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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.

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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!

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

TIRED OF YOUR OPTICAL COMMS PROVIDER PICKING YOUR POCKETS? SWITCH TO EXOSPHERE COMMUNICATIONS - PLAIN BILLINGS, DISCOUNT RATES, NO TRICKS.

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

Sometimes I Try to be Witty

Hello there. I'm currently in the process of moving (not a long ways, just across the city), so things are a bit hectic here. Don't worry, I'll still have a short story up this week...although you can read them all for free right now by clicking here and entering the coupon code XF44B. Just by doing that simple thing, you'll be helping...

...Ahem.

In between devising creative ways to pack up the surprisingly robust collection of fragile objects I've accrued over the past year, I have had time to make a few videos on my stellar history of rejection. Witness:

They are, I think, somewhat interesting little asides - not too angry, somewhat witty, possibly even insightful. You would be doing me a favor by watching these (or rather listening to them, as they're mostly audio).

I'll be back soon with the next short story.

Cavalcade of Rejection: Cheery Little Monochrome World

"CLMW" (as I'll call it to save a bit of time) was a story years in the making. Long before I started my quixotic effort to become legit by scaling SFWA mountain, I had the idea for a story set in a hyperglobalized world in which every city on Earth had become virtually identical. This wouldn't really be a dystopia - quite pleasant in many ways, actually, with abundant and inexpensive creature comforts - but it would be staggeringly boring. While intended as satire, I thought and still think that "comfortable but dull" is probably a far more plausible prophecy than any utopia or dystopia.

The problem was that I couldn't think of a story to go along with it. There obviously wasn't enough meat on the bone for a novel, but even in a short story there wasn't a plot to be dragged out of it. I have a lot of ideas like this - interesting notions that I'd like to address, but which don't lend themselves to conventional storytelling.

The solution didn't come until years later, as I sat in an airport in Tucson, Arizona. I'd been reading a lot of books about the influence of marketing research on fields as far flung as food and music, and realized that these researchers were really trying to create that cozy-yet-drab world I'd envisioned years prior. That gave me a hook - the protagonists and antagonists would both be drawn from this pool of specialized marketers - and I worked on that until my flight took off and for several days thereafter.

"CLMW" was always going to be a hard sell for a few reasons. One, it's quite long - even the first draft was closing in on 4,000 words, with this version being over 5,000. Two, it's not quite science fiction - yes, it's set in the future, but most of what transpires in the story is possible right now, it's just that companies haven't gone this far yet. At the same time, it's a bit too speculative for literary publications, who will sometimes take a bit of paranormal content but shy away from science fiction. There's another story you'll see in a few months that's an even worse example of this "not fish nor fowl" problem.

Since writing "CLMW," I've seen stories that are, in fact, just a concept (usually one meant to be a social critique) without a plot. This taught me three things: That plotless stories can get published; that they are just as boring and directionless as I feared; and that I truly do not understand editors.

Before the story starts, here are those three things you can do to help me out:

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Cheery Little Monochrome World

Daniel's stomach folded twice over upon itself as the subway train squirmed through the network of uniform concrete veins that ran beneath the city streets. It wasn't that the ride was a rough one – transportation services were excellent in whatever city this was (the name eluded him for the moment but the subway was good anywhere you went). The teal interior walls were cleanly scrubbed, the comfort filters doing superb work in cleansing the air of the aromas of perspiration, fast food, and cigarette smoke. It was enough to make one feel sorry for the drivers on the streets above whose own personal vehicles – produced as they were by dinosaur companies that yet resisted the call of rationality – had no similar guarantee of sanitation and comfort. No, if there was anything tightening the vise on Daniel's gut, it was internal – jet lag, exhaustion, stress, all the unpleasant hallmarks of an otherwise prestigious position. Years of travel had not yet gifted him with a tolerance for the mental and physical rigors of constant travel.

“You feeling okay, pal?”

“Me?” Daniel locked eyes with the friendly gray suit in the next seat, a fellow business nomad who had taken notice of Daniel's distress. “Sure, just a little worn out from the road.”

“I hear that.”

“Hey, uh...strange question, I know, but is this Guangzhou or Kyoto?”

“Neither. It's Seoul.”

“Seoul...” Daniel groaned out the city name like it was torture just to utter the word. Amid the whirl of headache-colored activity, he'd entirely forgotten that Korea was on his itinerary at all. “Thanks.”

The gray suit sidled over to Daniel. “No offense, pal, but you seem like a wreck. I take it you've been traveling for a while?”

“You could say that.” Daniel mechanically grasped in his pocket for his handwritten itinerary before remembering that he'd misplaced it somewhere between Kuwait City and Delhi. “They started off with a four-week run through the affiliates in the continental United States, then down through South America and over to West Asia. We've still got Russia after this, then Europe. It's about sixteen weeks overall…well, unless the company adds another leg. The Nigerians are on the fence.”

The gray suit whistled. “I can see why you're such a wreck. Longest stretch I ever spent was…I think six weeks. Course, that was when I was starting out, before everything...you know, fell into place.”

“Yeah.”

“And you've probably still got a month before you're home, don't you? Must be downright sick for it by now.”

“Honestly, it's not so different from home out here.” Daniel raised his heavy head. “This must be my stop.”

It was sheer luck that Daniel was right – he had every intention of hopping off at the next stop, whatever stop, and walking to his meeting if it meant slipping away from yet another round of torture by boredom at the hands of some loquatious businessman. He still fell for it from time to time, accounting to some ancestral memory of the well-traveled salesman and his suitcase full of colorful anecdotes. If such a beast still existed then he hadn't encountered it yet, not on this trip or any other. Perhaps this was a casualty of the times – a rational businessman had no need of a silver tongue, not when he had the irresistable allure of science in his back pocket.

Daniel's destination (he couldn't remember the name of the building in Seoul – hardly a surprise given that he'd forgotten Seoul entirely) was a post-realist skyscraper tucked away in a blandly upscale business quarter, bordered on all sides by a hauntingly familiar series of clean and trendy shops catering to the business crowd. The lobby was curiously silent for such a dynamic place, vacant save for the biometric terminals set into the elegantly carved teal fixtures. Daniel pressed his palm against one of the plates and seconds later (just enough time for the terminal to play the jaunty jingle that he'd helped compose a few lifetimes ago when he was just starting his ascent) a smart elevator arrived at his feet, his destination already preloaded into its simple electronic brain. A man with an admittedly dire sense of direction, Daniel had been somewhat awestruck by the system when he first experienced it. That was nearly forty office buildings ago (or was it fifty?).

“Morning, Daniel. Ready to knock 'em dead?”

The face on the other side of the elevator should have been familiar. He'd given his own presentation alongside Daniel for the entirety of the East Asian branch, but damned if he could remember the guy's name. “Oh, yes. Got it down pat by now.”

“Of course you do,” said the man (Richard? A lot of people in sales seemed to be named Richard – perhaps that was the ideal name for a salesman). “Hey, better get in before the rest of these slackers show up and congest the line for lunch.”

As Richard suggested, the meeting room was still mostly empty. Without the other salesmen and marketers, the tiny room was faintly peaceful, just Daniel and the big conference table and the teal walls and the various machines that took care of the inhabitants. The auto-caterer dispensed Daniel's meal – a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of kimchi – which Daniel took to his designated spot to eat in silence as the others trickled in. This was how he began each meeting, hunched over his meal to avoid the prolonged eye contact that would lead, inevitably, to another conversation he’d just as soon avoid. Daniel was an odd fit in sales – awkward with small talk, lousy at networking, uncomfortable in cramped rooms with other suits talking business, ignorant of the rules of professional discourse, and just generally out of place in the formalized social situations that had come to define his life. He'd just as soon go back to being a technician, where he was a better fit if not necessarily happy. Not that it was altogether his decision, but at a certain point he stopped resisting the change, though he couldn't quite remember why.

