CSFG’s A Hand of Knaves

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) is about to open submissions for its upcoming anthology A Hand of Knaves.

Here’s the pitch:

Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative 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.

We want swashbuckling adventures brimming with humour, loot, and bad blood. Gut-wrenching dilemmas, resolved (for good or ill), by the thrust of a knife in the dark. Thoughtful stories exploring the foggy spaces between justice, and the law. Heroic deeds performed by someone with a less-than-heroic past. Magic and/or technology, combined with charm and charisma, to pull off an impossible heist. Hilarious sea shanties. Sweaty tales of betrayal and Machiavellian intrigue. We want to discover passion, righteous indignation, and the depths of one thief’s hatred of another.

To spur contributors’ imaginations, editors Leife Shallcross and Chris Large have posted an update with a link to their Pinterest board, with over 200 images of ne’er-do-wells, rapscallions and blaggards, all ripe for storytelling.

The full submission guidelines are here. (Key point – submissions are *blind*, so make sure you do not put your name anywhere in the manuscript). Subs open on Tuesday 1 August and close on the 15th of November.

CSFG anthologies are always super-competitive, so I am wracking my brain trying to come up with an idea good enough to put up. I encourage everyone of a writing bent (Australians and Australian-based writers only, though!) to try their luck.

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Friday flash fiction – Industrial Disease

Kenny Hallam did his reading, so he knew wind turbines were killers.

He sent his oldies all the links: this article from a science skeptic journal; that survey run by a leading national newspaper; the other ebook by a recovering survivor entitled “Tremors: The Renewable Killer”. When he called home every Saturday morning, he explained what he’d learned by digging deep into the online forums that kept a weather eye on the Warmists, Feminazis and Social Justice Mercenaries. His Mum would listen carefully to his arguments, except for that one time he caught her putting down the phone to make a cup of tea while he was laying out how Big Pharma was colluding with the Neo-Luddite Left.

None of it did any good. One weekend his Mum messaged him a collection of photos of the wind farm – tall, white giants rising up over the ridge above the family farm like an invading army. “It’s a great investment,” his Dad told him. “Besides, I like the sound of them.”

The photos never showed the base of the windmills. Kenny wondered how many dead birds and vomiting kangaroos his Mum had cropped out of the pictures.

Kenny fretted. “Low frequency subsonics,” they called it. The turning blades vibrated on a wavelength undetectable to human hearing but deadly to animal tissue over prolonged periods. Everyone knew they would shake you over if you got too close, too long.

He opened up about his concerns online; one by one his forum mates confirmed what he suspected. “They rattle your brains,” said one. “Watch out for strokes,” warned another. “If your heart beats at the wrong rate,” said yet another, “you’ll fibrillate and arrest on the spot.”

When his Dad called to say Mum had collapsed and been rushed to hospital, Kenny knew he’d waited too long to act. “Nothing on the x-rays,” said Dad. “The doctors are baffled.”

Not Kenny though. He knew.

The wind turbines couldn’t be cut down or burned out; they were made of Chinese military alloys, everyone knew that. Grandad’s old .303 rifle would go through armour plating, but Dad kept it locked up. Besides Kenny didn’t know what ammunition to use.

Anyway, that was just attacking the symptoms. Kenny wanted to make sure what happened to his Mum couldn’t happen to anyone else.

He got back online to form an agile research posse. He asked questions and called in favours. One forum user sent him a map of the local manufacturing plant of PowerZephyr International, along with security guard schedules and an electronic access card. Another gave him a list of ingredients, most of which were freely available in his Dad’s unlocked agricultural shed. A third agreed to mail him a custom-made remote activation device in exchange for a promise to livestream his covert operation.

For the lulz, it was understood.

A couple of nights later, Kenny muttered at a handheld GoPro as he backed a truck up to the loading dock of the PowerZephyr factory.

“This is only Stage One,” he said, framing his face in shot so that a tall white forest of swooping turbine blades filled the background. They spun out implacable waves of invisible death, sending shivers up Kenny’s spine. “After I’m done here, I’m going straight to the board’s annual meeting at the golf club. Thanks to forum user FreedomBallz’s generous donation, I’ve got two jerry cans of premium unleaded that are dying to meet some rich bastards’ Audis and BMWs in the carpark.”

