Monday, July 22, 2024

“Take a Chance on Me” • by Rick Danforth


The free drink from the Space Station casino didn’t cheer Archie up. 

It was only fair, you couldn’t ask a man who’d just lost his house to buy his own drink. Not while sat on velvet barstools basking in the soft glow of candle chandeliers.

The bartender coughed. “That one’s gratis, but anymore you’re buying.”

Archie sighed, apparently you could ask. Although they could ask all they wanted, he didn’t have anything left other than the suit he wore. And the sign read, ‘No shirt, No shoes, No service’.

He did his best to savour the free beer, while regretting not ordering a top-shelf whisky instead.

§

After he finished it, and avoided the waiter eying for a tip, he made his way back to the cabin.

Karas was a metal city floating in the middle of the galaxy’s main throughways. Her restaurants employed celebrity chefs and her casinos boasted the biggest pay-outs. She was a beacon for pleasure-seekers, thrill-seekers and high society all under one titanium roof.

Archie fell under none of those descriptions. He had merely followed his angelic wife to her big break, then celebrated by losing the house on a sure thing. A sure thing.

Now he had to walk along the sleek, metal bulkheads to explain to his wife what he had done. On the way he passed happy, normal people who would never understand what drove Archie to such lows.

Jenny was relaxing in the cabin, as relaxed as anyone could be in five-inch heels and a cocktail dress with glittering scales like a scarlet fish. “Did you hear the news?”

“About the asteroid?” asked Archie hopefully.

“No-one cares about that.” Jenny waved a hand like near-miss asteroids were old hat. “Some moron bet £200k on Celtic to win at two goals up with five minutes left. Ended up drawing.”

“They must be devastated.”

“What kind of idiot bets away their life on that?”

Archie couldn't tell her. He couldn’t explain the primal rush as a bet came in. He’d sell his left foot to get another hit even now.

“I’m going for drinks at the casino before I sing. Fancy joining?”

“Never liked casinos.”

“I've never seen you near one.”

“And you never will,” said Archie. Anything to stop her from seeing his awful degeneracy. 

“Alright, I’d hate to make you uncomfortable.” Jenny leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Are you coming to my set?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Archie smiled at old memories and ones to be made. Jenny sang as sweetly as a nightingale. Her siren song had drawn him to her all those years ago.

“I’ll see you later.”

Jenny left Archie in their room, her room really. His small suitcase sat in the corner, but the room was filled with her. Little velvet pillows, satin dresses, trinkets on the metal dresser and a case of costume jewellery.

Jenny dressed ostentatiously for the stage, said it was what people expected. Her collection consisted of authentic high-quality fakes produced on Mars.

Aside from the necklace, which cradled an emerald the size of a goose egg. Jenny’s grandmother had left it to her, and she only wore it for the grand finale on the last day of her bookings.

Which meant she didn’t need it for a week. She wouldn’t even notice its absence. Archie stared at the green stone reflecting the pale electric light.

He only needed it for an hour to win the house back. He didn’t want Jenny to be homeless when they returned to Earth. Hell, if it went well, he could treat her to lobster, caviar and Martian champagne until they left.

§

Normally, Archie ignored flashy games like poker and roulette. He preferred sports, where he could read up on the teams and place informed, intelligent bets.

But if he waited too long, their former house would be sold on. So, he traded the necklace for half its value at the casino pawn shop, then sat down on the poker table to lose a chain-link’s worth on the first hand.

It didn’t matter, he told himself. Just a bigger high when he won.

But one bad hand turned into three, and three into ten, until finally, he was all-in with a pair of queens and an unforgiving bluff.

It had taken just thirty minutes to lose an irreplaceable necklace.

This time when the waiter asked, Archie requested the priciest whisky they had. The peaty burn was both the best, and the worst, drink of Archie’s life.

Afterwards, he went straight to bed. He didn’t want to see Jenny, and he had no money for anything else. So, he sat under the covers and sobbed.

The alarm sounded before Archie fell asleep. The entire cabin flashed red, and the speakers screamed, “Abandon ship, hull breach.”

Archie staggered through now-crowded corridors, ignoring the people screaming about asteroids, going to his designated pod. As he ran, he screamed Jenny’s name, again and again.

She appeared as if from a mist. Their arms threaded around each other in a hug as comforting as a warm cup of tea. Despite the issues, Archie sagged in relief. She was here, they could go, and best of all, it could cover up the necklace.

The pods filled quickly, the lines unexpectedly civilized. Archie grabbed her hand to start queuing, but Jenny didn’t budge. “My necklace. I can’t leave it, but it’s too risky.”

“I’ll get it,” said Archie without hesitation.

“You can't bet on a million-to-one chance,” said Jenny.

Archie pushed her towards the escape pods and set off the other way, unable to help himself. He called over his shoulder, “Take a chance on me,” but his mind was more on the odds than her.

As he shoved through confused passengers flowing towards the pods, he noted it was a true win-win. Either his luck turned, and he found the necklace in the casino strong room. Or he died and she’d never know his true self.



Rick Danforth resides in Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. He’s had several short stories published in a variety of venues, including Hexagon and Translunar Traveler's Lounge. His story “Seller’s Remorse” was shortlisted for the 2022 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Short Fiction. His most recent appearances in Stupefying Stories have been “Patient Diplomacy,” “Thanks for the Memory,” and “Purest Distilled Spirit.”

 

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Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 45: “Love and Mushrooms” • by Kimberly Ann Smiley

Mazaa perched on a worn stool in Weber’s Place, nursing a beer she didn’t really want.

Hanging out at the only bar in town got old, but her empty apartment held even less appeal after a long transport run to Odin II. And there weren’t many options for socializing in the mining town of Odin North.

