Friday flash fiction – A Symposium of Murder (A Conservatorio Esoterica mystery)

Early signs augured poorly for the Conservatorio’s thaumaturgical symposium when the delegation from the Sieur-Okombo Academy for Mystic Contemplations melted upon arrival. Professor Ghamba Theophaz, whose keynote on cosmic resonance was keenly anticipated, burst into sizzling gobbets as he stepped from the interreal transportal.

As the screaming began, Custodian Quech sighed, knowing her headaches were unlikely to be compensated with adequate overtime. She directed a hard look at Wicker, the Master of the Gates, who was responsible for the university’s interplanar transport arrangements.

“Constable Blaph,” she said, addressing her octopod assistant, “kindly place Master Wicker under arrest or in protective custody, whichever he prefers. And call the Alchemy Faculty’s cleanup crew to deal with the hazardous waste.”

Within the hour, Blaph’s examination confirmed Quech’s suspicion: the transportal’s rune configurations had been sabotaged. “The reassembly protocols are incomplete,” she sniffed unhappily as the delegates were reverently scraped into silver buckets with golden spades, in accordance with their station. “Nothing organic could’ve emerged intact.”

“Splat,” agreed Blaph, ever the philosopher.

Quech’s jaw ached from working a double-sized wad of sombol gum. It was usually invaluable in suspect interviews, exposing lies and evasions; today would test its limits.

Czildra Tooth, the raven-faced Professor of Thaumaturgy, twirled a crown of miniature stars around her finger as she admitted, “I left the hosting arrangements to the Sieur-Okombo exchange student while I…attended to other duties.” Quech decided that Prof Tooth’s accidental admission of multiple affairs was intriguing but irrelevant and moved on to her next suspect.

The exchange student, Dillott Kilminster, was a mousy creature – literally – who bit his tail and desperately avoided eye contact with his interrogators. He was only partially successful, in that Blaph had no eyes.

“I talked to Professor Theophaz over ScryChatter every day,” he muttered piteously. “I ordered seven hundred copies of his book for the conference delegates. I transcribed his edits on the paper he co-authored with Professor Tooth. I even made sure they knew what kind of bourbon he liked. Everything was ready for his keynote address. And now I’m never going to see that extra credit he promised.”

Quech conceded this point with a note of sympathy. The note was somewhat insincere, since her sombol-heightened senses told her Dillott’s academic career was entirely artificial, most likely the convergence of overbearing parental expectations and an allowance sufficiently generous to commission academically gifted paupers to complete his assignments. Blaph escorted the miserable-looking student away to begin repatriating the Sieur-Okombo delegation’s remains to their home dimension.

Hospitaller Totenkoph Buchald’s team of hosts, auxiliaries and aides-de-tourist had laboured for weeks to prepare for the multi-species conference, constructing a dedicated lecture theatre, plush treetop sleepouts safe from roaming lymphovores, and a catering menu to satisfy fifteen different digestive schemas. Quech’s line of questioning quickly eliminated Totenkoph of suspicion over his clients’ gruesome murder.

“Remind me to run an audit of the conference budget after this is over,” she told Blaph as they moved on. “At least three of those aides were sentient illusions. Two simoleons will get you fifty if the Hospitaller’s not skimming expenses.”

“When will this be over, Quech?” demanded Archdean Sunk Kujagogo. “The Board of Governors is breathing down my neck on this. If they don’t get answers soon, you know they’ll be upset. I don’t know about you, but my respiratory system is incompatible with chlorine-based regurgitants.”

The Archdean became so nervous it disgathered, splitting into two separate but identical copies of itself. The Archdeans began to argue with each other over which of them would suffer more from the Board’s queasy fury. Quech recognised foreplay when she saw it and hastily dismissed the witness. Witnesses.

At last, Quech had no choice but to confront the Master of the Gates. “Wick, the rune configurations were your responsibility. Please tell me I’m not going to have to look for another partner for the next staff trivia night.”

Wicker shrugged. “I inscribed the coordinates they sent me,” he said. “Double-checked them with the exchange kid, and the transportal test was green as the sky over Lake Ameoba.”

Quech nodded, a little hurt. Wicker’s body language proclaimed his innocence, but also revealed a dislike of trivia contests she’d never noticed before.

“Maybe I should start doing sombol off-duty,” she told Blaph when it returned.

“Problem, boss,” declared the eight-limbed Altraxae, knocking his tentacle-tips together with an agitation not even sombol could interpret. “We’ve got another body.”

The student formerly known as Dillott Kilminster was now an indistinct smear on a wall near the cafeteria. Quech puffed out a cloud of sombol vapour, letting it crystallise into flakes. “I’ve seen this sort of thing before,” she told Blaph. “We’d better start accusing people before all our witnesses get bumped off.”

