Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Creating Alien Aliens: Does How Aliens SENSE Their World REALLY Make Them Alien: A Thought Experiment With SOUND…

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

All right…I want to start doing some experimenting with creating aliens based on the information in Dr. Robert Freitas, Jr’s book, XENOLOGY (link below). So, first the facts/observations and concept: 

“For instance, water striders…Much like the kinesthetic sensors in human bodies which provide continuous positional and velocity data for each limb (called Proprioception), water striders can detect the slightest disturbance traveling across the surface of the water…one species conducts its entire courtship display using complex patterns of modulated surface waves…”

“[some] spiders are known to use surface wave communication by] strumming the webs they weave in specific rhythms and patterns…between mother and offspring…Desert scorpions can also detect compressional and surface waves in sand to locate prey…”

“…the universe inhabited by such creatures [using] two-dimensional waves [would create a world of] ‘persistence messages’. 3-D acoustical waves pass an observer…one time, never to return again…oscillations in 2-D media die away only very slowly from frictional forces. The entire surface space is set in motion by such stimuli, and damping is often very weak. The media continues to ‘wave’ for a long time after[wards]…[it would sound like] they were in an echo chamber. Words would have a peculiar drawn out quality, persisting long after they have been spoken. And since the higher frequencies always travel faster than the lower ones, each repetition of the echo will sound distinctly different. The word will stretch itself thin, the higher pitched treble notes bunching together at the beginning of the sound and the progressively lower bass tones trailing behind.’”

BTW: this concept has already been PERFECTLY explored in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, winner of the Arthur Clarke Award in 2016 and nominated for a similar award in France and Germany, CHILDREN OF TIME details a millennia-long Human mission to seed Humanity on another world gone horribly wrong that creates a civilization of intelligent “spiders”. If you haven’t done so, read it for a fascinating story – and an explanation of this form of communication.

I’ll play around with this in my own way: say I’m a First Contact specialist, and there is an obviously sapient civilization on a world that is made up. The atmosphere is going to have to be exceptionally dense, so I’m going to postulate that the world is, while NOT a water world, has an atmosphere that Humans would describe as incredibly HUMID. “If the relative humidity is 100 percent (i.e., dewpoint temperature and actual air temperature are the same), this does NOT necessarily mean that precipitation will occur. It simply means that the maximum amount of moisture is in the air at the particular temperature the air is at.”

I’m going to add a denser atmosphere on this world as well. How do my aliens sense vibrational waves in this dense, wet atmosphere? I’m going to give them long bristles – maybe rigid, protective spines surrounded by a “bush” of delicate, sensitive fibers. Do I have to have them be spiders or other creepy-crawly things? Nah, I’m going to make them a bit like large echidna…spiny anteaters. Not small enough to “step on”; large enough to both hold a complex brain somewhere in their bodies…let’s say in the CENTER of the body mass, well-protected by bone, and equidistant from the surface of “spines and bushes” – plus I’m going to raise them off the ground by giving them four longish motivation limbs, jointed so that movement in any direction is easy. They’ll have a “manipulation limb” between each “leg” – so four legs, four arms, a brain in the center…

They’ll need something to see with…above each arm, an eye, roughly equivalent to a Human eye…nah, how about more like a land snail’s eyes (and nose – they typically have two tentacles with eyes, two tentacles below them that “smell”. So the body is ringed with eight eyes and eight “noses”…

I’m also going to give them fur, though not as boring as Human fur. About half of the fur is a sort of extension of the sensory “bush” and can change color somewhat as well as compress and extend. It’s shorter than the spines, the bush, and the eye and snorf-stalks.

OK, there I am on the Home World of the Echidnates – which is what they’ll end up being called in the Human-Alien Contact records for all time…

How do I talk to them? How do I even approach them?

Approach is easy – they see and smell all around them (BTW, I’m excluding predators and disease at this point to keep the thought experiment easier…) They’ll see me as slightly taller than they are; though very weirdly…spindly and incredibly balanced on two legs – they’re smart enough to be able to recognize Human legs as a version of their own legs. Eyes same thing – smart ones will look at us, see the big knob on top and make a serious connection that OUR sensory organs seem to be clustered on a single tentacle – the legs and arms, while two of each seems to be courting a life of constant falling over, are at least recognizable.

Now for sound. I’m going to give the Echidnate Home World an atmosphere that is, while uncomfortably humid for us, breathable, though the O2 level is higher and the CO2 level is lower. There are some nasty fungi and other microorganisms in the air, though it appears that they can’t gain much foothold in Humans. However, the world around us is less…rigid than our own world.

Trees seem to be limited to Ginko-type plants, maybe palms, lots of hardwood. In fact, from what we can see, there’s not much in the way of “wood stuff” around. Structures appear to be stone, though the main construction material appears to be a sort of “land-based” coral. We don’t seem much in the way of metal tools; though stone, the coral, and other “nonmetals” appear to be used as Humans would use metal. We DO know that they have radio communication minimally, but it seems that LASERS are predominant…

I lift up my hand, and I speak a version of a language we’ve picked up from several of their laser coms. My target Echidnate stops and turns so that two pairs of eyes and noses are aimed at me. One leg forward, the other three back, forming a stable-looking tripod. Two side-arms swing forward, and the third, forward arm hangs, slightly coiled straight at me. “We come in peace,” I say, hoping that we’ve parsed out the words correctly. The landing of our own spacecraft was never hindered by the spacecraft we discovered exploring their star system.

The spines-and-bushes on the Echidnate’s back vibrate and my host opens a thin-lipped mouth above the eye and scent stalks and speaks. The sounds are surprisingly high-pitched, more child-like than what I expected. Suddenly understanding that the higher-pitched sounds will facilitate speedier communication than my lower-pitched male voice, I gesture and one of the women on the First Contact team who steps up and repeats our message of greeting…I also wonder if they have four mouths as well. I make a mental note to talk with our xenobiologist – what and how they eat will be another interesting aspect of these new sapient beings.

We recall that, somewhat like Humans, the Echidnate sense their world in a more-or-less single dimension. We also notice that the one we’re trying to contact stands in front of a curved wall of solidly-grown coral colored bright blue. I can hear the fain echo of our voices, as if the Echidnate is standing at the focal point of a parabola…

OK – there you go. Using the information I had and extrapolated, I now have a totally new alien; one I’d never imagined…

Next Time: ACOUSTICAL SENSES: Three Dimensional

Source: http://www.xenology.info/Xeno/13.3.1.htmhttp://www.xenology.info/Xeno/13.3.2.htm
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Armistice Day 2023

One hundred and five years ago today, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, and the “war to end all wars” came to an official close.

