The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) has just announced its 2019 anthology theme: Unnatural Order.
A weird cutie courtesy of editor Alis Franklin.
This is an anthology of monsters – proper ones, with horns and tentacles and dread designs. The alien, the inhuman and the just plain sinister (or are they?), whether bent on the destruction of human life, fleeing the Scourge of Man, or just wanting to be left alone with their treasure hoard.
Long time readers will know I hold the CSFG anthology series in high esteem. My first ever published story was in Next, which I’ve since followed up with last year’s A Hand of Knaves. These anthologies are a great showcase of new and emerging Australian speculative fiction talent. I’d urge anyone with an interest in writing in the field to take a shot at this open call.
I have every faith that the powerhouse editorial team of Alis Franklin, Lyss Wickramasinghe (editors) and Rivqa Rafael (publicity officer) will deliver an excellent entry in the series. I’ll certainly be doing my best to come up with something that will fit the bill.
The call for contributions is out now for stories up to 5000 words, with a deadline of the end of October. There will be a crowdfunding campaign kicking off in August to fund preorders (as well as pump up the rates for contributors and score cool extras).
For all the author guidelines and the submission portal, check out the Unnatural Order homepage.
Now that I’m not doing weekly flash fiction posts, I’ve slumped back into old bad writing habits. Or just the one bad habit really: doing anything but attending to my work-in-progress. I’ve been pretty good at sitting down at the keyboard, but the next step – writing coherent sentences that describe the setting, illustrate the characters and advance the plot – is a bit more of a challenge.
What I keep forgetting is to manage my expectations. I’ve been used to being able to meet a weekly word target without having to struggle. The structure of the Friday deadline was easy to work with, and I got into a rhythm I could maintain with minimal hiccups.
Abandoning that routine has thrown me for a loop. Over the last two years I’ve become used to being able to hit the ground running and pour out a few hundred words of usable writing in a half hour sprint session. I’ve developed my writer brain to be able to hit a handful of story beats and deliver a conclusion (more or less) in a thousand words. When I decided to go back to longer-form writing, I didn’t think to take into account how specific was that conditioning.
It’s like getting into physical shape (or so I’m told). You can’t just exclusively do squats or quad curls or one-handed push-ups and call yourself fit. It needs balance. All you might care about is sculpting your shapely calves or washboard abs, but you need other muscles working in support of them. If your foundations aren’t up to scratch, expect uncomfortable cramps and worse.
(All right, I’ve tortured that analogy enough. I think my subconscious might be trying to remind me that I’m also kind of out of shape).
This will probably be of value to absolutely nobody else, but I plan to resume doing regular check-ins on or near the weekends, self-reporting on my progress. Brisbane writer Peter M Ball has just such a project – The Sunday Circle – in which he asks and answers (and invites other writers to do likewise) three questions: What are you working on this week? What’s inspiring you right now? What action do you really need to take?
I’m not committing to use that format every time I do a check-in, but it seems like a great place to start, so here goes:
What am I working on this week? I’ve started writing a new fantasy short story about a contest two very different types of magical bards. I’m frustrated by how slowly it’s going, but I think I need to trust myself that I’ll find its groove soon.
What’s inspiring me right now? Over the last couple of weeks, I binge-watched the first season of the “weird not-really-superheroes” live-action Doom Patrol, which is largely adapted from the Grant Morrison/Richard Case comic series I loved when it came out (gulp!) thirty years ago. The show taps the same vein of disorienting strangeness that drew me to the comic. In terms of inspiration, it’s a useful illustration of how plot and setting logic can be tossed into a tornado and still be anchored by consistent emotional character arcs.
What action do I really need to take? I really need to finish drafting this story. So the action I need to take is to keep working on rebuilding towards a daily writing habit. Small steps.
Speaking of small steps, I also need to get in shape, I guess.
I’m not going to go into details here, but I’ve been unwell for some time. Writing, along with almost everything else, was a constant and increasingly unmanageable struggle. It was only through sheer force of habit that the last few FFF’s made it out into the world, and writing them took just about everything I had. I hit a crisis point around the middle of May, when stress and a cold both hit at the same time.
(Sorry for anyone who needed anything from me around that time. I didn’t have anything to give).
Weeks have passed. I’m generally feeling better. The effects of the cold are still lingering, but I can walk ten steps without a coughing fit now, so I’m calling it a win.
