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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.

Check Out More Rejected Stories!

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

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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.

A Rare Success: Starless Night

As much as I've been complaining, I do have the odd success, fluke though it may be. Today I'll be featuring my first SFWA piece, published in Nature: Futures back in March 2018. You can read it on their site, or here (because why not be redundant?) or in the Storyteller's Reserve collection.

...You have picked up the collection, right? Actually, I've seen my stats - statistically, you haven't. So why not do that now? Remember, it's free with the coupon code XF44B.

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Starless Night

An ephemeral layer of crinkly ice coated the surface of the microphone, falling in glistening flakes as Matilda ran a gloved hand over its surface. It was a sturdy device, but there was simply no way of knowing if it still functioned; even the most overzealous engineers didn't bother to plan for such conditions. The broadcasting array was still working at least, or that's what she could glean from those instruments that were still functional. Matilda always thought that computers were supposed to function best in a cold environment, but even a being of wire and steel must have its limitations.

Matilda drew the microphone to her face, pulling down her parka just enough to allow for speech. “Explorer Nozek, broadcasting from Rogue Object X-27881. Current astronomical location is unknown. Proximity to other objects is unknown. Time since last broadcast...” She pushed the microphone aside just in time to stifle a delirious laugh. “...I guess I don't know how long it's been. Funny, I hadn't really thought about it until just right now, but without a star to revolve around or a nice neat rotation, these rogue planets don't have 'time' like we do back on Earth, nice neat cycles that we can chart and predict and obsess over. Different circumstances, this might be very liberating.”

Matilda buried her face in the parka as she fell prey to a violent coughing fit. The “cold” she had contracted was clearly psychosomatic – she was in a hypochondriac's dark dream, a place so frigid that no pathogen could possibly survive in the air. Nothing could live here for long, or at least that was what Matilda – what everyone on Earth – had assumed before she landed.

“Sorry about that,” said Matilda, idly tapping one of the displays. “Okay. Current temperature is about -230 degrees Celsius and dropping fast as we continue to move away from all known stars. Guess I should switch over to Kelvin soon, that's...a pleasant moment, when you realize the freezing point of water has become grossly inadequate to what you are experiencing. Um...the heat pump is still working, which is a minor miracle since it's really only built for prolonged use in temperatures some 50 degrees higher than this. I expect it'll overload and break soon, probably around the time the backup batteries give out and-”

A strange rhythmic tapping sound split the silence, a tangle of tiny feet skittering across the metal plates in the shadows at the edge of the cramped chamber. Matilda shot a quick glance out of the corner of her eye but didn't halt for more than a second at the new arrival.

“In concluding what I suspect will be my final missive, since...well, I have no clue where I am so there's no chance of anyone else finding me...anyway, I'd just like to say that the Rogue Exploration Project was a terrible idea. We're never going to know how many astronauts we've killed on this little journey, but I suspect the answer is all of us. 'Oh no, sending robots isn't good enough. We need human eyes on those planets. Consider the possibilities.' I can remember saying this myself, both while drunk and stone-cold sober, so I guess this is partially on me. If you do find me, don't bother with a funeral or service, but go ahead and dig up what's under my ship. Trust me on this.”

Matilda's final words vanished into another bout of coughing, one that she willfully allowed the microphone to pick up – the better to let the recipients know what the end would look like. Terminating the broadcast, she let her head roll to one side, staring off into the shadows at the edge of the chamber.

“You come to watch me die?” said Matilda. “Come on out, don't skulk.”

At first, she could only see the thing's deformed-looking eyes, those recessed pits that glimmered in the dim light. Then, with a series of clicks, it emerged into the shimmery light. First came the head, triangular in shape and with few features aside from its eye-pits and a weird sucker-mouth whose mechanics were beyond knowing. Next came its slender body, jet black and covered in translucent fibrous hairs that turned rigid in time with its respiration. The odd little creature was supported by two asymmetrical lines of spindly appendages that clicked almost musically as the thing advanced.

“You alone this time, or did you bring your brothers?” Matilda sighed and slumped down in her seat, then suddenly grabbed the microphone and yanked it forward. “Come on, make a sound. So you can't speak, but can't you growl or bark or...burble or groan or something? Can't you prove that you exist before I die? Won't you at least let me be known as the one who discovered you?”

