Flash Fiction Friday: “Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen

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I’m participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story challenge this year, and this is the piece I came up with for my first prompt. I’m still awaiting the results of this round, and I’ll update when I know whether I’ll be moving on in the competition, but I’d like to share the story either way. If you’ve followed my previous posts you know each round of the NYC Midnight challenge writers are placed into groups and assigned a genre, topic/setting, and character/object to write about within a set number of words. For this round I was assigned Genre – Science Fiction, Topic – plastic surgery, Character – a comatose patient. So this is what I did. Let me know what you think before the judges do!

“Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen
2485 words
Science Fiction

“Good afternoon and thank you for contacting Blastocorp.” A customer service nod appeared on Dr. Kaur’s screen and greeted her with a beatific smile. Its wide amber eyes, impossibly smooth skin, and fashionable androgyny suggested state-of-the-art android tech. Kaur, of all people, knew how deceptive appearances could be. Still, she admired the work that went into the fluid facial movements and liquid voice; AI or advanced empathy training, this nod was high-end. “Please listen carefully, for our menu options have changed.”

The tension in Kaur’s neck and shoulders melted into the contralto waves of the nod’s voice as it listed Blastocorp’s seemingly infinite departments. Her tapping fingers relaxed. “—If you are a medical professional, please have your identification keys ready for security—” If Meeker dared ask for her keys she’d string him up in front of the Medical Investigations Bureau and beat him with his own phony distribution license. A smile almost as serene as the nod’s warmed the muscles of Kaur’s face and she rolled her head from side to side, waiting. “—If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please—”

“840429.” Kaur let the nod’s tranquil tone flow into her own voice. “Meeker.”

A flicker, then. Barely noticeable to the untrained eye, but Kaur caught it. Android. “Dr. Aloysius Meeker. I will connect you promptly. Thank you for your patience.”

 It paid to be patient when dealing with Blastocorp. Ever since Meeker and his team hit it big with synthetic stem cell production, it had become increasingly difficult to speak with a real person inside the corporation. Advanced voice and facial recognition software scanned all incoming calls, filtering out the crazies before they bothered anyone important. Even colleagues had to watch themselves. Kaur had learned early on that a grimace or an eye-twitch could relegate a person to an endless cycle of irritatingly calm CS nods wishing one a pleasant day as they transferred you further and further into the auto-service abyss.

“Ah, Suki!” Dr. Meeker beamed at Kaur from the screen mounted above her laboratory workstation. “You are looking positively radiant today. Have you been sampling your latest Blastocorp purchase?”

Thankfully not, Kaur thought. But the botu-plasma injections she had applied prior to the call kept her face neutral. A practiced grin drew her lips into a reassuringly toothy display of camaraderie. “Not yet, Ali. But that is why I’m calling.”

“You don’t need more, already?” Meeker’s own smile looked a little strained. Blastocorp employees obviously didn’t have to worry about mood-analysis scans. “I’m afraid the next batch—”

“I have a proposition for you, Ali.” Dr. Suki Kaur purred with a voice that could put the best android nods out of business. “But I need this call to be unmonitored.”

Meeker’s eyes contracted warily, but Kaur saw a glint of greed flash in his silver irises, too. He shifted toward the terminal to his left and his fingers flew across the display of an off-screen monitor. Kaur watched the notifications blip across her own screen as he disabled bots and scanners, warning her of the ‘unsecured’ line.

“Okay.” Ali Meeker faced her again. “Now what did you—“

“Bio-tracking too,” Kaur said.

One last alarm flashed for Kaur’s approval. She keyed her override and ran the code for her own security software. When the bar across the top of her display screen glowed a soothing green, she knew the line was safe.

“Satisfied?”

Kaur’s jaw clenched against the torrent of fury she had been withholding since the CS nod first greeted her with its inhumanly perfect voice. She probably paid for that luxury android answering service with her last order. Kaur took a deep breath and bared her teeth. Meeker recoiled. But when she spoke, Kaur’s voice maintained its dangerously soothing tone. “Just what the hell do you think you’re playing at, Ali?”

“Excuse me?” Meeker blinked. “You said you had a prop—”

“Yes. How rude of me. This is my offer.” Kaur held up a small cryo-container bearing the Blastocorp logo and batch serial number. “You tell me what the fuck I bought and I might not drag your ass to the MIB.”

Dr. Aloysius Meeker’s eyes swelled in their sockets and his papery white flesh flushed. “How dare you—”

“Batch 1573, specifically.”

“You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

“Right out of the sales brochure. Do you practice that line in your sleep?”

“I—”

“What I know is this: the ethics tribunal that certified Blastocorp’s product fudged so many papers they’ll be shitting chocolate for the next decade.”

“Your practice has bought more of our stem cells than the next three combined. If you think you can threaten—”

“I never bought the synthetic sales pitch, Ali. That didn’t stop me from buying your cells. I don’t care about that. But we have a serious problem on our hands.” Kaur keyed up a series of images that flashed across their screens. Bodies on sterile white beds, covered in sterile white sheets. Seven. Eight. Nine—

“Dead?” Meeker cut the image feed. Sweat glistened on his purpling face. His eyes still bulged, but with fear now. “Not dead, please God.”

“Three dead. Nine comatose. Patients ranging in age from seven to seventy; skin grafts, diabetic foot, big fake titties, we were even re-growing one poor bastard’s arm.” Kaur shook the little cryo-tube at the screen. “Only thing these people have in common is batch 1573.”

“A coincidence, I’m sure.” Dr. Meeker’s gaze flickered off-screen. “But if it would make you feel better, I’m sure I can come by for a consultation next week…”

“There’s a car waiting for you outside.”

“Suki, I can’t just—“

“You can’t just run away.” Kaur enjoyed the growing look of panic on Meeker’s face. “Because if I go down, I’m taking you for a landing pad.”

“Okay, okay.” Meeker swept an arm across his forehead. “Just let me get my things.”

“I’ll see you soon. And Ali?”

Aloysius Meeker looked up. He had aged ten years in the last ten minutes. I’ve got a treatment for that, Kaur thought acidly. She said, “Don’t call me Suki.”

 

The nurse stood in the decontamination corridor with her arms out and legs apart like a mint green starfish. Dr. Kaur watched the process and tried to control her breathing. She flexed her quads and curled her toes, fighting against the urge to pace. She knew what the nurse was going to say. All her computer readouts said the same damned thing. But Kaur had sent the nurse in to check because she couldn’t believe it.

The airlock hissed and wafted antiseptic smelling air into the main observation chamber. Nurse Chandler approached unsteadily. Under the fluorescent lights, her usually brown skin took on a greenish tinge that matched her scrubs. Chandler didn’t say anything, she just nodded.

Kaur cursed. She stared through the observation glass at the young man on the other side. His chest rose and fell with a machine-like rhythm beneath the crisp white hospital linens. Only Michael Bailey’s face and left arm were exposed, but the world-famous media shark and netstar—whom Kaur had taken to thinking of as Patient Zero—was unmistakable. She could imagine him live-streaming the ordeal, racking up billions of views, while Kaur’s reputation disintegrated with each click.

The arm, or what remained of it, stretched inside a kind of incubator where thousands of microbots swarmed with carefully choreographed precision. The bots applied tiny electrical pulses to the muscle tissues growing under their care, building up what a drunken car accident had torn away. The procedure was Kaur’s claim to fame, reconstructive surgery meets 3D printing. And, as much as she hated to admit it, she couldn’t have done it without Dr. Meeker’s pseudo-synthetic stem cells.