They arrested Professor Tooth in the staff refectory. “With Professor Theophaz and his prize student dead, nobody this side of the infiniverse can prove you didn’t write that paper yourself,” said Quech. “I bet you stood to pocket a bundle in discovery fees from one of the Big Sorcery cabals, huh?”

Professor Tooth clacked her beaks guiltily as she fled the Conservatorio Esoterica in exile, pursued by the slavering Board of Governors and its flock of shrieking IP lawyers.

Quech and Blaph watched the ritual cleaners detoxify the transportal and carry away bags of irradiated rune-stones.

“So,” Quech said after the last glowing rock was shoved into a pocket universe for safe disposal, “will you tell me why you did it?”

Blaph shrugged. “You going to tell me you don’t know?”

“Let me guess. The entire home dimension of the Sieur-Okombo Academy was infested with annhililation bugs, and the only way to stop them coming here was to trigger a portal reflux that destroyed all life in that universe.”


“And the exchange student?”

“Full of eggs.”

“Ew. I wondered why he smelled salty.”

“Yep.” Blaph offered her its insignia lanyard. “Am I fired?”

“Let’s call it reprimanded with a pay raise,” suggested Quech as her sombol buzz died. “So – do you like trivia?”

I promised a friend this week’s story would be a screwball comedy, but it turns out those are harder to write than I thought. So instead I wrote a murder mystery, because those are easier. (Note to self: murder mysteries are very much not easier). Hi Al, I hope the new job is less disappointing than this off-genre story!
In other news, just a reminder that my magic-school apocalypse story ‘Burn the Future’ is now available, in issue #69 of Andromeda Spaceways magazine. You can get an ebook copy here.
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Crowdfunding now – CSFG’s A Hand of Knaves

Fans of Australian speculative fiction (broadly encompassing fantasy, SF and horror) may be interested to learn that the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild has launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for its next anthology, A Hand of Knaves.

What is it? A Hand of Knaves is an anthology of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories featuring characters inhabiting the shadowy corners of speculative fiction. Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in genre fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

Tales of treachery, rakishness and good old-fashioned skullduggery (with or without the involvement of a secret heart of gold or two). Good stuff. Should be fun. Editors Chris Large and Leife Shallcross are both great writers in their own rights, and they have a good eye for entertaining and smart fiction.

One thing to note is that the crowdfunding campaign is not of the all-or-nothing variety. The book’s production is already paid for. This campaign is intended to raise the pay rates of the people involved, to commission more art and to pay for cool extra goodies like hardcover copies and decks of cards.

The writers among us might also be interested in the various editing and critiquing opportunities offered under some contributor tiers; from personal experience I can guarantee these will be worth it if you want to level up your fiction.

For most patrons though, the crowdfunding campaign acts as a pre-order service. You can get the books ahead of the official launch, delivered right to your door (or your email address, if all you want is the ebook).

And for full disclosure, I have submitted a story to the editors for the anthology. However, the blind submission process means that my story is competing with every other author’s on an equal footing. So no guarantees whatsoever that I’ll make the cut.

But I still think you should back it, because knaves.

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Andromeda Spaceways Magazine 69

The cover for Andromeda Spaceways Magazine 69 has been unveiled!

My story ‘Burn the Future’ appears in the issue, which will be out on Monday the 4th of December. Get it in your preferred electronic format at the website, if you’re inclined.

The story is about a sudden and terrible apocalypse resulting in the destruction of institutions, the rise of paranoia and the collapse of hope.

It represents the entirety of my published work for the year, not counting this blog. That feels about right for 2017.

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Friday flash fiction – Second Time Around

Three months after the breakup, Toby Virtue came across the record player in the electronics shelf of the Second Time Around shop for “pre-loved and sustainably obsolete artefacts”. He was getting back into vinyl, and his experiments with the beautiful variance of different players led him to sink every spare dollar into collecting as many old turntables as he could find.

“It’s fancy, isn’t it?” said the young man with the rolled-up sleeves and serious reading glasses behind the counter. “A 1975 Magnavox Stereo Phone portable.”

“It looks like a sewing machine,” said Toby, laughing for the first time in forever. “I’ll take it.”

He didn’t even have to think about the first thing to play on it when he got it home. He unsleeved his copy of Benchley Hicks’ Unbreathable Ashes – the one Ben had bought for him after the Wisdom Street gig in 2003 – and dropped the fresh new needle onto track 8, ‘Made of Reappearances’.

The very second the bass line kicked in, he was transported back to that night in the converted police station: the stifling late summer heat, the cigarette haze dimming the light from only a handful of unblown bulbs, the bodies pushing against the stage and each other while bandmates Hicks, Bellamy and Shimizu prowled and roared like lions above them.

An elbow caught him in the ribs. His arm was wet where beer sloshed from a nearby dancer’s glass. His throat was dry from dust and cheering.

Panic and wonder fought for the right to seize control of him. This wasn’t just a vivid memory.

“I’m really here,” he shouted, inadvertently coinciding with the three-beat lull just before the song’s bridge.

