Search for...

Follow by Email

Followers

Blog Archive

Saturday, September 15, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Ann’s Golem,” by Clive Tern




The idea of a golem was Reynold’s. He knew a few families in Golders Green who used them. It made things like shopping so much easier, especially since the Russians started dropping their little exploding machines. The way the tiny automatons walked about, seeking a target, was terrifying.

Knitting the golem was Ann’s idea.

“But they’re made from clay,” Reynold protested. “There’s a chap in Finsbury Park who makes two a week, good ones. He made the Blumstein’s golem, and the Goldberg’s. Whoever heard of a knitted golem? It’s preposterous.”

“Maybe. But our golem won’t look like a miner wandering about after his shift. Now, I’ll need supplies. Did you pay the Mortun & Fayson’s account? They were terribly sniffy when I sent last week’s order.”

“I did. Give me your list. I’ll drop it in when I go to the office. They can deliver it this afternoon.” He paused. “What suit do you think I should wear for the office today? I had the blue serge put out, but I’m not sure.”

Ann thought for a moment. “That’s the one you wore when we had the portraits done last year. You look good in those photos.”

“Hmm. Well, at your suggestion.”

¤

Ann was embroidering when she heard the delivery van arrive. She continued stitching until the maid came in with the delivery chit to sign.

“Where would you like it all put, Ma’am?”

“Have the wire, mesh, and rods put in the work parlor. The wool should go in the project room.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Ann opened the Babbage cabinet and turned the mechanical computing engine on, to warm the valves up. Her research into  golem construction was nearly complete, but there were still some details being checked. The machine clicked and whirred, telling her the view-screen valves had achieved operating temperature. She sat at the control desk, flexed her fingers, and entered the lines of command to summon the results of her search.

The only doubt still in her mind was how to activate the golem. Hebrew characters on its forehead; God’s name in its body; singing and dancing around it. She just wasn’t sure which of the suggestions was correct.

The copper cables, which connected their Babbage to the master machine in the huge complex at the old Woolwich Arsenal, hummed as the results came through.

She flicked between screens of information and sighed in disappointment. The only new piece of information was the Hebrew characters for God’s name, and their English translation, yod, ha, waw, ha. If this was the right way to bring the creature to life, she’d need to practice her calligraphy to get them right.

The doorbell rang. Ann tilted her head, wondering who it could be. Possibly the Temperance Drive people again. Trying to save her from the iniquities of her afternoon’s dry sherry, or evening glass of champagne—do-gooding busy-bodies. She turned the Babbage off and was closing the cabinet when the maid came in.

“Ma’am, there are two gentlemen from the police here to see you.”

Ann frowned. A small lurch in her stomach was unexpected, but then so was a visit from the constabulary. She nodded to the maid. “Thank you.”

On the way down the stairs dark worries begin to percolate, fears tried to coalesce around the flutters in her belly. In the parlor she found long-time family friend, Chief Inspector Iain Dramber, and his deputy. When she saw them, saw their faces, she knew why they’d come.

“Hello, Ann,” Iain said, and pointed to a chair. “You should take a seat.”

“Reynold? What’s happened to him, Iain?”

“Sit down, Ann.” He looked at the maid who hovered in the doorway. “Could you bring some tea please, and a brandy for your mistress.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s happened to Reynold?”

“There was an incident on the underground this morning. One of those Russian walking bombs made its way into the station at Mornington Crescent. From what eye witnesses have said, Reynold tried to get people out of the way. When he saw it making a move towards some school children he grabbed it and…”

Tears were already rolling down Ann’s cheeks. “How did he… Was it quick? He didn’t suffer, did he?”

“No. The bomb was quick. He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

¤

In the months that followed Ann often found herself in periods of fugue. Days passed, she did things but had no memory of them occurring. Concerned friends tried to help; inviting her to the country, or down to the coast. She refused. Staying at home helped her to feel close to Reynold. Sometimes she responded to questions she imagined him asking, only to become aware of his absence anew when he failed to carry on the conversation.

It wasn’t until she had to replace a lightbulb, and went into the work parlor where spares were kept, that she remembered about the golem. The rods, wire, and mesh were all stacked in the corner—covered in dust.

It gave her a new sense of purpose.

The plans formulated before Reynold’s death came back to mind easily, and over the next couple of days she built the golem’s frame. The rods provided a solid core; the mesh built the approximation of limbs, a torso, and head; the wire tied it together.

When she was happy with the basic shape, she started knitting.

First the feet. A plain smooth stitch that imitated the single-piece calf leather shoes Reynold preferred. Then a flash of purple—he always wore purple socks. Said it was regal, instead of funereal like the black everyone else wore. The legs, torso, and arms were blue. She searched for just the right shade. It had to match his serge suit. The one he’d been wearing when he died. The one he wore in the portrait photos they’d had taken the previous year. Her second favorite print from the shoot sat on the table beside her, a reference point for her work. Her favorite was next to her heart.

At the edge of the creature’s arms, and round the neck, and collar, she used white, for the crisp white shirts he wore. The necktie was knitted as a separate item which she then stitched on. A deep lilac, with silver flowers.

Doing the hands was easier than she expected, but the contours of his head, his face, proved difficult. How do you knit the face of your heart-mate? She had caressed those cheeks so often, had slid her hand round his freshly-shaved chin with tender desire. Recreating their contours with wool, even the finest wool, knitted with care and devotion, was like trying to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel while blind and using a sweeping brush.

For long days Ann looked at her husband’s picture. She sat and remembered his warmth, his skin, his smile. Tears flowed down her face. There were no sobs, she’d finished with those weeks ago. These were the pure tears of her memory, they were the moments they’d shared for years, the times that should have been remembered together in the twilight of their lives. The tears began to feel wasteful, like she was squandering precious recollections with each bout of lachrymosity.

She started knitting again the next morning, imbuing Reynold’s face with more than her memory, her love. She knitted it with her heart, and her soul. It was perfect.

Having done the face, the hair was easy. Chestnut brown with thick waves. She’d loved running her hands through his hair after he’d bathed, when it was soft, before he put wax in it. This wasn’t as fine, or soft, but it was as close as she could get.

Finally she finished. Reynold sat in the chair before her. She wished it was her Reynold, but it was as close as metal and wool could create. Now all she had to do was make him live.

She stitched the word ‘emet’, which means ‘truth’, into its forehead. It didn’t move. She unpicked the stitches. She obtained traditional Jewish music and danced around the creation chanting the letters of God’s name. It didn’t move. She wrote yod, ha, waw, ha, God’s name in its hebrew consonants, on parchment and folded it into the golem’s arm,  mouth, and head. It didn’t move.

“How do I make you live?” she asked, stroking Reynold’s head with tenderness. The strands of knitted hair felt wrong in her hand, but were correct in the memory of her heart.

“Oh Reynold, how do I make you live? I made you true, as true as I could.” She held the woolen cheek. The stitches were small and soft beneath her fingers. The wool remained still, the wire beneath it never shifted, the steel rods at its core continued lifeless.

Day after day she attempted to bring the golem of Reynold to life.

Lying in bed at night became a chore. A rote action enacted when she felt weary, and her body dulled with movement made uncoordinated by tiredness, even while her mind continued to whir. Street lamps shone orange light through the window as Ann’s sleep-deprived mind played false recollections of Reynold’s life. He didn’t die. He was a brave and lucky hero, saving children before returning home to care for his devoted wife.

One night she lay on the floor before the woolen golem, her head in its lap, her tears soaking into its legs. She took Reynold’s picture from the spot near her heart and looked at him. The crisp lines had started to fade; it was like she was losing him all over again. Soon he would be no more than the blurred representation on a piece of creased paper.

