day, her looking progressively worse? The worst was that one video with her by the window in her study, Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. It came on the third day. The sunlight that glinted through her silver hair, like icy filaments, made her look so painfully beautiful, yet it was not enough to erase the shadows beneath her eyes or the sadness in them.

A better question, I suppose, is “Why?” Why resort to that when you know how much Mother means to me, especially now that Father is gone? Are you still jealous of our closeness? Do you still believe she loved me most?

Not that you deserve to be, but I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to believe Mother loved me more than you as well. One day, I must’ve been about twelve, in my pathetic need to always be reminded that I was loved and cherished, I asked her why she loved me more than you. I waited a few moments, as she looked skyward, it seemed, for the answer. I was sure she’d say it was because I was more beautiful, more kind, smarter, that I had a more generous spirit, because truth be told, these things are true. But she didn’t say that. Mother told me that she did not love me most. Nor did she love you more than me.

Then why do you spend so much more time with me than Anita? Why do you kiss me goodnight and not her? I numbered all the things she did for me and not you. Do you know what she said?

Because you need me more than Anita.

In her way, which was always kind yet honest, Mother was telling me that you were the stronger of the two of us. But now, I wonder. Would a strong person use her sister’s weaknesses against her just to win? This was a low blow, Anita.

By now you’re probably wondering how I eventually figured out that the videos from Mother were merely a cruel ploy to get me to go back home without a fight. It was the video from Day Eight.

Mother lay in bed, slight as a sliver of grass. When her image popped up on the view screen my heart felt like it was trapped in a vice. She reached out. A tear traveled from the corner of her eye toward the pillow. She coughed, then called out my name. Her voice was so soft, so small and weak.

“Please hurry home, Ziza,” she said. “I don’t want to die without laying eyes on my favorite girl at least one more time.”

Favorite girl? No, Anita. Our mother never would have said that.

You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. Yet, you don’t know kindness or humility. You don’t even know your own mother.

The decision to dedicate your entire life to science was an error. Life is so much more than entropy, polymerisation, and endothermic reactions. You really can have your coffee and the cream too. You should have married Asante. He would have humanized you. He would have taught you to slow down and enjoy the precious little moments, that together they all add up to a great big life full of disappointments, yes, but also joy and love and mystery. He would have saved you from yourself and cold loneliness.

This is where I remind you that you know nothing about programming that I didn’t teach you. Anita Enterprises is the mega-conglomerate it is because of me, your older sister and mentor. If I wanted to shut down every system on your ship, including life support, I could. And believe me, after this latest stunt of yours, I’ve been giving that idea serious consideration. The fact that I haven’t sent a couple of torpedoes your way is a testament to my love for our mother. She’d be angry if I killed you. So, I won’t.

See you on Mars.

Ziza

P.S. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

P.P.S. Bobo and Cow are very displeased with you.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-01

 

Ziza,

It’s been weeks since I last wrote, but you haven’t been far from my thoughts. Far from it.

While I continue toward the planet, I’ve been passing the time on my escape pod making a list of all the reasons I hate you, numbered and ordered least to greatest. It’s a long long list, forever incomplete. A sister’s hate is like the heat death of the universe: infinitely expanding, eternal, the last flame burning in this cold, barren desolation where God abandoned us.

Reason #1,565: I hate the way you eat popcorn with chopsticks to keep your hands clean. Are you too good even for butter smudges?

Reason #480: I hate how you laugh at bad jokes. Puns aren’t actually funny, Ziza. Everyone outgrew “why did the chicken cross the road” after elementary school.

Reason #111: Blue eye shadow. Self-explanatory.

Reason #38: “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Really? Better knock that shit off. Like you’re not an adult responsible for her own actions.

Reason #16: I hate how Mother named you after herself, like you were the pinnacle of all her hopes, while I was named to placate our pushy grandmother.

Reason #15: I hate how you always laugh at me.

Reason #10: I hate how your favorite animal is the raccoon. You only picked it because it’s endangered. You can’t resist a lost cause, even if you don’t actually want to do anything useful about it.

Reason #9: Seriously, blue eye shadow.

Reason #4: That last family dinner we had before Father died, when we took the shuttle out to the Moon to picnic on Mons Agnes while we watched the Perseid meteor shower dancing bright upon Earth’s atmosphere like the footsteps of angels. Mother brought her heirloom silver for the occasion; I think we all knew in our hearts it was a special trip. We’d agreed for Father’s sake to get along, just for a few hours. He hated how we fought, how we picked at each other like children picking old scabs that won’t heal. Do you remember the white curling through his black hair? His cheeks sunk deep by the chemo? He wanted to dish up the jasmine rice and flatbread himself. His hands trembled so badly the peas rolled onto Mother’s quilt beneath the picnic pop-up, just skirting the regolith.