Kaur meant what she’d said to Meeker on the video call. She didn’t care whether Blastocorp’s cells were lab-grown or harvested from back alley dumpsters behind shady coat-hanger clinics. She was saving lives. Despite the horror of the last three weeks, Kaur held onto the fragile hope that Bailey’s recovery would be the crown jewel of her career. Sure, he was in a coma, but the arm was coming along swimmingly. Speaking of swimming, have you ever heard of Cymothoa exigua?

“—Dr. Kaur?”

“Sorry, Chrissy, I was thinking.”

“I said, Dr. Meeker is here.” The nurse’s voice wavered. “And I think I’m going to take my break now, if that’s okay.”

“Yes.” Kaur snapped back to the present. “God, yes. I’m sorry. Try to get some rest. I’ll see to Meeker.”

“Don’t kill him, Suki.” Chrissy Chandler flashed a watery smile and slipped out of the room before Kaur could change her mind.

 

Vacuum chambers bracketed the decontamination corridor that led into the quarantine wing. Kaur felt the familiar hitch in her chest as the air sucked in and out. Dr. Meeker followed her through the airlocks, more composed than when they had spoken an hour ago, but he jumped with each hydraulic hiss.

Their footsteps echoed dully in the empty passage connecting the observation rooms. Kaur led Meeker past a series of rooms occupied by flickering, beeping machines and lone, unmoving bodies. Three of the rooms were dark and quiet now. Meeker’s eyes lingered on these and he paled. Their beds were not empty.

“Two weeks, twelve procedures, each utilizing the latest and greatest product from Blastocorp’s labs.” Kaur stopped in front of Michael Bailey’s room. “This is Patient Zero. He was not the first patient to receive cells from batch 1573, but he was the first to go into shock.”

Meeker had the good sense to look impressed as he surveyed the continuing work of the microbots. “The extent of the damage here… He must have received—”

“Nearly three times the cells any of the others required. Very good.”

“But you were able to stabilize him?”

“He’s stable. All the survivors are.”

“And the others?” Meeker had the rictus look of a man who didn’t want to hear the answer.

“Choked to death.”

His jaw worked like the word stuck in his throat. “Choked?”

“Do you like scuba diving, Ali?”

“I—I’m sorry?”

“Because my head nurse, Chrissy Chandler, she does.”

Sweat broke out across Dr. Meeker’s brow and his bulging eyes rolled from Patient Zero to the darkened pane next door. Kaur pressed a switch next to the observation window, turning the one-way glass into a touchscreen display. She flicked through Bailey’s charts and medical info and pulled up a secure browser. In the search bar she keyed the words Cymothoa exigua.

Kaur brought up an image of a red snapper. The fish stared gape-mouthed at the camera. Its tongue lolled grotesquely to one side. Except the tongue appeared to have tiny, insect-like legs and a gaping mouth of its own. “I give you the tongue-eating louse. This delightful little creature consumes and replaces the tongue of its host, happily sharing meals until the fish dies of malnourishment. Chrissy came across one of these charmers when she was diving off the coast of California last year. Fortunate, because—”

“No.” Meeker’s head shook but his gaze remained locked on the screen. “It’s impossible.”

“—I had never heard of such a thing. So when we found the first dead patient—”

“…choked…”

“—On her own blood, yes. And what do you think we found staring up at us out of the mess that was once her tongue, eh, Meeker?”

Dr. Meeker put a hand against the glass to stabilize himself, sending the screen into a frenzy of opening and closing windows. Kaur switched the display off. “Don’t worry, we saved one for you.”

“But this man, Bailey, he—”

“He survived because he was already intubated. And we were clever enough to get tubes into the others before they started hemorrhaging, too. Where the fuck did you get those pluripotent cells, Meeker?”

“We grew them—” Meeker put a hand up to stop Kaur’s interruption. “No. We did. The blastocysts were completely synthetic. Well, almost…”

“I want the truth, ‘doctor.’ We need to figure out how to save these people and, more importantly, my practice. If you can’t help me do that I’ll figure it out myself, and you’ll be my first test subject.”

Meeker sat in a courtesy chair left for friends and family that Kaur was not allowing anywhere near her patients. He covered his face and spoke through his fingers. “We introduced something to help speed up the duplication process; after we announced the success of the synthetic cell trials we couldn’t keep up with demand. We used cells from a host-mimicking parasite… not C. exigua but a similar human-feeding animal. The mimicking properties masked the organic contamination, and the reproductive speed of the parasite doubled our production capacities.”

“So your stem cells hijacked my reconstructive therapies? How in the hell—”

“It shouldn’t be possible; we tested them repeatedly. The stem cells are safe, Dr. Kaur.”

“That is not what the evidence suggests, Meeker.” Kaur grabbed her colleague by the scrubs and shook him. “What kind of tests did you run? Do you know what I did with—”

“Dr. Kaur,” Nurse Chandler’s voice crackled over the intercom and Meeker flinched out of her grasp. An alarm whined from somewhere down the hallway. “Patient in room four is awake, and… you’ve got to see this.”

 

The young woman in room four paced the perimeter, dragging life support machines behind her like a school of deranged deep-water fish. The terminals still blinked and beeped, sending their readings to the main diagnostics hub, but whatever they were saying wasn’t nearly as strange as what Kaur saw.

The woman’s enormously swollen breasts held her hospital gown away from her body at an obscene angle and her gauzy hospital underpants stretched askew, but modesty was the last thing Kitty Donahue appeared to be concerned with. She was chewing on her pillowcase.

“I didn’t want to go in,” Chandler said. Kaur couldn’t blame her.

On the woman’s third pass around the room, she stopped in front of the observation window. She couldn’t see them, but some instinct seemed to tell her she was being watched. The remains of the bed linens in her fist were flecked with blood.

“Ith thombody there?” Kitty struggled with the words. “Doctorth?”

Kaur stared at the woman through the one-way glass. The thing in her mouth appeared to be moving against Kitty’s will.

“Pleath. I’m tho hungee!”

Meeker, faced with the demon of his own creation, found his voice. For the first time since her phone call, he looked determined. “I’ll figure out how to kill the things, Kaur. If you can grow some new tongues.”

“Let’s do it.” Kaur smiled, hope bubbling inside her again. Another alarm sounded. “Before Bailey wants to schedule an interview.”

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Children of the Veil” by S.C. Jensen

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As I mentioned in my previous FFF post, I’m participating in the story a month challenge at 12ShortStories.com this year. The January prompt was “The Bridge” with a 1200 word limit, exactly. I squeaked by at 1201 words, but I think that’s within the allowable limits. I hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I did writing it! Most of the feedback I’ve gotten so far is that people wish it was longer. What do you think? Would you like to see me work this into a longer short story? A novella? Maybe a full-length novel?

“Children of the Veil” by S.C. Jensen
1201 words
Fantasy

They had been hiking into the coastal forest for a week when they finally found the Fjording. Gar was the first to see the slash of shimmering air above them. Up, up, up. Her guts writhed like eels in her belly and she pointed.

The young girl shielded her eyes to look. She stared into the air where it swirled and churned near the treetops. “What now?”

Gar watched the eddies of air above them, thick and swirling the way fresh water pours into a salty sea. Ambivalence, hopeful and heartsick, tugged at her. The old sea-hag had never seen a Fjording like this before, so far from the summoning rings.

Perhaps that’s why the Sealers had overlooked it as they scoured the land, closing all the paths into the Vale. In their haste, they had missed a scarce handful. Gar could taste them when the wind was right, the doorways. She hung onto the familiar scent, even as the Fjordings faded from her memory. She had known someday the girl would come. Now that the time was nigh, the old witch wondered if she was ready.

