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What Dungeons and Dragons can Teach Us About Storytelling

TThe sorceress traipsed gingerly through the castle courtyard, inching closer to the ogre. The stunned hulk towered above her in a motionless daze, its fleshy jowls shaking as it tottered from side to side. She had charmed the beast, but I stayed hidden behind a crumbling stone wall, afraid the thing might haul another boulder at us. We’d heard of spectres and spirits residing within the walls of the long-abandoned keep. We hadn’t heard of ogres.

“Fortune is on our side,” Sylvan declared as she swivelled her head back to us. “I speak ogre.”

She let out a guttural bellow. Still stunned, the ogre grunted in return. Watching Sylvan attempt to speak, I thought she must be hexed—or just a fool. I began calculating who could get to her first: me, to save her, or the ogre, to turn her into its next meal. But before I could move, I felt a hand on my shoulder, next to the strap of my quiver. “Don’t,” the cleric P’Za calmly whispered into my ear, as if reading my mind. We exchanged glances as Sylvan and the ogre continued groan at each other.

“It’s all right,” Sylvan shouted, far too loudly. She and the brute exchanged a few more creaks. “His name is Gormgok,” she told us, breaking into a smile. “And I’m going to ask him to be our friend.”

 

I didn’t exactly write that passage. Rather, I co-created it, seated around a wooden table in a Toronto apartment playing Dungeons and Dragons with three friends: Curtis, as the bold enchantress Sylvan; Paul, as the holy adventurer P’Za; and Benjamin Shaw, as our Dungeon Master (DM). Ben had created the world—and all the castles and ogres in it—but it was up to us, the players, to bring it to life. In this case, by glad-handing a groggy ogre.

Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Like any worthwhile narrative, a D&D campaign needs a main conflict, compelling characters and memorable scenes. DMs provide most of those elements, but they let players assume the central role as protagonists. Together, through roleplay and dialogue and countless dice rolls, a DM and his party create a fiction in real time.

Written narratives and D&D rely on many of the same things to be successful: preparation, dedication, imagination. Over the years, Ben has developed and begun to formalize theories about being a Dungeon Master, and they can just as easily be read as writing tips. The art of Dungeon Mastery encompasses character creation, world building, rule following and, occasionally, rule breaking. The job requires big decisions (what’s the main drama to drive your story forward?) and trivial ones (how much does it cost to buy 10 feet of rope?). If you do it right, you suck the player (or reader) in, fill them with wonder and give them a platform to live out fantasy—not just the genre, but their own. “In day-to-day life, people make all sorts of little choices: what to eat for dinner, how to get to work,” says Ben. “As much as we might not like the idea, those choices don’t really matter.” A D&D campaign offers players a rare opportunity to make decisions that change lives, albeit fictional ones. “It’s a chance to make choices that actually do matter.”


Ben has introduced roughly 30 people to Dungeons and Dragons. When I first met him, he seemed excited to teach a few more. Not that there was much “teaching.” Ben’s straight brown hair danced below his shoulders as he unloaded his knapsack: a heavy sack of dice, a box of miniatures, stacks of paper. (Ben’s ’do was not so much Legolas-inspired as apropos of his professional career as an opera singer.) He cued up a medieval soundtrack and asked us each to create a character: Give them a name and gender. Pick a race (e.g., elf, human, halfling), class (barbarian, wizard, rogue) and matching figurine (he brought dozens). Grab a set of dice and roll. That’s your strength. Roll again. That’s your intelligence. Roll again… Roll again… Roll again… Compared to the hours I’d spent creating characters in Skyrim (which I later realized is, in some sense, a digital D&D), it was swift and simple. My elven archer, Ash, was ready within minutes.

“Welcome to the Twilight Coast,” Ben announced. He set the scene: we were seated in a dark, half-filled tavern in the town of Birtash. A waiter with his arm in a sling rushed to a table of rowdy locals with one too many steins balanced in his lone healthy hand. A dishevelled greying man mumbled to himself at one end of the bar. A shadowy ranger nursed a drink at the other.

“What do you want to do?” Ben asked us. Answering that question is essentially what it means to play D&D.


When Sylvan asked the ogre— a grunting, teetering behemoth played by Ben—if he wanted to be our friend, Ben smirked. Without saying anything, he picked up a die and rolled it behind a divider that concealed his notes, maps and rolls. He looked down at the result, chuckled and then, in his best ogre impression, rumbled, “Okay.”

In D&D, dice determine (almost) everything. Want to fire an arrow at a fast-approaching goblin? Roll to see if you hit. Want to haggle for a better price? Roll to determine if you can sweet-talk your way into a discount. Want to ask Gormgok if you can ride his back? Laugh, then roll to find out if the big guy is amenable. Players’ dice control their characters, while the DM’s dice control non-player characters (NPCs) that they interact with, whether it’s a troll or a tailor. Just keep rolling until you slay the dragon, rescue the princess or seize the throne.

It’s the moments between rolls that matter most, though. Through Ben, our party talked to travellers and traders (he acted them out), explored dungeons (he mapped them out) and skimmed tavern menus (he handed them out). Everything we did filtered through him. Though Paul, Curtis and I had never read a D&D rulebook, we played for hours, relying on Ben to know the answer to our ceaseless questions: What was in that locked chest? Which dice should we roll to find out if we could open it? Could we cast a spell to improve our chances?


Dungeons and Dragons’ history is appropriately mythic—a fractured timeline with as many schisms as the Christian church. Officially, it was invented in 1974, when American game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Armeson released the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, or, at least, three books that taught you how to play it. To oversimplify things immensely, there have been five editions of the game to date, some with strict rules and others with a more laissez-faire approach that gives DMs greater discretion as to how they run the game. Ultimately, D&D is not one cookie-cutter activity, but an umbrella term for a series of games that can feel at times quite similar and at others radically different.

Ben discovered D&D as a grade-schooler. “My dad would have his friends over to play D&D, and I always wanted to play,” he says. “One guy always ran the game. He had, like, 1,000 pewter miniatures, all of them hand-painted. So I grilled him for information. He was more than willing to talk to me about it.”

In Gr. 7, Ben saved up his allowance to buy a series of D&D rulebooks from his local used bookstore; they were locked in a glass cabinet next to the Magic cards at the back off the shop. Tomes in hand, he rounded up his brother and friends (“I was the older one so I could force them to do anything”), and ran his very first campaign. “Everybody, welcome to the game,” he told his inaugural party before launching into a nonsensical scene: “You’re walking through the woods when you’re ambushed by orcs, 20 feet away.”

Ben honed his DM skills over the course of countless campaigns in high school and university, researching the role online along the way. While Ben was studying music in Halifax, a friend named Ricky asked him for pointers on how he might DM a campaign of his own. So Ben wrote Ricky a series of letters (three and counting), which together comprise a sort of starter kit to DM’ing. He takes credit for few of the ideas in it. “When somebody asks for advice,” whether a first-time or veteran DM, says Ben, “I think you can assume that the advice they get is coming from the community as a whole.” Many DMs trade theories, questions and tips online (Ben posts some of his on a blog appropriately titled Wizard Shaw). “No dungeon master is out there claiming to having invented everything about how to be a dungeon master.”

Nonetheless, the “Ricky Letters” are a useful anthology, a sort of ongoing DM’ing for Dummies. They detail how to dole out treasure and experience points, how to structure dungeons and how to draw maps for the players you’re leading. But their most insightful passages are more philosophical than technical.

Ben suggests DMs think of every world they create as a series of rooms. Fill every “room” you create—whether it’s an eerie crypt or entire country—with a look, a feel and things that players can interact with. The biggest room is the world you create as a whole. That world has regions (each their own “room”), every region has towns (also “rooms”), every town has buildings (you get it), every building has actual rooms, every actual room has characters and objects. DMs describe the rooms only as players enter them, as if unveiling a series of Russian dolls. “You don’t have to polish any of it beforehand, because it doesn’t come alive until it hits the table anyway,” says Ben. “I usually give just the first layer of description, something like, ‘There’s a statue with outstretched arms.’ ” If the players walk by without investigating, fine. But if they look in those hands, they’ll find a ruby. And if they find a ruby, they have to decide what to do about it.


Just as important as the world are the NPCs who live in it—and give it life. By sharing news and having their own desires, fears and motivations, they give the impression of a world that exists beyond your party. NPCs can also teach players about themselves (e.g., because people in the Twilight Coast discriminate against elves, NPCs would occasionally slander me).

Ben assigns each NPC five essential elements: 1) a connection to something of greater importance, like the innkeeper’s knowledge about Barrow Deep; 2) a physical mannerism you can act out, like his arm in a sling; 3), a desire and fear, like his concern over a strange noise coming from the tavern chimney; 4) an errand in progress, like serving customers; and 5) a detail that causes players to wonder about the character’s backstory or significance, like how he broke that arm anyway?

These traits not only help players visualize and remember NPCs, they invite players to engage more deeply with the world. “Put in as many things as possible that make players wonder,” says Ben, who takes credit for at least this particular idea of wonder. “The game will go smoothly if what you present immediately brings questions into their minds. They ask questions, you give them answers, those lead to more questions. Really, it’s a back and forth of questions and answers.”