We both know I wanted to talk with him about the inheritance. I just wanted my share, my 50/50 split, but Mother was so concerned about poor helpless Ziza, who had run into such tough times after college, chasing after pretty men and idealistic wide-eyed save-the-raccoons causes that she needed a larger cut to keep up her lifestyle. Anita Enterprises cost me everything while all you ever did was chase your girlhood dreams of love and happy endings.

We were having such a great time. Your useless pet raccoons were recharging their solar batteries in your lap. Father told us stories of his childhood, how they didn’t even have a family shuttle when he grew up, and you could only sleep rough in wild places like Antarctica’s rocky plains. Mother held his hand and kissed him, love shining in her eyes. No matter how sick he got, he was still the dark-skinned 17-year-old godling she’d met on the road to Mount Kilimanjaro in their youth. We even tolerated a few of your puns.

It would not last. I volunteered to scrape the leftovers into the recycler at the service booth down the path. It was so close, I didn’t bother to bring a communication device. You deny it, but we both know you followed me. You used the Moon’s lower gravity to pile those rocks against the door while I did my chores inside. When I tried to leave, the door wouldn’t budge. I could only watch my family from the viewing port, my mother and sister and dying father laughing together, though I couldn’t hear them. I screamed and pounded the window, but nobody noticed from the picnic pop-up. No one could hear me through the vacuum of space.

How can I ever forgive you that prank, those precious minutes of our father’s health ticking away, and me unable to be there? How can I forgive that lost opportunity, those memories that should have been mine to cherish, to bear me up when I wake at night so desperate to feel his whiskered kiss on my forehead, his voice telling me he’s so proud of me, proud of everything I’ve done?

This is why I hate you, Ziza. This is why I can never stop hating you.

Reason #2: Those diamond drills in your robot raccoons weren’t just drills. That cornbread pan wasn’t just a pan. You know what, Ziza? In spite of everything else, I only sent you back to Earth with those fake videos to protect you from yourself, and keep you out of harm’s way. Because despite this whole list, part of me still loved you, stupid as it sounds. Maybe it’s because you’re named for Mother. But you tried to dump me into the vacuum of space, Sister Dearest. You tried to murder me in my sleep. You activated the wafer computer in the pan’s false bottom, hacked my defenses, and the drills turned my hull into cheese by the time I woke up. If I hadn’t mounted the terraforming nuke to the escape pod… but I did.

Reason #1: Did you ever love me? Ever, Ziza? I’m not filling this one out yet, because I don’t think I’ve yet hated you as much as a woman can hate her sister. Not yet. But I will.

So I’m going to tell you something else you don’t yet know: On the wreck of my shuttle, scraping by on the last of my life support, are a dozen rare raccoon specimens. I was going to release them on Mars after the terraforming ended so they could colonize a safe place far from any predators. My shuttle is set to self-destruct in two days’ time. If you leave your current course, you might just have time to save them. Let’s find out what you care more about: helpless garbatrites, or near-extinct raccoons.

The shuttle also contains an urn with Father’s ashes, wrapped in extra scarves in the top hatch in my quarters. Mother asked me to scatter them on the planet because Father had so many happy memories of camping there with his daughters. I didn’t have time to rescue it when I had to abandon ship a few days ago.

I don’t have that one on my list yet. Better go add it now.

Hate you always,

Anita

P.S. Why did Ziza fly across the solar system twice? Because she was a double crosser. Get it?

P.P.S. Happy New Year, by the way.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161/01/02

 

Anita,

By now you’ve probably realized that regardless of your efforts, your escape pod’s trajectory is no longer Mars. You are now on an intercept path with me. I know that you must be seething, cursing my name, praying for my damnation (you’ve always been so dramatic), but give me the opportunity to explain.

Your ship was never in danger. The plan was that once you entered in new coordinates to anyplace other than Mars, preferably home, the diamond drills would have set about repairing the holes they’d created in the hull of your ship. Genius ancillary programming, if I do say so myself. All you had to do was turn around. But you, with your flare for the dramatic and unwillingness to give up, even when you know you’ve lost, decided to jump ship and make the rest of the voyage via the escape pod.

