Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Never-ending FAQ • about our slush pile


Welcome to this week’s installment of The Never-ending FAQ, a constantly evolving adjunct to our Submission Guidelines. If you have a question you’d like to ask about Stupefying Stories or Rampant Loon Press, feel free to post it as a comment here or to email it to our submissions address. I can’t guarantee we’ll post a public answer, but can promise every question we receive will be read and considered.

Today’s question comes from Kevin, who asks:

“Seriously, do you really read every submission that comes in?”

Yes.

 

 

Oh, you want a longer answer? Okay, yes, I, Bruce Bethke, award-winning author, cyberpunk legend, ex-SFWA Board of Directors, etc., etc., etc., etc., personally read every story that comes into our submissions inbox. In doing so I am greatly helped by my innate ability to read incredibly fast, provided I am not reading for long-term retention or personal pleasure. When a story arrives here, the first thing that happens—assuming it gets through our anti-virus and malware filters; we still receive infected files fairly often, so keep your anti-virus programs up to date, folks—is that I read it, to answer one question: is this story worth passing along to my first readers?

This is as far as many submissions get. I have great respect for my first readers and want to use their time wisely. If a story is clearly, instantly, and obviously something we can’t use right now, or worse, something we would never publish even if we had infinite time and resources, there’s no point in giving it any further consideration. It goes straight from the inbox to the form rejection queue.

This “something we can’t use right now” is not a euphemism but a crucial consideration. In the past we’ve been burned badly by accepting stories we really liked but had no clear idea of how or when we’d use them. These days, I’m keeping a close eye on budget and space considerations. With SHOWCASE stories in particular, I’m trying to keep us to a very lean-inventory fast-turnaround model. If I can’t see how we’ll use a story within the next 60 days, out it goes.

In a genre where Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” is a revered touchstone, it’s remarkable how few writers seem to realize that there’s a cold equation that applies to them, too. At present we run five SHOWCASE stories weekly. In a slow week, we receive ten new submissions. The flow is erratic, though. In busy weeks we can receive ten new submissions daily—but still only have the space and budget to publish five stories weekly.

To cut the list down from fifty candidates to five published stories requires some brutal decision making, and doesn’t leave much time for debate or writing personal rejections, especially as my goal is to get us down to having a one-week average turnaround time. Ergo, most submissions received will get no-comment form rejections. Because math.

§

As for rejections: please understand, just as we don’t buy authors’ cover letters, bios, or lists of awards and previous publication credits, we don’t reject authors personally. We reject the particular story an author has submitted. If you receive a form rejection, it just means, “Not this one, but maybe your next one.” We have had authors submit five stories in a row that only got a form rejection—but then their sixth story turned out to be brilliant, and we couldn’t buy it and publish it fast enough.

Then again, we’ve also had a very few authors who we had to ask to stop submitting to us, because their stories not only consistently missed the mark, they weren’t even on the right target range, and they showed no evidence of being able to learn from failure. If you’ve ever questioned whether the Dunning-Kruger effect is real, a few weeks spent reading unsolicited slush pile submissions will remove all doubt.

One more thing: if you receive a form rejection, please don’t write and ask for further comments. If I have anything to say that I think might help improve your story, I’ll put it in the rejection letter. If I think the story might be publishable if you changed this or that thing and would be willing to look at a rewrite, I’ll say that. If I think your story isn’t usable now but might be at some point in the future (this usually happens when stories have a strong seasonal element), I’ll say that, too. 

If you receive a form rejection from us, it means, “Not this one. Send us something else.” That’s all it means. 

§

If a submission survives its initial encounter with me, it gets passed on to our first readers. (I really should come up with a better name for them, as they’re actually second readers, but the name is traditional so we’ll stick with it for now.) In the past we had a really ponderous and complicated system we called the FSPRC (“Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps”), but in hindsight I should track down and apologize to everyone who did first reading for us back then, as the practice bordered on abuse. People who volunteer to become first readers are generally idealistic souls who love reading fiction. Exposing them to the full unbuffered force of our daily torrent of unfiltered slush was just plain cruel. Most of the original FSPRC eventually quit, either from burnout or in disgust. A few didn’t say they were quitting, they just took a pile of manuscripts and disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Our first-reader system is simpler and more streamlined now. If I think a story shows promise, I pass it on to the first readers, and ask for their comments. If they don’t fall in love with the story right away, completely and enthusiastically, it goes into the rejection queue. If they have generally positive things to say about the story but feel the need to accompany their praise with serious qualifications and reservations, it goes into the rejection queue. If one first reader absolutely loves a story but the next really hates it…

Understand, this is not a democracy. The first readers are free to lobby for stories they really like, and it is possible to change my mind, but in the end, I make the final decision. I have rejected stories the first readers were unanimous in liking; pulled from the rejection queue stories the first readers were unanimous in disliking; and in split decisions decided this reader was right and that one wrong about a given story, but in the next split decision ruled the other way.