“I’ll have to call it.”

“Can you do that?” The girl eyed Gar warily.

“It has been so long.” Excitement pulsed through Gar’s limbs, electrifying. The eels danced. “I am not young anymore.”

“What do you need?” The girl dropped her bag and dug her hands inside. Her swollen belly bulged between her knees. “I’ll start a fire.”

“You should rest, Liv.” A young man spoke from the shadows amid the trees. “I’ll start the fire.”

Liv’s lips tightened but she allowed Silvan to lead her to a patch of mossy ground between the surrounding evergreens. “I could manage.”

“You don’t need to while I’m here,” he said. “It’s my child, too.”

“If it survives long enough to open its eyes in this world, it will be.” Liv drew up her spine and pushed out her engorged breasts like a fertility statue. Gar’s lips curled in spite of herself. “Until then it is mine alone.”

The girl had spirit all right.

Silvan’s eyebrows knit together as if Liv had stitched them with bait line. He busied himself with collecting twigs like fish-bones from the forest floor. “With luck, it will not be this world that our child first sees.”

“It’s not luck that we need, boy,” Gar said. “Build me that fire. I will gather the stones.”

Liv sat in silence for a time while Gar and Silvan worked. She rubbed her belly in a large circular motion and rocked on her hipbones with the rhythm of a woman whose time was coming near. “Maya Gar, have you ever done this before?”

“I’m no amateur.” The old hag gripped a stone the size of her head with puff-jointed fingers. Pain seared her tendons, but she rolled it awkwardly into the clearing.

Silvan’s face flickered orange as tiny flames licked at his fish-bone kindling. His eyes remained dark, though, the corners pulled tight by a frown that got eaten up at his cheekbones and never made it to his mouth. “For someone like her?”

Gar dropped the stone and let it settle next to another of similar size and enclosed the summoning circle around Silvan and the fire. “You mean a Valeling.”

The sea-hag stretched her crooked back and relished the fluid rushing and popping between her bones. She had started down this path forty years earlier and each year hung off her body like a weights on a fishnet, dragging her down. When the Sealers had come to their island back then, Gar had thought the old ways were finished. But old Maya Ula trained her in secret, as if the Sealers weren’t shutting up all the doorways to the Vale, as if they weren’t hunting down anyone with a talent for opening the Fjordings and bridging the gap between worlds—

“You know what I mean.” Silvan’s dark eyes peered at Gar through the growing flames. Then they wavered toward Liv and her grotesquely distended abdomen. Motherhood looked like a mistake of nature on her tiny frame.

“How old are you, Elivia?” Gar sucked her teeth. “How many years since you came over from the Vale?”

The girl clenched her jaw so hard the tendons on her neck stuck out like anchor ropes. Beads of sweat glistened on her brown forehead. She took a deep breath and answered, “Fourteen.”

“And you, Silvan?”

“I am not from the Vale.”

Gar squinted at him and he flinched.

“Sixteen,” he said.

“Precocious youth.” The old hag cackled and both children tensed. “And great fortune for all of us that you are.”

“How is this good fortune?” Silvan’s features hardened into golden stone in the firelight, carved by shadows. “They would kill her if they knew. They would kill our baby.”

“But they don’t know. I have protected her.” Maya Gar, the sea hag, tossed an herb bundle into the fire Silvan built. The flames hissed and flickered green and blue before settling back into their warmer hues. But the smoke that issued from the pyre stayed blue. It’s sweetness fell heavily upon the trio. Liv closed her eyes. “And I will continue to protect all of you until I die.”

Maya Gar reached up toward the stars, now winking at her from the blackness above. The horizon still bore the purplish-red colour of a woman’s swollen labia as the sun set itself upon a sea they could not see. She inhaled deeply of the herbal fumes and stroked the sky with her arthritic hands, like an ancient lover.

She almost missed the catch. Her fingers snagged upon an invisible zipper in the air above them, exactly centred upon the summoning circle and the fire they had built. Gar closed her eyes and felt that little snag once more, the tiny nub, a hardening of the air, to be caressed. She stroke downwards, tugging the invisible flesh, warming the hidden core of the Vale with her ancient hands.

Then she pulled, and—

“Oh my gods,” Liv gasped abruptly. “I can see it!”

“The waters! Liv, are you ready? Are you certain?” Silvan’s voice rushed forward like those waves, the tug of the Vale poured through him.

“She will be fine.” Maya Gar spread the Fjording with her palms. Heat radiated from the Vale, down her arms, and into her heart. It has been so long!

“Go!” Silvan urged. “Go now, before it closes. This is what we must do!”

“But—” Liv balked, seeing the slit for what it was. The old woman stretched between the fire and the sky, but to Liv, who may never see this land again, the distance seemed much further.

“Go, child.” The energy of the Fjording shook Maya Gar’s body like a thousand electric eels. “This is your last chance. This is my last chance to help…”

“Elivia, now!” Silvan pulled the swollen child off her haunches and lifted her toward the opening in the sky. “Stand on my shoulders. You must save our child.”

Liv stretched herself toward the Vale like a flower to the sun. Maya Gar and Silvan pushed her upwards. Away. Safe.

“My child,” Liv said, and disappeared.

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Jumper” by S.C. Jensen

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Flash Fiction Friday: This year, I’m participating in the story a month challenge at 12ShortStories.com. The February prompt was “Desperate Times” and the limit was 1000 words in length. I was a little late submitting it, so it won’t count toward my official score, but I’m still pretty pleased with the outcome. After it’s settled a bit, I hope to revise it and submit it to a couple of magazines I subscribe to. As always, please let me know what you think. Your feedback is invaluable, and you never know what little insight might inspire a big change during my edits!

“Jumper” by S.C. Jensen
985 words
Horror/Suspense

Jordie didn’t want to kill himself. That’s not why he was down at the tracks that day. A boy had done just that, though, a few years back. Thirteen year old Henry Brand jumped right in front of the old iron horse just as she was picking up speed outside of town. They found him, in parts, strewn between mileposts halfway to the canyon.

Boys at school said you could still see the bloodstain, a dark spot on the parched earth.

At the time, suicide was an unfathomable thing to Jordie. But the older he got, the more it made a bleak kind of sense. It was like playing knucklebones. Sometimes you know when you’re beat; sometimes you’ve just gotta cut your losses.

Jordie’s eyes swept up and down the iron scar that sliced through the cracked, red flesh of the badlands. Scrubby brush burst crazily from the gravel beside the tracks like the grizzled hairs on a hobo’s chin. The sun burned up all the moisture in the air before it got a chance to touch the desiccated soil. It sucked the water right out of his pores. Even the spit in his mouth seemed to evaporate. Jordie grew old under that sun.

He crouched low in the silvery grasses and kept his head down. Rail workers weren’t likely to spot him this far from the switch, but he wasn’t taking chances. Heat radiated at him from the greasy rail ties in thick, rubber-scented waves. It twisted the air before him and the landscape beyond. Jordie kept his eye on the horizon. The three o’clock train would be coming west on this line, and he was ready for it.

Jordie’s mind wandered, dreamlike, in the shimmering heat. He saw his father at the kitchen table. His ropey muscles writhed as he coiled in on himself like a snake, aggressively defensive. The ice in his glass rattled a familiar warning. Jordie’s jaw and ribs ached with remembrance.

He wondered if they would miss him at school on Monday, or if Mrs. Temple would assume Jordie was taking one of his regular “shiner days.” How long would it take before someone realized he was gone? How long until they started searching for his body?