The creature merely cocked its head, raising up and down on its appendages. It drew closer to Matilda like a curious dog, then backed away to size her up. Then there was a faint sound from the bowels of the vessel, or rather the absence of a sound that Matilda had ceased to notice.

“That would be the heat pump going.” Matilda glanced at the creature as the cold enveloped her. “I guess the universe is always going to keep its secrets, huh?”

Matilda closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep from which she would never wake. The creature's eye-pits never left her.

Cavalcade of Rejection: Rhesus

Starting from today, I'll be simultaneously posting Cavalcade of Rejection stories and the Storyteller's Reserve readings of the same. They won't necessarily be the same, as I tend to mix things up when I read these out. I'd like to think that this will come across more as "dynamic" than "unprofessional," but who knows.

You have downloaded your copy of the book, right? Remember, it's free with the coupon code XF44B.

...Right, the story. I wish I had a more interesting backstory for this one, but it's pretty straightforward - I wrote it with Nature: Futures in mind, they didn't want it and neither did a dozen other markets.This one really seems like the kind of story that many flash fiction markets like, but I guess I wasn't fancy enough with my language. Clarity and efficiency aren't always desirable.

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Rhesus

As best as I can reckon, the observers that watch me through the glass dividers have yet to discover that I have gained the ability to comprehend their speech. Perhaps I am wrong, and they are discussing my newly-developed capacities when they slip out for a coffee break, speculating on how sapient I've become since the onset of their experiment. When they are in my presence, though, they still speak freely about their findings and casually about their lives and interests and I am just part of the protocol, live specimen #08, more a piece of laboratory equipment than a thinking being. They'll certainly discover their oversight eventually, a year or so from now, when they have pickled slices of my brain prepared for a chemical analysis. I accept this fate; I have no yearning to escape. My only regret is that these ears will never hear what the observers discovered in the tangle of neurons, for I have become just as invested in the fate of my fellows as those observers who hope that we will one day save their lives.

There is little I truly understand about the world - insofar as there is a world outside of this facility - but I know with certainty that I am graced with luck, at least as far as the laboratory specimens are concerned. None of the observers expected that the retrovirus would have this effect of my mind, not when they proposed this experiment and certainly not when the first of the data came in. This was meant to be a critical but ultimately anodyne experiment, and then it took an altogether unexpected turn. #22 was the first to exhibit a change in personality, and the outcome was especially grim. This was before my unexpected awakening, and thus my memories are so much fog, but I can remember the fear, the blood, the noise, the carnage. #16 was his first victim, the poor primate's face nearly chewed off by his maddened attacker before the observers could react. Then #22 turned his bottomless rage on the observers, biting off the forefinger of one, rendering another unconscious with a piece of lab equipment that he sent flying through the air. One of them fetched a shotgun from storage and put and end to #22's rampage, sadly too late to pull #16's mangled body from his clutches. These were the first casualties of the experiment, and wholly unexpected ones.

The observers wasted no time in dissecting #22's brain. They seemed not to be disturbed by the outburst of violence or the maiming of their colleagues, but some were nearly brought to tears when the results of their analysis were inconclusive. "Inconclusive" - the first of the observers' words that I could fully understand. It meant that they had learned nothing from their research, that the bloody rampage of #22 and his execution had taught them nothing about a phenomenon that they clearly feared. I didn't understand that fear at the time, as I couldn't fathom why any creature - let alone creatures as obviously developed as the observers - would willingly spend so much time around something that caused it such fear. With my new gifts of wisdom, I understand. They seek knowledge to overcome their dread, and to achieve that they must enter the abattoir with the rest of us. They are brave, these observers, or perhaps the fear over the experiment simply overwhelms whatever looming terror awaits outside.

None of the subjects reacted to the retrovirus with as much brutality as #22, but each of us was changed by our exposure to this tiny entity. #04 changed first, withdrawing into the corner of his cage and clawing feebly and fitfully at the observers and the specimens and whatever horror dwelt solely within his mind. #12 became wracked with strange fits in which she jumped in place and flipped over, playful and joyous, but with a visage of shock that made me think that this play was not her own choice. And as to #20, her transformation was especially strange - she was content to sit in the middle of her cage, her nimble hands grooming and feeding a newborn who wasn’t there, who had never been there at all, but who was utterly concrete to #20.. That was the fate of most of the subjects - we became hostages to an organ that we could no longer control, at least not in full. Perhaps I am no different? Perhaps my intellect is just an illusion presented to me by a damaged, malfunctioning brain?