That wasn’t exactly what really happened, of course. On the Eastern Front, the Great War segued into the Russian Revolution, followed by the Polish-Soviet War, and then the Russian Civil War. On the Greco-Turkish front the fighting continued until 1922, and in a very real sense what is happening in Gaza today—and in the streets of London right now—is lingering fallout from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then.

But back to 1918. If you read German sources, you’ll find the German military leadership at the time considered the 11/11/18 Armistice to be merely an opportunity to fall back, rest, reorganize, re-equip, and get ready for the next chapter in the never-ending war between the Franks and the Saxons, which with rare exceptions has been going on since the time of Charlemagne. 

Never mind that now. Let us accept for the moment that on November 11, 1918, “the war to end all wars” officially came to an end. The older I get, the more poignant this anniversary becomes to me, while at the same time the more horribly sardonic H. G. Wells’ 1914 propaganda phrase—yes, H. G. Wells, not Woodrow Wilson, coined the expression, “the war to end war”—becomes as well.

The Great War was my grandparent’s war. As I sit at my desk and write this, if I were to look up, I’d see some of the medals my great-uncle won as an infantryman fighting in the mud of the trenches. Charles Everett came back from his war, but according to my mother, he was never the same again.

The Great War, Part 2, was my parent’s war. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific, and flew and fought in heavy bombers over Germany. To this day I remain in awe of what they did in those terrible days. My father was U.S. Navy, but like Robert Heinlein, he was sidelined by a medical condition and never saw combat. My father-in-law was a Marine Corps Pacific Theater combat vet; he never talked about what he saw or did. My wife’s Uncle Leon died in the Battle of the Bulge, and for sixty years his family didn’t know where he was buried, until a family friend on assignment to NATO headquarters in Brussels happened to find his name on a headstone in the Ardennes American Cemetery.

To me, though, the face of WWII will always be that of my childhood best friend’s father, Ben. He was a Navy landing craft crewman attached to a Marine division, and his service record reads like a list of the Hellholes of the Pacific. On those few occasions when he talked about his time in the Navy—usually after quite a few drinks—all he could talk about were all the friends he’d left behind, face-down in the sand on some faraway beach. He came back from the war, but never really came back, and before he turned 50 succeeded in committing suicide by drinking hard liquor and chain-smoking Camel straights.

My teachers’ war was in Korea. I’ve had the privilege of knowing men who landed at Inchon or fought at Chosin Reservoir. My generation’s war was in Viet Nam, but through the grace of God and a high draft lottery number, I missed it. Far too many of my friends and relatives got the invitation to the party, though, and some came back in boxes. Some never came back at all, we only know approximately where their aircraft went down. Some came back damaged, either physically or psychologically, while others came back just fine. Two of my best friends seemed to have come back just fine, only to explode in cancer years later, likely as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. 

I have had the honor of knowing, and sometimes even hiring, young soldiers who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. All the same, I fear that in years to come, we’ll learn that GAU-8 ammunition exposure was every bit as bad as Agent Orange.

In all these years, though, and after all these wars, I have learned that one thing is universally true. Anyone who is eager to talk about his or her time in the service—anyone who talks about the glory of war—anyone who insists that young people (and preferably someone else’s young people) should be proud to have the opportunity fight and die for their country—

Was probably a REMF.

Those I have known who were in the shit—in Normandy, or in the Pacific, or at Inchon, or as a door-gunner on a Huey flying over Quang Tri, or acting as a bullet magnet in Helmland Province—what they always talk about are the friends they left behind. 

So here we are, on Armistice Day. Once again I will pray for peace, but I fear that war is baked into our genome. I am not concerned for myself, or even for my children—they seem to be doing okay—but I think of the world in which my grandchildren will live, and try not to shudder. We Americans have been really lucky, these past forty years. No run of good luck lasts forever. 

Thus when the sun sets tonight, I’ll take down my American flag, carefully fold it and put it away, open a bottle of wine, and raise a glass in a toast: to those who never came home

May there be no more.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Status Update • 6 November 2023

This was always going to be a difficult month. 

The events of a year ago are still very much with me, very much on my mind, I’d just made a choice to stop talking about them in public. If you’ve been following Stupefying Stories for a while you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a newcomer, you’ll find the gist of the story here and the conclusion here. I’d unpublished these posts because I’d gotten tired of seeing them in the “Most Popular Posts” widget in the right column. I expect I’ll unpublish them again in about a week, but for today, I’ve made them visible again.

I had thought that if I threw myself into work and built up momentum with issues 24, 25, and 26, I’d be able to plow through October and November with barely a hitch. Doing 26 as a double-issue was, in hindsight, a mistake. By the time it was finally out the door I needed a few days’ break from work, to rest and recuperate, so I took those days off.

And then the terrorist attack on October 7th happened…

I had been doing a lot of spelunking through my old archives recently. With issue 27 in the works and the 40th anniversary of “Cyberpunk” coming up, I was getting interview requests and invitations to speak and the like and wanted to refresh my memory as to just exactly what was in my mind when I came up with the idea, 43 years ago. One thing that stood out in my notes, and that I’ve spoken about only rarely, was that cyberpunk in part began as a strong and cynical negative reaction. In the late 1970s, a lot of very authoritative people were going on and on about what a wonderful future lay ahead of us, once the whole world was wired and we had the free flow of information to and from everybody everywhere. It would usher in a new age of peace and understanding, they said, as we all got to see how much we were alike and how much we all shared. 

No, I’d decided then, that wasn’t how it was going to play out. Instead, I wrote, “In the future, anyone with a television camera, an AK-47, and a willingness to commit atrocities can be a player on the world stage.”

I hate it when my most dark, cynical, and misanthropic ideas turn out to be not dark, cynical, and misanthropic enough.  


October thus turned into a washout. The whole idea of filling the month with “fun” horror stories on SHOWCASE seemed to be—well, in questionable taste, to say the least. There were stories I had scheduled that I elected to delay or defer, at least until I wasn’t getting my daily dose of horror from watching the evening news. As for work on issue #27—well, I’m back to work on it now, but my usual sense of humor and optimism took some serious hits in these past four weeks, so I’m behind schedule.

Ergo, here’s where we stand, as of today.

