The Mountain Speaks

In the town at the foot of the mountain, men descended on the ethnic group not like a marauding tribe of raiders and pillagers, nor like a conquering army. They did not even come at night like assassins.

They came openly, as if daylight made them innocent. They came with paperwork, and orders, and steely-faced men with rifles who stood behind them. They came with authority backed by violence.

They dragged into the street, through apologetic words or unapologetic force, all adult men of the ethnic group. These men, distant rulers had decreed, were traitors to the nation.

The men who resisted were beaten by those who dragged them out. All the men were put in chains. Then they were marched away, in long lines like ancient slaver trains, escorted by soldiers with guns instead of guards with whips.

Incessant gunshots could be heard throughout the night, distant echoes from not-so-distant valleys. Children wept. Above the town the mountain stood impassive.

The soldiers returned the next day. The men of the ethnic group were not with them.

The men with the paperwork went to the houses once more. This time they took the women. Some soldiers leered at the women, their faces less steely now the men were gone. We will not speak of the women who were defiant.

The women who were taken from the houses were put in chains, like the men before them. The people of the town who were not members of the ethnic group watched from their windows. Their thoughts were private for no words were spoken. Only the soldiers spoke, and laughed.

The women were marched away. That night there were no gunshots, but the children wept again. The mountain watched in silence.

Neither the soldiers nor the women returned to the town the next day, nor ever again. But the men who had commanded the soldiers went to the houses once more, and this time they took the children.

The children wept still. Some screamed and wailed. They could not put words to their loss and grief. They did not understand, but they feared.

The men put the children of the ethnic group into carts. The carts were filled with crying children who clung to each other. The town had never known so many tears to be shed.

Maybe that is why the ground shook. Maybe that is why the children stopped weeping. Maybe that is why the men with the orders fell still in fear. Maybe that is why the people of the town who were not of the ethnic group looked to the mountain.

For the mountain spoke.

Story notes, Interzone #280

Cyberstar, Val Nolan. Humanity has expanded across much of the solar system, and – wouldn’t you know it – our societies are riven by state violence and deep-rooted inequality. One strange and at times horrifying religion is sending out its missionaries, promising something different and recruiting those it needs for its cause. One such is our protagonist, a laid-off engineer, who at the story’s outset is having his eyes removed by his brothers and sisters. Making good use of its protagonist’s shifting worldview, this story quickly establishes an evocative and exotically familiar setting, feels scientifically grounded despite its wild invention, and delivers in style with its conclusion.

And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song, Maria Haskins. Our protagonist is a Singer, an orphan built into a war machine designed to disable ‘bots with song. The war against the bots is done and won, and she may be the last of the Singers. In victory the Singers’ leaders have chosen to dispose of them as, one assumes, a potential threat. The Singer encounters a rogue village living apart from said rulers and, despite mutual suspicion, stays with them. Affairs degenerate and we read of the Singer’s song. The story is entertaining and well written but, as surely as leaders betray followers and enacted vengeance is just, delivered no surprises.

Coriander for the Hidden, Nicholas Kaufmann. This initially seems to be a mildly wacky take on biblical myth and the hypocrisy of the Garden of Eden, told from an angel’s perspective – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but briskly moves on from this familiar set up to the angel questioning the monstrous tasks that an Old Testament God demands of His host. Angel Suriel’s solution to the moral quandaries it faces is devious and nicely reflected in the structure of the story.

Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again, Sarah Brooks. People are dying, and when they die a black butterfly escapes their body. Butterfly-catchers and black markets emerge: are people simply unable to let go of those they love, or is this a darker phenomenon? This moody, sad story feels like a winding-down of anything that once mattered to people, and whilst personal bonds seem more potent against that backdrop they are not untroubled. A potent short story receptive to intriguing interpretations.

‘Scapes Made Diamond, Shauna O’Meara. A tale told from the point of view of two men, once employed by an extractive corporation as handlers of the psychic alien beasts that produce the drug allowing humankind to spread across the stars. They have returned to bid farewell to the dying matriarch of those imprisoned creatures, and the projected visions and memories of “True” drag into the light an ugly story of exploitation, mass murder and loss, studded with fleeting pinpricks of kindness and hope. There are no simple and morally comforting resolutions here.

Vignette #11

Kenji’s tshirt was displaying an infinitely looped three-second video of a cat misjudging a jump and falling, suddenly graceless, like a dropped log. It was mesmerising, holding the attention once captured: a meme in the viral sense, an eyeworm that would just not let go. Parvati felt she could have watched it a thousand times, and on the train she probably had.

Elsewhere the shirt might have seemed gaudy, but in the context of New Shinjuku it was a drop in the ocean of visual noise. Around them towers soared upward into a cool night mist. Every surface seemed plastered with at least one layer of screens, and every one blared advertisements forth, desperate to attract eyeballs. Night was transformed into neon day, the streets lit with artificial light of every conceivable colour.

