Not been posting a lot of these lately, but I have made some progress. Since about the end of March, I wrote about three of the weekly flash stories and have started another (the one due this Friday!) Finished (and posted!) the monthly Queer SciFi column, and wrote up one of the other monthly columns I’m doing, this one for Crippen and Landru. Yes, I’m doing two columns! I gotta be out of my mind! (Asimov did more than that and he had less free time!)
The prompts for the monthly Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (thanks Jeffrey Ricker!) were an action/adventure, set in a restaurant kitchen involving a stray sock.
Earl crouched in the corner, behind the mobile bread rack, watching the dark-haired kid with the zits grab the bottle of vinegar from the shelf and rush back out. Good. Earl didn’t need company in the back kitchen right now. He’d been lucky he was able to pry the unused metal door and get into the building without anybody noticing. He glanced around: shelves full of bottles, a stove that wasn’t turned on, a walk-in freezer and a row of metal sinks against one wall. Damn! Where the hell was Kappelmeyer? No time to wait. Damn!
He got up and started looking on the shelves, under the stove, fingers brushing the box of ratkill pellets. What was it someone had told him? “Espionage is largely done in offices with paperwork?” Not here on a filthy back-kitchen floor. If he was with the health department he would be running out paper taking down notes. He stood up and brushed himself off. He sighed and pulled the lid off one of the empty pots on the stove.
Bingo! There on the bottom. One sock. But it was what was in the sock that was important. He grabbed the sock.
“Mister Margolis,” came the voice. He spun around. The man in the doorway looked a lot like the actor James Coco. He wasn’t smiling. Neither were the three bruisers lined up beside him. “You will be good enough to hand over that item. It does not belong to you.”
“In a pig’s eye!” Margolis spat out. In a flash he tossed the pot lid like a discus. The bruisers ducked and Margolis rushed for the back exit. That was when something struck the back of his head. He staggered, realizing that there was a fourth bruiser as he grabbed another pot and threw it as he fell, aiming it at the quickly-glimpsed bruiser.
As Margolis fell to the floor he simultaneously heard gunfire and an instant later the thud of the man behind him falling. He glanced up and saw the man in the doorway swearing, a literal smoking gun in one hand.
“Discretion’s the better part of valor,” Margolis muttered as he half-crawled, half-jumped towards the back door. He broke into a run as another bullet pinged behind him.
Margolis slammed the back door open and rushed through the parking lot toward his beat-up ‘74 Chevy Nova.
“If I’m lucky they’ll be looking for an Aston-Martin,” Margolis thought as he gunned the engine and roared out of the lot. Once on the highway, he pulled the sock out of his jacket pocket. He felt it. It felt like a sock.
An empty sock.
“Damn!” Margolis said. “I have to go back!”
He angrily shoved the sock back in his pocket and felt something small, square, metal and cold that had fallen out of the sock into his pocket.
(Reviewer’s Note: I was given an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.)
The times we live in are grim. In keeping with this, dystopian fiction seems to be on the rise. An anthology from Other Worlds Ink seeks to remedy this: “Fix The World,” edited by J. Scott Coatsworth, offers twelve stories, all offering hope for a future world. The idea of such an anthology sounds almost Pollyanna-ish. But that is not true of the book or the twelve stories within. Moods range from tranquil to suspenseful, with themes involving ecology, love and terrorism. The writers find an extraordinary variety of themes to work with.
Among the stories:
Ingrid Garcia’s “Juma and the Quantum Ghost” blends biological computers, soccer and kidnapping as well as a Kenyan setting. “Conference call from Juma: She only does this when the giraffe dung really hits the wind turbine.”
“In Light” by Mere Rain, tells how an “Angel” appears on Earth at a time when environmental destruction is being “remediated.” In this optimistic world of biohouses, there is a tinge of darkness.
“Rise” by J. Scott Coatsworth, is set in a future Venice where flood levels are being lowered by genetically-evolved creatures.
“At the Movies” by D. M. Rasch, brings a future version of the cinema, along with real danger for those in the audience.
Anthea Sharp’s “Ice In D Minor” takes a look at creativity in the future with a literally cool setting.