You’ll know you’ve created convincing characters when players have strong feelings about them, whether hatred or admiration. “Sometimes groups just decide, without a word, that they love an NPC. Inevitably, someone starts hitting on them,” says Ben. “It can be an excellent tool for a DM. You can put that NPC in danger, for example, and the players leap on that.”

A practical tip: have a list of names and simple stock characters on hand in case you need to improvise. If a player asks to speak to a blacksmith you haven’t fleshed out, pick one out and wing it. “On a very basic level,” says Ben, “even having a name at the ready is actually super impressive to players.” These details can be used when they’re needed. In other words, wherever players wind upf can become an improvised version of a hyper-detailed setting that Ben has already prepared. The sci-fi structure may differ from fantasy, Ben says, but “I’m finding that if I approach it in entirely the same way, many of the philosophies continue to apply.”


Dreaming up worlds and characters as detailed as these takes time. Ben spent six months creating the Twilight Coast. It has what you might call a central “quest” and a defined ending, but that’s practically a moot point. The most dedicated group to play in it lasted for several months (campaigns can last years) and still covered just five per cent of the world Ben created. They didn’t even start the main quest. “I used to feel bad about players skipping over meticulously detailed content I had created, but now I’m taking more of a Hemingway approach—the iceberg theory,” says Ben. “I’ve stopped trying to guide players to interesting stuff. I let them make their own decisions. Every single group finds different stuff, makes different choices in the same rooms.”

Choices are a dungeon master’s most important tool. “Give the players as many interesting, meaningful choices as possible,” says Ben. That point features prominently in the Ricky Letters, which contain a list Ben created that he refers to, unceremoniously, as “What Players Want.” It’s not long, so here it is: 1) something cool for their character, like a magic sword or spell; 2) choices that affect their game world, like whether to assassinate or side with a wrongful king; 2) deeds to build their character’s legend, like deposing said ruler because he’s corrupt; 4) unique experiences through adventure, like discovering a hidden passageway in the kings’ quarters; and 5) to earn the respect, loyalty and friendship of NPCs, like the rightful king, found imprisoned down that secret passage. Or, if you’re my party, you try to hang out with an ogre.

 

The ogre was hungry. So, back in Birtash, P’Za and I visited the market to purchase a pair of cows. We led the animals down the main street, out the town gates and past the tree line, where we reunited with Sylvan and Gormgok. The innkeeper refused to let him stay on the tavern’s grounds, so this overgrown nook at the edge of town—just out of sight of disapproving villagers—would be his home for the time being.

As Gormgok feasted on the first cow, the fiery late-afternoon sun dipped behind Birtash’s low-lying buildings. I rested my bow against a tree and sat in the tall grass with Sylvan, the only one of us who could speak directly to the ogre. She was smitten with her new companion. He’d helped us wipe out a wave of kobolds, venture deeper into Barrow Deep and return home with the spoils.

Still, Sylvan seemed uneasy, her brow furrowed as she watched the sun set. “What’s wrong?” I asked. 

She was still and silent for a moment and then replied, “My charm spell only lasts two weeks.” When her hold on Gormgok dissolved, she asked, would he still be our friend? 

“What happens if—” I began, but couldn’t bring myself to continue. 

“Well, Ash,” Sylvan said, turning to me, “I guess we’re going to have to make a choice.”

From One, Many; From Many, One

The old truck stopped on the crumbling blacktop of what had been a two-lane highway when Victors had controlled the world. The faded, tattered map showed a small town on the other side of a row of hills, dark in dawn’s gloom—five thin, grey lines intersecting three others with the label “Beckley.”

Perhaps a cure for NickJennyPhil’s husband and son waited there. For two weeks, all he and the others had found were empty towns. Some collapsing and deserted, others burned flat.

As if no more Victors remained.

The thought made NickJennyPhil go cold, a vestige of his inherited physiology. No Victors did not just mean no cure, but no new Adams.

Ever.

Beside NickJennyPhil, DonaldCharlotteKellie shut off the engine and gave him a slow nod. His eyes—one blue, one brown—held the same hope NickJennyPhil felt. DonaldCharlotteKellie grabbed his rifle from the rack behind their seats and got out.

NickJennyPhil left his bag of surgical gear on the seat. Its metal instruments knocking together made too much noise.

AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung were already out of the truck’s canopied bed, leaning against the spare tire secured to the bumper. Clubs hung from their belts, sacks with ropes and gags over their shoulders. The others’ seven foot frames dwarfed NickJennyPhil, a reminder he had not been created for this.

“Nice and quiet,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “Don’t spook these wet-borns.” He led the way up the wooded slope, rifle in hand.

NickJennyPhil hated that DonaldCharlotteKellie’s had brought the weapon. In the beginning, when the Creator had flowed His lifeblood into the first Adams, He had decreed that a Victor could only be harmed to create a new Adam. Needlessly killing one wasted His bounty, and needlessly wounding one rendered it an abomination of His perfect image.

To say nothing of medical concerns. Victors were fragile. If one survived the gunshot, NickJennyPhil would have to keep it alive during the twelve-hour trip home. Anything dead longer than two was useless tissue.

It took twenty minutes to reach the crest. The rising sun revealed a town much like theirs: twenty-odd houses surrounding a handful of shops and commercial buildings. Except here a rust-spotted dump truck and bulldozer blocked the road into the town centre. A patchwork of split rail, barb wire and chain link formed a half-completed perimeter fence. No lights burned, nothing moved on its streets, no sounds carried up the hillside.

NickJennyPhil’s hope faded, nudging him closer to a precipice over which lay despair.

“Same as always,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said. “We’re just here to look. No stupid chances. I’ll come get you in a few hours. Go.”

AmyJonTom and LeahFritzChung shared a quick I’ll-see-you-soon kiss before moving in opposite directions.

“Best we’ve seen,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, eyeing the town.

“Those defences could be decades old,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I doubt Victors are capable of that coordination now.”

“Maybe not.” DonaldCharlotteKellie held up his rifle. “Still. Be back in a few hours.” He disappeared into the trees.

NickJennyPhil’s concern over DonaldCharlotteKellie’s potential blasphemy gave way to the usual doubts of his own usefulness. He had been assembled to be a surgeon, not a harvester. The Creator’s lifeblood made Adams stronger and more durable than Victors, but they did not heal as quickly or wholly. Even a simple laceration rendered an Adam an abomination, risking his ascension to merge with the Creator. So, his fathers made him the size of a small adult Victor, able to manipulate delicate nerves, veins and sinew. Flashes of memory from the Victor whose brain NickJennyPhil carried surfaced from time to time, an identity not entirely erased by NickJennyPhil’s lifeblood. It had been clever, intelligent and contemplative. A brain suited for diagnosis and plans of treatment, but not a harvest’s brutality and tenacity.

Yet that had been its life.

NickJennyPhil conjured memories from his own—the patchwork hues of LeoZhaBert’s body, his voice calling NickJennyPhil to bed, his touch on NickJennyPhil’s skin. The joy when LeoZhaBert had agreed to have a son when a Victor encampment had been found.

A harvester son, strong and brave.

That had been then.

Time passed.

Only the shortening shadows moved below.

How different this town was from that Victors encampment. Makeshift structures and crude lean-tos had dotted the forest clearing. Primitive sanitation, no medical facilities. Their undisciplined, panicked defence had collapsed within minutes. Those not caught fled into the forest.

Then the screaming—that joyful sound of new life—filled the encampment.

LeoZhaBert had caught, tied and gagged six Victors for most of their son—strong arms, graceful legs, a robust torso. For the brain, they had laid claim to a Victor armed with a machete who, rather than fleeing, launched sudden attacks and then disappeared back into the dense foliage.

LeoZhaBert had admired its determination.

NickJennyPhil had admired its cleverness.

LeoZhaBert had passed NickJennyPhil his harvesting club. Trembling but determined, NickJennyPhil followed his husband into the trees. They would do this—every step of it— together. The Victor burst from the underbrush, slicing at them. LeoZhaBert shoved NickJennyPhil back, bringing up his other arm in defence. The blade buried itself in the bone and muscle of LeoZhaBert’s forearm. Yanking to free its weapon, the Victor did not see NickJennyPhil charge. He swung, wild with fury, and knocked it unconscious.

It never awoke, even as NickJennyPhil severed its head from its body.

Gunfire pulled NickJennyPhil from the happy memory. He dropped flat on the forest floor.

Nothing moved in the town.

Motion to his left. A figure emerged from the trees, limping, a hundred feet off.

AmyJonTom.

Two more shots. A bullet sliced the air next to NickJennyPhil’s left ear. His heart hammered uselessly in his chest.

A third shot and AmyJonTom collapsed, clutching a knee. Two smaller figures emerged from the trees. Victors. Each carried a rifle and wore camouflage patterned clothing. One kicked AmyJonTom’s injured leg while the other drew a hatchet from its belt. “Where’s your town?” it screamed, the high voice of a female. It swung, nearly severing AmyJonTom’s foot at the ankle, rendering him an abomination. “Where!”

Panic surged like a living thing. Helpless, useless, NickJennyPhil sprinted toward where DonaldCharlotteKellie and LeahFritzChung had gone.

He did not know how long he had been running when he skidded to a stop. LeahFritzChung lay face down on the forest floor, the back of his skull blown out.

