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Fiction

That’s odd

It’s Homecoming weekend at Penn State, so you expect crowds and noise and odd behavior. But it’s awfully early in the morning, and those don’t sound like drunken moans.

Gunshots? Must be fireworks. Although it is raining…. Weird.

I wonder what’s going on. I need to take the dog out shortly. Maybe I can find out more then. The dog doesn’t like the rain, so it may be a little while.

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Edit, 11am. We’re far enough from downtown that I don’t see any football celebrants as long I’m not foolish enough to try to leave the house. Usually. Homecoming must be extra exciting this year: I’m seeing a steady stream of drunken students shambling down my street. And it’s a dead-end street, too.

According to twitter, some strange things are going on around the country.

A true story

I started writing this as a comment on my previous post, but thought it might almost be interesting enough to stand alone.

“Horn” originally started with my favorite opening line ever: “I saw a unicorn this morning.”

Which is a true story. I did see a molting unicorn wandering through a cornfield along I-80 in Pennsylvania the morning I started plotting this tale.

Or it might have been a piece of rusting farm machinery, but where’s the fun in that?

Someday I’ll find the story that actually goes with that opening line, since this wasn’t it.

Thanks for the congrats, everyone: much appreciated.

Unicorns

I am enormously pleased to announce that my story “Horn” will be appearing in Issue #3 of Nine. There are no zombies, but there are unicorns.

“Horn” is the first story I ever finished, outside of class assignments, and was my first submission to a fiction publication (in April 2009). It’s been completely rewritten twice, once before and once after Viable Paradise, and went through an enormous number of less-aggressive revisions. I learned a few things during that time.

It’s also Nick’s favorite story; he gets to read everything before it goes out. Finally I won’t have to listen to him asking whether I’ve sold the unicorn story yet every time I talk about submitting things. (Instead, I get to listen to him ask whether I’ve written any more stories about Maggie yet, and why not?)

There is virtue in persistence: it took me three-and-a-half years to sell this story. It only went to five potential outlets, though: one of them is notoriously slow and had it for nine months. The second rewrite was key. More need for persistence: this is the first piece of fiction I’ve sold since I attended Viable Paradise two years ago. The rejections have been piling up, along with a couple of short-listings that ended in rejection. And piling up is what it takes, along with telling the best stories you can, and a generous dollop of luck.

There are things I’m very proud of in this story, and I hope you like it.

S

“That’s silly.”

“How would you know?” I wanted to scream at him, but managed to choke it back to a more moderate volume. After all those years in children’s programming, I had trouble expressing myself even when anger would be entirely justified. He’d probably cry. I hated that.

And cursing? Forget about it. Though the Sanskrit chants I’d learned for an episode that was never filmed? Those were even better than foul language in English, if said with the right inflection. I didn’t know what they meant anymore, just how the syllables felt rolling off my tongue.

I tried a few, just to see if they felt as good as I remembered. Bird’s feathers tightened around his body. I almost thought they paled from their usual brightness, but that had to have been a trick of the light. Sanskrit chants: even more effective than I’d thought. And since I learned them for an ep, they couldn’t really be anything not G-rated.

I stopped after the first stanza, but he took half a step back anyway. Partners for so all those years, and he still didn’t know me as well as he thought. Assuming we were still partners, something I wasn’t at all certain of.

The newspaper rolled in my trunk, no obstacle to Sanskrit or English, or even Spanish, led with “He’s REAL,” above the fold even. Must have been a slow news day. I waved it in his face.

Bird wiped off a bit of spittle from his head-feathers. Excited snuffling wasn’t the neatest activity, but I didn’t really care. “You didn’t read it. How do I know? Because you’re illiterate, that’s why.” And that would be a bombshell bigger than my reality or lack thereof, now wouldn’t it.

“But everyone has known you were real since 1985. So why does it matter what they said?”

“Bird. Remember the difference between television and reality?”
“Um, yes?” Bird looked at me with wide eyes.

“No you don’t.” I sighed. I explained this at least three times a week, and had for decades. “When the cameras are on, that’s television. It isn’t real. The television people thought I was imaginary, then they thought I was real.”

Bird nodded, his gaze fixed on me.

