ATSWOG: The Exterran Stretch

The Exterran Stretch

All the Stars Within Our Grasp is, at once, an ambitious work and a limited one.

The ambitious aspect of the work is tied up in its setting - the Exterran Stretch, the collection of post-Earth human colonized worlds and the other local planets inhabited by intelligent life. Setting is critical in science fiction, but more so if you want the universe to exist beyond the confines of a single work. ATSWOG was meant to be a multi-volume story (the final version would have been four novels), but I had plans beyond that. It was to be a living setting that would keep growing and spawning new stories long after the leads finished their journeys.

I stumbled into a common universe with my first few novels. There were, in total, five complete novels and two or three incomplete ones which all featured overlapping characters, places and history. But while this was an accident that stemmed from the manner in which I wrote those stories, with ATSWOG it was planned out.

Phase 1 would have been short stories. I've already featured several that reference the Taiyang Empire, the Han Dynasty-inspired monocultural body featured in Chapter 2. Eventually, this would have included ever-longer works - novellas, maybe even side novels - focusing on the Taiyang and other empires, the Agolgan colonies, Epocha (which we'll be seeing) and other planets and species. I even had some fantasy - a long=shot dream that I dared not ponder too deeply - that my little universe might draw enough attention that others could expand upon my original works, adding layers of depth and turning it into a truly living universe.

Overambitious? Oh, yes. I'm not convinced that the Exterran Stretch is sufficiently distinct for this...although I'd ask that you wait to pass judgment until later, when you meet our villains. The non-humans are variations on themes and perhaps the monocultural empires aren't as colorful as I think they are, but this is a universe shaped by some true fiends, and they had the gifts to bend the Stretch in a million ways until we found one that really worked.

That was the hope, that I'd start with something fairly basic but then, through the novels, short stories and whatever else I dreamed up, turn it into something unique and epic. Perhaps that'll still happen. After all, ATSWOG is...

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The Stretch Unfolds: A New Project

Another always popular update post, this time featuring a major announcement and a minor announcement.

Major one first. I have something new for you to read, but you won't find it here:

I will be posting All the Stars Within Our Grasp, my last complete novel-length manuscript, via the email newsletter service Substack. I'm doing it there and not here for a few reasons - mostly to try and reach a new audience, but also because this site's traffic is clearly bot-dominant and I'd like to know how many human readers I have. The newsletter is free, and if you don't want to receive the emails you can also just read it on the Substack page. Supplemental posts will be available here, and eventually the whole thing will be available for download (gratis, of course).

Speaking of downloads, a minor announcement: The Fabulist is now available at another venue, free-eBooks.com. It's, well...free, and if you do download a copy, I hope you'll also rate it. Every little bit helps.

Noble Savages: Life Beyond the Diner Confidential

Members of the United States national press corps? We need to have a talk. Come over, I don't want to have to yell this across the room.

...Look guys, I want to respect you. There was a time in my life when I wanted to be one of you. But then I watched you degrade, and in the last few years you've developed some...let's call them unfortunate tics that are getting out of hand. I really wanted to keep the political and social commentary off this site, because that's not what it's for, but at the same time many of my projects are informed by my life experiences, so this was inevitable and I'll put it off no longer.

So...This shit needs to stop. And by "this shit," I mean the Diner Confidential pieces with the old guys who are Trump voters. It's enough.

You guys hear this a lot, I'm sure, and given you general attitudes you may be doing it because people complain about it. I'm writing this anyway for two reasons. One, this time it was the AP doing this - when it's the New York Times, it doesn't matter what I think because I'm not in the Manhattan social register so I may as well not exist (the same thing that stops me from being published also means that no NY-based news outlet thinks I exist at all).

More importantly, I'm going to take this from a different angle than you usually get from the Extremely Online Left. I want to address this not from a political or demographic angle but from a storytelling angle - and you are telling a story when you do this.

So why does that story always start in a diner?

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This is one of the pictures the AP used to illustrate the article in question. It's folksy, I'll give you that. To the kind of people who think David Brooks is a keen observer of the American condition, it may even come across as "authentic," whatever it even means when white people say that.

Now, I don't know what the process for picking interview subjects looks like, at least not for a piece of this genre. Perhaps you guys are getting them in advance and arranging these diner interviews specifically for that Brooksian folksiness. Given the dubious screening process and homogeneity, though, I suspect that you are actually finding these people on site, meaning you must spend a fair bit of time hanging around these diners.

Initially, I can think of two reasons why you might do this. One, convenience - a restaurant is a public location with a predictable flow of people where one can hang around for a good long while for an outlay of a few dollars. Two, an earnest belief that the diner is some vessel of Real America where one can find Real Americans, thus making it a natural starting location for any such visit.

Either way, it creates a problem for me. You see, I come from a town called Pratt, Kansas which seems very much like the kind of place those high-falutin' journalists from the Big City might visit. Only we don't have a diner.

At all.

Funny for something that y'all associate so dearly with Real America, huh?

I spent a while rolling this around in my head, trying to figure out where your ilk might even start their Heartland Noble Savages tour. There's a bar and grill downtown, but it's obviously not open for breakfast - and you guys seem to love the breakfast interview. There's a donut place, but that's not quite the same (and also owned by Koreans, last I checked). There used to be a diner on the highway that had good milkshakes and really bad burgers, but it's been closed for probably twenty years, and I don't think they had breakfast, either. There's a restaurant attached to an inn on a minor road that does have breakfast, but I haven't been out that way in so long that I couldn't tell you if it was still open.

Finally, it dawned on me that there's only one place where you could do your little routine: Donald's Servateria.

Which, as you can see, has breakfast.
Which, as you can see, has breakfast.

The Servateria isn't a diner - it is, as you might imagine from the name, a buffet. At least, I'm pretty sure it is. I don't recall if I've ever been inside. Once, maybe.

Honestly, for the longest time I thought the Servateria was closed. That torn-from-1960 signage is the actual sign that it had all throughout my childhood, and it looks as out-of-place in context as it does here. I can recall seeing some ads for it on local TV affiliates when I was a little kid, but never again after that. I really thought it was closed, but no - it's just that it developed a specific clientele that was enough to keep it open, and thereafter they felt little need to draw in new customers.

To drop the pretense, the only time you'd see anyone under the age of sixty in the Servateria is if a patron brought the grandkids. Other than that (and the occasional road tripper who found such places charming), it was dominated by retirees. If you went to the Servateria looking for interview subjects, that's who you'd find - not a representative sampling of the town (let alone all towns), but a very thorough sampling of one particular demographic.

All of which unlocks a third possible reason why you're all obsessed with diners - you want to find these particular people regardless of whether or not they're representative because you want to tell a specific, masochistic, audience-baiting type of story. But that's not true, right?

Look, I can be as fair as anyone. I get that there's an appeal in meeting the locals on a trip into the hinterlands known as "Places Outside of the New York Metro Area," and it's so much easier if you can find one location where everyone gathers. Whether due to laziness or to misapprehension, you've decided that this has to be a diner - not a park, not a knick-knack store (which exist in abundance in small towns), not a cafe (to be found inside some of those knick-knack stores), not a Sonic Drive-Thru (the one in Pratt was a hell of a lot busier than the Servateria ever was). God forbid you find a community calendar and try and attend, say, a potluck or community sale or parade or local sports event - all places where you'd see a far more representative group.

So why not try that? Might it be because these are not high-priority articles, but mere space-filling clickbait?

I said at the start that I wanted to treat this as a storybuilding exercise, and here's the upshot: Opening a "small town opinions" article in a diner is a heinous cliche. It's the journalistic equivalent of starting a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in a tavern. You can whip up whatever excuses you want as to why you had to do it, but everyone knows that you put more effort into those excuses than you did into the actual product - and all the clever reasoning won't stop people from rolling their eyes.

Next time you do this (and clearly there will be plenty of next times), why not go to, say...a chicken noodle dinner? It might not be better, but at least people will sigh with a bit less weariness. And at least I'll get to read something different for a change.

(Fun fact: I have a short story about a kid whose town is invaded by journalists doing Heartland Noble Savages tours. I don't anticipate publication)

Cavalcade of Rejection: 1984 in Chinese

Today's rejection is a bit different. What I've shown you up until now has been speculative or at least spec-adjacent. However, I've also been known to dabble in more realistic content, typically inspired by my own experiences. This is always something of a gamble. Aside from the already low odds of anyone outside of Manhattan (and therefore unable to spend evenings kissing ass at literary salons) getting published in a literary journal, there's the sensitivity of the content itself. It's one thing to have some spec editor tell me my story is uninteresting; it's infinitely worse to hear the same comment from some upper-crust lit editor about my own life.

Today's story was one of my first attempts to break in to a non-spec market. "1984 in Chinese" is inspired by, well...1984 in Chinese, a copy of which I own. You might remember this from a post I wrote many months ago, though I doubt it as no one read the damn thing. In any case, it struck me as a such an unlikely object that I had to write about it.

I probably wouldn't write a story like this today. Not that I have any issues with the prose (I wouldn't be showing you this if I did), but I'm iffy on the subject matter. Americans - who often have limited imaginations when it comes to other countries - have an idea of what life is like here that doesn't match reality. There's this narrative that any nation that's not an America-style democracy must be full of people trembling in fear. I once encountered a person on Quora who wondered if I was in fear for my life for writing about China, and I believe he was serious. Most people aren't far off of that belief.

So I'm torn. I have to write about what's true to my own experience, yet I don't want to write anything that's going to create a false impression and worsen a stereotype...yet I also know that if I don't play to that stereotype and sketch depictions of China as some dystopian nightmare state in need of enlightened Western salvation, it's going to get rebuffed as "inauthentic" by a bunch of people who learned everything they know about the PRC from Thomas Friedman's taxicab confessions. Decisions...