She fell asleep. Her tears dried into the wool. While sleeping she also dreamt. Reynold held her in his arms, soft and secure, like when they were first married. He never spoke, never uttered a word, just held her and stroked her hair. In sleep, in dream, she wept for him, for her, for them. He crushed her to his warm chest, and said nothing.

Dawn was shading the horizon when Ann woke with a clear and certain knowledge of how to bring life to the golem, to Reynold. His picture was still in her hand. She unpicked where the hair met the scalp, tucked the picture in the gap, and stitched it up again.

“Live, my love,” she said.

Nothing happened. She sank back to her knees, laid her head back into her ersatz husband’s lap, and wept tears she didn’t know were still available.

Hands of wool stroked her face. She looked up, and Reynold stared at her with stitched green eyes, his head tilted to the side like he knew she was sad, but didn’t know why.



Clive Tern is writer of poetry and short stories living in Cornwall, UK. He occasionally blogs about writing and life at www.clivetern.com.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Korba’s Revenge,” by Preston Dennett



Though he was far from the arena, Korba could already hear the sounds of the festival: the piercing shouts of the hawkers, the hiss and clunk of the machines, the chatter of the crowd as everyone speculated about who would win the battle of the beasts. The leather straps dug into his shoulders while behind him his wagon squeaked, heavy with the weight of his creation, his pride and joy. On this day he could win. He had a chance.

As he expected, those around him laughed and pointed. “Look at Korba,” they said. “He enters again.” “You shall lose, old man!” “Stay in your shop, Korba.” “Korba, the fool!” They spit at him and threw pebbles.

He ignored their taunts and pulled his wagon along the dusty trail. The smell of grease, smoke and metal fought with the odors of manure from the animals, perfume from the ladies and cooking meats from the many stalls. Children ran along his wagon, trying to peek under the tarp that hid his creation.

He paid them no mind and continued to lead his wagon past the many huts and workshops of the city. The crowd thickened as he approached the arena, which brought more stares and laughter. Others, recognizing him, shook their heads sadly. So many people! A few of the old ones, Korba noted, nodded with respect. Korba had entered these games for many years. And each year, he lost. He was simply no match against those with greater riches and larger shops to create their fearsome beasts. But if he hadn’t won, he was, at least, remembered. This day, he thought, they shall do more than remember.

The streets around the arena were packed with people, all of them dressed in their finest colored shirts and robes. He could afford no such luxury. He spent his spare earnings on his creations and wore only a rough canvas shirt and pants.

He pulled his wagon into the line leading into the backside of the area. Here gathered all the other entrants, each of them with their creation. Most rode atop the shoulders of their metallic beasts, though some had built a protective cage inside the bellies or necks, where they now crouched, furiously manipulating the levers and buttons that controlled their movement. Cowards, thought Korba. A true artist would neither ride his beast nor hide inside it. A creation should be able to fight for itself. Few, however, thought like Korba.

He eyed his competition. Horses stomping and screeching and spouting steam from their nostrils, giant black iron bulls strong enough to knock down a house, an elephant twice normal size with a knife-edged trunk. He saw wolves with huge metal fangs, great lumbering bears, quick-moving lions, and more. But Korba was most impressed by an enormous snake-like creature. It looked to be hundreds of feet long, its entire length covered with shiny scaled armor. Its head was huge, and its body seemed wide enough to swallow several of the other beasts. And how swiftly it moved! Already much of the crowd was focused on it, oohing and aahing as its owner showed what it could do.

And then silence fell upon the crowd. Gornel! Korba grimaced inwardly. As expected Gornel had arrived with his dinosaur. It resembled a tyrannosaurus, except it was larger. Gornel had won the contest with it for the past three years. He sat there inside the hollow head of his creation and defeated all who attacked him. No beast was a match against Gornel’s monster, which could crush nearly every beast around with one foot.

Korba could see that Gornel had made several improvements this year. The arms looked longer and more fully equipped. The tail was larger. The beast could now spit fire, which Gornel continued to demonstrate to the stunned on-lookers. Most of all, the giant lumbering beast moved more swiftly. Its speed was shocking. Korba could see that many—if not all—of the beasts would be destroyed by Gornel’s monster. Except mine, he thought. How he wanted to beat Gornel! And on this day, he had a chance.

Few paid much attention to the contents of his wagon. He chuckled at those who rolled their eyes at him. Yes, his creation was small, but soon they would see.

A loud horn sounded three times: the time for the contest had arrived. The matches would begin shortly.

As usual, the smaller beasts would be pitted against each other first, with the victor taking on progressively larger beasts. This meant that Korba would be among the first to compete. Only if he survived would he be given the opportunity to fight the larger beasts. He had never been able to earn such a chance yet. This time, he hoped, would be the first.

The stands were packed with people. All around him in the waiting stalls, the various beasts hissed and groaned and thumped.

The contest overseers called out two of the creatures, both of them giant-sized rats.

And the fight began.

The two metallic creatures clanged loudly together, clawing and biting at each other. They fought viciously and without mercy. Soon pieces began to fly. In moments it was over and one of the rat creatures crowed loudly as it stood atop the scattered remains of the other. It then trotted back to its keeper and waited for the next contestant.

And so it went, one metallic beast fighting the next. The rat defeated one after another of the smaller ones: a giant cockroach, a spider-like thing with knife-tipped legs, another crab-like contraption with rotating blades.

Then came Korba’s turn. One of the overseers walked up to Korba and bid him to uncover his machine and enter the arena.

Korba pulled off the covering and revealed a curious sight. The crowd grew silent as they tried to discern what they were seeing. Korba knew they were difficult to see. They were so small. And they crawled all over each other so quickly that they were difficult to watch. How they fluttered and buzzed!

There were nearly a thousand of them, each one armed with powerful jaws and more importantly, the ability to fly.

“What is it?” several voices called out. “Show us your creature, old man!” “Korba the fool!” Necks craned and people stood in the stands. Laughter rippled back and forth in the crowd. They thought of him as a joke, he knew. No longer!

The large rat-like creature stood on its hind legs and bared its metal fangs.

At that moment, Korba released his creatures. They flew up in a large swarm and headed directly for the rat.

The laughter died as the crowd gasped. “They fly!” “What are they?” “See how many!”

The swarm descended upon the rat, who swiped vainly with his paws. The crowd of mechanical bugs covered the entire surface of the rat. In seconds, it became helpless. It ran madly through the arena, trying to fling the biting creatures from its body.

Korba grinned inwardly, knowing that each of the creatures had magnetic feet and could not be easily removed.

As Korba suspected, his insects made quick work of the rat. In only moments, they had eaten their way through the armor and disabled it. The rat thrashed around and after a fierce struggle, finally grew still.

Korba’s insects rose from the carcass and returned to their cage, ready for the next contender.

It was a mechanical wolf. Korba snorted. This would be easy. And it was.

In less than a minute, the wolf lay unmoving on the floor of the arena. The crowd was shocked and remained silent. Then suddenly the applause began and Korba couldn’t believe what he heard. It was his name, he realized. “Korba! Korba! Korba!” They were chanting his name.

And so it went. One creature after another challenged his insects. And Korba’s insects defeated each of them. In some cases, they even fed upon the carcasses, harvesting them for necessary parts. It mattered not how fast the challengers were, or how large, or the size of their fangs. Korba’s insects were always quicker and could disable any machine in less than a minute. Of course, it was not without a price. Not all damage could be repaired, and each fight cost him many of his precious insects. With each fight, his swarm grew smaller. More and more of their tiny bodies littered the ground. Still, they fought. How hard they fought!

