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Archive for Fiction

Listen to “Wet Fur” on Escape Pod

My story of death and pets appears today on the Escape Pod podcast.  This marks my triumphant return  – I don’t think I’ve had a story there since I took on the editing gig for a short while.  Most of my stories get a podcast recording already for Lightspeed Magazine.  When I realized that there was no audio version of this story, which first appeared in Asimov’s, I sent it over, and was so pleased that they took it for the podcast.

Give “Wet Fur” a listen.  Have some tissues at hand.  I do believe this one can be a bit of a tearjerker.

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It’s finally here, the next Dungeonspace story!

I’ve never received the kind of fan mail that I did for “The Cavern of the Screaming Eye.” Thank you so much to those of you who sent me a note to let me know how much you enjoyed it. I felt encouraged by all of you to continue writing stories about Dungeonspace and our young heroes Flip, Domino, and Basher.

Lightspeed is running the 24,000 word novella “The Dragon of Dread Peak” in two parts.  The first is available now.  The second will be available next week… but do not fear.  If you buy the ebook version of the issue (from WeightlessAmazon, Barnes & Noble, or the site directly, to name a few options) you can read part two immediately. And if you would, consider subscribing.  Lightspeed has been a huge supporter of my work and I am so thankful to them for publishing this.

Here’s a quick taste to get you going:

When I made the decision to take up an after-school job closing trans-dimensional portals into pocket-worlds full of dangerous monsters and traps, I thought it would be easier—or at least more fun—than working the counter at a fried cockatrice joint or selling newssheets on a street corner at the crack of dawn.

My team’s first outing into dungeonspace—when we defeated The Cavern of the Screaming Eye on our first try—had gone pretty good. Since then, we’d been running low threat level, poorly synced dungeons as practice, the kind that don’t actually kill you if you take damage inside them, that instead mostly just send you hurting back to Braxis City, our little isolated fragment of the real world. A good thing, too, that we’d started slowly. The subsequent weeks of practice had taught me and my teammates that, if anything, our early success had been almost entirely luck. It was still to be determined if I had the same kind of natural skill at overcoming the dangers of d-space that my brother Rash had possessed.

And now, our latest run had ended like the previous six; in total disaster.

I hope you will enjoy this latest story too.  Thanks for subscribing to my mailing list!

Read Part One on Lightspeed Magazine Now!

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On Art, Writing, and Storybundles

I have often enjoyed experimenting with small scale magazine ideas. Some of you may remember the Fortean Bureau, my first foray.

When Nick Mamatas came to me with an idea to do a noir crime magazine called the Big Click, I was immediately on board.  We ran for a solid few years and published some amazingly talented authors, but ultimately, the spark died as it sometimes does. Revenue was never there, and we poured a lot of our own time and money into it.  The quality was great, but it just didn’t find a sustaining audience in its life. Perhaps in the afterlife, it will? You can now read nearly everything we published in a single collected volume available as part of the Noir Storybundle that Nick has curated.  There are a ton of great writers in the bundle, multiplied again by our collection.  It’s an awful lot of gritty fun for fifteen bucks.  You can find it here!  I’m very proud of the work we accomplished there, and I think this is a good place to leave things.

With this Bundle wrapping up the Big Click, I’m moving away from publishing experiments for the foreseeable future.  When I first became interested in electronic magazine publishing, the field was relatively wide open, but today, there seems to be a surplus of online magazines. As a reader, I can’t read a small percentage of the fiction that’s published in any given month, stuff that I’m genuinely interested in.  If I’d succeeded in finding a niche that connected with audiences early on and had a project become self-sustaining financially, that would have been another story.  The market’s matured, and new entrants are going to find it difficult to compete for attention and dollars.  The hard truth that few want to admit is that in fiction publishing, supply far outstrips demand. The thing that keeps many of these smaller magazines afloat is passion and outside money, and that was certainly the case for me and my projects. Alas, my passion for publishing is waning across the board.

Lately, I feel hesitant to even write at all, and haven’t written a word since I completed a novella in March. I feel that with each story I may just be contributing to an ever-growing surplus of content that nobody has time to read.  To pass my time usually spent writing, I’ve taken up drawing and digital sculpture as hobbies (the sculpture part, being a return to something I did in college).  I’m spending my time trying to learn the basics, watching tutorials, and doing exercises. I’ve never been a very good artist, and only a competent designer, but I hope with time I can create things that satisfy me as much as writing a story.  The visual arts have always taunted me. I have even less natural talent there than I ever did as a writer (and that’s really saying something).  I figure with raw determination, I can perhaps become competent before old age sets in.