“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it?” shouted a voice in return. Toby stared wild-eyed at a much younger Ben; fit, lean, wearing the blonde surfer locks he’d brought with him from the coast. He couldn’t tear his eyes from Ben’s wild, fearless dancing, his ecstasy-fuelled grin, his arms around anyone and everyone who wanted to share the love. Toby’s body remembered the feeling of those arms around it. He took a step forward, blinking away tears.

He was back in his too-tidy flat, the winter chill pushing through a gap somewhere as the needle crackled its way to Track 9. Toby lifted it off the vinyl and sat looking at the Magnavox for a long time.

He chose another album. “Let’s see what you can do with ‘Just in Case We Don’t’ by the Telltale Signs,” he told the Magnavox, as he positioned the arm. He swallowed hard, wondering too late if he should have poured himself a drink.

He was in the lounge of their old share house, the one on Terrabulla Drive with the leaking roof and the crack that ran the front length of the building. Ben was shivering in his arms; the phone in Ben’s hand was beeping a disconnected signal; tears of rainwater were bubbling out of the crack and tracking down the wall behind their heads. Ben was sobbing unintelligibly, but Toby both remembered and knew in the moment that the caller was Ben’s mother, telling him that his sister Beth’s fight with cancer was over. Toby wished he could stay there, holding Ben, but the CD player turned down for the phone call had almost reached the end of ‘Just in Case We Don’t’ and –

Toby went back to Second Time Around. The same attendant was on duty, cleaning ornamental Japanese sake mugs with a toothbrush. “Where did you get that Magnavox I bought yesterday?”

The attendant pushed back his glasses. “Everything comes from charity bins or the rubbish tip. We clean it, test the electricals, that’s it. We don’t keep records, sorry. My name’s Lucas, by the way.”

They shook hands and Toby went home troubled.

He made a table out of the boxes Ben had still not returned to collect, and set the Magnavox on it. He thought of songs, of associations, of memories pleasant and otherwise. He turned Ophelia Vernon’s 2016 album Pick Someone Else over and over between his fingers, unable to decide on a song until he dropped it on the platter and slid the needle to the final track. ‘Is This About You?’ was the dramatic Side One closer. One of Toby’s favourite things about the album was how it pandered to neo-vinyl enthusiasts like him with its pre-digital song order.

The rolling piano decrescendo began. Toby slammed the car door on the radio playing the week’s Top Ten hits. He shielded his eyes as sleeting rain hammered the roof, drowning out the song and the sound of his cries. “Ben! Ben!”

Ben stood on the far side of the safety rail. His shirt was gone. The rest of him was soaked to the skin. His grip on the wet railings looked tenuous and it was a long way down the face of the escarpment to the rocky gorge below.

Toby walked one step at a time, speaking just above the volume of the rain, just loud enough to push at whatever dark voices Ben was listening to. Neither of them could hear the song but it played in Toby’s mind. He continued talking, and the song ended before the memory did.

Back in his own time, he remembered his soft words coaxed Ben away from the ledge and into an argument, one that never really ended. For Toby it started with that song, and now, at last, he could feel it end the same way. He lifted the needle, played the song again, and stayed right where he was.

The next day, he brought the Magnavox back to the Second Time Around shop. “I’m donating this back, okay?”

Lucas smiled as he took the case and set it back on the same display shelf. “Not what you needed?”

Toby shrugged. “Just the opposite,” he said. “Can I buy you a drink after work to say thanks?”

This one is a riff on an old idea that I could never make work, coupled with a character who’s been with me for years without ever making it into an actual story. The mood probably owes a lot to the fact that I strained my back in several places just before I wrote it.
If you are reading this “live”, as it were, I’ll be sending out a newsletter, with (a) actual news and (b) the first part of a new Orphans’ Moon story, in the next day or two. The story (and some of the news) is subscribers-only, so the only way to get it is by clicking on the signup button over on the right. Go on, you know you’re curious.
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TMoRP Day…Uh, 30?

It’s the end of November, ostensibly my month of relentless positivity, and it’s pretty obvious now that I’m not going to make it to thirty full entries. I’m more than a week behind and…well, I just don’t have anything left.

It’s not that I’ve been crushed under the unremittingly grimness of November 2017. I mean, it mostly hasn’t been great, news-wise, but on the other hand it doesn’t stand out as one of the worst months of this, the world-is-burningest of years.

But between a busy day job and an unsustainable number of personal projects, I haven’t had a lot of time to slow down and look for the beauty in the world. Every time I try, someone I thought was admirable turns out to suck, or an institution I value appears to be on fire. Mostly of late, I have not been well-rewarded for indulging my curiosity.

There’s plenty in my life to be grateful for and be happy about – family, friends and stuff – but nothing especially needing a plug. What this month has reminded me is to take stock of the good, cut out as much of the bad as possible, and keep going.

Her’s a song to take us all into November, courtesy of the Mountain Goats.

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