This wasn’t the life she’d envisioned when she enrolled in pilot training. This gig paid her student loans and then some, but flying the same loops at the back-end of the galaxy wasn’t her dream job. Definitely not.

She’d had some doubts about her life choices before the crash on Odin II [~ed: Episode 20], but now? Well, there was nothing like waking up in a hospital with a million tubes connected to your body to make you rethink everything.

The interplanetary pilot’s life sounded so glamorous, but nobody warned her about how lonely it could be.

With a sigh, she motioned for a second beer.

Mazaa paused mid-sip, catching a glimpse through the window of Dr. Peyton Putnam walking with her night razor on a leash. A young boy, probably one of her patients at the Odin Pediatric Clinic, ran up to her holding a teddy bear. They spoke as Peyton studied the bear. After a moment, she pulled a bandage from her pocket and stuck it on a paw.

The boy grinned, and Peyton flashed a smile that could power a freighter for months.

How was a woman like that single?

They’d never spoken, but Mazaa had been interested since the first time she saw her.

Mazaa glanced down at her scarred hands and rumpled flight suit. She sighed again. Peyton was definitely out of her league. No way was Mazaa going to make a fool of herself asking her out.

Throwing a couple of bills onto the counter next to her half-full mug, she stood up. She had an early morning run to Odin IV, and it was getting late.

§

Mazaa was up early the next morning, inspecting her assigned ship in Transport Hanger Delta. She was halfway through the preflight check list when she caught the scent of smoke.

Voices echoed out from the long-term storage bay.

“Fire! Fire!”

“Evacuate!”

A shrill alarm blared.

She turned and sprinted toward the nearest exit, but couldn’t outrun the thick wall of smoke billowing through the transport hanger.

Choking on acrid fumes and eyes burning, Mazaa raced forward blindly.

Pain flashed through her skull, and then darkness.

§

When she opened her eyes again, she was staring straight up at a bright light. Thoughts slowly started to congeal in her mind.

Shouting. Smoke. Pain.

Her hand went to her forehead. She groaned.

Turning her head took monumental effort. She was lying flat on her back on the table in an examination room. At least she wasn’t in a hospital bed this time.

Paper crinkled as she shifted. Moving made the world ripple. A web of light spread out around her in waves. Visions flicked in front of her eyes.

How hard had she hit her head?

Panicking, Mazaa wiggled her toes and fingers. Limbs seemed to be in working order, but a parade of ghostly images continued to shimmer around her. It reminded her of the time she tried mine mushrooms, but these hallucinations looked more real and lasted longer.

Cold sweat beaded on her neck. She was hurt and alone. Again.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a door creaking open.

Peyton Putnam entered the room. Her hair was a mess and her smile forced. Odd beams of light came from her too. Her body looked solid, but it wasn’t clear if she was real.

“Hi. I’m Dr. Putnam. I’m here to check on you. Glad to see you’re awake.”

None of the other images had spoken. So probably real.

“But you’re a pediatrician,” Mazaa rasped.

“Yes, but I’ve worked in an emergency room previously. There were multiple injuries during the fire. All available medical personnel were asked to help.”

Suddenly, Mazaa saw a flash of a younger Dr. Putnam working in an unfamiliar clinic. Was this the past?

A wave of images rolled over Mazaa, all younger versions of Dr. Putnam. Usually working or studying. Often alone. And sad in so many of them.

Before she could stop himself, Mazaa blurted out, “Are you still lonely?”

Dr. Putnam looked surprised, but quickly composed herself. “Let’s focus on you. Does anything hurt other than your head?” She pulled out a medical scanner and directed it towards Mazaa. “The EMTs pulled you out first. They reported that you didn’t have any visible burns, but it looks like you inhaled smoke.”

“Sorry. It’s just…” Mazaa wasn’t sure if she should try to explain about the vision of the other woman’s past. Or possible lives? It was all confusing.

“No problem. Not the weirdest conversation I’ve had today. Are you experiencing hallucinations?” Dr. Putnam flashed a light into Mazaa’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“Boxes of koblyx mushrooms were in the storage room that burned in the fire. The constable thinks it was smugglers. Bottom line, the smoke you inhaled contained trace amounts of the mushrooms. Have you heard of them?”

Mazaa nodded.

“I’ve read they can be very disorientating. We know more about ingesting them as opposed to inhaling, but there shouldn’t be any long-term effects. But you may have a few interesting days until everything is out of your system.”

Mazaa tried to pay attention to her words, but the images were whirling even faster. It was distracting.

She shook her head to clear it.

Dr. Putnam looked at her intently. “Are you feeling okay? You hit your head pretty hard.”

“It’s not too bad.”

With a concerned look on her face, Dr. Putnam reached out to examine Mazaa’s head. The movement caused the web of light around Mazaa to merge with the beams coming from the doctor.

New visions formed, even more vivid and almost solid.

Mazaa’s mouth dropped open.

“Are you dizzy?” Dr. Putnam pulled out the medial scanner again.

Mazaa didn’t respond, too absorbed in what she was seeing.

The scenes shifted quickly, but there were some images that appeared over and over again: The two of them curled up on an unfamiliar couch. A white dress. Tiny chubby feet waving in the air.

Did this mean there was a chance? Maybe Dr. Putnam could be interested?

Before she could talk herself out of it, Mazaa blurted out, “Do you want to get dinner?”

“I promise I’m almost done. I’ll make sure we get you something to eat soon.”

“No. Would you like to have dinner with me? On a date?”

Dr. Putnam paused and her eyes locked onto Mazaa’s. They stared at one another for several heartbeats before she turned on her megawatt smile. “For the moment, you’re my patient, and you’ve had a hell of a day. How about you ask me again in a month or two if you still want to.”

That wasn’t a no! “Okay, I can do that.”

“Some things are worth doing the right way, don’t you think?”