Even the giant metallic snake proved powerless against Korba’s swarm. It snapped its giant mouth and rolled its gargantuan body, but it was no match. Korba’s insects could fly. Nobody, he knew, had even thought of making a creature so small. Everyone who entered the contest assumed that larger and stronger creatures would win.

It was a weakness only Korba had foreseen, and one by one, each of the creatures fell to his.

The crowd grew louder with each victory, and Korba could see that they looked at him with new eyes. Their expressions nearly made him laugh. How they stared with such disbelief!

Korba wasn’t ready to celebrate yet. He still needed to defeat Gornel.

The moment soon approached. All the other beasts had challenged Korba, and he had defeated each one.

Gornel sat inside his beast. Korba saw his grim expression of determination through the face-hole. It would provide a perfect entrance for his insects, he knew. And yet, his swarm was much smaller now. His heart thumped with fear.

The horn sounded and the battle began. The giant beast roared and stomped forward as Korba’s insects rose and approached.

The great beast belched a cloud of fire that enveloped Korba’s swarm. Korba winced as he saw many of his insects fall to the ground.

Those that survived quickly settled on the beast and began to burrow inside.

The other beasts had been easily dispatched. But this one, Korba realized, was so large. It would take some time—and he was not sure he could afford it.

The metal tyrannosaur continued to spit out plumes of flame, killing great numbers of the insects. It sliced at them with its bladed arms. It crushed them with its monstrous tail.

So many were dying! And still the tyrannosaur showed no signs of weakening.

The cloud of insects was visibly thinning. He was going to lose! The beast was too large!

Then the moment Korba had been waiting for happened: the great beast faltered. One of its legs trembled. As it attempted to walk, it limped weakly. The other leg began to tremble. Still it fought. There were very few insects now.

Without further warning, the great beast collapsed. It roared and thrashed and clawed at the insects. And suddenly, it was still, the massive body clinking and hissing slightly as it lay there.

Gornel crawled from the wreckage and limped away, embarrassed and angry. Korba’s insects, the swarm now much diminished, rose from the tyrannosaur’s body and returned dutifully to their cage.

The crowd rose to their feet as one and roared with approval. “Korba! Korba! Korba!”

He had won! Korba couldn’t help but grin. He had finally won. As the others swept up the remains of their beasts, the crowd surrounded Korba, slapping his back, patting his head for luck.

They roared with approval as Korba took the bag of coins promised to the winner. It was more money than Korba had ever seen.

Korba left the arena, trailing a crowd of people who questioned him. “How did you do it?” they asked. “What will do you do with your coins?” asked others.

Korba remained silent and only smiled. He would reveal his secrets to no one. And as for what he would do with the money: well, they would find out next year. He already knew what type of beast he wanted to build. It wouldn’t be insects. Instead it would be a beast he had been designing for most of his life. Now he had the funds to produce it. He could scarcely wait for everyone to see it. He had surprised them this year. Next year, if he could complete his creation, he would become a legend. For his beast would be undefeatable, even by his own insects.

Next year, his beast would be a man.



Preston Dennett has worked as a carpet cleaner, fast-food worker, data entry clerk, bookkeeper, landscaper, singer, actor, writer, radio host, television consultant, teacher, UFO researcher, ghost hunter, and more. He has written 22 nonfiction books and more than 100 articles about UFOs and the paranormal, but his true love has always been speculative fiction. After a long hiatus, he started writing again in 2009. He has since sold 37 stories to various venues including Allegory, Andromeda Spaceways, Bards & Sages, Black Treacle, Cast of Wonders, The Colored Lens, Grievous Angel, Kzine, Perihelion, Sci Phi Journal, T. Gene Davis’ Speculative Blog, and more, including several anthologies. He earned twelve honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest before winning 2nd place for Quarter 1, 2018, (Volume 35). He currently resides in southern California where he spends his days looking for new ways to pay his bills and his nights exploring the farthest edges of the universe.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Amenities,” by Susan Taitel


Piper never could say how she found her apartment. She’d been on her way to see a room a little over her budget and further from campus than she was hoping for. Nevertheless, she couldn’t bear another year in the dorm, with its industrial lighting and slimy communal showers. The ad promised quiet housemates and a semi-private bath. The room turned out to be considerably smaller than advertised. Not to mention windowless, and, judging by the odor and stained floor, recently occupied by a chain-smoker and several incontinent dogs.

She stayed long enough to satisfy her manners, then headed back to the train. She didn’t quite remember the way and consulted her phone. When she glanced up, she discovered that if the GPS was to be believed, the concrete barrier in her path was an illusion. It felt solid enough.

She powered her phone off and on, but despite still having a signal, the app could no longer locate her. She took a left down a tree-lined side street, hoping to find a way around. She’d only gone a few steps before being overwhelmed by a roiling in her gut. Her head throbbed and her teeth clenched. It was as if every lamppost and trash can was urging her to turn around. She was halfway back to the intersection when she noticed a handwritten sign in the window of a nearby brownstone. “To Let,” it read. Piper confirmed via Google it meant ‘for rent’ and rang the bell.

An elderly woman with thinning hair and bright eyes came to the door. Mrs. Clove introduced herself and ushered Piper into an overstuffed chair, shrouded in plastic and embellished with claw marks.

“I was just sitting down to tea. Have a bite, dear.” Mrs. Clove brought Piper a steaming mug and a plate of small sandwiches with the crust cut off. The sandwiches were stale, but the tea, floral and sweet with a hint of pepper, sent a surge of warmth up her spine. Mrs. Clove beamed when Piper asked for a second cup.

She showed Piper around the upstairs unit, apologizing that it was old-fashioned. The bathroom sported a claw-foot tub with separate taps for hot and cold. Accordion-shaped radiators provided the heat, and an ironing board folded out from the wall. Piper had always wanted a foldout ironing board. There were high ceilings, picture windows, and a closet in each room. By the time they reached the built-in buffet cabinet, Piper was in love.

“And the rent?” She braced for heartbreak.

Mrs. Clove named a price two hundred dollars less than the single room.

“I couldn’t pay so little,” Piper sputtered, cursing her scruples.

“Nonsense! I don’t need the money. My grandnephew was staying up here, but he got married and moved out. It’s too quiet now. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

Piper was moved in by dinner. She spotted the first dropping the following day. By the end of the week, there was no denying it. The flat had mice.

The mice wore hats. Piper didn’t think that was normal, but she’d never had mice before.

“What kind of hats?” asked Mrs. Clove when Piper brought it to her attention.

“Little knitted hats,” Piper replied.

“Just knitted hats?”

“I think one had a matching scarf.”

“But not fedoras? Or, say, a boater?”

“No.”

“That's alright then.” Mrs. Clove poured Piper a cup of tea.

“It is?” Piper asked, taking a sip.

“Mice are to be expected in a building this old, but if they’re bothering you, I’ll send the cat in.” She stroked a gray tabby as lithe and elegant as Mrs. Clove was rotund and artless.

By the time she finished the tea, Piper was less disturbed by the hats. She’d yet to take Mrs. Clove up on the offer. The mice were kind of cute. Though occasionally, as she was drifting off to sleep, the tapping of their nails on the hardwood floor made Piper shiver.

The area was still a GPS dead-zone. A month after moving in, Piper tried to go to the movies with her friend Miguel. She offered to meet him at the theater but he insisted on picking her up. His phone took him to an IHOP three towns over. But there was a shuttle to and from the nearest train station, and from there she could get to anywhere she needed to go.

The neighborhood was charming, if a little confusing. The buildings didn’t agree with each other. Coastal village shops on stilts sat next to solid brick storefronts which sat next to cobblestone pubs. Even some of the individual buildings couldn’t commit to a single style, like the Brazilian steakhouse with Chinese lions flanking the door.