The escape pod. The escape pod with only half the power you’ll need to complete the trip to Mars. At the rate you’re going you’ll be one hundred and three before you even break orbit. If you paid as much attention to the details as you do the drama, you might have remembered that.

Why couldn’t all your hot hate keep those poor raccoons warm as your abandoned ship plunges onward toward the cold outer depths of space, too long and too far for either of us to go? I won’t be able to save those raccoons, nor Father’s ashes, because I will be saving you.

You can thank me later.

Your last message, so thick with evil enmity for your only sibling in the galaxy, reminded me of Tariq, the only man I ever considered staying with for a lifetime. I’ve tried over the last forty-three years, without an iota of success, to tangle and finally lose my memory of him among the many others. He was brighter than Sirius and sweeter than lugduname, at least to me. I know that long-legged bird wasn’t perfect, he chewed with his mouth open and, truth be told, he wasn’t very bright but he loved me without reserve.

You didn’t like him at first. You called him a “pretty, useless thing”, because he didn’t have the same knack for business or driving ambition for more, that you did. He was an artist and liked to create beautiful things, to experience the delights of life with all of his senses exposed and ready.

It was through your senses that he finally won you over. So thoughtful was he, that knowing your dislike for him, he still surprised you with your favorite, hot homemade waffles, on your birthday.

When I broke off the engagement with him only a week later, you, who had hated him all along, refused to speak to me for months. You said I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. You called me a fool.

I never told you why I broke off the engagement. And I bet you never knew that even now, there are sleep cycles when instead of sleep, I lay awake imaging how happy I’d be today had I not broken poor Tariq’s heart.

I broke off our engagement because of your Reason #1. In answer to your question, I love you more than breath itself, baby sister.

Tariq said to me one day, as we lay beneath the sun in a field of cool holo-grass, “Any sister who would waste her dying father’s final hours arguing over an inheritance is surely too selfish to bear.” He took my foot in his hands and kneaded my heel expertly. “I’m willing to tolerate Anita, my love, because of you.”

I said nothing to this for a while, mostly because the foot massage was so exquisite that it stole my breath and crossed my eyes. But when he was done, I politely slipped on my shoes, clapped off the holo-vision, and asked him to leave.

“If you love me, you must love my sister too. Anything less is unacceptable,” I told him.

So you see, silly sister, you can hate me a million times, but no matter what, I’ll still love you, even though you don’t deserve it. God, you’re such a brat.

Ziza

P.S. Are you seriously pouting about your name? Mother should have named you Shakespeare because you’re nothing but drama.

P.P.S. I didn’t pile those rocks against the door. That was Bobo and Cow. They were just trying to play hide and seek with you. I guess my sweet raccoonie-woonies won that round.

P.P.P.S. Why did the raccoon cross the solar system? To keep her sister’s paw off Mars.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dear Ziza,

Greetings from Mars.

Don’t worry. Nothing has changed. I have regretfully failed to deploy the terraforming nuke. My mission has failed, for now.

Perhaps even before you read this message, GalactiPol will be taking you into custody. I called them when my escape pod veered off course, when the navigation stopped responding to my counter-hacks. You might have forgotten in your rashness that the Mumbai Council for Martian Development endorsed my plan for terraforming, and that I was their agent. Interfering with my mission meant meddling with the Coalition of Humankind itself.

I didn’t call GalactiPol sooner because I wanted to beat you at your own game. So few people in this huge, empty universe can even approach my creativity and intellect. You’ve always pushed me to the greatest apex of my brilliance. I’m never as inventive as when you’re scheming to ruin me. But the thought of losing Father’s ashes into the void of space… well, it gave me no rest. He doesn’t deserve that, not at our hands. I’d hoped you’d fetch the urn, but instead I’m calling an end to our battle of wits.

GalactiPol scooped up my escape pod and listened to my account of your wrongdoings. They have dispatched a salvage vessel to my wreck, and an armed cruiser to arrest you. Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake: the raccoons. As you well know, I did not have authorization to remove these endangered creatures from Earth.

So they’ve arrested me too. I’ve been dropped on Mars for safekeeping while they run the raccoons back to Earth. They’ve dispatched another cruiser to your coordinates. Soon they will bring you here too, dear Ziza, and for the second time we’ll wander the sands together in this desert of red storms, with only wit and curiosity and mutual hatred to keep us alive until someone returns for us.