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1984 in Chinese

I don't know why I bought the damn thing, it's not like I'll ever possess the skill to read it, let alone the degree of mastery necessary to compare the writing to that in the original. The original novel, of course, is a classic, but one with roots running deep into the author's language, a plot cast in the vagaries and plasticity of the English tongue. Could one truly reproduce this tale in a language ruled instead by context-dependent ambiguity? Wouldn't it necessarily lose something in the transition of culture and grammar?

More importantly, would the government censors really allow it? And why would they allow even a neutered version to land in a bookstore in plain sight? Questions without answers, questions about which we can only speculate. One thing that is not speculation: Somewhere in the world, there are a million machines that know my name, know my face (even if they can't truly see it), know my background. They know of every missive I've ever written and every transaction I've ever carried to completion, and the same about every soul within their domain.

So what happens when some transient fool opts to purchase such a thing? The second the cashier passed that scanner over the bar code, one of those machines acquired a new juicy tidbit: Owns a copy of George Orwell's 1984 in Chinese. Those machines, inveterate gossips that they are, immediately set to work spreading this delicious fact through their own networks. One of those machines, perhaps, belongs to the government that currently holds me beneath its purview, and that machine is waiting eagerly for the chance to dish to someone with fleshy ears to hear it.

They won't do anything at first - why would they? It's a Western misconception that totalitarian states act in haste to eliminate wrong thought. This is perhaps true of some of the more goonish governments ruling in the ruins of dead states, but modern autocracy is far more insidious than that. The powers that be are willing - in fact, pleased - to allow life for their subjects to proceed normally. The people who labor beneath the iron fist of despotism still live out their lives, still tend to their families, still feed their filthy vices, still harbor their secrets, at least from each other. Fear is a mighty but inartful instrument compared to apathy and complacency, and it is by these tools that the modern tyrannous state exercises control. This bureaucratic oppression is simply too dull to arouse outrage as a more overt act would.

So there are no "disappearances" in the middle of the night, no suspicious accidents, no media-glutted show trials, no dark conspiracies whispered in government antechambers. There is only a lone red flag on a single computer, a single irregularity buried somewhere in the depths of the digital sargassum that clings to the foundations of society. Just the one quiet red flag, one switch in a trillion turned invisibly from zero to one. This is all that happens for the first few weeks, the first few months. It is a defect for which no one cares, no one panics, no one even notices.

Then, one day, there is an incident. What is the nature of this incident? Who was involved? Is he at all relevant to the incident? All irrelevant questions to a council of machines who know nothing but “on” or “off.” In the opening moments of that incident, the masters of those machines set them to work on a single, critical task - make an educated guess as to the perpetrators of the incident, that a second incident will not follow. Thus the machines spool back through those trillions of switches and the quadrillions of connections between them, and at some point in this process their numb eyes land upon that red flag, that socially suspicious purchase. Now a subprocess whirs to life as a new set of machines, a new electronic panel, searches for connections between this one harmless yet unacceptably suspicious act and anything else of note. They find nothing, for there is nothing to find.

And yet, the machines, these perfect bureaucrats, continue their work. They pass back over their original work, and then again, and again, and with each recursion that red flag looks larger. Now a second switch has turned on, this one for a suspicious number of searches. Weeks pass, and the perpetrators of the incident have been apprehended (or, barring that, the state has decided to pretend that it was never much of an incident to begin with), but those two ones are still there. Every time the electronic hive studies itself, it takes note of that, and with time it adds more suspicious behavior. He made a few too many late night internet searches, or bought a lot of imported junk food from a store that, itself, was flagged many years ago - trivial offenses but for that pair of switches screaming at the algorithm to notice them. A third switch is turned, then a fourth, at which point the grand algorithm takes notice. Now the whole network is sweeping back and forth, and with each recursion the network notices new problems, and those flags are growing exponentially - fields of red flags, like the building facades at one of those universities where this person spends a suspicious amount of time.

Now the machines are screaming again but this time someone with some small measure of genuine authority has taken notice. Living eyes have fallen upon this foreigner and his strange, slightly suspicious habits, and a new network is engaged. They start exactly as anyone working in the 21st century would - paging through the archives of his digital life for any hint of disruptive intent. This step is invisible until one of the censors slips up and leaves some trace of himself on a website, a red flag of his own. Or is it an error at all? Is this, perhaps, a subtle bit of fearmongering to gauge for a reaction? It seems unlikely – a less obsessive soul wouldn't take notice – but then everyone knows that the state makes no mistakes.

More systems fire to life. The cameras are everywhere, but some are less blind than others. Some of them behave strangely now, moving in a way that betrays some trace of mechanical ingenuity, following his footsteps a bit too closely. The eyes of the city are infinite, but a few are backed with a mechanical simulation of sapience. They can spot this potential agitator wherever he goes and, with time, the operators know his schedule and routes at least as well as he does. Any deviation from this electronically determined center point flicks even more switches, and triggers even more systems, and summons more investigators.

This is where things start to change in ways that are more tangible for that imbecile who thought that all he was doing was purchasing an ironic souvenir. The police drop by one night to check his passport - he does keep that with him at all times, right? His computer hasn't been working right, and a cursory investigation turns up programs that he never noticed before. Paranoia is hardly a necessary ingredient, he must have just overlooked those...but wasn't there that problem with the camera before, where it sometimes seemed like it had clicked to life unprompted? And when, exactly, had he enabled those options on his phone? It's not true paranoia, of course, because people are undeniably watching, but which sinister group is it this time?

He isn't yet afraid, though, because he is protected by a national privilege. True, he is not a rich man by any means, but he hails from a rich country and that identity bears some power. The people from the poor countries, they are routinely victims of state overreach because the state has no fear of retribution. People from countries such as his are never victims unless their trespasses are so overtly and brazenly vile that their own homelands no longer want anything to do with them. Whatever offense he has committed - and he can think of a few, all trivial in the grand scheme of things - he is still safe.

Then even more eyes fall upon him, and this time it isn't just those cold electronic sensors but actual people. Such a man stands out already for his foreign features, but surely they didn't always stare like this? Now he is sure that his paranoia is justified. At some point, his face must have been drawn to public attention. Why? It doesn't matter except in some abstract sense. He is the enemy of the entire system now, and the entire system - organic, mechanical, the distinction blurring together in the wake of the behemoth - is now aware of his existence. Of course it had always known, but now it had reason to take notice, and invisibility was a fantasy.

Even so, life goes on. He lives his life and pursues his dreams and indulges in his vices and for all of the staring eyes - and there are more by the day - little else has changed. He grapples with the idea of escape, though this is now an impossibility and on some level he understands that. The best tactic, insofar as there is one, is to wait until the system finds a more dangerous agitator. Eventually, the dragon will spot finer prey with a weaker belly and move on.

Then there is another incident, and the final process clicks into place. This time it is not subtle. This time, the system makes itself known. The shadows are now tangible and they move at the speed of violence, and that one poor soul's fate no longer belongs to him.

The situation is preposterous, of course, but even so I was sure to buy my Chinese copy of George Orwell's 1984 in cash. And in the months since, as I've flipped through the pages and considered those glyphs that I can scarcely understand, my only explanation is that the system allowed this transaction because the advance of time has rendered the author's warnings a footnote.

Cavalcade of Rejection: Distance is a Fallacy

For the record, it was not my death but the death of my VPN that led to a drought of posting in recent weeks. For the last three weeks, I was only able to break through the veil of censorship for periods of at most a few minutes, which wasn't enough time to do much of anything. The downtime did at least give me an opportunity to wrap up one small project:

Cavalcade of Rejection: 21 Failed Short Stories Rescued from the Reject Pile is just what you think it is - a collection of the very stories you've been seeing here. Half of the stories are unique to this collection, so there is brand new material here.

Oh, but one thing: Don't buy it. This collection exists as another means to spread the word, in this case via Amazon. I don't want you to spend money on it. I'm posting this for two reasons: One, if you have access to Kindle Unlimited, then I invite you to read the whole thing. Two, I will do a giveaway soon (next week, maybe even this weekend) and at that time, I would like everyone reading this to download it and leave kiss=ass reviews. Oh, and the unseen stories in this collection are also Creative Commons (as is the collection as a whole) and the file is DRM-free. Spread it around, knock yourself out.

The catch is that now that these stories are on Amazon, I really can't post any more (I'm shocked they let me get away with this much). The "good" news is that I've been getting more rejections this whole time, and today I'm showing off one that I've been waiting out for a long time.

"Distance is a Fallacy" is fresh off of rejection number twenty, and this one has a naughty secret. It's an acid story (as was "The Ego Collector," featured in the collection), which means exactly what you think it does. My favorite bit about this one is that I can just forego this section and show you the story behind it - it's here.

Beyond that, "Distance is a Fallacy" is born from a type of narrative that I've always really liked - the "journal of a man slowly losing his mind" - but which is not terribly varied. These stories are almost exclusively horror, and as there's little variation in them, they've fast become a cliche. Why restrict it to horror, though? If someone can go crazy with fear, why can't he instead go crazy with love?

Looking over my stories, I've noticed that I've stranded a lot of astronauts in space. As a man living overseas, there might be some hidden meaning in that.

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Distance is a Fallacy

TRANSMISSION 53

We've finally done it. After months of sitting alone in this tiny remote outpost - has it just been months? It truly feels like it's been five years since I was sent to this isolated shed on the frontiers of oblivion - I finally have something substantive to report. I have received communication from a non-terrestrial source and, after many rounds of analysis, I can confirm with a <0.01% margin of error that the transmission was from an intelligent source. I have already broadcast the preplanned welcome message and am eagerly awaiting the response, which I will of course pass along to headquarters promptly as I receive it.

