Quantum Zoo: “Serpent’s Foe”

“Serpent’s Foe” is my own contribution to Quantum Zoo.

Egyptian freize

She-lion
Born helpless with eyes shut
Her mother moves her cub to a new den
Often, lest scent build up
 
She-lion
Hunts for her pride while he-lion watches their young
Working with her sisters so cleverly
Stalking, that all may eat
 
She-lion
Rampant on the shield of might
Couchant in the sigil of cunning
Royal, hear her roar

 

– hieroglyphic inscription on the fragment
from a forgotten tomb

 
Abruptly she returned to herself.
 
Where had she been?
 
The desert spaces of a dream, hunting as a lioness should? She didn’t know. But this dim-lit vault looked different through waking eyes than dreaming ones.
 
Why didn’t they sweep the floors?
 
Sand lay on the flat stone expanse in patches of dusty sparkles. The whole complex cried out for a scouring. Rust coated the iron bars of the cages, from their tops, anchored in the sandstone ceiling, to their bases, sunk into rock. Dung decorated the corners.
 
And the carcass of her last meal rotted against the bars separating her from the jackal next door. That black-coated beast gnawed at the bloody remains, his snout poked through a gap.
 
Fah! She lifted her forepaw fastidiously to lick it clean.
 
Movement diagonally across the broad corridor caught her eye. Another feline – a cheetah, not a lion – paced.
 
Back and forth.
 
Back and forth.
 
Prowling restlessly.
 
This is no place for me and mine. I, who carry the sun in my eyes by night.
 
She was caged, she who was meant to be free.
 
Who had perpetrated this outrage?
 
She shifted the bulk of her feline body, feeling the press of the cool stone floor against her flank. She lay in the exact center of her square enclosure, avoiding the bars – cold and radiating evil.
 
She’d been hunting, surely. Before she woke to this zoo. Or was she dreaming now of her imprisonment?
 
LionessIn her earlier dream, the grey shades of moonless night had enfolded her.
 
Tall strands of sun-dried grasses rustled in the almost-not-there breeze, brushing against her pelt. The bass rumble of bullfrogs mingled with splashing sounds. A rank smell of river mud crept close to the ground, closer than she.
 
Fah!
 
Her limbs were made for crouching, for stalking, for lunging from cover.
 
The faint scent of her prey traced through the cool air rising off the Nile.
 
Not ibis. Not hippo. Not croc.
 
She lunged, hindquarters powering her forward, fore claws outstretched, ready to rend as she batted her meal to the ground.
 
Its nest lay empty – a trammeled area of matted reeds where the red deer had slept.
 
But not now.
 
Now it fled, zigzagging, its tail a flag in the night.
 
She gave chase. I will feast!
 
Nearer and nearer.
 
Her muscles bunched, then extended, driving her close.
 
The smell of the creature’s submission lent her strength, transforming the draining pain of her hunger into her pounce.
 
And then the very air lay empty.
 
Where . . . ?
 
No spoor on the mud. No scent on the breeze. No thud of panicked hooves in the ear.
 
Utterly gone.
 
From where would her feast come now?
 
Yet not all scent had vanished.
 
Behind her, a fresh aroma threaded the night: musty, dry, a whisper of fear.
 
She, the hunter, was hunted. The knowledge shivered through her empty belly.
 
All impulse to slacken her pace vanished as utterly as the deer. She raced onward, fleeing the riverbank, fleeing her pursuer.
 
What would hunt a lioness?
 
And toward what end?
 
Her breath came hot in her mouth and heaved her flanks. She was no horse, meant to race from river mouth to first falls. A sprint, not the marathon, was hers.
 
The mud grew dry and cracked under her paws, grew sandy.
 
She slackened her speed. Had she outrun that which chased her?
 
A rattle of the reeds behind galvanized her anew. Amon Ra! That she should come to this!
 
The desert sand provided easier running as she spurted for the Valley of the Kings.
 
Bast statuetteAnd awoke. Or dreamed again. Whichever it was.
 
Gah! Another hunt failed! Her belly stabbed her.
 
She snarled.
 
The jackal, her neighbor, barked back and retreated to the far corner of his cage.
 
This is the dream, this underground place. I’ll close my eyes and wake where I belong!
 
Snarling again, she lowered her lids. The smells of the menagerie – her lioness nostrils could distinguish each one – would vanish like the red deer.
 
The dank, dirty water of the crocodile’s lagoon in the cage immediately opposite hers.
 
Begone!
 
The musk of the fox, asleep within a hollow log on the stone floor of its enclosure, next to the croc’s.
 
Begone!
 
The tainted rot of her own abandoned meal, the carcass pushed aside for the jackal to gnaw its bones through the bars.
 
Get them hence!
 
Where was the incense, pungent and resinous, wafted from the censors of her priests? Where the perfumes, dabbed on the pulse points of her priestesses? This was no fit abode for her!
 
My wrath will vanquish you, my captor. Oh, be afraid.
 