Which means, yes: if a story makes it into the final Accept? [Yes|No] folder, I read it a third time, this time very closely and critically, before deciding whether the story is something I want to present to the Stupefying Stories readers. Because ultimately, it is my reputation that’s on the line. I am the one who by publishing a story is saying, “Hey, this is good. I think you should read it.” 

Therefore, throughout this entire process, one guiding principle applies, and it’s one I’ve tried to apply throughout my entire writing, editing, and publishing career. 

“Your readers are giving you something very valuable: their time. You owe it to them to make the best possible use of their time and not to waste it.”

I wish I could remember who it was who gave me this advice so very long ago, but speaking writer-to-reader, it’s an idea that’s proven its worth without fail time and again. 

When you submit a story—that is, when you are speaking writer-to-editor—you might also want to keep it in mind. 

Once again, thanks for asking. Any more questions?

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“Reunion” • by Toshiya Kamei



The carriage door creaked open, and a chilly draft blew against Maya’s cheeks. 

Before she could react, a translucent figure climbed inside. He wore an old-fashioned gray kimono and two swords—one long, the other short—at his waist.

“To the temple?” the man asked.

Maya nodded, unable to hide her astonishment. The horse shook its head, and the carriage rolled forward.

He gave a slight nod in return and regarded her with dead eyes. She swallowed a gasp.

“Why?” she asked in a trembling voice. “Why are you going to the temple?”

“Just like you, to pay respect to the gods.”

He turned his gaze to the road snaking up the hill.

“Your name will be drawn today.”

“Excuse me?” She thought she had misheard him.

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“How do you know?” she asked, heart pounding. Even though to give one’s life to the gods was a great honor, her palms were sweaty.

“The stars have aligned.” The man smiled. “This may be your lucky day.”

“I’m Maya Umezu,” she said, changing the subject. She didn’t want to jinx her fate.

“Is that what you’re called now?” He paused and glanced at her. “Does the name Momo mean anything to you?”

Maya frowned and shook her head.

“You don’t remember me.” The man shook his head, pain flashing in his eyes. “In all likelihood, you’ll recover your memory soon enough.”

Her frown deepened. “Sorry, I don’t follow you.”

“Do you believe in reincarnation?”

“I don’t know,” she answered with hesitation. He was making her uncomfortable.

“Never mind.”

“What’s your name?” she asked, changing the subject again. She stared at him, searching her memory, but came up empty.

“Tetsuo Miyako,” the man said with a melancholy sigh.

“It doesn’t ring a bell. Sorry.”

“It’s all right.” He peered out the window again.

The carriage passed a large cage by the roadside. Some of the prisoners Maya saw were young, others were old, but all wore tattered kimonos.

“The tyranny of the church,” Tetsuo mumbled in disgust, pointing his chin to the cage. “It must be defeated.”

Maya stared at him, taken aback by his candidness. No one she knew spoke ill of the church. She knew the church had its faults, but her faith wouldn’t fail her. It couldn’t.

“They took Momo away from me.” He clenched his fists in his lap and narrowed his eyes. “She was my betrothed. My only chance at happiness.”

His rage confused her—happiness was only achieved in death. Or so she was led to believe. Years ago, when her sister’s name was drawn, Maya had felt herself burn with envy. She’d shed bitter tears over her feverish desire to take her sister’s place.

“This sword belonged to her.” He pointed to the shorter of the pair at his waist. It looked familiar, but she couldn’t remember where she’d seen it.

“May I?”

“Sure.” Tetsuo removed the sword from his waist and handed it to her.

She held it and traced the inscription with her finger. “Momo,” she read it aloud.

“Yes, Momo,” Tetsuo said with a faraway look in his eyes. “You remind me of her.”

An odd sensation stirred in her chest. A sudden headache assaulted her senses, and she gave the sword back.

“Are you all right?”

Maya nodded.

The carriage sped along the bumpy road.

It was twilight by the time they arrived at the crowded temple. With a bowed head, Maya followed Tetsuo inside, and they sat together in the last pew. She felt even smaller than usual beneath the high, vaulted ceiling. The nave seated hundreds of worshipers. The heavy smell of incense stung Maya’s nostrils.

A few hooded sacristans passed through the aisles collecting entries for the lottery. Anxious to be chosen, Maya scrawled her name on a slip of paper and tossed it in a bamboo basket.