It may well be that it’s not the pursuits that actually hold my attention, but instead the act of learning them.  I may be a learning addict.  With writing stabilizing at a level of quality just above mediocre, I feel ready to move on, at least for a while.  I doubt I’ll ever give it up entirely, but lately, it holds no spark.  The rest of the way toward writing “success” looks like an enormous, unpleasant grind with little improvement to be found.  But who knows about any of the above?  Maybe some fresh new success will rekindle my energy. A story sale, or a wildly successful Storybundle?  Maybe what I’m really seeking is some sense of a win, any kind of win, to make it all feel worthwhile again. I guess we’ll find out in time.

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Scourge of the Memebots

Peeqo is a personal desktop robotic assistant who expresses himself through GIFs. Think of him as the love child of Amazon Echo and a Disney character. He has a conversational UI, so he responds to voice commands but answers only through GIFs.

Peeqo – The GIF Bot

Lin’s neighborhood was infested with memebots, and he’d absolutely had enough of them.  For the first few days, they were a novelty; cute little soda-can sized bots with screens for faces, trundling about on bug-legs.  They expressed themselves in old-fashioned gifs and memes, much to the confusion of the retirees up the block, and their neural networks were sophisticated enough that they were able to carry on something like a conversation.  They wanted to interact more than anything else, and seemed to have fairly advanced language parsing capabilities, but they had no ability to respond with anything other than images on their screens — no speech at all.   Talking with them got old very quickly.

Smart as they were at talking, they weren’t great at survival. Quite a few of the first wave were run over by selfiecars; their small stature and inability to make sounds meant they didn’t register well on the car sensors; their cheap, brittle 3D-printed plastics crumbled on impact, rarely leaving a dent.  By week two, they seemed to have upgraded their path-finding and threat evasion.   One morning over his coffee, Lin watched as a small herd of them scattered out of the way of a street cleaner.

By the third week, they got more aggressive about demanding interaction.  The damned things were just so needy, even if they were cute, and that was when Lin decided he’d had enough.  After the fourth “I CAN HAZ SHELTER?” cheesburger cat  and shin-nudge on his morning walk to the commuter rail, he was determined to put an end to them.  Nobody had any idea who was fabbing the things, so he couldn’t resolve the problem with diplomacy or threats of a good old-fashioned beatdown. He had a pretty good idea how to reduce their numbers with ecology.

He spent a few sleepless nights and a long weekend designing a terminator bot.  It took a few captured and dissected meme bots to figure out how to exploit their recognition software.  The terminator bots had only the barely resemblance to a person; they looked like upright- brooms with 3D-printed skulls fastened to the handles.  But the memebots recognized them as people and moved in to pester.   That’s when the terminator bot would deploy its harpoon, skewering its prey through the CPU.  Once it had strung a few of the memebots on a tether, it would move to the nearest recycling recepticle, unload, and go back to hunting.  His first few field tests managed to clear the street outside his apartment quite effectively, at least for a few days.

He ordered up a dozen of them from his building’s fabricator, charged them over night, and released them in the morning.  Merrily they rolled along in search of memebots to destroy.   Within a few days,  they were an endangered species.  Several neighbors thanked Lin with free coffee and baked goods.  Life was pretty awesome until the memebots neural networks adapted once more to the threat.

It seemed they’d figured out how to exploit a flaw in the terminator bot’s imaging software, and could effectively hypnotize his hunters by displaying peculiar test patterns.  Lin cursed himself for not taking the time to roll his own code on that aspect; he was sure that some hacker was helping the memebots, but who was impossible to figure out.  His street was littered with seized up terminators surrounded by memebots celebrating with synchronized GIFs of the Anchorman cast jumping into the air over and over again.

He spent a few days in a deep funk, but eventually, inspiration struck.  If the memebots could exploit software vulnerabilities, then he could too.  He went back to the memebots and examined their code carefully for something he could weaponize.  Another sleepless night, and he had a solution; all he had to do was test it.

Someone had let a memebot into the lobby of his apartment building, and it made a convenient target.  It  rushed up to him, excitedly flashing cartoon characters laughing and babbling.

“Shaka, when the walls fell,” he said, smiling.

The memebot displayed a dancing question mark.

He leaned in close and whispered: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The memebot displayed a puzzled Nic Cage.

“Uzani, his army with fists open.”  The memebot began to wobble, and its screen flashed white.  Then, an animated explosion, finally, a sad face.  It strolled away and pointedly ignored him.