“Hey there.” A male Victor knelt in the brush wearing frayed camouflage clothing, a yellow-on-black patch reading “RANGER” on the shoulder. Dried mud caked its long, white hair and beard. It levelled a rifle across the stump at its left elbow, aiming with its left eye. A savage mound of scar tissue filled its right socket.

“Never seen one of you so small,” it said, moving toward him. “Something wrong with you?”

“I’m a surgeon,” NickJennyPhil managed to say, more shocked by such an abomination of the Creator’s image than its gun.

“I’d say your friend’s beyond help. So where’d you come from? Where’s your town?”

That question. Like the female with AmyJonTom.

The Victor nodded to a hatchet on his belt. “Should I take you apart? First your fingers then your toes? Hands and feet go next.” He waved the stump of his arm. “I’ve been your guest. Know your faith. You all descend from your creator. If you’re too far from his perfect image, he won’t recognize you. Won’t let you ascend to become part of him again.”

This Victor was nothing like the panicked animals at the encampment. Was this what the Victors had been like in the beginning? Scripture told of Victors’ numerous sins enraging the Creator, so He had replaced them with something more perfect to His image. Victors had attempted to slaughter the first Adams, but the Creator’s will had been done and Adams had inherited the world the Victors had built, passing His lifeblood down through generations.

“Answer me quick,” it said, “and die whole.”

“NickJennyPhil, get down!”

Thirty feet away, DonaldCharlotteKellie leaned against a tree, rifle aimed.

The Victor spun and fired.

Fear gave way to hatred, then rage. NickJennyPhil charged and tackled the Victor. It twisted and maneuvered in his grasp, precise and purposeful movements to leverage itself free.

DonaldCharlotteKellie slammed his rifle butt into the Victor’s face. “Wet-born!” It went limp, eyes rolling back in semi-consciousness.

DonaldCharlotteKellie ripped the rifle from its hands before his right leg buckled and he collapsed. Blood stained three finger-sized holes in his pant leg.

NickJennyPhil ripped the fabric open, exposing bullet wounds in DonaldCharlotteKellie’s thigh. If he had his tools, NickJennyPhil could have removed the bullets and rewoven the muscle. Or, with time, grafted muscle from LeahFritzChung.

“Leave it.” DonaldCharlotteKellie pushed him away and took a gag from LeahFritzChung’s pack. “They knew we were coming.” He fitted in on the Victor, silencing its moaning. “I got one, but this one killed LeahFritzChung.” He removed lengths of rope from the pack.

“Two more are out there,” NickJennyPhil said. “I think AmyJonTom is dead.”

“Creator’s sacred name,” DonaldCharlotteKellie cursed.

NickJennyPhil winced at the blasphemy.

Limping, DonaldCharlotteKellie pulled the Victor behind a fallen tree, secured its right hand against its thigh at the crotch and bound its feet while NickJennyPhil kept watch. DonaldCharlotteKellie found additional ammunition along with a photo of a female Victor around the age of sexual maturity in the Victor’s pockets. He hurled its hachette into the trees before loading ammunition into the Victor’s rifle.

“Take my gun,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, pointing up the slope. “Fifty feet or so. Crossfire.”

“I—” He tried to find the words.

Killing the Victors would be blasphemy. The Creator had given no exemption for self-defence. Even if they merely wounded them, getting all three to the truck would be impossible given DonaldCharlotteKellie’s injury. They could secure them and NickJennyPhil could retrieve his tools to repair DonaldCharlotteKellie’s leg, but one might free itself.

That was assuming victory. The Victors knew this forest. NickJennyPhil had no experience with firearms.

Retreating with the Victor would be dangerously slow, but leaving it would render AmyJonTom’s and LeahFritzChung’s deaths meaningless.

That left a single option.

DonaldCharlotteKellie’s nod showed he had reached the same conclusion. He held out his rifle. “Go.”

NickJennyPhil ignored it, tying a length of rope at the Victor’s ankles.

“Long road home.” DonaldCharlotteKellie took cover behind the tree. “You might have to fight to see your husband and boy.”

Accepting the logic, NickJennyPhil slung the rifle over his shoulder.

“If I get them,” DonaldCharlotteKellie said, “I’ll call out.”

“Thank you.” Words as useless as NickJennyPhil felt.

“Time’s short.”

NickJennyPhil grunted, taking the rope’s other end and dragging the Victor behind him. He prayed the Creator would forgive DonaldCharlotteKellie’s blasphemy and let him ascend despite the injury rendering him an abomination. After all, the blame lay with NickJennyPhil.

Each step added to that guilt.

Following the harvest at the Victors’ encampment, NickJennyPhil had attached LeoZhaBert’s new forearm, taken from a Victor they had claimed, returning him to be made in the Creator’s perfect image. Then, together, they had assembled their son.

A son with a severe brain injury caused by his panicked blow. A son who breathed but did not awaken as they fed their lifebloods into him.

Several weeks into their grief, a twitch began in LeoZhaBert’s new forearm. NickJennyPhil has seen this before. A disease that had lingered silently within the Victor inexplicably springing to life when exposed to an Adam’s lifeblood. With all the Victors from the harvest partitioned, they lacked another limb to replace it.

Twitches became spasms that leaped across the sutures at LeoZhaBert’s elbow. After two months, LeoZhaBert’s bicep and tricep quaked while his hand hung cold and limp. If it jumped the sutures at his shoulder and reached his brain, it could be fatal.

LeoZhaBert had asked—then begged—NickJennyPhil to remove his arm, but NickJennyPhil would not render him an abomination.

So LeoZhaBert had proposed taking their son’s arm and, as a mercy to prevent him from being an abomination, stilling the life within him.

The argument had lasted hours.

In the end, DonaldCharlotteKellie had organized this small harvesting group. He and LeoZhaBert had been lovers, once. Whether an act of charity or overture of renewed affection, NickJennyPhil did not know, and he surprised everyone when he insisted on going. Yet even he was uncertain if it was to fight for his husband’s life, to make up for what he had done, or some form of competition with DonaldCharlotteKellie.

Now three more lives had been lost and Victors’ bounties wasted.

Gunfire popped above him. Startled, NickJennyPhil lost his footing and gravity claimed him, sending him tumbling.

A collision with a fallen tree jarred him to a stop.

The Victor’s rifle was gone.

Below, through the trees, was the truck.

Far above, the gunfire ended, but ten steps above the Victor sat up, fully conscious.

So clever, it was, biding its time.

It brought its knees to its chest and shoved its bound wrist down between its legs to work at the knot at its ankles.

“No!” NickJennyPhil scrambled up the slope, but the Victor had the knot undone and slipped the coil at its wrist over its foot. It stood and charged up the hill. Higher still lay the rifle.

NickJennyPhil turned and loped down the hill for the truck. Terror did not occlude the realization of his complete failure.

Reaching the road, a shot kicked up chunks of blacktop near his feet. He rounded the truck to the passenger side and leapt in its cab, searching for a weapon if the Victor pressed its attack once its rifle was empty.

“I just wanna know where your town is!” it called out.

Its words gave the burned towns they had found new meaning. Had those towns been populated by Adams? This Victor used Beckley as a trap to catch Adams and torture them into betraying their towns’ locations. Towns the Victors somehow destroyed.

Yet NickJennyPhil was forbidden from killing something so dangerous for such a sin.

All he found were his surgeon’s tools.

“One of your creator’s rules should’ve been ‘Go slow’,” it continued. “You spread so fast. You’re wiping us out.”

A shot shattered the driver’s side window.

Anger and panic swirling, NickJennyPhil grabbed his bonesaw. Fatal if he struck a blow, but perhaps intimidating enough to force its retreat. He slid out of the cab and moved to the truck’s rear to peer around the other side.

The Victor stood at the driver’s door.

It fired.

NickJennyPhil retreated, a bullet whining past.

“My daughter will take you apart when she gets here,” it said. “She was eight when she saw one of you saw off her mom’s legs and cut out her ribs. And she lived through most of it, screaming.”

A bullet came under the truck, nicking NickJennyPhil’s boot.

He leapt onto the bumper.

LeoZhaBert would not hesitate, a courage NickJennyPhil both loved and fretted over. And the Victor whose brain went to their son had attacked against futile odds.

But his rash actions had cost too much.

He was no harvester. Let the Victor come. Let this end. NickJennyPhil used the tire to steady himself.

The tire, with its thick, metal hubcap.

He dropped the saw and threw the tire’s release mechanism. It fell and NickJennyPhil caught it on the bounce, hefting it up so the hubcap protected his face and head, and charged.

Shots popped. Pain seared through his leg, his chest, his gut.

None fatal.

NickJennyPhil ran blindly toward the gunfire. His collision with the Victor sent it sprawling. NickJennyPhil dropped the tire, limped to where the Victor had fallen and straddled its chest.

The gun lay out of reach.

NickJennyPhil wrapped his hands around the Victor’s throat.

“You forget I know your faith?” it said, attempting to twist away to free itself. “You can’t kill me.”

You forgot,” NickJennyPhil said. “I’m surgeon.” He squeezed.

When it stopped thrashing, unconscious but without permanent damage, NickJennyPhil retrieved his tools.

The sun touched the treetops when a female Victor stumbled from the trees. Face ashen, a scarlet bloom darkened its jacket at the abdomen.

It nearly retched when it saw the remains of its father.

That DonaldCharlotteKellie wouldn’t stop the Victors was a risk NickJennyPhil had accepted. Timing critical, he continued his work.

