Published November 16, 2022

Letter From the Editor

Letter from the Editor: Strings Attached

Strings Attached

By Rob Carroll

English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley once quipped that “technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means of going backwards.” Microsoft’s Bill Gates said that “automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wrote that for a technology to be successful, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Then we have businessman and ex-CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. He declared that technology “empowers people to do what they want. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

Is Ballmer’s take the kind of public relations that Feynman was warning us about? Is it a valid counterpoint to Huxley’s barb? Does it account for the human variable—the inefficiency, as Gates put it—in the system? Or is it just a harmless declaration of what’s possible?

Yes, Ballmer was speaking as the CEO of one of the world’s largest technology companies, and yes, he did and still does have a vested interest in certain technologies flourishing—greater buy-in means more money in his pockets—but even with those points taken into consideration, I still think he was being earnest. And I do still agree with him…mostly.

Read the rest for free.

Fiction

Patchwork Girls

Patchwork Girls

By Lyndsey Croal

She’s died more times than she can remember. Been put back together more times than she can count. A patchwork girl, made up of replaceable parts. Her ability to die but not die should make her stronger, feel like a superhero, but instead, she remains fragile and weak, her whole life built only to be crushed as easily as a flower in bloom.

Usually, she doesn’t feel the pain of the act. But this time, something has gone wrong—this time she feels it. As the knife slips between her ribs, there’s a searing pain, a tightness, and then a coldness that spreads across every inch of her body. She shouldn’t be able to feel cold. Not like this. She falls back, struggling for breath, while her analysis screams punctured lung! Organ failure!

The man who stabbed her stands over her, watching, holding her gaze, a twitch of a smile on his face. Is the trembling of his bloodied hands real, or is he acting? She can no longer tell the difference.

As she takes her last struggling breaths, she hopes that when they remake her, they will give her brand-new parts. She can still feel the patched-up ache in her hip from the car accident, the one that had her bent in unnatural directions, bones sticking out of her skin. But this is worse, and she never wants to experience it again—this urgent gasping for air, drowning in her own blood. Have they changed her programming to make it more realistic? Or maybe she’s dying for real this time—maybe this is the end. There is some relief in that thought.

A bright light passes above her, a camera continues to roll, and the last word she hears as her vision fades to black is, “Cut!”

Lullaby

Lullaby

By David Worn

She knew it was time to take him up for his nap—as they had taken to calling it— when she looked over to see her little boy lying on the floor, mindlessly moving a stuffed animal back and forth. Joanna had been busy piping a delicate border of pink icing around the top of a homemade chocolate cake. The boy’s sister Kim, the birthday girl, was in the backyard with her father, placing balloons and decorations around tables and chairs. A unicorn bouncy castle lay partly inflated and ruffling in the breeze. It’s a shame her son was going to miss out.

Earlier, Joanna had dissolved a red-colored pill with the number one printed on it into Pete’s sippy cup and, as per usual, it had taken about twenty minutes to take effect. Although the pills were not always precise, a 1-RED should put him out for a full day. This way, they’d be able to enjoy the party without having a three-year-old boy rampaging around. Maybe they could take his sister to dinner at a restaurant that wasn’t kid-friendly, for a change. Of course, going out would mean leaving Pete alone for several hours, but the app would notify them of anything unusual.

Carrying the boy’s limp body in her arms, she brought him up to his bedroom. His Lullaby sleeping sack was spread out on his bed, nestled amidst ruffled blankets and stuffed animals. She hated this part, placing him in the sack—it always made her think she was putting him into a body bag. The manufacturer had tried their best to make them more cheerful. They came in baby blues and pinks, with images of dinosaurs or unicorns. But it still looked like a body bag to her. The inside was lined with soft beige plush, which was more to appease the parents than the child. After all, when a child was on Lullaby, they didn’t feel anything.

Joanna placed her son inside, fixed his hair, and paused to admire his sweet little face. His eyes fluttered open, and he gazed at her with a big smile.

“Mommy, Kimmi’s birthday party now? We eat cake?”

“Shh, it’s naptime. Close your eyes for mommy,” she said softly.

Helter Smelter

Helter Smelter

By Mark Burnham

Part 1: Procedure

Val Pinker stopped struggling and just hung there, feeling every minute of his sixty-five years of age. Suspension cables hooked around his feet, arms, and torso. The medical apparatus had him clutched in its metallic teeth, splayed in midair, naked and awaiting a benediction he told himself he wanted.

“Val, can you hear me in there?” It was Dr. Catherine Danvers, her voice distant, echoing from somewhere above.