The priestess stood behind the pulpit. A sword hung from a sheath at her left hip. She began the mass with a wailing chant, and the worshipers swayed with their eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer. The priestess drew a name from the basket and read it aloud. “Maya Umezu.”

“We have chosen,” one of the sacristans cried.

“Kill her,” the congregation erupted. “Kill her!”

Maya stood as if in a trance, climbed the dais, and knelt before the priestess.

The priestess unsheathed her sword and raised it above her head.

“Momo!” Tetsuo’s cry shook her out of her trance.

“Tetsuo,” the priestess said with a smirk. “You must have missed her so much.” She glanced at Maya. “Quite touching.”

Momo, Momo, Momo. The name kept echoing in Maya’s ears. Was that her name long ago? Was she Momo in a past life?

Maya stood and stepped backward until she stumbled into the pulpit. The basket fell, emptying its contents. Slips of paper lay scattered on the floor. She picked up a few and saw her name on all of them. The selection was rigged—she felt as though someone had struck her in the back of her head. Her heart pounded in her ears.

The congregation stomped and roared. “The gods want blood!” A wailing chant echoed through the temple.

Maya turned back to Tetsuo, and her gaze met his. Had he come back for her? Or was he using her to exact revenge? There was no way for her to tell. Regardless, she was now Maya. Even if she wanted to be reunited with Tetsuo, she couldn’t go back to being Momo. She would be going against nature.

“Take this!” Tetsuo tossed the short sword to her.

The priestess strode toward Maya as worshipers charged the dais.

Tetsuo drew his sword and readied himself.

When Maya held the hilt again, a jolt of energy ran through her. This is my sword. Her heart stirred with a sudden desire for survival. Maya—Momo—raised the blade and warded off the priestess’s blow. Clang! Iron clashed against iron, and sparks flew.

 


 Toshiya Kamei (they/them) is an Asian writer who takes inspiration from fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. They attempt to reimagine the past, present, and future while shifting between various perspectives and points of view. Many of their characters are outsiders living on the margins of society. 

This story first appeared in Askew Audience.


Monday, February 26, 2024

“Daydreams” • by Brian K. Lowe


So now it’s the Future.  

You remember the Future, it’s all we talked about when we were kids: flying cars and jet packs, robot butlers and time travel. Right. Look around—do you see any flying cars or jet packs? Is Robbie the Robot fetching your newspaper or doing the dishes? Not bloody likely.

But time travel? That’s another story—I have time travel…

I’m actually rather proud of myself. I spent half my life figuring out time travel because I’ve always believed we should have flying cars and robot butlers. And if someday we will, why should I be cheated out of them just because I was born too early?

Now, for some people, it would be easier to invent a flying car than time travel, but I’ve never been what you call mechanically inclined, not to mention I barely passed high school algebra. I have more of a philosophical bent, which, as it turns out, is perfect for mastering time travel.

As it happens, time travel doesn’t require any fancy machines, just the right attitude. My attitude is that if time and space are related, then if you can travel through one you must be able to travel through the other. We move through space all the time (if you’ll pardon the expression). And we’re already traveling through time at a rate of one second per second anyway; it’s just that we can’t reverse direction or walk any faster.

Until now. My method is based on this simple idea: the past is never gone so long as we can remember it. All you have to do for time travel is project your consciousness to a certain point in your memory. Of course this means that you can only go back as far as you can remember—and you can’t go forward—but that’s all I need. I can recall when my buddy Randy and I used to daydream about those flying cars, so I can go back there. I may not be an engineer like Randy is (I’m between jobs), but I do know enough about modern science that if I can go back and whisper a few words in the right ears, when I return to the present Robbie the Robot will be waiting for me with my slippers and the evening paper.

And the best part of it is, the trip will be a completely mental exercise. My body will never leave this room. My wife won’t even know I’ve been gone.

§

“Honestly, dear, I can’t understand why you can’t deal with the simplest modern conveniences,” my wife says, adjusting Robbie’s programming to bring me orange juice in the morning instead of beer.

“Well, it’s not like I grew up with this stuff,” I respond. “I’m old and I’m cranky and I’m—”

“—not mechanically inclined. Yes, I know. But I didn’t grow up with them, either, and I don’t have a problem.” She patted Robbie on the head and he puttered off. “I thought all boys spent their time dreaming about flying cars when they were kids. You should be thrilled.”

Oh yeah, I’m thrilled. When I went back in time, I forgot that my adult mind would be stuck in my child’s body. I couldn’t give hints to scientists and NASA engineers; my parents wouldn’t even let me make a long-distance phone call. The only person I could talk to was Randy. You may have heard of him: Randall Blumenthal? Yeah, that Randall Blumenthal. The billionaire…who invented flying cars, jet packs, personal robot servants…

I hate that guy.