STUPEFYING STORIES 27 • The 40th Anniversary of Cyberpunk issue is in progress. I’m hoping to have it ready to release by the 15th but will be happy if it’s out by the 20th.

STUPEFYING STORIES 28 • This was originally planned to be “Clankalog,” but we received so many outstanding stories for #27 we decided to do two back-to-back cyberpunk-themed issues instead. This one is also currently in progress, and I’m hoping to have this one ready to release on December 1st. I’m also hoping that spreading the release out to be what is essentially #27, Volume 1 and Volume 2, won’t be quite as exhausting as just plain doing a double-issue.

STUPEFYING STORIES 29 • This is “Clankalog,” the hard sci-fi issue, previously planned as SS#28 and scheduled for December 1st and now planned as SS#29 and scheduled for a January 1st release. If all goes according to plan—yeah, right, like that ever happens—we should have it buttoned-up by mid-December. 

We’d better have it done by then. Because at that time—here’s your last-paragraph bombshell—I’ll be going in for eye surgery and will be unable to work on anything that requires being able to read for a period of one to two months.

Nil desperandum,
Bruce Bethke

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

“The Night Parade” • by Robin Blasberg

The streetlamps cast their eerie glow upon the pavement as the parade marched along the empty street.

A small boy beat his drum at the back while the others sang innocently in front of him. Mary Had A Little Lamb rang out from their youthful voices. The drum thumped and the verses grew louder as they turned onto the cul-de-sac. The houses were all dark except for one. The children saw the dim light shining in the window above and shouted, “Come on out and play!” A terrified face peered down at them. The curtain snapped shut. There was the scrambling of feet down the stairs, and a bolt was drawn. But it was no use. The children broke into laughter and passed effortlessly through the front door. They joked and jostled each other as they followed the panicked maid to the second floor. The woman futilely tried to block their way to the room. But it was no use. As they crossed the threshold, they began to chant, “Ring Around the Rosie.” The thermometer dropped from the mother’s hand when she saw them, the cracked glass slicing through its last reading, 104 F. The house filled with her shrieks as the ghouls held out their hands to her child.

Robin Blasberg’s stories often make connections in unanticipated ways. Expect the unexpected because clever twists and surprise endings are trademarks of her work.


Saturday, October 28, 2023

“Graveside Dining” • by Angelique Fawns

Alma Smith’s stomach made somersaults as she rolled down the car window for some fresh air. The façade of the centuries-old cathedral cast long and wavery shadows on the driveway into London’s oldest burial grounds. 

Hopefully, all the ghosts of Nunhead Cemetery stayed quietly underground, where they belonged. She stuck her head out the window and inhaled decomposing leaves mixed with the sports car’s exhaust.

Angus's fingers drummed on the wheel of his Mercedes.

“This is where you’re taking me to lunch?” She asked.

Angus nodded. “Only displaced spirits talk to you, right?” He pointed to the mossy gravestones. “Isn’t everyone here in the right place?”

Some tension left Alma’s shoulders. “No one thinks to hide a murder victim in a graveyard, do they?”

A smile peeked through Angus’s beard. “One picnic to go. Complete with wine, avocado, and Kosher salt.”

“Avocado and salt?”

Angus winked. “My favorite snack. This looks like a nice spot.” He pointed to a sycamore tree sheltering ivy and bramble-covered tombs.

She surveyed the ancient, leaning stones, the mossy patches, and the beam of sun dancing through the trees and nodded. “For graveside dining, it’s perfect.”

They laid out a checked blanket and she accepted a glass of white wine.

Alma giggled, as the big man tried to get comfortable sitting cross-legged. He self-consciously pulled at the crotch of his jeans.

He shrugged, pink rising in his cheeks. “This might be the first time I wish I was wearing a dress.” He took a swallow of his own wine and wiggled closer. “It’s also the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh.”

Angus leaned in for a kiss and Alma closed her eyes…

The air turned frosty. Alma gasped as black smoke curled out from behind the mossy gravestone. Her knees trembled.

“Alma, are you okay? What’s happening?” Angus asked, jerking back. “I thought old souls in graveyards left you alone?”

Her teeth chattered. “I don’t know what, or who this is, but it's not normal.”

Angus tried to put his arms around her shoulders, but Alma shook her head. “Please don’t touch me, that makes it worse.”

Angus wrung his hands as Alma rolled onto her hands and knees. She fought for breath as the dark mist swirled around her, thickening and morphing into a figure.

“What can I do?” Angus asked. “I don’t see anything. Tell me what’s going on!”

She shot him an anguished look. “I’ve never experienced pain like—”

Alma swallowed her words. She could no longer see Angus or the cemetery. Her surroundings faded to a grey, gloomy street circa 1880. How did she end up in the Victorian era?

The dark mist was now a tall figure in a long black coat. With every minute that passed, he became more solid.

“Thou art a fine beauty, aren’t thee? Would ye be looking to make five shillings?” The man’s face was shrouded in shadow, and his tone was gravelly and wheedling.

“I’m not a prostitute. Go back to your grave.” Alma slowly got to her feet. “I don’t know who you are, but your soul should have moved on centuries ago.”

He gnashed stained teeth. “Look at the gown you’re wearing, only a woman of certain proclivities would be in the streets dressed as such.”

The figure gained more substance, and Alma could make out a mustache and serpent eyes.

“You’re not real!” She made the sign of the cross.

“Ahhh, too much of the poppy hath given you delusions. A moment in yonder back alley will have you back to sorts.” He took a step towards her, slipping a gloved hand into his pocket.

She saw the glint of steel and screamed.

“Alma, what can I do for you?” Angus’s panicked voice sounded like it was coming from the end of a very long tunnel.

The cloaked man grabbed her arm. “It’s been so very long. You shall keep me company. I love the ladies of disease and desperation.”

She gasped and spun out of his grip. Fury creased the apparition's face.

“Angus. What is the name on the tombstone? The old, mossy one?” She strained her vocal cords, hollering into the mist.

She tried to back up a step but couldn’t move.

Angus’s thin voice echoed though distorted time and space. “I’m trying to read it, but the name is so faded. I can’t tell!”

Alma felt the blood drain out of her face. She addressed the ghost. “Who are you? Why is your soul so malevolent?”

The apparition gave a chilling chuckle. “Everyone doth ponder that. Yet I remain a mystery.” He swiped his knife at her throat.

She dodged the blow and screamed up to the sky. “Angus, pour your salt around the grave! Be quick.”

Every second she remained in this hell world, the setting became more real.