 “I do, let’s do it right.” And then, just because Mazaa liked the sound of the words, she repeated, “I do.”





New to Odin III? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Check out The Complete Episode Guide

Coming Tuesday: Episode 46, “Token of Affection,” by Gustavo Bondoni





Kimberly Ann Smiley was born and raised in California but now lives in Mississippi after an unexpected plot twist. She has several pieces of paper that claim she is a mechanical engineer and none that mention writing, but has decided not to let the practical decisions made in her youth define the rest of her life. Her stories have appeared both here on Stupefying Stories and in Daily Science Fiction and Sci-Fi Shorts.

Learn more at https://kasmiley.wordpress.com/




Friday, July 19, 2024

“Spacefront Property” • by Galen T. Pickett


The agent turned off the engine of the ostentatiously expensive vehicle. 

After checking a few dials, they broke the seals and exited. Gently rolling hills of golden summer grasses dotted with scrub oak and coyote bush greeted the visitors. The air was as clean and fresh as only the deep interior of this unspoiled Southern California grassland brush could make. Had they olfactory receptors, they would have detected the faint scent of sage and wildflowers. The sky was a deeply scrubbed blue. A light breeze sent waves rushing through the tall grass, making arcing patterns that chased each other across one hilltop, and down another. Clouds were sailing low in the sky, following the breeze. They were in full sunlight, but as they stretched their legs, and looked about, a line of cloud-shadow marched up and overtook them. This wasn’t darkness like they were used to; there was too much light coming from the rest of the sky and being reflected from the nearby hills.

“And, everyone lives like this, just open to space?” the tall woman asked.

“The atmosphere is gravitationally bound, so the inhabitants have no need for pressure suits, no domes, and we are well out of the cosmic ray red zone. There is a self-organized dynamo running in the iron core, so there is a magnetic field adequate to protect us from that,” the agent gestured to the dark cloud with a bright, shining silver lining temporarily obscuring the sun. “Of the seven hundred or so self-knowing species on the planet, only a couple of dozen are on the way to creating a true Hive. None of those is all that sophisticated, but one of the singleton species has achieved limited spaceflight. They have a tendency to clump their dwellings, but are content to mostly occupy the dry surface, in a single layer. But they are far from recreating a Hive.”

“Incredible! They just use the surface? No proper structures in the interior?” The agent indicated not. “And these things above us?”

“Can you believe it? Hydrogen-hydroxide crystals. They are literally everywhere on this ball. Right at this very spot, liquid drops spontaneously fall from the sky. See the organisms here?” he asked as he waved an arm toward the fields, “They extract energy from the local star, and store it, like your fuel cells, using the atmosphere and the liquid material. Extraordinary, but I guess if you have this much material lying about, life will figure out some way to use it.”

“And the inhabitants have no idea of the value of this? The wealth just ‘falling from the sky’?”

“Apparently not. You might have noticed on the way in… those large reflective areas? They have deposits of liquid material covering about three-quarters of this place. It is in the air, it is in the soil, the inhabitants are largely composed of it. If you can believe it.”

“Seriously? Walking sacks of wealth?”

“Arranged around a metallic core, but yes, essentially.”

A low whistle.

“Who else knows about this?” she asked reaching for her data-possessor, tapping a message, another hand absently brushing the eggs ripening across her torso.

“Not many. Remember, our main selling point is our advanced network of probes. We don’t operate in the usual places, and we don’t really advertise our successes… a tidy commission on our part, a position of unassailable wealth for you and your organization. But, this won’t stay secret long.”

She reached down and grasped a stalk of grass, and with alarm motioned the agent toward the bright red beetle that had alighted upon her. “Is this an inhabitant? Someone we can negotiate with?” she asked with interest. The jointed legs and carapace were ungainly, but not any more alien than she had come to expect. There was a lot of variation out there, everywhere there was life. “It is hard to believe this carries such wealth.”

“No, this one doesn’t process enough to be able to speak for the planet. Just one of the riders. Looks conventional enough, but there’s a day’s worth of material in there.”

Nodding, she inserted the ladybug into a compressor, and nodded slowly as she chewed. “Interesting flavor. I understand we are going to have no problems with the Court?”

“Precedent is pretty clear, here. About a half-dozen times in the dominant species’ history someone has come up with the correct formula, ‘the strong must protect the weak,’ and ‘the first shall be last,’ and ‘all you need is love’. But these seem to have been just slogans they seem to use while they defraud each other. And, they will do it for piles of common metals and ground-state crystals. I have zero doubts on this point. They are not proper Hive-bound, for sure, but they do believe in concentration of authority. There are just a few principals we need deal with. We have a pretty good idea of the price the locals will agree to. And, with the ‘reap what has been sown’ rule, they are just going to have to accept your presence here. If they can even reach the Court, you will not have any trouble enforcing those contracts.”

Flexing her thoracic stabilizers in thought, the Queen eventually tapped her data-possessor. “Payment has been deposited. Please record the claim. This, I assume, locks in our exclusive rights as far as our competition is concerned?” 

The agent nodded. 

“Then as soon as you have negotiated and concluded those contracts, you can leave my planet,” she said, as she began burrowing into the grassy hillside.

 


 


Galen T. Pickett has been a member of the physics faculty at Cal State Long Beach since 1999. He lives in the greater LA area with his spouse, four grown children, and several canines. His writing is inspired by the grandeur of the physical world and the absurdity of the academic world, in nearly equal measure.

 


Thursday, July 18, 2024

“Without My Flaws” • by Devan Barlow

It’s funny—I think the creature looks more like me than she used to.

No. It isn’t funny…

I don’t remember when that started. Maybe she always looked this much like me?

She’s me, but better. A reflection without my flaws. As long as I don’t let my guard down, don’t let anyone know that I’m hiding, no one will realize she isn’t me.