I’ve started writing again. It’s slow, tentative, like I’m having to learn how to do it all over again. Years ago, I had a pretty minor motorcycle accident that left me with a broken wrist and various other ailments. It could have been much worse, something I contemplated a lot while I was recovering. The next time I rode – months later – I was so nervous and overcautious I almost caused another crash.
This feels like that. Not the agonising wrist pain, but the rest of it.
For a while, thanks to the Friday Flash commitment, I was in a writing state where I couldn’t afford the time to overthink what I was writing. If I was going to make my deadlines each week, I usually had to take the first idea that occurred to me and run with it. There was no space in the process for painful deliberation over details and nuances. The point of the project was to post a story, polished or otherwise.
By the end I’d gotten to the point where I could do that almost without thinking. Not quite, but I had learned to ignore the more pedantic objections of my inner editor – the guy who can’t let anyone see a single word until the story’s been filed down to as sharp a point as I can make it.
Now I’m learning all over again how to dig in and write without filters. It’s not easy. That natural tendency to avoid risks, to overthink every step, is back in force. I’m not going to get my authorial drive back if I stop every few seconds at an editorial roadblock, get out of the driver’s seat and walk over to inspect the barrier to work out how hard it is. I just have to keep going. Over, around or through.
At least now, I have enough fuel in my tank to make a good run at it.
Friday Flash Fiction will be back, by the way. I’m pondering whether to make it a monthly or fortnightly thing. I’ve also started work on collecting them, which means editing the stories, probably expanding some (especially the ones that really creak under the limits of the thousand-word format) and writing a few new ones for spice. More news as I work out the details.
“This is Grace Cartilage of Ace News bringing you live footage of the gigantic intruders as they literally rain on Colossus City’s parade. Do we have some chemical analysis on the stuff they’re spraying from their dorsal spikes? Some kind of paralytic toxin? Respirators on and keep filming, team. This is the scoop of the century!”
Mother Sun and Sister Moon arced overhead, flung toward the great hovering monstrosities by their ally Cannonfire. They landed with Olympian grace on the gleaming head of an alligator-shaped alien the size of an office block. A sunburst flare eclipsed the alien as Mother Sun melted through the armour. Their intervention provoked an instant response. The two heroes vanished in a red haze as the four other gargantuan aliens turned crimson beams on them.
“Well once more this prompts the big question we’ve been asking on Colossal Gossip for months now, Trina. What possessed city founder Joshua Barraclough to spend his entire personal fortune to establish Colossus City on an isolated, practically uninhabitable coastal delta exactly one hundred years ago to this day? Does the keystone plaque of the Wrightson-Wolfman Centre hold a clue with its reference to “Five shadows over five fingers?” As the drama unfolds in the sky overhead, why don’t you recap some of the key points from our nine-part series from last year, Trina? Er, Trina. Hello? Did the connection drop out again?”
Tremolo quivered in and out of equilibrium with standard space-time as she strained with the effort of scanning the aliens with vibrational pulse-waves. “I can’t get a clear reading on them,” she gasped, staggering to her knees before Sympath could catch her. “All I can see for sure is that they’re achronistic. They originated in another time. The future, I think.”
“Unless you’ve suddenly discovered a way to vibrate us both into orbit, Trembles, we have no way of getting up there to help,” said Sympath. She was preoccupied with psychically suppressing a city-wide panic, enhancing senses of personal safety while quelling potentially dangerous curiosity. While she was at it, she decided to surgically excise her personal dread of losing another partner and bolster her optimism. “But don’t worry. I’ve got a feeling something will turn up.”
“Er, hello? Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhear your conversation. I think I can fly the three of us up close to the aliens, if that would help.” To Tremolo and Sympath, who were both still in their early twenties, the newcomer in sparkling silver looked alarmingly young. “I’m…uh, until I think of something better, you can call me Ms Glitter. Give me your hands and I’ll get you where you need to go.”
An army of Colossus City’s heroes converged from all directions. With telepathic assistance from the newly-reformed Carmilla Superior, Diamondstrike coordinated the assault on the enormous aliens. The super-soldiers of Bastion Command parachuted from the Cloister, their low-orbit monitoring satellite. Spirit of ’89, the Battle Gurus’ armoured airship, disgorged brightly-coloured martial artists to scramble over the giants’ backs. The Society of Vigilance launched disruptor rockets from their hover-platforms and leapt into the fray. And Team Infinity appeared from nowhere, stepping out of a timewave like pro surfers ditching off the crest of a breaker.