Val tilted his head upwards but could not see her. Surgical lamps blinded him. He forced himself to imagine her purple lipstick and chrome-blade hairdo, her bionic left arm that had touched his shoulder gently when they first met yesterday.

“Val? Yoo-hoo,” she called to him again, in a pretty sing-song. Her voice sounded filtered and tinny coming out of the intercom.

 “Yes,” he finally answered in a hoarse bellow. “I hear you.” The sedatives they’d pumped him with made him groggy. His mouth tasted like a mix of vitamin C and alcohol. He couldn’t swallow. Something buzzed behind his eyes. His body thirsted for sleep. It made him shudder.

“Good. We’re going to get started in just a minute. Hang tight.”

The sound of something large and mechanical unwinding and grating in the distance, like a huge onion made of steel, peeling itself layer by layer.

The peeling sound morphed into a flutter, high-pitched and whirring. It was the sound of a motor, Val recognized. Pistons were at work, like the trash compactors he’d operated throughout his career. But this was something smaller and more precise than the lumbering machines he knew.

The Care Home

The Care Home

By Jennifer Lee Rossman

With the curtains drawn tight against the too-bright morning sun, the only pinprick of light came from the green LED in the ceiling. Sonia instinctively searched for it upon waking, a landmark confirming her location after a night spent dreaming of being trapped back home with her mother.

It was a simple thing, that little green light, but she took comfort in the reassurance it provided. She was safe, she had gotten out.

“Good morning,” Sonia said after a moment orienting herself, and the smart home switched her bedroom lights on. A bit more harshly than she was accustomed to—usually the house raised the brightness slowly so her eyes could adjust—but maybe her drowsiness had slurred her speech and made the AI misunderstand the command.

“I’d like to get dressed, please.”

The pause between her asking and the green light blinking in recognition only lasted a second longer than normal. The occasional delay was to be expected, with so many systems running at once to anticipate and provide for any support Sonia could need.

She knew that, and yet her heart clenched every time, anxiety twisting her stomach.

What if it stopped working? What if all the fail-safes failed? How would she get help? Where would she go? She could never go back home, and the idea of living in an institutional setting now that she had known independence—

The light blinked, and Sonia breathed easier as multi-jointed arms extended from the wall and ceiling.

Binge

Binge

By R. L. Meza

“I’m not doing this anymore.” Molly knots her trembling fingers in the hair-sprayed nest of curls piled atop her head. “I can’t. I won’t.”

As if she has a choice. As if any of us—Beth and Dane and Little Carl and me—are here because we want to be.

The intro music starts to play, and we’re yanked to our feet like marionettes on over-tight strings, moving herky-jerky to the tune of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”

Molly’s first on set. She teeters through the living room on shiny high heels and plops down on the couch, framing her face with her hands. She puffs up the loose curls on her forehead with an exaggerated sigh. She tilts her head left, then right. Molly’s makeup is a mess—mascara running in a black, desperate flood, lipstick smeared like a crushed strawberry—but at least the long skirt hides the marks from the last time she cracked. If Molly can’t keep it together, they’re going to run out of camera-friendly places to fix her.

The telephone rings, and Molly sits up like she’s been jabbed with a cattle prod. She reaches across the couch, then freezes. Molly’s real name slides through the air from stage left and lurches to a stop, bubble letters bouncing.

Catherine Dillard.

Blueing

Blueing

By Andrew Rucker Jones

Ms. Van Buren, she wants everybody to recognize that she’s related to that U.S. president nobody remembers, even if you’re from Mexico and don’t know U.S. history too good. Thing is, she never recognizes me. At least, not the way she should.

As she struts through the door of my upscale, by-appointment-only, if-you-got-to-ask–you-don’t-belong-here skin salon, she says, “Victoria! Victoria, dear! I’m running late. Do your worst and let me be off.” Yeah, she knows me. But she never recognizes me.

She hangs her purse and pink bolero on the wall-mounted silver coat rack shaped like ivy leaves on a vine. The automatic facelifter next to the coat rack—a blue, plastic egg the size of your head on a frame with caster wheels—growls, then falls back asleep like a coyote or a chupacabra maybe. Ms. Van Buren plops into the old dentist chair I got cheap, polished up real good, and took all the dentist-y things off of. She groans like she’s happy to be fed up with running from hair salon to investment banker to nail salon to country club luncheon to skin salon to charitable gala and finally, maybe, to “get away from it all” you know, giving in to her guilty pleasure of staying in one of those posh hotels she owns and stealing the monogrammed towels in the morning.