Even her voice is better, like mine but brighter, brilliant enough to drive away even the slightest concern. When she takes over, people believe me when I say that I’m fine.

I am fine.

I suddenly realize it’s the first Friday of the month, when my friends normally meet for dinner. I’m actually not working tonight. I could go.

The creature glances at me, like she knows what I’m thinking.

She’s right. I don’t want to be surrounded by people celebrating the end of the work week when I’m about to be at the store all weekend. And I would just have to tell the same lie again and hope my friends don’t recognize it.

Oh you know me, still applying, crossing my fingers…

Never mind I haven’t submitted an application in over a month, much less heard back from any of the jobs from the last time I felt brave enough to deal with forms.

“Just stay here,” the creature soothes. “Besides, remember last time?”

§

Three months ago, I’d had the night off and joined them.

It was almost fun, until I got a call from the store. Asking (demanding) that I come in four hours early the next day. And I heard my own faltering “sure,” because what else was I supposed to say? I wanted to cry.

And then I was crying, and trying to hide it, but the look Bridget and Reiko gave each other told me I failed. I ran out to my car and drove home, ignoring their protests that I should stay.

Back at my apartment I found the creature in my kitchen. She looked less like me then, more a large collection of three-dimensional gray lines, surging and spiraling around one another but occasionally falling into a humanoid shape.

The shape rotated toward me, lines brightening, and then the creature had a face. For a brief, searing moment, I thought I was looking into a mirror.

The creature was, somehow, me, and she promised to keep me safe if I let her stay.

After that, whenever I went out, she came with me. She was me, except so much better.

§

My phone makes a noise, and I know she would tell me not to look, that it will only make me feel more stressed. But the sound continues, gnawing at me, and then something sparks in my fingers and I’m picking up the phone.

It’s from Bridget. Why don’t we do something next week. Coffee? I’m worried about you.

I put the phone down and look at the creature. She commiserates with my face.

“Do they think I can’t take care of myself?” I ask.

“Well you can’t,” she says briskly, “but that’s what I’m here for.”

I go and lie down. I’m exhausted, and sore, though I can’t fall asleep.

I don’t know what I would do without the creature.

Bridget can’t really want to talk to me. They’ve all been looking for a way to cut me out of our group for a long time. Might as well make it easy for them.

Except…

Why would Bridget reach out, if she didn’t care?

§

I’m finally asleep, after closing the night before and opening this morning, when my phone buzzes again.

Reiko. We’re here!

I look questioningly at the creature as she comes in.

Today she looks… stronger. Like her outlines are more defined against the backdrop of my room than ever. Her movements are sharper, more confident.

She plucks the phone from my fingers. “Now,” she says, “I’ve got everything I need.”

“You… made plans?” She’s never left without me before, without the two of us pretending to be one.

She slides the phone into the front pocket of my favorite blue corduroys. They look better on her than they ever have on me. I wouldn’t have thought to pair them with that blouse.

The pose she strikes would look casual if her eyes weren’t so cruel.

She leaves, and locks the door behind her. By the time I get to the window overlooking the parking lot, she has reached my friends where they wait outside of Reiko’s car. They smile at her.


 


Devan Barlow is the author of the Curses & Curtains series of fairy-tales-meet-musicals fantasy novels. Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in several anthologies and magazines.

She can be found at her website, devanbarlow.com, or on Bluesky @devanbarlow.bsky.social. She reads voraciously, and can often be found hanging out with her dog, drinking tea, and thinking about sea monsters. 



Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 44: “Details” • by Pete Wood


Rauno sat under the shade of a massive boulder and took a long sip of water. 

Something scurried near him. He didn’t begrudge sharing the shade with some creature so far from Earth, but he didn’t want to think about it too hard.

His wrist com beeped.

“Get moving!” Santos barked over the comms. “You don’t get a break for forty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As he hefted the bulky ore-detector, he wondered how his ex-wife, Kate, was spending the money from the payroll robbery. She’d left him to be arrested on Odin III, a mining planet in the armpit of the galaxy. She’d escaped with the money on the evening FTL transport last year.

[~ed: as described in Episode 10]

Galactic Mining had agreed not to press charges if he signed a ten-year contract. They put him up in a barracks and fed him, and in return, he combed the barren desert for ore pockets.

Galactic always wanted new shafts, but wouldn’t risk a bot on a shit detail. Sand might clog the circuitry or the sun might fry the wiring. Parts from Earth were expensive. Galactic could always replace people.

Trudging through the sun was murder, but it sure beat sandstorms. At least he could see where he was going, and the night razors couldn’t sneak up on him. One of the predators had mauled some poor tech weeks ago.

Galactic had no fear Rauno might run. Where would he go? He had no money. He couldn’t exactly hop a transport—not without Galactic’s okay.

A piercing pain stabbed his head and vanished. God, did that damned machine he lugged around shoot out radiation? Fantastic.

The detector bleeped. A flickering green light.

He came to the crest of a hill. The detector screamed like a banshee.

He saw a mine entrance. Galactic Mining had driven him a hundred miles from the main mine into a supposed undeveloped wasteland, and turns out the company already had a mine out here?

Son of a bitch.

He was taking his damned break. He downed his water. His stomach cramped up. He sure didn’t feel like unwrapping the corned beef sandwich in his pack. He staggered to the mine to grab some shade.

A Galactic guard in mirrored sunglasses leaned back on a director’s chair under a corrugated metal awning. “Who the hell are you?”

“Detection patrol,” Rauno panted.

“We already have a mine out here,” the guard snorted. “First day on the job?”

“Galactic sent me.” Rauno stepped towards the shade. His head swam. The guard held up his hand.

Rauno stopped. “Please, I just need some water.”