Several of the stories feature characters from across the LGBT spectrum; the main character in Alex Silver’s “Upgrade” swaps between genders of genitalia in a future where people have “ports” installed in their bodies. “I never much understood people who wrapped their identity up in what was between their legs at birth,” the narrator says.
A small village in a post-war world is the setting for Bryan Cebulski’s “From the Sun and Scorched Earth.” Leo, pilot of a “Mech,” comes to town to heal. Lukas finds himself falling for him. Leo’s initial expectations and the villager’s reactions pull this story above the ordinary.
But none of the stories are ordinary. The collection succeeds in its goal of telling of a brighter, more hopeful future.
Under the Aztec Sky a Lost Manuscript of Karl Hunsley Howard
Edited by Jeff Baker
Howard, Karl Hunsley, b. 1856, Ealing, London, England, d. 1933 Harrisonville, NJ. Occupations: Various, incl. Deckhand, Plantation foreman, Song plugger, Journalist, Ranch foreman and author. Best remembered today as a sort of American H. Rider Haggard, Howard’s fiction was among the first to replace Mayan pyramids for the Egyptian ones. He did write about Egypt though in his novel “The Trackless Sands.” Howard ceased writing fiction shortly after World War One. Several of his stories were reprinted in early issues of the pulp magazine Eerie Adventure Stories. For more details, see: “Hoofbeats and Sorcery,” K. H. Howard, Bruxley Books, 1926.—-from “Masters of Adventure” by Brophy and Klein.
(The following is an excerpt from an unpublished story by Karl Hunsley Howard, possibly meant to be part of a novel. Howard did his research during a trip to Mexico in 1894.)
Osgood Bafflemoore Under Aztec Skies
By Karl Hunsley Howard (Possibly written 1898)
“Now look here,” Bafflemoore said to the Aztec Chief. “This is the Nineteenth Century. The era of your empire is gone. In fact, the era of empires in general is over. I’m not here for anything save pure science. The acquisition of knowledge.”
“This is exactly why we cannot allow you to leave,” said the Chief. “Ours is the last outpost of the Empire, hidden here in the Ithycan Jungle. The mighty City of Unulthimal dates back nearly 700 years, as does our Pyramid of the Night. We were the first city of Empire and we remain, by the might of our Queen and the power of our Goddess, mighty Eschactolactapotel.”
“Goddess?” Bafflemoore said. “I’ve encountered several supposed gods in this region, including that snake-thing some of your people were worshipping a few hundred miles from here at another pyramid hidden by the jungle.”
“Our Queen will decide your fate,” the Chief said, his fellows pointing their spears at Bafflemoore’s party. “Come this way.
As they walked under the stars towards the great, dark pyramid, Bafflemoore tried to make out the carvings in the starlight: The side of the pyramid was surmounted by something that almost looked like a squid or octopus; tendrils extending towards the stairs. And as they approached, part of the stairs rose open like a drawbridge and the party was escorted into the torch lit, cavernous interior.
Inside, they could make out only a stone throne set in the center of the room. On that throne sat the Queen. Young, beautiful and dark.
“Who intrudes on the sanctity of the sacred chamber?” the Queen asked.
Bafflemoore was stared at by the Chief; apparently he was supposed to answer.
“I am Osgood Bafflemoore, of the University of Harrisonville, representing the Government of President McKinley in the interest of science.”
“You will not leave here,” the Queen said. “You may tell no one of us.”
Bafflemoore glanced around. The warriors were bowed down to their Queen, leaving the still open entrance unguarded. He glanced up. In the shadowy darkness he saw something silently moving.
He glanced at his party.
“Two words,” he said. “Run.”
The group had plenty of experience; they dashed for the entrance. As they rushed into the night they heard the Queen’s voice behind them.
“Eschactalactopotel! Binder of Fools! Mother of the Chrysalis! Lend your servant thy skein, NOW!”
The last word seemed to echo through the jungle. There was a rushing of air behind and above them. Bafflemoore glanced upward. He saw a slender, shadowy shape blocking the stars, thin spindly arms, white tendrils dropping down glinting in the starlight and
(Here the manuscript fragment ends.)