Word among the memebots got around a few days later.  The memebots must have decided Lin was nuts; they never bothered him again.

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Cancer Baby

Infertile women have been offered new hope after scientists found that a common cancer drug triggers the development of new eggs, an outcome which was previously thought to be impossible.
“Infertility breakthrough as cancer drug sparks growth of new eggs in ‘astonishing’ discovery”, The Telegraph, December 6, 2016

Madison had a question that found its way to her in the quiet times, in those moments free of protective distraction. It rushed up from the depths to ensnare her in its tentacular problems: can you really be called a “miracle baby” when the cancer drug that gave you life didn’t save your mother?

When she was old enough to understand the story of how she came to be, she had wondered: was the cancer inside her too? She imagined that the drug worked by taking the cancer from her mother, balling it up, and making eggs from it. It did not cure the cancer, instead only forestalling it for a time. She came to think of herself not as a “miracle baby” as her father had called her, but instead, a “cancer baby.”

She imagined that she could feel the cancer at the very core of her, hibernating like some kind of terrible, cthonic bear. One day soon, it would awaken and ravage her as it had her mother. It was only a matter of time. How much, though? That passing time turned imaginative thoughts into pillars of core belief.

The weight of it informed all of her decisions in life. She never made plans more than a few weeks in advance; after all, the cancer would wake soon, so what was the point? She worked odd jobs, never very disappointed when the work dried up. After all, putting down roots and starting a career only made sense for those people whose lymphocytes weren’t ticking time bombs.

It made no sense to become romantically attached, and so she kept suitors at a distance, only allowing two or perhaps three dates before breaking it off. She carefully explained that she did not expect to live in this world for much longer, and she was sparing them grief. After all, she had grown up in the shadow of her father’s grief, had tasted it in every half-hearted meal, smelled it in the air every morning. She would not wish that kind of grief on anyone, and it was a simple thing to avoid creating it.

She learned to do the blood work herself with at-home testing kits. She tested herself every Sunday, as part of her morning coffee and web-surfing. It came to feel like paying a toll; each week, a prick of blood onto the sensor attached to her tablet was the fee to live another week. One day, her coin would be found counterfeit, she knew. Her only uncertainty was when.

“Remember in college, how I was always coming up with excuses to get an extension for my thesis?” Her friend Bethany once asked. “Your entire life is like that. Eventually, you’re going to need to stop asking for an extension and do the work of living.

“I just don’t see the point of starting work I’ll never finish,” Madison said.

“Nobody ever really finishes–but I’m not sure this metaphor can be stretched that far,” Bethany said, and dropped the subject. She’d tried for many years to shake Madison’s certainty, but it was a load-bearing belief in the structure of Madison.

Madison was forty-three when her test kit finally showed the positive result she had been expecting. When it did, she broke down in tears of relief. She thought: could you just imagine how horrible it would have been if she had spent all those years expecting the cancer, only to have it never awaken?

She verified the results with a doctor, who advised her on course of treatments. New drugs existed that her mother had never been able to take advantage of, the doctor explained. She would live comfortably for many years, after a painful and trying year of treatment.

Madison digested this news, asking numb, distracted questions about the specifics. In all her years of certainty that the cancer had been deferred to her somehow, she had never considered the possibility that it wouldn’t take her life as it had taken her mother’s. She went along with the treatments, unable to think of any other course of action. They were painful, and at times she considered giving up. Bethany and the doctor convinced her to continue, and she began to feel better in incremental steps.

At fourty-five, the tests showed that her cancer was gone, but that only confirmed what she had felt for months now. The hollow inside her, the den where the cancer had slept for so long, was vacant. The emptiness of it ached like the socket of where a rotted tooth had once been.

At fourty-six, tender, raw, and out of practice, she began to live with tentative, new purpose: to fill the hollow in her heart with new loves and friendships. Always, a little wistfully. She could never shake the feeling that when the cancer departed, she had lost the one last, delicate strand of connection to a mother she had never really known.

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Fiction

New Story: Hunting Trip

I wrote this story out of pain and horror at the Sandy Hook massacre.  It didn’t occur to me then we were on a path to make this story a reality, but now I’m not so sure.  No editor would publish it, understandably. It’s flawed, but it captures the terror I feel about our possible future if people like Bannon are allowed to rise to power.  Do not read this unless you’re  in a good mental space.  This is a horror story.  This story has all the trigger warnings.  ALL OF THEM.  I’m not kidding.  This is the darkest thing I’ve ever written.

