March 2022

“You hacked your iPhone to have an AI?”

“It’s more of a heuristic. Taos, or the Telecommunication Automation Operating System, is designed to quickly parse data streams for information and pick out signals from the noise. In this case, it’s looking at our ground-penetrating radar scans and trying to pick out any ancient structures or other interesting items. The iPhone is just a convenient housing; the operating system and interface are entirely my own. Voided the hell out of the warranty, it’s true, but I like the form factor.”

“How does it work with the internet?”

“No! Ah, it’s not designed to be networked outside of a laboratory setting. Too much data, or too many datastreams, could crash or corrupt the software. Plus, the program is fundamentally incompatible with the phone’s wireless tech, even assuming we could get a signal out here. Isn’t that right, Taos?”

“I am fully capable of internet connectivity but lack the necessary user permissions.”

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In 2015, a site called Is It Halloween Or Not (IIHON) began making the rounds on social media. The link led to a simple site that displayed the word “NO” with a cartoon of a crying jack o’lantern 364 days out of the year. On Halloween, it would instead display a beaming, lit pumpkin with a “YES” legend. Innocuous enough, and it struck a chord with many folks for its brutish naivete and countercultural irony.

Soon, however, dark rumors began to swirl around the site. People reported that they had begun seeing disturbing advertisements online, advertisements that screenshotted as black and featured sudden noises and violent imagery. Others reported an uptick in identity theft, and accused IIHON of stealing and selling their personal data.

These rumors came to a head when the page’s author was uncovered through careful metadata archaeology. They were a data security expert, with past work for the NSA. And even though they insisted that the page was a fun project for a web development class during college, the rumor began that the site was being used as a front for secret government research and identity theft.

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An image of a bearded face in a peaked cap swirled into existence in the magic mirror. “I, Rís the powerful, demand to know-”

“Spare me the pleasantries, dwarf,” Lady Spitethorn cut her off. “My scrying ball isn’t connecting.”

Rís turned to look. “I see. Did you take it off the pedestal and put it back on?”

“Yes,” Spitethorn said. “Three times. It won’t connect to Lord Torment’s scryer.”

“Maybe the problem is on his end.”

“No, I can’t scry with anyone! Lady Painmelt, The Thing on the Mountain, Bloodsocket…nothing.”

Rís waved her hands in an incantation. “I’m not showing any obvious problems,” she said. “Have you been upgrading the plinth as new plans are released?”

“Yes, yes,” Spitethorn said. “I have instructed the stonemasons to apply the updates as they arrive.”

“Uh-huh. What about the magical wellspring? Has it been tainted?”

“We’re speaking by magic mirror, aren’t we?” Spitethorn snapped.

“That’s a legacy system, not connected with the scrying network. At least, not since stoneband communication became commonplace.”

“Just get down here, all right?” Lady Spitethorn snapped. “What use is having a court wizard if she won’t show up to fix my scrying stone?”

“Well, okay, but I’m on a call right now,” said Rís. “It’ll be a while.”

“A call? You’re MY court wizard!”

“The demon furnace is broken in the east wing. If you want to deal with it, be my guest. My lady.”

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Chocomancy is the art of magically manipulating chocolate, and to a lesser extent other sweets. An offshoot of sucremancy, from which it split in 1650, chocomancers pride themselves on magic that is useful on both a culinary and a tactical/political level. Chocomancers are sought after as chefs, naturally, but also as spies, diplomatic adjutants, and even assassins.

Some major schools of chocomancy include:

Milk Chocomancy – The most popular school, it mixes light dairymancy with chocomancy to manipulate candy matter. This can involve constructing towering chocolate edifices, or crafting flavor bombs.

Dark Chocomancy – Bitter but rich, dark chocomancy focuses on the negative aspects of chocolate. Poisoned parfaits, exploding truffles, and comatose candies are among their stock and trade.

White Chocomancy – While some claim this is not chocomancy at all, White Chocomancers are accepted by the Chocolatier’s Guild as of this writing. They tend to favor flavor, cooking impressive but perhaps bland magical creations for wealthy patrons.

