Dear Editor: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 8, 2023

Dear Editor

The slush is… tamed.

Not defeated. My late mentor Paul Miller used to say, “The slush is never defeated. You can hold it at bay, but it always come back at you as long as you keep the doors open.” His late mentor, Leonard Sims, had taught him that back when they were editing Far Pioneers magazine. In the age of electronic submissions, it was even more true at Trans Lunar Injection.

Leonard was gone. And now Paul is gone, too. I was next.

I shook my head. Stop that! Leonard Sims died in a plane crash. That had nothing to do with the stress of the slush pile. And the doctor said that Paul had died of an undiagnosed heart condition. It was stupid writer imagination that made anyone think that the slush had killed Paul.

Stupid writer imagination says the guy with nearly a hundred slush icons trapped in a big wire cage…

That was imaginary, right? I only thought I saw that. Slush stress was hitting me right smack in the sanity, making me see things that weren’t there. That couldn’t be there, no matter how real the little icons looked?

Insanity or metaphor, I had whittled them down. There were ninety-seven still in the queue, and they were smaller and docile. New ones popped up at the rate of at least fifty a day, but I was learning to be ruthless. I understood now what Paul had tried to teach me: if the story was not immediately right, it was wrong. That was the only way to handle the little beasts.

Look, if I’m crazy, I’m functionally crazy. We were on track to get an issue of the magazine out this month. If crazy got that done, then I’ll be crazy.

I had already selected enough word count to fill the magazine, so I didn’t need to read anymore slush for a while. Yes, they would build up while I waited, but I would handle that after I put the layout to bed.

And that required only one more chore: I had to put together the letters column. Paul had always prided himself on Trans Lunar Injection having a great letter column, and he had challenged the readers to push farther. He wanted a column to rival the days of Astounding and Galaxy, when the letter columns were practically science fiction conventions in themselves, with readers weighing in and debating. I owed it to Paul to continue building that vision.

So I opened my special inbox, the one strictly for reader feedback, not for business or personal use. That didn’t mean that stuff didn’t sneak in that had nothing to do with the contents of the magazine. And it certainly didn’t mean that I didn’t get commentary in my other email boxes. Sometimes my authors commented directly, and friends as well. And damn if some readers weren’t clever enough to figure out my personal email address. But well over ninety-five percent of the feedback was in the feedback box, which is where I turned. I opened the folder.

Immediately my screen was filled with little round icons, each with a face inside. What the hell was this?

These didn’t look like ordinary email icons. These were bubbles, so realistic that I was sure I could touch them and feel them popping out of the screen. And every one contained not just a face, but a moving face: eyes glancing back and forth, hands reaching up to stroke chins, other hands brushing hair out of eyes, even fingers picking noses. It’s not like I’d never seen animated images before, but these were so realistic I thought I could touch them.

Then they spoke. Out loud. All of them at once.

It was the veritable definition of cacophony. I could make out random words here there: “lunar”, “fifty-seven”, “Varden”, “downhill”, “fault”, “idiot”, and “asshole”. Those last two repeated in several voices.

I couldn’t help myself. I slammed down the lid of my laptop. That solved part of the problem: I couldn’t see all the leering, angry faces. But I could still hear the muffled voices, as if the laptop surface blocked them but didn’t stop them.

This was a new kind of crazy. Maybe I would have to see a doctor.

Maybe? How crazy is that?

I glanced over at the cage of icons. They had fallen blissfully asleep. I hadn’t noticed that before, so seldom did I close the laptop lid. I actually laughed then. It wouldn’t solve the slush problem, but it would let me get some sleep and not worry about getting swarmed if the little bloggers ever figured out how to pick the lock.

No. I shook my head. No! This was not happening. It was simply a sign of my incipient breakdown.

Incipient? Hell, extant!

I gritted my teeth. I stared at the laptop. This wasn’t happening, and I would prove it. I lifted the lid.

Instead of a hundred small bubbles, now my screen was filled one big bubble, a translucent shade of blue through which I could see my desktop. In the center of the bubble, maybe one-third scale, was the face of a woman, maybe late 30s, with short, curly dark hair and cat’s eye glasses. And then she spoke.