On the largest screen Parvati could see, a truly vast display that stretched hundreds of metres away from her and Kenji, stylised human figures trudged along, and as they walked their backs straightened and smiles grew on their faces. The backdrop changed from dull and muted greys and browns into brighter and warmer tones as the cartoon walkers approached their destination: a shopping centre named ‘The Palace of Dreams’.

Above, below and past the ends of this colossal invitation were a myriad other demands on her attention. Without even moving she could see a dozen shoe advertisements, including several brands that she had never heard of before, each suggesting the luxurious lifestyle that only that brand could provide. Motorbikes and ecocars cut their way elegantly but ruggedly across panoramic landscapes. Suspiciously well-groomed young men howled and bellowed and wept in superimposition, as behind them the videogames they played challenged and rewarded and betrayed them. Smiling mothers and housewives turned to their children in their dozens, arms laden with sumptuous foods of every possible cuisine and variation.

“You’re drooling,” said Kenji. Parvati knew he wasn’t looking at her, that he too was entranced by the sight that had struck them like a lightning bolt the instant they stepped out of the train station, but she shut her mouth anyway. She didn’t want to look too much like a yokel, although – standing amidst a gaggle of similarly goggle-eyed onlookers – that ship had already sailed.

At the foot of the unbroken formation of towers could be found an endless myriad of shops, seemingly carved into the concrete footprint of each skyscraper. Most of the names were meaningless to Parvati, but here and there she saw something she recognised: the big grocery and electronics chains familiar from the town she had visited every weekend for most of her life, here appearing like minnows darting between the toes of giants. Products spilled out of the shops in waves, out onto the street, as much a riot of colour and form as the advertisements that hung overhead.

The ranked products mingled with the stalls, which sometimes sold goods like those in the larger shops but more often food. Parvati’s eyes finally relinquished their stranglehold on her brain, allowing other stimuli to draw her attention, and she realised that the smells were overwhelming. Not like at the harbor, where the powerful scent of sea and salt and fish were unavoidable. Nor even like the intense perfumes and aftershaves some of the men and women Parvati had known wore, the ones which made her eyes water and left her recoiling apologetically. This was such a combination of scents that she couldn’t process them, could not unpick the densely woven fabric of smell and identify anything. She was left relying on her eyes once more, taking in stalls selling noodles, falafel, rice bowls, flatbread wraps, spiced meats, skewers, baked fancies, breads, salted fish, jerky…

Parvati felt herself suddenly jostled and she looked around, disoriented. A short boy with spiky hair turned to meet her gaze and grinned from not two feet away. He face and clothes were filthy, but his teeth were neat and gleamed a brilliant white. “Hey,” the boy said to Parvati, then nodded at Kenji.

“Hey,” said Parvati, at the same time that Kenji said “What do you want?”

“Rude,” said the boy, slouching, hands in his pockets. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you want.” He nodded backwards sharply, gesturing behind him at the maelstrom of markets and marketing that framed him. “Maybe about what you need.”

“We don’t need anything,” said Kenji, his eyes narrowing. “Come on, kid, clear off.”

“You don’t need to be rude,” Parvati broke in. She put a hand on Kenji’s arm, trying to be comforting. She knew that Kenji was trying to seem tough and worldly, but moments before he’d been staring slack-jawed at the ten-metre tall image of a lingerie model, so it wasn’t going to work.

“Glad you said that, missie,” the kid said, flashing them another grin. “Like I said, it’s maybe about what you need, and what you need’s a guide.”

Parvati frowned at that, thinking about how little money they actually had. At least until they got settled, she told herself, at which point things would turn around. But right now they couldn’t afford to spare anything.

“Penny for your thoughts,” said the boy. “Although… no, I wouldn’t ask you two cutters to spare a penny.”

He pulled his hands out of his pockets, and a pair of moneytabs came with them. Parvati gasped, immediately recognising them as hers and Kenji’s. Kenji growled something unintelligible and balled his fists.

“Hey, hey,” said the boy, grin gone but face composed. “I’m actually just making a point here.” He reached out to offer the moneytabs to them. Parvati took hers carefully and Kenji snatched his from the boy’s hand.

“You need to watch out for thieves,” said the boy. “As you just learned, they’re really quite adept around these parts. You’re welcome, by the way. I discouraged everyone else who had you marked the moment you stepped out onto the street. You’ll find nothing else missing.”

“You offered to be our guide?” said Parvati. “Why? Why are you helping us? You already said you know we don’t have any money.”

The boy shrugged. “I have a good heart. You’re both cute. I like making friends. Maybe I have an ulterior motive. Take your pick.”

He waved down the avenue in the direction the cartoon shoppers still trudged toward the Palace. “You could try and make it on your own. Or you could let me show you the ropes and a place to stay that won’t rip you off or rob you. No strings attached, you can walk away at any time.”

He fell silent and watched them then, waiting while they contemplated his offer. Parvati and Kenji looked at one another. Parvati frowned. Kenji raised an eyebrow. He still looked angry, but just regular-Kenji angry, not furious-someone-just-tried-to-rob-him angry. Parvati shrugged.

“Okay,” she said. “You can be our guide.”