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CARL: And we’re back! This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming to you live from the Nosy Bee. Next up is Mary Lovingham Thomas, MLT to her fans in the NB1 circuit.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and you may recall MLT’s incredible performance in the semis two years ago, when she ferreted out both an unintended pregnancy and an extramarital affair.

CARL: She lost the semis to Karen Smiley, who went on to win the Nosy Bee overall that year, in a very controversial round.

That’s right, Carl. But with Smiley banned from competition for two years due to being caught with nosiness-enhancing substances, MLT may be on track to take the crown at long last.

She still has to go up against Carolyn Washington, the Madwoman of Second Baptist, in this round, though. It’s not gonna be easy.

That’s right, Carl, MLT is going to need to ferret, wheedle, gossip, and grasp her very best if she hopes to make it to the top of this year’s very competitive pile. What do you think will be an early sign, for her?

If MLT can successfully figure out which of these eligible single people, if any, are dating, it will put her in a very favorable position for the quarterfinals.

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It perhaps spoke to how comfortably middle-class Dorsey Birmingham’s life was that she took her second-place finish at at the county fair chicken salad contest as a gross, personal, slight. Missy Burgermeister had clearly had some devilish slight-of-hand on her side, perhaps bribery. After all, the $150 cash prize meant she could slip a crisp $50 to each judge and still come out even. And unlike Dorsey, she did NOT have Grandmother Birmingham’s chicken salad recipe, one which had seen generations of fowl laid low and served with whipped mayonnaise. That kind of patina couldn’t be bought, only earned.

Perhaps it was for the best that Dorsey never learned that Grandma Birmingham had clipped the recipe off the back of an old jar of Immelman’s Best Country Mayonnaise Spread.

Still, Dorsey had plans for the $15 prize money that the $75 for second place simply would not cover. Gertrude’s enclosure needed new chicken wire, and it had to be the good stuff. In her younger days, when she needed glasses but refused to wear them, Dorsey had mistaken a young possum straight from the forest for a kitten and hand-raised it. Now that she was older, and needed contact lenses more powerful than the ones she deigned to put in, Gertrude IV needed her play space. If it had been better built, with strong wire that could resist pit bulls, Gertrude III might still be alive and with us today.

There were ways of retaliation though, oh yes. Dorsey Birmingham had a galaxy of retributive options laid out before her to make sure that Missy Burgermeister regretted plying the judges with money and sexual favors for her ill-gotten win. In addition to being the administratrix at the local animal shelter–woe betide Punky Burgermeister if he ever wound up there!–Dorsey sat on the boards for the Ladies’ Auxiliary, the Cotillion Club, and the OkraFest planning committee. She would do her darndest to see Missy never got her foot in the door with any of those organizations ever again.

Some might have said that chicken salad was just a small thing. And it was, but as Grandpa Birmingham used to say, all it takes is a small salvo to start a war.

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J. Mantachie “Trace” Mooreville III claimed to have Cherokee ancestry, often spinning yarns about how his great-great grandmother had been an Indian princess, left on a doorstep after a succession crisis. There wasn’t a shred of evidence for it, not least of which because the Cherokee don’t have princesses as such, but the resulting sense of solidarity and brotherhood was a rare bright spot in Trace Mooreville’s life. The time he picked up an old Choctaw man at the bus stop in his Mercedes, took him where he was going, and gave him $20 to boot vied for being the shining moment of the young man’s life.

Six years of economics at NMU had led to Trace Mooreville staggering away degree in hand; his father J. Mantachie “Chip” Mooreville II used to joke that his son had majored in oceanography since he was always working around C level. But that had been the fig leaf Chip had needed to give Trace a job and office at Mooreville and Sons Paper Mill, the same august enterprise started by J. Mantachie “Manny” Mooreville I after the war. Trace’s title, going by his office door, was “Executive Vice President.” Going by his salary, he was a major shareholder. Going by the 2.5 days of work he put in a week, most of which was spreadsheets and emails, emails and spreadsheets, Trace was a secretary. This would represent the rare case of a secretary’s pay accurately reflecting their organizational importance if he was any good at it, but Missy Burgermeister invariable had to redo half of the work for pennies on the dollar. Much like hunched, bespectacled Washington Brewer did all Chip Mooreville’s work as CEO for a fraction of the pay, come to think.