And is the world any better off? I was already living in a science fiction world, I just didn’t realize it, with personal computers built into eyeglasses and cell phones. Combine that with flying cars and what do you get? People piloting flying cars while watching their phones! And don’t get me started on the jet packs. Every day some moron gets out of his lane and gets hit by a car and falls to the ground, usually right on top of some other poor slob.

And I still don’t understand any of it! I can hardly add apps to my phone, let alone program the robot. I don’t even have a driver’s license. Plus I’m still between jobs. But there is one thing I can do…

§

“Hey, Randy, remember all that stuff I was saying the other day about how we could build flying cars and robots and stuff?”

Randy’s screwed up his face. “No.”

“Great. Then I’m in time.”

“Sure. Whatever. Sounds like a bunch of freaky sci-fi stuff anyway. I don’t read that junk.”

Sci-fi stuff? Hmm…

§

“Honestly, dear, I can’t understand why the world’s greatest science fiction writer can’t deal with the simplest modern appliances,” my wife says, adjusting Robbie’s programming to bring me orange juice in the morning instead of beer. “It’s ironic that you have a mantel full of trophies for coming up with the ideas for all these flying cars and jet packs, and you don’t even know how to use them.”

Oh, I know how to use them, all right. I simply don’t want to get attached to them. I may have inspired them, but I still hate them. Really. And now I write the stuff that people read on their phones while they’re supposed to be driving. I’m going back again soon and set everything to rights, make it all like it used to be.

Although I have to admit that I never tire of watching Robbie dust all those trophies on my mantel…



 


Brian K. Lowe has been writing since he was fourteen, when he took it up in a sudden burst of sibling rivalry and wrote a novella which earned him no money, but a fistful of extra credit points in his English class. Since then he has graduated from UCLA as an English/Creative Writing major and currently works for an attorney. His short stories have appeared in many venues, including Escape Pod, Galaxy’s Edge, and Daily Science Fiction, and his Stolen Future trilogy will appear from Water Dragon Publishing in 2024. All his latest news can be found at brianklowe.wordpress.com.


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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Week in Review • 25 February 2024

Welcome to The Week in Review, a summary for those too busy to follow Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE on a daily basis.

“Arrivals at Hope Station Have Been Indefinitely Postponed” • by Warren Benedetto

It seemed the appropriate story for President’s Day.

Published: 19 February 2024

 

The Never-ending FAQ • Manuscript Formatting 101

We didn’t think this was necessary, but based on what’s been showing up in our inbox lately, it most definitely is. Complete with examples and downloadable templates.

Published: 21 February 2024

 

“Getting Sponsored” • by Eric Fomley

Frequent contributor Eric Fomley returns with another of his grim little tales from the very dark side of the too-near future.

Published: 22 February 2024

“The Break” • by Becky Neher

Continuing with Dark & Dystopian Week:
you can run all you want. There’s still no place to hide.

Published: 23 February 2024

“The Prediction of a Horrific Crime” • by Humphrey Price 

Sometimes the smallest act of defiance can spark a revolution.

Published: 24 February 2024




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Saturday, February 24, 2024

“The Prediction of a Horrific Crime” • by Humphrey Price



I figured I had about an hour before being arrested by the Pre-Crime Police.  

Sky drones surveilled my movements while I fought back tears and left the house inherited from my mom. I was on the Precog AI watch list due to my social media posts, including chatroom banter that was supposed to be unobservable. So much for that. I still had my gun, though. Guns are sacred, protected by court rulings, and Pre-Crime units can’t take them away.

The short-barrelled rifle was in my backpack—semi-auto with smart aiming and fire control. I noticed the swarm of flies headed for the house. Soon those microdrones would confirm that the rifle was not inside. To shake off the sky drones, I ducked into a covered alleyway and jumped a fence into an abandoned yard without an active security system. Everything was going according to plan.

Under cover of a rusty tin awning, I ditched my hooded jacket and pulled the form-fitting spoof mask over my head. I had a high quality black market model, so the street cams would not recognize me when I emerged onto the boulevard just ahead. It was fixed up with a real face from the ID system. The tracking AI would tag me through facial recognition with the likeness of an insurance salesman who lived nearby. The mask was unnoticeable to casual observers. You had to look closely to tell.

The Precog AI has been a smashing success. Mass killings have been reduced by 95-percent and false positives are less than 15-percent. Based on my chatroom posts and cunningly cultivated psychological profile, the precog AI was going to predict a target far away from my intended destination. The Pre-Crime police and sky drones were all being steered to the wrong location to delay my arrest.

I was despondent at leaving my mom’s house for the last time. She died six months ago from a treatable illness. She had been denied medication by FemCare, which controls allowable health care for all citizens with XX chromosomes. Health care for citizens with XY chromosomes is of course unrestricted, if you can afford it.