Did you know part of our old camp is still here? Somehow the shell of our mobile lab held up against the years. Probably because of the garbatrites. Remember we’d left the lab tucked in the shadow of their great stone. Apparently they liked it (perhaps for the way it holds warmth during the cold Martian nights) because they covered it in their tiny homes like a shipwreck bejeweled with coral and barnacles. When I turn on the lights at night, they dance along the seams in swirling shapes, carving microscopic paths through the dust coating, just as frail human biceps have pushed and moved the world until you can see their efforts from space. The Great Wall of China! The glittering glass megascrapers of Nigeria! How floating Melbourne glistens like a blue jewel in the dark, riding the waves forever, its flooded gondola channels sipping the ocean’s rise and fall! Our little lab is a world for these tiny creatures. They shout,  We are here. We exist.

But let’s talk about Tariq. Now there’s an unhealed wound running to our cores. It’s true, Ziza, that you were always the prettiest. I am a plain woman, an experience you can never understand. Your beauty is a passport into people’s best nature. Everyone sees in you the face of an angel, and they give you an angel’s due. Well, any plain woman knows the converse is true, that we have to prove again and again our worth and goodness to a world that mistakes the grotesque for evil, the ungroomed for lazy, the fat for stupid.

Your Tariq, like all pretty men, suffered from the same assumptions. He was never as good to anyone as he was to you, Ziza Angel-faced. When he didn’t ignore me outright, he liked to pick on me for your amusement. He named me Yam Nose and Ogre Teeth, and when I protested, he laughed me off as too sensitive, as if I didn’t have a right to my dignity. People like him are cruel to girls like me in a thoughtless, automatic way, like they can’t imagine us having feelings any more complex than a dog’s. Yes, I detested him. But the day he made me waffles, throwing me one small, quiet kindness, I realized how happy he made you, that you intended to marry him. He’d be around our family a long, long time. I made my peace.

I am sorry you realized so late the flaw in him that was obvious to me from the first. But know, Ziza, that Tariq must accept responsibility for his own character. If you had married him, when you aged and your beauty began to fade, he surely would’ve turned that same cruelty on you. He may very well have been your soulmate, but take a hard look at your own soul, and ask whether you too mistake your angelic face for more than it is. You are merely human.

So come to Mars, Sister. Come to where this all started that summer our father wanted us to bond, back before we hated the taste of water, before we learned to despise each other in small ways and big. We cannot escape one another. Our hatred has been our brilliance, our secret genius, the harsh red desert that pushed and pinched and goaded us to build towers you can see from the Moon. Imagine what a lifetime of love might have accomplished

Come to Mars, Ziza. Scatter our father’s ashes with me. If we cannot make this place bloom with life, at least we can make it a little more dusty.

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dearest Anita,

I can see the GalactiPol cruiser from my starboard viewport. Its black and gold stripes practically glow beneath the strobing orange beacon and make it look like a psychedelic bumblebee. Most people in my situation, facing detainment on Mars, endless expensive legal proceedings, possible time in prison, would be locked in the grips of fear and worry. Perhaps even shame. But not me. The one thought stuck in my mind, like a diptera fastened to sticky paper, is how beautiful that cruiser is and how excited I am to begin this second adventure.

It’s all about perception.

During that last picnic on the moon, when you were locked in the service booth, Father talked about perception. “Perception is everything. If you can project what you perceive it will become reality. You will believe it. More importantly, whether good or bad, everyone else will believe in your reality as well, and they will believe in you.” Not until I read your last letter did I realize how right Father was. And how wrong we have been.

In the mirror I’ve always seen the imperfect likeness of our mother, not quite as beautiful, not quite as kind, and with but a fraction of her intelligence. I have our father’s height and amber-flecked brown eyes, but none of his grace, strength, or athleticism. Yet, somehow you see in me the face of an angel.

In you I see the sharp mind and steady hands of a scientist. A fearless tenacious spirit intent on exploring all possibilities even at great cost, able to articulate your ideas, to change hearts and minds. You have boundless strength, so much so that you have been the central support for Mother and me since Father’s death. There is nothing plain about you, little sister, nothing wanting.

How is it that our perceptions have never aligned?

Be right back. GalactiPol is hailing me

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-12

Sorry it has taken me so long to return to this letter, but I had a few calls to make. Officers Gavalia and Ambrose boarded my ship at 2315 and took me into custody. My detainment cell is surprisingly modish, with full amenities including a computer and personal uncensored communication device. I have even been given unrestricted access to their onboard digital library.

According to officer Gavalia, though entry into GalactiPol requires extensive training and a stringent vetting system, they have little opportunity to actually do the type of policing their organization exists to perform. I suppose there just aren’t that many galactic criminals to catch these days, besides you and me, that is.