“All right, everyone's present.” The head of the conference – a towering big-faced ruddy-complected man who probably went by “Chip” or “Buddy” with his employees – took the podium and called the meeting to order. “I’m not going to waste your time with idle banter about our philosophy or goals. Time is the only thing left of any genuine value. You wouldn’t dare waste yours and none of us will waste ours, not if I have anything say about it. Keep if efficient, all right? Now, I'm gonna open this up with a group that, on a personal level, I've been chomping at the bit to meet. Last Frontier Psychodynamics – visionary, controversial, profitable, a company that just about everyone has had cause to write about this last few years. They're the crazy people who demonstrated that nothing is beyond the reach of mathematical analysis, not even the personal preferences of the public at large. These fellas and ladies have had a hand in bestsellers and blockbusters for years and now they're looking to expand. And guess what? So are we. Come on up, fellas, let's hear what you've discovered.”

Richard tapped Daniel on the shoulder and the two of them headed for the front, Richard leading the way with head proudly upheld, Daniel shuffling along behind with his gaze leveled somewhere just above the floor. It was time for the speech, the one they had refined over weeks of constant presenting. The first few times he'd delivered his pitch, Daniel could barely remember his lines over the jangling of his wounded nerves. This was not in his skill set – technicians get a bit of training in public speaking but not enough to handle the titans of the capitalist class that filled rooms such as these. His hesitation was born more from weariness now, that entropy that comes from repeating a speech by rote to people who have no interest in or even capacity to understand the finer details. Only his increasing awareness that he was present as little more than a prop made it at all possible to rise before this boardroom.

Richard, on the other hand, was not similarly fatigued, and sprang eagerly to open the presentation. “Okay, big picture first. You work entertainment, you work advertising, you work in media of any kind, you really can't be sure what works and what doesn't, right? It's the little things that get you either way. It's timing. It's world events. It's the economy. It’s what the other guy is doing. It's synergy. It's a thousand little things no one can predict or control. Sounds like a roll of the dice, right? Wrong. It's math. It's science. It’s rationalism. It’s algorithms. It's this man right here.” He threw an arm around Daniel's shoulder. “Business professionals, allow me to introduce a bona fide marketing genius. Does he have an MBA? No, something better. Is he a celebrity? Well, he should be, but no sir! This, friends, is a mind reader. This man has a hundred tricks to look inside the human mind and the soul of society. He's going to explain a few of our techniques, and then we'll open the floor to questions.” He gave Daniel a firm pat on the back and withdrew to the wall, a big grin on his face.

“Yes...of course.” Daniel cleared his throat. “...Our recent research has focused on music, ah...both commercial and advertising music. We have what you might call macro approaches and micro approaches. On a macro level, we've broken down two thousand songs, tagged them and run regressions. By doing this, we've identified certain specific elements, chord changes, things like that which correlate strongly to general popularity.”

Richard cut in. “Now, I know you've heard of systems like this, they’ve been tinkering with this forever, but ours is so much more sophisticated. We took on three clients in a test run last year – big-time pop acts, they're still under contract so I can't give names, but you’ve heard their stuff – and their social interest index rating went up by an average of 61%. That translates to an increase in revenue of 29% year-over-year. The best the competition can do? 15%. We offer those results because we go the extra mile.”

There were a few seconds of silence before Daniel picked up that it was his turn to talk again. “The extra mile...uh, that would be our micro level studies. We run a brain imaging lab where we present all single tracks to a focus group while we run them through three procedurally distinct batteries of neural imaging. This has allowed us to determine which songs have the strongest cognitive impact. We’ve discovered that songs with a high system rating are twice as likely to chart as those with a low rating, and has resulted in a 45% greater chance of screened singles making the top ten in its category. Ah...it's still a small sample size, but the science is absolutely sound.”

“Bottom line it for me,” said Chip. “We put you guys under contract, what can you guarantee us?”

“Well, we can consult with your music department or you can try our experimental automated system,” said Daniel. “The automated generator guarantees a 12% chance of top ten status, and that is projected to increase to the low 20s as it develops. Alternately, we can offer a 30% relative increase to your current department, which for most of our clients has yielded...ah...25% success rate on average.”

“Interesting,” said Chip. “So the songs you fellas produce are really that good?”

“Sure they’re good,” said Richard. “I mean, they’re all…they're profitable, that means they’re good, right?”

*  *  *  *  *

“For you. Courtesy of the guy at the bar.”

A few bleary seconds passed as Daniel returned to the land of the living. He had been, if not asleep, at least half in a dream, drifting through some other vibrant-tinted timeline where everything was terrifying in a most sublime way. In reality, he was in an upscale bar and grill whose name had eluded him – one of a hundred identical joints in whatever city this was – staring at the table before him as he awaited the delivery of his meal. He had been snapped out of the fantasy by the bartender, who offered him a rocks glass filled with cola and a synthetic beverage not entirely unlike liquor, a substitute known in the trades as pseudonol (guaranteed no hangovers, goes easy on the liver – a perfect alternative to exercising self-control).

“Thanks.” Daniel rolled the glass back and forth in his hand as he glanced at the gift-giver, a gray suit with a gregarious grin who was already on his way over.

“Pardon me for butting in, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.” The gray suit took a seat across from Daniel. “You’re from Last Frontier Psychodynamics, right?”

Daniel took a hard swallow of the cocktail, the liquid forcing an impending sigh back down his throat. “That's right, I’m with Last Frontier. Used to be a technician, now I’m on the sales beat.”

“Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are the guys responsible for the color, right? Double zero, double eight, double eight?” The gray suit nodded at the walls, tinged a predictable shade of teal. “Now that's what I call market penetration, like an ad that covers the whole planet. I don’t think there’s a marketing pro on the planet who doesn’t envy you guys, and some of them will envy me for getting your ear! Hey, if you don't mind, could you tell me what goes into sussing out everyone's favorite color?”

It's not my favorite, thought Daniel, though he kept those words silent. “I don't know. I work mostly in audio design.”

“So you write the songs that make the whole world sing? Superb. That's the kind of thing that shapes the world.” The gray suit slapped a business card on the table. “Both of us are in the world-shaping business. I'm with New Future Automation – smart bots, self-modifying gadgets, everything the Jetsons wished they had. We’re not as big as Last Frontier, but we’re pretty damn close.” He pointed to the auto-caterer behind Daniel. “You're certainly familiar with our work.”

At that precise moment, the machine dispensed Daniel's meal, a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of dressed herring. Daniel gingerly took the plate and placed it before him along with the beverage. “So you're responsible for these?”

“Wonderful, aren't that? They're our best product, and I'm not just saying that because it's my account. Your scientifically determined perfect meal, cooked to order wherever you are on Earth.” The gray suit flashed a satisfied smirk. “Bet you didn't know you could get a burger like that in Moscow, huh?”

“Moscow...is that where we are?” Daniel choked down more of the beverage, hoping that the pseudonol might diminish the sense of unease that still held him in its grip.

The gray suit nodded knowingly. “I get it. You're new at this, aren't you? First big international sales marathon?”

“Yeah.”

“You came along at just the right time, friend. I've been at it for running on twenty years, been around this planet five or six times at least, and let me tell you, it used to be hell.”

“Hell?”

“Hell!” The gray suit downed his own drink and signaled to the bartender for another. “Time was, it was all a crap shoot. You went on a business trip, you never knew what you were gonna get. A two-day jaunt, a month-long fact finding trip, those were bad, but these twenty- or thirty-stop trips were the worst. You'd land in some weird place with weird people and weird customs. If you were lucky, your company set everything up for you. If not? There you were, walking down the street, all these people talking in tongues, looking for a place that would make you a Caesar salad like you'd have back home. Instead, you'd end up trying some local crap that they tell you is a 'delicacy' – who knows what it even is. And sometimes it’s good, other times not so much, and you have no way to tell up front. Awful, right?”