The friendlier, clean warmth of the cheetah pacing the cage on the other diagonal drew her eyes open again.
 
She flowed to her feet and approached the front of her own cage. The bars were cold, so cold. What would happen, if she touched them? Would she grow equally cold and dead? Turn to stone? Pass into sleep?
 
You! She demanded of the cheetah. How did you come here?
 
But only a third hissing snarl emerged from her mouth.
 
Sssr!
 
Who had done this to her? Taken her speech? Taken so much?
 
The cheetah ignored her hiss, turning abruptly at a cage corner to pace back the other way. Iron clanged on iron, and the cheetah gave the dry cough of her kind. Reaction, no doubt, to brushing the burning chill metal.
 
Fah! I am the sun carrier! These beasts will heed me! Say I so!
 
She glared at the cheetah. At the snorting bull beyond the jackal. At the mantling falcon in the cage at her other side. Its wings batted the still air – foomph, foomph – and then folded close. The scents of the menagerie swirled.
 
You must be my allies, my servants. Mine! To find the door from this place into the night, dark and clean.
 
Somehow she would compel them.
 
Without words, without power, without freedom.
 
My will shall suffice.
 
An ancient Egyptian woman in the prime of her youth and gloryShe retreated from her bars, lounged down to the sandy floor, and defiantly closed her eyes.
 
I shall awaken now.
 
And she did.
 
Blinking, she stared down at womanly arms. Hers. Stared further at the sheer linen shift rounded by breasts. Hers. Followed the fabric folded across her curving lap to the vivid green matting on the alabaster floor.
 
I am woman. Not feline.

* * *

To read more of “Serpent’s Foe,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES

 

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Quantum Zoo: “Demon Rising”

R.S. McCoy wrote an intense tale about the monster under a little girl’s bed. Her story appears in Quantum Zoo. I present its opening here.

Alhambra freize

She’s coming. I could always tell when she neared. A strange thumping noise would erupt from my chest, starting low and quiet until it had moved up into my neck. An automatic smile would sprout across the blistery skin that graced my jaw.
 
The soft thuds of her feet grew steadily louder as she made her way up the stairs. The absence of the second, heavier set revealed she was alone. Finally.
 
I had waited all day, just as I did every day, for the sun to go down and the girl to make her way up. Her footsteps stalled just outside the door a moment before the brass knob creaked as the small hand turned it. A dim light broke into the room for the brief moment before she shut the door behind her.
 
“Pan?” she whispered, inaudible but for the vibration of muscles in her mouth. She asked as if she wondered if I was still there, although I didn’t know why. I would never, ever leave her.
 
“Is it safe?” I asked in return. Exposure must be avoided.
 
Katherine“Of course.”
 
I reached out one disgusting clawed hand to pull my body closer to the edge until I could just make out her shape in the darkness above me.
 
“Come on.” She reached out her own petite hand to pull me up. The metal frame scraped the skin along my spine as I rose but I was careful to keep the pain from my face.
 
A small flame appeared and landed on the wick of a candle. “I’m sorry you had to wait so long. I know you hate it under there.” Her face was especially sweet in the dim candlelight, a dark tendril of hair fell across her face.
 
“I don’t mind,” I replied honestly. There are worse places to be than under her bed. I had only flashes of memory from the before, but they were enough; I would never go back as long as I could help it.
 
“Here, I brought you something.” She held out a small object, but I knew what it was before I even caught sight of it. She brought me one every time.
 
“You went again today?” I asked, attempting to hide my envy. There was nothing I wanted more than to go with her.
 
“Father says I can go as much as I like.”
 
What father said about the zoo was no secret. She said the words every time she went. The carved wood animal was placed into my palm.
 
“Don’t worry. You’ll go with us someday.”
 
I could only hope she was right as I marveled at the tiny creature in my hand. It appeared to be some kind of cat, but the teeth were long and sharp and it wore a thick patch of fur around its neck. And it had a tail just like mine.
 
“What do you call this one?” I asked as I clumsily turned the carving over in my hand as well as my thick, clawed fingers would allow. Yet again I wished I had ten small, capable fingers instead of the four useless ones I possessed.
 
Lion“A lion. It’s from Africa.”
 
“Lion.” I repeated, rolling the word around my jaw and savoring the taste of it. If only I could see it for myself.
 
“And look. It has a tail like yours.”
 
I leaned down a bit so we could both look at the carving together. A strange feeling welled up inside me when I realized she had picked it out especially for me. She recognized the same tail and didn’t think it disgusting. Maybe I would really get to go with her someday.

* * *

To read more of “Demon Rising,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
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Quantum Zoo Party!

Quantum Zoo‘s book launch was very successful!

Little John rocket launch
Within 24 hours, Quantum Zoo reached the top five on several of Amazon’s bestseller lists. And #1 on the Hot New Releases list!