“The other people, the ones who watch the television? They’ve always thought I was imaginary, that there was a giant fur suit with people in it.” Bird opened his beak to say something, but I kept going. “They think you’re made-up too, that there’s a person inside you who moves your head and hands.”

“There is?” He looked down at himself, eyes even wider. It was a good thing they were permanently attached.

“No, there isn’t.” Talking to Bird was like, well, talking to a bird. “You’re real all the way through, just like me. But people think that you’re a muppet.”

“What’s a muppet?”

“Don’t worry about it. Here, have some candy.” I handed him a bag of wine gums, a reliable distraction. Really, why would Bird care what the world thought of him? He had a safe, secure life and made people happy.

I did too, but I was bored. I knew better than to go out for a walk; that’s how the tabloid got those photos. Last time they claimed to have evidence of Bigfoot. I got into a fair bit of trouble for leaving the compound. That’s when they added human security guards. It still wasn’t impossible to get out, even at my size, but I saved it for occasions when I might start smashing people if I didn’t get away for a while. Use the escape route too many times, and it was bound to be noticed.

The guards hadn’t caught on, but the paparazzi had. I was going to be stuck inside for years. Once in a great while I got a vacation: the producers put me in a semi and hauled me off into the wilderness for a week or two. Which wouldn’t be so bad, if a whole entourage didn’t have to come with me. Hello? Mammoth? I can handle a few days in the woods.

Maybe they’re just afraid I won’t come back. Nobody else is as good as I am at getting Bird to do things.

Anyway, no unauthorized expeditions. The fuss would die down, even assuming it spread past the second-rate newspaper that ran the photos. I’d keep doing my thing, and I’d keep Bird doing his, and everyone would be happy, except me.

At least there was still twitter.


This was twitter flash from a few weeks ago.

I’d solicited ideas then bailed on writing the story until tonight. Thanks to @random_michelle (A.S.’s thoughts about being outed as a real creature (rather than imaginary), @qitou (Sanskrit chants), and @J00licious )bags of wine gums, and people watching on the Tube).

Confluence: real soon now

The Confluence convention is rapidly approaching. It’s in Pittsburgh, July 27-29. Seanan McGuire is Guest of Honor, which is awesome.

I have Sekrit Plans. Which are also awesome.

I’ve been added to another panel, making five plus a kaffee klatsch (full schedule here).

The bar at this hotel isn’t as conducive to hanging out as one might like, but I will nonetheless be making a valiant effort to sustain a BarCon as well. Do come, and if you’re going to be there please look me up. You might just benefit from the Sekrit Plans (see also: kaffee klatsch, and whenever I can catch Seanan for a minute or two).

Fri 5:00 pm OakAre You a Member Here? – Steve Ramey; Lawrence Connolly; John Joseph Adams; Sarah Goslee

The question is whether we, as a group of readers (bunch of geeks, tribe of SF/F/H fans) and writers have gotten too exclusive–with tropes, words and shorthand universes–and if there is new stuff being written that would be accessible to Joe and Jill Common-Person. Would they have as much fun reading “A Game of Thrones” or “We Can Remember if for You Wholesale” as watching it?

Fri 8:00 pm WillowDon’t Make Me Sick – Ken Chiacchia; Susan Urbanek Linville; Kathleen Sloane; Sarah Goslee

Biologic and biomedical science fiction is still a lot of unused territory Why do we insist that it has to be space? And when we have the technology to make ourselves, or at least our characters better than before, why don’t we?

Sat 12:00 pm Con SuiteKaffee Klatsch – Larry Ivkovich ; Jason Jack Miller; Sarah Goslee

Sat 1:00 pm WillowHalf Past the Apocolypse – Tim Waggoner; Cathy Seckman; Sarah Goslee; Kenneth Cain

Dystopias: are they all worked out? What do the doomsday scenarios tell us about our ideas of entertainment? Is it time to swing the pendulum in a different direction? or is it too much fun to talk about how dreadful things are gonna get?

Sat 4:00 pm OakEditors: What do they Really Want – John Joseph Adams; Jeff Young; Eric Beebe; Danielle Ackley-McPhail; Sarah Goslee

Good question–here are a few, what do they have to say?