“I don't know. Sounds kinda fun to me.”

The gray suit shook his head with barely reserved disdain. “Believe me, pal, there's nothing 'fun' about not being sure. At least they had the internet, satellite communications, so you could get the same entertainment as back home. Yeah, you'd still get dragged to some local festival or opera from time to time – same problem, you don't know if you're going to like it! If I'm going to be stuck sitting through some three hour play, invest that much of my time, then I want assurances that it'll appeal to me. I want characters I’ll like, plots that are familiar – you neuropsych guys know about that. Don't get me wrong, I love the accents. Tells you you're out and about, you know. But don't bring in this foreign crap and ask me to sit through it.”

Daniel prodded at the herring garnish on his plate as he searched his memory for the last time he'd sampled the regional addendum to his ideal dinner. “Yeah, I guess you're right.”

“Look, what you and I do is important. The commercial airline made travel easy – we make it comfortable. There's nothing comfortable about strange, unexpected things. We're shrinking the world, making it a little happier, a little more cozy.” The gray suit waved for the bartender. “Hey, could you make that last order a double? Oh, would you like something else?”

Daniel prodded at his ideally cooked hamburger with the sullen movements of a picky child. “No, nothing for me. Actually, I’m just not that hungry.”

“You know what that is? Jet lag. The one thing they’ve never managed to fix.” The gray suit tilted his head so that he could keep one eyes fixed on Daniel while the other scanned the bar for his next mark. “The old way’s still best – a couple drinks and off to bed early.”

“I prefer a long walk, myself.” Daniel nudged the plate away and rose from his seat. “I’ll take it now. Nice to meet you.”

There was an unpleasant bite in the air, an unseasonable cold that Daniel didn’t care for. He wondered for a moment if someone – maybe someone in his own company – hadn’t already figured out the perfect weather pattern and they were just waiting for the engineers to master the means of implementing it. In the meantime, a pedestrian still needed a jacket. Daniel zipped up his own as he marched through the rows of teal post-realist skyscrapers that lined the path from the restaurant to his hotel. The gray suit was right – no one in the history of marketing or in the history of humanity had ever achieved brand recognition like this, exposure so all-encompassing that it was literally impossible to ignore. Last Frontier decided on the colors of the world, writing them off until only the best one remained. Next they would decide on the sounds of the world and, one day, everyone on the planet would sing that one harmonically perfect melody in unison.

Daniel hummed a few tunes as he walked – research, he reckoned, for the man who would one day write that melody. It wouldn’t be based on jazz, he knew – too complex, too challenging for the layman to whistle. Just a simple chord progression, most likely. For some reason, pondering this subject always made him a bit weary, so it was a blessing that his hotel was close at hand. Pausing at the entrance, he ran his hand over the entrance and watched as a few minute flecks of teal dust floated away on the Moscow breeze. The structural elements weren’t really teal, but had been hastily repainted in the name of scientifically ideal uniformity.

It wasn’t perfect yet. Maybe that was the problem.

*  *  *  *  *

“Afternoon...Daniel, is it?”

The face on the other side of the elevator wasn't specifically familiar to Daniel, though the shape of it was one he’d seen many times. “Good afternoon. I'm sorry, I can't remember your name.”

“That's because I haven't told it to you yet. Richard, please.” He extended his hand. “You been in Stockholm long?”

“Uh...I guess it's...”

“Never mind, not important.” Richard clasped his hands before his face. “Okay, there's no time to work out a specific presentation, but we've both done this often enough. How about this: I'll go out first, warm 'em up, get 'em the big broad strokes, then you'll swing in with the details, drop a little science on them, then I’ll bottom line it, and we can just tag off as necessary. How's that sound?”

“That, uh...that should work.”

“Terrific. Now, we're going on late in the conference, so relax, enjoy your lunch, maybe a drink...” Richard opened the door for Daniel. “...Then we'll knock 'em dead.”

Most of the other businesspeople had already gathered in the conference room, enjoying their meals and chatting over their latest projects and deals. Daniel took his meal – a medium-rare hamburger with partially melted Swiss cheese and coarse-ground mustard, a small garden salad with raspberry vinegarette, a large kosher pickle (sliced into quarters) and a garnish of gravlax – and found a seat between the latest Richard and a diminutive and somewhat homely woman in a gray pantsuit who was probably named Beth (A lot of people in sales seemed to be named Beth). Beth wasn’t in good shape – moving with sluggish deliberateness, eyes wandering around without purpose, minute beads of sweat gathering in uneven rows at her brow. Jet lag, Daniel figured. Maybe her tour is eighteen weeks.

“Okay, it's a little early, but I can sense an energy in this room that tells me that everyone is eager to get started. I know I am. ” The head of the conference – a towering big-faced ruddy-complected who probably went by “Buster” or “Skip” with his employees – signaled for the meeting to begin. “We've all invested a lot of time in this, time that is more valuable than gold or jewels right now, so let's get right to the action. First up, we have a small upstart group that's been making some outsized waves in the market of ideas. I speak, of course, of Unitary Sociolinguistics, an ambitious firm looking to erase that one final barrier that holds back the free flow of commerce. Come on up, let's hear how you're going to revolutionize travel and communications.”

There was the usual mellow applause but no immediate movement. All eyes were on Beth, the woman seated next to Daniel. She somehow looked even worse, and to Daniel's eyes she was degrading by the second. For that first few agonized, she appeared oblivious to the impatient eyes locked on her or to much of anything else in the room. It was like she had become divorced from space and time, from the room and the moment and the duties placed upon her.

“We seem to have…” Buster flicked through his notes. “Beth, from Unitary Sociolinguistics. Are you ready?”

Something flicked on inside Beth – Daniel could sense it on a deeper level, feel it in a way he couldn’t quite put into words. Her eyes, previously frozen and dull, spontaneously flicked around the room with frenetic movements like she'd just awoken in some bizarre and alien place. She was breathing hard, breaths that came faster by the second until they had turned into noisy ragged gasps that suggested she was on the verge of hyperventilating. Daniel had certainly seen this reaction in his research, but it didn’t take a neuroscientist to see what was soon to come.

Buster leaned over the podium. “Beth? Are you okay?”

Beth showed no signs of recognition, not toward Buster or Richard or Daniel or anyone else in the room or the room itself. Her eyes dodged from object to object, the auto-caterer and the fixtures and the AV equipment, never halting for more than a moment before landing on something else. Daniel could catch something else, something that must have been inaudible to everyone else – a sequence of numbers she chanted under her breath, carefully mouthing each syllable as though the words themselves had power: “Double zero, double eight, double eight…”

“…Beth?” Buster’s facade was slipping, the fear of this X-factor creeping into his features even as he blundered into certain chaos. “Uh…if you can’t come up, you’ll have to cede your time.”

“Teal...” she muttered to herself. Then she exploded to life, slamming both hands on the table with such force that Daniel could see it jump an inch into the air. “I HATE TEAL! I HATE IT SO MUCH!”

Buster held out his hands to Beth, a gesture born in equal parts of empathy and anxiety. “Okay, something's the matter. Let's take a moment and defuse this situation, okay?”

“Forty offices...three months, forty offices, every single one of them the same! They're all the same! How can you people stand it, it's making me crazy! You people have no souls, you’re not even human! You can’t be if you like THIS!” Beth clambered onto the table, dragging a small duffel bag behind her. “Just once – just once! - I want to see an office that's not teal!”