The passcode opened up a roller door. Kenny pushed his craft project in on a trolley jack and settled it between two complicated-looking factory robots. “Okay, that’s set,” he told the watching world, which according to his monitoring app it was a jaw-dropping 47 live viewers. He held up the remote detonator. “This murder-blade manufactory is going up in smoke. Once I’m clear of the blast radius, I’m going to trigger this switch here and –”

Kenny’s Mum was discharged from hospital in time for the closed casket funeral. Still suffering the after-effect of septic poisoning from the tick lodged between her toes, she and Kenny’s Dad delivered a short, apologetic eulogy on the topic of their son’s passion for answers and his online friends.

They didn’t mention their conversation with the coroner about her preliminary findings. “The device’s premature detonation was the result of amateurish assembly. Two loose contacts accidentally touched, closing the trigger circuit.”

Kenny’s parents, relieved that at least his death was unintentional, said, “But in his video he was being so careful?”

“Yes, the source was probably some external tremor or vibration. Mostly likely your son never heard it at all.”

Come back next Friday for something completely different (and probably a touch less cynical). If you liked this story, you can sign up for my email newsletter which always includes more free fiction and occasionally other stuff.

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Seasonal weariness

For whatever reason, I’ve been feeling pretty tired this week. Is it because we’re in the depths of a Canberra winter? Is it the constant barrage of miserable world news? Am I coming down something? Could it be something to do with the fact that I’m staying up too late playing video games and binge watching television?

Not a qualified psychologist

Nah, it’s probably that first one, the vague bleariness that seems to ride in with the cold, short days and probably has something to do with reduced exercise and Vitamin D deficiency. I’d make a glib reference to seasonal affective disorder, except that I’m about as qualified to make a clinical diagnosis of depression as that dog up there.

But like a lot of people, I suspect, I find it more difficult to motivate myself to work at this time of year. It helps to have a project or two – or twenty-seven – but even so I find it a real challenge to push myself into anything more strenuous than loading up Netflix.

One strategy for dealing with this I’ve already mentioned – focus on wrapping up old projects instead of starting new ones. I’ve only been partially successful there. I did manage to edit a couple of stories and send them out on submission. And I finally finished critiquing that manuscript I’ve had sitting on my desk all year (sorry Gazza!).

On the other hand, I’m now writing a new flash story every week, I’ve started a new story I thought would be short but which will probably be yet another novelette over ten thousand words. And several responsibilities I’ve picked up in the local writing community start to become busy around this time of year.

Ugh. I know what I *should* do about this. I *should* delete Twitter and Facebook off my phone. I should suck it up and wait until the current seasons of Preacher and Game of Thrones are out on Blu-ray. I should definitely stop running “just one more quick counterfeiting operation” in Grand Theft Auto Online.

All of those things are easier than writing, not eating unnecessary snacks and hitting my daily exercise goals. Like a grownup.

Sigh. Being a grownup sucks.

Think I’ll go flop on the floor and watch Twin Peaks.

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Friday flash fiction – Remote Retrieval

I don’t know if this thing is recording. I hope it wasn’t damaged in the attack. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. Even if you get here soon, it won’t be soon enough.

I found the drone, for the record. Node Charlie 1449. It came down outside ODIN’s search perimeter. Dumb luck to stumble on it. The mountains played havoc with its beacon. It didn’t ping the scanner until I was almost on top of it. If I’d crossed the stream another twenty yards on, I would have missed it. Then again if I’d done that, I might have missed the bear as well.

The drone’s transmitter is half-fried. Not intact enough to re-establish a link. Telemetry confirms it was hit with a worm distributed node to node through the encrypted handshake protocols until the entire network was infected. The kill code burned them out simultaneously. Two thousand surveillance drones gone all at once, dropping out of the sky like used-up fireworks. The eyes of the free world, gouged out.

One feeble signal got half the Agency’s boots out here following ODIN’s search plan. Just my luck to draw the short straw.

Charlie-49’s emergency chute was charred but intact enough to get caught on a fir branch about three floors above a ravine. It took all day to winch down a half-tonne chunk of scorched spy plane. I was freezing and exhausted. I had twenty minutes of light left to crack the casing and get the storage cards out. I didn’t hear it coming.