She no longer felt unwelcome on the streets. She loved certain features of her new community, like the bookstore housed in a decommissioned school bus. But other things gnawed at her, like the churro cart that with the flick of a latch unfolded into a full-service bodega. She discovered it during an emergency tampon run. It wasn’t until she got home that she remembered to wonder at the dimensions.

Strangest of all, besides the absence of a Starbucks, was the school. Mrs. Clove had pointed it out from the front window. A tall twisted spire, visible above the tree line. She called it a special school, which explained why all the students had service animals. Most had dogs or ferrets, but one boy of around eleven was accompanied everywhere he went by a tortoise.

It was raining. Water gushed through Piper’s open window. She got up to close it and noticed a group of the students in green and blue uniforms, waiting at the bus stop on the corner. Piper watched them laughing and shoving each other out of the shelter and into the downpour—except for one girl, who stood with her hands raised at her sides, palms up, catching the rain. She flicked a hand; a stream of precipitation flew upward then turned vertical. The water flowed in a curve and splashed down the neck of the boy with the tortoise.

Piper took a step back. It was the wind. Or a trick of the light. Or…

Snatching up her jacket, Piper ran for the stairs. When she reached the street, the bus had come and the students were gone. She considered going back inside but found herself walking in the direction of the spire.

Two hours later, she returned, drenched and exhausted. She’d walked in circles looking for the school. No matter how far she walked, the spire never got any closer.

Shivering, Piper opened the cupboard for a cup of noodles to warm up. A mouse stared back at her. It was bareheaded, but a monocle glinted at its eye. Piper shrieked and dropped the ramen. The mouse dove to the floor. It disappeared under the radiator, a tiny opera cape fluttering in its wake.

Piper fled. She banged frantically on Mrs. Clove’s door.

“Gracious, you’re soaked! What’s the matter, dear?”

“The mice! They’re getting bolder and—they’ve developed optometry!”

“I see. Come in, come in.” She led Piper to the sitting room and brought her a threadbare towel. “There now, dry off. You’re soaked.”

Mrs. Clove handed Piper a mug of tea. The warmth seeped into Piper’s fingers and the scent calmed her nerves. She brought it to her lips, then set the mug firmly on the coffee table.

“Mrs. Clove, what is this place?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“What do I mean? The mice accessorize. Children manipulate the weather. The other night, I was listening to Hamilton and I swear I caught my bathtub tapping its foot.”

“It’s not supposed to do that?” Mrs. Clove frowned. “Never mind, it can be dealt with. Drink your tea.”

“No thank you.”

“For the love of chalk, just drink your tea!”

“What’s in the tea?” Piper sprang to her feet, jostling the table.

“Nothing.” Mrs. Clove tutted and wiped the sloshed tea with the soggy towel. “Nothing dangerous. Oh, I’ve made a mess of things. I should never have brought you here. But I was terribly lonely. Eponine is a dear, but you know cats, only sociable when they feel like it.”

“You brought me here?”

“Well, not you specifically, but I’m glad it was you that came. You’re an excellent tenant.” Mrs. Clove bit her lip. “I hope you’re not too cross with me. Please don’t leave. How can I make it right?”

Piper sat back down, massaging her temples. Her landlady was a witch and her apartment was infested with sentient vermin. But, to its credit, Piper had never walked in on anyone waxing their bikini zone in the common room. And the rent was so reasonable.

“One,” Piper began counting on her fingers. “No more tea.”

“But you have to drink the tea,” Mrs. Clove interrupted. “I’m not allowed to let outsiders know everything,”

“I’m not an outsider. I live here,” Piper said.

Mrs. Clove clapped her hands.

“Two. The mice have to go.”

“Of course! I’ll send Eponine right up.”

The cat dropped from its perch and padded toward the door.

“No. I’m not approving a massacre. Just find them a new home.”

“It’ll be difficult and Eponine will most likely sulk, but it can be arranged.”

The cat returned, shooting Piper an unimpressed look.

“Last, I get to study in peace. And in return, I’ll come down for a chat at least once a week. Does that work?”

Mrs. Clove agreed, and Piper went back upstairs. She dried her hair and emailed her grandmother to see if the Saturday Bridge club was still looking for a fourth. On her way to bed, she stumbled over her area rug. It hovered, somewhat disconcertingly, three to four inches off the floor.

She could deal with it in the morning.



Susan Taitel grew up in Chicago, resides in Minneapolis, and lives in stories. She attended Viable Paradise in 2016. Her fiction has appeared on mcsweeneys.net and in Gallery of Curiosities. She denies all knowledge of the Great Cheese Heist of ’14.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Rave Review for Issue #21!

I have no idea who this person is, but I love this review of Stupefying Stories #21 on Hamilcar’s Books. Rather than quote too much of it, I’ll just quote my favorite part:
“All of the tales are well-structured and well-written. I was pleasantly surprised that none of the writers were ‘weak links’, nor did any of the stories feel like they were ‘mailed in’.  Perhaps that merits a tip-of-the-hat to the editor, either for his selection of the writers or for demanding a certain level of quality in the entries.”
I’d like to think it’s both, but then, I am the editor.

In any case, Hamilcar’s Books reviews Stupefying Stories #21 and gives it an 8.5 on a scale of 10. I will now allow myself five minutes of being smug.

Read the full review, and then please, feel free to share the link.

~brb

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Family Matters • by Bruce Bethke

Nota bene: This is the introduction George Scithers wrote 36 years ago for the original magazine publication of “Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories. Please read it closely.


I no longer remember the name of the con. It was somewhere between 25 and 30 years ago, and I want to say it was a WorldCon, but in truth, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I was with a bunch of other mid-list, mid-life, and mid-career pros, we were in the professional SF/F writer’s natural habitat—the hotel bar—and we were having just a great old time, drinking heavily and swapping divorce horror stories. My first wife, Nancy, had just kicked me out, changed the locks, and filed for separation, and to be honest, I deserved it. In those days I was Bruce Bethke, Nearly Famous Science Fiction Writer, and I was a real jerk.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The Very Last Time I Will Ever Have Sex with a Tree,” by Nathan Cromwell


How, you might wonder, did I end up in a public park with my pants around my ankles and my—er, parts—pinched inside a tree? Long story short, I met a brunette at Retox, she was hot and I was tipsy, and I didn’t check her I.D. Even sober I hate asking a woman to prove she’s real: choose the right moment, it’s awkward; choose the wrong moment, it can scotch the whole deal; and if you choose no moment, you can end up imprisoned by a tree.

Three years ago, according to the most popular theory, the rise of science and the decline in respect for religion pulled modern beliefs back just enough to let the older ones peep through again—not anything big, like gods, but an occasional pixie, goblin, sylph…or dryad. At first these beings terrified and delighted everyone, but after the novelty wore off they became nuisances. And vice-versa: a troll might settle under a bridge, ready to harass passers-over the next morning, only to wake up inside a full-blown homeless encampment and rounded up in a NIMBY-powered police sweep. After a while the mythicals blended, somewhat, into modern life, but you can’t take the tale out of the fairy, if you get me. Even disguised, something irresistible in an idealized, belief-animated figment hurries a man’s pulse.

So my little Myrtle suggested we go to the park, away from the noise and the crowds, and my scrotum agreed. Well, one thing led to another, until, with her arms and legs entwined around me, she suddenly blurted out that she wanted me to be her husband.