The guard picked up his radio. He squinted at Rauno’s sweat-stained shirt with the stenciled ID number. “Apprentice A3562 is here.” The guard listened for a few seconds and turned off the radio. “That number’s accounted for. “

“All I know is that I need water and I’ve been in the sun all day.”

“Okay.” The guard stepped into the mine and returned a moment later with a metal quart-sized flask. He handed it to Rauno.

Rauno took a long sip of cool water. “Call Santos.”

The guard squinted. “Who?”

§

Galactic guards brought up the apprentice with Rauno’s serial number, who emerged stumbling out into the sun.

Rauno stared.

This was the last person on Odin III he had expected to see today. Or ever again.

Kate.

“How in God’s name did you get here?” he asked, fighting the urge to yell at her. “You were off-world.” Kate would have figured out a destination that did not have any sort of relationship with Galactic.

She stared at him. “I might ask you the same question.”

“You left me to the cops and the night razors,” he snapped. “You took the money—”

Me? You abandoned me, you damned son of a bitch. I’ve got nine years left on this hellhole.”

“You made it to Rigel,” he said in a slow and measured tone. “I saw your video message in the Galactic Communications Office.”

“Stop your goddamned lies,” Kate hissed. “You sent me a goddamned message from Rigel.”

Nothing made any sense. Kate had escaped. His lawyer had told him over and over that his indenture could be knocked down to less than five years if he’d tell Galactic where Kate had gone. He would have ratted her out in a heartbeat if he’d just known where to find her after Rigel. Hell, she’d probably changed her name or her damned DNA.

Rauno heard the chopping of a helicopter. A minute later it landed. A severe-looking woman emerged, wearing a blue blazer and the golden Galactic lapel pin that signified upper management—right below the Board of Directors. Upper management would never go out in the field. They’d send some lackey.

The suit pointed a finger at the guard. “Get the apprentice back into the mines.”

The guard looked confused.

“Put our apprentice back in the mines.” The suit pulled a pulsating cylinder from her suit coat. She waved it over Rauno’s arm. It turned purple. “Idiots. Damned idiots.” She turned to Rauno. “You. Start marching west.”

“What’s going on?” Rauno asked.

“You don’t get to ask questions.”

They gave Rauno a couple of bottles of water. He left the mine that shouldn’t have been there and the apprentice who, by all logic dictated, should not have been on Odin III.

Twenty minutes later, he felt the stabbing pain again. Then his wrist comm buzzed.

Santos seemed relieved as she told him to wait.

The helicopter returned bearing the same severe-looking woman in the blue blazer with the upper management lapel pin. The suit did not recognize Rauno.

§

Rauno took a sip of beer at Weber’s Place—the best bar on Odin III. The bartender gave apprentices free drinks sometimes. The townspeople knew he had tried to rob Galactic and looked at him as some kind of Robin Hood. Nobody lost any sleep over Galactic losing money.

He had time to drink. Galactic had given him a week off. They’d poked and prodded and subjected him to every kind of medical test, but at least he wasn’t out in the sun.

“You know, you might have seen her,” Ingrid said, with the sympathy of all bartenders since men had dwelt in caves. He had been telling her his story.

“Maybe, but Kate wouldn’t have allowed herself to be captured.”

Ingrid placed another beer in front of Rauno. “You might have slipped.”

A grizzled retired miner, Daraja, had been listening. “You slipped. There’s no mine out in that area.”

Rauno sipped his beer. “How do you know?”

I know.” The miner took another sip of beer. “And no suit would ever go to a site. You slipped. You went into another timeline.” He frowned. “Funny thing, though, there hasn’t been a storm in weeks.” Daraja raised his glass in a toasting gesture. “To Odin III.”

So, there was a timeline where he had screwed Kate over. Where he had gotten away with the money.

He didn’t feel as angry with his ex-wife anymore. The two of them had played a game. He’d lost, but could as easily have won.

If he ever saw the other Kate again, he’d tell her that.




 

New to Odin III? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Check out The Complete Episode Guide

Coming Saturday: Episode 45, “Love and Mushrooms,” by Kimberly Ann Smiley






Photo by Lee Baker
Pete Wood is an attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to becoming a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

For the past few years Pete has been in the process of evolving into a fiction editor, God help him, first with The Pete Wood Challenge, then with Dawn of Time, then with The Odin Chronicles. Along the way he’s introduced us to the creative work of Roxana Arama, Gustavo Bondoni, Carol Scheina, Patricia Miller, Kimberly Ann Smiley, Kai Holmwood, Brandon Case, Jason Burnham, and many, many more. We suspect Pete’s real love is theater, though, as evidenced by his short movie, Quantum Doughnut — which you can stream, if you follow the foregoing link.

Pete Wood photo by Lee Baker.


Monday, July 15, 2024

“Take Aim” • by Eric Farrell


The contract for signing over memory rights is surprisingly simple.

Signed, one poor bastard needing money, and quick.

Co-signed, some leech rich enough to buy another person’s history.

The transaction is nearly complete at this point. But the funds always take a while to go through.

In the meantime, the memory is held in escrow.

Enter an indentured sap like me, a warm body and loamy mind to house the memory. Penance served for a crime I can’t even remember.

The neural transmission gets administered in a doctor’s office. The cool rush of gel, the transmitter pads, the tangle of cables, the pulsing of veins. I have no way of knowing how much money each transaction costs, but the company sure seems to get plenty of business.

The latest soothing reverie drifts in. The transfer was successful, and from here I get to keep it until the money clears.  