The male Victor’s arm hung below NickJennyPhil’s left, his nerves and veins woven into it. NickJennyPhil now knitted its head’s nerves and veins into his abdomen, the gunshot wound feeding his lifeblood into the new brain for his son.

A brain both clever and determined.

“I was going to butcher you,” the female Victor said, breathing rapid and shallow. It could not hold its rifle steady. “This is better.”

Connected in a way NickJennyPhil did not understand, the male Victor’s consciousness—fighting to retain its identity—stirred at the female’s voice.

“You have forfeited your life to take mine?” he asked. “Kill me rather than seek treatment?” Unless, NickJennyPhil considered, no Victors survived to aid it.

“Ready for hell, abomination?”

“I am not,” NickJennyPhil replied. “I am as the Creator. I carry more than my own life within me.”

His words stirred a new idea. This was, after all, a female. “Your wound renders you an abomination,” he continued. “I should treat you.”

Its eyes shut heavily and snapped open. “So you can cut me up?”

“No. Your father was correct. Harvesting all Victors condemns future generations of Adams. We must let you flourish again.”

Its knees buckled and it landed on its side. “I’ll kill…” Unable to raise its weapon, it placed the barrel under its chin, stock between its legs, thumb on the trigger. “I won’t…”

Its eyes rolled back.

The male Victor’s head secure to his abdomen, NickJennyPhil treated the female’s wound and transfused a mixture of the male’s and, to prevent an incompatibility reaction, his own blood into it.

If they found another male, they could breed them and produce a menagerie of Victors. Clever, dangerous—they would need to be contained, perhaps restrained, but providing limbs and organs for new Adams to be made or injuries treated. And with his skills, they need not die, able to be further harvested when a need arose. They would live on as abominations, but they seemed able to accept such a state. Surely rendering a Victor as an abomination so that an Adam could reflect the Creator’s perfect image was a necessary and just act in the Creator’s eyes. Had not the Creator already deemed them less perfect than his Adams?

Awkward with his new limbs, he heaved the female into the back of the truck and tied it down.

When NickJennyPhil started the engine, the Victor awoke.

It screamed.

Such a joyful sound.

Memory and Faded Ink

She liked to watch me sleeping. “I always remember you like this,” she would say. “Drowsing in a pool of sunlight, dawn pouring off you like gold. That is how I know you are rich.”

When she was young, rich to Tseleng meant time enough to weed millet, and light enough to spot vipers. To me, it meant a roof that didn’t leak. When the Buyani arrived, it meant them, and suddenly the whole planet was poor.

They were generous enough; the very definition of philanthropists — they loved humans. They even said they were human themselves, and they looked the part — tall and strong, with tight copper curls, aquiline features, loamy skin.The Buyani were as human as aliens could be. Too human. If ever our gods come back, they will look like this.

They weren’t really Buyani, of course, any more than they were Atlanteans, or Lemurians, or Muans, or any other lost race. They admitted that their vast ship could land, could submerge, but they left it at the L1 Lagrange point, between the sun and an Earth turned upside down by surprise and suspicion, by alien wizards and wonders.

We’d talked about it, Tseleng and I, in those drowsy, golden mornings and in the busy afternoons, when she sold her books with Mamekete and Leabua, the weathered sages of Maseru’s open air market.

“They say alphabets are for children,” Tseleng would tell us. “They say letters are the stick figure art of communication — a primitive tool to be left behind along with counting on fingers and uncertain bladder control.”

“No one will buy books anymore,” Leabua would say, wiping dust off his piles of outdated textbooks and social science tracts.

“No one buys them now,” Mamekete would reply, determined to match pessimism with cynicism at every turn. But she would wipe her own stock of novels and poetry chapbooks nonetheless.

“The Buyani don’t have any books. Do you really think they remember everything?” Tseleng would say, playing optimist. “People say they even have some sort of racial memory.”

“Too much information,” I would say. “Where could they store it all?” Every group needs a sceptic, and Serbs are naturals at it.

“It’s just transmitters in their brains,” Leabua would say. “The information’s in the cloud.” And then the conversation would circle back to whether the Buyani were really human, and whether they had left us behind, or visited before, and whether their other ships were shaped like islands or pyramids or mountains.

The Buyani wouldn’t say. They were chary with information about themselves, but they gave technology freely, so that even in Lesotho, we had free energy, and clean water, and synthesized food.

“It’s a trick,” I told Tseleng one day, as she smoked pot under a black locust tree. “They’ll make us all dependent on them, and then,” I made a fist, “they’ll have us.”

“They have us now.” They’d shown no signs of violence, but no one made any pretense that we could win a war. A few hotheads, a few suicide bombers, a few terrorists had tried, but with the Buyani present, bullets floated to a gentle stop, bombs set off slow, soft breezes, and toxins faded into nothingness. There were still wars, of course, but they were small, local scuffles over religion and other trivia. Life was better, even for sceptics.

I gave this to the Buyani — their distribution network was efficient. Even on the dirt roads outside Maseru, we got their latest gifts as soon as anyone on the boulevards of Boston, or the cobblestones of Quito.

Those lazy conversations would have been the sum of it, should have been the total of my experience of the Buyani. Until they came to us, and Tseleng went to them.


We all have our means of escape. For me, it was travel – outside the grim, stuffy confines of Belgrade, with its cheery sidewalk cafes overflowing with dour traditionalists, its bright, modern shops selling things no one could afford. I’d gone south, to Greece, and Egypt, and Rwanda, and South Africa, and finally Lesotho. Tseleng had escaped through drugs, from glue bottles on the paths of her nameless village to harder fare on the roads of Maseru.

We’d met halfway, each deciding to try something new. For her, a tall, exotic foreigner. For me, a drink or two in a shabby bar. And it had worked. I’d settled down, she’d let the hard stuff drift away. It hadn’t been easy, not for either of us. But it had been worth it.

And then the Buyani came. A dozen years after that huge ship appeared, and the radio told us all that life had changed, they arrived in Lesotho.

“What do they want?” I’d asked her, when she came home one day, still flustered after an encounter in the market. “Why would they come here?” We only ever like the changes we make ourselves, and sometimes not even those.

“They seek the pure people,” she’d said. “They want excitement. They are young, these Buyani who have come to us.”

Too young. Too exciting. And nowhere near pure enough.

“They speak perfect Sesotho,” she’d said. “I told them we were as pure as you could want. Up here in the mountains, in our isolation, you could not ask for more purity. We do not mix with others.”

Unless you counted South Africans, or itinerant Serbs like me. But she was happy, and that was worth any number of sharp comebacks. I wish I’d learned that earlier.

“You should meet them,” she’d said. “You can be giants together.”

They were giant enough, and good looking enough, to make me jealous. I was human enough to try to hide it.

“I’m busy,” I told her, and so we spent our days apart, and some of our nights, too.

“I’ll take them to my village,” she said, and I nodded in false confidence, because why wouldn’t sophisticated aliens be interested in a nameless agglomeration of clay huts and tin roofs?

“It’s very pure,” I said with a little bite, because no matter how we pretend, we’re all limbic lizards at the core.

Tseleng’s lizard was less active than most, and she’d just shrugged and taken three giant aliens on a week-long road trip. I was sorry by the time she got back, and she’d forgotten all about it.

“Your Buyani friends wouldn’t have,” I pointed out, as if it were a winning point, as if bringing them down to my level of pettiness would make them less attractive, and me more so.

“Their memories are their pride,” she said, and kissed me. “I am hoping they will teach that trick to me.” I remembered that later, as I looked around our little mokhoro with its concrete floor and mud walls and absence of Tseleng.


I woke early, and alone. “It’s their last night in Maseru,” she’d told me. “They want to celebrate.” I had thought she might be late, or drunk, or both. But now, as the dawn light ran down the tin of the roof and the stone of the walls, I wondered whether I should have expected her at all. The bed beside me was empty, untouched by anything but my own midnight thrashing. There was no sign Tseleng had been there, and deep in my gut, the lizard shook its tail and spat.

I ate old, dry toast, eschewing the flavored nutrient blocks of the Buyani synthesizer, dipped water from our old, stale well in place of clear, safe water pulled like magic from the air. It was childish, and I knew it, but sometimes the smallest acts of resistance are all you have.

I dawdled through my shower, my resolve too weak to forgo solar-heated comfort in favor of mere principle. But when I emerged, to towel dry under a warm November sun, Tseleng was still not back, and at last I accepted the inevitable. If she would not come back to me, I would go to her, Buyani or no.

I passed through the market, first, through the jumble of rusting tools to the heaps of vegetables with their flies. In the tea stalls, I found Mamekete.

“Lumelang, ‘me-Mamekete,” I said.

“Good morning to you as well, young one.” She looked troubled.

“Have you seen Tseleng?”

“I… In the market. I think.” She looked like she wanted to add more, but she and Leabua can talk for hours, once they’re started.

“Leboha, ‘me.” I left her there, no doubt deploring the awfulness of my Sesotho, and commiserating with the tea sellers about outlanders.

Tseleng was back! Not to our home, no, but to work in the market, and that could only mean the Buyani were gone. I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my lips as I wended my way through the stalls to the quiet area where books were, if not sold, at least displayed.

“Lumelang, ntate Leabua,” I offered with my best accent as I passed the old man by. I ignored his gestures, my eyes intent on the spare form of a short woman at a neighbouring table.