They’d look for Jordie before anyone missed his old man.

Thoughts of the bloodstain crept up on him then. How thirstily the ground must have lapped up the red rivulets, how cool and refreshing it must have been to the furnace-fired earth. Jordie ran a tongue like sandstone over lips of cracked clay. The skin sloughed off in ragged flakes. It made sense that the stain would still be there, though he’d never believed it before. A gift like that was something to hold on to.

Then, Jordie realized he could see it. A shadow of blackened dirt splashed across the wooden ties and down the gravel bank not five paces from where he planned to jump. It could have been an oil stain, or the remains of a bucket of pitch knocked over during a hasty shift change. But it wasn’t, Jordie knew.

He knew because Henry was there.

The boy unfolded himself from between the layers of quivering air, appearing in thin fleshy stripes that thickened and solidified as Jordie stared. Jordie’s tongue curled in his mouth like a dead worm. Henry stood on the opposite side of the tracks and gaped at Jordie, a black-eyed reflection of his own slack-jawed shock. The boy beckoned.

Jordie felt the train before he heard it. A clacking tremor shivered up the rail as if it was ridden by a ghost engine. A whistle shrieked through the surrounding cliffs and forced Jordie to tear his eyes from the apparition. A hulking form grew on the horizon. Jordie felt the quaking like pressure building in his chest. The train bore down upon him, not yet at full speed, but quicker than he thought.

A hypnotic horror forced Jordie’s gaze back to the thing across the tracks. Henry beckoned him still. The boy smiled now, pink teeth flashing. Jordie help up a hand, reaching for the boy or warding him away, he didn’t know. Black blood caked the grooves of his fingernails, staining him the way the earth beneath Henry was stained. His hand gripped the phantom knife and he felt the sluicing arterial flow rush over him.

In death, the old man was less a snake than a pig. Watching the slumped pile of meat bleed out on the kitchen floor, Jordie couldn’t remember why he’s been so scared of his father.

Henry worked his jaw, still smiling. Jordie didn’t hear his voice but the words reverberated inside his skull like the vibrations of the train hurtling toward him. “It’s time.”

The great black engine swelled behind a translucent veil of heatwaves. When it tore through, suddenly hard-edged and undeniably real, Jordie froze. It was time. Was he ready?

The train rushed past and a wall of hot air and dust seemed to blast the skin from his bones. He squinted at the empty spaces between cars as they passed where Henry’s face had become a stop-motion picture of fury. The pink mouthed smile stretched out and down grotesquely, until the bottom jaw fell from the boy’s face completely. Henry’s skull caved in on one side and his limbs separated from the mangled ribcage that opened like a mouth in his chest. And in a spray of blood and earth, the spectre disintegrated.

Jordie’s paralysis broke.

He ran. His legs and arms pumped like rusted pistons and he ran alongside the tracks. His joints screamed and his muscles caught fire. Jordie edged his body closer and closer to the speeding behemoth. The bone crushing weight of the train tugged at him like gravity. His eyes were clear now. He kept them trained over his shoulder on an empty boxcar. It was time.

Jordie jumped.

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“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

Here is one of the first short fiction pieces I ever attempted. I wrote this about a year ago and haven’t done anything with it, though I am still kind of interested in making this fit with my Cold Metal War world if I can. In an effort to show more of my work, though, I give it to you. Let me know what you think!

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Quiet now.

A dry wind pushes the reluctant prairie grasses in a frantic dance. Bending and swaying. Shushing and sighing. The hot breath of a mother soothing her exhausted child. Singing.

Everything else is quiet now.

My heart beats. Of course it beats. I’m still alive. My heart beats with the arrhythmic song of trees and insects. Of hot mother’s breath and colic.

I’m still alive.

The copse of poplars trembles around me, a shiver of leaves that runs up my spine and out the top of my head into the clear blue skies above. Boney white trunks shift and creak in the breeze. Sweat beads on my sunburnt forehead. A salty river runs from my temple, down my neck, and between my breasts. Pooling there.

I shift the weight on my shoulder. The thin nylon rope wasn’t designed for this. The skin beneath my shirt is raw and red where the makeshift rifle strap digs into my flesh. I can’t put it down.

Scan the horizon. My eyes are gritty and it is impossible to focus. Keep them open. I try to relax my mind. I don’t need detail. I will be able to sense if they are still following me; the things lack subtlety. I’ll be safe. I just need to keep a clear view of the horizon. The grid breaks through the sea of native grasses like an old grey scar. Nothing grows there. They don’t stray far from the gravel these days.

Vigilance is key. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in numbers. Besides, they don’t want to kill me. Not yet.

Though that’s much worse.

The little grove of trees around me is the last cover available until I get to the water tower. It crouches on the horizon, one spindly leg sagging. The white of its body heavy and swollen atop delicate limbs. Daddy Longlegs. An injured thing. Only the desperate seek the protection of the dying. I can make it. As soon as I know the road is clear, I’ll take my chance.

I close my eyes and fill my lungs with the dry, herbal scented air. Pasture sage and yarrow. Listening to the sounds of the prairie I am transported to an earlier time. A time before the fear and loneliness set in. Before friends became enemies and families tore themselves apart.

As a child, I wandered these fields with lunch in my knapsack and a peashooter on my back. Gophers didn’t stand a chance against my old Red Ryder. Dad had gotten me the pink one, proving once again that he was more interested in the idea of his daughter than his actual daughter. I loved it all the same. I wrapped electrical tape around the pastel coloured stock and took secret pleasure in the way dirt and grass stuck to it, how my hands never quite felt clean after an afternoon of hunting.

A twig breaks behind me, and I drop. My heart hammers in my chest. All I can hear is the roar of blood in my ears. I struggle to roll onto my side, tugging at the gun and hoping to hell they are as surprised as I am. Idiot! My family will kill me yet, even if it’s just the memory of them. Get yourself caught this close to the finish line. Sentimental idiot!

I get the butt of the rifle tight against my shoulder and I try to focus. A blur of movement to my left makes me flinch. The thing rushes at me and I shoot blindly, a crack in the air that knocks the leaves off the trees. The butt kicks back, biting my collarbone; my grip was off. Not a fucking peashooter. I know I missed. I curl against myself protectively, waiting for it to hit me. I flinch again as I feel the weight of the thing soaring over me. Its shadow darkens the splotchy red light behind my tightly closed eyes. It lands next to me. I brace myself.

But it doesn’t strike. It runs. I hear it crash through the shrubs at the edge of the poplar stand, and then almost silently into the grasses beyond. What the fuck?

I roll again, getting my knees under me. I glance warily over my shoulder, leery of the trees now. If they can hide me, they can hide other things. But there is nothing. I turn to the field, my heart thumping so hard I think I might pass out. Bile rises in my throat. Nothing.

No. Not nothing. Cresting the waves of late summer prairie grass is a beautiful sight. The arching back and graceful legs of a white-tailed doe flash above the grasses and disappear again. She bounds left and dekes right, and in a few long leaps is gone.

Relief floods over me. My breathing steadies. The stars dancing before my eyes begin to dissipate as my heartbeat slows. I’m still alive.

But I fired my rifle. I might as well have lit a flare and signaled my pursuers. It’s time to move. I swing the rifle onto my back again, wincing as the rope burns its way into place. The pain keeps me present. I can’t afford to wait. I push into the sagebrush and don’t look back.