Overhead, stuck-up skincare models on looping TV ads stare down at her like, yeah, they see her, but all that’s her problem and they don’t want to know about it.

I start by massaging her face and neck, because once I told her good circulation expands the blood vessels in the skin, which smooths out the wrinkles. I can sell anybody anything, so I pocket another twenty bucks to listen to her talk while she settles into her chair and I settle into my endless waiting game. I been waiting half my life for something—news from my sister, money from my sister, news about my sister, my abuela to recognize me one last time, my green card, a business loan—so I’m good at it, but it’s still frustrating.

Salvage

Salvage

By Sarah Fannon

When your whole household dies without you, it’s hard to grieve normally, and that’s why even though my entire family gathers in the living room, they don’t actually live there. My dad droid leans against the wall to survey the room with his arms crossed. My mom droid stands at the window where she used to spy on the neighbors. My grandma droid is plopped down in her armchair firmly in control of the lamp and the remote. And my brother droid sits crossed-legged in front of the television. When I watch TV, I sit in the corner of the room, so his head won’t block my view. Before I go to bed every night, I drape cloth over their silver bodies. I try not to interrogate the impulse or why it makes me feel safer.

Tonight, I call on Grandma last. I hold her droid’s hands and say, “I welcome Grandma Lou to speak with me this evening.”

The droids would mean little to me without seances. I built them as conduits to the spirit world and have been connecting with the family every night for weeks. They can’t stay long or say much, and their memories seem shrouded by the afterlife’s veil (I have to remind them my name is Jill), but I’d rather have a brief and flickering flame than total darkness.

Grandma says nothing. She’s usually quick to answer my call, but I’ll give her time. She hated being rushed in life and would often take longer out of spite. The best example was the time my dad told her she looked beautiful without lipstick and that no one would see her in the dark of the movie theater anyway. 

“Where was your sense of urgency when I gave birth to you, ten hours of your big head taking its sweet time? You can let me have the dignity of preparing my lipstick before leaving the house, thank you.” She reapplied the lipstick twice for good measure and winked at me when our eyes met in the mirror. urce: that so-called “black gold.” They stole all of it but a little bit. And what if they came for what was left in the tank? Worse yet, what if Lu took too long to come back?

WonderYears Incorporated has no comment

WonderYears Incorporated has no comment

By Caity Scott

Light splashes cold over Elanor’s skin, and the shallow snap of footsteps on tile makes the space behind her eyes buzz.

The man’s fingertips piano against her plastic window. “The blonde is always the most popular model,” he says. He is followed by other men wearing suits. Their hair is slicked back and stiff to the touch, firm and convex like beetle shells.  “Who doesn’t love a blonde? We went classic with her hair and make-up. It was a real trick, striking a balance between silver-screen bombshell and mommy, but the boys down in product design really hit it out of the park.”

“What features does it come with?”

“All the basics: cooking, cleaning, sex. No talking unless you want them to. Most of our customers like ‘em better when they’re quiet. They’re durable, too. She can change out your oil while it’s still hot. You can even hit her with your truck, and she’ll just get up and smile. You ever seen a toilet get stained? The white porcelain ones, I mean. Course not. See, her teeth are made of the same stuff. They’ll never stain. They use porcelain to coat the noses on those damn galaxy crawlers ‘cause it can withstand any heat you throw at it. Good stuff.”

His eyes lift to her. His breath clouds her window. “These hunbots are still being programmed. They’ll be done next week.”

Elanor stares straight back at him, a smile cemented on her face.

Reprint Fiction

The Vampire Facial

The Vampire Facial

By Anna Fitzgerald Healy
Originally Published by Mystery Tribune

I wake up and brush my hair. Put on some makeup. Pull on my new leggings with “butt-lifting technology.” Take a selfie for my admirers. Stumble into the living room and collapse onto the sofa. Turn on the television. Draw the first vial of blood. Grin at the host of well-wishes and flattery from my following. Faint. Walk unsteadily to the refrigerator, grabbing onto the bookshelf, table, and kitchen island as I go. Open the door and frown at the untouched sushi, Thai, and Indian takeout, then opt for a kombucha and some crackers instead. I will eat something substantial tomorrow. Careen back to the couch. Drink half of the kombucha while trying not to gag. Turn on the television. Wave weakly at my assistant when she comes in to take the first tube of blood. Order some platinum-infused night cream. Draw the second vial. Pass out again.