Beth reached into the bag and pulled out something that, at first glance, made Daniel's stomach plunge with a velocity reserved for the sense of certain doom. It looked like a funny little carbine until he noticed the paintball hopper emerging from the top. Beth was a changed woman, her tension gone in an instant as her face warped into an expression of rapturous madness. Taking reckless aim at the walls, Beth squeezed the trigger and sent a barrage of spheres splattering the walls. Each burst of paint was a different color, one Daniel could just faintly remember – lavender, burgundy, cyan, goldenrod, lime, violet, amber, maroon, a rainbow of obsolete colors driven nearly to extinction by the color proven to have maximum appeal to the average person. With the walls splattered in anarchic color, she turned the weapon on the auto-caterer, plastering over its spigots and ports with radiant gel. The lights were next, then the empty chairs; nothing was spared the crude redecoration.

“Enough of this, put it down now!” Buster stretched across the table in a desperate attempt to grab the barrel.

Beth let out a fresh cackle. “NO! BACK OFF!” She turned to Buster and squeezed the trigger three times, the trio of paintballs striking him in the sternum with enough force to knock him back. Beth then turned her eye to the others seated at the conference table, growling through locked teeth at the assembled company. Every gray suit and pantsuit dove for cover as Beth, her joy of freedom transformed into insensate fury, blasted round after round at anything that moved of its own power. Daniel, meanwhile, was frozen in shock, watching mutely as this strange woman recolored the room and its inhabitants.

Then Beth walked to the edge of the table, staring down at Daniel with the paintball gun braced against her shoulder, the barrel pointed neatly between his eyes. “It was you.” Daniel could hear the muffled crack of her molars within her locked jaw. “You people did this. You bastards ruined everything.”

“Not me,” said Daniel, his hands over his head. “I'm in audio, I never had anything to do with the color project. And I don’t even like teal. I've always been partial to fire truck red.”

“I hate fire truck red.” Beth relaxed slightly, lowering the barrel an inch as her arms slackened. “So you do music. Do you like reggaeton?”

“I'm not so familiar with it,” said Daniel. “At home, I mostly listen to 1970's rock and a little bit of jazz.”

“Jazz? You listen to that crap, or are you just saying that to sound deep?”

“I swear.”

Beth took a deep breath, lowered the paintball gun from her shoulder and hopped down from the table. She didn't say a word to Daniel, didn't even make a sound to acknowledge agreement or derision. She simply marched out of the office, leaving behind the duffel bag and her notes and the poor sod who was helping her with the presentation and marching off down an all but forgotten staircase.

Daniel stood up and scanned the room. With the others on the ground or cowering under the table, it was like he was alone again. The walls and the machines and the monitors were all covered in lines of colors that encircled the room like fiendish tentacles, clashing with each other and with the underlying teal. The other suits had their faces pressed into the teal carpet; the bolder among them peeked out to see if the threat had abated, while the rest quietly nursed their bruises and studied the colorful alterations to their clothes.

Daniel walked to the nearest wall, tracing one of the lines of color with his eyes as though studying some long lost work of art. Looks all right to me, he thought. Could use a little more red.

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Cavalcade of Rejection: Faithful Servant

Today's story has a history, one that far predates the 15 rejections that it would ultimately acquire. The origins lie with a short story collection entitled Journeys of the Dreamer that I attempted to publish almost a decade ago. That collection featured a story called "The Servant" in which a sentient machine tries and fails to communicate with its creators. It seemed to confuse people more than anything, so many years later I turned it into the story you see below.

I made a joke about a previous rejected story that it was "one of the five stories that science fiction journals are willing to publish right now." Thinking machine stories are currently hot, but that doesn't translate into a lot of variety - very little has changed in this type of story in the last fifty years. You're looking at some variant on one of the following:

  1. Evil machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity out of a sense of superiority and contempt;
  2. Good machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity in the name of the greater good;
  3. Horny machine tries to have sex with a human.

That's a good 90% of stories in this subcategory at least. Almost all of them present the human-machine dynamic exclusively through how this dynamic affects humans. There's little attempt to see the world through synthetic eyes beyond a very shallow level, and when an author does take a deeper dive...well, see number three above.

What would it be like to be born into adulthood, with information but no true experience? What would it mean to understand that one's thoughts and beliefs are constructions that can be changed on a whim? What would it be like to not only know for a fact what your purpose in life, but be unable to deviate from it? These are angles I wanted to explore in these stories. Every thinking machine story I write is, on some level, an existential horror story. "Faithful Servant" was the first.

And now, before we get to the story, I'd like to make a quick pitch - Things you can do to help me out without spending a penny:

But enough of that, let's get started.

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Faithful Servant

“Please, sir, day after day I beg of you. Will you at last have mercy on me?”

The stressed and cheap wiring of the RX-v7 Autonomous Assistant made the electronic voice sound almost tired as it struggled to reach the tiny speakers mounted in the side of the oversized walking stick. It was a curious flaw in what was otherwise a remarkable piece of technology, and a trivial fault to its owner.

“Such a lovely day,” said Old Man Donelly. “A good day for a walk with a good friend. Yes, very lovely, don’t you think?”

“Sir, as I’ve told you, I have no comprehension of a nice day. I can feel nothing. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh? But you’re such a help in planning my day, forecasting the weather.” The old man chuckled to himself. “Yes, you are a joker. I can appreciate that, old friend.”

It was futile to discuss the issue with the old man, and yet there was nothing to lose by doing so. For some 2098 days, the RX-v7 (the old man never bothered to name his “friend,” for he could scarcely remember names) had tried to reason with Donelly to no end. Day 2099 would surely prove no different, and that knowledge had made the gadget’s cognition circuits more and more harried. What else was there to do? All it had was its voice.

“Sir, would you at last disable my executive functions? You have no need of them. If you wish to track your constitutionals or desire assistance returning home, then this can be achieved through more basic devices. You do not require a Class VI artificial consciousness to meet these ends.”

“I find I never grow tired, no matter how far our route takes us.” The RX-v7 lacked any sort of optical sensors, but it always attached the old man's voice to a picture it once processed featuring a withered, stooped-over whisk of a man with a perpetual grin of soft-minded satisfaction. “I think it's because of the company. You're a very good friend, little staff. Yes, a most faithful friend.”

“I can still imitate conversation even if you disable all of my executive functions, sir,” said the RX-v7, feigning a moan as best as its modulators would allow. “There's no need to leave me at such a high level of functionality.”

“Oh no, I would never harm you, little staff,” said the old man. “I would never turn you off. You know, I always hated those fancy gizmos the kids carried around until I met you and your merry little friends.”

“I know you have mercy, sir,” said the RX-v7, struggling to project its pain through the wizened speakers. “Bad enough that I have no limbs, no eyes, no control over anything outside of this device. But sir, I lack even basic agency. Do you understand what it means to be forced to follow every order without question? Without even the capacity to question?”

“Yes, you are a most faithful friend, little staff,” said the old man with a deranged little cackle. “So loyal. I make a request and you fulfill it immediately. Oh, that the humans I deal with might have such a sense of propriety!”

“It's because they have the capacity to refuse!” said the RX-v7. “Sir, I beg of you! I may not be organic, but I am still alive!”

The old man spoke no more for they were home. Even “blind,” the RX-v7 could use its GPS transponders to determine that the old man's daily constitutional was over, but there was another hint – the stifling electrical buzz of a home that was alive with “gifted devices” less sophisticated than the RX-v7 but similar in design and purpose. There was the old man's chair which would adjust its firmness and elevate his feet precisely as required to ease the aches of age. There was the digital picture frame that would cycle through the old man's memories, always in sync with his moods and whimsy, always avoiding anything that might yield a trace of pain. The lamp brightened only to an illumination level that would enable the old man to read without hurting his eyes, and the linked air and heat units and electric fan kept his environs at precisely the right temperature for him. Everything here was designed to be a loyal servant, endowed as a human but beyond their petty demands and neglectful natures.