What hits me first is the smell of rotting fish. The way memory transfer works, you’re effectively selling the hard copy of the original memory. It flows out from the seller’s mind into mine. In a split second, the scene itself blinks into view, like a Polaroid developing behind my very eyes. From this new POV, I’m on a family vacation in the lush tropics of Maui. I’m in these shoes, standing beside my apparent brother, pelting rocks at this old beaten-down car that some Lahaina local left in his front yard. The seller’s dad—my dad, since it’s in my head—is grinning a few steps away, shooting the shit with the old timer who’s left rotten fish on the shattered dash of his beater.

“Seems like this was a really great time of your life,” I say, turning to the now-grown man, as I relish what he’s giving up.

The company doesn’t encourage this kind of small talk. Especially in this first transfer. The seller is rather morose, laconic. Prefaced by a drawn-out sigh, he cracks a sad smile, and responds with all he has left:

“I’m sure it was amazing.”

Once I’m able to recite the scene back in detail to the holding company, I’m free to go.

Personally, I hope I don’t see the seller here again.

§

I think about the memory all the way back to my small Boston flat. When I hop in the shower to wash the scum of the day away, I delight in the steam, which replicates that sweet dewy air of my temporary Hawaii reverie.

I’m in a bit of a rush to shave, find an outfit, call a car and get to this first date I’ve arranged online. Savoring this sweet memory helps distract me from the terrible pang of anxiety that’s stricken me. I don’t remember when I last went on a first date. It seems it’s really been that long.

The car drops me off at a garish seafood restaurant, an overpriced cash-grab for king crab and faux indulgence that I picked based on local reviews.

For all the talk of memories and forgetfulness, my date certainly is anything but forgettable. By the time the first drinks arrive, we’ve already established all the basics and felt the pleasant glee of newfound interest. Her hand is on the table by her glass of house white wine, my fingers inches from hers. I go in for an ice breaker.

“So, have you had any fun vacations lately?”

Yes, she replies, detailing a recent excursion through the Caribbean. 

“What about you?” she asks, between sips.

At this, I see through her, as if she’s just a ghost, just an illusion, just a promise broken.

But she’s definitely here. I just feel like I’m not.

There’s nothing I can think to say, no defining features of my life that I can dictate to her, no sweet nothings to recollect of my own. There’s just one thing that comes to mind.

“Hmmm, well, I can’t stop thinking about my trip to Maui,” I tell her. “Have you ever been? I remember when I was a kid…”

My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s the holding company. I’m required back at the office, immediately. Company policy.

“…You know,” I tell her, rising from my seat.

All I can do is sigh, knowing that I’ve done nothing but lie to her so far, and now I’ll have to lie again.

“Maybe I’ll tell you about it one day. I’m terribly sorry, but I gotta go. Rain check?”

The cool evening air hits my face, as I race to the office. This is just the life of an escrow agent. Sometimes the money goes through quick, and you only hold onto a memory for a few hours.

The buyer joins me in the sterile room. The old man has a big grin on his face, like he’s just won the jackpot.

“Alright, sir, are you ready?” the doctor asks him, pasting the transmitters to his head.  

I know he will love this memory just as I’ve already begun to. He’s rattling off the last few recollections he’s scored through the company, as I recline in my own medical chair and think, think, think:

“Aim for the window!” my brother is shouting at me, a look of glee on his face. “Let’s shatter the window!”

When I go home, I won’t be able to remember the warm sun baking the cracked Lahaina pavement, the joy of family laughter and swaying palm trees.

Nor will I remember anything I’ve lived on my own, for my penance left no consolation, not even the memory of the crimes I supposedly committed.

The transference device hums to life. The recipient gives me a wink and a nod, and the doctor nudges a box of tissues toward me. Dabbing my tears, I close my eyes, and savor what I can.

With the brilliant blue sky above head, my brother shoves a rock in my hand, and I take aim.

 


 


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. His most recent appearance in our virtual pages was “Golden Arches,” the story of a fast food soft-serve ice cream machine… from Hell!

Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Week in Review • 14 July 2024

Welcome to The Week in Review, our weekly wrap-up for those too busy to follow Stupefying Stories on a daily basis. Before we get to what’s new this week, we’d like to direct you to two reminders.

The Year in Review (so far)

Two weeks ago we published The Year in Review (so far), a high-level overview of everything we’ve done thus far this year. Book releases; audio book releases; and links to more than one hundred short stories. Check it out!

The Odin Chronicles: The Complete Episode Guide

If you haven’t been following The Odin Chronicles, our shared-world multi-author serial, here’s the place to start: with a high-level overview of the world of Odin III and synopses of all the story threads thus far. Find out what you’ve been missing!

 

 

And now, picking up from where we left off with the July 7th Week in Review, this week we published: 

“Nature Called” • by Joe Giordano

Sitting on rocks and singing is so BCE. Of course we’ve kept up with the times.

 


The Odin Chronicles: Episode 42
“The Same Bratwurst Every Day” • by Carol Scheina

Hans was stuck in a time loop. Again. This time he actually found it relaxing: no surprises meant no stress. There was just one problem he couldn’t seem to solve…

The Never-ending FAQ:
calling all Friends of Stupefying Stories

Oh boy, did we have a lot of questions to answer this week! Read this one if only to learn about F.O.S.S., the new Friends of Stupefying Stories section in our online bookshop.


“Then Beggars Would Ride” • by Fred Waiss

Irwin wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the chandelier, as his mule knew only too well.


“Familial Fragments” • by Arnoldo Millán Zubia

The dolls were a set. Never break up a set.

 

The Odin Chronicles: Episode 43
“More Than Just Ore” • by Gustavo Bondoni

Duncan Strasser had been behaving strangely ever since that incident in the bamboo forest in Episode 34. Forced to work alone with him deep in the mines, Father Maria began to discover just how strange he’d become.


 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 43: “More Than Just Ore” • by Gustavo Bondoni

Deep in the mines of Odin III, Father Maria felt a tap on her foot.