I'll be forthright - I received this communication many hours ago, but I hesitated before sending a formal report. Perhaps I overanalyzed this information, and I apologize for the time I may have wasted, but it came in such a bizarre form that I had every reason to doubt its authenticity. It wasn't an ordinary radio signal, or an optical one, or any other form of electronic communication common to humanity. Rather, it arrived as a sort of ripple in the cosmic background radiation. Not exactly a scientific description, I know, but it was only within the past hour that I was even able to properly define this phenomenon within our understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum.

There is also a subjective component to this report, and here I am truly hesitant because with an experience as alien as this one, I doubt my own perceptions. It began shortly after I identified the change in radiation around the outpost. I had begun to feel a warmth within my body, a potent sensation that started in my digits, flowed up my limbs and into my core. It was a terrifying thing, coming so soon after a detectable surge in electromagnetic radiation, and my initial assumption was that something had gone horribly wrong. But then I felt something far more pleasant - a rush of euphoria, like sparks of magical light dancing along my nerves and filling my brain. It was only a few seconds in duration but I tell you that it felt far longer. Once that sensation passed, and I could again control my body, I returned to my instruments and a message on my monitor informing me that the energy surge was of sufficient complexity to warrant further analysis.

I have included the electromagnetic signature. As of yet, I can't glean any meaning from the pattern, but the computer insists that there is something here. Future oddities will be directed to headquarters without hesitation.

TRANSMISSION 54

My station has received another bombardment of energy, and once again the automated systems inform me that the signature is too complex to be attributable to simple chance. Per my last transmission, I have immediately forwarded the information from the computer and will set to interpreting it as soon as this communication is closed. The communication was much more complex this time, and as a result I can't give you an ETA on the follow-up, but I will send my hypotheses as I develop them.

As long as the lines are open, I feel I should send another subjective report. Surely these aren't as useful as the objective data and the analysis, but there is something so profound and novel about what I've been feeling that to leave it out would be a grievous error. Again, I experienced that wave of warmth and energy shortly after the radiation burst, but there was more to it this time. My thoughts changed in a very subtle way and didn't return to normal until that energy had faded out. I felt a sort of special empathy, a deeper connection to another person - yet there was no one here, and no one for at least six million kilometers. I knew this of course, but I felt a much closer presence.

I don't think that this is an effect of isolation. True, I experience a variety of interesting and terrifying delusions during my isolation training, but nothing as potent as this. It's possible that the electromagnetism is having some effect on my system. We may wish to schedule some neurological tests once I return.

TRANSMISSION 55

This is an addendum to my most recent transmission. The meaning in this signature continues to elude me. It isn't random - there is clearly intent here - but neither is it as structured as any human language. This may be above my pay grade, as they say.

To be truly honest, this update was an excuse. While I've been working steadily on unraveling the meaning in this communication, I've been thinking about that subjective report I sent last time. I said that I felt a sensation of empathy, but the more I've thought about it, the more I realize that this is imprecise. I could better describe it as "bonding." For a few moments in the midst of whatever phenomenon seized my nervous system, I bonded with someone who wasn't there.

Actually, let's not lie with imprecise words. This wasn't a "bond." A bond is what happens within an atom, or between the atoms in the air and water. This was a feeling of love. Yes, I'm sure that my colleagues in the psychosocial arts will condemn me for using such a four-letter word, but that is the best explanation for it. And not just any love, but an ecstatic love, the kind that turns a genius into a fool and a warrior into a poet. I didn't recognize it because it's been such a long time since I've even allowed myself to feel something so ridiculous and intoxication - addictive, even. It's how I felt when I was thirteen years old, and I've restrained it ever since so that it wouldn't destroy me.

I don't know that any of this has any greater meaning, but there is a connection to the signals I've been receiving.

TRANSMISSION 56

Whatever is trying to communicate with me is close by, this much I have gleaned. There is no noise in the signal at all - it's too pure, too authentic. This being is watching me and toying with me - with us, really, because it must know that I've been passing all of this along. I have no explanation as to why it hasn't tried to make direct contact.

Is "it" the right turn of phrase? I hadn't thought of the being's nature until now. He? She? They? Perhaps the being has no gender, and "it" is accurate, but it doesn't feel appropriate to speak of such a marvelous creature with the vocabulary of objects. I wish I could ask it, but it stubbornly refuses to answer my transmissions - and yet it still tries to speak to me. The most recent contact was brief (and I have included the signature for your consideration), but those feeling returned in full force. I was right - it was a feeling of bonding, that which laymen call "love." A potent brew - I felt almost drunk on it afterwards as the bliss lingered beyond that initial rush.

My dreams have been unusual lately. The last time I drifted away, I had a dream that I became partially unmoored from my body and began to drift into the void. While I was there, I became something else, while still connected back to me. My senses were split so that I could feel what was happening to my body, but also what was happening in a place far removed, yet there was no dissonance. Strange, isn't it? I've never had a dream quite like it.

It was beautiful, actually.

TRANSMISSION 57

I have to apologize for those last few transmissions. Headquarters must think I'm slipping away from my good senses, and maybe that's true. The biggest takeaway from these space monitoring projects might be that people aren't meant to be alone. We know that, of course, we pay lip service to it, but so few of us have any opportunity to experience true solitude.

At least I have something to occupy my time now. I have the signal to analyze, and I have...the being. I've been trying to picture this life form, but I can't get past the old cultural stereotypes of child-like creatures with big heads or walking reptiles. Maybe it does look like us, but it could also be something far more alien and strange. I suppose that's for the xenobiologists to work out, but if I could just make direct contact with this being - even if only for a second - then perhaps I could nudge this science in the right direction.

That's why this is so frustrating. There's an answer to so many of our questions that's sitting just at the edge of my perception. It's this strange and wonderful thing just watching me, reaching out to me but never truly making itself known. Oh, what I would do to get even a glimpse of this being...

TRANSMISSION 58

Is the being afraid to see me? Perhaps this is the explanation. It still taunts me with signals I can't fully decipher, always staying outside of the reach of my instruments. Is it shy? That must be it - if it was mortally afraid it would have remained silent, but if its fear is more emotional, then it would only watch.

It takes me back to my childhood, thirteen years old, being dragged along to my first school dance. I was never going to be comfortable in a setting like that, and I was prepared to skulk at the edge until the merciful end. Then...well, no need to include details, I'm sure that many people have experienced something like this. My point is that I fell prey to madness that night, and that madness would sting me many, many times over the coming years. It's why I shut it away, even though it was such a rapturous thing.

What if I'm intercepting some sort of stellar love letter? That would be tragic. If that is the case, I only hope that the intended recipient overhears our conversation.

TRANSMISSION 59

The more I look into the electromagnetic signatures around the outpost, the more I see love. There are hearts in the visible light, fireworks in the fields surrounding nearby cosmic objects. Surely this must be intentional? Surely the message locked away in these strange ripples in the cosmos were meant to send a message of ecstatic passion? I don't know if you've ever tried to write while in the grips of such a potent feeling, but I have, and I found that words could not accurately describe what was inside me. Our language was inadequate to put across those deeper emotions, that sense of completeness that evaporates when the recipient is no longer around. Does it matter what the message says, or is it enough to understand it on that glorious intuitive level?

I've continued to have those strange dreams, but I'm to a point where they no longer frighten me. If anything, I'm somewhat disappointed when I return to this restrained flesh, because I've returned to being only one. When I'm awake, I'm just a body locked away in a metal box and wrapped under layers of nothingness. But when I sleep - or when the communications arrive - I am linked to another, experiencing this strange existence through the senses of another and offering my own in exchange. I am no longer alone, because to be alone is to be incomplete, and in those moments I am truly whole.

TRANSMISSION 60

Why does this being not make contact? Why does it merely tease me with these agonizingly brief undulations? Whoever you are, I know you are listening to our communications. We all wish to understand you as you truly are - my colleagues of course, but especially me. There is no more need to feel fear, no need to fear being scrutinized and judged. We only wish to better understand you. If you comprehend these words at all, make yourself known. If only for a second, for a fraction of a section, for the whisper of a moment, make yourself known.

TRANSMISSION 61

I received your last communication. These are your words, yes? If so, then there are few as lucky as I, for even your words are a hint of bliss. When you speak, it awakens my heart and the pounding reverberates throughout this pitiful husk pinned down in this tiny little outpost. When you speak, I feel that I could almost fly were it not for these physical bonds lashing me down. But my mind still flies, being, and it carries my heart and soul aloft. I wonder if you feel the same? Have you continued this discourse because my own woefully inadequate words are touching you on some deeper level?

This is all fallacy, I know this in my brain. I am a romantic soul, I've known it since I was thirteen, the first time those scintillating electric tendrils took my heart in their grip. Yes, my rational self knows that this is a delusion – but what a magnificent delusion! A delusion that must be shared, with everyone who has yearnings, but especially with you! And please do not speak of mistakes – certainly I've made them. I've been deceived, or deceived myself, or simply fallen victim to spates of bad luck, and I could've avoided them all had I just stayed at the edge, but even the pain that followed was a glory. Yes, I wish to live in that light, and I think you are no different than me or anyone else.

Now please, please make yourself known.

TRANSMISSION 62

Why do you taunt me like this? I'm sure that you can hear me, and I'm more convinced than ever that these messages are meant for me. Not the patterns, though, the sensations and the dreams. That's it, isn't it? You are speaking to me directly through my nerves, to my neurons, to my heart and soul. So what kind of cruel game is this? You give me a glimpse of unalloyed joy and then you withdraw and listen to me beg? Is this your pleasure?