Now where was I? Ah yes. Perceptions.

I’ve been mesmerized by the images you sent of the garbatrite homes, the bright multilayered encrusted structures in every shade of red, orange and pink, lambent lights beneath the gaze of the sun. They expound beauty and ingenuity and life and more than anything, a prescience greater than anything either of us could have conceived.

We’ve been darting back and forth through this solar system, in an effort to outdo one another, trying our damndest to affect the change of our choosing, thinking we are so smart and so in control, when in truth, we are no greater than those garbatrites, and perhaps we are even less wise than they.

Perhaps there is a way for us both to have what we wanted, to terraform Mars and to protect the garbatrites. They were always keen to share their world with us and seeing the ingenuity and beauty of their structures, perhaps we can convince them to help us transform the barren surface of Mars into one of cooperative beauty. We can provide the framework for our cities and homes, and they can build upon them, layering their coral-like exoteric structures, creating homes befitting us all, unlike anything in the entire solar system.

I called Tariq shortly after my detainment aboard the GalactiPol cruiser. Before you think me hopeless, let me explain. Besides being happily ensconced in a polyamorous relationship with two of the nicest men and woman I have ever met, he has long since given up on his art (he was never very good anyway) and has been the Chief GalactiPol Officer for several years. I was hoping that there was still enough lingering affection between us that he would agree to assist me in this difficult situation.

Unfortunately, he is unable, as I had hoped, to have the charges against us repealed, but we have been allowed to serve the entirety of our sentence on Mars. Together.

Shall we do this, sister? Shall we make our dreams come true?

I envision us making a home from our old pod quarters. Perhaps we can build on an extra room and invite Mother. We can even build a special corral for Bobo and Cow, where they can play happily and where they won’t be able to disturb you as you work on your next great experiment. With the help of the garbatrites we can build a greenhouse. We’ll grow corn and tomatoes in soil fertilized with the ashes of our father. We will create a real home, a life. And we will relearn one another, our strengths and weakness, our mutual love for each other. One day other Earthers will join us on our red planet and find a world of wonder encased in garbatrite domes. A home.

Can you see it, sister? Good. Now hold that thought in your mind until we are reunited.

With all my love,

Ziza

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-13

 

Dear Ziza,

Why did the sisters cross the solar system? To get to the other’s side.

See you soon,

Anita

 


© 2017 by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

Author’s Note (Khaalidah): When I met Rachael about three years ago, I experienced an instant and sincere affection for her. We toyed with the idea of a collaboration for awhile before we finally dove in. We didn’t outline this story beforehand and had no clear idea where it would go. It took us across the galaxy, with great food, adventure, and lots of laughter. Collaborating with someone as talented and easy-going as Rachael was a joy for me. She charged my imagination. I am pleased to be able to share the results with everyone else.  In many ways the end result reflects how I feel about Rachael. She is a sister in my heart and a dear friend.

Author’s Note (Rachael): Khaalidah is my dear friend, my comrade-in-arms, probably a time traveler, and everything I want to be when I grow up. So when we started kicking around the idea of doing a collaboration, I jumped on the opportunity. Writing this story with her was immensely fun, often hilarious, and always surprising. While working on “Regarding the Robot Raccoons,” we eventually realized that although we each controlled a single character’s voice, we were actually writing each other’s characters via our reactions to one another, creating a more complex and nuanced view of Anita and Ziza that you get through just one perspective. I think this phenomenon also exists in all good friendships: in seeing yourself reflected through another’s eyes, you’re inspired to push harder, reach higher, and go farther in life than you ever would on your own. Khaalidah’s friendship makes me a better person, just as collaborating with her makes me a better writer. I hope our readers, in turn, will enjoy the results.

 

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

 

 

 

 

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published at Escape Pod , Strange Horizons, and Fiyah!.  Khaalidah is also co-editor at Podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.

 

 

 

 


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The Best of Cast of Wonders 2016

written by David Steffen

This has been a big year of change for Cast of Wonders, the young adult podcast edited by Marguerite Kenner.  Starting at the beginning of 2016, Cast of Wonders joined the Escape Artists family of podcasts as their fourth podcast.  And, as part of this change, they greatly increased their writer pay rates from just a few pounds to professional rates for original stories, which I believe should’ve started the timer for becoming a SFWA-qualifying market.

