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Month: October 2019

Review: Diabolical Plots #56B, October 2019

Review: Diabolical Plots #56B, October 2019

I’m not allowed to review Diabolical Plots for Tangent Online since I’m a first reader for the magazine, so… this one isn’t associated with them. :p

Full Disclosure: I didn’t read this story during my first reader duties this submissions cycle, so it ended up being a pleasant surprise. Also, the title hooked me immediately. I like me some classy swear words in a title.

Also, since this isn’t associated with Tangent, Imma let the swears out for once.

You’ve been warned.

“Save the God Damn Pandas” by Anaea Lay

“Save the God Damn Pandas” by Anaea Lay is fantastic. At its basic, it follows a guy who tries to get pandas (who can talk thanks to technology) to fuck, while confronting his own ticking biological clock.

The story is rough and tumble in its descriptions and completely earnest in the characterizations and dialog of the characters, including the pandas. At its core, this story is a straight up, early-2000s comedy plot, with all the deprecating humor you can handle.

I really enjoyed the story, perhaps in large part to the prevalence of the profanity. There’s something visceral about its use that spoke to me. It’s rare I read a story and end on a smile.

UPDATE: Just read my cohort’s review over at TO and apparently they don’t agree. Oh well. Personally, I think the ending is actually quite believable, at least the single part that’s actually resolved. Then again, I grew up in a house where a cousin acted as a father for the entirety of my sister and younger brother’s life without any sort of sexual or romantic liaison with my mom, so two best friends deciding to adopt a baby doesn’t seem that far fetched to me.

John Killed Everyone

John Killed Everyone

Background: “John Killed Everyone” came about as the result of plotting for another story I’ve been working on for about five years now, “Soundless.” In that world, 97% of humans speak telepathically as the result of a manufactured virus that killed everyone on the planet who didn’t have a certain set of genes that predisposed one to having telepathy.

Eventually, I started wondering how the the whole “mass murder” thing happened and lit on the idea that it wasn’t actually a concerted effort by a series of eugenics-obsessed governments, but rather a single terrorist trying to take out the United States.

Unfortunately for the world, that terrorist, infected with her own virus, encounters the unluckiest man to have ever lived.

Enjoy.

— Mike

P.S.

This is my story and isn’t being given away; i.e. all ideas are mine unless otherwise noted. See my copyright page for details.

Featured Image source can be found here.


John Washington didn’t mean to kill 97% of the population.

It just kind of happened, which is really the story of his life.

In 2052, the man who would eventually murder 9.8 billion people was born in the new Automated Pediatrics wing of Crouse Memorial Hospital in Syracuse, New York. By all accounts, John was a perfect little cherub, with ten tiny tan toes and ten chubby fingers that liked to grasp at things like infants do.

That’s how, at the age of eight months, John killed both his parents.

During a long, cross-country road trip in their newly purchased auto-driving car, John’s parents—Jesal and Deborah Washington—were napping when infant John fell out of his improperly installed baby seat, proceeded to crawl atop his until-twenty-minutes-ago sleep-deprived parents to grab hold of the shifter and drop the brand new Safety-is-Our-Motto family car into park.

Jesal and Deborah died on impact. John’s fleshy little baby body bounced around like a rubber ball, but he survived with a broken toe that would keep him from playing sports for the rest of his life, which, in and of itself, was a shame. He’d have been a fantastic JV soccer player otherwise. As it was, John focused on his studies and, surprising everyone but him, did very, very poorly.

His time in ASHS—or Automated Social Handling Services (the ‘H’ was added after a failed marketing blitz in the early 60s)—was just as riddled with bad luck. At the age of ten, John, who by now had grown into a somewhat rotund and, even he’d admit, quite ugly boy, managed to kill his best friend, Dale, during a game of Hide and Go Seek. As Dale ran back to Safe, John squealing with laughter as he huffed behind, Dale took a step too far to the left to avoid John’s grasping hand, located an unmapped well from the 19th century, and plummeted to his immediate death.

