Sunday, February 12, 2017

What I wrote in 2016

I'm making a note here of the short stories I had published in 2016 for those of you who are planning to nominate for the Nebulas, Hugos or any other similar recognition.

My novel "Another Girl, Another Planet" was published after the start of the year, so it's not eligible this year - although, of course, I strongly recommend you buy it!

Here is the rundown of my nine short stories published in 2016:

1. “Captain of the Clouds” – Aurora Wolf, January 2016

The year started out right with the publication of my alternate history "Captain of the Clouds" on January 1st by the ezine Aurora Wolf.

"The Second Confederacy used unremarkable biplanes to patrol the border, but the greater Texas Republic used helium-filled dirigibles on its side of the Mississippi River—and Billy Greer knew each one by sight.

"The airship on patrol that summer along the Mississippi-Louisiana border in 1936 was the Gov. Ferguson. During the summer Billy and his friends would wait every afternoon to see it float past Natchez.  This afternoon, though, Billy was alone.  Some of his friends had been distracted by a report of a dead cat run over on a nearby street.  Billy took advantage of being alone to do something he’d been wanting to do for a long time."

The POD in this alternate history is that the great Spanish Flu epidemic after World War I carried off a third of the U.S. population as opposed to maybe three percent in real life (one-third off all Americans did get sick, so the one-third figure is not unreasonable if the flue had been universally fatal).

As a result of the great death toll the U.S. falls apart into a number of smaller entities, with both the Confederacy as well as the Republic of Texas rising again.

The "trick" in the story is when you realize who the "Captain of the Clouds" is in our timeline.

INSPIRATION: "Captain of the Clouds" was both a patriotic movie and song title from 1942.

You can read the story online here.

2. “Higher Powers” – Sci-Phi Journal, February 2016

He read the label on the wall:

“Warning: Maximum life support duration for escape pod: 72 hours.”

It was now more than 80 hours since he fell into the pod as the ship decompressed.

Reeves looked around.

“Is there anybody out there?” he said softly.

Running into a black string was the only thing that could have caused such a sudden and catastrophic ship failure. The only reason he was alive was that he was adjacent to an escape pod when the alarm sounded.

It was hard to believe, as fast as the ship was destroyed, that any emergency beacons were deployed. There was no sign anyone else escaped. No com chatter, no signs of other pods.

He was all alone with no hope of rescue.

One of my few forays into space-based stories of any sort, "Higher Powers" was published on Leap Day, Feb. 29. In it, I explain how an alien race might regard the human ritual of prayer.

INSPIRATION: The hymn "This World Is Not My Home" - referenced in the story.

You can read it online here

3. “The Milky Way Dance Hall” – Decision Points anthology. May 2016

Light pollution.

We didn’t have any of it back then.  

Heck, we were lucky to have lights.  I was still in junior high school when the REA ran electricity to the farms in Franklin County.

When I was in high school, there really wasn’t anything for teenagers to do there.  Drive-in movies were popular, but we were much too small to have one.  The nearest was one county over, in Mount Pleasant.

There was absolutely nothing in between the two cities. There weren’t even any farms; the power company held the land for the lignite underneath.  So it was completely black, and boy, did the stars shine at night.

There was this one farm-to-market road than ran through that wilderness, between us and Mount Pleasant.  Late at night, after all the adults thought us teenagers were in bed, a bunch of us would sneak out there.  It was the flattest stretch of road anyone had ever seen--smooth as a glass dance floor. And that’s what we used it for.  

Picked up by Bryan Thomas Schmidt for his YA themed anthology "Decision Points", in keeping with the theme, it tells of a fateful night when a teenager on a date must make a painful decision in the wake of an alien encounter.

INSPIRATION: Personal anecdote told to me by Ralph K. Banks, who is credited in the introduction to the story.

You can buy the book here.

4. “Lone Star, Lost Star” – Fiction on the Web, July 31, 2016

I was standing almost smack dab in the middle of State Line Avenue, looking across the street at the Baptist bookstore - where I had parked - with a six pack of Coors in my hand, when Texas disappeared. 

I am quite familiar with what happened, yes. 

If I hadn't had to wait for a car to pass, I would have already been on the Texas side of the street when it happened. I hold the record for the person who was closest to Texas who didn't disappear with it. 

I was so shocked I almost fell into the abyss, but the enormous thunderclap that accompanied its disappearance as the vacuum collapsed knocked me backwards flat on my ass. I clutched the ground face down as the wind rushed in to fill the empty space. The beer went flying and one can rolled towards the car that had just passed me. 

The driver came to a tire-squealing stop. The car was buffeted as the wind rushed past into the space where Texas had been. I lay as flat as I could and clutched the asphalt. 

After what seemed like forever - but was really only a couple of minutes - the wind subsided. The driver looked shocked as he exited the passenger side. He looked over his roof and then looked at me. 

"What the fuck just happened?" he asked. 

People were streaming out of the shopping plaza on the Arkansas side of the street, including the liquor store I had just left, and rushing to the edge of the vast empty space. 

As we found out later, everything that had been Texas was gone down to a depth of 150 feet below sea level. 

This story was written as a submission for an anthology with the theme "No shit, I was there", but wasn't picked up. Instead it was published by the U.K. based ezine Fiction on the Web.

INSPIRATION: Anthology theme.

You can read it online here.

5. “The Yellow Flag” – Sci-Phi Journal, August 2016

Chris looked around into the darkness. “Something is out there.”

“Grab the camera,” said Pete, as he began to wave a hand-held detector around.

When Chris came back to him, Pete pointed. “Whatever it is, it’s that way. Turn on the camera light.”