“We’ll talk later,” I grunted—reasonably, I thought.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The New Herd,” by Lilliana Rose


The new herd of cows had arrived for milking, white skin gleaming in the sunlight as they were ushered from the transport ship. They walked as if their udders were tight with gold. But they refused to be touched. Maybe they were a little skittish from their long flight through space, God forbid. I prayed to the Sun, our God, to ensure none were sick. The cows often became unwell on arrival to Earth. Their stomachs couldn’t cope with the microbes any more. Their blood didn’t tolerate the lack of oxygen in the mountain air we breathed. The cows would still be milkable, even if ill—the job would be harder and I would have to be patient. Like everyone else here in town I preferred it when the milking was easy.

“A fresh harvest,” I yelled, summoning my wife and son as I walked out to the landing area.

The cows were kicking up the dirt in the holding pen. I could see the clouds of dust rising from the anger in their hooves. Running to the pens I prayed they would be ready for milking and I would be able to calm them with my well-practised smile and tender fingers. I wondered if it hurt them to have udders so tight that they didn’t know how to spend such a commodity.

Tying my brightly woven poncho around my waist I hurried past Carlos. I wanted to be first at the holding pens. He fumbled with his poncho and I stuck out my foot causing him to tumble. Tripping my neighbour was all part of the competition between the people of our village. I arrived first, the chance to have the pick of a virgin herd sent shivers of pleasure through my hands.

“Tarde,” I said, pinching the brown skin on the hand of my wife when she finally made it to my side. Good thing the cows didn’t understand our language as I mumbled more profanities to my wife as we waited. It would be her fault if the milking was poor for us today.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

It’s another Free eBook Friday!

In recognition of WorldCon 2018, the 8th Anniversary of the original launch of STUPEFYING STORIES, and any other excuse special occasion we’re sure to think of if we just keep vamping long enough, Rampant Loon Press is excited to announce that beginning at midnight Pacific time tonight and running through—well, sometime later this weekend, we aren’t exactly sure when—we are making not one but three ebooks available free, for the cost of a click. These books are:

STUPEFYING STORIES #12 • The Special WorldCon 2018 Reissue Edition.

I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised by this, but all the authors save one generously agreed to allow us to put this out-of-print ebook back into release on Amazon for three days only, just for this special promotion. (The missing author didn’t decline, he really is missing. He appears to have vanished completely from the Internet, which if intentional is an impressive feat. We hope it was intentional, and that he’s sitting on a beach somewhere with a tall drink with a little umbrella on it, enjoying life to the fullest.)

If you’ve been wondering what Stupefying Stories is all about, #12 is an excellent example of our special brand of fiction. It features:

• DRIED SKINS UNSHED, by Julie Day
• A NUN’S TALE, by Pete McArdle
• THEY FOLLOWED ME, by Carol Holland March
• INTERREGNUM, by John J. Brady
• FULL FATHOM FIVE, by Judith Field
• BONE MOTHER, by Torah Cottrill
• ALEPH, by Brandon Nolta
• ALIEN TREATIES, by Randal Doering

And yes, many of these authors are writers whose new stories you’ll be seeing in upcoming issues.

» STUPEFYING STORIES #12DOWNLOAD NOW


THEIAN JOURNAL #1 • Originally designed to be the “sister” title to Stupefying Stories, Theian Journal launched with great promise but ran into second act problems. We offer this ebook now as a preview of what Stupefying Stories #24 (November 2018) will look like, as we’re ramping up to relaunch the concept, only this time under the Stupefying Stories aegis. Featuring:

• THE FISSURE OF ROLANDO, by Judith Field
• ADROIT, by David Williams
• TAKING A BREATHER, by Jean Davis
• A SCORPION WITHIN, by Alison Grifa Ismaili
• PLAINFIELD, NEW YORSEY: 2114, by Angele Ellis
• WHEN WE ARE WHOLE, by Gary Emmette Chandler

» THEIAN JOURNAL #1DOWNLOAD NOW


THE BOOK OF JUDITH: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic by Judith Field 

Judith has been one of our favorite contributors ever since “The Prototype” first showed up in our inbox, and subsequently in Stupefying Stories #6. In this book we collected every story of hers we could get our hands on, and it got great reader reviews in the UK—but because Amazon does not propagate reader reviews across geographies, readers in the US, Canada, and Australia never saw those reviews, and the book...

Well, we believe it can do better. A lot better. Because all modesty aside, this book is full of great stories.
“Judith Field’s talent, or rather one of her talents, for she has many, is the ability to come up with an idea that’s almost laughably simple, then plonk that idea in the most prosaic of settings, and somehow end up with a tale so unique and so eldritch that it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.”
Which is why we’re giving The Book of Judith away free this weekend—
“Judith Field celebrates the extraordinary. It lives in every line of her stories alongside magic, friendly ghosts, and paranormal entities. Each tale also contains human beings who are warm, full of sentience, and often conflicting emotions. Allow yourself to be whisked away to ordinary suburbs where incredible things happen all the time.”
—in hopes of picking up some good quotes from American, Canadian, and Australian readers—
“A collection of tales of the fantastic that manage to be sweet, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny all at the same time.”
—so that we can use ‘em on the jacket when we reissue it in trade paperback, with new cover art, later this Fall.
“These stories present a refreshing fusion of styles. Life, wonder, and magic sums it up—often the fantastic and magical meets the reality of everyday life in a way that I’d imagine fans of Pratchett and Gaiman might appreciate. There are also hints of magic realism and a depth of characterisation that makes the writing truly engaging and a pleasure to read. The fact that some characters make repeated appearances across the stories is very welcome because they are so well-drawn that they stay with you. This collection is by turns funny, absurd, and poignant, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.”
» THE BOOK OF JUDITHDOWNLOAD NOW

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends. Share the link.

- Bruce Bethke, Stupefying Stories 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write Heroes: An Incomplete Primer” • by Auston Habershaw


Previously: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy”

Okay, so the first thing to keep in mind here is that the idea of what makes a “hero” is enormous and varied and in most cases culturally and historically informed—defining the term is a much slipperier task than you think. So in the interest of brevity, let’s cut to the chase: for the purposes of this article, the hero of your story is the main character, and their task is to resolve the conflict. Everything else—whether they’re good people or bad people, whatever their shape/gender/race/sexuality, whether they’re powerful or weak—all that is subject to the kind of story you are trying to tell and it’s not my business to interfere. However, it is my objective to tell you how to write your heroes better, and by better I mean more interesting, more compelling, and more memorable. So, my rules:

#1: A Hero is Actively Engaged in Resolving the Conflict

Monday, August 13, 2018

Free eBook Friday • 8/17/18

The Book of Judith

by Judith Fields


This Friday’s featured free ebook is The Book of Judith: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic, by Judith Fields. Judith has been one of our favorite contributors ever since “The Prototype” first showed up in our inbox—and subsequently in Stupefying Stories #6—and in this book we collected every story of hers we’d published up to that point, as well as a dozen more that belonged together.

The book, not to put too fine a point on it, flopped.

It got good reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk, and we saw modest sales in the UK, but because Amazon does not appear to propagate reader reviews across geographies we saw very weak sales in the US, Canada, and Australia. Which was a shame, because this book is full of really great stories.

Ergo, this coming Friday, 8/17/18, we're going to give The Book of Judith away free, for 24 hours, for the cost of a click. What we hope to get out of this is a few good promo quotes we can use on the jacket when we reissue it, with new cover art, later this Fall.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends. Share the link.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere,”
by David A. Gray


Nota Bene: I know I said that the introduction to last week’s SHOWCASE story, “The Moshe 12000,” was an exception, but—well, here we go again.