Colossus City is built across a delta plain at the convergence of five rivers, along which spread the five city districts colloquially known as The Fingers – Thumb Valley, The Points, Midfinger, Ringborne and Pink Pines. The City was founded in the aftermath of the Great War by eccentric millionaire war hero Joshua Barraclough, whose declaration at the lavish ground-breaking ceremony is recorded on a plaque at City Hall. It reads in part: “Let this place stand watch, like a new colossus, against that which would disrupt an orderly future, from this day for one hundred years.”
– Excerpt from Hand of the Guardian: The Colossus City Story.
“These aren’t gator-aliens at all,” wailed Tyrannosaur as a tonsil-shaped mass extruded from the wall and walloped him like a back-swinging punching bag. “They’re biological starships!”
“The ships are self-repairing,” reported DupliKates 13 and 18 in unison. “They regenerate faster than we can damage them.”
“This technology is more advanced than any known alien society,” mused Romulus Brink, the Contemplator. “Observed anomalies verge on the irreconcilable.”
“Yeah, yeah, Rom, don’t strain yourself,” laughed Dingo Watkins. “We don’t get it either.”
“Speak for yourselves!” With a massive grin, Captain Silver criss-crossed the alien’s head, shoulders and back at lightning speed, until she found what she was looking for. “Team Infinity to all heroes! Be on the lookout for standard airlock hatches concealed under orange-red scales. Converge on alien command and control, presumably in the head.”
Having shepherded the foundling Colossus City through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression not only intact but flourishing, and just eight days after the emergence of Paragon Man, the first of the so-called “scientific phenomena”, Joshua Barraclough disappeared. He missed a city budget meeting for the new Englehart Bridge on 3 April 1935, and was never seen again. He left no statements, personal effects or will. Colossus City’s growing prosperity and its distinction of having the world’s greatest concentration of super-powered individuals remain his only legacy.
– Excerpt from Hand of the Guardian: The Colossus City Story.
Inside the lead alien vessel, while various heroes peeled off to cause as much distracting chaos as possible, a strike team crashed through robotic sentinels and the ship’s murderously animated furnishings. Ms Glitter smashed aside aggressive wall fixtures; Sympath hurled robots at other robots; Tremolo vibrated sealed bulkheads until they shattered.
The strike team barged through one last barricaded portal into the alien control room, where they froze in astonishment. Standing between Mother Sun and Sister Moon was the last man anyone expected to see.
“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Ladies, please, come on in. At the risk of making an ass of myself, I declare myself tickled pink as a prize pig to see so many formidable warriors of the fairer sex here today!”
Ms Glitter’s face was concealed beneath her helmet, but her incredulity was unmistakeable. “Are – are you Joshua Barraclough?”
The man dressed in the old-fashioned suit, complete with cocked straw boater on his head and a silver watch chained to his breast pocket, beamed in delight. “Well, I reckon I am, after a fashion. It’s downright flattering to know I ain’t been forgotten.” Barraclough looked straight at Sympath. “I ain’t been forgotten, I hope?”
“Not for one second, partner,” she replied with a slow smile. Tremolo and Ms Glitter turned quizzically toward her, but before they could ask the obvious question, a figure emerged from a shadowed corner of the alien bridge.
“Welcome back, Tock Tock,” said Night Shrike. “Where have you been?”
Barraclough’s face blurred, momentarily revealing a frog-eyed metal face before reverting to Barraclough’s freckled, red-headed features. “Oh, I’ve been here and there,” he said airily. “I’ve been now and then. I’ve been him, her and them.”
“You never used to like riddles,” said Sympath, who had been Tock Tock’s crime-fighting partner for five years. “What happened to you?”
“Well, now, it’s a long story,” said Barraclough, “but the Reader’s Digest version is I didn’t really want a personal rerun of the 60’s, so I detached myself from linear time to give Doc Ontological the slip. Spent a little time with some time archaeologists in the 33rd century. Learned a few startling home truths.”
“Well, did you know that Joshua Barraclough was a time traveller? Everyone in the 33rd knows it, only not a one knew his true identity. At least, not until I showed up and transformed into the portrait of carrot-headed magnificence you see before you.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tremolo. “You went back in time and founded Colossus City? Why?”