#1 hot new release

 
Update: The sun has risen and set upon June 25, 2014. Our party began with the dawn and ended at midnight. I think we, the author hosts, had as much fun as our guests! Thank you to all who participated. :D

My Invitation to You

Party Balloons

Join our celebration
on Quantum Zoo‘s website
June 25, 2014

We are giving away:
Ebooks
Characters
Funny Hats*
Whistles*

*Perhaps not the funny hats and whistles! :D

What do you have to do to WIN?

Participate!

These are just a few of the prizes:

Hindmarsh-Smyth-McCoy

Dyson-McKenna-Gelner

Furie-Ney-Grimm-Stegall

Come visit us on “Quantum Zoo Ultra” and have fun!

 

Quantum Zoo: “Skipdrive”

Morgan Johnson wrote the story that inspired the cover for Quantum Zoo. Here’s the opening to his action-packed adventure.

Lavender and orange nebula cloud against starfield

When we found the things floating in the darkness between stars, we should have been more afraid. Instead, a giddy joyous wonder gripped the world like a fever. Every news feed shared the pictures of the two massive creatures spinning slowly somewhere past the Oort cloud and speculated wildly.
 
“Proof of alien life at last?” asked the Gawker News Network.
 
“17 Amazing Facts Scientists Have Learned About The Spinners,” offered Huff-Feed.
 
“Russia Sent A Probe To Chase Comets. You Won’t Believe What They Found Next!” was Google’s attempt to capture eyeballs.
 
We couldn’t read enough, know enough about those dark shapes.
 
Here is what we thought we knew: at the extreme edge of our system, just past the distant ring of ice and dust that marks the blast radius of our own sun’s kindling — the accretion disc — life was waiting for us. Alien life forms the size of humpback whales floated in the black. Encrusted with rock and ice, they looked like nothing so much as a mad child’s drawing of a cuttlefish. The first two we found sported tentacled limbs floating motionless in space and eyes larger than a man placed in a ring around a cavernous mouth.
 
The very best radio telescopes and laser rangers were trained on the lurking things. Each day the news was full of speculation. Did they have hearts or brains? Were they alive? Were they explorers from an alien world? Could they be dormant, awaiting an intelligent culture to wake them up?
 
Seriously, we should have known better.
 
The narrative the media settled on was predictably optimistic: the things were organic, living ships sent by a benevolent alien race to explore the galaxy. They were probes of a sort, like our Voyager, taking a message to the stars.
 
Of course we had to have them.
 
And of course, once we found two it took little effort to find more. While our ship — my ship — was being outfitted to race out ahead of the Chinese and the Pan-African ships to get our hands on the beasts we found more. Lots more.
 
Some days it seemed that wherever the astrophysicists looked they saw another Lurker. Once the eggheads knew what to search for it was easy; they found dozens. Some of the Lurkers were as small as a car while the largest would have given the largest dinosaurs a run for their money.
 
photo of a whale underwaterThere were contests to name them on board the U.S.S. Melissa . The smallest one — the thing that looked like a turtle with eight limbs and no head — ended up with the name Raphael. Private Corrigan won the lottery and came up with that one.
 
Our Chaplain, a bubbly Unitarian from Hawaii, she named the largest Leviathan. Everyone groaned at that. Too obvious. No art.
 
Sardines being sardines, the rest of the Lurkers ended up with names spanning a breathtaking range of vulgarity. It’s the Navy, after all. We may have been professionals. We may have been seasoned combat veterans of the Pluto Conflict. But if you show us a life form fifty yards long shaped exactly like an erect penis, well, we’re going to name it the Cock Rocket. Can’t be helped.
 
No, I didn’t take part in the name lottery. Whoever won had to stand up and shout the name for everyone in the mess to hear and I just haven’t been comfortable with attention since the accident.
 
But I dreamt up some good ones.
 

* *

      
The U.S.S. Melissa was the last of the hive ships. The only survivor of the Pluto Conflict, and even then just barely. Trust me, I have the livid purple and silver scars to prove it. When she was built the idea was novel: a modular ship, constructed in space, that could be whatever you needed it to be. She looked from the outside like a squished shiny orange. Looking close you’d see that her surface was covered in hundreds of hexagonal doors in all sizes like winking eyes. Airlocks, of course, leading to maintenance bays and cargo pods and fueling hubs and every sort of service a growing space fleet needs. On the inside it was a different story.
 
My grandfather served in the Navy, back when that meant boats in the water and not hurtling through the void. He had photos of his time on a submarine, which was basically a long skinny spaceship that moved under water. Weird, right? He used to complain endlessly about his time serving — not that it stopped mom from following in his footsteps. The food was terrible. His shipmates were dullards. The boredom scraped away civilization, leaving behind a yearning raw ache where your heart should be. But mostly he complained about the space. Grandpapa was a tall man, over two meters, and he spent his entire service ducking and running back and forth through narrow corridors, the air slick with condensation.
 
His stories sound like luxury now. I pull up the vidcaps of his chats with us sometimes — I don’t know why, just sometimes being miserable and feeling sorry for yourself is better than feeling nothing at all — and there’s a part where he gets off on a tangent about a particularly awful ship he crewed and he says, at the end, at least you’ll have it better.
 