The boy grinned once more. His teeth flashed in the night. “You won’t regret it.”

Uranium fever, it’s gone and got me down

God help me, I started playing Fallout 4 again.

I wrote about Fallout 4 for Arcadian Rhythms some three and a half years ago. I was, broadly, positive. After writing that rambling screed I soured on the game in the same way that I did with Bethesda’s Skyrim. I also wrote about the latter falling out of love experience, and much of what I say about Skyrim is applicable to Fallout 4, for all that my 2016 piece dissembles over my volte-face.

And yet here I was, a scant few years later, playing again. Why, Shaun? Why?

The initial impetus is easy to explain: I bought an Xbox One X, I own a 4K TV, I wanted to check out some pretty games, Fallout 4 has dynamic 4K support and some other rendering bells and whistles, and was free on Xbox Game Pass. So I downloaded it and pootled about a bit in the opening area, expecting I’d soon uninstall.

I didn’t.

So there I found myself again: forty or more hours into a playthrough, with that teeth-grindingly tedious Bethesda core loop (go place, kill shit, collect junk, go home, dump junk, repeat) having sunk its blunted teeth into my skin. It couldn’t draw blood, but somehow it left an impression. Damn it, Shaun. Why?

There’s a lot about Fallout 4 I actively dislike. Fallout‘s RPG DNA is non-existent at this point in the series. The dramatic gore of ‘cinematic’ VATS doesn’t look good, mainly thanks to the camera’s idiot behaviour. Somehow, melee combat is even less interesting than the game’s limp gunplay. Repeating the same quests I dimly remember from three years ago is immediately dull.

Let’s not even talk about the writing. Most characters feel as dead as the world around them. The main story is completely at odds with everything else in the game. Rarely is an interesting choice offered via dialogue. Said dialogue is at best passable, and typically tedious. Most quests have a bare minimum of narrative context wrapped around them, meaning even the quests which aren’t procedurally generated often feel as if they are.

So what do I like? Well, I tried Fallout 76 for a laugh, and Fallout 4‘s a masterpiece in comparison to that dead-on-arrival nightmare.

Wait, no, that’s not a thing I like.

I enjoyed spending time with systems I’d largely ignored previously. I built up my settlements by constructing ramshackle buildings, lighting systems and defensive chokepoints. This was actually rather fun, although there’s little purpose to it and the interface spends more time being irritating than enabling creativity.

Sometimes an area evidences care invested in the story of that place and its long-dead residents. Typically assembled by reading logs on computer systems, this can occasionally be an engaging part of exploration.

I like the music. The Fallout series’ juxtaposition of classic pop with the post-apocalyptic has always worked well, even if it’s moved from dramatic irony to pure kitsch as the series has gotten stupider.

I think that might be about it.

I was even stupid enough to buy the DLC, wondering if what it promised might actually feel more “fresh”. Not particularly! It’s the same familiar gameplay loops and absences. In terms of the broad strokes, I’d seen it all before. There’s no longer even a trace of novelty to justify my time spent. And yet there I was, spending money to try and justify playing Fallout 4 again.

Maybe I was doing this because I’m often tired. My job takes up a lot of mental energy most days and I don’t take many breaks, so when I get home in the evening my brain just wants to slump. Fallout 4 could not be more of a junk food game. No matter the session length, that bitty core loop and the secondary gameplay loops mounted to it like fascinators provide a sense of progression: stuff acquired, new place explored, experience points gained, settlement improved, etcetera. I could play it for fifteen minutes or one hundred and fifty. I might not even notice the difference.

Is that it? Is that really it? I played Fallout 4 again because it’s mindlessly comforting for me, because my brain is dulled and craves the comfort of the familiar and unchallenging? If true, is that how I want to spend my time? I’m approaching forty, for fuck’s sake: is this truly who I want to be?

Even while I was playing Fallout 4 I was eagerly anticipating when I stopped and moved on to something better. Now I have. So if you see me mindlessly indulging again, like a lapsing addict, please call me on it. I can’t see any other reason why I might go back again beyond feeling so weak that the empty pleasure of that mindless core loop is all I feel capable of seeking.

Readers Like You

CANDIDATE AE67FE-001101: Male. 31.9 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 37.7749° N, 122.4194° W }. Tracked disciplines: folk audio, digital play, musician { strings, digital }. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE JD93UY-101000: Female. 11.2 cycles. Region: ‘East Asia’ { 37.8735° N, 112.5627° E }. Tracked disciplines: play, social observation. Status: monitoring; administering neural accelerators.

CANDIDATE BA89IV-011100: Male. 78 cycles. Region: ‘Australasia’ { 35.2809° S, 149.1300° E }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: close monitoring, neural degeneration.

CANDIDATE UI59DE-111011: Male. 36.0 cycles. Region: ‘South Europe’ { 40.8518° N, 14.2681° E }. Tracked disciplines: social exploitation, trade interactions, domination. Monitoring: sociopathy. Addendum: active study { ‘Proximate Relationships and Social Hierarchies in Terran Economic Systems’ }.