When I wake up, my television is a single point of brightness in the dark abyss of my apartment. The days pass so quickly this time of year, it seems only an instant before everything fades to black. There is a movie on the television screen featuring a vapid ingenue and a man with dark red lips who (I assume) wants to suck her blood. The vampire is pale and perfect, just like me.

What is a vampire? A person with a neck fetish and pointy teeth? A creature that feasts on others? But aren’t we all parasites in our own way? I get a rush of endorphins from each like on TikTok. Maybe you require frequent praise at work. Maybe she craves constant attention from her boyfriend. We are all nourished by our engagement with others. Many of us have someone who feeds us and, in turn, someone who is fed.

Author Interviews

Author Interview: Erika T. Wurth

Erika T. Wurth

Feature by Jena Brown

The first time I saw the cover of Erika T. Wurth’s new novel, White Horse, I had to have it. The smoky haze surrounding an indigenous woman wearing sunglasses that reflected the Denver cityscape was captivating. The image was gritty and haunting, and held the promise of a surreal nightmare inside. And man, Wurth did not let me down.

We meet Kari James, an urban Indian who is satisfied with her life. She likes hanging out at the White Horse bar, has everything she needs in her cousin Debby, and takes care of her father. But when Debby gives her a bracelet that once belonged to her mother, it calls her mother’s ghost—and something else.

The story is fierce and intimate, with a protagonist that both knows who she is but also has to face some uncomfortable truths about herself. It’s a story that we can all relate to on some level at some point in our lives, and yet, the journey Kari goes on is so intensely personal, it is hers alone.

I was thrilled to sit down with Wurth and chat about why she loves horror, her love of Stephen King and Megadeath, and what scares her right now.

Author Interview: Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw

Feature by Janelle Janson

Cassandra Khaw’s novella, Nothing but Blackened Teeth, has stuck with me ever since I read it years ago. It’s a ghost story with complex themes and characters, and it taught me to always respect a haunted mansion.

I recently had the pleasure of asking Cassandra a few questions about the novella, as well as what they’re working on currently.

JANELLE JANSON: What is the lore behind the Heian ghost bride featured in Nothing but Blackened Teeth?

CASSANDRA KHAW: There isn’t, actually. She’s entirely made up. Well, let me walk that back a little bit. With the ghost bride, I wanted to build something that feels authentic to the spooky stories that I grew up on. It had to feel like it could be real, had to have enough of the bones of a true thing, while also being something wholly invented. I pulled from bits of actual lore, and from half-memories of rumors I’d heard before. And it seems to have worked. I can’t count the number of people who have puzzledly asked, “So, which legend is this from exactly?”

Artisan Spotlight

Artisan Spotlight: Limited Run Games

Limited Run Games

Feature by Marissa van Uden

Limited Run games, co-founded by Josh Fairhurst and Douglas Bogart in 2015, enables game developers to create physical versions of their otherwise digital-only games and also takes retro games that might have been lost to the mists of time and publishes them as collectible physical copies. This means the company is not only putting legendary games on the shelves of passionate fans but also helping to preserve hard copies for game historians.

For many of us, there is something so special about having physical copies of our favorite games, books, and films. It’s not just the tactile pleasure of holding the object in our hands but also being able to place them on a shelf where we can be reminded of our experiences interacting with them the first time. So, I love what Limited Run is doing for video games and was so excited to sit down with Douglas Bogart to learn how the company came about, who the people are behind it, and what we can look forward to in the future.

Art Features

Art Feature: Into the Mystic

Into the Mystic

By Jennifer Sikora
Feature by Rob Carroll

Ukranian artist Jennifer Sikora’s illustrations radiate love and affection for Ukrainian folklore and culture during a time of great suffering for the nation, and for this reason, I believe them to be beautiful acts of courage and fortitude. Confronted with great destruction, Jennifer has instead chosen to create.

Art Feature: Constant Gardener

Constant Gardener

By Julian Bustos
Feature by Rob Carroll

Artist Julian Bustos has great love and respect for the medium he works in and the artists that came before him. “I’m addicted to spending hours contemplating visual art online or in museums, from the renaissance to the contemporary” he tells me. “I love to analyze the colors and details, the symbolism, everything.”

I didn’t need to meet Julian to learn about his thoughtful, and inquisitive nature, or his zen-like attitude toward life—I had already figured as much. Speaking with him only confirmed what had already been said to me so clearly through his art.

Cover Art Feature: Wandering Pete

Wandering Pete

By Sean Andrew Murray

“I wonder what kind of menacing Christmas carols he screams.”

Marissa van Uden
Assistant Editor


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