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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Introducing SHOWCASE SATURDAY!

Editor’s note: Today we’re [re]introducing a new/old feature on this web site; SHOWCASE, reincarnated as a weekly online fiction ‘zine. In the weeks to come you’ll be seeing new SF/F stories here every Saturday morning, and eventually even a serialized novel (we’re still working out the details), but today, to relaunch SHOWCASE, we’ve decided to go way back, to the place where Stupefying Stories really began. “It Came From The Slushpile” was first published in the July-August 1987 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine, and subsequently anthologized many times and even optioned for a screenplay that never made it into production, but this story...

Well, actually, it’s not a story. It’s true. It’s all true. It’s what it’s like here every day. Really.

Enjoy!
~brb     
 
Original art by Larry Blamire • Used by permission.

Fiction • “It Came From The Slushpile,” by Bruce Bethke •



The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the manuscript-buried offices of fiction magazines know. Groping for the light switch, Rex Manly, the two-fisted editor of Stupefying Stories Magazine, led two junior college interns into the cramped and windowless back office.

“This is the slush pile,” Rex said in his deep, mature voice. “Normally we try to stay on top of it, but our associate editor quit six months ago and we couldn’t afford to replace her. So we’ve let it get a little out of hand.” Rex found the light switch; after a few crackles from a dying transformer, flickery blue fluorescent light flooded the room. Sheila, the tall, willowy, blonde intern, gasped. Janine, the other intern, bit her lip and fought back the tears.

“There are some six thousand unsolicited manuscripts here,” Rex continued. “Of those, six hundred are worth reading, and one hundred worth publishing. At best, twelve suit our current needs and budget well enough to be purchased.

“Your job,” Rex said, as he laid his massive hand on the manila-colored heap, “is to sift through this and find the dozen gems that might be hiding here.” Suddenly, the  stack of manuscripts shifted and began to collapse around him like an erasable bond avalanche. With an agility uncommon in a man his size, Rex leapt clear. “You get half an hour for lunch,” he said calmly, as if nothing had happened. “We see there isn’t a clock in here, so we’ll send someone by at noon to check up on you. Coffee’s in the art department. If you didn’t brown-bag there’s a Burger King up the street.” The two women were still overawed by the Herculean— or rather, Augean—task they faced, and asked no questions. Rex closed the door as he left.

¤

“Ready for lunch yet?” the tall, shapely, brunette asked as she arched her back against the doorframe, and with studied carelessness caught a polished fingernail on the hem of her skirt, tugging it up to expose a flash of silk-stockinged thigh.

“In a minute, Gina,” Rex said to the Art Director, without looking up. “We’ve got a really tough comma fault here we’re trying to nail down.” Gina pouted and sighed heavily, reminding Rex that it was dangerous to leave her with idle time on her hands. “Tell you what,” Rex said. “Do us a favor and tell those two interns working the slush pile that it’s time for lunch, okay?” Without answering, the Art Director turned and sauntered down the hall, her high heels clicking out a seductive Morse code on the terrazzo floor.

This was followed, in short order, by a piercing scream.

Rex vaulted over his desk and ran out into the hall, to find Gina wailing hysterically. Mascara streamed down her cheeks like oil from a leaky rocker-arm cover. “What happened?” he demanded, as he grabbed her roughly.

“You’re hurting my roughly!” she cried. Rex relaxed his grip; Gina sobbed, buried her face in his broad chest, and said, “It’s awful! Terrible! Hideous! Grue—!”

He slapped her. “Excess adjectives!”

Gina shuddered, then regained her composure. “Sheila and Janine, they’re... Oh, it’s too horrible!” A small crowd was gathering around the door of the interns’ office, so Rex helped Gina into a chair and bulled his way through the staffers.

“Does anyone here know—?” He stopped, the question caught in his throat. Sheila and Janine lay on the floor, two crushed, ink-smeared corpses half-covered in manuscripts.