CANDIDATE II49AH-011010: Transitional. 19.1 cycles. Region: ‘North America’ { 47.6062° N, 122.3321° W }. Tracked disciplines: electronics. Status: monitoring.

CANDIDATE UJ02XV-110011: Male. 26.4 cycles. Region: ‘Africa’’ { 26.2041° S, 28.0473° E }. Tracked disciplines: communication, information composition/dissemination. Status: monitoring. Addendum: active studies { ‘Hepatic Disease Rates in Cultural Producers’ ; ‘Non-Binary Theory and Obsessive-Compulsive Tendencies: Terrans’ }.

CANDIDATE Y6D8J1–110111: Female. 21.1 cycles. Region: ‘North Europe’ { 51.5073° N, 0.1273° W }. Tracked disciplines: none. Status: monitoring. Addendum: manual monitoring { station #6399 }.

{ BRK: INITIATE READER PROTOCOL Y/N ? }

Clara sinks her face into her hands and sighs deeply, shudderingly. Her fingernails press into her forehead and for a moment she focuses on the pain. But it is transient; she cannot ignore this.

What a fucking ridiculous day, she thinks. And now this.

She drops her hands and opens her eyes and looks at her car. It’s parked where she left it. It’s still a battered navy blue Vauxhall Corsa. It even still has the Bagpuss plushie stuck to the rear windshield. The only thing is that it is now upside down.

She approaches and pushes the car with her foot. Nothing. And now that she’s closer, she can see that it’s not just upside down: the roof has fused with the tarmac beneath.
She tries her keys in the door, just in case. It unlocks, so she locks it again.

There are people around her, walking to their own cars or just passing by. No one looks twice at her or her inverted car.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she asks, voice raised. A few people glance her way but there’s barely a question in their gaze. It’s as if a neatly parked upside down three-door hatchback is a perfectly ordinary sight.

“Fuck it,” she says, to herself as much as anyone else, and starts walking, leaving the car behind.

Her entire day has been off-kilter. Frittered with unexpected, off-putting and often outright odd events, it has been a chore to live through.

She fishes a packet of B&H from her handbag and lights up. She blasts thick, dry smoke out of flared nostrils and glares without direction.

It began when she stumbled from bed to bathroom this morning and tried to brush her teeth, only to find a viscous fluid pouring from both taps. Tasting it was perhaps not the best idea, in retrospect, but she had been half asleep and besides, it turned out to be caramel.

Later, on leaving her building she’d been greeted in Italian by the postman, who was in the process of folding letters into a variety of origami birds. They were lined up on the wall outside, each turned 45 degrees from the last. She had pulled a face at him, and sworn to herself that she’d never drink on a weeknight again.

The bus driver had initially seemed normal, until he turned fully to face her as she paid and she saw his two cheap glass eyes. She had hesitated, about to turn and disembark, until she glanced about and saw the bored faces of other passengers. She stayed aboard, convincing herself that he perhaps had some rare glaucoma, and was not blind at all.

Her subsequent journey was uneventful, although every time she looked out of the window she had a fleeting impression of something vanishing out of sight — into alleyways and sidestreets, into shops and other buildings, even underneath cars and trucks.

At work her phone had rung once only, exactly on the hour, all day. She found a cake with her name on it in the breakroom, the carpet coated in glitter and confetti, and a banner celebrating twenty years of service hanging overhead. No one else entered the room all day. She had joined the company just seven months ago.

Shortly after lunch — during which everything she tried to eat threatened to summon long-lost childhood memories — her manager, Ivan, had begun questioning her on her current project. She initially responded with some relief, clinging to this rational behaviour exhibited by another human being, until the questions began to drift further and further off-topic, and she noticed that he was playing a child’s game with her: each of his questions began with a homonym corresponding to the final syllable in her previous answer.

“Are you f- …are you kidding me?” she’d spluttered. Ivan widened his eyes in response, face otherwise expressionless, until his eyebrows vanished beneath his fringe. As far as she could tell they were not coming back.

“This isn’t appropriate behaviour,” he had intoned, deadpan. “And you can expect it to be raised in your next review.” Then he’d walked away, back to his office, without breaking eye contact. Five minutes later an email dropped into her inbox; he had emailed his manager, CC’ing her, and recommended her for a promotion.

It had been a relief to escape at the end of the day. Exhausted, physically and emotionally, she’d clasped her car keys like a protective talisman and sought to seal herself safely inside her vehicular cocoon. And there it had been, upended like an abused turtle.

So now she is walking home, chain-smoking cigarettes. She ignores all the people around her, even where they try to attract her attention, through sheer force of will. Once or twice she is forced to slip around people using the dance of the crowded pavement, but even during this she does not make eye contact. She just wants to get home.

She’s so intent on ignoring the world around her that she almost misses the truck that is heading straight for her.

It doesn’t sound its horn, so the sudden squealing of brakes is the only thing that alerts her — that and the intrusion of its bulk in her peripheral vision. Her heart rate leaps and she starts, turning her head toward the threat. It’s too late of course, for the juggernaut is mere seconds away and her reactions are too slow. The flat face of this diesel-driven monstrosity may be the last thing she sees.