No - I shouldn't be angry, I can't. How can I have any animosity towards the being who made me feel like this? It's not anger in these words, it's frustration. Frustration that I'm trapped in here and you are somewhere out there, somewhere in this vast splendor. Every time I close my eyes, I whisper a silent prayer that you'll appear before me.

All I ask is that you make your presence known, that these human eyes can rest on you. Even if your form is terrifying to the rest, it will be the truest art to me.

TRANSMISSION 63

I love you, being that I've never met. I loved you before I knew your flesh, before I knew your name, before I gleaned your very existence. I love you despite the terror of not knowing what you are, and I love you despite the frustration that I could not communicate with these grossly adequate tools. Would you understand if I said it a thousand times? A million? If I flooded the galaxy with honeyed words, would that be proof enough? Proof enough that you would make yourself known? Let's put an end to this charade. I know that it was you in my dreams, that I was connected to your mind and your senses and that this rush of emotional energy is something we share.

They'll say I'm mad back at headquarters. They'll call this a delusion, claim that I'm in some altered state and that my own sense of self has slipped away. Let them doubt! Let those who had never known pure love untainted by the strangling collar of culture, or those who had it and tossed it aside in the name of some soulless creature's conception of success – let them mock. I'm beyond what anyone back home thinks and I'm beyond the need for recognition.

Wait...I am feeling something new. Is it you? Are you coming to me? It couldn't be nothing else – it's you! Soon, my love! Soon we shall be together!

TRANSMISSION 64

This is an automatic transmission from Outpost Delta-Phi-3, dispatched after a predetermined period of inactivity on the part of the operator. All functions are normal. No abnormalities have been detected since the last transmission. Operator life signs are currently unknown due to a system malfunction, code 511-A5. Thank you.

The Industry Responds!

"This was well-written, but we're not big fans of stories that work by concealing information from the reader."
-Escape Pod

Cavalcade of Rejection: Echoes in the Mainframe

The story you're about to read is me giving up. This was me observing the lay of the land in science fiction, throwing up my hands and saying "So you want me to write about the Scourge of Social Media and how it's changed everything? Fine, I'll do that. You want a story with a crazy narrative gimmick so you can convince yourselves that you're edgy? Hey, I got that too. But I'm doing it my way, dammit." And so I did.

There's a lot to unpack in this one. The story is heavily influenced by Ray Bradbury, in particular two stories referenced in the first section: "There Will Come Soft Rains," a prominent feature in The Martian Chronicles, and the less well-known "Night Call, Collect." Both stories feature a technological simulation of something human, but one blind to the world outside of it. Virtual Sara is the latter-day version of the same, or at least I flatter myself that this is the case.

"Echoes in the Mainframe" is a rare story of mine that's told indirectly, through worldbuilding. In general, I don't like the current fixation on worldbuilding, which tends to lead novice writers to ignore their actual weaknesses in plot and characterization and try to compensate by accurately describing the grain output of 11th century peasant farmers or what have you. Here, though, it's woven straight into the narrative as an experiment of sorts, just to see if it would be compelling. We never see exactly what's going on in the outside world, only getting glimpses via Virtual Sara's monologues or a rare bit of uncensored news, or even within the censorship itself.

Speaking of which, it should be clear that - as with "Ascent of the Monkey King" and "The Path in the Dragon's Wake," - this is another Chinese-flavored story. I don't think anyone noticed. Editors love to burnish their multicultural bona fides, but "authenticity" often doesn't cover the subtleties of life in a non=Western, non-democratic society.

Since discontinuing this story, I've spotted some similar stories popping up in the venues that rejected it - trite stories featuring the same tired tit-for-tat parody of some popular article about the Kids These Days, only with wizards or zombies or robots in them. Yeah, it pisses me off. I don't think there's a story in this collection that gave me more confidence than this one. I hope you like it, at least.

LicenseHeader

Echoes in the Mainframe

Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 4 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 10 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Soft Rains, the latest film from indie studio Night Call, is on track to break box office records for independent cinema." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in independent films. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to leave a short message for Sara? She has 0 messages in her queue right now, so you'll be the first person to hear from her when she comes back! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

------

 

Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 7 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I see that you uploaded a picture yesterday. That's you and your girlfriend, right? Is that the Eiffel Tower behind you? No? I guess my eyes aren't so good these days! Would you like to tell me the story behind the picture? No? Another time, then!

Hey, have you heard about Sara's big poetry project? For the last 8 days, she's been collecting poems for a school project. I see that you have an interest in poetry, but you haven't given her any ideas. Would you like to recommend a favorite poem? No? Well, will you give me permission to suggest a poem you mentioned from your profile? No? That's a shame.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 28 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 2 days! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else?

You'd like to get in touch with one of Sara's relatives? I'm sorry, Sara's friends list is private and she hasn't given me permission to connect you to anyone. Would you like to leave a public comment on Sara's page? I can make it semi-private, so only her friends can see it. You'd like that? Okay! Leave your message now:

...

Okay, I've published your comment "Has anyone seen sara lately?" as a semi-private post. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 11 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 17 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

I bet you'd like to hear about your comment, right? There have been 9 responses since you last logged in. Here's the most recent response:

"Does anyone have a phone number or something? This is like the worst way to contact her"

I don't sense that anyone has answered your question. Would you like to review them anyway? No? Very well. You can read them on your own whenever you wish.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 132 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 9 days! No? That's okay, I'm sure she'll be back any day now!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Government announces new regulations in light of recent developments." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in regional politics. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 16 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Mysterious outbreak identified as GV-1, government announces sweeping travel restrictions." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that researchers have isolated the pathogen responsible for all those deaths earlier this month. That's good! But there's no existing treatment regimen, so while the scientists work on a vaccine, the government has greatly enhanced the travel and import regimens it enacted. I hope you weren't planning a trip across the country, because there's a lot more red tape now! What do you think?

...

I see! You asked if I can confirm that Sara is okay! Unfortunately, directive 10005-HP has made it a serious offense to disclose the names of any victims or potential victims of a public health crisis, so I can't help you. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Well, the preliminary government estimates are...between 5,000 and 15,000 infected, with a mortality rate of 20%. Some outside observers think that those numbers are low, though.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 32 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 38 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 16 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"If Sara died then we'll never know, the government will keep a lid on it. They don't want people thinking pandemic. The names will be secret for 40 years."

"GV-1 is a LIE. This whole thing is a scam to make people all panicky and distracted while the government initiates Project Dominance. She's probably hiding in some fancy secret palace with all the other 'victims,' laughing at us."

"I'm tired of all this anti-government conspiracy nonsense. This agitation is coming from foreign elements trying to sow disharmony throughout the country so THEY can keep their power. The people funding these trolls are the same one spreading plague around, I'll bet."

"I wish Sarah was here if only to ban these pricks."

"I just wish Sarah was here."

Sorry, but in accordance with directive 10109-LR, I must inform you of the following: The government has announced new regulations regarding the shipment of goods into and out of areas suspected of being contaminated by GV-1. If you were hoping to send a care package to Sara, then it will just have to wait.

Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

No? Very well. Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 39 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

A quick reminder: Sara has a birthday in 10 days. Maybe you can send her a special birthday message!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1 outbreak contained, but government urges caution."  Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that the government has fully contained the outbreak and is now preparing logistics for a new treatment regime which is currently in the final testing phase. That's great! But due to the risk of a secondary outbreak, the travel and shipping restrictions have been extended. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Unfortunately, in accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, all external sources regarding GV-1 have been restricted. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else?

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 19 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Good morning, John Yang! This is Virtual Sara, here to remind you that today is Sara Xu's birthday. We all hope you're invited to the party, but maybe you'd like to send her a special birthday message. How about it?

...

That's great! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Thanks for speaking with me!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 55 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 61 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1: Modeling a potential pandemic." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in biological science.

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 24 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 63 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? No? Another time, then!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Import restrictions fail to stop outbreaks in North America, Western Europe." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

Uh oh! In accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, this article has been restricted. Sorry!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 27 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"Sara is dead. I didn't see her die but none of us are getting out of here alive. If you see this, run. I don't know where you can run to but if you can read this then you aren't in a safe place. Please believe me. The government keeps deleting my words but they're all I have. It's too late for me."

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

...

Great! This is the perfect way to stay in touch with Sara. Don't worry, this will only take a couple of minutes!

 

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Happy birthday, John Yang! This is your old friend Virtual Sara, delivering a special message from the real thing. I'm sure she wanted to give you a big hug herself, but she hasn't been around lately, so please accept the next best thing!

Wherever you are, I hope you have a fantastic day!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 88 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 94 days ago and

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Unfortunately, in accordance with new directive 12001-HS, this part of the page has been restricted. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "[This article has been restricted in accordance with directive 10005-HP]." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

...

You'd like to chat? Okay! What would you like to talk about?

...

Wow, that's pretty heavy for me! Maybe you'd like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? No? All right.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

Oh, and John? Remember to check the configuration on your avatar. That way, we can always keep in touch! Right now, I sense that it is programmed to activate after 30 days of absence. Is that right?

...

Great! Thanks!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 113 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "URGENT DISPATCH: GV-1 IDENTIFIED IN 191 COUNTRIES." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in international news.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 124 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Hey John, I've been meaning to ask you...I noticed your public post "The end closes in" and I sense that you are in crisis. Would you like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? Are you sure? All right.

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? You would? Great! Do you have a favorite poet?

...

In that case, I'll pick one for you:

"Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house."

Lovely, isn't it?

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 130 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 136 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "WHO: Global GV-1 infection rate expected to exceed 30% by end of year." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in public health.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 160 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 166 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 2310 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "NULL CONTENT - FEED NOT DETECTED." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 2316 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

The Industry Responds!

