Conflux 14 – My weekend with The Unconventional Hero

Conflux, Canberra’s annual convention of speculative fiction craft and appreciation, is being held next weekend 29 September to 1 October at Vibe Hotel (aka the wedge-shaped one near the airport).

The theme of this year’s con is The Unconventional Hero. To get a sense of what is on offer, the full program is here (and it’s definitely not too late to get day passes or tickets for the full weekend).

As well as being the coordinator for the dealer’s room, I’ll be out and about at various con activities. Here’s my schedule of events, in case you want to get a good look at the new T-shirts I bought specially for the occasion!

Social Meetup (6:30 pm, Friday 28 September) – I’ll be going along to the pre-convention gathering at O’Malley’s bar in Civic for some light conviviality and absolutely not to be talked into karaoke afterwards by Kaaron Warren.

Panel – DIY Hero (10:30 am Saturday 29 September) – I will be joining panellists Katie Taylor, Abigail Nathan and Paula Boer to discuss the formula for making the perfect hero.

Panel – Unconventional Hero’s Journey (9:30 am Sunday 30 September) – The panel of Gillian Polack, Simon Petrie, Robert Porteous, Abigail Nathan and I will look at the challenge of heroes who defy the Hero’s Journey plot structure.

Book Launch – A Hand of Knaves (5:45 pm Sunday 30 September) – I’ll be appearing along with several other contributing authors and the editorial crew of CSFG’s latest anthology. I will be reading a short (possibly blood-spattered) excerpt from my story ‘A Moment’s Peace’.

And most of the rest of the time I will be either sitting in on other panels or hanging around the dealers room. If you see me come up and say hello!

 

 

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Friday flash fiction – Shifting Jenny

The Shifting Jenny’s sails mumbled as the wind shifted southerly. Captain Annie Stagger glared at the horizon. “They’re close, mates,” she declared. “I can feel it in my bones.”

https://pixabay.com/en/sunset-sailing-boat-boat-sea-ship-675847/

“Ahoy below,” shouted Davey-Girl from the tops, leaning out and pointing eagerly. “Ship ahead. It’s the Vanguard, or I’ll eat my bustle!”

First Mate Ursula Struck squinted through her looking scope at the distant schooner. “It’s her all right, Captain, no mistaking that figure. But something’s amiss.”

Captain Stagger rubbed her thumb along the bronze runes on the telescope’s casing, bringing the foredeck of the enemy ship into focus. Amidst the usual bustle of crewmen lashing stays, reefing sails and readying longboats, a hooded figure in blue robes had claimed a section of deck for himself. Swirls of sparkling red vapour obscured his gestures, but frenetic dancing and wild gesticulations told a grim tale. She muttered under her breath, “Sorcier!”

“All hands, prepare for boarding!” she shouted, and the command echoed throughout the ship. She snatched her cutlass from its scabbard and spoke the Iberian incantation to set it aflame.

Tabby Seagrave, the irritable lubber from Kingston who joined the crew to escape her cousin’s marriage proposal, scowled at the stabbing-dagger in her hand. “What do I need this for? Them French jack-tars are a mile off or more. We should run out the guns- Argh!”

By way of answer, a great claw punched through her from back to belly, slashing gizzards and blood across the Stinging Jenny’s timbers. Behind her, wraithed in red vapour, stood a beast from some jungle of nightmares. An insect of sorts, ten feet tall and covered in craggy plates. Its bony torso sprouted six segmented limbs, each ending in a jagged hook; its legs were rhinoceros stumps bound in glowing green manacles; its head looked like the skull of an enormous hunting-bird and dripped with glistening tar.

Before Tabby had breathed her last complaint, the great beast flung her overboard like a discarded fish head and whirled about for its next victim.

“Skirmishers!” called the First Mate, putting Smoking Lucy, her longarm, to her shoulder and pulling the trigger. With a cough of grey-green smoke, its muzzle spat a volley of sizzling pellets at the monstrous invader. They drilled hissing furrows into its rocky carapace.