It always makes me laugh.
 
The Melissa is the third ship I’ve served on. As maintenance chief, I know her every bolt and plate. Her bundles of wires are more familiar to me than the mangled reflection I see in the mirror. I love the bitch. So when I say that she is the most uncomfortable ship in the Navy you should know I’m not exaggerating. The eggheads that put her together forgot to include space for a crew at first. Fills you with faith, doesn’t it? One hundred and sixty-three atmo-locked reconfigurable independent bays mounted around a central spinning hub, outfitted with conventional drives. The outer bays are each separate and flow around each other so that the docking hubs on the inner ring can get cargo or personnel to the correct bay as quickly as possible. She was designed to outfit and supply and repair an entire fleet at once.
 
From the inner ring it’s quite beautiful, like a giant beehive spinning before you, every hexagonal cell full of boxes and tanks and grease-covered half-naked grunts taking machines apart. When Nicolai and I were still together we’d go stand at the edge of the ring, thirty feet of empty space stretching between us and the spinning rooms full of busy little workers.
 
A marvel of human ingenuity, to be sure. But they forgot living quarters. They forgot lavatories. They forgot a mess hall. So at the eleventh hour, when colonist aggression grew out of hand, they carved out living space on the edge of the inner ring. Rooms little bigger than coffins. Showers so tight you couldn’t sit, let alone shave your legs. They put the mess hall in one of the smaller rotating bays. You ever try to eat while every thirty seconds your entire room jumped in a new direction? I swear every sardine aboard the Melissa lost weight on that tour.
 
I personally lost about forty pounds of bone and muscle and skull when the bay I was in was imploded by a crazed colonist ship on a suicide run.
 
She was an extremely useful ship, the Melissa, and that’s why we were picked to go out to the edge of known space and to stuff our little beehive full of those lurking things.
 
We were all set to go, too, and then China and the Pan-African Alliance announced they were sending their ships — their closer, faster ships — to fetch the first real alien life humanity had ever encountered. So the plan had to be changed. We needed the Russians. Our old allies from the Conflict were the only ones with a ship fast enough to get there in time.
 
The Russians could get there but they had no place to put any specimens they caught. We could hold all of them, but would take weeks to get there. The solution was obvious, like chocolate and peanut butter.
 
Through the center of the Melissa they drove the Russian Kerensky-class corvette, the Chernobog. From a distance the two ships together looked like a pencil stabbed through an orange. We were in a hurry so we worked double shifts. Triple shifts for those who could take it. Grafting the two vessels together in an unholy amalgamation. The engineers were pretty sure — really — that the Hoffman-Streibling Drive wouldn’t just tear the two ships to pieces. But there was that chance. The skipdrive had only been used a handful of times before.
 
Mostly I was worried about Nicolai. He was mustered to the Chernobog — the “Chorny” — and it’d be the first time I’d see him since the accident, since half my face and skull were ripped off when the walls around me crumpled inward, since I lost an arm and a leg and a few ribs to boot. No one knew that I’d been tied down in that empty cargo bay, that I was wearing my one set of stockings and nothing else, waiting for Nicolai to show up and take me again on the warm steel floor, our sweat making us slide and bump and clutch each other tight to keep from drifting apart.
 
Maintenance Chief ElizaHe was late. Or I was early. I’d handcuffed myself to one of the safety rungs in the starboard wall. It wasn’t our first time. Hell, at that point it wasn’t our fiftieth time. The crew quarters could fit two people snugly, but unless those people were contortionists they’d have no luck getting busy in those cramped berths. It was an open joke. A handful of the smallest repair bays — too small for even the vipers the Navy prefers for ship-to-ship conflict resolution — were reserved permanently for R&R.
 
When the crew first began using the R&R cabins people snickered and made jokes, but as the Conflict dragged on and the colonists dug in, it  lost any humor . At best you’d see the cold glare of jealousy in someone’s eyes across the mess as you reserved your room.
 
It was our turn then, in the R&R cabin. The fighting had died down. The Collies had been quiet for days. Either planning something or hashing out terms of surrender, everyone agreed. Suicide mission hadn’t been on the list. Kamikaze strikes weren’t a thing you did. Ships were too precious, too few, to waste them. No one knew why they did it. One minute we were at a semblance of peace, stretched out better than naked in a dimly lit brushed-steel cargo dock waiting for our too-handsome-for-us Russian/Californian lover to engage in some conventional thrusting and the next minute a ship piloted by a starving madman tears open your world and pins you to a wall.
 
In the end, no one mentioned the stockings or the handcuffs. They patched me up with the cheapest cybernetics the Navy could get away with, gave me the minimum mandatory leave, and sent me right back up into the black.
 
Only now no one looked at me the same and my lovely Russian paramour had been assigned away as a liaison to some Red Navy boat.
 