The lanterns were brighter, the buildings more solid, and the handsome lines of the killer’s face grew sharper.

The ghost, more solid now than even a few seconds ago, flung his arms around her and hoisted her to his chest. “Let’s continue this parlay in the alley.”

Alma struggled but she was no match for the mad soul. He shoved her against a damp wall and placed his knife against her throat. She felt the sharp edge pierce her skin...

She shut her eyes and felt warmth wash over her. She spun out of the Victorian dimension with a sickening lurch, worse than the descent of a roller coaster.

Falling onto the picnic blanket, she heard the ghost’s enraged yowl as he dematerialized into a dark mist and was swallowed back into the tombstone.

Angus encompassed her in a massive hug. “Are you okay? That was crazy.” He brushed her sweaty hair off her forehead, his gaze filled with concern and panic.

“I’m okay. You put salt around the tomb?”

He nodded and she saw the ring of kosher grains encircling the ancient marker.

Alma got to unsteady feet. “That should keep him in place for a bit, but I think I’ve lost my appetite.”

Angus took her hand and the two of them climbed back into the Mercedes.

“I’m so sorry--”

She cut him off. “What are we doing for our second date?”

He grinned sheepishly. “I’m assuming you’d like to avoid cemeteries?”

Alma laughed and rubbed his knee. “No cemeteries, but please bring lots of salt.”

Angelique Fawns is a journalist and speculative fiction writer. She began her career writing articles about naked cave dwellers in Tenerife, Canary Islands. Her stories have only gotten stranger since then. She spends her day job creating promos for reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor, and lives on a horse farm with her family. Though she has no idea how she finds time to write, it often involves hiding in a dark corner of a pub, sipping on Chardonnay, and letting her nightmares spew onto paper.  Find her work in DreamForge, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Stupefying Stories, to name a few. If you dare, check out her podcast, Read Me A Nightmare, or her blog at https://www.fawns.ca/

Friday, October 27, 2023

“A Touch of Silver” • by Robert Walton

I touch my hair, my silver earrings—still in place after my dash across the rain-slick street. They came to me from my grandmother, so I treasure them. Besides, silver is so becoming.

Someone is following me, someone who does not mean me well. Footsteps—flat slaps on the pavement made by a big man, no trick-or-treater—pace closer. I touch the ivy-covered fence next to me, brushing my fingers through cool leaves until I reach an iron gate. It is ajar. I slip through and push its spiked bars shut behind me, gently so the latch doesn’t click.

A house looms like the prow of a ship, vast and Victorian. A window on the second floor is broken, one shutter hanging askew from a bent hinge. The other windows are dark, gaping like missing teeth.

The footfalls on the other side of the fence sound louder, nearer, and then they stop next to the gate.

He must have seen me. I hurry to the front porch, mount its steps, pause in deep shadow. The gate creaks open. An enormous man dressed in black slides through. His shaved head reflects moonlight above rolls of fat on his neck. The blade of the machete clenched in his right hand gleams.  

The front door yields to my push and I slip into a hallway. Shadows dart and skitter from my intrusion like panicked mice, scattering into deeper shadows. A rutch of claws on hardwood indicates the departure of a king rat. I hesitate, though not from revulsion. Rodents don't disturb me. 

A ponderous tread on the porch urges me forward. I pad through deep dust, cross the hallway and enter a musty parlor. I pass rodent-chewed chairs and loveseats, exiting through a door in the opposite wall. 

An eccentric stairway ascends to the upper floor. I take it two steps at a time. A hallway lined by closed doors awaits me. One door is open at the corridor's end, beckoning to me. I make for it as glass shatters below.

I reach the doorway and enter what once was the master bedroom. Moonlight shines through tall windows. A massive oak armoire stands against the wall to my right.  A canopied bed rises to my left like a clipper ship under full sail. 

Fatso's heavy tread wrings squeals from the stairs and then from the hallway's floorboards. He's faster than I thought. The door splinters against the wall. I whirl.

He stands grinning in the doorway, his broken teeth reflecting moonlight. “Hello, little lady.”

I do not reply, but step toward a window.

His eyes follow me, rolling like black marbles beneath his cliff of a brow. “Stand still. It will be over soon enough.”

I’m sure it will. His biceps bulge as he clenches the haft of his machete. It quivers with his eagerness. He takes a sudden step forward and swings the blade toward my face.

I leap inside of his swing, grip his right wrist, and stop the blade’s glittering edge inches from my throat. His eyes widen with shock. He grunts, strains, but the blade remains frozen in the air between us.

“I’m stronger than I look,” I murmur.

His muscles flex again as he tries to snatch his hand out of my grip. I tighten my hold, squeeze until I feel his wrist bones grate together. Sweat springs out upon his forehead.

“My stature,” I purr, “is somewhat variable, but I'm in petite mode tonight—five foot two, eyes of blue—you get the picture.” I press my small but distracting bosom against his midriff. 

“What are you?” he gasps. “Some sort of vampire?”

“Vampires are nouveau, dear.” I smile as sweetly as I can, showing my normal dentition. “I’m a ghost and I’ve lured you into my house.” 

“A ghost?”

I nod. “Or perhaps an angel—a dark angel.”

“A dark angel?”

“Very dark. I had unfortunate experiences with a certain man, you see, the man who owned this house when I was but a girl. He pulled me into this very room. I never left it—alive.”

Drops of sweat slide down the creases of his neck, but he does not speak.

“You’ll understand that I have issues with bad boys like you.”

“I’ll leave now,” he gasps. “No problem.”     

“Yes, you will.” Still gripping his hand, I step back and inspect him. “I could use a familiar, a nice black ghost cat.” I shake my head. “But I'm afraid you'd make a very chubby kitty.” 

He pushes with all his strength, trying to thrust me away. I lean closer and whisper in his ear, “Have you any last words you’d like to share?”

His lips make round, gasping motions like those of a beached trout.

“I thought not. None of the others did either.” I raise my right hand and give it a flick to extend my talons. I turn them and they catch stray gleams of moonlight. “Do you like my needles?” I caress his double-chin with their tips. “Silver is so becoming to a lady, don’t you think?”

His face contorts. “Please!”

“Certainly!” I plunge my needles beneath his chin, through his throat into his brain. He quivers for a moment as if thrilled. Then his dead weight slumps to the floor.

“Treat!” I hold my crimsoned talons up to the moonlight, admiring their scarlet gleam. “Or trick!”