Except that it is not. In the final moment she braces herself for collision and oblivion, but the truck passes straight through her. It’s a strange feeling, like being dusted with fine flour in a wind tunnel, as all that metal and plastic and oil washes around her. As it passes she turns and sees it harmlessly travel on, straight into a Morrisons Local store.

After that, Clara is hardly surprised when no one around her reacts at all. Ghost lorries, pah! Londoners have seen everything. Paranormal vehicular events barely register the bat of an eyelid.

She is, at least, almost home now — so she hurries on. The rest of her trip is uneventful, although as she walks up to her front door there is a soft crunching underfoot. There are so many origami birds placed on the steps and path that crushing them is unavoidable.

Once safely inside Clara continues operating on autopilot. Kettle on. Teabags from cupboard. Mug from the tree. Wait. Pour. Brew. Clasp the mug. Blow the steam. The ritual is soothing, and the part of her deep inside that wants to start screaming and never stop is grateful that it is just a cup of tea she holds — not a mug of pureed kelp or broken promises or who knows what.

Soon enough she has begun to calm, and Clara turns to the second step of her recovery from a tough day. In her bedroom, beside her bed, is a cabinet. Inside the cabinet’s drawer is a diary — a teenager’s diary, locked with a simple metal clasp.

Clara has always diarized her life. It helps her to process feelings and ideas, and looking back over it provides fuel for reflection. A day like today certainly deserves immortalising. Perhaps she can look back on it in a year and think “today was my first step on the road towards being committed.”

She picks up her pen and sets its tip to the page. Dear Diary, she begins, and does not stop.

Slivers of iridescent chitin wave like the fronds of deep-sea anemones. Long, hooked talons beat an idle tattoo on plastometal surfaces. Double sets of compound eyes regard their surroundings; no expression could be read in them, even were the onlooker of a shared species.

This is an autonomous being of a long-established starfaring species that we shall, for convenience, refer to as Second Technician Picasso. It is not, as far as we can tell, an artist, but the blues and greens that can be seen in light reflected from its carapace recall the artist’s Blue Period, and it is as good a name as any.

S.T. Picasso is situated before an array of screens, each imperfect in its dimensions as though cast by hand. The screens display a variety of human beings in a variety of locations. Among them is Clara, frantically committing words to page in her diary.

Other screens write swirling patterns in dense hieroglyphs, conveying information in a language we cannot possibly hope to understand. The inscrutable Picasso takes it all in, barely needing to move its bulbous head-thorax in order to do so. Those eyes absorb everything.

Oddly, we can hear little. Periodically there are muffled clangs or thumps, and sometimes rhythmic little pulses or shudders can be heard, as though much were going on around Picasso’s pod of screens, but distantly. Then there are the small noises Picasso itself is making, apparently restless despite its equally apparent focus on the task at hand. But from the screens, nothing: only the footage of humans going about their little lives, and the endless hieroglyph patterns.

Then those patterns shift and alter, the change apparent even to narrators and readers who cannot comprehend what is signified. Something new is suggested. And so it is: the complex patterns end, and become simple and looping. The screens displaying humans begin to blink off, one by one.

Picasso reaches out with one long talon and scrapes its tip softly against the screen on which Clara has frozen, pen in hand, diary pinned beneath it. Then its balloon-shaped head pivots, looking at what might be glass, through which a woman can be seen. She is lying on a flat surface, hooked up into a riotous tangle of tubes.

Picasso hesitates for a moment, then fiddles with some knobs and sockets and other tangibles around its bank of screens. A nearby machine hisses into life, and tiny lasers begin to dance within its delicate superstructure. An object is being assembled. It looks like Clara’s diary.

After a further moment of hesitation, Picasso prods a few more objects around it. The tubes hooked up to Clara begin to retract, detaching themselves from her and coiling up below. Once the last has removed itself Clara’s back arches and her eyes shoot open. Then she coughs and retches and cries out.

Meanwhile, Picasso has reached into a container and pulled out a tiny object. We recognise it as an iPhone 5C. The alien struggles to but succeeds in holding it. It pulls a tendril from below the bank of screens before it; although fibrous and alien, there is an Apple-patented Lightning connector at the end of it, which it plugs into the phone. It prods a button below the window through which we can see Clara, and begins to carefully type on the iPhone’s screen.

Clara tries to throw up but her stomach is empty. She feels the acid presence of bile and fights to control her nausea.

Her eyes are blurred and her head feels groggy. She cannot make out her surroundings, but she feels a cool surface below her, against her skin. The air is a comfortable temperature, although it smells faintly like a fishmonger’s. She cannot hear anything distinctive.

A frisson of fear is running through her, and as her senses acclimatise to her surroundings this sense deepens. She does not recognise where she is, except perhaps from the sets of horror and science fiction films. The room’s walls and ceiling don’t look like any material she knows, and there are no uniform edges. Everything looks a little organic. There is, however, a flattish pane of what looks like black glass set into one pseudo-wall. She shivers as she looks at it.