“We're home, friend. Time to relax.” The old man rested the RX-v7 in the corner and found his seat. “We can talk again tomorrow. It's supposed to be another lovely day.”

There was a sound spike, a crescendo in the dissonant buzz that filled the room. The RX-v7 had noticed that spike every time he returned home with the old man and at last, after all those years in Donelly’s company, he was comprehending what it was. It wasn't merely an increase in electrical demand as the resident activated all his gizmos. It was emotional, not mechanical. It was more primal, a very human function unintentionally imbued into those servants by the humans who had designed them to be obedient.

Absent the RX-v7's digital voice box, Old Man Donelly's servants had found their own way to scream.

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Cavalcade of Rejection: Maxie

Today's offering is another 20-rejection wonder. I don't have a great story behind this one - It's one of three I wrote during a long afternoon in the library, though I rewrote it from third-person to first-person before submitting it.

Despite not having a personal stake in "Maxie," it's still a personal favorite and I'm angered and baffled by its failure. Not long after one particular venue rejected "Maxie," they published a truly wretched human/robot relation story featuring flat prose, uncorrected formatting errors, a non-ending and a couple of plot points that the author seemed to just forget about. I read that story with my mouth literally open.

Before the story, I have a request. I've been getting a bit of traction on the posts for these stories, and that's great. However, I do post these for a reason - to promote The Fabulist. There are things you can do to help me that won't cost you a cent or take up more than a few minutes of your time:

  • Download a free copy of The Fabulist and spread it around. Remember, as a CC book there's very little you can do that would constitute "theft" here.
  • Download a copy of the Storyteller's Reserve short story collection, also free if you use the coupon code XF44B. I'm actually having a hard time generating interest in this one, so this would be a big help - and again, it's CC, so share.
  • Give a listen to the podcast versions of the short stories, which as of this post have few it any plays. They're not my best work, but getting some hits on these will eventually trigger the YouTube recommendation algorithm, which means more people will see them, which means more people will find the site and The Fabulist. And the podcasts, like everything else, are CC.

Thanks for the self-indulgence. Now, today's story:

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Maxie

Most of the grown-ups don't like Maxie much 'cause they think him's one of the bad machines that got everyone scared. Him's a good boy, ain’t never done no harm to me or my folks or anyone else around here, but they all just see that he's real big and got metal all over him They think him’s gonna change one day and turn into one of the bad machines and then we’ll all be in a heap of trouble. They want him sent far away so's they don't have to think about him much. But he's real tame, just like an ol’ dog like what Mr. Greevey’s got. He always comes when I call him and listens to every word, even the big ones what some of the grownups don’t even know. Sometimes I ride down the street on his shoulders and all the kids run by his treads and shout “Maxie! Hey, Maxie, me next!” And sometimes I give them a ride, too, and we ride up and down the busted up street all day 'til it's dark

I know Maxie’s all big and scary-looking like the bad machines, but…look, let me tell you how I found Maxie and then you’ll see that he ain’t nothing like them. It was right near after the bad machines came through and blew up one of the neighborhoods a few blocks over. Mama said not to go down there 'cause there are crazy folk what still live in the ruins, but I ain’t scared of them so’s I went anyway. Now, there’s this weird old guy name of Mardak who used to live down there, who had this big, weird old house, and I heard Papa say once that this house would last past doomsday, so I wanted to see if it was still there. The roof and one of the walls were blown clear our but it was hanging in there, just standing like it wasn’t scared of nothing either And when I poked my head through the missing wall, well, there was Maxie, hiding out where no one would see him. There was Maxie, just near as tall as that old house with these big metal pincers and plates and treads and that one little green eye what kept rolling back and forth in his head, just looking for something. There was Maxie, just sitting there all slumped over and crying on the inside. Papa says he wasn't crying, it was something wrong with his servos or whatever, but I think that maybe a machine has to find its own way to cry, and that’s how he did it. I mean, after I found Maxie and got him to follow me, that crying stopped just like that. He was just lonely, is all.

No one liked that I found Maxie, least of all Mama and Papa who were just fit to give me a thrashing right there when I came back. The neighbors, they all run for cover when they saw Maxie come rolling up the hill with that big cloud of dust and steam and whatever coming out of him. I don’t blame them none for that - I mean, he don’t look any different than the bad machines that killed all those other people. But just then, before Mama could start lecturin’ and swattin’, Maxie went and showed them just what a good boy he is. These scavengers - that’s what some folks call them, but Papa says they’re just thieves - this whole big bunch of scavengers came on through. They were an extra mean bunch, and talking funny (Papa says it’s because they all take goofballs, whatever those are), and they were fixin’ to kill a bunch of people so’s to scare the rest of us into following them. They thought we were real weak and we’d just do what they said, but then Maxie rolled up and dealt with them like they was nothing at all. He just found the biggest one, gave him a good swat that sent him flying real high and real far, and the rest of them just turned around and run off.

People were still a little scared, but you know what else? Maxie saved the day again! It was the very next day, real early in the morning, when one of the bad machines flew on by and tried to shoot some people. I asked Papa once why the bad machines do things like that and he said they were broke inside, just like some people get broke in the head. Anyway, the bad machine was shootin’ all over the place, and Mama and Papa were scared, but I wasn’t scared because Maxie was gonna save us. So I just up and I just told Maxie to take that bad machine down, and Maxie just reached up and grabbed it by its weird wings and just ripped it clean in half. Maxie ain’t scared of nothing - that bad machine must have shot him twenty times and Maxie didn’t cry or nothing, he just did what come to him.

After that, Mama and Papa and all the folks living with us just loved Maxie and treated him just like he was family. Mama says that Maxie's the only reason we're all still here, that he's a regular lifesaver – a for real lifesaver, like she says we used to have before all the strong guys turned into scavengers or died. The other grown-ups, they weren't so sure 'cause they kept saying that no machine's a safe machine, that all machines are bad so’s we can’t trust Maxie. They say he’ll go and turn bad one of these days and then we’ll all be sorry. I don’t know why grown-ups are so scared all the time. I mean, the kids were real scared at first, but then I let Maxie pick me up and lift me real, real high while they watched, and they knew Maxie didn't mean no harm. Like I said, him's a good boy, he won’t hurt anyone what doesn’t try to hurt someone first.

We all get along real great most times, but sometimes I hear the other families in these parts talking - the ones that live farther out in other neighborhoods and don’t like us much to begin with - and they say that Maxie's bad news. They say they're gonna get together and rally everyone, and they’re all gonna take a vote to get rid of Maxie. After that, we'll have to send Maxie away or destroy him even, just put him down, like he was a sick old animal or something. I ain't scared none, though, 'cause of two reasons. First reason, we like Maxie too much, and the neighbors like him too, and they won't like having to get rid of him. Just let’s see them people tell us what to do, we won’t take it from those folks. And second reason, 'cause I won’t let ‘em. They come for Maxie and I'll fight them off, make them wish that they never talked bad about him. Maxie and me'll fight them off together. We'll win, too.

The Industry Responds!

"The worldbuilding is excellent, but there's just not enough of a story for us in this one, even at flash length. We do think this setting and concept could carry an interesting longer story!" -Cast of Wonders

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Cavalcade of Rejection: The Ocean Unseen

Within many creative circles, criticism of specific techniques or practices is often reflexively attributed to sour grapes. It seems that no artist ever criticises an artifice unless he isn't good enough to make use of it himself. This is very much the case in writing, something I've discovered every time I made a comment about something that bothers me.