This year there have been some technical issues with the feed that have resulted in long stretches between episodes.  What’s more confusing is that, to compensate for these issues, several episodes have been renumbered, and a bunch of episodes were added late in the year but with earlier dates posted on them.  I don’t say all this to complain but that… I’m not 100% sure that I have actually heard all of the episodes this year, because the changed dates and changed episode numbers have made a mess of the feed.  I tried my best!

All of the stories on this list are eligible for Hugos and Nebulas this year. (that’s why they’re all marked with asterisks.

Cast of Wonders published 30 stories in 2016.

The List

 

1. “The Jungle Between” by Holly Schofield*
Story with dual points of view–of human scientists and dinosaur-like aliens they are studying, centered around their perceptions of the other.

2. “This Story Begins With You” by Rachael K. Jones*
Stories with power to transform everything around them.

3. “The Authorized Biography” (part 1 and part 2) by Michael G. Ryan*
What if you found a  book that gave your complete biography, including what hasn’t happened yet?

4. “The Four Stewpots” by DK Thompson*
Speculative Yelp review!

5. “Welcome to Willoughby’s” by Michael Reid*
Space taxidermy!

 

 

The Best of Podcastle 2016

written by David Steffen

Podcastle is the weekly fantasy podcast published by Escape Artists.  At the beginning of the year it was co-edited by Rachael K. Jones and Graeme Dunlop.  Partway through the year Rachael retired and her co-editor seat was filled by Jen Albert.  As well as weekly full-length feature episodes, they also publish occasional standalone flash stories as bonus episodes, as well as triple flash stories for the occasional feature episode collection.

Within 2016, Podcastle also increased their pay for flash fiction, which I believe should have started their 1-year counter for becoming a SFWA-qualifying market!  Hoping that will happen anytime soon now.

In February Podcastle once again participated in the Artemis Rising event across the Escape Artists podcasts, publishing fantasy stories written by women and nonbinary authors.

I will note, too, that this has been the hardest of the Best Of lists to make this year because there were so many stories that I was simply in love with that it was hard to weed it down to a list of reasonable length.  Everything on this list I loved, and there were some I had to make the hard decision to bump off the list that I also loved.

Every story that is eligible for Hugo and Nebula nominations this year which were first published by Podcastle are marked with an asterisk (*).

Every story that is eligible for Hugo and Nebula nominations which were first published by another publisher and then reprinted in Podcastle are marked with a double asterisk (**)–if you want to nominate them, follow the link to find out who the original publisher was to give them proper credit.

I pondered for quite a while whether I should feel free to include the #5 on the list, since I was the original editor and publisher of it here on Diabolical Plots.  I exclude my own stories from any of my lists with the reasoning that I can’t properly judge my own work, and I wondered whether I should do the same for stories that I published.  I came to the conclusion that I CAN judge stories that I published, because I already had to do so to publish them in the first place, picking those stories out of the much larger slushpile.  These stories won’t automatically make a Best Of list, but I feel it’s reasonable to consider them.  But, in case anyone would rather not see a story I didn’t published bumped off the list by a story that I did publish, I have included one more story on the list than I normally would have, so that I didn’t have to bump one off.

The List

1. “Beat Softly, My Wings of Steel” by Beth Cato*
Science fantasy story in which the souls of dead horses can be reborn in mechanical pegasus bodies, and how this is used for the war effort.  Our protagonist wants to use such a body to escape a war zone.

2. “Golden Chaos” by MK Hutchins
Different regions have different natural/magical laws, including the chaos which is constantly in flux.

3. “The Bee Tamer’s Final Performance” by Aidan Doyle*
The fleet of circus ships have been taken over by bees living in the hollowed-out corpses of clowns.

4. “Archibald Defeats the Churlish Shark-Gods” by Benjamin Blattberg*
Hilariously unreliable narrator, telling the story of a research trip with a companion in which he is always the hero, even when he obviously isn’t.

5. “Further Arguments in Support of Yudah Cohen’s Proposal to Bluma Zilberman” by Rebecca Fraimow**
Written a letter of proposal from a rabbinical student to the woman he wishes to marry.

6. “Thundergod in Therapy” by Effie Seiberg**
Zeus tries to find his place in the modern world, while undergoing therapy for some of his more problematic behaviors.

7.  “Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer
Humanity lives under the oversized heel of our elephant overlords.

Honorable Mentions

“Send in the Ninjas” by Michelle Ann King*

“Love Letters on the Nightmare Sea” by Rachael K. Jones**

“Squalor and Sympathy” by Matt Dovey**

“Tumbleweeds and Little Girls” by Jeff Bowles*