* * *

 
The captain gave a big speech before we made the skip. Everyone was nervous about the new drive — the Hoffman-Streibling Device. It collapsed space or pushed holes around space or did things that didn’t make sense, no matter how many times someone sketched them on napkins. The short version was, the captain explained, that the drive would throw us across space-time like skipping a stone across a pond. The journey would take hours, not weeks. Then he rattled off a lot of optimistic nonsense about duty and science and frontiers of knowledge but I lost track of the narrative because at that point, in the largest bay, with all the crew and personnel huddled together, I caught sight of Nicolai.
 
I swear I could feel the seams of my flesh burn. The purple scars that marked where my skin ended and the flexsteel began ached and throbbed in his presence. He’d grown even more beautiful, something in his face was meatier. He’d put on muscle and changed his hair. He no longer looked like the prettiest sardine in the can but rather like a movie star pretending to be in the Navy for a scene.
 
He studiously ignored me.

* * *

To read more of “Skipdrive,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES

 

Launch Day: Quantum Zoo

Rocket Launch SequenceJune 17th was Quantum Zoo‘s official release day.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d never participated in a book project of this magnitude with 12 enthusiastic contributors ready to do whatever was necessary.

The day started quietly with a sprinkling of sales, and Quantum Zoo crept sedately onto the science fiction anthology bestseller list at rank #84.

“Well, that’s nice,” I thought. “At least we’re not starting with a big fat nothing.”

200x300Of course, we’d done considerable preparation for this day.

Several readers had agreed ahead of time to review the book.

I’d approached 19 book bloggers to look at Quantum Zoo and consider featuring it on their blogs.

I’d been posting about the anthology on this blog, on my Facebook page, and on Google+ as we got closer to release.

I know my 11 fellow authors were doing a lot as well. But still I did not know what to expect.

After my first check of the Quantum Zoo Amazon page, I went on about other business. Strangely, I can no longer remember exactly what I was doing. I was busy. I remember that. But whatever I was doing was washed from my memory when I checked Amazon sometime after noon.

Quantum Zoo was #21 on the fantasy anthology bestseller list!

#21 fantasy

#16 on the science fiction anthology bestseller list with a 5-star review!

#16 on SF list

!!!

Wow! Readers were buying our book!

And it just got better from there.

When Quantum Zoo hit #11 on the SF list, it was sitting smack in between two Wool books by Hugh Howey!

Those of you who write and indie publish will understand what this means. Readers who have read Mr. Howey’s books will also likely understand how mind-boggling this is. For those of you who haven’t read Wool, go pick up a copy!

Hugh is a masterful storyteller who took the reading world by storm roughly 3 years ago. He’d been writing for a long time, so he knew what he was doing. But, like many writers, his early readership was modest. Then he released the first novella in the Wool series. It proved to be the story the whole science fiction world was waiting for. He’s sold millions of copies and continues to be popular with readers world-wide. Rightfully so. Yes, I’ll confess to being a fangirl. :D

#11 SF

Having our book sandwiched by Hugh’s for an instant in time means a lot to me!

As the evening rocketed onward, the news just got better and better!

Quantum Zoo went to #6 on the science fiction list.

#6 SF

And it closed out the night as #2 on the Hot New Releases list.

I was over the moon!

I awoke to even better news. Overnight our book had climbed to #4 on the science fiction list.

While I wrote this blog post, Quantum Zoo hit #3 on science fiction anthologies and #1 on hot new releases.

#1

#1 hot new release

I am blown away!

We owe it all to readers. To you!

Thank you! I hope you enjoy the stories tremendously.

And if you haven’t yet bought a copy, what are you waiting for? :D

Quantum Zoo Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES

 

SPAM Deluge

beachI visited the beach with my family and had a lovely time.

Waves, sand, sun, relaxed husband and happy children. It was perfect.

Then I arrived home to discover more than 2000 spam comments awaiting me on my blog. Two thousand! All advertisements for knock-off handbags, sunglasses, and shoes deposited by spam-bots. That’s more than 100 pages of spam. And each one has to be manually removed from the “comments pending” queue.

I’ve resisted implementing a “captcha” code here. I think they’re a pain for commenters. But something had to be done!

So I went searching for a captcha plug-in that would only appear the first time you comment on my blog.

The way it works is you’ll see a string of letters or letters and numbers in a window on your computer screen when you click the “post” button for your comment. The plug-in will ask you to type two of them into the window. Please do so and then click the “I’m human” button.

Your comment will then appear in my “pending comments” queue. I’ll click “approve,” and it will appear in the comments below the blog post.

The next time you post a comment, you won’t see the captcha screen and your comment will appear right away!

Email me, if that’s not the way it’s working for you, and I’ll try to fix it. Or I’ll try a different captcha plug-in.

Fingers crossed!

 

Quantum Zoo: “Echoes of Earth”

My co-editor, D.J. Gelner, contributes a twist on classic pulp SF to Quantum Zoo. Here is the opening to his story:

Headlights

I called them stingers.
 
They had a different word for them, to be sure, but it was a word that I had no hope of pronouncing. It was to be expected given that, best I could tell, the squeals and whines that passed for “language” around these parts were little more than confirmation of whatever asinine thoughts these things sent each other telepathically.
 