Robert Walton retired from teaching after thirty-six years of service at San Lorenzo Middle School. He is a lifelong rock climber and mountaineer with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. He’s an experienced writer with published works including historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and poetry. Walton’s novel Dawn Drums won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. “Sockdologizer,” his dramatization of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest. Most recently, his “Mansa Musa’s Wisdom” was published in Cricket Media’s February, 2022 issue of Spider magazine.




Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)

Thursday, October 26, 2023

“Maria” • by Jason D. Wittman

My husband picks you when he learns your name. As you speak intimately of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, tossing your mane of copper hair, he thinks it no coincidence that we are both named Maria.

My husband is a fool.

You show samples of your work, saying art restoration is like archaeology, seeking clues to how the work once looked. He says my portrait cannot leave his country estate, being too delicate for transport (utter nonsense—he wants you there), and it is all he has left of me since my untimely death. He shows you a photograph.

You see my face, dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. You think I look angry.

I am. But not at you.

You ask about the women in the background—the short-haired blonde reading by a tree, the raven-hair wearing a maroon scarf strolling by the lakeshore, seven in all. To your eye, they clutter the background—were they added by subsequent artists? 

Jonathan says they are part of the original painting, and must be treated accordingly.


The taxi takes you past fields and forests to the Trevanion estate. Jonathan only occupies it in summer, and when he leaves, so do the staff.

You don’t go inside just yet. The lake to your right looks inviting.

Its shore is rocky. Though the water looks deep, you know diving is not a good idea. You have a swimsuit in your luggage. You change, walk carefully to the edge, and lower yourself in.

The water is amazingly clear. You go down to gauge its depth, and encounter large, jagged rocks. Numerous fish flash silver in the tinted sunlight, and you playfully tickle a few.

When you come ashore, you sense someone waiting for you. But when you look up, no one is there.

You change again, and let yourself into the manor.

The furniture is covered with sheets, like cartoon ghosts poised to startle the unwary. Artwork adorns every wall. And in a top-floor room, with a wide, south-facing window, resting on an easel, is the portrait.

A photograph is nothing compared to reality. You sense my anger more keenly, though I only show it through my eyes.

It is too late in the day to start work now. You go to the kitchen, make a light supper, and go to bed early.

Your dreams are troubled.  You run through the manor, hearing anxious whispers to flee at once—but you never find the exit.


At dawn, you eat eggs and toast, and take your toolbox to the top-floor room.

Jonathan was not wrong about those background women. Your magnifying glass and ultraviolet flashlight show that clearly. But you still think their presence makes the painting feel crowded. And these women—the book-reading blonde, the scarf-wearing raven-hair, a blonde on the balcony, a brunette on the rooftop(!) in tight jeans and a turtleneck—don’t look like mere models but real people.

But your task is straightforward. You open your toolbox, draw out your solvents, pigments and brushes, and begin.


In the end, it is flawless. You tell Jonathan so on the phone: the scratch beneath my left eye is gone, the years of dust are sponged away, and the women’s faces show much more clearly. The work only awaits Jonathan’s approval.

“Good,” he says. “I will be there in three days at the most.”

You hang up, thinking you have time to celebrate.

We would warn you if we could.


You plan on ordering a gourmet pizza. Before that, however, you decide on a dip in the lake.

You don your swimsuit, walk gingerly among the rocks, and ease yourself in. It’s cooler than when you first came here, but nothing you can’t handle. The lake is clear as ever, and the fish are much more sluggish, making it easier to tickle them.

When you climb ashore, you look up in time to see Jonathan holding a rock.

He was planning to murder you all along. He thinks I want more company in my painting.

It began with Maria Bailey, the raven-hair by the lake, because she looked very much like me. Months after my death, Jonathan saw her, learned her name was Maria. They became lovers. Then he showed her my portrait, and she realized he was not loving her, but loving me through her. They argued, fought, she slipped, knocked her head against a hearthstone, and died.

I accepted her into my portrait because I pitied her. Yet doing so started a vicious cycle. For Jonathan saw her in my portrait, saw my look of pity for her, and mistook it for gratitude for providing me with company. And when that look of pity faded and became anger toward him, he thought I wanted more company. Thus, Maria Kivi reading by the tree, Maria Relph watching clouds from the balcony, Maria Fuller wearing her turtleneck and tight jeans, Maria Kacey, Maria Olsen, Maria Reddy.

All named Maria. That’s why he chose you.

Jonathan raises the rock. But you are no shrinking violet. You fight back.

The contest is too evenly matched for our liking. We exert our wills to try to affect the outcome.

We don’t quite get the result we want. Jonathan slips and falls to his death… but so do you.


You break the surface, wondering by what miracle you survived. You see us waiting on the shore.

“Take my hand,” I say.

The other Marias welcome you with open arms. “It’s all right,” says Maria Bailey, draping a towel around your shoulders. “You’re among friends now.”

The others turn back to the lake, knives in their hands. When Jonathan surfaces, I take his hand, and the others stab him dead.

You’re in the painting now, in case you haven’t guessed. You will begin each day rising from the lake. And each day we will kill Jonathan as he steps ashore.

We are happy in this afterlife he has sent us to.

But that doesn’t mean he gets to enjoy it.


JASON D. WITTMAN lives and works in Minnesota. He has had published fiction in Scifi.com and Baen’s Universe, as well as three previous stories, “Emissaries from Venus,” “The She-Dragon of Bly,” and “Once Upon a Horror,” in Stupefying Stories.  He has also had two games published by Steve Jackson Games, and can recite Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory.


In a world...

Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all, and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available in paperback only, for reasons too arcane to explain.



Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

“Golden Arches” • by Eric Farrell

Look, this all started out innocuously enough. Slim Jim and I were smoking a doobie, I was hungry, and I asked when a certain seasonal rib sandwich was returning.

Jim got all excitable, and sent me off. He told me to drive to the golden arches on Nutwood Avenue, way out on the outskirts of town. I needed to bring a pack of grape Swisher Sweets, an eighth of cosmic kush, and six 25-foot-long extension cords. This all seemed excessive, but I figured a trip to the golden arches was a net positive one way or another. Jim insisted that this was the only way to learn when the rib sandwich would return. I vowed to return with food and possibly an answer.


There are only two cars in the parking lot when I arrive, belonging to the employees manning the restaurant this late in the evening.

I punch the doorbell, and meet Donny Hammersmith. Jim said Donny’s a sweetheart once you get to know him. By now, I’m having my doubts about this whole scheme, but Donny seems friendly enough once I fork over the Swishers and kush.