John wasn’t invited to the funeral.

After that, John didn’t have many friends, though in the 10th grade he did manage to save a kitten during the Storm of the Century—the hurricane of ’68. It was by all accounts only the sixth hurricane to make it up the eastern seaboard and hit Central New York, but this one was the first to bring true hurricane force winds to bear on the aging infrastructure of the area, resulting in a power outage that lasted seven days.

John, huddled in his otherwise empty bunk area and surviving on old crackers and water bottles he found in the empty cafeteria fridge, nursed the small tabby back to life after he found it struggling in a rushing stream running down Brighton Avenue. He named the little monster Hercules.

After the storm, when the power came back on and the automated caretakers resumed their rounds, Hercules disappeared. John would always tell himself the little guy managed to get out of his bunk, though in his heart he knew what happened. The automated caretakers threw tiny Hercules into the incinerator along with the cardboard box and old blanket John kept him in.

Eventually, John stopped making friends or interacting with anyone at all. This was an incredibly smart choice on his part and for years no one died because of him.

After seventeen years in ASHS, John reintegrated into society as an in-person delivery agent for Universal Shipping and Receiving Services. Most deliveries were done by automated services, but for a small upcharge, people could get a real live person to deliver their packages and mail to their door. As this type of interaction was the most face time anyone got at this time thanks to the invention of full-immersion virtual reality, it was surprisingly popular.

Also, international law required all medical deliveries be done by a person rather than automaton. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a logical law, but then again, that was the problem. Automatons constantly changed delivery destinations for organs mid-flight based on standard prioritization rather than who paid the most for their new liver and that was not acceptable to shareholders.

Eight years later, and a spotless record for making sure rich patients receive the organs they paid for, John had finally let go of his guilt of killing his parents, best friend, and maybe Hercules, and fully embraced his job as a delivery person. In his mind, he did more than drop off packages to lonely people and organs to the rich: he made lives better. Human connection was, in his uneducated opinion, the best medicine.

It was with that newfound hope he scheduled his first trip out of the United States. The tickets and accommodations took every last cent of his savings, but, weighing in at two weeks and seventeen stops, both in the US and abroad, he’d finally get to see what the world had to offer. He’d immerse himself in humanity and, he hoped, be better for it.

He’d be the last person to make such a trip for a hundred years.

On one summer day in July, John pulled up in front of Crouse Memorial Hospital. There was a bounce in his step he hadn’t had since before his parents died, which means he had no idea he’d ever felt this cheerful. This was his last job before hopping on the puddle-jumper out of Hancock international to JFK airport, then on to San Francisco for a two-day layover. After that, John would be on his way to Hiroshima, then Hong Kong, New Delhi, Cairo, and a rapid-fire tour of Europe before finally ending with a tour of Mayan and Incan ruins in and around Brazil.

Perhaps if he’d known that happiness before, he’d have stopped rushing the paperwork. He’d have paid more attention to the flashing quarantine signs as he wheeled a set of lungs in a glorified cooler down a long, pastel-painted hallway with LED room signs. Maybe he’d even have noticed the “DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT HAZMAT PRECAUTIONS” signs plastered around the doors he roughly shouldered through while nurses and security were responding to a series of alarms around the corner.

Maybe he’d have heard the police screaming from around that same corner as they tackled a bioterrorist trying to get in to see the patient that required such precautions, or seen the gaggle of doctors and nurses standing, hands to mouths, watching the events, backs turned to him. After all, it’s not every day a woman infected with a contagious virus arrives in Syracuse and tries to murder an entire population. Hell, the most exciting thing to happen around the hospital at that time was the Neu-MeatTM Taco Truck that served manufactured protein meals that almost tasted like beef.