“The slush pile must have imploded,” said Phil Jennings, the Science Fact Editor, who’d slipped through the crowd to stand at Rex’s right elbow. “No one has ever researched the critical mass of unpublished manuscripts. They may undergo gravitational collapse, like a black hole.”

Rex crouched; Phil crouched with him. “But the ink stains,” Rex said softly.

Phil gingerly reached out and touched Janine’s face. “Still fresh,” he said.

“Then at least we’re getting through about using new typewriter ribbons.” Rex stood, resolve giving strength to his voice. “Okay, let’s get them out of there. Jerry, Dave,” he pointed to two of the keyliners, “get in there and get their feet. Phil, take Sheila. We’ll take Janine.” Cautiously, the two keyliners waded into the office, but before they’d gotten more than ankle-deep they both slipped and fell on the erasable bond. “Are you okay?” Rex called out.

“Think so,” answered Jerry, who was closest to the center of the heap, “but there’s something funny going on here. My foot’s caught on something.”

“Oh my God,” Dave gasped.

Behind Jerry, a large, white- and black-speckled pseudopod was slowly extruding from the slush pile. “Phil?” Rex asked calmly, his voice belying the cold horror he felt. “What do you make of that?”

Phil leaned forward, squinted, took off his glasses and cleaned them on the tail of his shirt, put them back on, and then squinted again. “Hard to tell from this distance,” he said softly, “but it looks like a plagiarization of an old Twilight Zone script.”

“What are you...?” Jerry rolled around and caught a glimpse of the thing slithering up behind him. His scream catalyzed the rest into action.

“Give me your hand!” Rex bellowed as he leapt into the room. In moments he’d wrenched Dave free and pushed him out the door, but by then the pseudopod had Jerry and was drawing him deeper into the pile. “Someone find a rope!” Rex shouted. Fighting for balance, he waded in deeper. Jerry clawed for him like a drowning man; their fingers touched briefly, and then Rex lost his footing and went down.

“Hold on, Rex!” Phil shouted. He pulled out his butane lighter, set it to High, and charged in, wielding the lighter like a flaming sword. With four wild slashes, he freed Rex.

“Now for Jerry!” Rex bellowed.

“Too late!” Phil screamed. Rex plowed back into the manuscripts, while Phil tried to stave off the advancing pseudopodia, but a sixty-page rewrite of Genesis 5:1-24 rose up and slapped the lighter out of Phil’s hand. Then the slush pile began building into a great wave that towered over them. “Rex! Get out!” Phil yelled as he dove headfirst through the doorway. Reluctantly, Rex followed. “Shut it!” Phil shouted. Most of the staffers had already run away, and those who remained were paralyzed with fear, but one of the freelance book reviewers still had something of his wits left about him and he pulled the door shut, just as the heap smashed against it with a great soggy thump.

Rex sagged against the wall. “Jerry,” he said softly. “Oh, Jerry, we’re sorry.”

Dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex, Gina gave Rex a consoling hug. “There’s nothing you could have done,” she said.

Resolve flooded back into Rex, and he began issuing commands. “You there,” he barked, pointing at the surviving production crew. “Find something to barricade this doorway.”

“Phil!” he snapped. “What is that thing?”

Phil took off his glasses, chewed the earpiece for a bit, and then shrugged and said, “Beats the Hell out of me.”

“We pay you two hundred dollars a month for Science Facts,” Rex growled, “and all you can say is—”

“Hey, I only minored in Biology!” Phil said defensively. “I majored in Philosophy. You want a philosopher’s guess about it?” Rex said nothing, so Phil continued. “Okay, here’s the hard sci-fi guess: It’s a cellulose lifeform that mimics manuscripts for protective coloration. Maybe it’s symbiotic with that scuzzy blue mold that grows in old coffee cups. Kathryn was always leaving half-empty cups in there.”

Rex shook his head. “Too 1940-ish. Old hat.”

“Okay,” Phil said.  “Here’s the philosophical guess. It’s divine retribution for letting manuscripts sit for six months.”