“Dear editor,

“I see that the quality of Trans Lunar Injection continues to decline, and I am once again registering my disappointment. While you still have some fine writers, they are getting sloppy. Or you are, because you’re letting them get sloppy. As an example, I cite ‘Above the Cemetery World’ by Emil Varden in issue 66. While the writing is just as good as in Mr. Varden’s previous work, ‘Slow Answers’ (issue 65), it is incomplete. The story ends without an ending. In fact, the real story is just beginning! This in’t the story, it isn’t even flash fiction, it’s a cliffhanger is best. We’re just getting to the good part when all of a sudden… The End. Where is the rest of it? Maybe instead of rushing to get a story in two issues in a row, Mr. Varden should’ve taken the time to finish the story.

“If you’re going to deliver only half stories, maybe I should only send you half a check when my subscription comes up for renewal. Or maybe I should just find another magazine.

“Yours in dissatisfaction,

“Sarah Turner”

As soon as she said the last, her face faded to gray, and her bubble shrank down to a pixel. Then to nothing.

But my relief was short-lived. Another bubble zoomed in from the distance and filled the screen. Inside the magenta ring was the head of a young African-American male who looked like he was sitting on a bus. I saw vague outlines of seats and grips and standing bars behind him.

“Dear Mr. Fenton,

“imagine my delight when I opened issue 66 of TLI and found another story by Emil Varden. “Above the Cemetery World” was my favorite story in an already outstanding issue. I know that there are those in the community – ahem, and in this letter column – who have been riding you hard since you took over from Paul, but I’m definitely in your camp. I like the experimentation, the sense of the unexpected in every story. I like that you are giving new authors a chance. Not that I didn’t love all the greats you published before, but I love discovery! I’m happy to see old reliable favorites like Emil Varden, but I’m also thrilled by this new writer, Carol Scott. Will we see any more from her?

“Thank you for a wonderful reading experience,

“Jason Stoll”

Jason’s bubble faded, and a green tinted bubble appeared. Two pale, white-haired faces, one with a white beard, squeezed into the circle. In unison, they said,

“To the folks at Trans Lunar Injection,

“Do you know that you are on the verge of splitting up a forty-year marriage? We cannot agree on the turns your magazine has taken since the unfortunate death of Paul Miller.”

Then the woman said, “I (Mary) think that you have lost your mind. You might still get it back if you publish more of your great authors like Varden and Paula Winn, but right now you’re floundering.”

The man responded, “And I (Pete) have been enjoying these issues immensely, and I’m proud to put them next to the 51 Paul Miller issues in my collection. We’ve been charter subscribers, and I think we should continue to be.”

Mary continued, “And I think we’ll give you a few more issues, but then we’ll have to decide.”

“You’ll have to decide,” Pete answered. “I’m not giving up my charter subscription! If you don’t like it, go back and read your Niven.”

Then, in unison once more, they added, “Sincerely,

“Mary and Pete Abernethy”

The next bubble was rainbow and translucent. There was no face in it, just a vague silhouette. “Dear editor, I would like to point out the flaws in Emil Varden’s theory of gravitic drives. Mr. Varden clearly has not been in communication with the visitors that have come to our world many times in the past decades. They have explained to me how gravitic drives work, and he has it completely wrong. This idea of polarizing gravitic plates has nothing to do with the actual technology. I’ll be sure to send you a science fact article that will educate your readership. Please do better. Name withheld.”

A silver bubble, a young blonde man and his tuxedo cat: “Mr. Fenton, you are a no-talent hack, and so are all your new writers. Please cancel my subscription.”

A cyan bubble. “Can we see more from Carol Scott?”

And so it went, bubble after bubble after bubble, for hours. Some were polite, some were demanding, some were openly insulting. Some were erudite, and some made no sense at all.

As if they were even crazier than me.

And when they were finally done, and there were no more bubbles to cajole or criticize me, I realized that the worst was yet to come.

I had forgotten to take notes. If I wanted to put together a letter column, I was going to have to sit through them all over again.

The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: The Monster is.

Readers who have been following from the beginning will remember Kevin Fenton from The Slush is Alive. You can catch any story you missed on my blog. Keep watching this space!

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