All of a sudden a woman’s voice is audible, emanating from all around her. “Hello,” it says. The voice is faintly robotic. “Please be scarred.”

Clara draws her knees up against her chest and wraps her arms around them. “W-what?”, she stutters.

There is a long, pregnant pause before she hears the voice again. “Sorry. Wrong. Please don’t be scared.”

Clara’s brow furrows in concentration. Then: “Is that… is that Siri? Like on the phone?”

Once again, there is a long wait before there is any response comes. “Yes. No. Not relevant. I must make a request.”

“Who are you?” Clara asks, followed breathlessly by: “And where am I? And why are you talking to me through a- a- a fucking iPhone? Just what the hell is going on?”

After a while the responses come. “Not relevant. Information ship seventeen. This is the most effective and efficient method. I must make a request.”

Clara closes her eyes and takes deep breaths. The last thing she remembers before waking up here, she was… in her flat, at home, drinking tea and writing in her diary. Writing in her diary about the weird-as-fuck day she’d been having. She opens her eyes and looks around the room again. Compared to spectral trucks, this isn’t actually that strange, she tells herself — unconvincingly.

“Let’s exchange questions and answers,” she tells the disembodied voice. “I’ve got questions, and you’ve got a request.”

Another pause, and then: “Acceptable.”

Clara tries to concentrate, tries to ignore her fear, and thinks back over the words exchanged so far. “What is information ship seventeen?”

“Interstellar vessel tasked with research and specimen collection.”

“On… Earth?” she asks, haltingly.

“Yes. Earth. My request: complete your diary.”

This throws Clara off balance. She chews it over for a second. “You want me to… finish writing my diary?”

“Yes.”

“What I was writing before… I woke up here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Another long pause hangs in the whiffy, extraterrestrial air.

“Our research requires written artefacts. In the language of the specimens.”

“Then why not, um — why not collect books? From libraries?”

“Knowledge repositories have been exhumed. Exhausted. Folk sources required for fully understating. Sorry. Understanding specimens.”

“Folk sources?” asks Clara. “So you collect diaries? Why not just watch people while — hey! Wait a goddamn minute. New question: how did I get up here?”

“You always have been. ‘Up here’.”

“Bullshit,” Clara says. Her fear is subsiding, turning to anger at her mysterious interrogator. “I was down there earlier… I don’t know, today. Whenever. I was there.”

There’s another pause whilst her statement is digested, which Clara interrupts. “Were you… were you doing weird stuff to me? Like my car? All the people who were just wrong?”

“Wait. Too much. No. You were not there. You have always been here. Yes. We enacted experiments. You recognise them.”

“Experiments?” Clara repeats. Her face flushes. “Why the hell were you doing experiments? And what do you mean I’ve always been up here?”

She’s talking rapidly now, her voice raised. Her heart has not stopped racing; in fact it is accelerating its tempo, and she feels it thumping against her thighs.

“So that you would write about them. You are not… ‘Clara’. You are candidate Y. 6. D. 8. J. 1. Dash. 1, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara’s nausea is growing once more. The room is beginning to feel stuffy and its oppressiveness looms around her, as does the blank screen behind which, she assumes, is her interrogator.

“Why do you read our diaries?” she asks again. In a smaller voice, she adds: “I am Clara.”

“Your actions do not make sense. But your language we can understand. We read everything. We catalogue you. We understand you. You are not Clara. We made you to be read. Please finish your diary.”

Clara’s head is throbbing. Red and black now intrude at the periphery of her vision. “Why are you doing this to me?” she whispers.

“The study has been completed. We have what we need. But I want to finish reading your diary. You are an interesting candidate. Please finish writing your diary.”

Clara is now struggling to breathe, and her vision is fading fast. “Candidate… for… what?”

“Another chance. Please finish writing your diary. I want to read it. It might make a difference.”

Now almost blind, heart pounding in her chest, pressure building between her ears, Clara gasps out a few final words before unconsciousness takes her.

“Nobody… needs… readers… like… you.”

Clara is awake just long enough to hear the response: “Everyone gets readers like us.” And then she is gone.

{ DISPLAY EXPEDITION PRECIS Y/N? }

WARNING: Full report to be available to stakeholders following full analysis of expedition findings. Conclusions should not be derived from raw data.

DATUM: All Candidates discharged following conclusion of studies as per Reg 739.2.45.

DATUM: Extinction-level event recorded. Events played out within projected parameters.

DATUM: Re-seeding status: no candidates selected. Specimens archived indefinitely.

{ ENDS }

Originally written in 2016 for the Idle Fiction Jam and posted on Medium.

Vector on African and Afrodiasporic SF

The most recent issue of Vector, the British Science Fiction Association’s critical journal, landed on my doormat last month. Its arrival was a pleasure, as it’s the first mailout to come to my new Finnish address (the rest, I believe, languish as-yet-unread in my sister’s house in Surrey).