The Jenny’s marines followed Struck’s lead, blasting the creature with acidic shots before leaping forward with swords drawn.

Captain Stagger couldn’t spare a moment to watch the fight. The starboard watch called out in alarm; the Caribbean swell was suddenly boiling with submerged activity. A moment later, great tendrils of sea kelp burst up from the depths. The dripping plants bristled with thorny barbs like a blackberry in spring. A few strands wrapped about the gunwales and held fast, causing all aboard to stumble at the sudden arrested momentum. Other strands scrabbled across the deck like scorched snakes and slithered up the masts. Cables frayed and severed at their passing; sails became ribbons.

“Axes!” The Captain need hardly have issued the command. At the first sign of the kelp, a crew of riggers and carpenter’s mates brandishing hatchets and axes fell upon the intrusive plants, chopping with a lusty determination.

“What next?” shouted Struck, as she parried an insectoid hook intent on her decapitation.

Captain Stagger spoke a handful of words in the lost language of Mu; they echoed back to her with hints of the future. “French magicians are so predictable,” she sighed. “Look to the timbers, lasses!”

True to the Captain’s warning, the Jenny shivered again as the deck planking, the spars and the masts all began to warp and groan. Within moments, every wooden surface was rough with bark, the cragged knobs of fresh oak bark in stark contrast to the usual smooth timber. Leaves began to sprout from the railings, and acorns clustered here and there among the rigging.

“Floramancy! They’re tickling our timbers back to how they once were!” growled Struck. She chopped one of the insect-creature’s legs away at the knee.

“Cheeky devils! I’d like to see them try that with me!” retorted Davey-Girl. She swung down on a springy green mainmast branch and popped a dagger into the insect-creature’s eye socket. As it howled blindly, the Skirmishers abandoned their weapons, grabbed the monster by one limb apiece and hastened it overboard, where it sank without ceremony.

The Jenny’s crew gave a cheer as they hacked the encroaching kelp away, though it was muted. The ship’s transformation had advanced; it now resembled nothing so much as an overgrown log cabin.

“She’ll not stay afloat long in this shape, poor girl,” reported Griss, the pilot, whose hands were raw and bloodied from wrestling thorny tendrils and hard bark.

“Time we showed these men of the Vanguard why we call her Shifting Jenny, eh girls?” To rousing encouragement, Captain Stagger hacked the bark off the helm to reveal a carved rune. She charged it with the breath of her lungs and the spit from her lips. It shone with glowing adoration. “Shift ye, Jenny, and take us hence, if you’d be so kind,” she told it. To her crew she added, “Eyes covered and arms at the ready, eh?”

Shifting Jenny’s spindle-and-chalice emblem burned with a sunset fire that expanded until it enveloped the crew. Each hid her face in the crook of one arm, while the other arm raised a weapon to strike.

When their vision cleared, the women stood before hapless French sailors, who clutched at their eyes, trying hopelessly to blink sunspots away. The Jennies made short work of those who didn’t offer immediate surrender. The French sorcier was among those whose temporary resistance saw him dropped into the sea, sans head.

Captain Stagger rubbed the newly-minted golden spindle-and-chalice plaque emblazoned on the forecastle door. “Ladies, meet the new Shifting Jenny, fifth ship of that name.” The crew roared and stamped the decks of their new home.

Across the Caribbean waters, a verdant jungle island bobbed where the old Jenny had been.


This week’s story is brought to you by International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which was celebrated (or at least, internet-celebrated) on Wednesday the nineteenth of September. I may not have had occasion to sound like a pirate this year, but I could at least feature them in a story.

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Friday flash fiction – Call Me By The First Name You Think Of

You don’t know me yet but we’re very alike. Like two peas in a pod, your friends would say, if they knew me. They don’t exactly know me. Not yet.

https://pixabay.com/en/double-exposure-photo-forest-face-1474802/

You haven’t really noticed me hanging around. I’m not surprised. I know you’re caught up in your own baggage. You stalk about, eyes to the ground and shoulders hunched, smouldering over some injustice or another. You cut a lonely, furious figure. It’s not healthy, my friend. It’s not a good look.