Compiler’s Note: This manuscript was possibly written on-site in the Yuccatan Jungle, inspiration for the fictional jungle in the story when inspiration hit the author. No explanation as to why he never finished the tale. The original ms is damaged most likely by rain and jungle insects as the edges are oddly-chewed and further damaged by what appears to be a sticky, cottony substance, doubtless from some local tree.
This evaluation of the manuscript pages in the Hunsley Howard collection was prepared April 1st, 2021 by Jeffrey Scott Baker.
The bunch of us were sitting around the dorm drinking soda and eating chips. Pretty low-key, when someone brought up the Box.
“I think one of us should go over there,” Paolo said.
“It’s the middle of the night!” Elaine said, swirling her soda in the can.
“It’s only ten-thirty,” Louis said. “But for us college kids, that’s the middle of the night. Even in Berlin.”
“I grew up with the Wall here,” Werner said. “When they tore it down I thought I’d leave. But my family stayed to build something new. My Father was the one who found the Box.”
The Box. It was found when an old building had been torn down, just a few blocks away from the University. The house dated back to the Middle Ages, and when it was knocked down it revealed the box; a crystal casket with a woman in it, a woman dressed in clothes of a bygone era.
I grinned up at Paolo and helped myself to more chips. I liked Paolo if only for the posters of hot young Football players he hung on the walls of his dorm room. He was a hot young Brazilian, I was an American. But he was straight, as far as I could tell.
“No, we should go,” Paolo said. “Tonight.”
“Is the shrine open?” Elaine asked.
“It’s always open,” Andrew said. “They take your money any time.”
I’d been to the shrine when I first got here, just to see it, but that was during the day. By the time we walked to the small enclosure it was just an hour before midnight. The guards glared at us suspiciously until we paid our admission to the high-domed room with the glass casket on the ground where it had been found. It was impossible to move from the site or to open. We stood and stared. The dark-haired woman lay there in a velvet robe that was open at the neck.
Paolo stood and stared down at the woman the press had dubbed die Schlafende Schonheit, the Sleeping Beauty.
“I still say Disney’s going to sue,” Andrew said.
“How long has she been dead?” I murmured.
“She’s not dead,” Paolo said. “She’s breathing.”
I didn’t see it, but Paolo reached down and pulled at the crystal casket. It opened just like any other box. I’d seen, we’d all seen, the news coverage of people with jackhammers trying to open the thing. Couldn’t even crack or budge it. But Paolo had opened it.
Paolo looked over and grinned at our shocked faces: “And she didn’t start out a princess, she started out a prince. But I see her. I really see her.”
He leaned over and kissed her and yes, her eyes opened, she smiled, she kissed back. Love at first sight after about eight-hundred years.
Oh, well. I guess I never stood a chance with Paolo.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Originally I thought about doing a riff on the Circle from “That 70’s Show,” hence the song title, but someone mentioned “Sleeping Beauty” and the new story just took off. Plus, yesterday was the Transgender Day of Visibility, so that showed up in the story too. I’m writing this early Thursday morning and today I get my first vaccine. Don’t think that made it into the story! ——jsb (4/1/21)
The old man was there every day when I took my early-morning bike ride through the park. He was always sitting by the lamp that didn’t work.
The old man always looked up when I rode by, but I never stopped. The old man looked like he was in his eighties. One day as I was pedaling by I noticed a bicycle leaning against the lamppost beside the park bench with the old man. And that the old man looked familiar.
That night I realized that somehow the old man was me!
So today when I go for my bike ride, I’ll stop. I’ll talk to him. Maybe we’ll go riding together.
Since last time, I did very little writing-wise. Wrote a couple of the weekly flash fictions (haven’t even started on this weeks!) and worked on a horror story I hadn’t touched in years. Started up another Demeter’s Bar story, and it was good to get back to them, and today I wrote about a page on “Youth Like Summer Brave” while waiting for an appointment. I quoted something a while back about the advantage of finishing a first draft is you have something to work on, and does this thing ever need work! Cliches, sloppy writing, plot holes you could fly a Deathstar through! It can only be made better!