“Tseleng!” I leaned across the table to kiss her. “I missed you.”

She smiled back at me, bemused. “Well,” she said, “perhaps I have missed you too.”

“No perhaps about it,” I shook my head, though I’d expected a little more enthusiasm. “You have missed me like corn misses rain, like potatoes miss rosemary, like stars miss the night.” But she didn’t smile her ‘I love you for your foolishness’ smile.

“I will take you at your word,” she said, and ran her eyes over my t-shirt and my jeans. “You seem a likely enough fellow. Come and smoke with me.”

“What?” I’d only smoked with her that one time. It had made me sick, and since then she’d known to stand downwind of me when she lit up.

“Just some cannabis,” she assured me. “Nothing strange. A little nausea won’t hurt you.”

“I don’t …” I looked into her eyes, and they were playful, warm. Everything but loving. “Tseleng, what’s wrong? What have they done to you?”

She winked. “Did you know that even the Buyani have drugs? Of course they do. Everyone has drugs.”

“What do you mean? What did they give you?” This was not Tseleng. Or, at least, it was, but not the Tseleng I’d lived with for the past three years. The one I’d bonded with, loved with, grown with, planned with.

“I took a Buyani drug, once,” she said, undeterred by my growing anger. “They said it works on memory.” She giggled. “I remember them saying that. Like Russian roulette for memory, they said. Big trouble if they get caught.”

A chill ran through my heart. A new drug, a Buyani drug, a memory drug. And of course she had taken it.

“Where are they?” I took her by the arm, shook her. “Tseleng, where are they?” I would find them, threaten them, beat them, whatever it took to find out what had happened.

“There’s no point,” said a sad voice behind me. It was Leabua, come shuffling out from behind his table. “They’re gone. They drove out last night, apparently. I spoke with the hotel.”

“What happened?” I tried to keep calm, to keep from shaking this old, frail man, with his old, irrelevant books, and their tired, faded ink no one would ever read.

“What you know. They played some game, took pills. Mostly they enhance memory. One pill in a thousand erases it. Tseleng lost.”

“What? But… why?”

“Why does anyone? For excitement, for escape. For the chance of freedom.”

“And Tseleng?” What freedom had she sought?

He shrugged, his eyes wet. “She lost. Lost her memory. Not all of it. She knows who she is, who we are. It’s the associations that are gone, the links. She knows I’m Leabua, that Mamekete is Mamekete.” Mamekete had come up now, had joined our little circle in silent commiseration.

“She knows she has known us, has loved us,” Mamekete said. “She doesn’t now.” She seemed tired, even the cynicism in her beaten down by cruel reality. “Whatever formed that link between past and present is missing.” She looked at me sadly. “She knows you, too. Or knows she knew you.”

“And doesn’t care?” It seemed bizarre, outlandish. As, of course, it was.

“And doesn’t care,” confirmed Leabua. “No more than she cares about us.” As if that mattered to me.

I spent hours with her, that day and night, discovering only that they had told the truth. Tseleng came home with me, knew it for her home as well. She made love to me, and it was good, as if it were something new and exciting and different. Through it all, she treated me as a stranger, a fun discovery, with no more history than a new-bloomed flower. In the morning, she said goodbye as if I were some one-night stand.


We called in the authorities, the police, the diplomats. It was an international scandal. And if anything confirmed the essential humanity of the Buyani, it was this – that their young behaved just as foolishly as ours. For all their high technology, their vaunted memory, they took the same stupid risks, made the same unwise choices, paid the same costly prices.

The Buyani found our visitors quickly. They gave them a variant of the same drug Tseleng had taken. “They’ll lose their memories,” they said. “They’ll be like new people.” To Buyani, it was the ultimate punishment. To me, it was nothing at all. Once I found Tseleng’s loss could not be remedied, I stopped talking with them.

“This is a terrible crime,” their Ambassador told me at our last meeting. He frowned his god-like frown, ran strong fingers through curly hair, let a tear run across his perfect face. “We will do anything we can to make it right, give you anything you ask.”

“Can you give me back Tseleng?” I asked. He didn’t answer, and I left.

Tseleng still sells her pamphlets and brochures in the market place. I buy one from time to time, or read her some of Pheko Motaung’s poetry in my atrocious Sesotho. We still live together. We’re friends, I’d say. Maybe good friends. But we’re different people.

When I came in from my shower this morning, she was still lying in bed, with the sun just peeking over the windowsill.

“I remember you like this,” she said. “Lying in bed, wasting good sunlight. It is how I know you were rich.” I smiled and kissed her on the cheek before starting breakfast. I was rich, once. Someday, with a little patience, I will be again.

I’m Sorry I Couldn’t Make It True

Two truths and a lie…

  1. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I volunteered to be the test subject for my older brother Rob’s time travel experiment. He and his best friend Marcus had been working on it in our basement for years, and when he asked if I wanted in, in typical younger sister fashion I agreed without a second thought. Older brothers have a way of doing that, asking questions with no right answer: either way, you’re the loser.
  2. I’d had a crush on Marcus for as far back as I could remember, since we were kids running around the neighborhood with holes in our pants’ knees, going on pirate adventures and journeys into space. As the only girl in our neighborhood (besides Sara Cooke, who didn’t count because she was homeschooled by fundamentalists who didn’t let her watch the cartoons we based all our adventures on) I was always Princess Peach, the Pink Ranger, Princess Leia, and April O’Neil. It’d been just my luck that as soon as we grew old enough to notice the romantic subplots, Marcus and Rob turned their interests to science instead, which just so happened to be Sara’s best subject. It was also just my luck that the one time Marcus seemed to show interest in me, I was too young, too stupid and flubbed my chance completely.
  3. But on that late summer evening before the three of them headed off to MIT together (leaving me stuck here to struggle through my senior year alone), Marcus and Rob met up to work on their time travel project and Marcus invited me to come check it out. Me, not Sara, who just tagged along, feeling like an unwanted fifth wheel. I was the one he smiled at beneath those long, to-die-for eyelashes, who tried to act casual when he stood just a little too close. I was the one who saw the missing piece of their equation, the one tiny change that would make the machine work. And when they pressed the button and our sheepdog Hercules vanished from existence only to show up three minutes later, the drool still hanging from his jowls, I was the one Marcus wrapped his arms around and swung, laughing, through the air.

Two truths and two lies…

  1. I always knew that Marcus and Rob were honest-to-goodness geniuses, so I was used to being misunderstood. I should have known that instead of throwing an epic time travel party like I suggested (complete with a DJ and water balloons), they’d want to spend the rest of the afternoon doing even more equations and tests. After a couple hours of sitting on the stale futon in the corner and picking at the paint on its frame while they talked about chronology protection conjecture and space-time curvature over the deafening pounding of Rammstein, I was tempted to leave. I’d have rather been just about anywhere else, except that this weekend was my last chance to see Marcus before he left for school, and I wasn’t about to give up that opportunity.
  2. “I think that’ll do it!” Rob shouted. “We’ve got it. Sara, turn the music down for a minute. I need to double check-these figures before we give it another whirl.”

“Another whirl?” I sat up, my interest piqued again.

“Sure.” Rob circled around the metal box, scratching tapping frantically on his tablet. “Hercules came out just fine, exactly three minutes into the future. But if we’re going to the past, we can’t send a dog; we need someone who can adjust the settings and get themselves back to the present.”

Marcus knelt down and frowned at the box. “It’s going to be a tight squeeze.”

Rob’s eyes met mine over Marcus’s head. I could almost see the gears turning in his head, sizing up my 5’0″ frame, comparing it to the others in the room who were all well over a head taller than me.

“There is another solution, you know,” he said, just like I knew he would. “Kim’s a lot smaller. She could do it… if she’s not too scared.”

  1. “I’m not scared.”
  2. Marcus protested, not because he didn’t think I could handle the pressure, but because he’d never really gotten over me, and he’d never forgive himself if anything happened to me. I was moved by his concern but just gave him a reassuring smile and touched his cheek gently with my fingertips. Unable to hold back, he grabbed me by the waist and kissed me. I squeezed my eyes shut, and the world faded around us like some old-timey romantic movie.

Two truths and three lies…

  1. Marcus shrugged. I crawled into the box. The metal was cold and rigid, and the floor was covered in dog hair and drool. The chicken alfredo I’d had for lunch threatened to make a reappearance, but one look through the opening to where Marcus stood, arms crossed over his chest, a look of curiosity on his face, and I knew there was no way I could back out now.

“So where am I going?”

“How about… five years into the past?” Rob set the dial to today’s date five years earlier.

Five years? I stared at the dial, thinking how easy it would be, once the door was shut, to change it to the date I’d really like to revisit, the night I’d screwed everything up, the night I’d lost my one chance with Marcus.

  1. The look on his face as he stared down at me left no doubt that he was thinking the same thing. His eyes pleaded with me to just flick the dial, just a tiny bit… so I could make things right. So that we could be together, somehow.
  2. Rob leaned in, blocking my view. “Whatever you do, Kim, do not let anyone see you. Anything you do could have an effect on the timeline, and we don’t know what that would do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Any change you make could have serious repercussions on the present, making things totally different when you get back. Or, worse, you could splinter off into a parallel universe, making it impossible for you to get back here at all. Do you understand? Do you promise you won’t do anything stupid?”