“We never buy theological fantasy.” Rex thought a moment more, then reached a decision. “It doesn’t matter where it came from. The question is, what do we do about it?”

“Get more lighters,” the book reviewer said. “Torch the sucker.”

“We’d rather not,” Rex said. “This building’s a firetrap.”

“Let’s lure it into the paper cutter,” Gina suggested. “Do a Conan on it. Fight hacks with hacks, I say.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Phil answered. “It’s extremely amorphous. It may even be a colony organism. Cut it in half and we may well end up with two monsters.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Rex asked.

“I think we should attack its component parts,” Phil said. “If we can disperse them, we might destroy its will to exist.”

“Huh?” said Gina.

“We must reject it,” Phil said portentously. “Reject every last piece of it.”

“I know where there are some rejection slips!” the book reviewer shouted. He dashed over to the managing editor’s office, and in moments returned bearing two fistfuls of paper.

Rex took one, and pushed the other into Phil’s hands. “If it gets past me...,” Rex began. Phil nodded.

“Oh, be careful!” Gina sobbed, as she hugged Rex.

“Easy, kid,” he said coolly. “You’re getting mascara on my shirt.” Then he looked to Phil. “Ready?” Phil nodded.

Luckily, the staffers Rex had sent running to find barricade materials had simply kept running, so all he had to do was kick open the door, step into the breach, and start passing out the slips. In seconds, though, it became obvious that something was terribly wrong. Instead of being driven back, the thing was surging forward, swelling, growing. It even formed a pseudohead and started catching the slips on the fly, like a spaniel jumping for Doggie Snax. “What the Hell?” Phil wondered aloud. Then he looked at the slips he held:


STUPEFYING STORIES
Dear Writer,
      Thanks for showing us the enclosed manuscript. We’ve read it and are sorry to say we do not think it’s quite right for Stupefying at this time. Please don’t regard this as a reflection on the quality of your work; we receive a great many publishable stories but simply don’t have the space to print every one we like.

      Because of the great number of submissions we receive, we cannot make more specific comments. But again, thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider it, and we hope you find a market for it elsewhere.

      Cordially,
      Rex Manly
      Editor
  


“Rex!” Phil screamed. “Get out of there! “You’re encouraging it!” Rex hastily backed  out of the room; the thing followed him, swirling around his feet and emitting happy yipping sounds. When it realized Rex had gotten away, it began hurling itself furiously at the door, and it took both Rex and Phil to hold the door closed.

“What went wrong?” Rex demanded. “Analysis, Mister Jennings!”

“We need something colder and blunter,” Phil answered. “We need to stun it, depress it, crush its ego.” The thing built up into another great wave and crashed against the door; this time the book reviewer had to throw his shoulder into it, too. “And soon!” Phil shouted.

“The previous editor used slips like that,” Rex said. “Can you hold the door while we look for some?” Not waiting for an answer, Rex sprinted back to his office and began rummaging around in the filing cabinets.

“I hate working on spec,” the book reviewer said.

In a few minutes, Rex returned. “These are all we could find,” he said. “Will they do?” Phil took one and read:


STUPEFYING
Stories and Science
Dear Contributor,

We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.

The Editors


“It might,” Phil said. “It just might.”

With Gina’s help, Rex laid out a semi-circle of rejection slips in front of the door. When the last one was in place, he yelled, “Now!,” and Phil and the book reviewer leapt clear. The door burst open with a violence that nearly tore it from its hinges, and the disgusting, pulsating mass slithered forward, found the first rejection slip, paused...

“It’s working!” Phil crowed. The slush pile shuddered, drew back slightly, and began whimpering. This quickly built into a spastic quivering, and the pile began sloughing off return envelopes and loose stamps.

“Is it dying?” Gina asked.

Phil wiped the perspiration from his glasses, peered closely at the trembling hulk, and said, “I’m not sure.”

“I’ll show you how to make sure!” the book reviewer shouted, as he ran up the hall. “We give it the coup de grace!” He found a typewriter, cranked in a sheet of letterhead, and began frantically clacking away.