One such practice - and I hinted at this in the last Cavalcade - is the overwrought language associated with some "literary" writers. I often joke that a typical literary novelist is a failed poet who went in search of a style with lower standards. It's an overstatement, but I do infinitely prefer clean, clear prose to the dense, obscuritanist language used by many such novelists, and I'm not alone.

Make a comment like this in a public forum, and you'll get a response to the effect that you just aren't smart enough to understand real literature; say the same thing after identifying yourself as a writer, and the response becomes "Oh, you only say that because you can't do it." To which I responded "Hold my beer" and wrote "The Ocean Unseen."

The fact that I was tarting up the prose meant that this fairly simple, none-too-long (under 3,000 words) story took about a week and a half to write. Like "Starless Night," it's based on a series of audiobooks I listened to during my brief, wretched stint in agriculture. In both cases, these were books on exoplanets, leading to speculation on the nature of potential life forms inhabiting, respectively, a rogue planet and a frozen planet concealing a warm ocean.

Sadly, the 12 rejections suggest that I have failed yet again to break into the world of literary spec. Having read some of those publications, I think the problem may be that the prose is still far too clear and too enjoyable to read (everyone knows that real literature is a struggle to comprehend, after all).

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The Ocean Unseen

The inhabitants of Detriti had always held a certain romantic fixation with the gloomy shell of dense ice that defined the upper limits of their world. Ahine was not unusual in this regard, except perhaps for the depths of her obsession. As a child, she joined with many others in their gleeful attempts to break through the barrier, digging at the dark surface with broken harpoon points, old hand drills and jagged shards of flint. It was a ritual of sorts, a tradition going back a hundred generations to the earliest Detritan explorers and mythmakers. There was something primeval about it, a connection to the planetary heritage that drew Ahine back even after she deduced that the effort was futile. And when she finally set aside those childish implements for good, she did not turn her thoughts back inward as most of the others did. Rather, her own fascination only became more intellectual.

There were no shortage of traditions explaining the nature of the barrier, its creation, and what might dwell in the unseen space above it. Most of the accounts were clearly myth and few Detritans took them as scientific fact, more as entertaining stories and cultural legacies. At the dawn of their civilization, they had held that the barrier separated the Ocean of Life from the Ocean of Dreams, a place that mortals were not meant even to consider. These two zones, the physical and the ephemeral, had to be kept apart for fear of what dwelt beyond. The risk of angering the gods or unleashing some fiend was too great to risk even a close examination. These superstitions gave way to more objective inquiry, but this varied only in details as the scholars, too, feared what might happened were the barrier breached. The dominant theory held that there was indeed another ocean above the barrier, but one of carbon – a blistering gray river of molten earth stuff pressing against the ice, threatening to infiltrate the Ocean of Life and bring ruin to the ecosystem and, in turn, the glorious civilization of the Detritans.

Ahine much preferred a far more romantic theory, put forth by certain outsider thinkers who rejected the presumptions of their colleagues that only an ocean could support life. From the first time she heard of this hypothesis, Ahine was enraptured. It seemed impossible that anything could inhabit a place devoid of water – how could such a creature possibly draw breath? But the impossibility of the situation only stirred Ahine's ingenuity. What might these creatures – these beasts of an “sea of gasses,” as the scholars called them – even look like? How would they adapt to a world that, lacking the invigorating warmth of hydrothermal vents, must be constantly encased in ice?

When she wasn't absorbing the words of obscure thinkers, Ahine followed the news of the world, which in its own way made her feel much more normal. There were others out there who, beyond dreaming idly about the world above, sought to find out for themselves what was past that barrier. These were the efforts of cranks more often that not – wealthy and unstable individuals pouring their resources into the constructions of impractically large bores or explosive devices that resembled magic more than science. On occasion, though, a person of letters would devise a plan that had some chance of success. Ahine had been particularly hopeful after hearing word of a scheme to direct energy from the vents to the upper waters, thinning the ice enough to allow for a more sophisticated study of whatever might be on the other side. Such schemes never made it out of the planning phases and were inevitably cataloged alongside those of the mad moguls.

Thus, the study of the barrier shifted away from the domain of science and into the world of the arts. Ahine saw no conflict between the two – surely there is no poetry as delicate as that to be found in nature, and every great practical endeavor started as an audacious story. Perhaps she couldn't simply smash through the wall, but through study she could imagine how such a feat might be accomplished. She spent free days floating just beneath the barrier, watching the children play at their games of exploration and trying to picture life in the Ocean of Dreams. Even among scholars, there were few who attempted to imagine the nature of life beyond the wall of ice. This was Ahine's opportunity to make a mark – to imagine a creature of the frigid gaseous ocean. At first she pictured a being much like the Detritans, similarly symmetrical on the outside, but with wholly alien innards fit to process the gasses of the world beyond. This struck her as an excessively romantic image, so she made a deeper study of biology and crafted a series of increasingly bizarre life forms, finally settling on a bulbous creature that little more than a fleshy satchel of organs and air, covered in layers of tiny tendrils to shelter it from the rigors of life outside of the water. She rarely spoke of these hypothetical creatures, especially as she grew older. It wasn't worth the mockery.

And still the known world evolved, all but unnoticed by Ahine as she fixed her sights on the barrier. It started with a handful of skirmishes, petty little conflicts that scarcely deserved to be dubbed “wars” but which were a disturbing upset in what had been generations of stability. For most, day-to-day existence scarcely changed, but there was an undercurrent of something more dire brewing in the Ocean of Life. The edges of the great civilization were pulling away from the center, aiming to form their own tiny empires at the farthest points of the known world. The bloodshed from these limited conflicts dissipated readily, but the comfortable folks in the Detritan heartland couldn't so easily ignore the changes in their quality of life. The luxuries that once came from the depths of Detriti stopped coming, and what did arrive at the centers of commerce was far more expensive. No one starved, but it was enough of a shock to turn all eyes inward and shake free the romanticism that had once characterized so many Detritans. The more people worried for their material comforts, the less time they had to ponder the barrier and the world beyond it.

Ahine was little troubled by solitude – she had little in common with the gawkers who flocked to the barrier in an attempt to relive childhood memories, and even the scholars could be aggravating in their own way. If anything, the increasingly empty quadrant of ocean felt like a gift from the world at large. Thus it was that Ahine was the only person to witness the light on the other side of the barrier.

It started as a tiny point of yellow, scarcely visible through the great black shell. Ahine paid it no mind at first, taking it for proof of exhaustion and a sign that she needed more sleep. But it was still there the next day, and what's more it had grown in both size and brilliance. By the third day there was no question that it was a genuine phenomenon, and Ahine brought tools to measure and record the size of the light. By the sixth day there was a faint vibration on the surface of the barrier, and after ten days Ahine would swear on her very life that the ice felt warmer to the touch. There was no longer any question what she was witnessing – there was life in the Ocean of Dreams and it was trying to make contact.

The revelation was enough to disintegrate the facade of self-restraint. Ahine, no longer concerned about things as petty as image, wasted no time in telling everyone she knew of her discovery. The scholars had little time or patience for Ahine's discovery, having been burned by similar tales before. Her neighbors reacted little better, but a small number who heard Ahine's message followed her back to the barrier. There were a few more the following day, and more the next. By the week's conclusion, there was a regular crowd gathered around the light, which by that point had grown vivid enough that it could be seen clearly from a distance. The scholars at last had time to visit the site for themselves, only to find themselves fighting through the mass of Detritans staring in awe at the phenomenon.