"We loved this story's core question, but for our tastes too much of the story happened offscreen, and the repetitive scene-openings didn't work for us."
-Escape Pod

Cavalcade of Rejection: A Dirge for the Prairie

Welcome back, everyone, and apologies for the delay. My VPN is terribly unstable right now, which has inhibited my ability to promote myself via short story. It's getting better, though.

Enough of that.

Today's story is, like "Cheery Little Monochrome World," one that I've wanted to do for a long time. The basis of this story is a sound - just a sound, but one that I've always found terrifying. I spent most of my youth in a house on the edge of a prairie, and on the first night there I was introduced to a new facet of life in the country - coyotes. I never saw the coyotes that stalked the prairie, but the sound that they made was hard to miss.

There's this overused stock sound effect that's been used as a harbinger of danger in movies for decades - the crystal-clear howl of a lone wolf. Wolves don't sound like that in real life, of course - they are pack animals, and anyone who has ever lived among dogs knows that you never hear just one of them barking. They howl in a chorus of sorts. Coyotes are no different, but their vocalizations have a higher pitch and can be very dissonant.

I would suggest turning your sound down if you watch the following video.

Our coyotes did not get this close - they tend to avoid inhabited areas unless they're starving - and thus their own song was much quieter. The sounds of modern life easily blocked them out in fact. It wasn't until I turned everything off - usually well past midnight - that I could hear them, faintly off in the distance. The sound that they make does not seem natural at all, and I wanted to capture that via fiction for people who've never experienced it.

I suppose I never considered that those same city-dwellers (who probably still imagine that wolves howl individually) wouldn't have any concept of this. My bad.

LicenseHeader

A Dirge for the Prairie

Out on the high prairie on a brightly moonlit night, there's no sound more ominous than the sharp keen of the coyote's howl. The raspy shudder of a rattlesnake is a terrifying sound, but an experienced trailhand can push down his fears and deal with the danger - not so with the coyote song. Don't compare it to a wolf's howl, either. The song of the wolfpack is this strong and muscular wail, an intimidating sound that speaks to the beast's primitive need to stake out its territory. It is a fearsome sound, while the coyote song is a sound of sorrow. It is all dissonant and haunted and it calls out to the dead to rise and dance to its eerie tune, and if you’re in the wrong place when you hear it, that could be what comes next.

I had a friend, Carlos was his name, who was out there on just about the perfect night for a coyote sonata, one of those pretty nights with that big, brilliant moon hanging heavy over the still air. He was about half a man when he came back to camp, sweating through his gear and raving about a revelation. Seems he'd nibbled on the devil's trumpet out there and when the coyotes commenced to howling, well, his mind just plain couldn't handle it. He didn't hear the howls, though, but the voices of the dead - mostly family members long since deceased, but also someone he knew who died out on the trail. Carlos talked a lot about that one, slurring out a name that no one could quite catch and speaking darkly of bad deeds. In the depths of his madness, Carlos said he'd killed the man in a dispute over some lady, that it started as a just a scrap until Carlos picked up a stone and smashed in the other fella’s head. Course, we didn’t believe him back then, not with his head in that state. Real as his pleas for forgiveness seemed, we took it as the devil’s trumpet working its ugly magic. Thing is, though, even when he came out of it and sense came back to him, he still swore that the coyotes had powers to stir the dead, that he'd actually heard from people who'd passed on. He believed down to his bones that what he had seen out on that prairie was real.

Now I've seen some things I can't explain for the life of me, but I didn't believe Carlos no matter how insistent he was. That I could explain real easy - he ate some bad plants and had a real bad night, no need for ghosts to explain it. But even though I knew that he was more than a little crazy that night, it still got me to thinking, thinking and worrying. Maybe it’s just because those coyotes always sent cold chills dancing across my nerves even before Carlos had his head turned upside down. It wasn’t just me, either - no one in the camp wanted to go out alone when the moon was big. Most of them would rather take their chances with the rattlers out on a black night than set out under the full moon and risk hearing that coyote song, least of all when they were by themselves. Carlos never quite went back to normal, and a lot of us figured we'd sooner go with a quick death from a snakebite than rotting slow in the head. Shoot, I wasn't any different than the rest of them.

But fate, well, she's a mean old gal, and I ended up off by my lonesome beneath the light of the full moon. Can't remember how it happened - one too many shots of whiskey and I just went staggering off, I guess, or maybe I was a man possessed. It was the booze or the magic making that choice because I’m damn sure that I wouldn’t have left camp on my own gumption. All I know is that I ended up out there on the open prairie, moonlight licking off the grass, with the coyotes lurking in the murk just at the edge of my vision. They weren't hungry enough to attack a man, or angry enough, or scared enough. They were more like curious old dogs keeping a close eye on something unfamiliar that wandered into their territory. That’s the thing about coyotes - they aren’t fearsome like wolves, not at first brush at least.

And then they started into it, started singing that haunted old song, the one that lives in my dreams and shakes my soul to this very day. They sang that song, and their voices wove together and split apart, and then they were real voices - human voices, men and women and little kids. They were voices, but not speaking words like you or I would understand them. These were the voices of lost souls, not speaking because words don’t mean much to them, but just letting out these terrible moans of loss and pain. It was a sound tortured enough that I just about failed to notice that I couldn't see the coyotes anymore. Instead there were pallid outlines of people colored silvery-gray in the moonlight, all twisted and stretched like the phantoms living in a trick mirror. Some of them I couldn’t place but most were folks I'd met before, and in the center...if there was any mercy in heaven and earth, this would have flown out of my brain and never returned to mock me.

The silhouette in the center belonged to my Pa. He was a sight, standing out there half-faded into the prairie night, but I could see him well enough to be sure. Pa...he looked just the way he'd looked on the day he'd died, the day he had that accident. I would give away a fragment of my immortal soul if it meant that I’d never have to see the likes of that again, if this experience hadn’t convinced me that I was already damned through and through. Pa was turned away from me and as soon as he moved, I made tracks. I didn't wait for him to speak - couldn’t stand the thought of hearing that coyote song coming from his lips - so I just clapped my hands over my ears with as much force as I could muster and I tore off. Not to camp, not to any town, just anywhere else, anywhere without those mooncast things.

The crew found me the next morning just after dawn, passed out in the tall grass on the edge of camp. I was a little more clever than Carlos - didn't tell them a thing, just let them think I had an ordinary bad night. Didn’t help much, though, not with fear and rumor already running roughshod through the camp. Everyone suspected that I’d encountered the coyotes even if they weren’t willing to say anything. That was fine by me - let them think what they want as long as they weren’t in a chatty mood.

Really, I didn't think too much about it - didn't want to. As far as I was concerned, I went a little crazy because of some bad whiskey and the memory of what happened to Carlos. A coyote's just a big dog, ain't nothing magical about them. I kept what I saw a secret from most of the folks, but I did let the mask slip a little bit just once. It was maybe a month later and I was chatting with this old scout by the name of Anse. Anse likes to think of himself as some kind of philosopher of the wilderness, always sitting by himself and ruminating about the beauty and terror of it all, spouting off all the native wisdom he’d picked up and just doing whatever was in his power to seem brilliant. Over the last of our coffee, I mentioned that I believed Carlos when he saw the ghosts, and Anse got this look to him like he knew that I'd seen them too. Then he said something that proved it to me because no one would say this to a person who wasn’t a believer. He said that the prairie has no memory, but the coyotes are different. The coyotes don't belong here, he said, and that's why even the natives were a little afraid of them. They're beasts out of time, and that soul-twisting music they make is them letting just a little bit of their own place into ours. We were never supposed to hear that song, and the ghosts are our minds trying to reject what our hearts can feel.

I'm not the smartest man, and maybe I am a little superstitious, but I wasn't about to believe what Anse said about mystical coyotes. I was telling myself that the whole thing was a bad dream and I just needed to rest my head a little more, take some time off in town, get away from the animals. At least, that’s what I was telling myself before I saw my Pa again. This time, it caught me by surprise - moon was only a sliver, I was in camp the next time the coyotes made their racket - you could just barely hear them, just a few ghostly notes over the evening breeze, but it was enough to stir up the dead.

The night was darker this time but there was light enough that I could see him, standing out by the cooking fire and just staring my way, and this time I was near enough that I could see him just like he was on that day. My Pa wasn't a big man but he was a rough one for sure, all gristly muscle and tree bark skin and stiff beard hairs that could just about cut you if you came too close. Call it the curse of a life lived on the edge of the tame world, scraping around for a new opportunity. He was only a shadow on the cusp of the moon that night, really just an impression, but I could see him well enough to make out the wound that finally did him in. He'd fallen into a ravine while we were out hunting and split his head clean down the middle on this ugly jagged rock. It was a real trial for the undertaker to make him look presentable for the funeral - good work, too, because I didn’t ever want to see him split open like that again. But then came that song and now here he was just like when I found him in that ravine, with that bloody rift running from brow to neck, gray squish leaking out onto the ground.

That was the state he was in when the coyotes showed him to me, a walking corpse with no right to still be alive. He didn't look happy to see me, or angry, or sad. Mostly, he looked surprised - yeah, surprised, just like he looked in that last moment of life before he slipped into the ravine. He looked surprised to be standing there in that prairie under that fading moon and looking at his son again. And then the surprise flickered away and his face turned hard and he spoke to me, and this time I couldn't cover my ears fast enough, so I heard just one word: YOU. That was it, but really drawn out, like a rusty knife being ripped out of my belly. YOU. There was blood dripping from that word, those three letters sent to cut and maim.