If this is just a disease-induced fantasy, then my only hope is that it will last long enough for the observers to discover its cause. From my place in the sealed observation area, I can sense their own fear. They've been accelerating the experiment lately, an unwise move according to the more rational among them, but rationality clearly does not rule outside of these walls. They are terrified of something that is clearly growing, and this terror presses them onward. One of them took #09 from her cage and put her down - she had shown some early signs of aggression and they were far too desperate to wait for the full effects to manifest. Yesterday was #25's turn for a trip to the dissection lab, far ahead of even the early symptoms of neurological change. There was a shared look of panic on their faces - the same look I'd seen on #16, or maybe darker still - that told me that the results were still inconclusive.

I’ve heard the observers using new words lately, less clinical than those I heard before and uttered with a hint of panic. “Doomsday” - I hear that one frequently, and though once the observers chided those who used this term, now they treat it with an odd sort of reverence. “Civilizational collapse” - this they utter in the context of their observations, but there is a tension between those words and a hesitance to speak them aloud. Something dire has happened to their world, and soon it will breach these walls, rip them down, and swallow us all. This is why I was granted this gift, and why my brothers and sisters were cursed with madness, and why we are fated to be sacrifices to the understanding of the observers. We were born to perish in the name of logic.

Will I be the next offering? Since my awakening, I have developed a keen awareness of my own limits and a fear of the end. I don’t want to die, not in this place, not on their schedule. However, if my sacrifice leads to a conclusion, then so be it - I will accept my death with grace, if not with joy. This laboratory has become a place of horrors but whatever nightmare lurks in the world beyond the lab, it must be an order of magnitude beyond what these eyes have witnessed. The observers will do what they feel they must and, knowing that the solution to this crisis may well be nestled within my skull, I can only comply. A pity that I won't see the results, though perhaps that's a blessing in the end. It would be a shame to learn that my death was inconclusive, too.

Announcing the Storyteller’s Reserve

Oh, the things we do for attention.

The biggest obstacle in the writing game is all of those people who aren't so big on the "reading" part. Enter audio as a means of bridging that gap:

There are problems here - my resources are limited and its been years since I've worked with audio - but these are the cards I'm dealing with. To further commemorate this project, I'm releasing an ebook containing fourteen of my (mostly failed) stories. The book can be found here; use the coupon code XF44B to download it for free. Oh, and like everything else, the books and videos are CC BY-SA. Knock yourselves out.

Cavalcade of Rejection: Second Chance, Stolen to Order

"Second Chance, Stolen to Order" is something that I didn't originally intend to shop around too much. I wrote it on the spur of the moment after seeing a photograph that stirred up some bad memories, but ended up liking the concept enough to repeatedly rewrite it in an attempt to get someone else to care about it as well. Seventeen rejections later, and here it is for your perusal.

This is why I often tell people not to bother with rewrites beyond a certain point. This version of the story, which is around 4000 words, started off as a flash piece well under 1000. I repeatedly rewrote it in an attempt to get someone to care for it as much as I did. Not only are there four versions of this story, but it has three different names - first it was "Second Chance," then "Second Chance, Stolen to Order" (my preferred title), then "All Paths in One Little Package." I dumped a lot of time into this thing.

The problem is that, based on my responses, this story was being rejected based on the concept. There was never anything wrong with the writing - as with so many other project (up to and including The Fabulist), it was doomed before I even started writing it. You'll see why in the "Industry Responds" section, but try and figure it out for yourself first.

One more thing: If you want to help me out, go to this Twitter post and mock me. My goal is to get the worst Twitter ratio of all time, for reasons that have to do with the New York Times having shamefully poor standards for opinion writing and Bret Stephens being a whiner. Maybe you could tell me how much this story sucks, or if you like it...I don't know, make fun of my name or something.