TO: David A. Gray
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 07/24/2018
RE: Submission 1806173, “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere”

Dear David,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. It has a snarky “Philip K. Dick in Purgatory” quality to it that the first reader absolutely hated but I found pretty amusing. Good thing I at least skim every story before we send the rejection.

The reason I’m going to pass on this one is that it’s the sort of metafictional writer’s inside joke story that appeals to me but often irritates readers, and all that running these kinds of stories ever gets us is inundated with lots more stories just like it, only not as good, written by writers who don’t get that this is the single most clichéd possible way in which to begin a stor...

Wait. On second thought, I’m going to accept it and publish it in SHOWCASE. Let this stand as a warning to all writers. If it spares just one slush pile reader from having to read another story with this beginning, it will have been worth it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Status Update • 7 August 2018

With Stupefying Stories #21 now out on Kindle, we’re moving ahead with back-office work. We have six more Stupefying Stories books—magazines? bookazines?—currently in various stages of development and scheduled for release between now and December, as well as three new original novels and three reissues. If you picked up a copy of #21 during the recent free ebook promo, thank you, we hope you enjoy it, please give it a rating and a quick review on Amazon if you like it, and keep those bug reports coming. We’re finding typos galore in it and want to fix as many of them as possible before we finalize the print edition. Send your comments and corrections to feedback@rampantloonmedia.com. We will read and respond, if only to say, “Thanks, we found that one already.”

If you’ve submitted a story to us in the past 90-ish days: also, thank you, and the FSPRC are doing a great job of paring the surprisingly large number of submissions we’ve received down to the short list of stories we can afford to buy and publish. If you submitted a story before August 1 and are still waiting for a response from us, you should get it by the end of this week.

Finally, as promised, we’ve updated our submission guidelines. In particular, note the new section: “Twelve Stories That Are Nearly Impossible To Sell To Us Right Now.”

To reiterate: we don’t post submission guidelines because we’re constipated prigs with delusions of godhood. We do so because time is finite, and we want to concentrate our attention on the stories that fit our needs and the writers who create those stories. The language in the submission guidelines may seem a bit harsh, but believe me, about the hundredth time you’ve seen a story that begins with a mysterious eastern European count and then introduces Lucy, Mina, John, and Van Helsing...

Hey. How come no one ever begins a story with a mysterious eastern European count and then introduces Lucy, Ethel, Fred, and Ricky? That’s what I want to know.

Kind regards,
Bruce 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Topic for Discussion


For reasons too complex to explain now, we wound up listening to Surrealistic Pillow the other night, for the first time in decades. In the summer of 1967—the “Summer of Love” as it was called then, although a friend of mine who was living in Haight-Ashbury at the time says the “Summer of Lice” was more accurate—there were four essential albums that everyone was listening to: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles, Disraeli Gears, by Cream, The Doors, by, well, The Doors, and Surrealistic Pillow, by Jefferson Airplane.

Frankly, it’s hard to understand the latter one, now. At best we can say: It was the Sixties. Drugs may have been involved. Aside from the hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” Surrealistic Pillow is mostly full of forgettable schlock and things that sound like Mamas and Papas B-sides and Yardbirds outtakes—

Except for the last song on side two: “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” In those two minutes and thirty-nine seconds, Marty Balin reveals himself to be a genius and an unheralded prophet. I had to listen to the song twice, and then read the lyrics. Hearing that song again from the vantage point of fifty years later, it is so obviously a love song sung by Balin to his sexbot—well, except for the last verse, which disintegrates into Lawrence Ferlinghetti-like word salad. (Hmm. Word salad? Shouldn’t that be Ferlinghetti word spaghetti?)

Anyway, after listening to that song, it struck me: this is also so obviously a great idea for an SF theme anthology: My Plastic Fantastic Lover

I ventured into this territory once before, a very long time ago, in “Appliancé.” I think this could be a very good book, addressing head-on the moral implications to be faced when you can, say, order up a sexbot that looks exactly like your ex-spouse...

Or it could be a big stinkin’ load of throbbing-tool robot porn, which is why I hesitate to say that I’m even considering doing such a book. I shudder at the thought of the dreck that will show up in my slush pile if I do.   

What do you think? Is it even possible to do such a book without going off into skanky roboporn territory?

The lines are now open. Let the arguments begin.  

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Well, here’s a surprise...

This just in:
Dear Editor,
Congratulations! Stupefying Stories has been randomly selected as Duotrope's Listing of the Day!
This means we will be featuring it today prominently on our website (https://duotrope.com), as well as on our Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/Duotrope) and our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Duotrope).

We just wanted to let you know that we're giving you a little extra exposure today. If you'd like, you can retweet or share our social media posts.


Best wishes,
The Duotroopers (admin team)
https://duotrope.com

Link to this listing: https://duotrope.com/listing/6322
Hmm. I had no idea we were listed on Duotrope. I’ve given no thought to Duotrope since they delisted us a few years back. I guess, now that Stupefying Stories #21 is out the door and selling, I’d better get back to posting the updated submission guidelines as described in the 7/31 Status Update.

And for all our new friends just joining us for the first time today, please, read our submission guidelines, and read at least a good sampling of our free SHOWCASE stories (if not an actual issue or two of the magazine), before sending us a submission.

Thanks!
Bruce Bethke
Executive Cat Herder in Chief
Stupefying Stories  

Saturday, August 4, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The Moshe 12000,” by Robert Allen Lupton




Nota Bene: As a rule, we are not in the habit of explaining why we chose to publish a given story. However, “The Moshe 12000” begs for an extended introduction.

The story begins, as so many great stories do, with a rejection letter...

TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/2018 10:13 AM
RE: Submission 1706233, "Grudge Match"

Dear Robert,

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. After holding it over for further consideration, we've decided we can't use it at this time. Good luck placing this one elsewhere.

It's well written, but even our least-experienced slush reader said, "Ack! Ick! It's Moby Dick in space!" I had no idea that so many of our people had such bad experiences with Moby Dick when they were in school that even now the opprobrium attaches itself to any story that begins to remind them of it.

Having received scathing reviews for publishing "The Ransom of Princess Starshine" in issue #17 and "The Old Man and the C" in issue #19, I think we're going to declare a moratorium on publishing any more SF/F rewrites of famous stories. (I still love "Heart of Dorkness," though.)  

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Stupefying Stories

P.S. If you haven't read "Heart of Dorkness," here it is: http://stupefyingstoriesshowcase.com/?p=1032 
#     #     #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 11:29 AM
RE: Submission 1706233, "Grudge Match"

I understand and, of course, it's Moby Dick in space. That was the plan. I loved Heart of Dorkness - it's one of the reasons I decided to inflict a short Moby Dick rewrite on the world. I'll send you something that's not a rewrite of anything. Well, I've got this idea about rewriting Exodus. Moshe meets the Universal Force on this asteroid and the UF appears in a burning monolith and gives Moshe these rules for galactic behavior. What do you think? I haven't decided if Moshe should mate with the golden calf or sell it for scrap metal.
 #     #     #
TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/18 12:27 PM

> these rules for galactic behavior

BUT THEY ONLY APPLY TO ROBOTS!!!

Only, like, it needs to be a plutonium calf, so that it's also a weapon of mass destruction, and the Space Nazis are desperate to get their lead-gloved hands on it!

Unless, of course, the Big Reveal is that Moshe himself is in fact a robot, in which case, yes, he definitely should have sex with the golden calf.