“Okay, Mr. Gonzalez,” the Foreman said. “We’re under deadline and you need to have this all dug out by tomorrow. Get that machine moving.”
I said “Yes sir,” and hopped in the cab of the digger (“Excavator,” they kept correcting me.) I had the job for the summer working on the construction crew; I’d gotten good enough at it to be left to my own devices on site. And this site was huge. Sand, everywhere you could see. I could convince myself we were in the desert except I knew we were on what used to be an artificial lake before the water had drained out. The job was no big; just dig the hole here and put the sand there.
It was hot, the sun was high in the sky and I was taking a break. Drinking a soda and eating the sandwich I kept in the little cooler I had. No way a food truck was going to come way out here in the country.
I sat and stared at the sand. It seemed to stretch to the horizon, but this patch wasn’t that big, was it? Maybe a square mile?
I switched the fan off in the cab. I thought I’d heard something. Bells jingling rhythmically. I stepped out of the cab and stood on the wheel, staring in the distance. There was a speck on the far horizon. It wasn’t a car. The bells continued to sound from nowhere. Not loudly. In a few minutes, the speck came closer. It was a boat, an old barge like I’d seen in those sword-and-sandal movies I’d seen as a kid back when I’d hoped nobody would notice I was checking out the female and male extras. There was a canopy over most of the barge but I couldn’t see any wheels. The boat was moving through the sand under its own power.
I started. There was a man standing on the deck. I hadn’t noticed him before. He was tall and dark. Not African, maybe he was Egyptian. He wore a long, golden robe open in front. There was a glistening headband around his forehead. His head was shaved.
The boat stopped. There wasn’t a breath of air. It had gotten hotter. The man on the boat stared at me then raised a hand in salute.
“This is Mesektet,” he said. “The Boat of Millions of Years. The Boat of Ra.”
“Oh, Ra,” I said. I’d had enough really strange things happen to me to dismiss this as a hallucination or a dream.
“I’m Billy Gonzalez,” I said. Introducing myself seemed like a good idea. It had worked with the group of Sasquatch I’d run into a few years ago.
“The Solar Boats travel with the great one,” he said. “Ra rides Mandjet, the Boat of the Day.” His hand swept above him, indicating the sun. “I control the Boat of Night. I must meet Ra, but I am nowhere near Ra in this strange land. In some way, I have arrived on the wrong sand.” The man glared at me. “I suspect the work of Set.”
“Uh, I didn’t really study Egyptology,” I said, “but if you want to meet Ra, you should head west towards the sunset.”
The man shook his head. “It must be at the point of Iah at this time of the cycle. It is Iah who will escort Ra from the day barge to the night barge.”
“Iah?” I asked.
“One of the many phases of the many-faced god…”
“Of the Moon!” I said. I pulled out my phone. If I had the minutes I could do this. “Yeah,” I said.
“No, Iah.” The man said.
“Look; you got turned around. You want to turn around and head that way,” I said pointing and showing him the display on the screen. But I kept my distance; something told me not to touch the man or the Boat of Millions of Years. “That’s the display from the Naval Observatory, and that’s the compass.”
The man stared. He pointed toward the horizon. “Yeah?” he asked.
I nodded. I stepped back and the boat began to move and head for the horizon. The man again raised his hand in salute.
“Hey,” I called out. “I didn’t get your name?”
The voice drifted to me on a sudden breeze as the boat and the extended desert vanished in ripples of heat.
“I once was Akhenaten. Once I was great.”
I got into the cab and started the engine.
A few nights later in the motel, something woke me. Moonlight streaming through the window. I closed my eyes and words from a poem I’d heard in grade school floated through my head:
Guess What Happened On Our Way Down the Milky Way?
By Jeff Baker
The thing about Cyburnius was it looked so much like Earth we could almost forget where we were and that caused the problem. Kendrick and I had parked the Solar Scooter (actually it was close to being a junker) in the Civic Parking and we were basically picnicking sitting on the green grass, surrounded by trees, scanning through our filter-browser, (we could still pick up service) when the girl showed up. We’d been pretty careful and hadn’t jacked-up our cards too much but we spent some on what Sol called a picnic basket from one of those machines.
