Indie Comic Review: RAGS

So, this is new for me. I’ve never reviewed a comic before. I don’t actually read a lot of comics, to be honest. I’m not sure why that is. I love art and I love a good story. I guess I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the sheer scale of the medium and the ferocity of the fandoms. It’s not a place for dabblers, or so I have told myself. Which was probably for the best, because I can see how easy it would be to fall down the rabbit hole…

Just call me Alice.

I “discovered” RAGS in a round about kind of way, when I met one of the co-creators–Brian Ball–in an online writing group. Initially, we discussed our frustrations with traditional publishing and ways that writers/artists can support one another get more exposure in a super-saturated indie market.

When I realized Ball was a comic writer, I was pretty excited. I know lots of writers, but I had never met anyone who wrote comics. In my naivety, I never actually realized that comics had writers at all. I always imagined the artist was also the one who wrote the story (and maybe that’s true in some cases). Thus my education in comic production began. I’d love to ramble on that; I find it fascinating. But I’ll save that for an interview with the RAGS team sometime in the future.

You’re here for the review…

I was a little nervous when I downloaded the teaser. Although RAGS: Prologue won the 2017 “Best Overall Comic” award from ComixCentral, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it. That might sound silly, but when you hit it off with a potential future collaborator there’s a bit of pressure to actually like one another’s work. At first glance, the premise of RAGS is really not my cup of tea. It’s about a half-naked woman running around trying to find pants during the zombie apocalypse. Trite, right?

Wrong.

RAGS is the story of Regina Ragowski, a veteran of the US Marine Corps, who finds herself running from a hoard of zombies, through a ransacked podunk town, wearing nothing but a bikini. How did this come about? Issue 1 begins to untangle the threads of Regina’s tale as she begins the hunt for something–anything!–to wear.

Some critics have gotten hung up on what it looks like this story is about, to wit: tits, ass, guns, and zombies. To be fair, there is a healthy dose of all of the above. Ball himself jokes that it is “the dumbest thing ever written.” However, this is not what RAGS is about and the story is anything but dumb.

There’s a lot of skin in RAGS, but the absurdity is superficial. I would even argue it is necessary. RAGS needs that little bit of kitsch to rescue it from being too dark. Peel back the bikini, and there’s a really raw, gritty story being uncovered.

So let me tell you why I like this comic.

First of all, the art is incredible. Luigi Tuerel has an undeniable gift. In particular, his ability to use facial expressions and body language to move the story. There is a physicality to the artwork, and I don’t just mean nudity, that transforms the reading experience. Regina Ragowski is portrayed as physically powerful and emotionally vulnerable. I absolutely love the way she moves through the panels. She is a force. Just look at this!

Yes, she’s beautiful. And yes, she’s naked. But Tuerel’s treatment of her is almost visceral. It’s sensual without being sexual. The nudity is somewhat ironic, too. RAGS uses the trope knowingly, having a laugh at the way women are often portrayed in comics and movies, while simultaneously exploiting the “sex sells” adage. Not only that, but it’s a nod to some of the ridiculous situations men and women in the military often find themselves in during combat. Ball writes from experience, too, with twelve years active service in the US Army and four years in the National Guard.

Come on. Just look at these facial expressions. The art is SO GOOD!

And it’s in the art that we get glimpses of the “real” story going on underneath the surface. It would be easy to read RAGS and see Regina as a bit of a bitch. The other characters certainly see her that way. A lot of critics have, too. I think these reviewers missed the complex interplay between the dialogue and the art in RAGS, though. As with all good writing, the story isn’t being handed to you in a neat little package. The characters say one thing, and the imagery says something else. There’s so much tension between the lines it’s almost painful to read. As a reader, to really get the full experience, you have to do some work to unpack the truth.

And it’s well worth the effort. The scene between Regina and her fiance, Sean, with its hints at her backstory, is heartbreaking. On the surface, it’s a couple having an argument and generally being awful to each other. Dig a little deeper and you see that Regina is struggling with PTSD and Sean is struggling with how to support her. This adds a depth to her character that is only beginning to be explored in the first issue. I’ve been privileged enough to read some of the upcoming story, and I am confident in saying that this is a comic worth following.

I highly, highly recommend becoming a Patreon patron for this project, not just because I think RAGS is great and I really want to see this team succeed, but because becoming a patron gives you access to loads of additional content and backstory that really enhance the reading experience. I have said that RAGS is sensual without being sexual, but the bonus content is definitely sexy!

RAGS has just been picked up by Antarctic Press which will help with distribution in the future. But the project is still funded out of pocket by Ball and his team. So if you are even remotely curious, please download the digital copy (it’s only $1.00). If, like me, you fall in love with Regina–boobs, bad attitude, and all–you can get some pretty cool gear from the RAGS Swag store at TeePublic, too!

Once you have a read, let me know what you think in the comments!

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Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case.

PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.

Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.

Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.

I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.

For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.

The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.

After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)

It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.

These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.

The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.

But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?

Well…

I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,

 “Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”

Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.

After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.

The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.

Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”

And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.

Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”

Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.

For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.

What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.

Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.

I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.

Social Media is dead, long live Social Media

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Yesterday I deleted my personal and author Facebook accounts. Permanently.

This has nothing much to do with the current customer data scandal, though the timing makes it a specious notion. Actually, this is the culmination of years of frustration with the platform and a long on-again-off-again relationship that, for me, was ultimately toxic. I have put so much mental and emotional energy into Facebook over the years and, yes, there have been some good things born of that energy; friendships, collaborations, networks that may otherwise not have been possible.

But the cost is too high.

I don’t know what it is about Facebook, but no matter how I try to cultivate my experience into something that I want and can be happy with, it quickly becomes an overwhelming and negative space for me. All the cute memes, words of support, constructive feedback, and glimpses into people’s lives end up drowning in bitterness, cynicism, negativity, and anger. And I can’t stay away from it. The worse I feel, the more I want to jump in and immerse myself in it all. Misery loves company, I guess. But I realized that Facebook has become a catalyst for depression and anxiety for me.

Well, no more. I’ve tried limiting my hours per day, my days per week, and temporarily deactivating my account. Those brief unplugged interludes have been wonderful. I get more done, I feel better about myself, I feel more in control of my life. But I always get drawn back into the thick of it, and the cycle starts again.

So I went for the permanent delete. I know to some people this seems like an extreme step in the name of productivity. But I need it, and I feel like I’m ready for the next stage. Facebook is dead. It has been dead for a long time. I was stubbornly trying to breathe life into it at the expense of my own.

I know I’m not alone, either. I’ve talked to a lot of people with similar feelings, but for some reason admitting that it’s time to cut those ties is a really hard thing to do. I tried to plant enough breadcrumbs that friends and acquaintances can find me. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to everyone. While planning my Facebook exit did feel a bit like planning my own funeral, I’m still here. Please don’t be afraid to reach out if I missed you.

Already I feel a weight has lifted! I actually find myself baffled by the amount of suddenly free time I have without The Book. Maybe others will join me in stepping away, too, whether because of privacy concerns or because of similar emotional discontent. Facebook has had a good run, but isn’t it time for something new?

This is my plan:

I’d like to spend more time in the WordPress community, networking with other writers and artists. I still plan to keep my Instagram account active and stick to writing-related posts. And, of course, I’ll be writing more, whether that is book reviews, interviews, and blog articles, or my own fiction.

Mostly, I want to explore. I want to find things on my own, and form my own opinions on them without reading a hundred other people opinions first. I want to sort out my own world and where I fit into it, without that being filtered through a screen and the voices of everyone I know.

Wish me luck! And don’t be a stranger.

 

 

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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