He lets me in through the service entrance, and leads me through the kitchen.

“Jim tell you the order that you gotta plug every cable in?”

He’s brought me to the dining room that’s been closed for the evening. He splits a cigarillo, emptying the tobacco into the nearest trash.

“Start over by the bathroom,” he continues, tearing bits of kush up with his fingers. “It only works if you go clockwise, starting at the north end of the restaurant.”

He’s nearly ready to light his blunt by the time I’ve laid the cords out. They form a hexagram within the dining room.

“Here,” he says, tossing me a pair of gloves.

I walk around the restaurant, plugging each cord in. The final outlet is behind the service counter, next to the soft serve machine. There’s a note taped to the machine. Out of service.

“…it’s not out of service, bro,” Donny says, following my gaze. He’s halfway through his blunt, and grinning at my antics. “…the machine just automatically shuts down when it needs to be cleaned. Health precaution kind of thing.”

“So, every time I walk into one of these places and see no soft serve, it’s because you guys don’t want to clean it? Like, ever?”

Donny shrugs, his eyes red.

“Look, it works. See for yourself. But just, fair warning, it won’t be any kind of soft serve you’ve seen. People like you and Jim play with fire, abusing little loopholes like these.”

This machine is plugged into the final outlet. When I plug in below it, blue lightning sparks, and a bolt of energy shoots straight up the appliance’s power cable. The two levers of the machine begin glowing a ghostly hue of cobalt.

I grab the chocolate handle, and pull down.

What meets me is a purple frown. A rotund, furry, bean-shaped creature is summoned in the center of the hexagram. The mascot ghost of the golden arches’ pulpy past.

I hadn’t anticipated this strange purple thing. It has an amicable enough face, waving with its two wimpy little arms.

But Slim Jim specifically told me the masked bandit would ultimately answer my rib sandwich query. Not the weird clown, nor this amorphous blob. So I’m confused.

It doesn’t help that black ooze is sliming out of the soft serve nozzle. A viscous, glistening gloop drips down past the catch tray, splashing near my feet.

Donny starts laughing out loud, glancing from my grimace to the monster summoned before me.

“You pulled the wrong lever,” he says, “Vanilla. You need vanilla.”

The gentle purple beast begins rattling off a list of celebrities and corresponding cross-promo combo meal releases. Insightful information, but not what I need.

Across the restaurant, the lone cook is fulfilling a drive-thru customer’s order, wholly unfazed by the dark arts in the dining room.

Donny’s hysterical over the spectacle, but manages to impart a keen warning before handing the order off.

“Don’t let that gunk get you, man,” he says, puffing at the roach in his fingers. “If it covers you completely, it takes you with it to the other side. Where are all these dead characters live. It’s pretty far out!”

Now that I’ve removed my hand from the chocolate lever and pulled on vanilla, the masked bandit materializes in place of the purple thing. Dressed in a garish cape and matching mask, the burglar solidifies form just as the goop overtakes my waist.

“You’ll get your rib sandwich soon, human,” the specter says. “November of next year, you shall be satiated beneath these golden arches once more.”

The ooze is up to my neck. I can’t even turn to spot Donny for help.

My hand’s still on the lever, and the darkness is still spewing out. The slime covers my lips, and coats my eyes. The world begins to swirl in on itself, as I follow the masked bandit down through the hexagram.

“Come on, man!” Donny shouts, and slaps my hand off the lever. “I can’t have another person get swallowed by the restaurant when I’m on shift.”

Mercifully, the ooze disappears once the spell’s been broken. It takes a moment to get my bearings before noticing Donny full on pointing and laughing.

“Alright, unplug your shit and get out,” he says. “You’ve had your fun.”


After removing the hexagram, I excuse myself to the bathroom, splashing cold water on my face.

Donny’s handling deep-cleaning tasks, already over my presence. I’ve mostly lost my appetite, but I promised Jim I’d return with food.

“Hey Donny, you mind ringing me up for a couple things?”

I order one of everything off the dollar menu, figuring that would cover all bases. Then I motion behind Donny, to the soft-serve machine.

“Any chance you can clean that thing? I’m really craving ice cream.”


Eric Farrell lives in Long Beach, California, where he works as a beer sales rep by day, and speculative fiction author by night. His writing credits stem from a career in journalism, where he reported for a host of local and metro newspapers in the greater Los Angeles area. He posts on Twitter @stygianspace and has recent fiction with Aphotic Realm, Haven Spec, and HyphenPunk.


Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

“The Foulest of Them All” • by Jeff Currier

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the foulest one of all?” Mephistopheles asked yet again.

“While normally true, the foulest is you, today it’s Ralph Sittlemeier.”

“What! Show me this wretch!”

A bland bespectacled man typing computer code appeared.

“Has he tortured countless souls? Sought to undermine God’s dominion?”

“No, Less Foul One, he’s preparing to test a theory, knowing it might well unravel the entire multiverse.”

“Bah, Jehovah will just remake it—new sinners for me to torment.”

“The unraveling effect, increasing exponentially every picosecond, won’t spare Heaven or Hell.”

Panicked, Mephistopheles snapped his fingers. Sittlemeier, dead, collapsed, his elbow hitting ‘Enter’.

“Congratulations, Lord, foulest honors return to…”


Jeff Currier works three jobs, so has little time to write. Hence, he writes little stories—like this one. Find links to more at Jeff Currier Writes on Facebook.

Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)

Monday, October 23, 2023

“Because the Night” • by Iseult Murphy

Kathy forgot it was the night of the full moon until a collar of white fur, like an ermine scarf, sprouted from her soft skin. 

She thought it looked stylish, highlighting the length of her neck rising above, and the angularity of her collarbones peeking below. She slipped into a shapeless shift dress, coiled her hair into a messy chignon, and went out into the night.

The chill evening breeze played across her exposed flesh, heavy with a burden of tantalizing scents. She passed her neighbour on the way to the park, his head sunken into his shoulders, his black leather coat curled tightly around his body.

“Going for a run?”

“I’ve got a date.”

With her heightened senses, the darkness peeled back to reveal its secrets to her. Catching her reflection in the blind windows of an abandoned house, she reveled in her huge, dark eyes, like pools of oil, and the pale antlers that emerged from her head to taste the air with their feathery branches.

She tasted the air and found him. His pheromones filled the air, shimmering and effervescent. Coruscating light traced his journey to the park.