Not that I spend all my time looking. I’m not creeping on you. You just catch my attention sometimes, as you pass by, and though I’m sure you’ve never noticed me, I can’t help but wonder about you. Just for a second, it occurs to me to think about what it must be like to be you.

I think we grow closer with each of these little encounters.

Not that I go out of my way, you understand. I told you, I’ve got my own business to take care of. I’m striking up friendships, getting to know people, making connections. This is a pretty little town. The people here are so friendly. I really think it’s growing on me. Do I flatter myself that I’m growing on the town as well? They’ve warmed to me, no doubt about it. I like to think I’ve made a good series of impressions.

I could have shown up anywhere, you know. It didn’t have to be here, but thanks to you it couldn’t have been anywhere else. You had that need, that emptiness. Your pleas drew me here, the ones you muffle with your pillow in the dark of night so nobody else will know about them.

I’m a curious type. In the end I couldn’t stay away. I had to know more.

Did it start with your parents? I know you miss them. They were everything to you, and now they’re gone you aren’t quite sure what to do with yourself. If we’re being entirely honest, I don’t think your mother ever really cut the apron strings, did she? Then she was gone, and you became unmoored. Adrift. All at sea.

The sea’s not a great place to get lost. Voices at sea fall on more wrong ears than right. You can call and call, and the only things who’ll hear you either can’t help or don’t plan to try.

This is true of metaphorical oceans as much as real ones.

Your friends are concerned about you. They’ve told me as much. I never prompt them, they just spilled it out. Every time I cross paths with one of them, they take me aside and explain just how awful you’ve been looking. A shadow of your former self. Once in a while one of them will add an encouraging note about how they think you might have turned the corner, how you’re showing a little colour in your cheeks again. But then a day or two later the next one will come along, and it’s the same conversation all over.

I don’t think there’s anything they can do for you now. It’s all on you.

I’ve just come from your parents’ room. Your mother’s pillow was still damp from your tears. You’re not holding it together since the accident, are you? I tidied up the scattered books and threw out the broken lamp, but I think you need a healthier outlet for your emotions. Tae kwon do, perhaps? If you don’t find something to relieve the stress, it’s going to eat you alive.

Don’t look like that. I didn’t mean to surprise you. You didn’t hear me coming, that’s all. If you’d kept walking to the kitchen instead of stopping for another cry, we wouldn’t have run into each other at all. But to be fair, we couldn’t put this encounter off forever. It was inevitable we’d come face to face sooner or later.

Listen, stop whimpering for a second, okay? This is a pretty important conversation we’re having. I’d like it to go well for both our sake.

I know we’ve only just met, but we can’t exactly say we’ve been formally introduced. We need to deal with another formality first. I have a favour to ask of you. It has to be you. Nobody else can do this for me.

I need a name. I need you to name me.

Quick! Don’t think about it. Just say the first name that comes into your head.

Ah.

Yes, I see.

Do you really think I look like you? Exactly like you?

I’m flattered. No, really, I am. I know you’re not feeling at your best right now but you’re quite a striking person. Don’t think I haven’t noticed all the heads we’ve turned.

And we have the same name too. What a coincidence. What do you suppose the odds are of that happening?

It’s a funny old world. That’s a thing we always say, isn’t it? A thing you always used to say.

Your friends are right about you. You are looking pale right now. Practically transparent.

But don’t worry about them. When they see me again, they’ll be reassured everything’s going to be all right. I’m on the rise again. I’m back in the game. I’ve never looked better.

They’ll see how great I look and all their worries will fade away.

Like you did.

 


It doesn’t pay to let  tulpas or dopplegängers spend too much time in your head. Better to get them out in the open where they can’t do any harm. Also if it isn’t obvious, the name is a riff on Call Me By Your Name, a romantic drama (novel and film) to which this story bares absolutely no other relation.