Sun 10:00 am WillowThey’re Coming to Get You, Barbara – Kenneth Cain; C. Bryan Brown; Jonathan Maberry; Sarah Goslee

Zombies have dominated the mainstream horror landscape for over a decade. Some people are sick to death (pun not intended) of them, while others look to the living dead as a necessary balance to twinkly, sparkly, moral-tastic vamps. Why do zombies work and why hasn’t even a good shot to the head put this trope down?

Feather

Feather, A Tale in Three Parts

I. Beauty

The crow fluffed her feathers before the bathroom mirror. The new highlights were quite fetching, she thought. He was sure to notice her now. She launched herself from the sink and out the door, heedless of the one striped feather spiraling down to the floor.

II. Fashion

The little green-eyed creature eyed the mirror uncertainly. Why would humans wish to look at themselves in such a way? Perhaps because they wore such complicated amounts and arrangements of clothing. It wriggled its ears, all three of them, in a way that indicated confused resignation, then tried again to get the garments arranged correctly. Why they couldn’t practice before landing! This bit pinched, that one tickled, and it had no idea where this one would go, being intended for a part of the anatomy that it was entirely lacking. But it was important to blend in with the locals, so on it went. The final bit was a headcovering that just missed covering its eyes completely. The green-eyed creature pushed it back at a jaunty angle. No, no. That was entirely too much. It pulled the feather out of the hatband in two multijointed twiglike fingers and dropped it on the floor. Now it was ready to meet this new species on their own terms.

III. Science

It looked like a Northern Mockingbird feather, Mimus polyglottos, but only DNA testing could provide 99.9% certainty. He pulled his ever-present field kit from his pocket and removed forceps and a small polyethylene bag. Lifting the feather carefully with the forceps, he examined it closely before sealing it in the bag and jotting down a label.

Faint traces of blood, dried. The bird may have been hit by an automobile. Birds of this size tend to explode in a cloud of feathers when hit by a moving vehicle. It may be possible-

“James Alexander Drogan, just what do you think you are doing in here?” Jimmy jumped as his mother grabbed him by the ear, nearly dropping his forceps. He stuffed them and the feather into his pocket.

“But Mom,” he began.

“You know you don’t belong in the ladies’ room. Get out.”

Jimmy patted his pocket proudly. Scientists had been persecuted throughout history, and he’d gotten the sample all the same.

My local writer’s group often has a writing challenge for the monthly social. I proposed the latest one: a short explanation for the black and white feather on the floor in the women’s bathroom at the previous social, to be read to the group tonight. It was my challenge, and I ended up writing three separate stories. I only read the first to the group.

Making the List

A couple of writer friends of mine are getting some well-deserved recognition this week as the summer reading top ten lists appear.

Kirkus Reviews, 10 Must-Read Fiction Books for Spring: Toni Morrison, John Irving, Paul Theroux, Elizabeth Bear… Oh wait, Bear is first.

eSchool News, 10 books for high school summer reading: Charlotte Brontë, Alice Walker, Daryl Gregory.

I’ve been pushing Range of Ghosts for a while, and now that I’ve finally finished Raising Stony Mayhall I can recommend that to you all. You could do much, much worse than listen to the experts and pick up both of these books.

Not only does it make me no end of happy to see both of them getting such recognition, it’s just as exciting to see spec fic playing with the supposed mainstream on both lists.

Dinosaurs Don’t Eat Flowers

Today is International Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch Day. In honor of the holiday, please accept my pixel-stained flash piece, and all the other flash fiction stories I’ve posted over the past year.


“Maybe dinosaurs ate them.”

Alice looked at her little sister in disgust. “Dinosaurs didn’t eat flowers, dummy. Flowers hadn’t been invented yet.”

Meg looked up at her. “You’re not smarter than me just because you’re older.” Anyone watching would have recognized a long-standing sibling disagreement, if there had been anyone left to watch. “Dinosaurs did so eat flowers, so maybe we can too.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone eating flowers. I don’t know if people can do that.” Alice screwed up her face, trying so hard to remember whether people could eat flowers. She was kind of hungry, but somehow flowers just didn’t seem right. Meg ripped a handful of blossoms from the shrub and stuffed them in her mouth. She spit them out again before Alice could do more than take a breath to yell at her. “Ick. Dinosaurs definitely didn’t eat flowers.”

“Dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs,” Alice replied with all the certainty of an older sister who’s nearly eleven, almost. “So that doesn’t help, because there aren’t any more dinosaurs.”

“There aren’t any more airplanes either,” Meg retorted. Alice wasn’t sure why that mattered, since nothing ate airplanes. Or maybe something did, and that’s why there weren’t any more. Their mama was supposed to be on an airplane coming home, only the airplanes all stopped. The internet stopped too, and that’s what they noticed first because the iPad went dark in the middle of a cartoon. Their babysitter said some words Meg wasn’t supposed to know. Alice wasn’t sure where she went after that. She told them to stay in the house, but after a couple hours in the dark they got bored and went outside.

Meg stomped around like a T. Rex for a few minutes, while Alice tried to listen to the grownups. She was the big sister, after all, and she needed to know what was going on. That’s where she heard about the airplanes. They all fell out of the sky, Mr. Neely from down the street said. He was out in his yard talking to Mrs. Singh who lived on the other side of him. All the houses were dark, so people were standing around in the street. Alice wondered what they’d do when it got dark.

Then Alice wondered what she and Meg would do when it got dark. “Meg. Enough dinosaurs.” She grabbed her sister’s arm and tugged her back toward the house.

Meg started to object, then looked at Alice’s face and stopped mid-complaint. “What do we do? Where’s our babysitter? Where’s Mama?”

Alice decided they should stay in the house until Mama got home. Mama always told her to be responsible, and that would be the responsible thing to do. Something outside made a horrible noise, like when she dropped a plate only much, much worse. Alice peeked out the window. Somebody she didn’t know has smashed the Gonzalez’s door in across the street. Maybe they couldn’t stay here after all.

Alice dumped the schoolwork out of Meg’s backpack, the green one with the allosaurus on it. She put in two bottles of water, some Oreos, and a whole bag of Goldfish crackers, plus Meg’s favorite stuffed animal. In her own she put the biggest knives from the kitchen, the things from her mother’s jewelry box wrapped up in a clean towel, and clean t-shirts and underwear for both of them. She left their cell phones because they wouldn’t turn on.

The forest started right behind their house. She and Meg could go out the back without anybody seeing them. She knew how to get into the old mine shaft; she spent lots of time running around in the woods. Hardly anybody knew it was there, so she and Meg could hide from the monsters that ate airplanes. They had food and water and clothes, and they could take care of themselves until Mama came back.

That’s what dinosaurs do.


This one differs slightly from the usual twitter flash. Same time limit (an hour), but different source for ideas, and it wasn’t written on a Friday.
From me – spring flowers, dinosaurs
From Nick – Forest, airplane, abandoned tunnel

Egg

Yeast bread and spices. That’s what the house smelled like. How could the current inhabitants do something as comforting as bake hot cross bun? Satai stood on the porch. The railing was painted bright blue, and the floor a deep piney green. The vivid red door looked cheerful and welcoming. The fading daffodils and the budding tulips only added to the general good nature of the house. It was the kind of house where your beloved grandmother lived, or your best friend.

She’d been hunting them for what felt like forever, from the court of Catherine the Great to Timbuktu. That sounded like a metaphor for a long time and a long distance, but it was nothing but the truth. It wouldn’t have taken nearly so long, but she lost them during the chaos of the Crimean War.

Here and now Satai could hardly believe she’d found them. Her informant had been certain, and she’d left him in no condition to warn anyone of her presence. She stared at the forsythia golden along the steps. A house like this, it should have encysted them, pushed them out whole before they had time to infect it. When she’d circled the place earlier, counting the possible exits, she’d even seen a beehive in the back, in a small orchard.

The tiny video camera she was wearing would pick up the colors, the sounds of birds singing in the trees overhead, but not the smell of cinnamon and cloves. Satai hoped it wouldn’t betray her trembling, though she could probably edit that out when she made the DVD.

Standing here for too long was suspicious. This time of day, people would probably take her for a visiting friend, but the last thing she needed was a garrulous neighbor coming over to say hello. The inhabitants of the house would be sound asleep by now, not to wake until the sun was firmly set.