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Second Chance, Stolen to Order

Seven years of running dodgy packages around the planet and that was the first and only time I've ever actually had the parcel shackled to my wrist. My contact was a jerk about it, too. He fastened the handcuff way too tight around my wrist and I could feel the muscles throbbing gently in time with my pulse the whole time. Of course I complained, but the bastard wouldn't adjust it as much as a smidge. Stickler for the contract, that one, and the contract said that the cuffs didn't come off under any circumstances until after delivery. “We pay you well enough to put up with a little discomfort,” he said, and I couldn't argue the point – the customer is always right and all that nonsense, even (maybe especially) when the customer is an asshole.

It wasn’t just the one asshole, though. I got variants of the same story at every stop, and I do mean every stop - every time an airplane touched the tarmac, every time a car pulled over for gas, there was another faceless shady freak in a nondescript suit ready to hassle me. I must have dealt with at least a dozen of them, pushy creepers who didn't bother to introduce themselves before they examined the case for signs of tampering. Thorough, too, like doctors scrutinizing a patient with some weird disease. If there was any change in the case or the cuffs, anything as much as a smudged fingerprint or a patch of unusually colored dust, I had to explain it, and they expected details - “I don’t know” or “Maybe I brushed up against something” weren’t nearly good enough. If that’s all I had for them, then they started the grilling, probing my story for some hint of a lie. I had to account for every step I took, every time I sat down or stood up, every stranger who as much as brushed past my arm, every time I took a sip of something and turned my head for a fraction of a second. Even after all of that, they still didn’t believe me half the time. Yeah, like I'm nervy enough to steal a parcel. If I had that kind of ambition, I wouldn’t be doing this bullshit for a living.

They wouldn’t let me sleep, either. I guess these suited automatons don’t get that the humans get a little wiggy when we’re up for dozens of hours while being juked all over the country. Biology always wins out in the end, of course - I took a power nap whenever their attention drifted, and when I was a really good boy they actually allotted me a few minutes to close my eyes before bringing me back to reality with a friendly elbow to the solar plexus. Nice guys, those freaks. It wasn’t restful anyway - I kept having these weird stress dreams where this angry stone-faced matron of a fairy flew out of the briefcase, slapped me across the cheek and demanded that I say her name. When I told her I’d never seen her before and didn’t know her name, she slapped me again and insisted that I did. Crazy shit, man - like that every single time I drifted off. To be honest, it made me really want to know what was in the parcel in the first place.

Not that they told me what was in the briefcase, of course, they were totally mum on the subject. It's not like anyone ever goes into detail – not like I'd even want details or know what to do with them, there’s some information that can only suck more misery into your life.. But even the shadiest of clients – and all of my clients are plenty shady, though a few stand out from the pack – even the worst of them still gives me enough information to guarantee that I'll handle the parcel properly. Not this pack of charmers, though. “We pay you well enough to keep your curiosity to yourself,” they said, and they weren't kidding. Three million dollars – enough to keep a chintzy errand boy like me sitting pretty for ten lifetimes. Three million dollars, and the only things I had to deal with were bad circulation and sleep deprivation. They must have figured that if they dangled that kind of dough in front of me, I'd shut up and do whatever they wanted. They were right. I figured it was illegal, or hazardous, or wanted by the wrong people – probably all three. I didn't care. Hell, I'm not sure that my whole life is worth anything close to three million dollars, especially not after the shit I’ve done to it.

Does it sound like I'm complaining? Don't think that for a second. True, I certainly never imagined that I'd be doing this for a living when I was six, but it was fated to be and I accept it. What else was I going to do? I've never been the smartest one around, and I certainly don't have any notable talents, unless you count my knack for dealing with scumbags. The only things I have going for me are desperation and disposability, which might be the most valuable skills around these days. Being a tight-lipped no-name errand boy has worked out all right for me, I certainly do better than some of the people I know. And yes, maybe there have been a few times when I've been up really late, maybe really wasted, and started looking back through my life for that one junction where I took a wrong turn and ended up here. I’ve hurt people, it’s true, and there are other people I trusted when I should have known better, and some great opportunities that I just threw away like they were nothing. I get a few drinks in me and I start going back over my life story. Everyone does that, I think, even though it's ultimately meaningless.