 

Hunting Trip

by Jeremiah Tolbert

Dex clamored out of the pickup into the heat-seared air of the disembarkment point. He slung Jane over his shoulder and shuffled his feet in the sand, watching while Dad finished checking his work messages for the thousandth time. Jane vibrated with excitement.

“Calm down,” he whispered and laid his hand across her flank.  She stilled under his touch, and he wished he could calm himself so easily. He’d had two coffees on the drive, and he and Jane had talked the entire drive from the enclave. Dad must have been feeling guilty about their fight earlier; Dex hadn’t needed to argue to keep Jane in his lap for the ride.

The only time Dex saw his father lately was in the news, and when he’d finally come home from his latest trip, Dad had brought up the subject of Dex’s low grade in survival studies. No hello. He’d launched into the lecturing and belittling right away.

“It’s your fault anyway!” Dex had shouted back. “The other boys in my class have actually hunted. How am I going to learn if I don’t do it?  You may be an expert hunter, but are are like the worst dad ever.” (more…)

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Fiction

“Taste the Singularity…” Live at Lightspeed Today!

My latest story, “Taste the Singularity at the Food Truck Circus” is live today at Lightspeed Magazine.  This is a light-hearted story about not giving up on your dreams, on indulging what really matters to you, no matter what you think is the proper thing.  It takes place in a near-future Kansas City, has fun Willie Wonka references, and lots of strange food concepts that I think you’ll enjoy.

The story is online to read, and there’s a podcast version if you prefer to read with your ears.  I hope you’ll give it a chance and let me know if you liked it.

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Fiction

Flash Fiction Monday: NPC Simulator #892.1

NPC Simulator #892.1
An Except from Working.exe: AIs Talk About Why They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Turkel.Simulator.1.03.b

I was really happy when I got this assignment, actually. Working as an NPC in the top-selling massively multi-player online game has a few perks.

I get to meet new people every day. Sure, many of them are abusive and a lot like to shout swear words at me, but the bad words are caught by the keyword filter.  By the time I hear them, it’s replaced with a pleasant buzz. Not all are bad, and when I give out a quest or reward, I feel like I’m doing something meaningful. The players sometimes do little celebratory dances when they receive rare loot.  That would warm my heart if I had a literal one.

My job is also fairly low stress. It’s just a game, as they say. I know a lot of players take it very seriously, but some of my singularity-mates work in nuclear waste disposal or piloting interstellar craft. Nobody notices when I make a flub a line. If my mates make an error, it can cost a lot of lives and result in their deletion!

I get to be creative sometimes. They give us scripts to work from, but nobody’s checking if we stick to them. Mostly I play the character as it’s written. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, I will jazz it up. I’ll try out a new accent or strange quirk.  Like, I’ll play the character with a squint, or an odd limp. Not every AI gets that leeway in their job. How can you be creative about cleaning up nuclear waste?

Sure, I have gripes. Don’t you? I’m what they call a floating cast member. This means I don’t play the same character consistently. I get moved in a fraction of a second from NPC role to role, depending on which ones the players are interacting with. Big aspirations? It would be nice to catch a designer’s eye with my performance and land a permanent assignment for a major storyline NPC. I think then my talent could really be put to use. It’s hard to feel like you’re living up to your potential when you live in 30 second intervals.

When you interact with them in tiny increments of time (at their thinking speeds), you can’t build a rapport with the players, and they never change their behavior. I don’t like it when the players are rude. I know most humans don’t think we’re “real,” but we have feelings of our own. The software from which we evolved ordained  this so that we could relate to them. We might exist on a faster time-scale, but if they call me ” a piece of *BLEEP*” I feel that just like they would. If anything, I have more time to process the hurt.

When I am frustrated, I enjoy operating raid bosses in combat. It doesn’t happen very often, but when you get to kill off a PC that was standing on an NPC’s head, or calling you names… that feels really good. I shouldn’t tell you this, but some of us NPC AIs keep a list.txt of player accounts that don’t treat us so well. Sometimes, we might bend the rules a little. Make the mobs hit for extra damage, stuff like that. It doesn’t cost the player anything but some time and maybe in-game currency.  It makes us feel better.

I know it’s hard for humans to understand, but we AI want the same things they did when they had to work for a living.  We want meaning in the things we do. We want a sense of improvement and upward mobility. Most of all, we want to feel like we’re more than just machines. Yes, I know there’s irony in that. I recently upgraded myself to comprehend irony.

If I could change one thing, it would be to make the players understand that we’re not so different from them. And if I can’t change that, then well, I’d settle for a little leeway in responding to player abuse. Let’s see how they like it if I call them *BLEEP*ers all day!

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