The underground metro was crowded this time of day, so I blended in with the pulsating mass squeezing down the escalator and onto the trains. On the subway, two people next to me were whispering in Spanish. That was risky. I could get a five thousand dollar snitch reward for turning them in. English is the only legal language now, and foreign languages are not taught in school or allowed at home. Four stops later I pushed out through the claustrophobic humanity and emerged into daylight.

There were new banners in the street for the Patriot Party. Elections were next month. Ballots are no longer secret, and if you don’t vote PP, you will be shamed on Z and lose all employment prospects. I’ve witnessed those without money or a place to live being dragged off the street to one of the homeless camps where life expectancy is about two years. You could also be jailed on false charges, and life expectancy there is also about two years.

After the death of my mom, I was angry and driven to find a way to strike back at the PP, so I joined the underground Fahrenheit Troop. F Troop has a list of the books that are now banned, and our mission is to make all of them available to the public once again.

My destination was just ahead in a nondescript building, unmarked except for a small plaque bearing the letters DBR. The Dangerous Books Repository contained digital copies of all banned books for AIs to reference when searching emails for restricted content. There was only a single armed guard at the door.

I had chosen one o’clock for the assault, because that’s Prayer and Pledge time. I positioned myself out of view behind a tall bush by the entrance and pulled off the stifling mask for better visibility and freedom of motion. Then I extracted the high-tech rifle from my backpack. It was unloaded. The bullets frightened me, and I didn’t need them to execute my plan.

Stepping out from the bushes, I was completely exposed. The camera AI would identify me, plus my ID chip implant would be scanned by the detector at the entrance.

I surprised the guard as the Pledge was being broadcast over public speakers. At gunpoint, she dropped her AR-15 and gave me access inside. I secured the door, dumped the AR-15 into a trash bin, and rushed to the workstation at the end of the foyer. The librarian went pale and trembled in fear as I gave him a slip of paper with the ISBN number and ordered him to download the text into my gizmo. It was designed by a genius in F Troop to hack into the PP’s nationwide Emergency Messaging System.

He typed in the number and brought up the file, shaking his head. “This is a horrific crime, you know. The book is banned for religious blasphemy. I see that in pre-PP times, the author was cancelled for expressing unacceptable opinions, and the cancellation was never rescinded.”

I waved the rifle and said, “Do it.”

He inserted the data cable, and I watched the display to verify the transfer. The file went directly from the gizmo to the PP’s server and was immediately broadcast to the entire population in an EMS email. While there was still time, I made the librarian get other books on my list, as many as possible.

The government was terrified that the banned books would contaminate school kids, grooming them to become monsters instead of being groomed for the PP. Those little monsters were about to be set free to figure it out for themselves. I would be taken into custody in a few minutes, but it was worth it. Now the entire country will be able to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.




 

 

Humphrey Price is a space systems engineer who has contributed to robotic exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. His goal is to introduce interesting plausible ideas for space travel, aliens, and the future of the human race through highly realistic hard science fiction stories. Information on his writings can be found at humphreyprice.com.

 

 


 

 

Friday, February 23, 2024

“The Break” • by Becky Neher



The male silk moth can detect a single pheromone molecule
from a female moth who is miles away. The molecule lands on one of his antenna’s receptors. He swerves left, banks right, finds another molecule. He guesses at a flight path; another molecule hits. He triangulates and pursues the concentration gradient.

Equally, I think, weaving through the throng of pedestrians, cart drivers, motorcyclists, and street vendors, the moth could, if he chose, use his detection system to steer clear.

I squeeze through a logjam near a melon stand, sidestep a bicycle wheel. I imagine my hunters radiating chemicals, tiny blobs assembled into signature structures I can sense with my naked eye.

The crowd loosens near the bazaar’s outskirts. I pick up my pace, slipping by like the moth in zips and veers.

I conjure up places to hide: cubbyholes in cracked stucco houses, narrow stairwells into dank basements, the open window of an empty room.

I spy a shallow alcove and duck in, press my back to the cool wall, exhale. Lean my head against the peeling bricks and close my eyes.

Had I done the thing the AccuTrial App had found me guilty of?

Its algorithms had determined I’d shot the victim at his residence.

True.

They said I’d chucked the weapon and fled.

Okay.

But then they concluded I’d committed murder. And this, the more I think about it…this can’t be right.

Because for one thing, murder is unjustifiable killing.

But this was the official who’d directed the Keep Society Clean and Safe pod to ferry me—just as he had with so many of our fellow citizens!—to Re-education Compound. Someone had falsely accused me of expressing disbelief in Deities Almighty and reservations about Great Country Leader, on top of engaging in unconventional sexual activities, no less.