Unfortunately, the octopi (that’s what I called the awful purple creatures) and I weren’t “on the same wavelength,” so I had no idea whether the long tentacles tipped with sinister barbs had any other purpose than to scare the ever-living shit out of me.
 
AlienMost of the adults seemed to enjoy just that; they’d shoot a gangly limb through the force field, right at my forehead, and stop less than an inch before they sucked out my brains or (maybe more mercifully) put me out of my misery already.
 
The kids weren’t quite as kind, though for some reason they targeted the fleshy part of my butt and laughed gleefully as the stinger entered, released some kind of fluid into the wound, and retracted.
 
For a good day or two after that, my ass felt like it had been gouged by the worst kind of hornet you could imagine.
 
It had been exactly eighty-six days since my life had emptied. That was the way I thought of it, you see; a life utterly drained of meaning, devoid of purpose.
 
At least, I thought it had been eighty-six days. When they weren’t jamming needles or teeth or whatever the stingers were into my ass, some of them tried to keep things as “normal” as possible for me.
 
BillThe result was a small room, maybe twenty feet by twenty feet, segregated into four climates: desert, jungle, arctic, and a tiny shorefront of beach, which is, unsurprisingly, where I spent most of my time. The lights brightened and dimmed to approximate my day and night, and though it sure seemed like twelve hours of light and twelve hours of darkness, time dragged like an anvil to the extent that it could have well been six or three hours of “daylight,” and an equivalent amount of night.
 
I counted each cycle since, against my wife’s better judgment, and somewhat ironically because of several recent muggings in our area, I decided to go for a late-night run through the neighborhood, all the better to wrestle with all of the now-unimportant thoughts that raced through my head: “What if Jennings hates my presentation tomorrow?” “If I get fired, how will I pay for Sarah’s braces?” “How will I face my family, my friends, hell, the neighbors?”
 
It’s not like we lived in some secluded wooded area, either; we were firmly planted in the suburbs, surrounded by streetlights, sidewalks, and those very nosy neighbors with whom I was preoccupied as some classic rock song or another (maybe Zeppelin, probably some of their earlier stuff) blared through my headphones.
 
I stepped awkwardly off of a curb and must’ve yelled a dozen different curses into the sky. I wonder if my cries were enough to entice the busy-body Kipsmillers or Chandrasekhars to open a curtain or widen the blinds enough to witness what happened next.
 
Neighborhood by NightAs I took a seat on the curb, the prematurely dew-soaked grass seeping through my gym shorts and into my boxers all the while, I looked upward to find what first appeared to be a star, then a planet racing toward me. What was once one solid, bright light soon separated into three, then six, then over a dozen distinct orbs within seconds, so fast that my mind couldn’t begin to comprehend the series of events.
 
Before I could even mouth another curse of astonishment, the only way I can describe it is that I felt “warmth” in my head. Not necessarily that my brain was boiling, or anything like that, but almost like it was vibrating incredibly quickly, and being goaded to race.
 
As the sensation leaked down to the back of my head and neck, the rest of my muscles tensed. A sharp whine rattled my brain. The distinct scent of warm biscuits followed.
 
Then I blacked out.

* * *

To read more of “Echoes of Earth,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
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Quantum Zoo: “A King in Exile”

Quantum Zoo has a release date!

June 17, 2014 should see the ebook available in the Amazon store.

I’m excited about it, and I want to share a few excerpts from the stories in the book. Here’s the opening to the first story in the collection: “A King in Exile” by Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Bridget McKenna.

Oxford windowboxes

Lady Penelope Smythe-Everton is dead. In point of fact she succumbed more than seven years ago to a chronic illness that had distressed and weakened her for some time, but until today when my train pulled away from Ashford station in Kent, I had never truly felt it in my heart. Now I can feel nothing else.
 
I am, I believe, the one person who can truly be said to have known Penelope—and I intend no offence by this familiarity—but despite the disparity of our social stations she was my dearest friend and I believe I was hers. So it is that I take it upon myself to set down the record of the extraordinary events of her life as they relate to the magnificent creature who went to his own grave today, still mourning his mistress to his final, laboured breath. I know how fantastic these words may seem, and I may never show them to another living being, but I know I must write them.
 
PenelopePenelope Smythe-Everton was the only daughter of Sir Anthony Smythe-Everton and his wife, Lady Eugenia. Two sons had died in infancy, but a third survived to plague them. Penelope came late in their lives, as these matters are reckoned, and as soon as she began to walk, talk, and wreak havoc about the household it was evident that this was the child they had been waiting for.
 
When Penelope was six years old, and her brother Richard nineteen, Sir Anthony tired of reading about the wonders of the world from deep in the interior of a leather chair at his club. He announced his intention to take his family on a voyage round the world. Lady Eugenia, uncertain about the wisdom of this plan, but willing to risk it for her beloved husband’s sake, packed their trunks and made the arrangements.
 