Maybe if the intern that’d been left guarding the only entrance into the quarantine area hadn’t tried a Neu-MeatTM taco earlier in the day, he wouldn’t have run to the bathroom moments before John entered the building.

And maybe, maybe, if any of that hadn’t been happening, or John had paid more attention, everyone would’ve been fine.

But he didn’t. John made his way through the strangely empty hospital hallways, whistling tunelessly as he thought about getting seafood in San Francisco the next day, until he arrived at room thirteen.

It was at this point John finally saw something that gave him pause. As he’d been doing this for eight, going on nine, years now, John had delivered several organs to patients with MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, as he took the time to learn. As such, the presence of gloves and masks on the door gave him a solid heads-up, so he wheeled his cart to a stop, put the gloves on—the masks were always an unnecessary precaution, as many a doctor had told him over the years—and gave the door a knock.

“Hello?” A weak voice answered.

John, still smiling his full smile—he took his job of making people happy very seriously—pushed into the room. “Hello, Francine!” He hoped that was her name, anyway, since that’s what was on the PO. “I’ve come bringing a gift for you.”

Hospitals always smelled weird. A mix of human waste, sweat, and astringent cleaner.

This was worse.

John froze as he entered. The harshness of chemicals he couldn’t identify made his eyes water. The sheer number of machines caught him off guard and, for barely a moment, his smile slipped. There were the usual heartrate monitors and IVs and such, but there was something with a series of pumps, some sort of crazy mad scientist setup in the corner, and, to his left, a long, wall-length mirror.

“Well, that’s new,” John mumbled as he rolled the cart in.

“It’s so they can watch,” a heavily accented voice replied.

John was drawn to the voice. On the hospital bed, covered in white sheets spotted with flecks of red and sitting up through the grace of the bed alone was a skeleton with some skin on it. The hairless skull swiveled toward him, bright, clear blue eyes following him like a wolf tracking prey.

Now, seven, even six years ago, John might’ve screamed, but this wasn’t his first rodeo. He knew people in this situation just wanted some dignity and respect, so he swallowed down the bile and smiled wide. “That’s not very polite of them. Are you Francine?”

The figure on the bed cocked its head to the side. “Yes.” Was it an Irish accent? Scottish? John had never been very good at identifying those sorts of things.

John smiled his big smile and pretended he wasn’t about to vomit. “I brought you a new set of lungs. Fresh from the factory.” John slapped the cooler in front of him. It gave out a dull thud.

Francine stared at him for a long moment, something approaching a smile twitching across thin, chapped lips. “That’s funny.”

John let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “I figure humor is the best medicine.”

Francine made a noncommittal sound deep in her throat. It sounded like grating sand.

“So,” John said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Any idea when your doctor will be back so they can sign for this?”

The suddenness of Francine’s laugh caught him off guard. “I’m my own doctor,” Francine’s eyes narrowed to a point on his chest, “John.”

John craned his neck awkwardly until he saw his nametag. Right.

On another day, John might’ve gone back out and talked to the front desk. He probably would’ve asked to see a supervisor. But today, today he was leaving for a trip. Today, he absolutely needed to be at Hancock by 4:15pm or he’d miss his flight and then the entire complicated itinerary he’d spent the last year fretting over would be ruined. And, after all, the only name on the PO was Francine Waters. Who was he to decide she couldn’t accept delivery of her own organs?

John smiled and wheeled the cooler to the corner of the room, next to the chemistry equipment. “Then I guess you’re who I need to sign this delivery sheet.”

“I guess I am,” Francine said, eyes boring into his forehead.

John took a deep breath. He grabbed his tablet and sidled up next to Francine. Despite the heavy stink of the room, the odor of rot and blood filled his nose as he approached. John desperately tried not to wrinkle his nose or look too closely at the bed sheets. He didn’t want to consider the red spots he saw weren’t polka-dots. He held out the tablet, disappointed it was shaking lightly in the air. “I just need you to sign right here.”