Grasshoppers leap against me as I press through the grasses. The soft flickers as they hit my legs and chest go mostly unnoticed, but when they hit my neck and face I feel the sharp thwack of their bodies colliding with mine. Hard reminders that everything is the same. Everything except us. Mother Nature goes on her merry way as the parasites destroy themselves. I hope, vaguely, that in a hundred years there are scientists left to write about this.

Will they be Carriers, too? Most of us will be dead. Maybe all. Carriers and Hosts. We’re all doomed. The only hope is that there are enough of us left to rebuild someday.

Tall prairie grasses scratch my neck and cheeks. Native grassland. It comforts me to know there will be so much left when we’re gone. Not human but enough. Better that it’s not human. The parasites. Worms that eat the dead. Monsters.

Carriers.

They said we were the monsters. Not like we chose this path. One day we’re all brothers and sisters. The Human Fucking Race. Next we’re Carriers and Hosts. We’re disease ridden and diseased. We’re the living and the dead. Or soon to be.

But we didn’t choose to be this way. I watched my mother die in my arms, flesh marred by fowlpox—scales like an alligator across her skin. Flakey white scabs for eyes, a moulting snake between Egyptian cotton sheets; 400 thread count, a luxurious death bed. You think I wanted that?

Even before the milk had taken her eyes. Hardened to a crust. Before that, when she stared at me with cold hatred, as if I was the reason Marcus had died. As if I would kill my baby brother. As if I wanted any of this.

Daddy at least took pity on me.

He gave me the .30-06. He gave me my knapsack filled with food and hand-loaded rounds. He gave me a hard hug and pushed me into the night.

Don’t come back, sweetie.

And the grasshoppers hit my throat and my eyes. They get stuck in my hair. They remind me of those fleeting embraces. Those moments before I was just a Carrier. I love you, baby. Gimme a hug. Back when I was a woman. A daughter. A person, not a death sentence.

Suddenly I’m standing beneath the water tower. The old beast creaks and sways above me in the wind. I wonder if she’ll fall. All this way and the ancient wooden structure could just collapse and obliterate me. Put me out of my misery.

Quit feeling sorry for yourself, girl. I need to get higher before I set the signal. This is about more than just you. I circle the water tower, looking for a way up. There. On the broken leg. Of course. The ladder is as brittle looking as the limb it’s attached to. But I don’t have much choice. I need to be above the tree line for the fucking contraption to work.

If it works.

Stop it.

I grab the rung above my head and haul my weight onto the first step. The ladder is metal, rusty and corroded where the white paint blisters and peels away. It’s like their skin, pale and bumpy on the outside and sickly, infected red underneath. Don’t think about it. Just climb.

Hand over hand. Pull. Step. Hand over hand. Pull. Step. I give each bar a good yank before taking my foot off its current purchase. I don’t like the look of those rusty old welds, and I’m too close to my goal to die now. Half way up the tower my precaution pays off. A rung shifts beneath my hand and tears away with the gentlest of encouragement. I throw the thing down, elated and angry. See? You’re not so fucking dumb, are you? Might survive this yet.

I’m so focussed on the ladder that I don’t pay much attention to the platform above me. When I get there, finally, my heart pounding and my breath coming in winded gasps, I take a moment before hoisting myself to safety. For a dizzying moment I allow myself a look down.

Below me the grasses spin and swirl in the wind. From here, they look more like golden-green waves crashing against the shores of poplar stands and rock piles, farmers’ great monuments dedicated to cleared fields. Progress.

No one would be farming these fields again. The cattle and horses that once grazed here would be dead soon. Neglected. Starved. Maybe eaten. The crops would never be planted again. The only sign that we’d ever been here would be those rock piles, the tenacious alfalfa that would try to overtake the native grasses, and the grid roads cutting through the landscape like surgical scars.

No one is following. I’m going to make it after all. I reach up and grasp the handle of the railing. It passes the tug test and I throw my weight into the last big step up. The railing moves a bit under my weight, but it’s relatively solid. I put my foot down on the braided steel platform and look up.

“Shit!”

The shock almost sends me back through the rail opening. A foot from my face are the gaping twin mouths of a shotgun. I don’t try to get my rifle. I’m fucked. I know it. It’s an ambush. Instinctively I put my hands up. Even as I do it I wish I hadn’t. I wish I wasn’t giving them the satisfaction of my cooperation. How did they know to wait here?

“How did you know I was here?” A voice echoes my thought. I might be wrong, but I think there is a tremor there.

“I didn’t,” I say, thickly. These are the first words I’ve spoken aloud in weeks. I clear my throat. “Did you know I was coming?”

“Are you one of them?” she asks, ignoring my question. It’s a woman. A girl, maybe. I can’t focus past the double-barreled threat in my face. But her voice gives me hope. More women are Carriers than men. My odds just got a little better.

“One of who?” Whom. The mental correction is absurd. A relic of my past life. I almost laugh. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“One of them. The sick ones. The god-damned Host,” she pushes the firearm closer to my face. Not funny. Not fucking funny.

“No.” I keep my eyes down. I can see the grass twisting and turning beneath me, through the gridwalk. “No. I’m clean.”

“Show me.” The shotgun lowers a few inches. I can see past it to her face. She’s scared, yes. She’s scared and she’s angry. She’s like me.

I move slowly, fully aware that she could punch a hole in my chest big enough to let the light in. What light? But I pull up the sleeves of my button-down canvas blouse, exposing my wrists. I undo the buttons at my neck to show her my chest. I start to take off my boots, army surplus infantry grade combats, to show my ankles. She stops me.

“Okay.” The gun lowers and I allow myself a deep breath. “Fuck. Okay. I’m sorry. It’s just—”

“I know,” I assure her. Then I do laugh. “Don’t I know? Jesus.”

“Do you have a beacon?”

I stop. The woman stares at me. Into me. Her dark eyes pierce my flesh, protruding from her sunken face like daggers. Desperate. Is this my face?

“Do you have a fucking beacon?” Her voice rises in agitation. “Answer me or I’ll fucking shoot you and check your fucking pockets.”

She swears like someone who doesn’t swear. It’s both endearing and terrifying. Desperate.

“I have one.”

“Thank god.” Her shoulders sag visibly. “Thank god. Thank god.”

“Do you?” I ask. “Why are you up here?”

The woman’s eyes flash again. Daggers. She turns her back on me and walks to the west side of the tower. I wait a moment, then follow. She crouches and I see what she’s hiding. A white-painted piece of plywood leans against the belly of the water tower. There is a mewling noise coming from inside the makeshift shelter. She drops to all fours and crawls inside, motioning me in behind her. I follow.

Inside the shelter, she picks up a bundle of rags. The mewling thing. And she shows me. It’s a baby. Newborn. Less than two months old. But there are already blisters on its face. The mouth is a raw, red wound. It cries like it has no energy for crying. The woman shushes it, her soft voice like wind in the grass. Its tiny voice like the whining of black flies and mosquitos.

“I had one,” she whispers. The sound melds into her noises of comfort. “I had one, but I lost it when we ran.”

“Why are you here?”

“I came anyway.” She smiles sadly. “That was before I knew he was one of them. I came and I hoped someone else would come.”

I turn my eyes to the horizon, again. Peering into the bright triangle of light beyond the shelter. Movement. There on the grid. They are coming.

“I have one,” I say.

“Okay.” She pulls the infant to her breast and the gaping red wound begins to suckle. “Okay. You can use it.”

“But we can’t take him.” I know it. She knows it. I don’t know why I say it.

“No.”