“What are you doing?” Gina asked.

“What I do best,” the book reviewer said with a wicked grin. “Crushing an ego.” He finished the letter, yanked it out of the typewriter, and ran back to show it to the others. “One look at this, and it will shrivel up and die!”

“A bit strong, don’t you think?” Rex observed. It read:


STUPEFYING STORIES
Dear Talentless Hack,

Were you by chance going to the town landfill on the same day that you mailed your manuscript? We ask because it appears that you got confused, discarded your story, and mailed us your garbage instead.

In the future you may save yourself postage by simply not submitting to us at all. We will be watching for your name; rest assured that we will never forgive you for attempting to foist this load of pathetic crapola off on us.

With malice aforethought,
The Editors


“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” Phil said.

“Nonsense,” the book reviewer countered. “I’ve done this a thousand times. Just watch.” He slipped the letter under the nearest edge of the slush pile; within seconds, the thing was smoking, shaking, and letting out hideous groans. “You see?” the book reviewer said smugly—and in less time than it takes to describe it, the slush pile rose up, quivering and roaring, and squashed him flatter than a thin-crust pizza.

“Good God!” Rex shouted. “That only enraged it! Run!” he shouted, as if Gina and Phil needed instructions.

The thing surged down the hallway after them, bellowing angrily and engulfing chairs, desks, ashtrays—anything that stood in its way. There was no plan to their flight, only sheer adrenalin panic, and so they wound up dashing into the Art Department two steps ahead of the thing. Phil slammed the door in its pseudoface; sinews straining, Rex held the door shut while Phil tipped over a few filing cabinets and pushed them together to form a barricade.

Frustrated, the pile drew back and threw itself against the door with all its force. Miraculously, the filing cabinets held. “Well, we’re safe for now,” Phil said, between gasps. “It can’t get in.”

“Just one problem,” Rex noted. “We can’t get out, either.” The three of them looked around. There was indeed no other way out: no window, no door, no conveniently large air duct...

“We’re trapped!” Gina wailed.

“Get a grip on yourself!” Rex shrieked. “This is no time for hysteria!”

“I’m trapped in a dead end by a monster that wants me for lunch!” Gina sobbed. “Can you think of a better time?”

“She’s right, Rex,” Phil said softly. “Sooner or later that thing will realize it can just ooze around the barricade. We’re done for.” He took off his glasses and slowly, mournfully, began to clean them on his shirt tail one last time.

“NEVER!” Rex bellowed, finding his full imperative strength at last. “We do not buy stories that end in futility!

“Look at us!” he commanded, as he stalked about the room, gesturing wildly. “What are we? Three people trapped in a blind alley by an unstoppable monster? No! We are three archetypes! The brilliant, scientific, nearly omniscient mind! The curvaceous, screamy, eminently rescuable heroine! The aggressive, dynamic, mightily thewed hero! We have an obligation to beat that thing!

“You! Phil!” he ordered. “Go discover something! Me! I!” Rex paused, stunned with the realization that he’d dropped his editorial plural. “I’ll think of an ingenious plan to take advantage of whatever you discover. And Gina? You—” Rex sat down, and grumpily put his chin in his palm. “Aw hell, go make some coffee or something.”

As the weight of his new responsibility settled onto Phil, he sat up alertly and said, “Listen! It’s stopped!” Rex’s ears perked up; the thing had indeed stopped hammering at the barricade. Phil crept to the door and peered out. Rex followed, and saw the quiescent beast  lying in the hall.

“Is it dead?” Rex asked hopefully.

“Do archetypal monsters ever die?” Phil answered scornfully. “It’s dormant, of course.”

“So now would be the perfect time to strike?”

“If we had a weapon,” Phil agreed.

“We’re out of coffee,” Gina said. “Will tea do?” She held up a Salada tea bag.

Rex snatched the tea bag out of her hand. “Of course!” he cried, the light of inspiration burning fiercely in his eyes.