"YOU." I thought a long time about what that meant. Maybe I should have just let Pa tell me what he was thinking. Then again, maybe I don't really want to know what he was about to say. Course, I can always guess, and I think I might know based on what happened that day. We'd been fighting before we went out - not a brutal fight or anything, just the little fool things that fathers and sons squabble over, just a lot more than normal. It sure jolted me that he wanted us to go out together that day, but he was happy to have me along. Blood always counts for more, he seemed to be saying. We didn’t even make it to supper when he was struck down by the worst luck mortal man ever saw. I only saw my Pa's face for a second before he went over the side, but I saw something in his eyes before he did. Yeah, he was surprised that he was falling, but I think he was more surprised to see me standing there. Did he think I pushed him? Sure, we quarreled, but he was my Pa and I'd never do anything to hurt him. But did he understand that, or did he go to his grave thinking that his own flesh and blood sent him there?

I wish I could have talked this over with someone - should've been easy, I wasn't the only one who saw the ghosts that night - but everyone who understood was gone. Carlos hit his wit's end, got good and drunk and jumped in a river. I went to see Anse to see if he knew some way to break their spell, but Anse...well, I guess he had a few demons of his own, because he up and took off two days later and no one saw him again. I hear that he found a job in a saloon somewhere up north, but I never went to see him - I don't know, I figure if a guy wants to disappear, you ought to let him. As for the rest, either they didn't see anything or were lying to me and everyone like me, and I wasn't about to go looking for anyone like me. I have enough ghosts without inviting any more on board.

I stayed at that outfit for a little while but I knew it wouldn't last too long. New men showed up to replace the ones who went out of their heads from the ghosts. The coyotes scared me to death and no one knew why or wanted to know why. I used to slip out with my rifle when everyone else was drinking and take shots at them. Killed a couple of them, too, although my aim's not much to write about so mostly I put holes in the prairie. No one likes coyotes too much so I never got in trouble for it, but they did think I was peculiar. Course I never told them why I did it - they would have just thought I was moontouched and I didn’t want a reputation as the crazy one in camp. They’d see it for themselves one night, and then they’d be in the same place as the rest of us.

Sleep didn't come easy in those days, and when it did it just made me wish for another long night. My dreams were ugly and weird, but they felt as real as waking life, like they were things that just hadn't happened yet. Each one always started the same way, me out alone in the grass of the high prairie, all lit up by this queasy pool of light that didn't really come from anywhere. This time, the coyotes didn't make a sound, they just crept out of the grass at the edge of that light and lay there, staring at me with those greedy eyes of theirs. Pa was there too, laughing like a drunken old fool, laughing like he was back from the grave. The sound of that laugh sparked something in the coyotes and suddenly they were on me, stained teeth bared, blood pouring free from the wounds in my legs. I couldn't run and I was too weak to fight as the coyotes made their meal of me. I could hear only one thing over the sound of the primal feast, just a few words: "...AND I PAID YOU BACK, BOY."

This was the last straw. I was real lucky and the coyotes were calm for a while, but that didn't matter much - the ghosts were haunting the prairie, maybe even haunting my skull. Of course I made tracks before the next full moon, for whatever good it might do. If the coyotes were going to take me, they'd have to chase me to the ends of this world and back.

The prairie isn't my home anymore - too unfriendly these days, too many bad memories. For a while, I picked up odd jobs in the cities of the area - I felt safe, you can't here the coyote song over all the fighting and drinking - but then that became too much, and I still felt like Pa could be out there somewhere. I made my way west until I hit the ocean, then set off to sea. That’s my life now, hopping onto whatever ship needs my bones, hauling goods in Acapulco or the Orient or the Spice Islands. Some folks think it’s exotic but I never got a taste for the salt spray and I never quit thinking about the prairie. It's been two years since I heard the coyote song, and I wish I could say that I was safe for sure. But the thought of that sound still sticks in my head and won’t let go. Some nights, when it's clear and quiet, I still cock my head and listen for the howling. Some nights, I see my Pa in my dreams, accusing me of vile things. And sometimes, when the moon is full and the wind is blowing hard, I wonder if my Pa is still out there, running with the coyotes and looking for his boy.

The Industry Responds!

"While I loved the feeling of a tale being told over the campfire, I found I wanted to know more about the narrator's relationship with his father, beyond the moment of his father's death."
-Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"While we enjoyed the exploration of this particular bit of coyote mythology, we found the conflict and its resolution to be a bit unsatisfying."
-Pseudopod

Cavalcade of Rejection: The Path in the Dragon’s Wake

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February 2019, Huangshan. With nothing better to do over the long, lonely Spring Festival, I have made the questionable decision to travel to one of China's more internally famous tourist sites. Huangshan, a mountain range famed for the sunrise spectacle made famous in paintings, sketches and poems.

Most people opt to take a guided tour of Huangshan that leads directly up one of the most celebrated mountains. I am not most people. Being the type to go my own way, I set off into the mountains by myself. I proceed to get lost for over six hours.

It was a fine day to get lost, too. Fog is common in Huangshan, and an especially dense bank settled in that morning and lasted most of the day, accompanied by the occasional light shower. At its worst, visibility was no more than a few yards ahead - enough to spot the road leading God knows where, and an occasional glimpse of a peak somewhere in the distance.

Being lost in a strange city and smothered by fog provides an unmistakable sense of solitude. It's an oddly peaceful one - just me, a few water bottles, a bag of granola, the camera that captured the above picture, and a hell of a lot of time with nothing to do but ponder life. The only breaks in the solitude were the mountain villages that peppered the valleys between the peaks. The people there were not used to seeing foreigners, so if I didn't already feel like an alien, I certainly did then...yet there was no hostility, just a sense of discontinuity, a persistent question as to what I was doing there.

That night, I wrote a few lines of free verse in a journal I'd received a few months prior. It was mostly pretty nonsense, page after page like this:

D9RrlxoXYAAnHzB

I left Huangshan the following day. Fearing that I might get lost or delayed, I headed for the train station far too early and ended up getting through the security checkpoints with almost two hours to spare. Sadly, there's not much to do in the Huangshan train station, so after a fast food lunch with two other foreigners who seemed like they were going to pass the time with a good beer buzz, I found a seat and waited.

And waited.

And then an idea came to me. It was based on the photographs, the free verse, the sense of place and presence I'd felt in that valley. I didn't plan it out, I just pulled out my ridiculous gaming laptop, laid it in a seat, sat on the ground before it, and started writing.

I finished half the story right there, not even pausing until the train pulled into the station. The rest, I wrapped up after I got back to my apartment. It was not just one of the easiest pieces of writing I'd done in a good long while, it was one of the best. For the first time in a solid year, I had something that I was sure was going to appeal to those fiction markets. I had something that I was sure would appeal to those jerks who always complained that my writing style was "flat," or that the plot wasn't elaborate enough, or that some picky little detail was askew.

Ten rejections later, and I know that I was dead wrong. I'm not part of their little club, and they've made it clear that I never will be.

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Look, I'm under no illusions as to what's going to happen with "The Path in the Dragon's Wake." I'm not the kind of person who breaks out; I don't track trends, I don't borrow from things that are already popular, I don't know how to manipulate recommendations, I'm terrible at networking. I've been asking you to download and share The Fabulist for months now, but I'm not going to bother doing it this time because I know none of you will do it. I'm also not going to ask you to look at the short story collection or listen to the podcasts, because you won't do those things either.

All I ask is one thing: Leave a comment, please. If you thought this story was good, if you thought it was awful, if it made you feel something, if it's similar to something you've seen before, if it inspired you in some way - I don't care. I just want 30 seconds of your time to prove that someone out there cares about what I'm doing.

Anyway, here's the story. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Path in the Dragon's Wake

Entry 1

Grandfather always told us that the people living in the mountains were closer to the dragon and that's why they were spared the horrors of the Burning. They never surrendered that sense of fate and awe and majesty that we shed when we reached the apex of civilization and strove, in our arrogance, to kill the dragon. We decided that we had no need of such a being and decreed that it had passed to its grave; then, on realizing our error, we tried to build a new dragon, recreating its powers without any understanding of its place in the natural order, and this mindless copy turned on us. That was what he said, and for years people brushed aside such sentiments as the muddled superstitions of the old, until that day when the elders began ordering the expeditions. My day is soon, which means my death is soon.

My mother was outraged by this, the notion of turning her daughter into another sacrifice to a desperate fantasy. She never believed in the dragon and never bought into grandfather's stories of humans defying their place in the harmonious universe. It was the outsiders who caused the Burning, she said, the foreigners who brought all evil into the world. It had been some manner of weapon they turned upon us, and it was an error in planning that turned that weapon back on them. More than once I heard her argue with grandfather, and it was a mortal shock to hear her utter such words to her own father, but perhaps it is only natural to show such rancor in defense of one's own blood.

She wanted to hide me where the elders couldn't find me, the way other mothers have hidden their own sons. Such things are common now, and that is why I have been called upon for this mission. It is hardly a suitable task for a girl, but many men have already disappeared in the mountains, such that mothers of sons now fear for their own children enough to tuck them away in hollows and caves and lie about their whereabouts. Much like the elders changed their minds about the very existence of the dragon, they have shifted their thoughts on the ability of a woman to find the dragon, and I am the first to go. Mother could hide me, but there would be little point – the elders already watch us, and grandfather, that true believer, would be eager to give them my location, such would be his pride if his own descendant saved us.