“Hey, guys!” The girl’s voice was so perky it made my hair bristle. “You two alone? Or are you with each other?” She let out a giggle and I felt it in my hair. Her hair was brown and curly, contrasting to her slender build and pale skin and twinkling eyes behind her glasses.
“I’m Kendrick-41,” I said with a grin. “The quiet one is my buddy Sol-19. Yeah, it sounds like a planet.”
Sol waved and said “Yo.” She giggled again. Again, my hair tingled.
“I’m Eeenie,” she said. “So, what brings you boys out here?”
“Just traveling,” Sol said. “We got the scooter juiced up and we’re, well, going to see what we can see.”
I’d never heard Sol talk that much at once. That should’ve been the second warning, but I ignored it.
“Basically we’re sliding down the Milky Way,” I said.
“Sounds fun!” Eeenie said. “Got room for one more in your scooter?”
“Don’t think so,” Sol said.
“Hey, that looks good!” Eeenie said, pointing to the packaged stuff in our picnic basket. Her smile grew broader. And broader. And broader… I was just staring up at her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Sol was staring at her openmouthed too.
Eeenie moved in closer.
There was a sudden crackle and a flash of blueish light. I blinked my eyes, feeling like I was waking up. I made out a uniformed Cosmos Patrolman with a long pair of tongs crackling with energy. In the grip of the tongs, Eeenie shriveled and dwindled down to a wavering stick figure, giving off the piercing giggles and was quickly stuffed into a silvery carrying bag on the ground which the Patrolman sealed shut.
“You boys are lucky to be alive,” the Patrolman said. “That was an Eeenimite. A dimensional parasite. Usually they stick to the caves, but this one had absorbed enough mass to mimic human form. She was able to mesmerize you with that high giggle noise of hers.”
“Wait; there are a lot of these around here?” I asked.
“The caves are their natural habitat, but people have been going down there a lot lately and they aren’t supposed to,” the Patrolman said. He shook his head, prodded the bag with the tongs, making sure it was secure and then went on. “Eeeniemites usually don’t grow this big, but this one had been feeding a lot,” the Patrolman explained.
“Feeding?” Sol asked, looking at me uncomfortably. My mouth felt dry.
“Bodily fluids, essential salts, the usual,” the Patrolman said. “Blood. Tears.”
The bag wiggled. I shuddered. We didn’t feel like eating the rest of our lunch. We got in our SolarScooter, checked the seals and took off, putting Cyburnius behind us.
Over the last week or so I worked on a column that’s due this weekend, did three flash fiction stories (the two weekly ones and the monthly one for the Flash Fiction Draw Challenge) worked on a couple of other stories I have in the pile and (to my surprise!) wrote the beginning of a mystery that occurred to me after chatting with someone this afternoon.
I’m going to break with tradition here (and go against the advice of one of my favorite writers, Henry Kuttner, who advised against talking about works-in-progress) and list a few things I have in the pipe. Some I’ve started recently, some from a ways back. I’m not going to be too specific. Better writers and bloggers than I do blogs this way; maybe this will goad me into finishing more of them!
A full-length “slick fantasy” baseball story I am aiming at the Saturday Evening Post. (I actually got a nice rejection for an alternate history I sent them a while back!)
Another baseball story, this one a mystery/crime story titled “Over the Fence Is Out, Boys.” (The title is an ancient baseball song quoted in the Three Stooges theme.)
A domestic horror story titled “Please Don’t Eat the Neighbors,” for which I owe Robert Lopresti for the idea to actually write what started as a Facebook joke.
A mystery/crime story set on a prison work crew called “The Absent-Minded Convict.”
A Christmas Mystery, just revised that is going to Ellery Queen’s.
A non-genre story that is also going to the Sat. Eve Post, titled “Youth Like Summer Brave, Age Like Winter Bare.” (Title from Shakespeare.)
A science-fantasy story I dreamed up (the basic idea anyway) while driving my beat up old Chevy Nova (my first car) home from work one night in either 1983 or ’84.
And I need to start up the second of a series I DO have planned out of a mystery series set in Ancient Rome. The first of this series in in a slushpile at the moment!