I can’t even comprehend doing such things. Nor do I want to. But Re-ed Comp is where undesirable but legally unassassinatable people die by “accident” or “natural causes,” in ways rumored to be gruesome and prolonged.

I shake at the thought…and at what I had done.

It must have been self-defense! I do the right thing, I follow orders. The law acknowledges justifiable homicide…

Anyway, doesn’t murder require an understanding of right and wrong? Someone who can choose whether to follow through?

But I’m like the bee stinging an attacker, the rabbit fleeing a predator: I act automatically, following instilled norms I wouldn’t know how to question. Roles drummed into me from birth, strict behavioral codes, dress and grooming requirements. Beliefs to profess and words to avoid. Media to consume and media to eschew. Judgments, values, matters of right and wrong: outside my purview. No need to reason or reflect. No impetus to imagine other possibilities. A pure, transactional instrument for profit and power. (HailPeace Unto the Amazing Free Society of Incredible People!)

So what understanding? What choice? What responsibility?

I inhale, push off the dusty wall, sprint to who knows where.

The reality is, there aren’t any places to hide. 

Scent Seekers are smaller than the resplendent silk moths from which they are engineered. Their bullet-shaped bodies are drab, light brown. They supplement their energy reserves with solar nanocells. Where their bio-counterparts sport a feeding proboscis, lab-grown glands eject barbiturates through a titanium lancet.

They travel any distance to reach their mark. Vector algorithms map the target’s path. A smart probability array predicts the target’s future movement.

And unlike silk moths, which home in on a pheromone all females emit, this crew is currently programmed to track one particular odortype: mine.

Thing is, when the kill notice had gone out—reverberating through the district square, caroming off walls, pinballing through the alleys—a strange impulse surged in my gut, exploding into my chest and flaring to the ends of my limbs. And I was racing on fraying, Freedom Approved sneakers with a primal drive to run! that had found shape in a newly realized human will, sparking my imagination, coalescing into a kind of logical reasoning: If I had to escape, there must be somewhere to go. And if it was me I had to protect, I must be worth protecting.

The thrilling absurdity of these thoughts rockets me through the packed streets, around clusters of hot, hectic bodies, huts and apartments strung with clotheslines and electrical wires, past businesses and schools and faith centers and beyond, my lung capacity limitless, muscles humming with more vitality than any well-oiled machine. And it occurs to me, like a giddy-inducing smack on the face, that my death warrant has granted me what nothing else has in all my twenty-six years: Life, agency, meaning.

The Seekers are taking longer than I expected. Have I eluded them after all?

Panting, stumbling with laughter, all my heart’s inner tensions unraveling from questions of how to serve the social order, exploring instead what the person within me might think and feel. Reaching for some self-governing, unstunted entity, I slow down and step just outside the city limits.

My back prickles. Behind me, the incarceropolis: where whole other worlds of latent drives and longings, intelligence and potential are born, smiling and expectant, and are then harnessed and broken in, left to splutter, fizzle and grow cold.

A brown insectoid lands on my forearm. It is camouflaged nearly perfectly: only a flash of light reflecting off its silvery lancet gives it away. The drone swiftly delivers its payload with a hair-thin stab.

I collapse onto my knees, buffeted by a sudden chill wind. The sun is hot on my scalp. I fall backward under an azure sky, wide and bright with everything that is real, possible, and gone.
 



Becky Neher
is published in So Fi Zine, Friday Flash Fiction, 365tomorrows, Idle Ink, Microfiction Monday Magazine and Scribes*MICRO*Fiction. She lives in Georgia.





Thursday, February 22, 2024

“Getting Sponsored” • by Eric Fomley


Misha’s chest was tight when she walked into the tattoo parlor. 

The walls of the parlor were covered in holotat portraits, shining holo projections that displayed four-dimensional artistic scenes. Others were sponsorships from companies, big corpos that paid advertising fees in exchange for body parts to have their ads tatted on, as if the human body was a piece of land or real estate.

Misha knew she was in the right place, even if it was the last place she wanted to be.

The tattooist sat by an empty chair. He had dark, beady eyes that measured Misha head to toe, analyzing her as if her body was a canvas.

“What can I do for you?” The tattooist asked.

“I’m here to get sponsored,” she said.

His gaze seemed to get firmer, as if her response confirmed what he expected, but not necessarily the kind of tattoo he wanted to give. No one liked sponsorships. Misha would have done something else if there was another option for her, but the landlord was raising rent. She needed cash fast, and there wasn’t another way. She was already pushing a hundred hours a week at work, renting her unconscious body at night to do night shifts, and not to mention the contracts she owed on. The next step was to start putting her toddlers into debt, promising their future services to companies, selling time that wasn’t even hers. That was the option she wanted to avoid, at any cost.