If you happened to read last week’s story and didn’t quite understand what was going on at the end, I’ve gone back and added a couple of lines of dialogue which should clear things up. I hope. No guarantees.

I haven’t done a reminder in a while that you can get all the news updates, previews of my works in progress and upcoming publications and a free electronic copy of my short story collection just by signing up to my newsletter. So consider this a reminder of that!

I’ll be sending out a newsletter soon with a bit of background on my story in the upcoming A Hand of Knaves anthology, and a new piece of short fiction. You can sign up using the form below.

 

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A Hand of Knaves coming soon

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild is launching its newest anthology A Hand of Knaves at the end of the month. My story appearing in the anthology – ‘A Moment’s Peace’ – is a fantasy heist tale with demons, deathtraps and copious bloodshed. It’s fun!

The final cover art was revealed this week, featuring the gorgeous playing card artwork of my great and talented writer-artist mate Shauna O’Meara, with photo layout by Simon Petrie. Over the years, the CSFG anthologies have established a reputation for quality Australian speculation short fiction; from what I’ve seen, editors Leife Shallcross and Chris Large are pushing the standard to new heights with Knaves.

The book will be launched at the Conflux 14 convention in Canberra on Sunday 30 September at 5:45 pm in Vibe Hotel. If you’re local, I’d love to see you there. I’ll be reading from the story (probably one of the exciting bits full of bloodshed and mayhem so my children don’t get bored) and there will be drinks, snacks and an air of celebratory conviviality. Books will be sold and signed by the (many) authors present.

For anyone who can’t be at the launch, you can pre-order the trade paperback from the CSFG website (which comes bundled with the ebooks for immediate gratification). The book will be available in the usual ebook stores sometime after launch.

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Friday flash fiction – The Nightmare Bargain

It takes an army of monsters to bring down Francesca Kincaid.

https://pixabay.com/en/chair-candlelight-dark-room-window-3597241/

The handful of survivors drag her, beaten to within an inch of her unwoken life, to their leader. “Coordinator Jasper,” says one through swollen lips and cracked teeth, “we’ve brought the renegade to heel.”

Jasper presents as a middle-aged bureaucrat with a tidy haircut and polished shoes, none of which reflects his true appearance. Nor is he precisely male, though the distinction here, as in the waking world, is meaningless.

He looks from the disheveled soldier to his bloodied prisoner with a sneer. “I hope she didn’t give you too much trouble, Garry. I vividly recall you departing in a much more sizeable company than you’ve returned with.”

Garry shakes his head. “She led us into a trap. Tricked us into fighting the Stalker. It was a massacre.”

Coordinator Jasper nudges Francesca’s slumped form. “I see. She outwitted you, then.”

The demons holding Francesca down on the plush fur rug of Jasper’s hotel suite have the grace to look embarrassed to have lived through the battle. They look wildly out of place in the Coordinator’s luxuriously appointed dreamscape.

Jasper motions for the guards to release her. “Miss Kincaid, what a thorn you have been in our well-laid plans.”

Francesca coughs a large glob of blood onto the rug and rubs her black eyes with cut and singed palms. “Maybe. But I didn’t mix your metaphors. You did that all on your own.”

“Your muddled excuse of a human language isn’t really the issue, is it? What exactly did you think you were accomplishing with this petty revolution of yours?”

Her revolution has been anything but. For what has seemed like months – it’s impossible to judge time in this prison of endless nightmares, though Francesca has learned some useful tricks – she has been lifting scales from the eyes of her fellow sleepers, revealing the existence of their tormentors, and recruiting an army to her cause. A few hundred of them now, tucked away in hidden folds of camouflaged dreamscape, emerging as small, fast-moving bands on desperate missions. What began as her sheer fury at the mass anaesthetisation of the human race by an invasion of parasitic nightmare-creatures is now something more. A desperate gambit to avoid extinction.

“That thing you call the Stalker. It preys on my kind, but it doesn’t mind a taste of yours.”