Francine’s lips twitched again, then she drew a hand from beneath the covers.

John recoiled.

Her hand resembled her face—bones covered with skin, blue veins straining, any musculature she once had gone—with one main exception. It was covered with dozens of tiny, oozing sores.

He averted his gaze so quickly, he didn’t notice the handcuffs securing her other arm to the bed.

“Okay there, John?” Francine asked, breathing out into his face, hand out for the stylus. “Need some air?”

Her breath smelled like roadkill. No wonder she needed new lungs.

Man, I should’ve worn the facemask, he thought.

John sucked in a deep, stale breath, then handed her the stylus. Francine’s fingers brushed the blue latex of his gloves as she did. Small brown streaks discolored the plastic.

Francine grimaced as she signed the tablet, then slid the stylus back into the tablet instead of handing it to him directly. “Thank you, ever so much, John.”

John grunted some sort of assent, then hastily retreated. “My pleasure, Francine. Best of luck on your surgery!”

John left to the sound of Francine’s choking laughter.

Objectively, the entire situation was creepy and no one in their right mind would blame John for running from the hospital as quickly as he could. Even the intern who’d just gotten back from a very rough bathroom visit forgave the man who took off in a hurry. After all, the intern had other problems to consider in that moment.

What few people in their right mind would forgive him for was not reading the symptom charts plastered on all the exits. Or the warnings to avoid travel if you entered the quarantine area with Doctor Francine Waters, the woman who gene-edited the Ebola virus into a delayed reaction pathogen. Even fewer would take a blood-covered object from the dear doctor who, after her research was discovered, had fled the Irish Confederacy with the intention to infect the entire eastern seaboard of the United States with a virus that had a 97% fatality rate. She was a firm believer in the theory that the only way to save the Earth, and thus, humanity, was through a culling, you see.

He never meant for any of it to happen. Not his parents, not Dale; certainly not Hercules.

Definitely not the deaths of 9.8 billion people.

But, as was mentioned at the beginning of John Washinton’s tale, all of it just kind of happened.

It was, after all, the story of his life.

Review: Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

Review: Clarkesworld #157, October 2019

Originally Posted at Tangent Online, October 23, 2019

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson
“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby
“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee
“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe
“Song Xiuyun” by A Que, translated by Emily Jin
“How Alike Are We” by Bo-Young Kim, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar

Reviewed by Mike Wyant Jr.

“All Electric Ghosts” by Rich Larson is a wild ride. The story follows Benny, a drug addict-turned alien savior, as he works to reunite a bunch of unnamed and otherwise unknown alien species from a similarly unknown group of people looking to do something even more unknown to them.

Until trying to write a brief synopsis for this story, I didn’t realize just how much isn’t explained. We spend so much time deep in Benny’s tortured psyche that, when the action happens, it just seems like the natural steps for him to take. In a lot of ways, I wonder if this was Larson’s goal, to set up a story where the driving energy simulates a drug addict’s thought process in the search for their next hit. If so, it’s done brilliantly and with such beautiful, yet raw imagery it’s hard not to be impressed by the piece.

My only real critique is the ending is rather abrupt, though it does fit the overall motif of the story in that it starts with an addict searching for their next high and ends with that expected payoff. Definitely give this story a read.

“The Scrapyard” by Tomas Furby is the story of what happens to a group of bioengineered super soldiers after the war against an alien invasion is over. Mostly, it follows the narrator as he reflects on dead friends, the war he fought, and the reality that he is probably starting to lose it until, suddenly, we realize he isn’t.

The most appealing part of this story is the earnestness of the narration and the voicing. I’ve read various stories and memoirs written by soldiers who’ve seen battle and Furby does a fantastic job capturing the phrasing and style in this piece. The story itself, from the intro to the final scene, is well crafted.