He was visible on the sports field, rivaling the moon with his brightness. Seeing him again brought forth the vivid memory of their first meeting a month before. Hurrying home from work through the park, eager to be indoors before moonrise, she spied him chatting with some friends. A miasma of fresh sweat surrounded them, his smell the sweetest of the group. She stumbled into him as she passed on the narrow path, laughing an apology as he turned. When he reached out to steady her, she caught the bare skin of his wrist with her nails and ripped until blood beaded out.

Crouched on the grass in a moonbeam, he was now in the final throes of his first transformation. She stood in the shadows thrown by an oak tree, and watched him, enraptured.

Convulsing on his stomach, he ripped at his clothes until they were in shreds, revealing his body in all its glory. Soft white fur clothed him from neck to bottom, his segmented limbs silvery and bare. His fine antenna shivered as he tasted the air. With a final pulse, his wings fanned out from his shoulders, glowing white and lightly splattered with dots of black. A king’s cloak.

Overcome with desire, Kathy wanted to supplicate herself to him, but she needed to complete her own transformation. She fell onto the grass under the oak and thrashed against the tight prison that held captive the white fluff that flourished underneath, and the immense blade shaped wings, crumpled like wet paper along her back. She rolled and scraped the skin from her body. It flaked away like old paint, peeled off in strips until she lay damp and soft and new. The world exploded around her in sights, smells, and sensations that almost overwhelmed her with their kaleidoscopic beauty.

Quivering, tentative, she tasted the air. The male was above her, obscuring the moon as he flew over the park. She unfurled her wings. Batted them weakly, then with more strength.

A second shape joined the male in the sky. Larger, with leathery scythe shaped wings, its cries disorientated her as they filtered to the ground. She watched them dance through the air, a choreography of hunter and prey, until the larger creature fell upon the male. Both shadows became one and crashed to the ground. Kathy tasted blood in the air and felt wet vibrations of feasting from the undergrowth. She rose towards the moon, and by its light, flew home.

The next morning, primped and powdered for work, she crossed paths with her neighbour as she hurried out and he sauntered in. He wore a jacket, and his large ears and sharp teeth seemed less noticeable than usual.

“How did the date go?”

“It didn’t work out.”

“Shame. Maybe next month you’ll join me for a meal.”

Kathy laughed politely, but as soon as he was out of sight, she shuddered.


Iseult Murphy is a chronically ill multi-genre writer from Ireland. She has published several books and over two dozen short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in the Drabblecast, the Creepy Podcast, and Cosmic Crime Stories. Find out more about her and her writing at https://iseultmurphy.com.

Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)

Sunday, October 22, 2023

“Trans-Earth Injection” • by Pauline Barmby

Sabastian’s heart pounded and his breathing echoed in his helmet as he crested the hill beside Matilda. She loved their walks on the Lunar surface, the only place they could be alone together. He intended to use this one to propose a cohabitation agreement, so they could move out of the dorms into a tiny hab all their own.

Sab turned his bulky suit to face Matilda’s and nearly tipped over as he tried to get down on one knee. “Til—”

“There it is!” Matilda cried, pointing to a small crater a few hundred metres away. She bounced down the hill without waiting for him. Sab sighed and followed.

Matilda stood at the crater’s centre, facing a dozen or so rough-hewn rock slabs clustered together like penguins huddled against the cold. Each slab had one mostly flat face, engraved with words Sab didn’t recognize. He scrunched his nose, perplexed. “What are they?”

“Gravestones,” Matilda explained. “Earthers used to bury dead bodies in the ground and mark the locations with these.” She knelt down to carefully brush dust from the nearest slab. “This is one of the first Lunar memorial sites,” she said. “No bodies, but the early settlers kept the custom of a special place.”

Of course, it had to be a history thing. Sab could have cared less about old stories, but Matilda was fascinated by tales of the earliest settlers. He held out a hand; she grasped it to haul herself up and activated her helmetcam.

“I wanted to get some images,” she said. “Then I can compare them with the layout of Earth graveyards, when I go down for my thesis fieldwork.”

Sab’s mouth went dry. “I thought we’d decided going to Earth was too dangerous.”

We decided no such thing,” Matilda replied. “Just because you don’t want to go, doesn’t mean that’s how I feel.”

“But the gravity adjustment—”

“I’ve been training hard. I’ll be ready.”

“But—” Sab cut himself off. They stood in silence for a few moments. Sab imagined himself reaching out to hold Matilda’s gloved hand, wishing they weren’t separated by dusty, creaky suits. 

She changed the subject. “People used to think graveyards on Earth were inhabited by spirits, the essences that remained after death.”

He snorted. “Spirits. Even if they existed, why would a spirit want to hang around with a bunch of stones? Wouldn’t it want to go back to where it had been in life?”

Matilda’s reply was cut off by the excursion-return alarm. As they turned to leave, Sab ruminated over Matilda’s plans and his own. He didn’t notice the shadow rising from the graveyard behind them.


The snores of Sab’s dorm-mates were a cacophonous background to his tossing and turning in the narrow bunk. Today had not gone as he’d planned. He loved Matilda. She loved him. So how could she be planning to leave? How could he convince her that staying here and combining their lives would be better than a dangerous trip to Earth? 

His comm unit buzzed; he nearly hit the ceiling. On screen, Matilda was wide awake and excited. “Sab! I read some more about ghosts and graveyards. We have to go back there.”

Sab yawned. “Why?” 

“You know those tunnel blow-outs and airlock leaks on level two?”


“That’s right under the graveyard. What if those leaks and blow-outs are the actions of troubled spirits? Early settlers who weren’t properly put to rest?”

“What? That’s ridiculous,” he grumbled, trying to keep his voice down.

“I know, but so many cultures on Earth believed in spirits. There must be something to it. Maybe we can enact some kind of ritual, put them at ease.” Matilda’s dark eyes shone with anticipation.

“You want to put Lunar spirits to rest?”

“Exactly! I mean, it can’t hurt, right? And it’s another reason to go outside.”

Another excursion might trigger radiation warnings and discipline. It would also mean another chance to talk about their future. “Okay, if that’s what you want,” he mumbled. 

Matilda smiled. “Get some rest. See you tomorrow, sweetie.”


The lovers stood at the edge of a five-meter circle boot-drawn in the regolith. Miranda read a passage projected on her helmet’s HUD, her voice droning in Sab’s headset. He cut his mic so she wouldn’t hear him groan in impatience. Dust swirled behind the gravestones. Sab squinted, puzzled: there was no reason for dust to loft here. A micrometeoroid strike?