  1. “Of course I won’t do anything stupid.”
  2. And as I shut the door, the last thing I saw was Marcus’s face and the look in his eyes meant only for me. As the door shut, he mouthed the words, “We were meant to be together.”

Two truths and four lies…

  1. I turned the dial and pressed the button.

The universe spun past in polychromic light. Despite the noise, despite the chaos, I could somehow make out the thread of my existence, backpedalling, retracing itself through time. Somehow I sensed each landmark, passing in reverse order. Me, descending the steps to our basement earlier that day and catching a whiff of Marcus’s cologne… the cheers at their graduation ceremony… the taste of bratwurst at the neighborhood picnic the summer after our big misunderstanding… the familiar roar of his car on the gravel road. Back and back the days passed until finally, the box landed with a thunk. I kicked the door open, desperate for fresh breath and the feel of solid earth. Desperate for my second chance.

The box had landed in our basement, the basement of two years ago, before Dad had hauled his cracked canoe down to sit in the corner, back when we had the old washing machine with the spin cycle that rattled the whole house.

I peered out the window. I’d arrived just in time. Marcus stood across the street, wearing that old t-shirt of his with the math joke on it that I’d never understood, pacing on his front porch as if he was trying to work up his courage. I knew how this would go. He’d walk across the street and ring the doorbell, and I — a stupid freshman taken entirely by surprise — would balk at his offer to take me to homecoming, reflexively saying “no” before my mind had time to process what he was asking. And before I’d have a chance to explain, to tell him that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to — I couldn’t; I was grounded — he’d turn and storm away, telling me to forget it. And for years, I’d pretend I had.

I had been such an idiot.

  1. I raced up the steps, trying to recall exactly where I’d been that day when I heard the doorbell. The bathroom. I’d been on my hands and knees scrubbing the black-and-white tiles where I’d vomited up my first taste of vodka, which had earned me my first real grounding.

I threw the door open.

“What the—?”

I grabbed her (my) shoulders. “I’m you, from the future, and you’re about to make a huge mistake.”

  1. After telling her (me) what to do, I totally didn’t wait around to watch as Marcus knocked on the door, flipping his hair from his eyes in the way only he could.
  2. And I certainly didn’t shed any tears when she (I) finally told him yes.
  3. And I most definitely didn’t stick around for three more days, sneaking hot dogs and frozen veggies from the garage freezer, just so that I could see her (me) sneak out the window in her (my) shimmering turquoise dress and jump into the shining red convertible his dad let him borrow, before I decided it was time to go home.
  4. I’d done what I needed to, and from that point on, everything—everything—would be perfect.

Two truths and five lies…

  1. The universe spun past, though more slowly this time as if, instead of rewinding like an old VHS tape, it was now carefully, meticulously rewriting itself.
  2. That didn’t bother me. It made sense. After all, wasn’t that what Rob warned me about? I was writing a new history for myself, the history that was always meant to be.
  3. I just had to sit back and relax, and then I’d be back, but this time with Marcus by my side. This time, we’d be together, we’d be an item, we’d be high school sweethearts planning a future together.
  4. I was so caught up in my daydreams that I didn’t notice the tale slowly spinning itself into existence around me. I didn’t notice when the laughter grew less and less frequent and the arguing and shouting grew more pronounced. When she (I) accused him of being a condescending jerk. When he accused her (me) of pretending to be dumb. When she (I) accused him of spending too much time in study groups with Sara Cooke. When he threw up his hands and insisted that they were just lab partners. I didn’t notice when the scent of flower bouquets and fresh aftershave were replaced by the scent of some other girl’s perfume on his jacket and in his car. Someone who smelled a lot like Sara.
  5. I didn’t notice the salty taste of tears, the sourness of bile in my throat when I caught him — my boyfriend — kissing Sara in a dark hallway at prom.
  6. Rob didn’t punch him. I didn’t dump him. We didn’t make a pact — sibling to sibling — never to allow that jerk into our lives again, never to have anything to do with him, certainly never to work with him on a time travel project which would enable me to go back in time, creating a paradox that somehow would leave me spinning frantically, desperately, perilously through time while my own present slowly disappeared.
  7. I wouldn’t be stuck in this box forever, because I knew, deep down in my heart, it was true: we were meant to be together.

AE reviews: The Swarm by Frank Schatzing

Pods of orcas turned violent hunters, tearing through wale watchers and coastal fishermen. Waves of deep sea worms venturing into methane deposits, releasing the gas and accelerating climate change. Endless armies of crabs sweeping Boston, Philadelphia and New York, carrying neurotoxic algae into city water systems. In this dark world, the oceans have suddenly and completely turned against mankind.

Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm, released to quiet but positive reception, is a book about nature turning suddenly hostile to mankind. The book’s cover reveals the central conceit, so I’ll repeat it here without worrying about spoiling it (spoiler alert). Deep in the oceans an ancient swarm intelligence has been watching humanity, living in parallel with us but hidden from view.  Our determined use of the oceans as a global waste dump finally leads it to see us as a threat, and to slowly but surely plot human extinction.

On the surface, the alien and misanthropic forces of nature in the Swarm are a commentary on climate change – a common trend in science fiction from the 1960s onwards, as in NK Jemisin’s brilliant 5th season (And the rest of the Broken Earth trilogy), and in earlier work such as John Wyndham’s delightful 1968 novel The Kraken Wakes, in which mysterious aliens colonize the deep ocean and obliterate human civilization by deliberately melting the ice shelves. It’s easy to see why this narrative persists. If we have transgressed against the earth, shouldn’t we expect there to be a punishment? How do you confront forces that seem impossible to stop or understand? Shouldn’t those with the greatest personal responsibility for climate change confront the consequences of what they have unleashed, rather than their children and grandchildren?

For Schatzing, the central conflict pivots on the conflict between a military response and a scientific one. One side is a caricature of blundering militarism, featuring big boats, big bombs, sociopathic generals, and a light dose of bureaucratic subterfuge. The other side is an idealized team of adventuring scientists, bravely fighting for a rational, planned, and nonviolent response. Neither stereotype is satisfying: the brutes are boiled down archetypes with only idiocy and aggression to paint their villainhood. Their natural opponents are an impossibly collaborative, amorous, and courageous team – heroes whose motives and interactions are dependably predictable. Their number exacerbates the problem. Over the course of 800 pages Schatzing switches his focus between well over a dozen characters, giving each a moment in the spotlight but only a select few the chance to grow depth or to change.

The scope of the book is also reflected in the science it portrays. While some areas are treated brilliantly (particularly methane clathrate, ocean currents, and Norway’s continental shelf), a rapid fire array of brief semi-scientific obsessions in the second half of the book have no where near the same accuracy or depth. Many of these are introduced as the deep sea sentience is revealed. A xenolinguist from SETI attempts contact, military trained dolphins make an appearance, chemical signalling, genetic memory and swarm intelligence are introduced through forced debate between the characters. These topics are boiled down and lack many of the most interesting insights from their fields, and the contrast between their superficial treatment and the exceptional discussion of other subjects left me wishing the book had been more focused. The most jarring of these are several short essays on religious philosophy and alien sentience, avoiding any serious attempt to address these subjects (and the rich field of debate on these topics in both academia and fiction).

The few areas where Schatzing digs deeper into source material are brilliant. Some of the most lovingly rendered scenes focus on whales as they unexpected turn against humans, their behaviour unpredictable and eventually deadly to the tourists and fishermen who cross their paths. The poetic detail with which these moments are rendered speaks to the author’s obvious love of whales and whale watchers, and his dismay at the environmental decline that is destroying them. Scenes of orca carnage are impossible to put down, and the facts scattered throughout the book speak volumes. Shatzing notes, for example, that PCBs and other bioaccumulating toxins are steadily rising in the blood of top predators, in defiance of bans on their use. Unless something changes, PCBs will begin causing orca populations to collapse in 30 to 50 years

Similarly, The Swarm’s scenes of mass urban destruction are brilliant, pouring out gorgeously rendered scenes of apocalyptic carnage that are fascinating and fantastically original. 

For brief moments, Schatzing entertains a very different window into his imagination, veering from the action and science to a much more poetic approach. In one case, he gives a ten-page treatment to the cycles of ocean currents, told as a meandering poem that reflects on a mind submerged in 1000 year long cycles. In another, he slips into  one character’s dreams and embraces a dark and magical landscape as a way to explore that character’s conflicts with his identity and with the mysterious entity in the deep ocean. In a book dominated by the science of cataclysm, these moments are deeply moving and give the book a weight it would not otherwise have. Take for example, this poetic and elegant passage in which Anawak (a protagonist), reflects on his ignorance of the challenges he is facing:

“He thought of the Arctic Ocean and imagined the unknown world below. He drifted until he came to the top of an iceberg that had been formed by a glacier in Greenland before the current had swept it towards the east coast of Bylot island, where it had frozen into position. Eventually the wind and waves had freed it and sent it further south. In his dream Anawak climbed a narrow snow-covered path to the summit of the iceberg. A lake of emerald-green meltwater had formed there. Everywhere he looked, he saw the smooth, blue sea. In time the iceberg would melt, sending him to the bottom of the calm water and the source of all life, where a puzzle waited to be solved”

As a whole, the Swarm is an enthralling and highly original work that carries through (most) of it’s 800 page bulk. The questions that it poses are some of the most important questions that we’ll collectively face over the next century, and Frank Schatzing has asked them openly and clearly.