Well, meaningless for most people. Those thoughts aren’t so meaningless if you know the right people, like some throwaway loser willing to bet his soul on the stacked deck of life. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Having a case shackled to your wrist loses its charm pretty quick. I know a lot of people harbor some kind of espionage fantasy where they're the agent tasked with transporting the critically important plans while dodging enemies spies bent on their murder, and the handcuffed briefcase is a big part of that. In real life, it's a pain in the ass. It's real conspicuous, for one – nothing draws eyeballs like handcuffs, except maybe handcuffs and a briefcase that’s too bulky to sit in your hand nice. People see the cuffs and they either slip away, avert their eyes and pretend that everything’s normal, or they edge closer, hoping that they can glean some secret piece of information about the spy among them. Actually, given what a mess I am, most of them probably assumed I was involved in the drug trade, or the gun trade, or something like that. It’s a shock to me that I never got questioned by the cops - maybe the rich prick behind this whole job had connections, I don’t know. I do know that it would have been a lot easier if they gave me a plain piece of luggage no one would notice, but it's not like anyone was going to listen to me.

By the last leg of my little mission, I was totally out of it, the stress and pain and exhaustion mingling together and working a special kind of magic on my brain. The whole thing felt like some awful dream, the kind that you talk about when you’re hammered and don’t have any more intelligent or interesting topics to bring up. That weird fairy…I saw her everywhere, dancing around just outside of my field of vision, treating me to a collection of ugly stares and quietly mocking my ignorance. I questioned my sanity, but what’s sanity when three million bucks are on the line? Just a few more hours and I could tell her to go to hell.

My last stop was a giant, gaudy mansion at the end of some little inlet out in the middle of nowhere. I'd be more specific, but the suited freaks had a bag over my head for the last leg of the journey. I didn't think people did the whole head bag thing in real life, but I guess the rich prick who commissioned this job was a paranoid crank. That's my assumption, anyway – when the shady suited freak du jour pulled out the head bag and I registered a complaint, all I got was “We pay you well enough to follow orders” just before the lights went out. They had a point. Dignity's another one of those things I gave up for the paycheck. I’d have sold it long ago for a lot less if I only had a buyer.

They unfastened and unblinded me only when I'd reached some inner chamber deep in the bowels of the rich prick's house, halfway to the Earth's core judging by the length of the elevator ride. There were only three of us down there in that featureless little room. There was the last of the shady freaks, who may well have been one of the freaks from earlier - none of them had enough personality to tell them apart, they could be clones for all I know. There was the rich prick himself - no one you'd know from the news, but you can always recognize that special sort of imperial pomposity that only comes from years of having your ass kissed. Last, of course, was their disposable errand boy. The whole situation was plenty tense, and I was ready for the rich prick to give that little nod that meant it was time for some unseen gun to blow off the back of my head. But the way he really acted...I've never seen that exact light well up in a grown man's eyes, that look of impossibly deep boyish awe, like he was on the verge of the best Christmas anyone would ever had.

The shady freak dragged me over to a sterile metal table and forced my arm onto the steely surface. “Don’t move.” A quick flash of movement and the jingling of keys and the handcuff was freed from my wrist, the throbbing ache stilled for the first time in an agonizingly long while. “All right, step back.”

“This is it.” The rich prick had to will himself to step back from the case long enough to complete the transaction. “...Three million dollars, correct?”

“That's right, sir,” I said.

Pricks like this don't deal in cash. He waved to the freak, who passed over a manila envelope. “It’s the safest option, and I threw in a little extra for the inconvenience. You do know how to turn that into money, right?”

“I can figure it out,” I said. “For three million, I'll hire someone to figure it out for me.”

“It was worth every penny, believe me,” said the rich prick. “The finest acquisition I've ever made.”

I'll be honest – it was killing me not knowing what was in that case. I'd assumed that the rich prick was having me transport something he'd had stolen to order, a rare piece art or a coin or something else for one of his less public collections. But when I heard him talk, and I saw that rapturous glean in his eye, I knew that it was something bigger than my limited little mind could grasp. There was magic in there.

The rich prick must have seen me staring at the case, because he got this weirdly whimsical expression and suddenly turned chatty. “...They didn't tell you what's in here, did they?”

“Not my business, sir,” I said.