What, then, of the other 4.5 days Trace Mooreville was issued like clockwork every Sunday? He poured his time and passions into three leaky jugs, neither of which could ever be full enough for his liking. The first was his latest squeeze; Trace had never heard the phrase “serial monogamist” but his eyes would have lit up upon reading the definition. There was always somebody new, or at the very least someone who had been refreshed, for him to shower with sweet nothings and perishable gifts. They often were pressured to join his second passion, golf, at the Lynx Country Club. There, Trace was known as “Wasp,” a name he took great personal price in, never suspecting that it reflected his tendency to dance about, look for sugar, and sting anyone who got too close. Chip Mooreville’s checkbook was full of payments to glazier and detailers to make up for dings, dents, scratches, and shatterings inflicted by his son upon unsuspecting domiciles and conveyances.

The final passion? Musical theater. And if anything could vie for helping the old Choctaw man at the bus station for the highlight reel of his life, it was the summer production of Gilbert and Sullivan in which he brought the house down, and paid for the whole enterprise out of pocket to boot.

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Scatterbrush was probably the best lesson settlers on Laysan Prime could ask for about the importance of proper interstellar quarantine protocols. Growing from microscopic spore analogs, scatterbrush was easy enough to spread, with each plant putting billions of them out during its life. But while the acidic crucible of Demitrius IV kept their population naturally in check, Laysan Prime’s sunny and nutrient-rich environment was a paradise.

So scatterbrush was constantly growing everywhere, from pavement cracks to private gardens. And it needed to be pulled up within the first week or so, and its burgeoning woody taproots clipped, or it would start its reproductive cycle. This involved uprooting itself and skittering about on those same taproots for a day or so until its reserves of energy were spent, shedding spores as it went. Thorns and an irritating secretion put off anyone who tried to tangle with motile scatterbrush.

This led, in due course, to the famous scatterbrush races, where gamblers would bet on which plant would uproot itself and cross a finish line first.

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The Void Screamers

It’s never been easier to create, and it’s never been harder to get your creations seen. If the 2020s had a patron saint, it would be someone furiously, breathlessly, relentlessly making art, only for no one to see it.

Publishers, critics, reviewers, and editors – they were the wyrms of old and they have been slain, slashed to ribbons by an age of infinite content and infinite connections. But in a way those gatekeepers were easier to keep track of, easier to assail, than the current chaotic stew. Blogs and bumps, tweets and tumbls, all of them registering barely a shrug unless money changes hands or the Almighty Algorithm just happens to smile. For people who have been taught that feedback is the only true currency, it feels a bit like drowning. Screaming into the void, receiving no answer in return.

I want to create a group in response. We will call ourselves the Void Screamers, and we will howl our creations into existence not because we want to but because we have to. We will make art because it is too great a thing to keep pent-up inside us. It may need to be done in snatches, here and there, as life on this dying world demands more from those who can give the least.

But we will scream our works into the void all the same. We will sew patches of a screaming mouth onto our leather jackets, if we have them, and anyone who cares to look will know. That is a Void Screamer, they will think. That is a person who has to create, because they have to.

Money is welcome, recognition accepted, retweets appreciated,please like comment and subscribe and be sure to hit that bell for notifications. But we’ll make the art even as engagement hovers at zero, as post reach stays in the single digits, as analytics crater and burn. We’ll make art no one can see, simply because we have to.

A story that is never told, a drawing that is never sketched, those are weights upon the soul, Marley’s chains wrought not from misdeeds but from ideas. Cast them off, fire them like darts into the inky blackness, for even if no one knows, we will know.

The Void Screamers will know. And maybe, just maybe, that will be enough.

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