They were not to return for four years, or three of them were not, at least. Richard put his foot down after six months of sailing on tramp steamers, and trekking through unfamiliar terrain, and wandering farther and farther from the London society that was his by right of birth. He sailed home to live with his maternal grandmother. His parents were, by this time, delighted to see him go.
 
It is probably not necessary to point out that Penelope was not reared in quite the same manner as most young Englishwomen of her generation; indeed, at her father’s insistence, she was raised to be a self-sufficient human being, exposed to the ideas and customs of a dozen exotic cultures, and thus rendered quite unfit for society. Lady Eugenie used often to bewail this fact, to which Sir Anthony was wont to reply, “Then perhaps she will emigrate to America, where a lack of social graces seems to be a sort of social grace.”
 
London TownhouseThough Penelope’s education was exhaustive and wide-ranging, it managed somehow to skip right over such niceties as fancy needlework or the rendering of floral arrangements in water-colour. She could, however, stitch up a laceration like a surgeon and depict wild animals with her pens and pencils in startling detail, often from far closer range than she ever let on to her mother. She learnt to ride like a man and to shoot, though she never took to killing her fellow-creatures, preferring to befriend living things of one toothy kind of another in whatever remote part of the globe her family’s travels took them. Sir Anthony’s wanderlust tended to return most years with the coming of spring, and they would be off for one of the shrinking number of places they had not yet been.
 
I didn’t know Penelope as a child, though I often used to wish I had; I made the family’s acquaintance some years later through the firm of Breffny, Blythe, & Warrington, where I had recently become the most junior of solicitors. I was sent to the Smythe-Everton household in Belgrave Square on an errand for a more senior man, and was received at the door by Sir Anthony himself, a breach of etiquette that would have had a proper Englishman fainting dead away on the doorstep, but then I was not an Englishman, proper or otherwise.
 
“You must be young Mr Maguire!” boomed Sir Anthony in a hearty and quite uncivilised voice. “Come in, lad, and have a whiskey with me!” We became fast friends that day, and within the week he had transferred all his legal affairs into my keeping.
 
Young John McGuireI stayed to dinner at Sir Anthony and Lady Eugenia’s insistence, and my first sight of seventeen-year-old Penelope was a streak of dirt-smeared white as she ran in from the garden and upstairs to make herself presentable. When she came down again she wore a pale green dress that matched her eyes, and her light brown hair was pulled up in a loose knot from which little curls escaped to brush against her neck. I couldn’t breathe for a good five seconds, but I like to think I recovered before anyone noticed my predicament. “Our daughter, Penelope,” her father informed me, “though we call her Penny. Mr John Maguire.”
 
Penny smiled and held out a small, sunburnt hand. My heart thumped painfully, and I muttered something I hoped acceptable about being pleased to meet her before reluctantly releasing it.

* * *

To read more of “A King in Exile,” pick up a copy of Quantum Zoo.
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Pin Board for Quantum Zoo

Yesterday I created a Pinterest board for Quantum Zoo. It captures the feel of the stories in the collection so well, I want to share the images with you. You may, of course, click over to Pinterest here to see the board in all its glory. But I’m also posting the collage below. :D Enjoy!

Pin Board for Zoo

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Here’s a bit more about the images: which stories they’re associated with, who created them, and where they originated.

1 — Quantum Zoo‘s book cover, designed by J.M. Ney-Grimm
2 — “A King in Exile,” Lady in Violet, painting by Pál Szinyei Merse (1845-1920)
3 — Bridget McKenna, author of “A King in Exile”
4 — “A King in Exile,” Triceratops, German stamp 1976
5 — D.J. Gelner, author of “Echoes of Earth”
6 — “Echoes of Earth,” Alien Power, photo by Rooners Toy Photography
7 — “Demon Rising,” Zebra, painting by W.T. Benda, appeared on cover of Life, issue November 1922
8 — “Demon Rising,” Minotaur, painting by Synner
9 — “Your Day at the Zoo,” Fish, Aquarium de porte dorée, September 8, 2013, photo by Murielle
10 — Mosiac, repping Frances Stewart, author of “Your Day at the Zoo”: Mosaico de la Basilica di San Vitale en Rávena, photo by Lourdes Cardenal
11 — R.S. McCoy, author of “Demon Rising”
12 — “Serpent’s Foe,” Egypt Personified, painting by Farid Fidel
13 — J.M. Ney-Grimm, author of “Serpent’s Foe”
14 — A.C. Smyth, author of “Ignoble Deeds”
15 — “Ignoble Deeds,” Ghost, composite of two photos: Lights through the trees in the dark forest, photo by Joan Sorolla; Lady, circa 1905, photo of vintage photo by josefnovak33
16 — “Your Day at the Zoo,” Gorilla, photo by Tim Cummins
17 — “Playing Man,” Rainforest, photo by Ben Britten
18 — “Ignoble Deeds,” Zoo Entrance, photo by Anthony22
19 — “At Home in the Stars,” Pink Cadillac, photo by LuAnn Snawder Photography
20 — Scott Dyson, author of “Playing Man”
21 — Blue X, repping Sarah Stegall, author of “Bestiarum”, and expert on The X-files!
22 — Ken Furie, author of “The Most Dangerous Lies”
23 — “The Most Dangerous Lies,” Man Behind Bars, photo by Lachlan Hardy
24 — Chocolate Eggs, repping S.E. Batt, author of “At Home in the Stars”: photo by Tiia Monto
25 — “Playing Man,” Monorail, photo by by Joe Penniston
26 — “You’ll Be So Happy, My Dear,” Small Shop, photo by Kevin Oliver
27 — John Hindmarsh, author of “You’ll Be So Happy, My Dear”
28 — “Bestiarum,” Tiger, photo by Steve Wilson
29 — Octopus, repping Morgan Johnson, author of “Skipdrive,” photo by Morten Brekkevold
30 — “Skipdrive,” Leviathan, photo by Philcold, purchased from Dreamstime.com
31 — Holding up a heavy weight, ;) Castle Vault, photo by Sam Belknap