The paid began to walk across the tall prairie grass. Pete frowned as the signal grew stronger and louder.

“This is like a reading for an electrical power plant,” he said. “You sure there’s nothing out here?”

“The nearest ranch is over 20 miles away,” said Chris. “This is protected federal prairie land. It took me six months just to get the camping permit.”

“What the fuck is that!!!” Pete shouted.

Chris froze and let the camera fall off his shoulder.

Ahead of them, a dull reddish glowing disc-like object rose into the dark sky.

“Run!” Chris shouted.

They turned, but didn’t get far.

This is the story I wrote, submitted and had accepted in four hours, a record which I think will be hard to break. It offers a plausible - and to some people, obvious - answer to the Fermi Paradox.

This was also my 100th published short story since 2003.

INSPIRATION: Fermi's Paradox.

You can read it online here.

6. “And He Threw His Hands Up in the Air” – Siren’s Call, No. 28 August 2016

Modern civilization started in ancient Mesopotamia about 10,000 BC -- you read that in a history book, didn’t you?  That was about the time agriculture was invented, too, wasn’t it?

Allow me to set the record straight for you -- although no one would believe what I’m about to tell you if you repeated it.  Oh, about 10,000 BC, maybe we could say civilization was restarted,  and agriculture was reintroduced.  I should know--I was there when it stopped in the first place.

In fact I was an eyewitness.

Talk about agriculture --our office park sat in a beautiful green valley; from my observation post I could see corn flowers across the highway, and cattle grazing in a nearby field.

The mutated descendants of those cattle were among the few animals that survived the devastation caused by the war.  They grew gnarled and woolly to survive to survive the nuclear winter; it still pains me to see an American bison, even if only on a nickel.

Another one of my secret histories about Atlantis and ancient civilizations, this short tale explains how the image of The Burning Man is embedded in our subconscious.

INSPIRATION: The Burning Man Festival.

You can download a PDF of the issue here.

7. “Time Like a Rope” – Silver Blade magazine, October 2016

Time is like a rope.  –  Ray Bradbury

This is a story about how I traveled along a loop in the rope of time. It starts with what I was told by the little old lady in Pasadena.

Okay, I know you are hearing that Jan and Dean tune in your head. No, it wasn’t that little old lady. Yes, she was a little old lady, but she was English, and I met her in Pasadena, Texas. It’s a suburb of Houston, where I grew up. I was fresh out of the UT journalism school, on my first newspaper job. They didn’t trust me with any hard news stories back then.

The managing editor called me over to his desk. “We have a local hookup with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s a woman living here now who is a survivor of the sinking.”

“Wow, how old is she?”

“She’s 82. She was saved in a lifeboat with her English family. She later married a petroleum engineer and moved to Texas. She didn’t like to talk about her experience on the Titanic while her husband was alive—she said it bothered him to hear about it—but she’s widowed now and living alone in Pleasant Estates.“

“That’s a real link to history,” I said.

He handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her address and phone number. Her name is Nancy Atkins.”

The sinking of the Titanic is one of those events we keep going back to. In this case, I composed a tail biter of a story where the narrator realizes by the end he is just one strand in that rope of time.

INSPIRATION: The Ray Bradbury quote that starts the story.

You can read it online here.

8. "Three Twilight Zone Variations on a High School Reunion" - 3rd Spectral Book of Horror Stories, Oct. 31, 2016

He faced the fountain in the center of the atrium.  "It was sitting right over there that Joyce dumped me." 

The retired teacher knitted her brow.  "Joyce Mann?" 

The author grimaced.  "Sho 'nuff, Mrs. Lennon.  That's the reason I went to college in Texas, rather than staying close to home," he said.  “I wanted a change of scenery.”

She looked at him.  “It must have hurt.”

“A lot,” he said.  “It still does.”

He walked briskly across the atrium.  “And I remember how, when we both stood up, we were both so mad, and she took off in one direction, and I went the opposite way, and when I rounded the corner...”

"Stop!" shouted the teacher.  “There’s scaffolding!” 

The author struck his head on a protruding plank, and fell to the ground unconscious.

An uncommon foray for me into the peripheries of horror, this is really very much a Twilight Zone-type ghost story - the ghosts being teenage angst. Joseph Rubas picked this up for his U.K.-based horror anthology.

INSPIRATION: A real visit I made to my old high school in 2013

You can purchase it here.

9. “If You Were a Dinah Shore, My Love” – Gallery of Curiosities podcast, Dec. 26, 2016

Jack was seething.

The other nightclub owners always said he was a two-bit.

He’d been trying to get some respect from the Dallas mob for 16 years – with no success.

“Big Boy” Louie Campari had just dropped in for drink. On the way out, he looked at Jack’s “Teresa Brewer” on the stage.

The clone was warbling “A Sweet Old-Fashioned Girl.”

Campari sneered.

“Couldn’t afford anything better, eh?”

Jack watched him walk away, and clutched his fists in barely suppressed anger.

The son-of-a-bitch was right. He couldn’t afford someone from the top ranks of entertainment.

A Doris Day clone, or a Patti Page clone. Now THAT would be class.

He didn’t have the money.

Basically a feghoot played off the title of another spec fic story from a a few years ago that I really got sick of hearing about, I decided to exorcise the original title by writing a flash story to purge it from my brain.

Ironically, it turned out pretty good, and was sold to the Curious Gallery podcast, and so became my first original publication via podcast.

INSPIRATION: Rachel Swirsky's story, "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" - obviously.

It was the second story in a double bill; you can listen to it here. My story starts at 19:30.

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