An apology about how we’ve handled submissions

Since we soft launched AE last week, we’ve seen talk online about your story submissions. Are they still under consideration? What’s the status? Are we really back?

We realize in our excitement to resurrect the site we should have done a better job in managing submissions. You trusted us with your stories, and we didn’t honour that trust as well as we could have.

To everyone who’s still waiting to hear from us, we hope you will accept our sincere apology. It’s not how we intended for things to go, and we’re committed to improving the process.

When we began the process of relaunching AE in Spring 2017, our goal was to get the site back online, re-open to submissions, and continue publishing amazing science fiction as quickly as possible.

But rebuilding the site proved harder than we’d first thought. Plus, we’re all volunteers and our personal lives took us away from this work, sometimes for weeks. Yet we were making progress and believed success was right around the corner.

Of course, you didn’t know this. What you saw was a site that would appear and disappear, seemingly at random, without any changes or improvements. Some of you gave us up for dead, and we don’t blame you for that. Others saw a submissions page asking for stories and sent them in.

We’ve put a huge amount of effort over the past few months to read the 400+ submissions that we’ve received over the past 18 months, and are only now catching up with the backlog. We’ve read through 90% of those submissions and while most of you have now heard back from us, the authors of some of the best stories waited (and in some cases are still waiting) far too long for a response. We are sorry for keeping your stories in limbo for such a long time. We know the market well, and we know that it’s not fair to ask authors to wait on a decision when they could be pursuing other opportunities.

If you haven’t heard from us, that means your story is still under consideration, and you’ll be hearing from us soon. We’re really excited by some of the stories we’ve received and can’t wait to share them with you, but we also know that some of you may have submitted (and sold) them elsewhere.

If you haven’t heard from us and want to check on the status of your submission, email us at editors@aescifi.ca with the subject line “Submission Update Request” and the title of your story. Please be patient—it may take a few days to get back to you since we anticipate a lot of questions.

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team

We’re back!

It’s been a long journey, and we’ve missed you. It is a personal delight to be able to announce that we have the team back together and the site up and running. As of today, we’re soft-launching our new website, restoring access to the AE archives and bringing all the amazing stories we’ve published over recent years back online.

We’re also getting ready for a fresh new issue of AE after a year long hiatus: we’re accepting new submissions from authors and artists, and can’t wait publish AE Issue #23. The stories we’ve accepted so far are amazing – and we know you’ll love them.

In the meantime, take a look at the new site and let us know what you think. We’ve officially recognized some of our favourite stories with a brand new feature: the Editor’s Choice Award. These stories are some of our favourites, and is the perfect place to start if this is your first time here.

Don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list, and we’ll be sure you’re invited to the launch party when we release our first (new) issue.

Love and lasers,

Paul, Helen, Duff, and the rest of the AE Team.

The Truth Is in There

Conspiracy fiction has long been considered a sub-genre of spy or thriller fiction. But it’s science fiction that can best embrace the outlandish theories that quietly root in our collective unconscious: Who “they” really are; how the world is truly governed; or why are self-driving cars being rammed down our throats?

Never mind that a recent formula developed by an Oxford University mathematician has essentially discredited paranoia by revealing that any conspiracy worth concocting would be “prone to unravelling.” (Apparently humanity’s inherent tendency to gossip would have pretty much foiled any attempt to fake the Moon landing for longer than 3.7 years.)

Despite the sheer unlikelihood of successfully perpetrating a global conspiracy, storytellers have found them irresistible since at least G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday; A Nightmare. Published in 1908, it features a cabal of anarchists and a devious novel-ending twist that has become a staple of the genre.

British pulp-era sci-fi writer Eric Frank Russell first bolted science fiction and conspiracy together with Dreadful Sanctuary, a Cold War-era novel about an international conspiracy to thwart space exploration.

By the 1970s, conspiracy and science fiction were beginning to commingle more broadly. Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! trilogy, published in the mid-1970s, was nothing short of a madcap Grand Central Station of conspiracy theories. Using plots both real and imagined, the series focused on the eternal war between the Illuminati and the Discordians while also including an increasingly confusing parade of groups and sub-conspiracies. Concepts like “fnord,” the 23 enigma and immanentizing the eschaton were all brought to light thanks to Shea and Wilson.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973, is set in the dying days of World War II. It tells the story of hapless Tyrone Slothrop’s attempts to find the truth about himself and why his sexual encounters seem to attract V2 rocket strikes. Naturally, he does so while fleeing an endless array of sinister intelligence organizations with even more sinister technologies. Although not dissimilar in tone to The Illuminatus!, it’s generally considered to be a literary work rather than science fiction.

U.S. author Philip K. Dick really took conspiracy and ran with it, making paranoia and ruminations over free will his literary bread and butter. Despite their pulpy roots, Dick’s works, ranging from the early 1950s to the ’80s, frequently feature characters manipulated by unseen powers and forced to question their realities, their identities and their very sanity.

Marginalized even within the science fiction community during his life, it took TV and movies before Dick’s paranoia-soaked stories came into their own. His novels have proven to be increasingly popular sources of adaptations into movies (Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Blade Runner, which will see a sequel released in 2017), as well as a TV series (The Man in the High Castle).

Television shows, with their relentless story pacing and constant need for startling plot twists, now feed on a steady diet of conspiracy-inspired paranoia. The X-Files brought the world of conspiracy to the top of pop culture consciousness. While the basic alien conspiracy underlying the series was straightforward, it became increasingly muddled to meet the need for new, status quo-shattering revelations.

The culmination of this trend may be seen in Orphan Black, the Canadian science fiction TV series about a street-level con artist, Sarah Manning, who stumbles onto the revelation that she is one of several identical clones. A desire for quick money leads her to impersonate one of her clones for a time, but eventually Sarah is drawn into the larger mystery of where she and her clones have come from, and why someone seems determined to kill them all.

The premise very neatly merges standard conspiracy fare with a fairly profound exploration of identity. As she finds and meets more of her clones, Sarah is literally confronted with alternate versions of herself. A soccer mom, a genius microbiology student, a police officer and even a cool corporate impresario.

The deeper Sarah delves into the conspiracy, the more her identity is blurred. Throughout the series, she’s routinely faced with lives she could have led if her childhood circumstances had been different or, more hauntingly, if she hadn’t squandered opportunities and made the “wrong” choices. At one point, hearing that one of her clones is a PhD student, Sarah’s foster mother blithely wonders, “What happened to you?”

That’s exactly the question Sarah must be asking herself each time she uncovers a new clone living a different life. Compounding the situation further, Sarah is frequently placed into situations where she has to impersonate her own clones. By investigating and flushing out the conspirators, Sarah is learning more about her origins … yet also growing more confused about herself.

During the first season, Sarah makes an offhand remark. “Every time I think I know something, I’m wrong.”

This sums up not only the excitement of a good conspiracy story, but also its main problem. Conspiracies, and their necessary earth-shattering revelations, consume plot at a voracious pace. Sometimes, especially in the serialized format of a weekly TV series, the basic premise can feed the beast for only so long.

Storytellers occasionally find a solution by throwing unnecessary complications into the plot as a way to obfuscate the real story and prolong the sense of mystery. In this twisted way, the storytellers become conspirators themselves. Instead of peeling away layers, they actively mislead readers and fog their understanding of the truth.

Despite its limitations, and a somewhat chequered past, the relationship between conspiracy fiction and science fiction has grown closer to the point where they now seem to exist almost hand in hand. In science fiction, conspiracies of all kinds from the political to the personal have found their heartland.

 


Wes Smiderle is a science fiction writer, former reporter, and editor based in Ottawa.

Reiteration

The blue centaur paused at the apex of a grassy knoll, intent upon a passing butterfly, the long iridescent plume of its mane sweeping out behind it in the still air. The season was late, and she hoped the insect might be a nondescript. After a moment of observation, she found the insect’s classification in the shared files. She did not need to, but she still sighed.

She stood for a moment, looking into the distance which her moderate elevation allowed. She chose to limit herself to the near infrared and ultraviolet beyond the visible, as a restriction in the apprehended spectrum allowed the occasional brief surprise. Any surprise would be welcome. She spotted a small heat plume to the north, and trotted over to see what might be raising it.

When the centaur reached the top of a low depression in the plain, she almost laughed aloud. There was a gigantic hallucigenia there, nearly two meters long, lifting rocks with its forelimbs and peering under them with a pair of googly eyes mounted on its foremost anterior spines. The centaur called out a greeting, then galloped down the slope toward the blue and pink pastel monstrosity. The hallucigenia swivelled its eyestalks to regard her and wobbled along on its multitude of legs to meet her. Both knew that there was no danger in this meeting, because danger had been removed from life for more than a thousand years, ever since the Great Decoupling. When your intelligence was distributed across myriad incorruptible server farms, sending your body of the moment rushing to meet a monster held little terror.

“What a wonderful external you’ve got,” the centaur said when they were at a conversational distance. The front of the hallucigenia split into a broad and goofy grin which matched its cartoon eyeballs.

“Thank you! Your mane is fabulous!”