I take the thing out of my pocket. A small, metal disc. Easy to conceal. The man who gave it to me made me promise, promise to make it here. Promise to start the signal. I hold it in the palm of my hand, watching the movement on the road.

“You know what’s inside?” she asks. I look at her narrow face again, the taught skin and hard bones. “What you get when you push that button?”

“I know.”

“Can I have it?”

“You don’t need it,” I say. “You’re healthy. You’re going to be fine.”

“Maybe,” she smiles at the nursing boy. That tiny thing with so much life. He’s trying. But it’s not enough. “You know, they told me he would be okay. He would be okay because I was okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” The babe suckles half-heartedly and falls asleep at her breast. “But if you can, please let me have it. When you set the beacon. Please.”

“Will you wait? Will you wait to see if they come?” Different they. Good they. Savior they.

“No,” she says, still rocking her son. “It doesn’t matter if they come. I’ll give him enough and I’ll take the rest. I’ll be dead when they come for you.”

I look at my rifle, and at her shotgun. I can’t blame her for wanting to take the easy way out. What if they don’t come? But she can have them. I’m not going to go that easily, even if the beacon fails and the military can’t get to us here. I’ve done what I can.

“Okay,” I say. And I push the button. A tiny red light blinks at me from the surface of the beacon. It works. The centre lifts to reveal a single white pill. It’s meant for Carriers to take if they are discovered before help arrives. If the Host captures us. It is meant to save us from the torture of experimentation. I hope it works

I give her the little white pill, and I keep my eyes on the horizon. She puts the drug in her mouth without hesitating, and chews. With her index finger, she swipes a paste from the tip of her tongue and puts her finger in the baby’s mouth. He sucks, and shivers, and is still.

“Thank you,” she says, relaxing finally. Her eyes look glassy in the half-light of the shelter. “Thank you.”

I’m not going without a fight. I pull the woman’s shotgun closer to me with my foot. I check the chamber and see two dull, brassy eyes peering back. No other shells are in sight. But I have a pocket full of cartridges and plenty of time. I’m still a good shot. I feel the woman’s body relax beside me. A thick ammonia scent hangs in the air as the pill takes effect. I have nothing but time. I’m still alive.

 

 

 

Interview: Neuicon at The Monolith

So I sat down for a virtual chat with Neuicon, the Editor-in-Chief and creative brain behind Crushpop Productions and the Monolith (whose work I have reviewed here and here) to dig into how the companies evolved. We did this interview in early December, but it’s taken me this long to get organized enough to format the thing, and for that I am sorry! I’d blame the holidays, but I think I might actually just be disorganized. Thank you all for reading and for being patient with me. Especially Mr. Neuicon!

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CPOP’s Goremageddon tabletop game in action!

S: Thank you, Neuicon, for taking the time to talk to me today. Can you tell me what CPOP is and how it started, and how you got into the gaming side of things?

N: I have been a big gamer all my life, really. I started designing rules for existing tabletop games back in 2008. I worked on these with friends. I also created games that revolved around established game universes, like Warhammer 40,000 and Starcraft.

It was in 2010 when I decided that it would be interesting to try and establish my own games. I began with GROMM, which was originally free, a Dark Fantasy universe and was created under the influence of another great game at the time, Shattered Verse, by Adam Isherwood. I was given his blessing to use the rules as a platform, and GROMM was born. This lead to me wanting to create a brand that would look over this and future games, leading to the creation of Crushpop Productions, later nicknamed CPOP. GROMM become our flagship title.

S: That’s perfect! Does GROMM stand for something, or is it just the name? And how does Goremageddon come into play?

N: GROMM is the name of the world. You need a little bit of reference, here, too. GRAXX is the name of the planet in Goremageddon, after the fantasy world of GROMM phased out, it was named GRAXX. Essentially, GROMM evolved with our real planet Earth in an alternate reality. So they’ve got computers, iphones, the United States, North Korea, etc. It’s the same world, but with fantasy races like Elves and Orcs alongside Humans. This is why places like Los Angeles, New York, San Bernardino, etc. are all mentioned and referenced.

S: Cool! Okay, so when did you start thinking you wanted to expand into fiction? How did that come about?

N: I have always enjoyed writing. I really began diving into that during Junior High when creative writing had me hooked. I remember creating this wild Sci-Fi universe with various races vying for control of the galaxy. It was insane, but I loved writing it, and reading it over, again and again. So, the passion for creativity has always been there.

With the success of GROMM and the first two editions of Goremageddon, it became apparent that people were really hooked by the theme and story. I was getting so many emails about expanding the story and adding more to expansions so that people had more to read, because they found it so entertaining. The first two editions of Goremageddon were really niche, but the second edition started to gain traction. I decided to launch the Monolith upon the success of Goremageddon and just how much people loved the universe.

On Free Comic Book Day 2015, I unveiled “Ling Ling Conquers GRAXX” as a teaser for what to expect from the Monolith (Ling Ling is a popular character in Goremageddon, based entirely on my wife.) It went over incredibly well and again, emails poured in about seeing Ling Ling in her very own mini-series.

It was a huge decision. I invested heavily in our first ongoing mini-series and brought Tom Haswell on board to write Absolute Valentine, a series based on the Synthwave musician of the same name, and a good friend as well. I was terrified at the start of the launch, and was overwhelmed by its success. It later led to my moving forward with a full brand, entirely dedicated to fiction—not only revolving around the universes of our games, but unique fiction, as well.

S: That’s really cool! Okay, so how does 80’s synth tie into all of this? I’m really fascinated by the cross-genre and cross-medium world you’ve built. Can you describe how one inspires another, or is that “too big” a question?

N: I am a big fan of the music and theme. The first edition of Goremageddon was more raw and heavily thrash metal-based. Then I decided to indulge in the glamour of the synthwave movement as, to me, it really captured the 80’s style of things and Goremageddon is truly like stepping into a badly produced Italian post-apocalyptic film in the 80’s.

If you want to know why so many people love Goremageddon, the game is heavily inspired by: 80’s Italian horror, gore, post-apocalyptic films, synthwave, cyberpunk, noir, crime drama, 80’s action films, thrash metal and even includes fantasy themes (magic, vampires, werewolves, orcs, elves all in the post-apocalyptic setting.) It’s really one of the only places you will see such a massive mash-up of ideas and themes.

S: I love that. So what are your main series’ right now? And where do you foresee the Monolith going in the next 5-10 years?

N: Absolute Valentine is still our best-selling series. Tom really blew it out of the park with that one. He turned an idea I had into this massive story with twists, turns, action and an incredible writing style. Fans of the Monolith have been asking for a Ling Ling Conquers GRAXX series, too. But I’m massively busy, and it’s going to take time. I am currently writing it, but a release date is still TBA. Chinatown is another popular title and fans are already looking forward to another season. Chris Reynolds has agreed to it, and I am so stoked to get that up and running soon!

We also offer other titles in conjunction with other brands, such as Super Chibi Clash, from MidKnight Heroes. We currently are scheduled to release another mini-series for that publisher in the near future.

S: Can you explain a little bit about how these other titles tie in to the brand?

N: The Monolith is primarily a platform. This is how I view the brand, overall. While the focus is on games and universes of CPOP products, I don’t want it to be all the Monolith is. I hope it will become a platform for indie authors to release their work on. MidKnight Heroes adds to this, as both a friend of CPOP and a brand producing their own games and IP. They have chosen to allow the Monolith to release their fiction; Super Chibi Clash is based on their games’ universe and is presented in a similar way to how traditional Monolith products are released, in seasons and episodes per season.