I’ve heard survivors of animal attacks say things like “I didn’t feel anything until it was all over”. Adrenaline spikes, fugue states, you know?

Like hell. I knew straight away that bastard ripped my arm off.

I rolled over screaming and there she was, looming over me like I’m cold cuts in a buffet. I tried to line my Gloch up for a double tap to the face. Everything blurred. I hesitated. One shot chopped up an ear. The other one made her back off a ways.

Listen, when you find me don’t copy this recording to the network. If it’s not too late, don’t play it inside any Agency facilities. For God’s sake don’t turn my phone’s network reception back on. ODIN will be listening in. Even if it doesn’t scan the data itself, it assimilates body language and facial tics faster than human thought. Don’t let it see your faces. It’ll know you’re onto it.

I’ve wedged myself into a crevice and cauterised my arms with a flare. Hopefully it’ll keep the bear away. If not, maybe it’ll decide to leave my body intact. Maybe.

Check the drone’s data if you want. That encryption is unbreakable. It’d take longer than the universe’s remaining lifespan. North Korea isn’t up to it. It wasn’t China either. Not a cell of methed-up Berkeley students. Nobody.

The hack was an inside job. Only an AI with access ten levels above top secret could have fed that worm the network security codes.

I can’t even guess what ODIN’s second move is, but it didn’t want any eyes watching.

I don’t know if someone from the Agency will find this. I don’t know if there’s an Agency left. Or people, for that matter.

I’ll bet the bears will be okay.

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100 for 100 challenge

I’ve just returned from a very quick trip to introduce my children to that abyssal money sink some people call skiing. I’ve learned a couple of things.

The first is that I have the knees of a terribly old man. I hope he comes back to collect them soon. I want him to return the ones that don’t flare into searing agony after a mere few hours of pounding them again an iced-up mountain slope. That’s not too much to ask, surely?

The second is that a couple of days of wrangling kids, hefting a metric ton of hired gear and trying to rest in a hotel room directly adjacent to a ping pong table plays hell with my writing habits.

Specifically, this quick trip away has broken my “100 words for 100 days” progress at the quarter mark.

The idea, which I first heard from Twelfth Planet Press publisher Alisa Krasnostein, is simple – for one hundred consecutive days, write at least one hundred new words on your current project. If you miss a day, you must start the count again from zero.

Obviously in one sense this is a peculiar form of self-torture that I wouldn’t recommend for anyone. In general, I agree with the air of skepticism surrounding the idea that “real writers write every day”. While presumably well-intentioned advice, it’s unsound to build a gauge of personal success around an expectation of daily habits which fail to account for the inevitable interference of daily life. “Write every day” can all too easily set you up to fail.

On the other hand, I like a challenge. A one-hundred-word stint could take as little as three minutes to write, so it’s not as if we are talking about a significant daily imposition. The hard part is maintaining the habit, especially in the face of disrupted routines.

I got to 25 days on my first attempt. Not a bad run, until I broke it by planning for a trip and then being away from home for two days.

Tonight I’ve reset the clock.

The lesson I’ve taken from the first stab at this particular challenge is to plan for the disruptions. I know I’ll be travelling for work in a few weeks, and then again in late September, so I need to plan ahead to ensure I can keep my new run alive. I need to have my tools at hand for when I’m outside my usual patterns – notebook, laptop, story notes. Whatever I need to make sure I don’t have an excuse not to write when the opportunity arises.

What I hope will come of this is a new habit of writing in the gaps. Filling the interstitial moments with a quick description here or an exchange of dialogue there. I tend to think of myself as a momentum writer, and so far this is looking like a good tool for building momentum. It’s working for me, at any rate.

It’s quite possible this is a terrible idea. It’s not unreasonable to picture a scenario where I get to ten or twenty or fifty consecutive days, miss a day due to some unavoidable problem like sickness or unexpected travel, and lose all that lovely progress. I can imagine feeling somewhat disheartened – demoralised, even – in those circumstances. It could be I’m setting myself for a fall into self-recrimination and bitter disappointment.

We shall see. Hopefully in exactly 99 more days.

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