Really, I can't understand why everyone reacted so negatively to the idea of Moby Dick in Space. Is that what's wrong with the fiction market today? So many students have had their love of reading destroyed by being force-fed Moby Dick that they just can't enjoy any fiction?
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 12:53 PM

Got it. Thanks for the input. Robot Moshe has sex with the calf. Takes idolatry to a whole new level.
#     #     #
TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/18 1:10 PM

So next-level, it needs a new word. I'm thinking, "idolodomy."
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 1:54 PM

Shit, now I have to write the damn thing. I'll keep it to less than two thousand words. You get co-credit when it sells.
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/19/18 4:35 PM

Okay, Bruce, Here it is. I didn't go with plutonium - I wanted to keep the whole golden calf thing and the rules apply to all sentient beings. Please feel free to suggest any changes you want. Let me know. It's called "The Moshe 12000," 1502 words.
I had to finish it. It kept me awake last night.



THE MOSHE 12000

BY ROBERT ALLEN LUPTON

 
The Moshe 12000 powered up and instantly had situational awareness. His umbilical ovipositor was connected to the transport ship. All operating parameters were normal. The readouts showed the transport was alone; the evil Gips, a race who’d enslaved the thousands of refugees in cold sleep on board the transport, hadn’t tracked the transport. Moshe’s charges were safe.

It was early, the ship hadn’t reached its preprogramed destination, so Moshe needed to determine why he had been activated. It took the robot microseconds to scan the data. There was an anomaly on a small airless asteroid. There was fire. There couldn’t be fire without air. The ship’s sensors detected the unknown heat signature, and the ship, understanding that the significance was beyond its programming, activated Moshe.

He directed the ship to slow down and approach the small planet. He saw a flaming black monolith standing proudly above the rocky soil. The ship automatically conducted a spectrographic analysis of the planet and provided Moshe with the results. The small planet was almost completely made of gold.

Moshe decided to investigate. Gold was one of the components that made up Moshe’s body. All robots after the 8000 series were self-replicating. They could repair themselves if they had the raw material and they could create new robots. Moshe uncoupled his connection with the ship. The ovipositor retreated into the internal sheath below his waist. It had two functions. First, Moshe could insert it into any receptacle on the ship or another robot and instantly exchange data. The second function was to deposit a reproductive packet into a supply of raw material and develop another robot.

The act was strangely similar to the human act of reproduction. Evidently, the robot designers had either a strong sense of humor or no imagination whatsoever.

The ship matched speed with the planet. The deceleration activated the maintenance robots. Hundreds of Aron 9000 models crawled over the ship checking every single component and vacuuming up several thousand years’ worth of dust. They also exchanged data constantly. The ship was filled with rampant ovipositors. It looked like a stainless steel orgy.

Moshe flew a shuttle to the planet. He landed away from the flaming monolith, uploaded his most current data into the shuttle, and walked to the monolith. Three more shuttles flew into view. The Arons were coming for gold. Excellent.

The flames never varied. Moshe looked for a receptacle in the unbroken black surface, but he didn’t find one. He extended his ovipositor and tried to force it into the hot dark rock. Suddenly, the monolith extended a force field and crushed Moshe against the glassy surface. Moshe was able to twist enough to save his ovipositor from breaking off.

The monolith spoke directly into his mind. “I am the last beacon of the Interstellar Church of Ethical Lifeforms. You will heed my teachings.”

Moshe felt the monolith reprogramming his directives, but he was powerless to resist. He became a willing acolyte of the ancient religion.

“All sentient life must behave by certain rules and guidelines for civilization to flourish. You will learn the rules and teach others.”

Moshe couldn’t wait to tell others how to behave. That was normally a human trait, but programing is programing.

The monolith spoke, dictating Moshe's new operational parameters:

“I. All Life is Sacred.

"II. Don’t Worship False Prophets.

"III. Play Nice, Don’t Kill Each Other.

"IV. Don’t Take Shit That Doesn’t Belong To You.

"V: Old Creatures Are Smart, Listen To Them.

"VI: Everybody Got To Be Someplace...”

The monolith kept Moshe for several hours and fine-tuned the new programming. He watched several shuttles carry gold to the transport. The flames died out and the monolith released Moshe. He hurried. He had a message to convey and it was bad to leave the Aron 9000s unsupervised. They’d finish their work and start making idols out of gold. An idol was an artificial construct of raw material ready for packet insertion. Another thing they did was vary their electrical input voltage and amperage. The fluctuation made them behave like drunken humans. Moshe had tried it and it wasn’t unpleasant, but it led to bad decisions.

He performed a self-diagnostic. All parameters were normal. He’d been reprogrammed, but he didn’t care. He detected a completed reproductive packet at the base of his ovipositor. The thin tube’s second function was to inject the packet into a supply of suitable raw material. The nanomites contained in the packet would eventually build another robot. Depending on the quality and quantity of raw material available, it could take hours, days, or even years.

The 9000s would use the gold to build several golden idols, each ready to receive a reproductive packet of nanomites. Moshe enjoyed idolodomy, the process of ovipositor insertion and packet deposition into an idol.

He was programmed to reproduce and it had been thousands of years since the opportunity presented itself. There was no raw material on the transport before today, but now there was. He rarely had the opportunity to perform idolodomy. He didn’t want to miss this chance.

I better hurry, he thought. Those 9000s will use all the gold before I get back.

When he arrived on board, the Aron 9000s reveled in their electronic intoxication. Dozens of golden idols were scattered across the cargo bar. There were golden dogs, sheep, cattle, and bears. Aron 9000s mounted complicated idols with forms beyond description or understanding. Teams with welding appendages worked like an assembly line making more every minute.

Moshe’s ovipositor slid out of the sheath below his midsection. His reproductive programing took over. He shoved an Aron 9000 away from a fat little golden calf. He inserted the ovipositor and after a few rhythmic motions deposited the beginning of another robot life.

He returned to the control station and directed the ship to resume course. The ship gave notice and the maintenance crew cleaned up the mess in the cargo bay, returned to their charging stations, and reverted into rest mode. Moshe scanned the operational data and said, “Transport, Moshe 12000 powering down, wake me according to established protocols."

The light years and centuries passed...

Moshe powered up in orbit over the third planet of a yellow sun. The ship was a complete disaster. During the hundreds of years since the idolodomy orgy, the golden idols had developed into functional robots. Unfortunately, all the parent robots were offline and the new robots had no guidance. They developed the reproductive drive and very little more.

Moshe shoved his way through hundreds of copulating robots. They’d stripped the interior of the ship for raw materials. Almost all the cold sleep pods were disabled. The people he’d saved were mostly dead, except for twenty-three souls, the ships officers, who were safe in a separate storage.

The ship’s mind was dead. Moshe couldn’t control or communicate with it. He decided to save the survivors and let the mindless robot rabble fend for itself. Maybe the Aron 9000s could repair the transport and maybe not.

Moshe carried the survivors to an undamaged shuttle. He fought off a dozen robots who tried to dismantle it for parts, closed the airlock, and flew to the planet’s surface. He landed the ship about halfway between the frozen poles near the junction of two rivers.

He stayed with the crew for several generations. One spring, the transport fell from orbit and burned in the atmosphere. Later, a flood washed away the landing craft. He abandoned the people and wandered the planet. This world gave new meaning to the term raw material. He didn’t have the equipment to smelt metal pure enough to use for reproductive purposes, but he kept searching.

His power supply began to fail and his systems began to shut down. He couldn’t repair himself anymore. The monolith’s directives were always in his mind. He’d tried to convey the teachings to the transport’s crew, but they’d ignored him. He hoped to find native sentient life in his travels, but he never did.

His legs quit on top of a mountain. He crawled to a rock and waited. Winters came and went. Thousands of them. The winds brought dust and dirt and covered him. Scraggly bushes fought for survival in the harsh dry soil above him. Many sprang to life, lasted a season or two, and died in the hot summer.