Why couldn’t he leave her alone for a minute? “Just a second,” she said. Her upper torso was buried inside an access hatch and covered in wires, two of which she was splicing together with a knife and copious amounts of tape. Someone—probably Maria herself—would have to come in later with proper connectors, but first, they needed to ensure that everything was wired correctly.

She pulled herself out of the hatch and looked up to find Duncan Strasser standing nearby.

“You’ve got power when you need it,” the senior mining engineer said. “Give the word and I’ll flip the switch.”

“Do it,” she said.

Strasser walked out of the tiny chapel, muttering, “I always double check whether it’s all right to give power because of the time I saw a guy get fried by the electrics of a tunneling machine. I was about twenty-five then and, let me tell you…”

Maria had, over the course of the past couple of weeks, learned to tune out Strasser’s endless monologues. No one wanted to work with him, for he rambled on and on, but she was stuck with him per Father Luigi’s orders.

The little chapel, a couple of hundred meters under the surface of Odin III and just off a main shaft, was about thirty feet long and ten feet wide. Maria had insisted that it do double duty: it was a place of quiet and worship, of course, but the heavily reinforced domed roof also served as a cave-in protection area. 

Strasser continued talking. “The miners are going to like this more than anyone thought. It’s like this recreation hall on Odin II. It’s not what you’d expect. You—”

“I get it,” she snapped. “You like the lights?”

He smiled. “Do you?”

“Yeah,” she admitted.

“Good,” he said, looking around the chapel. “This place makes me want to stay here, not return to work at all. If the productivity goes down, you’ll probably be hearing from Galactic.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Maria said. “Let’s finish this.”

They went through the entire wiring loom. Lights, dimmers, projector, air conditioning. A couple of bad connections needed to be traced and fixed, and after a while, Strasser talked nonstop. Maria hardly said two words.

He was halfway through a story about his high school girlfriend when she tried to get him back to the task at hand. She strung together the most words all week.

“Audio,” she said. “We still haven’t got the right connections between the amp and the speaker, and I think that’s because I have a wrong connection in back. Things don’t work when they’re not connected. Give me a minute.” She dove back into the access panel and traced the power lines for speakers and the amp. She wrapped the exposed wires and taped the ends together.

An awful sound filled the chapel. While Maria hoped to have soothing classical tones suitable for meditation and spiritual solace, she heard instead a scratching cacophony that seemed to be disembodied voices chanting in an unknowable language.

“Turn it down!” she yelled.

The volume decreased to little more than a murmur as she pulled herself from the wires.

“What was that?” Strasser asked.

Maria gritted her teeth. “Probably just interference through the speaker cables. But look on the bright side. Everything is powered up.”

“I suppose you want to track down the issue now?” Strasser asked.

“Unless you want to take a break?”

Strasser sat on a wooden bench in the front row. “The noise reminds me of the bamboo. Weird.”

Father Luigi had made a point of telling her of Strasser’s accident. Weeks ago, he’d been attacked by a night razor in a stand of bamboo miles from the mines. He and Gruber had been trying to fix the plasma barrier.

“What happened out there?” she asked, the first time she’d tried to get the engineer to talk.

“Nothing. I must have slipped and hit my head. I don’t care what they say. I couldn’t have been out for more than a few minutes.”

“Gruber’s handheld was pretty definite about timing.”

Strasser grunted. “Gruber’s new here. Easily spooked.”

“People say you changed afterwards,” Maria replied.

“Yeah? In what way?”

“They say you talk about different things than you used to.”

Strasser shrugged. “People say a lot of things. Maybe I talk about different stuff. Maybe I don’t. Maybe people just heard me at the wrong time. I say a lot of things.”

Maria worked to keep her face straight. After the past eight hours, she could attest to the veracity of that last statement.

“So you think nothing important happened to you out there?”

“Not a damned thing.” He stood. “I’ll be back in a minute. Need to go to the bathroom.”

He strode out, leaving Maria thinking about how to help him, and whether he even needed help. She was so lost in her contemplation that she almost didn’t notice that the hissing mumbles had been replaced by choral music from her selection.

“Well, that solves one problem,” she said.

“What does?” Strasser asked as he walked back in.

“The interference is gone.”

But as soon as she said it, she realized it wasn’t. The guttural sounds were back… and she had this strange feeling that they were words and not just random unpleasant sounds.

“Damn. It was working a second ago.” They checked the wires. They replaced the cables with units specially hardened against radiation. They ran tests. Nothing helped.

When Strasser’s belly rumbled, he stood up. “I’ll get some food.”

As soon as he disappeared through the door, the angelic music returned.

“Oh, crap,” Maria said, as suspicion came to mind. “He’s not going to like this.”

Strasser returned five minutes later, bearing wraps and drinks and summoning the awful whispers. “I raided the engineer’s cafeteria,” he informed her. “I don’t think they’ll mind considering what you’re doing for the men.” He studied her. “What?”

“Go outside for a second,” she said. She filmed him stepping away. “Okay, now come back.”

“What was that about?”

Wordlessly, Maria handed him the tablet on which the video clearly showed the way the voices stopped and the music started as soon as he stepped out, and how they returned when he did.

Strasser watched in silence. One time. Another. Another. Finally, he set the tablet down.

“Crap,” he said.

“Yeah,” Maria replied.

“What are they saying? The sounds… it’s almost like I can understand them. Like I’ve been hearing them ever since…”

“The bamboo?” Maria said.

“Yeah. The worst part is that they never shut up. They go on and on.”

Maria had to clamp down on her thoughts to avoid saying things about divine justice and karmic boomerangs. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Dammit. No. I don’t want to talk about it.” He sighed. “But I guess you’re going to make me, aren’t you?”

“Not until you’re ready,” Maria replied.