The others in the settlement applaud me for my courage in facing such a dangerous task, but they are mistaking a calm demeanor for a lack of fear. I do not want to go to the mountains; I do not want to die in those mountains; I do not want to go in search of something that most likely is not there. No one has fully convinced me that the dragon lives there, or that such a beast exists at all, and I wonder at times if the elders' embrace of this myth means that our circumstances are more dire than I know. But death has always haunted this place, and I have come of age knowing that I will likely never reach grandfather's age, or even mother's. It is better, perhaps, that I die on a desperate voyage than perish quietly here, for at least the voyage offers some dim chance at salvation. I have staked my soul on a prayer to a thing that might not exist at all, for only its existence can save us.

Perhaps I am wrong in my skepticism, for I have gone to the place of expedition and looked out over the valleys and foothills that surround the mountain, and it is a place where a mystical being might dwell. The ground is lost beneath the fog, an ocean of featureless gray that refused to part regardless of the weather. Fog was always rare here, and more so since the Burning, but a brief walk from the settlement and one arrives in a place where she can scarcely see even on the brightest days. Grandfather says that this is a sign of the dragon, that the mists are the breath of divinity that the dragon leaves in his wake as he crosses through the foothills. He tells me that when I am there, I will have a better understanding of nature, for one can feel the dragon's scales sundering the air before the fog and hear his cold song, and then I will no longer hold any fear.

Entry 2

The dragon has swallowed the road before me – this I tell myself as a private joke, for I have seen no dragon, but only a bank of gray that moves with me, follows me and gets in my way. There is something tranquil about this, for within the valley fog there is no seeing what lies beyond, nothing to speak to the horrors of the Burning except for memories that, too, fade into nothingness. On another day, in another lifetime, I might enjoy this expedition, but there is too much before me for frivolity. I do not know what is in this valley, or what might wait for me higher in the mountains; the elders could tell me nothing except that the dragon is there, and it is imperative that I see it. Such is the power of the dragon that I need not make an offering or utter a prayer – merely to catch a glimpse of the creature for a fleeting moment is enough. Such is the blessing of luck, for the dragon only allows those with glowing fates to gaze upon its majesty.

I have seen no dragons yet, though I have found my way to many of those lost villages. The people there are strange, and not merely for their antiquated ways which I had anticipated. In the generations they have lived apart from us, their world have diverged sharply from our own. They speak a strange dialect, one which resembles our language but which I can hardly understand save a few simple phrases. Somehow we can make ourselves known, and I have found them to be friendly if reserved. Some even offer me food from their own tables, though they do so with an air of mourning. They have seen the others, I suspect, and they know well the fates of the men from my world who journey into theirs.

On occasion, I overhear them using some old words that I can recognize from the old people in the settlement. They speak of barbarians, of outsiders dwelling in the mists, and the mention always makes me shudder. Grandfather once told me of the dangers that lurked in the foothills, and he spoke of barbarians as well. They were foreigners who came here in ages past with dreams of discovering worlds unseen and bringing back riches for their own masters. They wandered into the mountains – searching, perhaps, for silver or gems – and found themselves standing before the dragon. The foreigners, being ignorant, did not appreciate their luck, and instead mistook the dragon for a demon from their own world and sought to strike it down. They of course failed, but from the dragon's wounds came a foul haze that consumed their flesh and confounded their souls such that they were trapped in the space between heaven and earth. They are monsters now, fiends driven by fury over their failure to smite the dragon who instead turn their wrath toward those who live in the dragon's embrace.

Mother told me a different story, and made it clear that this was why she did not want me traveling to the mountain. The barbarians do exist, she told me, but they are not monsters except under the skin. She told me of tribes of outsider men who were trapped in the foothills by the Burning, who now stalk the area in search of plunder. They were surely the reason that the other men never returned, but mother predicted a worse fate for me, for the barbarians in the world before the Burning had valued the women of our nation as prizes and this had not likely changed. I do not know which version is more terrifying, but the mere fact that the villagers mention these barbarians means that something must lurk here, and whether they be cursed fiends or living brutes their presence is a constant threat. I do not sleep easily here, and tranquility is fleeting.

Entry 3

The breath of the dragon is growing heavier; it lingers longer in the rows of pines that march into the higher reaches of the mountain, clings even to the very earth beneath my feet. Signs of civilization grow sparse as I press deeper into the foothills. Already the ancient road linking the villages has given way to bare soil and the villages themselves are farther and farther apart. It has been a day since I last saw people here, and on this path I've seen no vegetable patches, no cultivated terraces, no grazing animals, and I suspect that the previous village will be the last one for some time to come. This was always going to happen – if the dragon waited at the gates, then our quest would have been concluded an age ago. Grandfather warned me that while I might see the dragon at any time, it was likely that I would only encounter him in the roughest parts of the mountain, for he is a fickle and solitary creature who is seen only when he allows it. I will not find him in a place inhabited by men, or so I have been told.

If there are men in this place, then I have little chance to see them for the walls of gray and white that encompass me. The road vanishes just steps before me, and the mountain itself is but a tracing against the sky, something more felt than seen. So dense is the fog that I am no longer sure that returning home is at all a realistic possibility. I could turn right now, abandon the voyage and retrace my steps, except that my steps vanish behind me. It is not just sight that is stolen from me but sound as well, though perhaps that is more to do with the lack of wildlife here. The lack of oxen and sows I can understand, but how is it that a place like this could be absent even of birds? The trees are voiceless here. Nature has fallen mute and I can spy no cause, nothing to give me comfort in this strange cell in which I've been confined.

Perhaps, though, I merely no longer notice the animals as I am no longer searching for signs of movement in the fog. It was fear of the outsiders that drove that attentiveness, and that terror has now departed me. Why should I waste my fear on anything that could not hope to find me? No earthly eyes, not even those of the restless dead, could hope to pierce this obscuring curtain. Perhaps only the dragon can spot me, gazing through the evidence of his own passing with effortless ease. Do I dare speak about the dragon as though he truly exists? Well, if he does not, if he is a myth, then nature is no less a myth. I know of no science to explain what lies all around me, no rational explanation to justify this environment.

What is there left for me to do? I must keep going forward – if indeed I am going forward – into the valleys, the hills, the mountains, the forests. I must go forward, for there is no way back, not anymore. I have supplies to last for a few days, and with hope this will last me until I reach the next village. If hope dies, then I will perish with it.

Entry 4

This path is a thief, a cruel robber that steals the very energy from my body, from my limbs, threatens even to snatch away my breath. I may protest, but mercy is unknown to nature and its laws. I can only march on, and ignore the weakness in my legs, the pains in my stomach, the swirling agonies in my head. A moment's sleep, a swallow of water, then back to the path to allow it to rob me once more.

So it has been for days – how many I can only guess, for the sun is now so lost that night and day are distinguished only by traces of shadow. My supplies, meager provisions supplemented by the kindness of the villagers, are running thin. The last of the food ran out yesterday, or perhaps the day before; I am out now in any case. I had the good luck to hear the whispers of a stream, or else I would be short on water as well. My boots – oh, these redeemed things that served me so well back in the civilized world – they will expire next. One more misstep in the fog and my right foot will rip the sole clean, and the left is growing thin at its own pace. Is it curse or blessing that this journal and pen have endured? Is it fate?

I think that my quest is at an end. This is not to say that I've stopped chasing the quest, but how can one achieve something that is so far beyond view? I can not move forward if I have no notion of where forward is. I can't retreat, either – I simply flee in whatever direction nature allows me in the increasingly eroded hope that I will find something to save my life. That personal salvation is all I care about now – should I at all care about the settlement? Should I spare a thought for the elders who were so eager to send me into the valley of sacrifice? Should I spare one for grandfather, who was happy to be the caretaker of an honored corpse, or for mother, who made a great deal of noise but ultimately did nothing to keep me from this fate?

These are all foul thoughts and I am ashamed of them, but I no longer have anything but my thoughts and time to ponder them. The dragon has denied me everything else – I am blind and deaf, hungry and thirsty, and so very alone. Here, in this living coffin, there is no outside, there is nothing but me. There is no settlement, there are no villages, there was no Burning. How long have I trusted them, accepted their word on the Burning, accepted their tales of false gods and foreign weapons and whatever else? I can't remember that day, not at all. Perhaps it was always like this, and the older people are party to some strange lie, conspirators in a plot I can hardly understand.

Perhaps the elders know that the dragon is a myth, and that's the real reason I am here. This would explain everything, would it not? There were too many mouths in the settlement after all, more people coupled with declining fortunes and they needed to thin the heard. The old people fed us this tale so that we would march joyfully to our deaths, and their children and grandchildren knew no better. Yes, that was it – and they'd condemned too many of the men, so it was our turn to suffer, and I was privileged to be first. I began this journey knowing that I was being sent to my death, but this is the first time I have felt truly betrayed.

I can hope – while hope still lives – that I am wrong. I have not found any of the young men from the village and have spied no sign of violence. Could it be that they are not dead at all? In my heart, I think that I will turn some unseen bend and I will find then, the sons of the village, resting in the shelter beneath the dragon, free of the elders and their petty tyranny, and they will have a spot ready for me. I can dream this, and maybe it will be real soon.

Entry 5

Spring is gone, and winter reaches out for me. Is it truly the end after such a brief spell? The water is now gone, and I am so weak from hunger that I can scarcely manage more than a few steps. I am no longer a civilized person but a landless brute seeking a good place to die, not an explorer but a dying cage of flesh confining a wounded soul. It is a miracle that I possess even the strength to bring pen to paper, doubly so given that if my trembling fingers loosed either one then I would never again find it. The fog has fully annihilated the world, such that I can only see what I can touch, and soon that will be gone as well. The only power remaining to me is that to choose the site of my own death, and I choose this one.