Jasper raises an eyebrow. Of all humanity’s idiomatic gestures, he admires this one most for its economy. “Congratulations on your perspicacity, if not your appreciation for the wider perspective. So you lured the Stalker into savaging my people while you led yours to safety?”

“I’m a regular Dreamlands Moses.”

The guards mutter and snarl until Garry silences them with a few sharp slaps. Coordinator Jasper says, “An efficient strategy. And have you ever seen the Stalker yourself?”

Francesca considers the question; it’s quite apparent she’s more preoccupied with calculating her odds of killing Jasper before the guards can overpower her. “You know I haven’t. It kills anyone who sees it.”

“You are both correct and wildly misinformed, as it happens.” Jasper waves her toward a lounge chair, as though suddenly remembering his manners with an unexpected guest. Francesca, bemused, perches on the edge of the leather recliner with its slightly off-putting contours.

“The Stalker is a predator of the highest order. And yes, it kills anyone it perceives, though its suite of senses differs considerably from that of either of our species. We barely understand its nature, though it has hunted us for a long time.”

Francesca frowns. “How long, exactly?”

Jasper shrugs; another favourite of his. “Life on this planet evolved from a clay seabed slick with nutrient scum. This was before that.”

“You’re aliens?”

Garry snorts. “Pft. Aliens!”

“We’ve fled from a conceptual space so incompatible with your psychological framework as to render the question nonsensical,” Jasper replies. “But yes. We’re called the Yau.”

Francesca’s chipped nails dig into the soft chair arms. “The keyword I just picked out of that gibberish was ‘fled’. You didn’t just invade us, did you? You led the Stalker here.”

Jasper drums his fingers on the side of a bookcase filled with leather-bound first editions. Abruptly the hand fills with a crystal tumbler sloshing with an amber fluid. Jasper drains it empty in a single gulp.

“Yes,” he says, “now we’re getting to the point of all this.” He looks at the empty glass, sighs, and places it on a shelf. “We did lead the Stalker here, but we didn’t invade. We came to make a bargain with you.”

He explains, as others have explained: every human, paired to a Yau, fell into a coma which concealed it from the Stalker. The Yau provided sustenance to keep the physical body healthy, and a dream architecture of continuous ordeal, designed to build the resilience, determination and ruthlessness needed to oppose the Stalker.

“It worked,” says Francesca, showing the bloodstains on her hands.

“Too well,” agrees Jasper. “Most humans are incapable of breaking out of the dream fugue. Fewer still can manipulate the dreamscapes, or wake up physically. You’re an unexpected disruptor.”

“Is this the part where I have to die for the sake of, what, a seven billion person training montage?”

Jasper shakes his head. “It’s too late for that. Less than one billion humans still live, Francesca. We’re almost out of time.”

Garry thoughtfully scratches the side of his head. “You want to bring the fight forward. All in, right now, dream world and real world, us versus the Stalker. It’s a huge gamble.”

“Be silent, Garry. This is between-”

‘Garry’ peels off the demon skin she’s been wearing for days, and shakes out a tangle of black hair. “Nice to meet you Jasper. That’s Nera. I’m Francesca Kincaid,” she says. “The little costume drama was to get me close enough to kill you. This must be your lucky day, because I’ve decided I believe you instead.”

On the lounge, ‘Francesca’ sloughs her bruised white skin to reveal an unblemished black complexion. Nera sighs with relief. “Never again, Fran,” she complains. “That disguise itches.”

Francesca Kincaid grins.

“Time to hunt the Stalker.”


This week’s story is part of a sequence which wasn’t originally intended to be a complete story, but which will be by the end of it. The previous parts are Works Like a Dream, Any Dream Will Do, and Alison’s Awake. I’d like to claim they all stand alone, but I suspect it makes much more sense to read them in order.

I have some lovely writing news, but I will post about it on the weekend when I have a bit more time. Check back in then for a preview of my next publication (not counting Friday flash fiction, which will be back next week, regular as clockwork).

 

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