Mother Sun put her hand on Tock Tock-Barraclough’s shoulder. “He did it so that we would all be here in the hour of greatest need.”
Ms Glitter groaned. “Wait, I’m having trouble following the continuity here. Why would you set up the city in 1919 so there’d be a city to invade in 2019?”
Sister Moon put her hand on Tock Tock-Barraclough’s other shoulder. “This isn’t the invasion. These ships haven’t attacked us.”
Tremolo looked unimpressed. “Have you already forgotten the paralysing spray?”
Tock Tock-Barraclough looked sheepish. “Just a mild sedative. Figured it would get the right kind of attention and keep civilians from getting too jumpy.”
The famously impatient Night Shrike folded her arms. “If this is Colossus City’s hour of greatest need, but these ships aren’t an invasion fleet, what are they?”
“They’re our ride,” said Sympath. “I’m right, aren’t I? Where are we going, Tock Tock?”
Tock Tock-Barraclough spread his arms in welcome.
“There’s a problem in the 33rd century that could use a hundred heroes. Can I get any takers?”
Wow, did I really just finish my weekly Friday flash fiction project with a story about hope for the future at the expense of the present? A theme which didn’t occur to me for one moment during the writing process but is now, just a few hours later, crushingly obvious and on the nose? This is me giving my subconscious an ironic slow clap.
So yes, this is the 100th weekly Friday flash fiction story, and the last for a while. I’m not abandoning flash stories at all, but it’s time to take a break and work on some longer pieces for a while. I have settled on a new schedule yet, but Friday flash stories will certainly continue to show up from time to time. In the meantime I do have a novel I should be working a little harder on.
Thanks to all the regular Friday flash readers and commenters, here and on Facebook. Every time someone’s told me they liked a character, or a joke, or a ludicrously self-indulgent turn of phrase, it has given this project another week or two of life. I would never have expected to keep up the pace for a hundred straight weeks, but having an audience makes all the difference. It probably sounds shallow to say it out loud, but the clapplause helps.
For any new readers – um, your timing is not terrific, but there’s a back catalogue to check out. ‘Centennial’ is a Colossus City story, and you can see the previous entries in that superheroic canon by clicking on this link (go back a page and start with ‘Mister Extra‘, if you want to make sense of this extraordinarily continuity-heavy story. Most of the Colossus stories can be read alone, just not this week’s). You can find those and the rest of the 100 Friday flash stories to date at this index right here. Dive in anywhere, the water’s (mostly) fine.
Five allies encircled a cauldron, watching as disasters played out across the surface of bubbling gruel. One moment, a wave of Nonemyr berserkers clad in bone armour and swinging ice-headed hammers descended on a golden army. The next moment, bat-winged lion-creatures fired their tail-spikes at a centaur cavalry. A thousand identical Witch-Princess Naomis charged the enemy horde, swinging black-flamed scornswords and singing choral enchantments of gleeful apocalypse.
“That looks like a bloody big army to me,” said Miles Lorimer, looking at the teeming soldiers, monsters and warlocks seething toward the shining regiments of the Gleaming Principalities. “Didn’t you say the Nonemyr is a single entity?”
“Nonemyr is entropy with malice added,” offered Bruyalle the Crafty. “It takes any form that serves its purpose. We showed up with an army, so Nonemyr became a bigger one.”
“But thanks to the infiltration team, the wind changed, and now it’s stuck as an army.” Jeralzine Stewpot traced a finger through the gruel, temporarily striking out a Nonemyr Draco-Brigadier until the image shifted again.
“My boys,” murmured Flopknot the white rabbit. “My beautiful, beautiful boys.”
“So now what?” asked Friedland the Mighty. “We’re stuck here in Dimension None while they do all the fighting?”
Jeralzine put an arm around Friedland’s broad, hard shoulders. “We’re right where Princess Naomi need us to be.”
Bruyalle leaned in from the other side to embrace Jeralzine. “That’s right. Together.”
Lorimer glared at them across the cauldron. “Together? I met the three of you an hour ago. Are we supposed to bond now, is that it? Forge a magical friendship stronger than hatred and chaos to overcome the forces of evil?”
“For the sake of the universe, I hope not,” said Bruyalle. “You’re an ass.”