The Monolith has truly been a dream come true and its success has really blown me away. I would love to see it bigger and broader in 5-10 years’ time, the place more and more indie authors can come to to see their hard work brought to life. I want it to be a place where fans and new readers alike will always find something that they can get into. I think we have the ability to continue doing just that, so all I can do is continue to move forward and this, being such a huge passion of mine, is something I will continue to do with much hard work behind it.

S: I love that idea. So what is your day job? Do you come from a creative background, beyond personal interests?

N: While I have so much going on in the creative world—CPOP, the Monolith, Solitarius (our merchandise brand) and the Nightvine Temple Society (an indie music label)—I am, by day, a Personal Trainer. I have four licenses and absolutely LOVE my job. I am currently in school for a degree in Sciences; I promised my father before he passed away that I would one day acquire a Doctorate in Physical Therapy.

As far as a creative background goes, I did enjoy a short stint working on indie comic books, doing both pencils and inks. I tried illustration again a few years ago, but am pretty rusty; at least I think so, lol. Aside from being a gym enthusiast, I enjoy video games, reading, writing, illustration, painting (both on canvas as well as tabletop miniatures) as well as things like sports. I practice Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling and my wife practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

S: You’ve mentioned that you are married. Do you have kids? How do you manage the work/life balance of a full time job and managing this huge creative passion on the side?

 N: I am married, yes. I met my wife in 2005 and have been with her ever since. She engages in just about everything I enjoy and is incredibly open-minded. She games, reads comics, loves novels, enjoys tabletop games, watches football and MMA with me and even practices brazilain jiu-jistu. As for kids, no, I don’t plan to ever have kids of my own.

As far as managing all this goes, my sleep cycle is often screwed up and usually, 4-5 hours is all I get or need, really. I am an incredibly busy person, but it keeps me motivated and moving forward.

S: I think I’d die if I got that little sleep! And your wife is the inspiration for Ling Ling? How does she feel about that?

 N: She is! She loves the game, the setting, and has fallen in love with her character. Ling Ling is a really complex character to understand. I think it is this alone that really made her so popular. In Corrogatio 2, there is a Ling Ling story that introduces two new characters, Rowena and Marie Antoinette, who are based on my wife’s real-life sisters, too.

S: That sounds awesome! I need to read some more Ling Ling! Okay, now I need some of the business stuff. If a writer is interested in writing for the Monolith and the Goremageddon universe, how do they proceed?

N: Writing for the monolith is easy! The CPOP website has a contact section where messages can be sent to us in regards to various topics. Direct submissions are the best way to inquire about writing for the Monolith. We’re always looking to provide writers with a platform that will encourage them and allow them to see their work published.

S: And what are you plans for the game, now?

N: Goremageddon is finished and is currently being put together, the release for the game should come early 2018 (Q1). It is a tabletop miniatures game. You play on a table, using miniatures to represent the members of your gang, dice to determine the outcome of battles, a tape ruler to determine measurements, and a playing area to represent the battlefield. It features a more rich history, background, an updated set of rules. To date, this is the biggest investment I have made for a CPOP produced game. I am incredibly excited to see it released.

There are other titles the Monolith will be unveiling soon, too. I have finished GROMM: Rise of the Queen, which is being edited right now. It’s a story that takes a look at and alternate history for GROMM. In the original GROMM, Elizabeth succumbs to evil forces and is put to death by her father. In Rise of the Queen, her father and brother fall in battle and she’s forced to rule her nation, and she does.

S: Well, this all sounds really exciting, and I can’t wait to follow your progress in 2018. Thank you so much for talking with me!

N: Thank you!

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

Horror Review: “The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle

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“The Ballad of Black Tom” by Victor LaValle is one of the books that came up when I was reading up on Black Speculative Fiction Month last October. This wonderful novella is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Horror at Red Hook,” one of the most notoriously racist of Lovecraft’s oft-bigoted tales of cosmic horror.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t actually read “The Horror at Red Hook.” Critics seem to almost unanimously agree that, while much of Lovecraft’s fiction has strengths that elevate it above the author’s ugly prejudices, “The Horror at Red Hook” is essentially without any redeemable qualities. And, I also have to admit, while I have studied Lovecraft, and actually do enjoy a handful of his tales, for the most part I find his writing painfully archaic and obtuse. Even while his Cthulhu Mythos has inspired some of my own fiction writing, I have had to force myself through the majority of his work. So, without any redeeming qualities, I doubt I’d be able to finish “The Horror at Red Hook” if I did try to read it.

Now, it’s hard to get around the fact that Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of all time, even while modern critics are finally acknowledging and deconstructing his unapologetic asshatery. How much are we willing to overlook in the name of art? This is something that a lot of horror and science fiction writers are considering.

“Lovecraft. . . opened the way for me,” writes Stephen King, “as he had done for others before me…. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

And it’s true. It seem inescapable. Even for those who have never read Lovecraft, it is impossible to read modern horror that has not been in some way influenced by his writing.

Reading “The Ballad of Black Tom” has really made me think about how much harder it must be for marginalized horror/SF writers to reconcile this influence in a positive way. LaValle’s dedication in his novella is poignant. “For H.P. Lovecraft,” it reads, “with all my conflicted feelings.” But “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a perfect example of how such a reconciliation might be accomplished.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” revisits the world of Lovecraft’s Red Hook neighbourhood from the perspective of a black man, Charles Thomas Tester, living in Harlem in the 1920s. My understanding of the Lovecraft original is that it’s basically a screed against brown people, immigrants, people who don’t speak English, and especially brown immigrants who don’t speak English.

LaValle actually does an excellent job of retaining the bigotry of some of these characters, while looking at them critically through the eyes of Tommy Tester. The horrors that Tester experiences are as much a product of racism in 1920s New York as they are the more cosmic horrors that his counterpart and erstwhile employer, Robert Suydem, is courting.

Tommy Tester’s experiences as he moves from Harlem, to Suydem’s upscale white neighbourhood, to the immigrant centre of Red Hook demonstrate the horror of being an outsider, of being othered by society. It is only when Tester has been completely isolated, after his own personal horror and loss has released him from his sense of humanity, that he becomes Black Tom–embracing inhumanity as a path to freedom. Even still, the true monsters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” are all-too human.

Ruthanna Emrys sums it up nicely in a review for Tor. “The task of today’s cosmic horror—if it seeks to touch on readers’ real fears, and not simply reflect the squids of particular authors—is to connect the vast inhumanity of an uncaring universe with the vast inhumanity of entirely banal humans,” she writes. “This, LaValle accomplishes admirably. Cthulhu is a metaphor for us; we become, if we aren’t careful, a metaphor for Cthulhu.”

 

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: Update

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: Update

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The results are in for round three of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction challenge. After scoring first in round one and third in round two, I was feeling pretty confident about round three. I was a little nervous, because I knew competition would be stiff. But the assignment that I received was right up my alley with Genre: Thriller–Location: a radio tower–Object: ice skates. The piece I wrote was my favourite of the three, by far. It was the most “me.” I was totally in my element.

And guess what?

I didn’t even place in the top half of my group! That’s right. Not even an honourable mentions, when I was pretty sure that I had one of those coveted top four spots in the bag, haha.

We don’t get to read the other entries, but they did post the synopses of the top eight pieces for each group. I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong. Based on the synopses of the higher scoring pieces, I may have been slightly off genre. Or perhaps I didn’t do anything wrong, and the competition was just that much steeper in round three.