The centaur turned to present a profile and streamed her hair out to its full length, trying to show the scintillation to best effect. “It’s not really impressive below 400 nanometers or above 750, but it’s great at gathering solar charge.”

The hallucigenia’s eyes flicked to and fro, independent of each other. “Nice work. Nanotubes?”

“Yes, it’s…” She faltered for a moment, the technical details of the filaments and their contraction actuators were easy to visualize but a serious chore to articulate. “It’s easier to show you. Let’s synch.”

The centaur chose to perceive radio as a sound, a low bird-song warble rather than the screech of modems she’d heard in the archival files. Once she established a connection with the hallucigenia, the metadata on the response packets for the transfer brought the disappointment of recognition. “Oh, hi, Sun Mi.”

The hallucigenia turned fire engine red. “Hey, Steve. Long time, no see, huh?”

“I guess.” The perfect recall that everyone now endured gave the lapse as seventy-two years. It wasn’t too soon for a decent conversation, and Steve tried to stay polite. “Seen anything interesting?”

Sun Mi’s eyestalks gave a wobble, and its body shaded down to grey. “Not much. I found a previously uncatalogued variant of lichen in the Calgary ruins about a decade ago. I was still flying then.”

“Still the pterosaur?” There was a tone of amazement in Steve’s voice; no one held onto a body that long.

“Oh, no.” The broad, gap-toothed grin came back. “I was a swarm of bumblebees.”

“That sounds neat.”

“Yes and no. You get an amazing field of vision, but it was a pain in the ass reforming the group after windstorms. I always lost some elements. It wasn’t worth the effort in the end, and I started on terrestrial forms.”

Steve nodded, although she wondered if Sun Mi’s imagination wasn’t slipping. When they had first met five hundred years earlier, they had hit it off wonderfully, Sun Mi as a kirin and Steve a moderately-sized interpretation of Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete. They had travelled together for a couple of years until, inevitably, each had heard all of the other’s stories. The whole time of that partnership was utterly fresh in Steve’s mind, as was every other memory since her uploading.

“Maybe I’ll give flying a try again,” Steve said. “It has been a while.”

There was a pause that stretched out. Sun Mi broke it. “Well, I guess we might as well get trotting. Good luck, Steve.”

“You too.” She waved and set off at a canter. Good luck, indeed, she thought. They all needed it; the luck to find some novelty in a world so thoroughly familiar.

 


Once a month, Steve left the physical world to check out the forum digest. Some people checked the news daily, and others actually devoted part of their attention to the shared virtuality all the time. That was too much contact with others for her taste.

Scanning through the news, Steve let out a little gasp at one item which had appeared just two days since her last check. An emigration. Her body was in a power-absorbing shut-down, so her head-shake had no physical manifestation. She knew the émigré, but she knew every human being at least at second hand by now, so that was not the source of her sadness. It was the simple fact that one of those remaining people was now gone, yet another loss to the ongoing collective experience, which as unrewarding as it had become would suffer from this small attrition.

She wasn’t entirely surprised, though. Augustus had been withdrawn for quite a while, checking messages but not sending any. It was either emigration or suicide for him, although if there was a difference only he knew it. She supposed there must be a little excitement attached to emigration, returning all of one’s eggs to a single basket, having no dispersed back-up for the personality that rode in a starship’s onboard computer.

The destination listed was at least half-way sensible. Augustus was not following one of the colony slowboats as some had, not so desperate for a conversation with someone new he was willing to take a chance on a colony having flourished ahead of him, or of finding it inimical when he arrived.  His stated course was due galactic south, skimming the Small Magellanic Cloud without actually aiming for it. If Augustus were judicious in using periods of dormancy, he would see some authentic wonders on his long trip. There was some small attraction at the thought of seeing the whole galaxy from above.

Steve sent a bon voyage message out on the frequency Augustus has indicated as the one he would monitor. She didn’t expect a reply.

 


After a week of virtual living, Steve was pleased to have a new body once again, and stood for a moment in the production bunker’s output lobby to examine the results. Another centaur, this time with quicksilver skin and a jet black crest of hair. The human torso was that of a fantasy hero, broad pectoral muscles and rippling abs, and the equine body bore wings with unobtrusive jets hidden among the feathers to allow hovering and near-sonic speeds. Steve nodded at himself. It wasn’t very original, but it would allow for some fun and reckless experiences.

The body itself was the result of a reckless experience, the previous one lost through being a spectator at a fight. Two people who found the world was not big enough to stand the other’s presence had announced a duel to the death, their personalities locked into the bodies they would fight in. It was not a sort of thing that happened very often, and Steve had felt driven to attend. It had been an interesting spectacle, two spiky monsters lumbering towards one another on the open prairie like grudge-bearing hillocks, right up to the point that one revealed it was actually a murder-suicide by triggering an electromagnetic pulse device.

The discontinuity of the EMP had ended for Steve with a return to the omniscient captivity of the clouds, a vast sensorium composed of various feeds from around the planet and no direct control of any of them. Steve had sighed inwardly, lacking equipment to do otherwise, and sent off the orders to a production centre for a new body. Then, because omniscience was a little overwhelming, Steve had retreated into a simulation of Regency England to await completion and get the hang of identifying masculine once again.

Steve had lived in the virtual for almost a whole objective year once, without a body in the real world, and there was always some residual hint of its essential unreality that he had never quite gotten used to. The senses in those worlds were in many ways closer to natural than those provided by the bodies he had built, limited as they were to the original human range. But the whole time had felt vaguely wrong, regardless of what worlds he had tried and what apprehended personae he had worn into them, as if there were a subtle metadata stream that constantly reminded him that there was nothing below the horizons. He knew there were some who had walled themselves up entirely in virtuality, performing the necessary self-mutilations to forget that it was just a simulation. Perhaps they also lost the sense of wrongness he felt, although he thought it more likely they became the sort of people who spent a lot of time hanging around with philosophers, arguing about how one would know if life was reality, or simulation, or a butterfly’s dream.

 


The glint on the desert floor resolved as he descended into a robotic rover, a silvery bath-tub trundling along on eight wire wheels. Steve laughed aloud, wondering who in the world had revived the concept of retro-charm. Landing near it, ahead and to one side of its path, he called out a greeting.

It gave no response, not even swivelling its cameras in his direction as it hummed past him. Steve tried electronic contact; it wasn’t likely someone would choose to leave off audio sensors, but it was possible.

After a moment, Steve took to the air again, his shining handsome features twisted into the expression of one who has mistaken an onion for an apple. The RF contact had left the equivalent of a lingering bad taste. The rover was not a whimsical experiment with retro aesthetics, but an unimaginative use of an existing template. One of the world’s artificial intelligences had produced a minion for its own inscrutable pursuits.

Like most people, Steve had a dislike for the AIs because they had been such a disappointment. Now that people could think just as fast, they were no threat, and they were occasionally useful in their ability to concentrate on a problem; twice in Steve’s lifetime, an AI had pointed out an inconveniently large object bearing down on the planet and raised a timely alarm. They were, however, no good as companions and none had any interest in becoming better at it. No one on Earth had been in an organic body for centuries, but there was still some residue from the habits of hormones that informed the way people thought. It could be saved in a machine, but it could not be taught to one.

Steve circled above the rover, watching its slow progress across the sand. He had not considered the failure of AI to cure the global plague of ennui in a long time, and there was something in his current contemplation of the matter that lodged in his attention. He spun in the air, the line below him slowly extending, feeling around in his thoughts for an idea that might take root. Sunset flashed from the rover below as the idea budded and put forth flowers which promised to be fruitful.

Steve whooped, performed a tumbling spiral, and bent his course toward the nearest production centre. He was, he realized, going to need a lot of equipment.

 


The preparations had taken a long time, nearly two hundred years, but Steve had been willing to put in the work to get it right. A mistake might not make itself felt for millennia, after all, and she didn’t want to have to start a second time after that much effort. Everything was in place, awaiting only her signal to activate the first group of robotic predators. The island had been cleared of its indigenous carnivores, which would not have been enough of a challenge and might have competed for food.

The population had dropped alarmingly, down to barely seven thousand human intellects. More emigrants, more duels, and a lot of simply pulling the plug on the backups and committing some kind of flamboyant suicide. The ones who had chosen to jump into virtuality and brick over the door from their side were still around, but might as well be dead for all the good they were. Steve felt some pride at having rescued a couple of people simply by suggesting what she was working on, with its possibility of an interesting future. When she announced it openly, it might give the human race something to live for.

Her drones followed her, a train of rounded boxes passing through the air over the ocean. Her current body, one which she meant to hold onto for a long while, had been inspired by Hindu mythology. This had not been an act of pure whimsy, as she thought having plenty of arms would be helpful in the work to come.

The drones grounded, sides swinging up almost the moment they were down. The troupes of lemurs scampered out. They ran towards the small stand of trees nearby, some of the few Steve had suffered to remain on the island, and they ran more on hind legs than otherwise. Some of the preparations had been genetic, and these lemurs would be happier as terrestrial creatures than their arboreal grandparents. They were also capable of more complex vocalizations, and some gibbered amusingly as they ran below Steve.

She smiled. One day, she thought, that will shape up nicely. By then, she would have finished her studies in comparative theology properly. By the time her creations were capable of understanding such things, Steve wanted to be sure that her commandments to them would be sensible.


Dirck de Lint writes in Regina, Saskatchewan.