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Hunting Wild as a Novella

The Lady and the Unicorn, Musée National du Moyen Age, Cluny Museum, Paris

A year and a half ago, I wrote a short story and posted it on my blog here.

I’d intended it to be flash fiction – under 1000 words – like the other flash fiction histories I’d created about the empire of Giralliya (in my North-lands).

“Hunting Wild” went long – to 6,000 words – but I posted it anyway. It was a cool story. I wanted readers to see it!

And readers did see it!

At least one urged me to continue writing and posting these “fairy tales” from the past of my fictional world.

I wanted to do so, but I must confess that the 6,000-word length of “Hunting Wild” daunted me. With another dozen of flash fiction titles on my to-be-written list, I certainly had the inspiration.

But what if they all went long?

In fact, I could sense that the next three – at least – would go long.

What to do? What to do?

I pondered the matter off and on. And wrote a lot of other blog posts. Then, last December, I realized that my dilemma was really not one.

Nunc Dimittis, detail from medieval tapestry in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow“Hunting Wild” was long enough to publish as an ebook on Amazon and with other online booksellers. (Unlike the flash fiction pieces, which were too short for that.) Why not do so?

Why not, indeed!

I could publish “Hunting Wild” and “Fairest Trickery” and “Aegis” as ebooks.

After the holidays, in January, I pulled out my manuscript and looked it over.

Well, it was still a cool story, but – to my now more developed storyteller’s eye – it looked like it was missing a scene or two.

No problem. I could easily write the “missing” scenes and weave them into the story. I set to work. It was fun!

But after writing two new scenes and meshing them into the existing manuscript, it was clear that I needed to write two more scenes.

Can you see where this is going?

I’m closing in on my revision now, but in all I’ve written 7 new scenes, requiring 11,000 new words. Whew! That took a little more time and energy than I’d planned!

I’m pleased with the new Hunting Wild, and eager to share it with my fans. First it must go to my beta readers for their feedback. That’s an important step. There are always a few small glitches (sometimes large glitches) that I can’t see, because I’m too close to it. Luckily, my beta readers see such problems just fine. They point them out to me, and I fix the trouble spots.

However, I have a snippet – a poem – that I wrote as I further developed the religious beliefs of my “medieval” Giralliyans.

Writers end up with these background notes all the time. Things the writer needs to know in order to write the story, but that don’t belong in the story.

This particular fragment of text derives from an old Giralliyan religion – the Gedier Creed – that had been losing followers for centuries until, finally, its practice was forbidden by the crown.

The Gedier Creed involves belief in a god with three aspects: Gwirionedd in heaven, Cummenos on earth, and Eoin in hell.

Enjoy!

The Unicorn Tapestries at Stirling Castle

With blood, in death, the sacrifice of our king draws truth – Gwirionedd – down from heaven to manifest on earth.
In death, with sacrifice, in the harvest of our ripeness dost our king suffer his holy rite.

Stag-horned, beast-headed, our Lord chases the earth.
Steed-mounted, hound-hunted, he courses to pursue his sacred hunt.

Named Cummenos, named wild, he hunts the Hallowed Eve.
From the farthest to the nearest, he hunts monsters unseen.
From the outmost to the inmost, he hunts evils unfelt.
Driving them before him, he descends into hell.

Enthroned, enslaved, in hell he is Eoin.
Judge and demon, meter of fates, he is chained until freed by mortal gift.

With blood, in life, the surrender of our lady frees judgment – Eoin – from hell, to mount to heaven.
In life, with surrender, in the pregnancy of deep winter dost our lady embrace her blessed rite.

Named Gwirionedd, named truth, our Lord presides in heaven.
Breath of spirit, light of seeing, he glorifies and sanctifies, awaiting the sacrifice of the king.

Gwirionedd, our source.
Cummenos, fell and fallen.
Eoin, our maker.
Gwirionedd, our truth and haven.
Hosanna to our Lord.