Strasser took a deep breath, and Maria readied herself to listen. Odin III, it appeared, worked in mysterious ways.




 

New to Odin III? Find out what you’ve been missing!
Check out The Complete Episode Guide

Coming Tuesday: Episode 44, “Details,” by Pete Wood






Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA.His latest novel is a dark historic fantasy entitled The Swords of Rasna (2022). He has also published five science fiction novels, four monster books and a thriller entitled Timeless. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
 
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com

Gustavo has become a regular contributor to Stupefying Stories and we have quite a few stories of his stories on this site. Check them out!

 

Friday, July 12, 2024

“Familial Fragments” • by Arnoldo Millán Zubia


Papa should’ve listened to the man.

“These five are a set, Mister,” the antiquarian warned him. His tone as rigid as his posture.

But Papa would not be persuaded.

“I’m not shelling out half a C-note for five ancient dolls,” he argued. “Especially when only one of them looks decent. Don’t you agree, Nicky?”

I did. But only about that last part. I still hoped to get all five.

“But, Papa, the man says—”

“We’ll take the pretty one.” And that was that.

This was three days ago.

That night, before bed, I set Fresa, my new dolly, in my rocking chair, next to the window. When I awoke, one of the dolls we left behind was sitting beside Fresa. Puzzled, I figured Papa had gone back to the store later that evening and gotten it for me.

I ran outside and found him working on his Mustang, like I knew I would. I hugged him so hard I got grease on the tip of my nose.

“Hey, what’s this about?”

Papa played dumb often, so I giggled and went back inside to ready myself for the day.

When I returned from school I found both dollies on the chair, where I had left them, and I played with them all afternoon.

The following morning surprised me with yet another dolly sitting in my rocking chair. All six glass eyes were goggling at me.

I didn’t go looking for Papa that time. I didn’t have to.

“What’s this now?” He asked as he entered my room. My alarm hadn’t gone off.

“But… I thought you knew?”

“How would I? You better come up with some answers now, Nicole.”

Papa calling me by my full name was a regular first warning, though this time I could tell he was as confused as I was.

“But, Papa… Didn’t you get the second dolly for me? That’s why I gave you that big hug yesterday morning. And now this third one showed up too, so I thought you—”

“Well, I didn’t. And just so you know I’m taking all of them back later.”

But when I got back from school, the three dollies were still there.

“I went by the store, but it was closed. For good, it seems. Place was emptied out.”

“So, I can keep them?”

“You gotta tell me how they got here, Nicky.”

“I swear I don’t know, Papa! Honest!”

He studied me for a second, then looked away and shook his head.

“I know I didn’t raise no thief, so…” He stroked his chin. “You should go thank your lucky stars now.”

I thanked him instead and, pensively, took the dollies to my room. I wasn’t sure my lucky stars had anything to do with what had happened. Or what is happening, rather, because today there was a fourth doll neatly placed next to the others.

I was terrified.

Papa grabbed the dolls and we went back to the store and I looked through its display window, but found it empty, as he’d said.

“You can leave them anyway, if you want,” Papa said. “Maybe someone will take them.”

I thought hard about it. Like really, really hard.

“Can I keep Fresa and leave the other three?”

“Sure can.”

On our way home, we concluded that the fifth and final doll wouldn’t appear inside my room, since we had gotten rid of the three we hadn’t paid for. Even so, I didn’t want to sleep alone. Besides, there was a big storm brewing. The hard winds and lightning had declared it so.

“Want me to keep you company for a while? Just to make sure this madness is all done with.”

I agreed. A while was better than nothing.

Still, Fresa was consigned to the living room couch.

§

It felt like forever until night came. And even longer till I fell asleep.

I stirred throughout the night, relieved each time I saw Papa dozing in my rocking chair. Until the last time I awoke.

Panicking, I sat up.

“Papa?”

“I’m on my way, Nicky! I’ve seen it!”

Seen what?

He sounded far away.

A creaking sound made me notice that my window slowly opened from the outside. Someone was climbing in.

I tried yelling out for Papa, but couldn’t. I was petrified.

A sudden flash of lightning exposed a two-legged monster painstakingly entering my room. Its upper body was made of the dolls I’d discarded.

Pulling a blanket over my mouth, I started hyperventilating while the doll-monster advanced in complete silence toward the rocking chair.

I could hear myself crying inside my head but, apart from my rapid breathing, nothing was coming out.

Papa, where are you?

The monster’s back was to me. His posture seemed eerily familiar.

Hurry! Before it sees me!

I wanted to get completely under the covers, but couldn’t look away.

With great care, the monster sat one of the dolls on the chair, and I realized that its body wasn’t comprised of them. It carried them in its arms.

Papa, I know who the monster is!

An earsplitting bang exploded inside the room, making me jump.

A second blast muffled my ensuing shrieks.

“You alright, Nicky?”

I nodded to Papa, who stood at the foot of the bed, shotgun in hand. I searched the dark for what he’d shot at. There were bits and pieces of doll sprawled all over the floor.

I turned my nightstand lamp on.

“Lord! Look away, Nicky. I got him… Got him good.”

There, among his smashed prized dolls, lay the antiquarian, stiff as a board.

“But, Papa… How come there’s no blood?”

Papa stared, grunted, and pushed the antiquarian’s shirt tatters aside with the muzzle of his shotgun.

Alarmed, Papa gasped and rushed to the window.

“What kind of sick joke is this?”

I crept out of bed for a closer look, but tumbled back in horror as I caught a glimpse of the antiquarian’s glass eyes, and of his porcelain torso shattered to smithereens.

 


 


Arnoldo Millán Zubia is a Mexican writer of dark fiction. He’s had a couple of his stories published in Mexican Ezines and in the Flame Tree Press anthology: First Peoples, Shared Stories. This is his second English-language sale.