“Didn’t know he liked tea so much,” Gina muttered.

“Don’t you see?” Rex shouted, holding up the tiny paper tag on the end of the string. “Gina, honey, can you reduce our logo and make it fit on this?”

“Well,” she said dubiously, “normally it’d take a week to keyline and shoot the stats, but I think—”

“Don’t think! Do!” He spun around. “Phil! Help me with our paper stock. I want something truly obnoxious. Fluorescent Yellow will do, Blaze Orange would be better! And find some glue sticks! Lots of glue sticks!” Rex started dumping boxes on the floor and searching through the resulting heap.

“What—?” Phil started to ask.

“We,” Rex said proudly, “are going to create the ultimate rejection slip. One that crushes all hope, destroys all incentive, leaves no room for doubt, argument, or interpretation—”

“Well, we’d better hurry,” Phil said ominously. “I don’t know what it’s doing out there, but I’m sure I won’t like it when I find out.”

¤

An hour later, they were nearly ready. They’d had to modify the design slightly as they went along to suit the materials at hand, but the result—



—on a postage-stamp-sized slip of Neon Lime Green stock, was coming off the copier. “Remember,” Rex was saying, “we hit it hard, hit it fast, take no prisoners—”

“And we hit it soon,” Phil added, as he peered out the door. “I’ve figured out what it’s doing. It’s metastasizing.”

Rex stopped short.  “What?”

“Look at it,” Phil said. “Those lumps all over its back; they’re buds. It’s getting ready to reproduce.”

“Good grief,” Rex gasped. “You mean, we’ll have more of those things?”

“Worse,” Phil said pensively. “If I’m right, in its larval stage it takes the form of an unsolicited manuscript. In a few minutes this place is going to be crawling with stories: thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of stories. Stories about flying saucers, deals with the devil, time travelers killing their grandparents.” The panic began to rise in Phil’s voice. “Evil galactic empires, sexy Celtic witches, sentient dragons, killer robots disguised as toasters.” Phil was bordering on total hysteria now.

“Rewrites of the Old Testament! Star Trek ripoffs! Twenty-first Century Barbarians!

“Rex!” Phil screamed. “There are enough post-Apocalyptic nuclear holocaust stories in there to wipe out this entire solar system!”

“Gina!” Rex growled. “Hurry up with those slips!”

“Be patient!” Gina snapped. “You can’t rush quality work!”

“Omigod!” Phil yelped, his face ashen. “They’re hatching.”

“Gina!” Rex barked. “I need those slips and I need them now!

“Hold your damn horses. They’re just about ready...”

¤

Even with ten years’ experience in hand-to-hand fiction editing, the fifteen minutes that followed were the most ghastly Rex had ever lived through. Armed with the new rejection slips, he, Gina, and Phil waded into the heart of the beast, tearing open envelopes and slapping down tags. Gluing them to the manuscripts, to force retyping. In an odd way the process had a familiar feel, as if they were driving thousands of little stakes through thousands of tiny vampires’ hearts.

It was a grisly job, but at last, they were done. “It’s harmless,” Phil pronounced. “We’ve destroyed its will to live.”

Rex brushed aside a pile of spent glue sticks and collapsed into a chair. “Did we get it all? All?

“Here’s one we missed!” Gina called out, as she crouched on her hands and knees and peered under the receptionist’s desk. She fished out the manuscript and read aloud, “It Came From The Slushpile, by some guy I’ve never heard of.”

“Ugh!” Phil spat. “Sounds like a bad ’50s sci-fi movie.”

“I don’t know,” Gina countered. “Listen to this. ‘The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the—’”

“That’s the opening of John Campbell’s Who Goes There?,” Rex said wearily. “At least he plagiarizes from a good source.”

“So you don’t want to read it?” Gina asked. Rex answered her with a sneer more eloquent than any words.

“Okay,” Gina shrugged, as she dabbed some glue on a rejection slip and prepared to slap it down.

But then, she hesitated...


¤   ¤   ¤   ¤




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