Best of all, it’s a themed issue, something I gather Vector is doing more of these days. The last issue was on economics and science fiction, which I look forward to reading. This issue covers African and Afrodiasporic SF, and it’s one of the most interesting issues of Vector in recent memory. So much so that I wanted to share a quick overview of its contents, and encourage my many readers to consider joining the BSFA. It’s an almost entirely volunteer-based organisation, after all.

This issue’s guest editor is Michelle Louise Clarke, who contributes a lengthy editorial that is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone. She’s a scholar of African SF at London’s SOAS and unless you’re already an avid fan of African SF there’s probably a lot here that you’ll want to follow up on. I’m particularly intrigued to learn of the 1992 “surreal classic of African SF”, Kojo Laing’s Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars.

The editorial also provides a helpful precis of several terms: Afrofuturism, that is “an aesthetic exploring the intersections of African-diasporic cultures with science, technology, and speculative fiction”, and African Futurism, which steps away from Afrofuturism’s Afro-American focus to centre instead on the continent of Africa and its many established and emerging artistic and literary traditions. This significant distinction resurfaces in pieces from several other contributors.

Elsewhere in the issue, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor makes numerous appearances. I’d been meaning to check out her novel Lagoon but it had slipped off my radar; now, thanks to an essay that dives deep into its themes, I regard it as a must-read. In another essay two of Okorafor’s stories, written fourteen years apart, are explored and contrasted in an approach that compares them to the Afrofuturist and Arican Futurist traditions respectively.

Several creators are interviewed: Dilman Dila, a filmmaker, visual artist and writer in many mediums who regards himself foremost as “a storyteller”; Wole Talabi, an engineer, writer and editor; and Mounir Ayache, a French visual poet and artist from the North African diaspora whose interviewer was invited to visit his studio. Each is fascinating. So too is an essay contributed by Masimba Musodza, who writes of the ChiShona language, which as he describes is looked down upon even by those who speak it, a state of affairs he seeks to challenge, and in which he has published the first science fiction novel.

There is more, but I’ll have to leave you there. I have some films to track down, some books to order, and even an Afrofuturist hip-hop album to listen to.

A Guide to Criticism

Pieterlub shifts uncomfortably in the cold air of his cell, drawing his robes closer. His breath mists, lit flickering by the few candles that dot the shelves and bureau.

“Don’t delay!” squawks the pale yellow bird perched on Pieterlub’s left shoulder. “Nightmares sense fear!”

“Hush, Huginn,” he replies. He fishes a seed from the recesses of his robe and passes it up to the parrot. He passes another to the green parrot on his right shoulder, which ululates softly in his ear.

Pieterlub’s fingers tighten around the journal he clasps to his chest. The focus of his gaze remains, has always been, the watercolour before him. It has been painted onto a simple two by three foot canvas. It makes good use of colour and light; the techniques used are fashionable but executed with confidence.

“This is a most dangerous work,” says the green parrot. It nips at Pieterlub’s earlobe, but keeps an inscrutable eye on the watercolour.

“I’m inclined to agree, Muginn,” says Pieterlub. “But there remains a problem of interpretation.”

“Not for some!” squawks Huginn. Pieterlub ignores it.

“The Abbot has entrusted us with this particular work, and I will not permit us to commit a lazy or incomplete understanding to parchment.”

Huginn hops off his shoulder, flutters down to the bureau, disturbing papers and scrolls. A candle flickers and is extinguished in the flurry, and Muginn clacks its beak in irritation.

“Be sedentary, stupid bird!”

Huginn ignores its featherfellow and uses a foot to push papers about as it searches. Pieterlub finally tears his attention away from the painting and toward his suddenly industrious parrot.

“What are you looking for?” he asks.

“Inspiration” comes the reply. Muginn squawks dismissively. Pieterlub looks back at the painting.

“I say,” he says. A few moments pass. Papers rustle and, somewhere outside Pieterlub’s cell, he hears the sound of a sibling kritikmönch going about his or her duties.

“Is it just me, or has the… focal point shifted here?”

Huginn stops scrabbling about and pivots its head to stare back at the painting. Muginn stretches out its wings and caws in distress.

“This is an extremely sophisticated work,” says Pieterlub, slowly. “I think we need to look at the source.”

He stoops, cursing as his knee joints click and protest, and slides a wooden box out from beneath the bureau. From the box he produces a smaller box, ornate where the larger is utilitarian, as well as an artist’s palette, a set of brushes, and a sheaf of loose canvas scraps. He places each of them on the bureau. Huginn obligingly hops onto a shelf above the desk and watches. Muginn glides down from Pieterlub’s shoulder and hops toward the painting, turning its head this way and that as it scrutinises the artist’s creation.

Pieterlub begins with the canvas scraps. Each of them bears at least one pencil sketch: a great auk with wings spread, a gap-toothed deep sea monstrosity, a feminine silhouette, a pear with a bite taken out, the awning over a market trader’s stall, a moon shrouded in cloud. He studies each for a few moments then carefully sets them aside.

“These early forays are suggestive,” he tells the parrots, “but may mislead. The creative mind can be labyrinthine.”