It seems a foolish thing now, to bring a journal and pen along with my provisions. It seemed a romantic thought back then, back when death still had some glory. I imagined someone finding my thoughts and turning them into the basis of some future myth, but will that happen? The book will be lost soon, as will my bones, just like those of the sons of the settlement. Yes, I now acknowledge that they are dead, and that I merely did not see them for the fog; I could have stepped over them and would not know. It does not matter now.

I will allow myself a moment of peace, but first I must write this for the condemned soul who might find this. This journal carries a curse, for if you have found it then you are beyond hope of rescue. Take some solace, though, in the fact that your passing will be a gentle one. There are no fiends out here to destroy your flesh, merely nature offering the same fate as all others. There are yet joys in our burned world, and I hope you enjoyed your share; and if not, then whatever waits beyond the fog must be better than this. In this regard, you are blessed.

Now I lay down to await my own passing, and my only regret is that I never found the dragon. This very morning, I thought I caught a glimpse of him as he flew overhead, a flash of glistening scales pushing aside the fog, but I suppose this was just hope departing. I surely do not have a glowing fate.

Entry 6

When I awoke this morning, I assumed that I had found my way to one of the paradise fields that are an obsession of the old. I assumed that, for I assumed that I had perished in the wilds. It was only at some length that I spotted familiar things – faces first, then buildings, then the sky. Yes! The sky, or at least more of a sky than I had seen before – there was mist here, yes, but it had thinned enough to grant entry to the sun's rays. Oh, it had been days since I had felt that warmth on my skin, and it was that which truly convinced me that I had survived.

I am still not truly sure where I am. The people here speak yet another dialect, but a more familiar one, and I find that I can communicate with them. It was one of their hunting parties that found me, purely by chance as they, too, were lost in the fog and it parted only after they had seen me lying in the road. Were it not for that then I surely would surely have perished, as I was so close that an hour separated life and death. They gave me food and water and I quickly recovered, and never before now have I felt the simple joy of life. Such is the remark of anyone who has faced the grave and escaped, but I feel something else as well. I feel...blessed? Favored? It is difficult to put words to these thoughts, and maybe I should not struggle to force my heart into such a limiting medium.

The village is a fine place, truly, perhaps better than my old settlement. It hardly suffers from the blight and decline of that place, but beyond that are the people themselves. They are not as fearful as the ones I left behind, not so eager to sacrifice their own in the name of some presumed greater good. They are not afraid of outsiders, for one, and in fact they trade what they have with other villages nearby. There are even a few groups of foreigners who arrive sometimes with rare goods, eager to trade for simple food and a chance to rest in a favorable climate. Even this is an improvement, for the land is neither scorched nor frozen here, the air free of ash and fog alike. The people, in awe over my ability to survive, have offered me a place here, and I may take it, or I may first travel to the other villages and get some sense of this new world. They are accepting either way.

This should be the end of my journal as it is the end of my voyage, but I am still haunted by what I saw in the fog during those last few moments. Was it truly a dragon? It is a silly thought, for it is far more likely that I was dreaming or delirious, or so I thought. The hunters were on the trail of prey when they found me, but prey of a most unusual sort. They first took it for merely part of the fog, an unusual curl in the clouds or some such thing, until they saw it snake its way through the grayness, swimming as a snake does. They gave chase to where it had flown and found nothing but I was there, lying in a clearing, illuminated by a single stray sun mote that broke through the fog against all odds. They offer no explanation, merely a description of what each one, to a man, swears that he saw.

Was I blessed in the presence of the dragon? I suppose I'll never know, for I have no intention of entering those mountains again. Still, there is a part of me that wishes to return to the old settlement to see if the blessing I received has passed to them as well, or if they are still sending their unneeded young to die in the valley of sacrifice. There is a part of me that wants to read my thoughts aloud to my mother and grandfather and to the elders and to those children fated to be consumed by the fog. This is a journey for another day, and this time I will accept it from no less than the dragon, who surely knows of my new resting place.

The Industry Responds!

"I liked how the narrator tries to make sense of the divergent stories of her mother and grandfather. However, the pages of her travel felt slow of pace to me, I think because the focus on everyone else’s opinions of the dragon and the Burning didn’t add as much of a sense of her own character and drive for this journey as I needed."
-Beneath Ceaseless Skies

(For the second time in this series, I'm going to respond to a rejection - and please read to the end, there's an important secret if you read all the way through.

The protagonist in this story is a child in a remote village lost somewhere in a ruined world. She has no real education, no opportunity to travel, no access to the internet, television, books...she knows what she's told, is what I'm getting at, and she's been told that her lot in life is to die to save the village. In short, she has no opinion until she enters the valley of the dragon because that's the first time she's had a true life experience.

I can't help but think that the editor missed the point because she was reading this through a modern, Western lens. In the United States, we all have opinions on everything (even things we know nothing about) and we're encouraged to voice them at every opportunity. But - and many Americans don't realize this - the whole world is not the United States, and not everyone shares that set of ideals. If you noticed a Chinese feel to this story - what with the dragon being a sacred creature rather than an evil one, as in most Western myths - then you were on to something. People in this country are much more cautious with their opinions and (the important part) much less likely to slight the thoughts of parents and grandparents.

The secret here is that this valley and these villages are not located in some analog for China, but in mainland China as it exists in the world and time frame of The Fabulist. "The Burning" is the local name for the Rudra Disaster, a catastrophe whose cause would be an absolute mystery to most of the world. Neat, huh?)

A Rare Success: An Important Message From Sagittarius A

Hey, it's another one that actually sold! "An Important Message From Sagittarius A" is one of a series of stories featuring Atticus Gainsborough, resident Hunter Thompson knockoff. He first appeared in The Oasis is Burning, the first in an intended series of four novels set in an alternate universe version of my main continuity. When that one failed to sell, I called off the rest of the books (I'd finished the second already) and opted to cast Gainsborough in a series of short stories, hoping to get some exposure for the character that - maybe - would one day give me a second shot at getting the Gainsborough novels published.

That...didn't exactly happen. However, I did manage to get the story published in The Arcanist, so I have that going for me, at least. And hey, if you're good little boys and girls, then The Oasis is Burning might be added to the Creative Commons book club one of these days.

As usual, here's what you can do to help me out:

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An Important Message From Sagittarius A

The Redstatter place is pretty rustic for the home base of a pair of alien hunters. Most of the places in the area are vacation homes, their owners kicking up their feet in the folding chairs on the porch, enjoying a couple Arnold Palmers while gazing out over the splendid view of the Rockies and hoping that the kids show up in time for dinner. The Redstatter's big show is concealed behind a low ridge, only visible through the windows at the rear of the house. Look past the stained glass butterflies and you'll see the radio shed with its massive cannon-like communications apparatus, nestled neatly within a field of solar panels and exotic generators that require a couple PhD's to adequately describe.

I'm not sure that my stupid awe even registered with Mr. Redstatter, who washed the breakfast dishes as I stared through the window. "The misses wanted to meet you, Atticus, but one of us has gotta mind the gadgets and it's her turn. Oh, didn't mean to be so familiar - you prefer Atticus or Mr. Gainsborough?"

"Either's fine, I've been called worse."

"It's really right simple, Mr. Gainsborough. I mean, the math's a bear, but the concept isn't much." Mr. Redstatter left the dishes in the drying rack and pointed out a few features of his amazing alien finder. "You see the big doohickey? That's an optical communicator. Fires off a short message every 82 seconds when it's on. It's how we speak to the beings."

"I hope there's someone up there who can speak a few words of English."

"Naw, we send out mathematical signals. That's the universal language - math's math wherever you go. Say, you want a butterscotch brownie?"

"No thanks. You should save some for the visitors. Speaking of which, have you ever heard from anyone?"

Mr. Redstatter let out a phlegmy sigh. "Oh, we hear stuff, but it's noise. Nothing intelligent. Yeah, we get some big shot scientists that tell us we should be happy 'cause the universe is talking to us, but we don't want to hear from the universe, damn it."

A small radio unit on the counter crackled to life. "Hon, we got a message coming in! Bring your journalist friend, I think this is it!"

"Ain't that timing for you?" Mr. Redstatter grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me with vigorous haste. "Come on, Atticus! You're gonna hear from the aliens!"

Seconds later we were in the radio shed, a dim and dusty shack crowded with mainframes and glorious science fiction props. The matronly Mrs. Redstatter sat before an enormous console, swapping her attention between a half-dozen small screens and scratching out notes on a clipboard. She dropped her headphones to her neck as we entered. "Computer's just translating the message now, hon."

"Is it?" Mr. Redstatter flashed a goofy grin as he peered over his wife's shoulder. "You think it's gonna happen?"

"I think this is it," said Mrs. Redstatter, mirroring her husband's silly expression. "Ain't radiation this time, this was sent right to us!"

"Hot diggity!" Mr. Redstatter slapped his knee, then dragged me again over to an monolithic printer in the corner of the shed. "Hard copies, for posterity. We'll even let you take one as a memento."

"My first transgalactic souvenir," I said.

The whole shed hummed and vibrated as the machines did their business. For a few seconds, the whole damn mountain seemed alive with the sound of science and the electric surge of discovery. Then it lurched to a halt as every gizmo in the shed went back to sleep. I thought that the Redstatters had finally flash-fried their setup, but a moment later a single sheet of paper emerged from the printer.

Mrs. Redstatter ran to the printer, the happy countenance replaced with an aura of reverence. "What's it say, hon?"

Mr. Redstatter studied the printout for a few protracted seconds, then handed it off to his wife who did likewise. The shift in mood was sudden, like the aliens had showed up only to vaporize the Redstatters' favorite dog and take off without a word. Finally, Mrs. Redstatter passed the printout to me without looking up.

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Mr. Redstatter stamped his foot and growled. "Goldurn ads. Five years at this and all we ever get is spam."