The tattooist looked at Misha’s arms and legs, the only parts of her that were exposed. “It looks like you might already know what sponsorship entails. It’s a serious commitment. Whatever part you give to a company, it’s contractual. They ‘own’ you for the duration of the contract. Usually something like fifty years, maybe more.”

“I understand the consequences. I wouldn’t be here if I had another choice.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “What do you still have available to contract out and I’ll see what sponsorships I can get for you.”

Her guts twisted. “I want you to tattoo my face.”

His mouth dropped slightly open. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I’m sure you know that holotats to the face are illegal to give. Not to mention that the holotats are live images—they swirl and move. The projected image would block your entire face. You’d lose your identity. No one else would be able to see you. You’d be just a walking, talking billboard.”

“I know what I’m asking you to do,” Misha said. “But I need this in a bad way. Please.”

“Isn’t there somewhere else we could put this?” he asked.

“I don’t have anywhere else. I’ve sold it all.”

Misha’s arms and legs were covered in athletic brands, holos that swirled and showed images of athletes playing sports or different gear depending on the season. Her neck down to her chest was covered in lingerie and women’s fashion ads. Her stomach broadcasted pregnancy brands and contraceptives. On her back were labor tattoos from various factories that were hiring. Every portion of her body was sponsored by a company.

Corpos divided body parts based on how frequently they were exposed for someone else to see and gave it a price. Her face was all that was left to her, the most exposed. The most valuable place. Sure, she’d lose her dignity, but the money she made from that? She’d be set for a long time. The possibility for her kids to have an opportunity to start life without being owned by a company.

“You have nothing else? Nowhere? Not even a small space?”

She shook her head.

“It’s a huge risk for me,” he said. “I’ve never known someone to be arrested for having a face sponsorship, but parlors have been closed for less. I can’t lose my job. I have kids, a wife, and my parents’ contracts all counting on me. And once you sign a sponsorship contract, there’s no going back. Just a corpo logo blocking your face for the rest of your life.”

“I know,” Misha said. “It’s not like they’re giving me much of a choice. The landlord is upping rent, and I can’t make ends meet for my children. I’m working a hundred hours, renting out my body at night, and my landlord works just as hard as I do. To the corpo, we’re just property. But what future are we leaving for those who come after us? I don’t want to start contracts for my kids. I don’t want the world to own them. Not like this.” She waved a hand over her chest. “There isn’t a part of me that belongs to me. I don’t want that for them. Please. Help me. I won’t give you up if the police ask.”

The tattooist chewed on his lip. Misha knew she was asking him to risk his own livelihood on her word. She wondered for a moment what she would say if roles were reversed. She didn’t like where that led her.

“Not a word. To anyone. Ever.”

Misha whistled out a breath she didn’t realize she’d held. “Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me. To my family.”

“Don’t mention it. Please. I understand what it’s like to have kids. How hard it can be. But after I do this, you don’t know me. Clear?”

“I won’t say a thing,” Misha promised.

“Then let’s begin.”

He stood and gestured to the chair next to him.

Misha walked over and sat.

 


 


E
ric Fomley's stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge Magazine, and many other places including, of course, here on Stupefying Stories, where he’s been a fairly regular contributor since 2021. (We’re particularly fond of “End Program.”) You can find more of his stories on his website, ericfomley.com, or in his Portals or Flash Futures collections. 

You might also want to check out our mini-interview with him, “Six Questions for...”, which ran last August.


Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Never-ending FAQ • Manuscript Formatting 101

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Never-ending FAQ, an evolving adjunct to our Submission Guidelines. If you have a question you’d like to ask about Stupefying Stories or Rampant Loon Press, feel free to post it as a comment here or to email it to our submissions address. I can’t guarantee we’ll post a public answer, but can promise that every question we receive will be read and considered.

Today’s question has come in from so many different people and in so many slightly different variations that I don’t have space to list them all here. In fact, I don’t even have the space to post the full answer here, so I’ve consolidated all the questions and answers into a file you can read online or download to peruse at your leisure.

The basic question is:

“Do you have any specific formatting requirements for submissions?”

The high-level answer is that at this time we do not have any specific requirements we adhere to with merciless dogmatism. However, we do have some Guidelines and Best Practices that, if followed, will help your story rise above the common mass of slush pile submissions, here or anywhere else. You can read them here:

Manuscript Formatting 101 (PDF)

If you’re looking for an example of these best practices in action, you’ll find it here.

Manuscript Formatting Example (PDF)

If you want to download the example and play with it, you can do that, too. (We think. This is a first for us. It hasn’t been thoroughly tested.)