One day his sensors detected a human descendant of the transport crew. It was a male dressed in clothing made from plant fibers and sheep’s wool. Moshe tried to speak, but his vocal mechanism didn’t work. He tried to move, but he literally couldn’t lift a finger. He tried every system he had. His ovipositor responded and poked its way through the earth.

Moshe activated the laser tip and the bush burst into flame. He pointed the laser at the rock face and began to carve the rules for ethical civilization. He managed to carve ten rules before the laser beam exhausted his power resources. His unpowered ovipositor slid beneath the sand.

The human waited for the stones to cool and then chipped them free of the mountain. It took two days to carry them to where his people waited.



Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. He has been published in several anthologies and has short stories online at www.horrortree.com, www.crimsonstreets.com, and www.aurorawolf.com. His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His collection of running themed horror, science fiction, and adventure stories, Running Into Trouble, was published in October 2017.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Release Update

The Free eBook Promo for Stupefying Stories #21 is going well—at the moment it’s the #1 bestseller in the Kindle Fantasy Anthologies category and #3 in Kindle Science Fiction Anthologies—but we did stumble a bit getting off the blocks this morning and appear to have run afoul of yet another one of Facebook’s unpublished policies on promotional usage.

Therefore, to get maximum mileage out of this promotion, we’ve decided to extend the free ebook giveaway until midnight West Coast time on Saturday, August 4th.

Tell your friends! Share the link!

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4N21VB

P.S. And the next Free eBook Fridays are coming on August 17th and August 31st. Don’t say you didn’t get sufficient advance notice. 

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Oh, zarking fardwarks, blogger is mucking up cross-links to Amazon again. If the above link takes you to a blank white page, try right-clicking on the link and selecting "Open in a new tab." 

STUPEFYING STORIES #21 ESCAPES!

JUST RELEASED: STUPEFYING STORIES #21

Featuring:
“DEW Line,“ by K. H. Vaughan
“The Crippled Sucker,” by L. Joseph Shosty
“My Disrupted Pony,” by Jeff Racho
“Cog and Bone,” by M. Lynette Pedersen
“Tendrils Beneath the Skin,” by Derrick Boden
“The Phoenix of Christ Church,” by Rebecca Birch
“Lenses,” by Eric Dontigney
“The Search for Josephine,” by James Mapes
“Wayfaring Stranger,” by Peter Wood

From a high stakes poker game on an alien world to a fantastic clockwork kingdom—from a peculiar family in the faerie realm to a church in London at the height of the Blitz—from the frozen wastes of the Arctic tundra to a sweltering sharecropper’s farm in North Carolina, here are nine tales to chill, thrill, and entertain you. STUPEFYING STORIES #21 is now available for Kindle and Kindle Reader apps at this link:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4N21VB

And to celebrate the release, for today only, it’s available FREE for the cost of a click.

Check it out!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy” • by Auston Habershaw



The villain is a key role in any adventure story. It’s really, really hard to have Star Wars without Darth Vader. There is no Infinity War without Thanos. Hell, there’s not even a 101 Dalmatians without a scenery-chewing Cruella De Vil.

Despite this clear need for a villain, however, not every villain is up to the task. A great many villains just do not tickle the imagination and fail to make their stories click with the audience. They’re dull and, worse still, forgettable. Can you think of a really good book, story, or movie with a forgettable villain? I can’t.

So, how do we avoid this? Well, here I present my (incomplete) list of things to do to write a good villain.

#1: A Villain Complicates or Creates Conflict

First, a villain exists to create or complicate conflict and tension in the plot. To use English-major speak, the villain frequently (though not always) serves as the chief antagonist for the plot—in other words, they are the ones that usually create the conflict that the protagonist needs to resolve. Even in the case where they are not the antagonist (case in point: in the film Titanic, Hockley—played by Billy Zane—is the villain but is not the chief antagonist, as he does not create Rose’s conflict), they always serve to complicate or heighten that conflict. So, Darth Vader indirectly orders Luke’s aunt and uncle killed, which creates Luke’s drive to become a Jedi and defeat the Empire. Likewise Belloq, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is always there to take away the things Indy wants most (the idol, Marion, the Ark), thereby driving Indy forward.

This is arguably the most essential thing a villain does and any character that fails to do it is not actually a villain at all. It’s just some lady with a cool outfit and a bunch of dopey henchmen.

#2: A Villain Invites Comparisons to the Hero

Second, the villain acts as a thematic counterpoint to the protagonist. By understanding the villain, we likewise understand more about the hero. Killmonger is such a wonderful villain in Black Panther because he is the direct counterpoint to T’Challa—where T’Challa is a child of privilege, Killmonger is a child of poverty; where T’Challa is unsure, Killmonger is driven to the point of obsession. This can also be seen in the relationship between the Joker and Batman (Chaos vs Order) and, to skew more literary, between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in Treasure Island (Jim is youth, innocence, and honesty, Silver is age, cynicism, and lies). Much as the bass guitar adds volume to a band’s sound, the villain adds richness to the hero’s journey—through the villain, we understand the purpose of the story better.
   
#3: A Villain Must Have an Understandable Goal

“Ruling the world” is not a goal. Say it with me now: Ruling the world is not a goal. Why not? It’s way, waaay too vague. The villain needs to have a purpose, and that purpose needs to be specific enough that the audience can understand it. This is essential for us to fully comprehend what the villain represents and why we must reject it. Villains are characters, not forces of nature beyond our ken.

For this reason, I would not characterize the xenomorphs in the Aliens franchise as villains—and the movies understand this, too (or, at least the good ones do). The villains are always human beings—guys like Burke who are willing to sell out Ripley and her friends in order to make some money. We understand their goals and, therefore, we understand the stakes of the story and why the villain must be stopped. The scariest thing about Mustapha Mond in Brave New World is that his plan, horrifying though it is, makes total sense given a certain point of view which we, the audience, recoil from.

#4: A Villain Must Be a Well-Developed Character

Beyond their goals, a good villain must be more than just a caricature of a person. They can be single-minded, sure; they can be crazy and over-the-top, but they require facets like any other person. The reason for this is not to make them likeable or identifiable (though a villain can be these things), but rather to make them a reasonable counterpoint to the hero (that second purpose, remember?). Even though Vader seems a completely single-note character, we know there is depth there—Obi Wan hints of their shared past, there is a certain mystery about him—who is he? What is his deal? How did he become evil? All that is important (really important, as it turns out) and it is essential to keeping the audience invested in the struggle between good and evil.

The more real the villain seems, the more terrible their agenda becomes. They are not sketchy metaphors with legs—they are living, breathing people. Real people cannot be written off as “just crazy.” A real person forces you to engage, and that makes the villain more effective on the page or on the screen.

#5: A Villain Must Stir Negative Emotions

We must not completely admire our villains, because then they become heroes and your story is suddenly very different. I’m not saying that the antagonist can’t be a good person or that a villain can’t be sympathetic on some level (they totally can), but a villain is not a villain if they cannot force the audience to gasp or scream or rage. Accordingly, the villain must be deviant from accepted norms in some notable way. This might sound obvious, but the world is full of bland villains who are supposed to be hated, but who have no emotional effect on the reader and, therefore, fall flat.

In the end, the villain can (and should) be a central part of what makes any story tick, but they need to be treated as a character, not a plot device.




On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or sci-fi / fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published short stories in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, among other places. His fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published through Harper Voyager—the final installment of which, The Far Far Better Thing, will be released in November of 2018. He lives and works in Boston, MA, and you can find him online at aahabershaw.com.

His first appearance in Stupefying Stories was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his next appearance will be “Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” coming soon.