“An Arc of Lightning Across the Eye of God” by P H Lee is an interesting tale. Generally, it contains two main parts: Zhou Wenshu fretting about reporting first contact with an alien visitor that’d just come through a transit point (which I took to be some sort of FTL lane) and a transcript of a meeting with the alien. It’s in the transcript we find out the alien is a genetically crafted creature made from an Icelandic astronaut and, apparently, an angel or some fragment of God.

The transcript is written really well, with all the frustration you’d find in a conversation with two interpreters between the subject and the interviewer. The story itself is a slow burn, with an ever-increasing tension as more of the interview comes to light. By the end, it’s easy to understand why Zhou was so uncomfortable in the first section of the story.

That said, the story just kind of ends. It’s not poorly concluded, and I can’t put my finger on why it bugs me so much as it’s clear I’m thinking and feeling what the author wants me to, but it left me feeling unfulfilled.

Definitely worth reading as my dissatisfaction with the ending is entirely a subjective response and the rest of the story is worth the time.

“National Center for the Preservation of Human Dignity” by Youha Nam, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe is terrifying. It follows a character we only ever know as the number 704 as she’s sent to a retirement home-esque building for being poor. The catch? She’s there to die in 24 hours.

The main plot revolves around 704 (I hate using that number as a name) as she comes to grips with the fact some prick government presided over by a certain presidential figure that’s far too familiar has outlawed poverty and, as such, will execute her. The ending, though somewhat depressing from an American, fight-to-the-death, point of view is satisfying and fits with the plot. Well worth a read.

“Song Xiuyun” by A Que and translated by Emily Jin is a fantastic story despite some editing and tense issues throughout. “Song Xiuyun” is told through two points of view, one is a futuristic Uber driver, Wu Huang, who controls a smart taxi through an Internet-connected helmet, and the other is the eponymous character, Song Xiuyun. Generally speaking, we follow Ms. Song as she travels to a near future Beijing in search of her son, whom she has found is in failing health. Soon, we find out her son has been using one of these helmets to control a robot designed to look exactly like him in order to fool her about his health. Eventually, from Ms. Song’s perspective, her son comes home for the Chinese New Year and all is well.

The thing that makes this story so interesting is Wu Huang’s perspective. She’s a replacement reader who connects the dots before Song does. During their drive, Wu Huang starts to draw parallels between her life and Song and her son’s, down to the way Wu Huang treats her family and their relationship. It’s an interesting take on modernization and the way it impacts family life and the ending, when it comes, is so simple, yet impactful I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear or two.

Bo-Young Kim‘s “How Alike Are We,” translated by Jihyun Park and GordSellar, is a fantastic story about a space-faring vessel’s Artificial Intelligence going into a synthetic human body to try and figure out a problem it’s unable to address in its typical, digital brain.

Roughly, the story is a rescue mission. The AI, NOON, at some point intercepted a distress signal on Titan from a mining facility that’s collapsed in on itself. NOON, after being dropped in a synthetic body, promptly forgets exactly why they forced the crew to do this, resulting in a long series of escalating tensions as the crew attacks NOON and the captain, Lee Jin Seo, protects it. Ultimately, as everything spirals out of control, NOON finally realizes the gap in their knowledge is caused by a bureaucrat’s edits to their core programming, but not before a mutiny breaks out amongst the crew, leaving the survival of the colony hanging in the balance.

“How Alike We Are” starts off slowly, mostly due to the lack of knowledge of the narrator and the limited perspective as NOON tries to get their bearings. The first third of it was a bit challenging as I didn’t understand where we were going or why anything was important, but it turned out that was the point. The farther along in the tale you get, the more cohesive, and readable, the story becomes. By the end, you feel the tension and the emotion NOON has embraced to achieve their goal. When the ending finally hits, it ends with a sentence that flies in the face of every assertion NOON has made throughout the story and the pure joy I felt at that was worth the read.

Oh, and the science is really, really tight in this one, though I guess it has to be since the main character is an artificial intelligence.