Flopknot’s ears shivered as she pulled herself up to her full height, barely coming up to the humans’ hips. “No, Miles, you’re done. We needed your DNA as Overzone CEO to authorise an override on the portal safety protocols. You got us to Dimension None safely. Thank you. You don’t need to stay.”
“What?” protested Miles. “You’re forcing me out, just like that? But what about -?”
None of them ever learned what he intended to complain about. His spot in the circle was suddenly vacant. The scene in the stew shifted to show Miles, pointing at his watch and shouting as a gang of knife-waving gremlins skittered across the battlefield. The scene changed before they reached Miles.
Flopknot looked around at the recreation of a cosy palace kitchen, conjured from Jeralzine’s mind. “What matters?” she asked suddenly. “Nonemyr exists to destroy what moves us. What is that for each of you?”
Friedland the Mighty, the savage warrior who, bare-fisted, once beat a company of Dwarf excavators in their clan drill-suits, scowled. “You want us to reveal our weaknesses, rabbit? What sort of game are you playing?”
“It’s not a game,” Flopknot replied. “I’m asking the only important question left. What matters?”
“Family,” said Bruyalle, staring into the fire beneath the cauldron. Licks of flames reflected off her dark eyes. “Mine didn’t do right by me, so I left to see the world. I didn’t know I was looking for a replacement until I found them.” She squeezed Friedland and Jeralzine’s hands, flashing a wicked smirk at their blushes.
“Didn’t there used to be four of you?” said Flopknot.
“Voxxas was more of a business associate,” shrugged Bruyalle. “Pity he and Lorimer never met. They’d have got on well.”
Friedland looked at the hands resting on his, tiny compared to his spade-like mitts. “I was going to be an artist,” he said. “I was good too. Apprenticed to the portrait painter, Salini Gamliano.”
“The same Gamliano executed by Duke Balepaw?”
Friedland nodded. “The Duke took exception to my master’s talent for capturing likenesses. Gamliano was put to death, his works confiscated and his studio burned. I swore revenge and took up the sword.”
“So that’s why we took so many mercenary jobs in the Vale of Whiskers?” said Bruyalle. “You never said anything.”
“I didn’t want anyone else to carry my past for me,” said Friedland. “Better to put it in a box and lay it down.”
“I’ve dedicated my life to preserving the status quo,” said Flopknot. “Me and my boys, we saw to it the Princes needs were met, and in return they looked after us. Quid pro quo. I thought it was the perfect arrangement, until today. Today cost more than I could afford.”
Jeralzine Stewpot gestured around the likeness of the kitchen. “This is all I ever wanted,” she said simply. “This was a life with simple rules. Orphans at the bottom, doing whatever they were told. Stewpots.”
“Jerzy, that sounds miserable,” said Friedland.
“I’m glad we got you out of there,” said Bruyalle.
“But it wasn’t bad,” explained Jeralzine. “The kitchen masters watched me, they knew I wanted more. They put me to work doing everything until they knew what I was best at. What I most wanted to do.”
“And what was that?” said Flopknot.
Jeralzine indicated the cauldron. “I wanted to tend the stew. I wanted to make sure everyone was warm and had a full belly.”
Flopknot picked up a ladle and dipped it into a depiction of the Witch-Princess Naomis in furious battle. “Get a bowl,” she said. “Eat up.”
Friedland sniffed suspiciously. “Is it safe?”
“Of course,” said Flopknot, looking at Jeralzine. “Because it matters to her.”
Bruyalle asked, “Shouldn’t we be helping, not eating?” But she felt suddenly ravenous, and dipped a spoon into her stew.
“Nonemyr will erode the Gleaming Principalities,” said Flopknot. “It’s inevitable. Unstoppable. But Nonemyr draws its power to corrupt from Dimension None, and now we’ve contaminated Dimension None with Jeralzine’s compassion.”
Friedland gulped from his bowl. “Compassion tastes like carrots and barley.”
Jeralzine said,” But what happens next?”
“Who knows? A fair and just society? A collapse into agrarian utopia? The end of all Principalities?” Flopknot lapped stew from her paw. “Whatever happens, we’ll all need new jobs.”
This week’s melancholy tone is brought to you by the sudden and unexpected realisation that I’m going to miss these characters. Next week is the 100th Friday Flash Fiction story, and I’ll be going for a very different vibe.