Matilda made a series of hand gestures and knelt down. Sab backed away to give her more room and raised his gaze back to the gravestones. There was definitely a swirl of dust—or something darker—on the far side of the circle. The dark spot rose and drifted toward them, blotting out the stars.

“Til…” Sab said. Still chanting, she didn’t respond; he cursed and unmuted his mic. “Til, we need to get out of here.”

Concentrating on the symbols she was drawing in the dark gray surface, Matilda muttered, “Almost done.”

Sab grasped Matilda’s suit to haul her upright. “Now, Til!” he shouted.

The shadow reached them and enveloped Matilda’s helmet. Her legs went slack. Her hands drifted down to her sides. Sab began to drag her toward the airlock, her heels leaving tracks in the dust. Suddenly Matilda stiffened and rose to her feet. She shook off Sab’s grip and knocked him down. As he fell he glimpsed a gray, swirling mass in her faceplate, as she began to run toward the shuttleport. 


Facedown in the regolith, Sab eventually realized that the screams echoing in his helmet were his own. He felt the ground vibrate and pushed himself to his knees, to see a shuttle rise from the launchpad. The Moon’s ghosts were heading home.

Pauline Barmby is an astrophysicist who reads, writes, runs, knits, and believes that you can’t have too many favorite galaxies. She lives in London, Canada and hopes to someday visit her namesake main belt asteroid, minor planet 281067. Find more of her words at galacticwords.com.



Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)

Saturday, October 21, 2023

“The Rustling Leaves of Autumn” • by James C. Bassett

The rustling leaves of autumn always depress me, presaging as they do the coming cold and dark, their last bit of life spent to make the colours that fade too quickly into a dry, drab death.

The changes have been coming for a few weeks now, so subtle from day to day as to be almost unnoticeable—trees just slightly less green and more yellow or orange, slightly less full—but from the lush heat of summer, which still seems so near and yet has fallen so terribly far into the past, it might as well be a different world, and poorer.

This morning as I walked to work at a time that so recently was full of light and life but which now is decidedly pre-dawn, autumn’s first chill lay heavy, and I imagined that I could see frost riming the grass and fallen leaves. But it was only that, my depressive imagination, pessimistically inventing prematurely what will too soon become reality. The crunch I felt underfoot was only dead, dry autumn leaves.

Some small thing scuttled onto the sidewalk ahead of me and then sat still. In the early morning semilight I at first thought it a bird or perhaps a mouse. Strange, I thought, that it ran into my path instead of away to safety, under a shrub or pile of leaves.

As I drew nearer, it stirred again, and others, and I saw that they were only a few leaves, fallen and dry. Yet this too was strange. No birds sang in the darkness; I could feel not the slightest breath stirring the sleeping world—but as I walked closer, the leaves again trembled and took flight, twitching farther onto the path.

I stopped to stare at the one closest, and it fell still again. Was there a wind so low, I wondered, scuttering only along the surface of the pavement? Was it an air current caused by the warmth being drawn out of the earth by the morning cold? Were beetles hiding under these leaves, just as I longed to still be hunkered beneath the warmth of my blankets?

The leaf lifted once more and fell across the toe of my shoe. Disinterestedly, I bent to brush it off. A sudden sharpness stung my finger, like a static shock or a mosquito bite. My hand drew back reflexively, then I reached down and picked up the leaf.

I know nothing about trees. The only leaf I can identify is the maple, which this was not.

I rubbed my thumb over the side of my finger and felt a slight ridge where the skin had been delicately sliced, like a paper cut. The leaf was dry, dry enough to crumble, but I still was surprised that it had been strong enough to slice skin, however shallowly. One in a million, I thought, and I absently put the leaf in my coat pocket and continued on toward the shop.

The light grew, but only halfway, as the sun rose but remained hidden behind dense, low clouds. The artificial light of the shop glared in contrast, too white. For the first hours my finger burned with a faint itch, but it soon subsided as I lost myself in the drudgery of work and customers. Time vanished.

A woman entered and asked for a plaster. Blood trickled from above her left eye. She said the wind had blown a twig from a tree and it had fallen on her.

A twig or a leaf? I asked, my mind suddenly springing to life

She admitted she had only thought it was a leaf at first, but once she realised she was bleeding she assumed it must have been a twig, because a leaf couldn’t have cut her.

Did you keep the leaf? I asked, and she looked at me is if I were mad.

I gave her a plaster and she left, shaking her head. Ah, well. She’ll understand soon enough.

Freed at last when the shadows lengthened, I went straight home. Leaves littered the streets and sidewalks. I heated the remains of last night’s stew and fortified my tea with brandy, grey autumn’s solace, and sat on the couch to eat under a pile of blankets.

I turned on my computer to let the cold dark evening pass into oblivion. The news was terrible, as ever. Death, war, poverty, suffering. Here in town an old man had been found dead in his front garden, a rake beside him, his papery skin torn and ragged. The public was warned to be wary of potentially dangerous rodents.

I laughed out loud at that, knowing the truth. A pile of leaves of course was far too many. One is safe, or only a few, but no more. There will be more deaths this autumn, but there will more, too, like me and the woman in the shop, who have chanced to learn the secrets of sap and blood.

Steeling myself against the chill, I retrieved my leaf from my coat pocket and cosied back into my cocoon.

Was there a suppleness to one small edge of the leaf, a glimmer of green returned, as on my finger? I laid the leaf flat on my palm while I watched a movie, feeling from time to time a rough tingling under the touch of the leaf.

I can hear the wind against the window, scattering the autumn leaves from the trees and sending them all through the town. I want only to stay here all winter in my huddle of blankets, hibernating, incubating, until warmth returns to the world, returns the world to life.

In the spring the trees will spring forth their green, rustling leaves, spring forth to new life, and so will I.




James C. Bassett’s fiction has appeared in such markets as Splonk, Crannóg, Coffin Bell, Constellary Tales, Amazing Stories, and the World Fantasy Award–winning anthology Leviathan 3. He co‑edited (with Stephen L. Antczak and Martin H. Greenberg) the anthology Zombiesque (DAW Books, February 2011) and (with Stephen L. Antczak) the anthology Clockwork Fables (ROC, June 2013). He also is an award-winning stone and wood sculptor and painter. www.jamescbassett.com


Have a Kindle? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Buy the four latest issues with just one click!

(Or buy just one, if that’s what you’d really prefer.)