“But you're curious?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I'll tell you. This is a second chance. The most valuable thing in the world.” The prick caressed the case as tears welled up in his tiny piggy eyes. “A second chance…”

I’ve heard my clients say some weird shit, but this just plain did not make sense. “What do you mean a 'second chance'?”

“A second chance at anything. Any mistake, any failure, any sin – undone in an instant.” The prick was sobbing under his words. “Most people never get one, you know, not even me. It’s not something you can just buy or make. You have to earn it. My God, what I did to earn this one.”

“I don't understand.”

“Then you've lived without regret,” said the prick. “And that means you are a luckier man than I.”

“You’re saying that when you open this case…”

“...I get to go back.” The rich prick showed me this manic sort of joy that I’d never personally witnessed in all my years doing this garbage. “Just one chance, just one! But oh, what I can do with that chance…the wounds I can heal, the pain I can erase…I’ve been waiting years for this.”

“A second chance...” Without thinking, my hand drifted toward the case. It was obviously crazy, but I believed the prick. I don't know, I guess it was wishful thinking. Losers like me never get second chances, and yet here was one that I could touch, one that I held in my hands as I traveled across the country. The one thing that could answer all those questions that led to all those long nights, or at least one of them.

The rich prick’s jaw locked and he thrust himself between my greedy hands and the object of his desires. “Don’t think of it, don’t even dream it, boy.”

Don’t dream it. But I already dreamed about it, and it was at that moment that I understood what those dreams meant, what that weird fairy thing was trying to tell me. Her name was Redemption and I’d been chasing her my whole life, hoping just for the satisfaction of brushing my fingers against her wings and getting some moment of relief from decades of pain, some genuine healing that would end the need for rotgut analgesia. She was the one who led me here, made me sign that contract, turned my eyes so they fell on that case at exactly the right moment and at exactly the right place.

The shady freak flashed a sidearm. “You’ve been paid, now it’s time to go. Get away from the case, you're done.”

Maybe it was fate that put me in the perfect position to get the freak’s gun, or maybe Redemption guided my hands. A second earlier, a second later, I'd have been splattered all over the walls. An inch closer, an inch further back, and I’d have met the ground with my face shortly before the freak put some fresh holes in my skull. Maybe I'm just an egomaniac, but I could feel the universe itself spurring me to action. It only took one shot to put him down – clean through the heart at barely a foot away. And then it was just me and the rich prick and that look of shock and agony on his piggy face.

“You can't do this!” wailed the prick. “You don't know what I've done, what I have to fix!”

“I can guess.” The gun was steady in my hand, the barrel resting level with the rich prick’s head as I stared him down. “But there are things I need to fix, too. Lots of things.”

“You are young! There are other ways!” The rich prick had the second chance cradled in his arms like his only son. “I need this second chance! It's the only way!”

“It's no different for me, I guess.”

I squeezed the trigger again. You know, if he was smart enough, the rich prick might have considered using his second chance to shut his big mouth and move me on my way. Then again, maybe he had thought of it and just couldn’t stand the thought of wasting his chance. A second chance - more valuable than a man’s life. A second chance - more valuable even than the life of the owner.

The universe must have come to my aid again as there's no earthly way I could have escaped from that estate. It was impossible, and yet I did it, all the while carrying the most valuable thing in the world. I still have it, hidden in my crappy apartment, tucked away quietly in my closet under a pile of old memories. Every so often I take it out and hold it, but I've yet to open it up. I won't even touch the latches, won’t even look at them too hard. There's another life inside of that case, a solution to all of those regrets that loop through my mind at night, but the idea of it terrifies me in the way that I can't really articulate. I keep waiting for Redemption to appear again and give me some guidance, but the weird lady isn’t making herself known. She’s done her part, I guess. But as for the case, and whatever’s really in there…I don’t know.  Maybe it would be wrong to open it up, to use this second chance that I got through bloodshed and betrayal. Maybe it’s too dangerous to use it at all.

Then again, maybe I just don't want to squander it. Guys like me don't get second chances, you know.

The Industry Responds!

We thought this was an interesting concept, with a great first sentence, but the narrator's late-story choices felt unearned to us, and we wanted less convenience aiding them on their way. -Escape Pod

(I try to avoid breaking in to this section, but seriously, the story is explicitly about fate - you're complaining about "convenience"? -Ed.)