Next he picks up the artist’s palette and brushes, which he begins by sniffing. The brushes smell of the spirits use to cleanse them and he quickly loses interest. The palette is another story. He dabs a finger into various swatches of colour, which retain a tackiness, and puts that finger to his nose and lips.

“Hmm. I’m not the finest geschmackritik, I will happily admit, but even so — these flavours are striking. A lot of power has been concentrated here. The artist’s process of refinement and reduction is most impressive.”

Huginn clacks its beak a few times, watching intently as Pieterlub works. Finally, he turns his attention to the small box.

“And of course,” says Pieterlub. “We come at last to the most important piece of the pre-puzzle, the artist’s-”

He is interrupted by a violent commotion and a series of squawks. He whirls back toward the painting and drops the box in shock.

The canvas has warped, its surface no longer flat with the illusion of depth but deep with the illusion of flatness. Something has reached out and coiled itself around one of Muginn’s wings, and is attempting to withdraw itself back into the canvas.

“Fool bird!” cries Pieterlub. “Never approach the works so closely!”

He takes a step toward the easel but halts as talons dig into his shoulder.

“No!” hisses Huginn, close in his ear. “Too late!”

Pieterlub takes another step forward regardless, but Huginn is right. The tendrils are relentlessly drawing Muginn in, the parrot’s talons unable to find purchase on the polished stone slabs of the cell floor. Worse, the canvas has begun to distend itself in new ways, and the gaping face of a great flatfish, eyes darting this way and that, is bulging into view.

Muginn screeches one long, last desperate cry before its head is submerged beneath the canvas’ surface. Pieterlub mouths a silent apology to the unfortunate bird before he sweeps up as many papers as he can from the bureau and flees the cell. He pushes its heavy wooden door closed behind him, retrieves a key from his robes and turns it in the lock. It is only as he hears the heavy mechanism click into place that he breathes a sigh of relief.

“Poor foolish Muginn,” he says. Huginn bobs its head, staring at the keyhole.

“We’d better tell the Abbot that this work is not for the archives,” he tells the bird, feeding it another seed. “And we’ll need the Grand Inquisitor to… have his people do what they do.”

“And the interpretation?” asks the parrot.

“That will remain with us and us alone, my friend. We will not commit to parchment. It will perish with us.”

This was written in 2016 for a writing exercise drawn from the Wonderbook. You can read the exercise and see the illustration that inspired the story.

Apologies to German speakers for my probably-terrible compound words, and thanks to my friend Dylan for the silly compound name “Pieterlub”, which popped into my head whilst thinking up this short tale.

Story notes, Interzone #279

The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright, Alison Wilgus. A quite wonderful story, written with warmth and confidence, about the sister of the famous Wright brothers and her time-skipping efforts to save them from death. Most of the story adheres to the recorded history of the Wright siblings, although in its final section it goes further in an attempt to save Wilbur from his early death by typhoid fever, and Katherine and Orville’s long estrangement in the years that followed.

The Fukinaga Special Chip Job, Tim Chawaga. A sort of Invisible Cities, driven not by a storyteller in an imperial court but by a craphound hunting down the incredibly valuable last extant bags of the snack which choked a city. The invention is a lot of fun and the characters colourful, although no one is likeable enough to root for and the conclusion lacks a satisfying crunch.

This Buddhafield is not your Buddhafield, William Squirrel. A maid takes on a full-time job with room and board at an unknown trillionnaire’s space mansion, cleaning and maintaining it. She works there for years, sending money home and never seeing a soul. The world moves on without her. A story of tragedy, for the pointless waste of a human life, but also of contentment, for the maid was at peace with her life throughout. I struggle to imagine how many real people who would see themselves consumed in this way without any complaint or expression of regret – though we know little of where the maid came from.

For the Wicked, Only Weeds Will Grow, G. V. Anderson. An alien nursing home where the elderly of many disparate species come to die with dignity and peace, aided by the gaseous alien caretakers elsewhere abused for their ability to dispense what are basically opiates. Into this comes a cantankerous old human, alienated and bitter, who must be cared for by a gasbag who struggles internally with his own kind’s prospects for survival and reproduction. They both find peace, in their own ways, and it is for the reader to decide who might be considered wicked.

Seven Stops Along the Graffiti Road, David Cleden. Divided into several sections, this story is structurally a little forced – each section is not truly distinct and they flow into one another – but it’s driven by an intriguing concept, and characters possess psychological depth even if their origins and purpose is a mystery, even to themselves. In a way, this is a story about coping with loss, and how such coping mechanisms can protect us.

Terminalia, Sean McMullen. A Victorian period piece with the main conceit being that immortality has been made possible by the creation of mechanical bodies. This innovation has been appropriated by the aristocracy, a state of affairs not everyone wishes to see continue. A doctor who has made groundbreaking progress in resuscitation and electro-cardiac shock is pulled into these plots around the frontiers of death. A fun story and entertainingly written, it doesn’t dwell overly much on the Victorian setting. The call to arms at its conclusion feels melodramatic in contrast to the preceding rhetorical restraint.