The lock was old. Satai slipped it easily, then closed the red door behind herself. The buns were on the counter on a cooling rack. She touched one, but they were cold. And crosses? Why would they have put the crosses on the tops?

A white porcelain bowl was heaped with dyed eggs, mostly red like the Easter eggs of her childhood, but some drawn with the intricate designs that the court had come to favor. She didn’t think anyone remembered how to make those eggs. She hadn’t seen any for so long, and the red ones in even longer. There was no skill to those, just boiling the eggs with onion skins, but nobody bothered.

She touched one, ran her finger over the smooth ovoid. They should be in a basket, in a kitchen that smelled of smoke, in a farm waiting eagerly for spring. April was a hard month back then, with winter stores nearly exhausted and summer’s bounty a long way off. Here and now, it was flowers and trips to the grocery store, an easier life but one that slipped by, leaving no mark.

Satai wondered if those she pursued missed their homes as much as she did, just then. They were the only ones who might remember, who had been shaped by the same spring, and the only ones who might help her forget.

She picked up an egg, turning it over and over in her hands, then took it out onto the porch to watch the bees rumble through the forsythia and wait for the dusk.


Twitter flash, with contributors:
Timbuktu, DVD production, Crimean War espionage – @quasigeo
Beekeeping and Easter eggs – @qitou

Plinth

My workload roughly doubled in the past week, from its already-high state to something approaching insane. Deadlines moved, cancelled activities resurfaced, new projects fell from the sky. It’s all good, but blogging will be rare to nonexistent until mid-April, as will fiction writing, and pretty much anything that isn’t work.

Except Sunday evenings – that’s writers group time, and I intend to keep that up. After a day spent editing grant proposals and book chapters, I didn’t have much brainpower left for anything major, so I solicited ideas on twitter. The usual suspects contributed, and here’s the result.


The stone pillar loomed over the town square. Today only a trio of pigeons occupied its flat top, their inevitable leavings sinking down through cracks in the stone. The pigeons had no use for the stairs spiraling up its sides, carved from the same block of granite as the pillar they encircled, their centers eroded by centuries of footsteps. Grooves around the edges of the steps, worn and faded, showed which parts the apprentice wielded the laser cutter on. The overslip lessened as the stairs ascended, until at the top the work of master and student stonecutter were indistinguishable.

Clouds scudded across the azure sky, trailing blotches of shadow across the square. Nothing moved except the sliding light and darkness. Even the feral cat that haunted the square dozed on a window ledge, having given up on pigeons for the time being.
The windows surrounding the square opened into house and guildhall and kirk, but all were blank. No faces looked out, no blurred motion appeared through the glass. One of the windows at the corner of the square had shattered, shards littering the ground beneath it, the jagged bits covered in dust and pollen.

Whatever force had broken the window came from the inside.

Once the square had been full of noise and movement and music far into the night. The three men and one woman who stood on the plinth watched over the barely-controlled chaos. Traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen–their products guaranteed to suck–vied with peddlers of cut-rate powders and potions for everything from healing broken bones to loosening stiff muscles, and the bars fronting the square did brisk business in gin martinis, or whatever drinks were currently fashionable. Glowing chartreuse cocktails had been a brilliant if short-lived sensation.

The entertainers had been the main attraction: jugglers of iridescent fire, dancers in antigrav bubbles, courtesans of all genders garbed in modes from eighteenth century high court to the finest nanofabrics. After sunset the square glowed with gemlike light limning the forms of the participants, trailing from the walls, puddling on the ground, flowing in luminescent rivulets and runnels around the plinth, but never touching its black silhouette.
As the sun moved toward the west, the shadow of the plinth extended across the square, touching the base and then the top of the building on the far side before merging with the shadows of dusk. No light glimmered anywhere. The cat had vanished with the sun. The pigeons had flown to their roost long before sunset.

Even the people had fled from the shadow of the plinth, but not before blood soaked into the stone where the light had refused to flow.


Contributions:

@fadeaccompli plinths

@ChiaLynn Pieces of glass

@qitou vacuum cleaners, gin martinis, muscle relaxants.

@marjorie73 18th century harlot