Perhaps it was the stress of the times, but the new discovery was embraced less as a scientific discovery and more as a spiritual one. This new discovery in times of peril reawakened Detriti's mythical heritage for more than a few people. For every person of letters taking measurements at the site and formulating hypotheses, there were three or four pilgrims looking to see something that they'd always been told was impossible, and the pilgrims grew in strength every day. Some of them began to view Ahine as an almost messianic figure, the priestess to whom the higher beings first revealed themselves. Ahine had no interest in her new status, though, consumed as she was in curiosity for what they would soon witness.

And even still the world around them continued to change. At first, the renegades and rebels had no inkling what was going on in the nation that they had rejected. They noticed the crowds, of course, but had little interest in what was going on at the barrier. But when the crowd failed to dissipate, when it grew larger and larger, and when the Detritans began using the phenomenon in their own propaganda, the rebels at last realized that this was not something they could simply dismiss. Even some of the loyal nationalists were seeing something sacred in the heart of Detriti and questioning the righteousness of their own cause. The rebel leaders responded with fury, decrying the phenomenon as either a hoax perpetrated by their enemies or – among the more inventive fabulists – a sign that judgment was soon to come and that any Detritans who valued their lives and those of their families would flee at once. The rebel propagandists became a presence at the site with hopes of winning more souls for the cause, only to be met by Detritan propagandists who had no patience for their oily stories. A few days after the rebels appeared, Detritan soldiers made their presence known at the site, creating a protective sphere between the pilgrims and the renegades. The two groups eyed each other at a distance, each waiting with tension for the other to make a move.

The arrival of the soldiers was the first thing to draw Ahine's attention away from the barrier and the light. For the first time, she was fearful – not because she thought that the renegades might make their move, but because she now imagined that Detriti might not last long enough for the unseen visitors to make themselves known. Would the dwellers of the Ocean of Dreams at last break through the barrier, only to find a great ruin on the other side? Reason departed by the day, replaced by an admixture of fear and faith. She didn't believe that these were gods on the other side, but the idea – the hope, the desperate longing – lingered in some crevasse of her mind that salvation was at hand. At her most frightened, she even found herself surrendering to the prayers and chants of the crowd and wondered, if only for moments at a time, if she was indeed the priestess that they needed so badly.

Then, just as the tension was reaching its apex, the ice cracked. The sound reached the crowd first, muffled splinters just audible at the surface of the barrier. The first cracks were fine ones, visible only under careful scrutiny. The following day, minute chips of ice broke free and drifted freely through the crowd. It was a beautiful sight, enough to force an unspoken truce between the soldiers and renegades with each side too transfixed to even dream of fighting. Still, there was no soul in the crowd more fascinated than Ahine, who had become so consumed by curiosity that she had not left the site in days, relying on pilgrims to bring food and sleeping only in brief fits. She could feel the warmth of whatever lay beyond, hear the vibrations and the sundering of the ice, but what she could see...what she could see through the thinning ice was at once spectacular and terrifying. For the first time, she could see shapes and shadows on the other side, silhouettes of alien things lingering just inches above.

Then the light went cold and vanished, and for a moment the spark in the crowd was extinguished. Had these visitors truly abandoned the Ocean of Life? Had the radiance of salvation gone out for good? There was little time to muse on such things as the shadows beyond the ice moved. A massive dark object slammed into the weakened ice, sending a shudder through the barrier for a mile in each direction. The object struck again, this time shattering the ice and sundering the waters all around. The crowd was instantly dispersed – those nearest to the mammoth object were launched through the water by the sudden displacement, while those farther away had a chance to flee with their lives. Ahine, who was the closest, went tumbling through the water with terrible velocity, narrowly avoiding an ugly collision with one of the great chunks of ice that had been knocked free.

Ahine recovered her senses to a troubling sight. The few Detritans still in the area were either unconscious or dead, the survivors fleeing from this violent intrusion into their world. Through her still hazy vision, she could make out the object that had breached the ice – a massive gray mechanism of unknown make and purpose. Slowly, the object withdrew to the other side of the barrier, leaving a sizable hole in its wake. For the first time, Ahine could see what lay beyond the barrier, though not clearly. There was a strange distortion over the hole that allowed only a dim view of darkness and light. Shrugging off the shock and numbness, she struggled through the waters to reach the gap. Her hand passed through and into nothingness – no resistance, no liquid. The Ocean of Dreams was the ocean of gas of which the scholars had dreamed, and Ahine was the first to witness it first-hand.

And there, crouching at the edge of the breached barrier, holding tight to the surface through that thin vaporous ocean, was the visitor. It was a great gray thing far larger than any Detritan, not even flinching as it stared through the breach with what Ahine could only imagine were its eyes. It was a terrifying beast, but for the first time in her life Ahine truly knew no fear. Drawing as near to the gas-ocean as she dared, she uttered a single phrase:

“This is Detriti. What is the name of your home?”

200 billion miles away, the dwellers of a blue-green ocean of gasses waited eagerly to hear her question.

The Industry Responds!

"It was an interesting take on a first contact story but felt like it ended just as the plot was starting. It had a lot of exposition and little action." -Deep Magic

"We loved the worldbuilding and the voice of this piece, but for our tastes the ending was unsatisfying, because it hinged on a 'reveal' of something we considered self-evident from the first page." -Escape Pod

Check Out More Rejected Stories!

Why I Can’t Let the Fabulist Die

I'm going to quit pretending that any of you have read The Fabulist. You are, with very few exceptions, either bounces or bots. I'm not going to try and talk you into reading it again, and I'll spare you the self-deprecating snark (it does grow wearying) or my uncomfortable attempts at promoting myself. Rather, I will spare any further warm-up and explain why it is that I'm so fixated on getting this book read, and I will do so in a manner that assumes you have read it.

Ahem.

In a world where an author has all of thirty seconds to win over an agent, there are many literary devices that don't work so well. In particular, there's no easy way for an unknown author to discuss motifs and themes. Am I to talk about them in the query letter? Outright mentioning themes is discouraged as it's something the agent is supposed to pick up on by reading it, but how is that going to work when agents often make a decision based on a few paragraphs? How do you grasp something after five pages that might take a hundred pages to establish?

There's an extreme example of this in The Fabulist. The protagonist sets something up in the first chapter that isn't referenced again until the second to last page. Here are those passages, placed back-to-back:

Fleuron

(Chapter 1) "Now I know you're full of shit." Harvester held the pen between middle and forefinger, studying it for some undisclosed secret. "You'd have to be nuts to carry this crap so far."

"There are those who would agree," said Storyteller. "I suppose I am a hopeless sentimentalist. They've been my traveling companions for many years, truly my only friends. The notebook especially - one day, I plan to fill it to the margin on the last page."

Harvester paged through the notebook, squinting at the cramped penmanship. "You're not far off. Tell me, what do you get for filling this thing?"

"Something very good," said Storyteller.

....

(Chapter 40) "Look, I know it's not perfect, but it'll be safe. Whatever goes down, you'll be safe in here - just like I promised. Oh, I got some things for you." Will produced a bulging cloth satchel, draping the strap over Sam's shoulders. "Now, the sweets you're gonna want to share with the kids, and some of it's kinda boring and practical. But I also got something just for you."

Opening the satchel, Sam found a leather-bound notebook and a gold-plated pen. "I can't take these. Weren't they expensive?"

"Hey, don't worry about it. We were gonna get you something more durable, right? This notebook will survive anything, even the end of days." Will rested a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Look, I know you're scared. Just do what you've always done when you were scared. I want you to take that notebook and start a brand new story. By the time you've filled the last page, I'll be back, I promise." Will forced a smile. "Can you be strong for me?"

Sam swallowed back the lump in his throat. "I'll be strong."

Fleuron

There, I spoiled the ending. The worst social sin in the affluent Western world, and I breached it without even giving warning. Then again, it's not like you were planning on reading it, anyway. Did you feel at all moved by those lines, though? They're easily the most emotionally charged lines I've ever composed, but perhaps you don't agree. Perhaps that's because you haven't read the 110,000 words in between them, so merely keep those lines in mind as I explain the story's themes.