Either way, I still had a blast with this challenge. Now I get to enjoy a bit of a break before the NYC Short Story Challenge starts in January 2018. I thought I’d share my not-so-winning piece with you here, as I still quite like it. Let me know what you think! Where would you like to see me go with this character? What improvements would you make? (UPDATE: Judges feedback below the story!).

Here is the NYC Midnight’s genre definition for Thriller:

Thriller

A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story that invokes an emotional thrill by mixing intense fear and excitement. Usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats to the main character and/or wider society and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing. Thriller books include Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Thriller films include Se7en (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996) , and Black Swan (2010).

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen
Words: 977

“Kneel.” A voice grated in Ev’s ear like rusted metal. The man dug his boot into the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. A guttural scream penetrated the heavy wooden door before her, low and barking. A woman. The flesh at her wrists tore as Ev fought against her restraints.

Cold, hard metal pressed against the base of her skull. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

“If you kill me, she’s going to die.”

“She’s going to die anyway.” The man’s mouth twisted into a jagged-toothed sneer. “It’s the whelp we want.”

He kept his pistol trained on her and unlocked the door. Ev stared past the man at the scene beyond. Blood. Too much blood. Another scream rose up from the fathoms, rising and cresting to crash against the woman’s body. She shook with it.

A priest in dark robes bent his head to speak with the soldier. His eyes met Ev’s, piercing. He nodded. The soldier hauled her to her feet and shoved her inside. The sweltering air stank of shit and iron and sweat. Beads of moisture oozed out of Ev’s skin and burned her eyes.

“Untie her.” The robed man turned his gaze back to the tortured woman, his face relaxed into a subtle smile. Ev wanted to grind his face into the blood-soaked mattress and watch him suffocate. The soldier wrenched her shoulders in their sockets and cut the rope. Another wail from the woman filled the room.

“It’s time.” An ancient looking radio transceiver blinked on the wall behind the man. “You know why you’re here.”

“I need my kit.” Ev rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and rubbed her wrists. Sweat prickled Ev’s neck and rolled between her shoulder blades. Prisoner or not, she had a job to do. “Some water.”

“You need a knife.” The priest indicated a tray next to the bed. Three makeshift blades flickered in the orange light from the woodstove on the back wall. Dirty white leather wrapped around the stainless steel shafts. This wasn’t a delivery room; it was a butchery. One blade had what appeared to be tiny teeth at the tip. A wave of nostalgia flooded through Ev. She wondered if the woman enjoyed skating as a child, before the black robes came. Before the war.

“I’m not doing surgery with a shiv.”

“No.” The priest blinked. “You’re not doing surgery.”

The woman rocked on her hands and knees. The crimson stain on the back of her dress spread like the petals of a gruesome flower. Her screams gave way to a primal growl that tore out of her body like it could carry the baby with it. She was in traction.

“I’m sorry,” Ev said. The woman groaned on, unhearing. Bile burned the back of Ev’s throat when she grasped the grimy leather hilt of the longest blade. Ev motioned to the soldier. “Hold her down.”

The priest nodded and the soldier strode to the head of the bed. He flipped the woman onto her back and put his weight into her body, muscles tensed. The woman’s eyes lolled in their sockets, the surrounding flesh so pale it tinged green. If she died before delivery, the child might, too.

Ev slipped the knife into the woman’s dress and tore the fabric away from her bulging stomach. A lump protruded from one side, above her hip bone. The baby’s head. It’s a mercy, she told herself. Ev pressed the skate blade against the woman’s abdomen and closed her eyes.

“Forgive me.”

Ev plunged the knife into the woman’s womb, braced herself against the bed, and tugged downward. The woman’s body convulsed and she writhed against the soldier. A gurgle escaped her throat and her eyes bulged. Blood and amniotic fluid surged out of the wound, and the last of the woman’s life went with it.

Ev reached inside the cavity. Her fingers found an arm or a leg. She wrapped her hand around the baby’s body and pulled. Hot and wet and screaming the baby came into the world and Ev’s heart nearly burst. She ripped the woman’s dress away from her breasts and placed the baby on her still-warm chest. The infant rooted and latched.

“My daughter.” The priest’s voice cut through Ev’s relief. Acid burned her esophagus and she shuddered.

The soldier relaxed his grip but she stopped him with a word. “No. We’re not finished yet.”

He paused, and that was enough. Ev gripped her blade tightly and slashed upward. The soldier’s throat opened with a hissing spray of more blood. Ev spun and drove the knife into his side. Despite his armour, the blade slid into his flesh more easily than it had the woman’s. She wrenched the blade free and stabbed him again.

The priest shouted and lunged for the transceiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Ev aimed the dead soldier’s pistol at his back. “Don’t fucking move.”

She placed a sodden blanket over the infant and stepped around the bed. She kept the gun on the robed man and grabbed the toothed blade from the table. The man stared at her, wild-eyed. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Patch me in.”

The man fumbled with the transceiver, flipping switches with trembling hands. Static filled the air in place of the woman’s screams. He held the mouthpiece toward her and pressed the call button.

“Mobile Tactical Surgical Hospital zero zero one,” Ev said. “This is Unit Seven. Do you copy?”

“Mitch one here, Unit Seven,” a voice crackled on the other end. “We copy.”

“The women are being held under the radio tower,” Ev said. “Proceed with caution.”

“Roger that, moving in,” the MTSH operator said. “What took you so long, Seven?”

Ev pulled the trigger and the priest crumpled at her feet. She picked up the receiver and said, “I had to deliver a baby.”

*************************************************************************************

So there you have it! Let me know what you think!

UPDATE: Here is the feedback I received from the judges. Looks like there were some issues with clarity, and they felt that the “ice skate” usage was too vague. We also wondered (though the judges didn’t mention it) if this was crossing over into the Horror genre by definition, which may also have affected my score.

”The Midwife” by Sarah Jensen –   WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1795}  This religious takeover in the minds of writers today seems to be a recurring theme. Thankfully each look at this supremacy is different, but still, it’s very interesting to note. I love the conflict within Ev while she’s forced in to do this work and has to sacrifice the woman to save the baby and give her time to kill the men and deliver her message.

{1651}  The story feels high stakes with many suspenseful moment.

{1689}  I love how Ev’s actions reveal her inner character. The reveal that the pregnant mother so meaningless to the priest and the soldier is equally maddening and chilling. Ev’s swift action to save mother—and child indirectly—is breath-taking.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1795}  When describing the blades, I would actually mention that one of them is a skating blade. When you talk about the one with tiny teeth at the tip and then talk about skating, we think you’re still talking about that particular blade. But then suddenly Ev is cutting the woman open with a skating blade, and then later grabs the toothed blade to threaten the priest. A bit more clarity with regards to what and where the blades are might clear this up.

{1651}  There’s some spots I don’t understand. Did they kidnap Seven to deliver a baby and if so, how does her team know she’s there? How can Seven hold a knife and hold a pistol while breastfeeding a baby? Why didn’t she try to save the mother?

{1689}  Pull back at some point and give us some context. I don’t think that will undermine Ev’s identity or role. But we do need a better sense of what this is all about so that we are not distracted by trying to figure it out.

Looks a bit like judge 1651 wasn’t a fan, haha. Oh well, live and learn. I still like the piece.

Here’s the definition of Horror, as well, to give you some perspective:

Horror

A story intended to provoke an emotional, psychological, or physical fear response in the audience. Horror stories frequently contain supernatural elements, though not always, and the central menace may serve as a metaphor for the fears of society. Common elements: eerie atmosphere, morbid themes, heightened suspense, focus on death and evil, uncanny situations and persons. Horror books include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stephen King’s It. Horror films include The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982).