Manuscript Formatting Example (.docx file)

 Once again, thanks for asking. Any more questions?

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories

 




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Monday, February 19, 2024

“Arrivals at Hope Station Have Been Indefinitely Postponed” • by Warren Benedetto


Attention, Travelers. 

Due to circumstances entirely within our control—but beyond our collective will to change—all arrivals at Hope Station have been indefinitely postponed, and the Station is now closed. Travelers entering the Station should abandon Hope and proceed to the exits immediately.

Travelers currently en route to Hope Station will be diverted to alternate dimensions, with stops at Disappointment, Disillusionment, Depression, and Despair. Travelers may disembark at any of these dimensional gateways, where Administration officials will provide you with long- term accommodations. If you have already passed through all these dimensions, please alert the Administration—you may be eligible for a free transfer to Dissociation, which is lovely this time of year.

While all arrivals are cancelled, departures from Hope Station will continue as scheduled. Residents departing Hope from surrounding neighborhoods, including Truth and Reality, should pack enough essential items for at least four years. Be sure to leave ample room for student loan debt, generational trauma, or anything else you are unable to leave behind. Transportation of optimism of any kind is strictly prohibited.

Once packed, proceed immediately to Hope Station, descend the moving stairs to Departures, and board the blue transport with the elderly gentleman in the pilot’s seat. Be sure to fasten your seat belts, as forecasts call for severe turbulence en route to your destination. Upon departure, Travelers leaving Hope may experience nausea, uncontrollable sobbing, and impotent rage. If you feel ill, thoughts and prayers are available at no extra charge.

All aboard!

Next stop, Fascism.

 


 

Warren Benedetto writes dark fiction about horrible people, horrible places, and horrible things. He is an award-winning author who has published over 200 stories, appearing in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, and Chilling Tales For Dark Nights; and in anthologies from Apex Magazine, Tenebrous Press, Scare Street, and many more. He also works in the video game industry, where he holds 40+ patents for various types of gaming technology. For more information, visit warrenbenedetto.com and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter and Instagram.

 


Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Week in Review • 18 February 2024

We’re introducing something new this week: The Week in Review, for those too busy to follow Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE on a daily basis. 

Except that since this is the first time we’re doing it, we’re going to cover the last two weeks, just to make sure you haven’t missed anything important lately.

“A Blaster Called Sam” • by Matt Bliss

This one has it all: time travel, aliens, world domination, and deadly weapons given as birthday gifts to 10-year-old boys... How can you possibly resist?

Published: 5 February 2024

“The First Seed on Mars” • by Logan Thrasher Collins

Space colonization, terraforming, feeding starving people as an act of revolutionary defiance… This author is going to be someone to watch.

Published: 6 February 2024

The Never-ending FAQ: re simul subs

Because it seems our submission guidelines are not sufficient.

Published: 7 February 2024


“Chapter 7” • by Andrew Jensen

When the Golden Sandworm announced it was going out of business, the fans were outraged and gathered on the sidewalk out front to protest. Watch out for the clod with the bat’leth.

Published: 8 February 2024

“The Fine Art of Spellweaving” • by Catherine Tavares

When someone asks, “Did you follow every step in the instructions?” saying “Well, mostly,” is not the right answer.

Published: 9 February 2024

“A Sweet Attraction” • by Robin Blasberg

He thought the treats in her confectionery shop were to die for. So when she invited him to come visit her at home…

Published: 10 February 2024

 

“Cathy’s Ghost” • by Adele Gardner

We decided to kick off Romance Week with a little Wuthering Heights for you. It could have been a much shorter book.

Published: 12 February 2024

 

“Equally Long and Differently Wide” • by Susan Cornford

And then to follow-up, we went with a very sweet and romantic little tale. 

Published: 13 February 2024

The Never-ending FAQ: after an acceptance, your next submission

Fighting the urge to run another romantic story on Valentine’s day, we decided to stick with expanding the FAQ. The Never-ending FAQ will continue to run on Wednesdays, until such time as readers run out of questions, which doesn’t seem likely any time soon.  Published: 14 February 2024
 

“Bride of Moon-Eye” • by Garick Cooke

A different sort of love story. Very different.

Published: 15 February 2024


“The Captain’s Mistake” • by Kai Holmwood

Arr, here be a tale of love, lust, loss, and piracy on the high seas! Keep a sharp lookout, mateys! There be sirens in these waters!

Published: 16 February 2024

“The Fate of Time Travelers” • by Jeff Currier

Wrapping up Romance Week, Jeff delivers another of his very short and very clever little tales. 

Published: 17 February 2024

 


P.S. And buy our books, eh?




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