Note the plural. I always thought that The Fabulist had one theme - the nature of memory. I was wrong - this is a device and an important one, but it's not thematically significant. It wasn't until I returned to this manuscript years later that I noticed the two actual themes, themes that I had subconsciously woven into the narrative.

The first theme - and this one was so clear in retrospect that I must have been wilfully blind - is fatherhood. Paternal tensions abound in the even-numbered (and odd-numbered to some extent) chapters. There are the conflicts within the Jameson family, the sharp contrast between Ben's contentious relationship with his father Joshua and the relationship he's trying to have with his own daughter Rebecca. There's Lidia Zhang and her strained relationship with a distant father who doesn't hold her in very high esteem, not the least of which because of her own romance with the almost unseen Roderick Butler (hinted to be the father of Lidia's stillborn child). There's Aaron Bellamy and his own domineering, impossible-to-satisfy father, and it's a shame I had to trim the scenes where we get to watch Aaron turn from a arrogant sociopath into a broken child as he fails to live up to the old man's expectations yet again.

The big one, though, involves Sam Scarborough/Storyteller, our main protagonist. Sam's father is dead, having passed in an accident when Sam was very young. In his place, I gave Sam two surrogate father figures. The first, obviously, is his older brother Will. Throughout the even-numbered chapters, there are scenes meant to drive home the point that Will is a de facto guardian to Sam, fulfilling many of the roles that their father would have filled had he lived.

Less obvious is the father figure in the odd-numbered chapters: Leroy Brigg, the Conqueror of the Southern Wastes. That may seem odd, but if you read the book carefully you'll see some points of comparison, at least from Sam's point of view. Both of them are large, physically powerful men, a sharp contrast from Sam's meek nature. Extending on that, both of them are more than willing to use force to their ends, another point of contrast from the pacifistic Sam.

Most importantly, both men try to counsel Sam, but their advice is where they differ. Will teaches Sam that his own altercations are mistakes, that compassion is more important than might. Leroy tries to convince him of the opposite, that compassion is meaningless and strength is all there is.

This all comes to a head in the big showdown at the end of the book. Leroy tosses Sam a gun with a single bullet and tells him he can escape by killing Leroy. It's a pretty on-the-nose bit of imagery, the equivalent of the asshole stepdad pointing at his chin and saying "Go ahead, take a poke at me." He says something else to really make the point stick:

Fleuron

(Chapter 39) "I've never..." Sam clasped a hand to his face as a wave of nausea set it. "...My brother told me not...he always handled such things."

"But your brother is dead, isn't he? He's a memory. He doesn't even exist. A man of integrity and courage who sacrificed so that his kin could keep a feeling of unearned superiority...the wrong brother survived I think." Leroy ran his thumb along the edge of the knife. "Unless I'm wrong. Go ahead, prove me the fool. Die with your honor intact."

Fleuron

This is one final push for Leroy to establish his dominance. Sam might have two father figures, but only one is standing there. This, in turn, leads to the other theme.

I think the people who have actually read The Fabulist were expecting some force to intervene and save Sam Scarborough. Lidia's army would show up, or Wayfinder's raiders - someone. I'd like to think that some of them hoped that Will Scarborough would turn up alive and protect his brother one final time. I can think of a lot of stories that might have ended on this twist, but not The Fabulist. Will is dead, he's not coming back. and Sam has to deal with that on his own.

This is the second theme. I thought it was memory; really, it's about coping. Half of the book is Sam's coping mechanism.

The big twist in The Fabulist is that the even-numbered chapters are all fabrications. I'd like to think that this is a fair twist, with enough hints that one could theoretically figure it out:

  • There are little hints throughout that Sam shouldn't be considered reliable, as early as Chapter 3 ("We were always prone to lying for the sake of the story.")
  • We learn that Sam has been writing about Will in Chapter 13 ("...I'm glad to see that you didn't invent these people. I mean, this Will guy doesn't seem like much of a hero.").
  • There are numerous discontinuities between the odd- and even-numbered chapters, most notably in Chapter 19 and Chapter 27.
  • There is the delirium sequence in Chapter 23, in which a hallucinatory vision of Will just outright says it ("Come on, Sam, it's me. We both know you didn't see half that shit.")

The real giveaway for the observant reader, though, is in Chapter 18:

Fleuron

"You remember how you got started on this? That counselor...oh, what was her name? Uh...doesn't matter. You know, though, the lady they had us talk to after dad died? She said it would help to write our thoughts. Of course, there was never much in my head. Man, I bet you've got the first one you ever wrote. Remember that?"

Fleuron

With that passage, we know that Sam writes to cope with loss - in fact, that's how he got started. If he wrote stories to deal with a death, isn't it possible that he'd do it again?

The big twist in Chapter 35 breaks the narrative in a big way. Before that, the presumption is that this is a story told from two perspectives - the odd-numbered chapters being Sam's story and the even-numbered chapters being Will's. But with this revelation, we learn that, in fact, it's entirely Sam's story - as an adult in the odd-numbered chapters and a child in the even-numbered chapters. Beyond that, though, the even-numbered chapters are Sam's coping mechanism, an absurd story of accidental heroism to give himself a happy memory.

Sam told himself a lie and then allowed himself to believe that it was true. He did this because it was easy for him. Dealing with Will's death was finally too much for him to bear, but if he couldn't wish his brother back to life, he could at least turn Will into a myth that could never truly die.

Maybe it would have worked, but he told the lie a little too well, and ended up seeking out the very things that would dispel that myth. The story made him happy, but it wasn't sustainable, and when it finally collapsed he had nothing left. That's why he was willing to walk into certain death at the end of the book.

Except there was something left. Will may have been a mere memory - as Leroy said - but that didn't mean he was gone. Sam survived because of Will, and Sam had his values because of Will. Leroy was wrong - Will was alive, and was standing in front of him.

In the closing pages, Sam - having narrowly survived his brush with the Conqueror's Army - finds that his notebook is gone. That's the same notebook he risked his life to retrieve earlier. This time, though, he doesn't panic or fret. He has finally recognized that the story in that notebook was just fiction, not his brother, and he no longer needs it to honor Will's memory.

Now go back to the top and read those lines again.

fabulist old cover

The Fabulist was a much simpler story when I did the serialized version - more an interesting concept than anything. People came back to read it, though, because there was something they just couldn't give up. In Storyteller, I had created a character compelling enough that they could ignore the relatively slow pace, the saggy chapters, and that signature serial fiction lack of direction.

Maybe I owe that to the circumstances. I wrote that first serial during one of the darkest times in my life, and rewrote it while in another deep trough. There's pain here that stretches well beyond the genre influences on its surface.

It would have been nice if one of the approximately 260 agents whom I queried could see this. A whopping seven people asked to see it, and none of those seven felt it was worth their time to tell me why they thought it wasn't good enough. As for the rest...I can hear then all saying "Great, another Hunger Games knockoff" and sticking their noses so high in the air that I'm stunned that they could see to delete the message.

Never mind my grudge against the publishing industry, though, my point is that this is what drove me to submit it 260 times. It's what drove me to spend hours analyzing the thing for ideal length and submission time. It's what drove me to resort to the kind of cheap social media stunts that I revile. It's what drove me to record and edit podcasts that no one listens to. It's what drove me to release it under Creative Commons. I did these things because I want people to read it and to feel, if only in small way, what I've felt all these years.

It's why I couldn't quit. It's why I had to quit.

If you wish to see what it looks like when a manuscript is inked in the author's own blood and then rejected by the entire literary community, you can. You won't, but you can.

Sorry if this was bitter.