You Should Read This: The Birthday Problem by Caren Gussoff

Cover of the Birthday Problem by Caren Gussoff

Ever wondered what it would be like to wander through plague-ridden Seattle in the future? This book’s a good approximation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Caren’s a close friend. But beyond that The Birthday Problem is terrific SF, and a great example of interweaving narratives that is a) highly enjoyable to read and b) highly instructive to take a look at.

The Birthday Problem of the title is a common mathematical puzzle: find the probability that, in a group of N people, there is at least one pair of people who have the same birthday. (Hint: it’s a much lower number than you think. You can find out more about it on Wikipedia if you want to understand why.) The book is about odd ties and coincidences, set in a crumbling Seattle in a world plagued by nanobots that make people crazy.

Why’s it instructive to take a look at? Because Gussoff confronts two problems that speculative writers often face. The first is a complicated scientific or mathematical concept, like the birthday problem, which the reader needs to understand. Gussoff manages to convey it to the reader with no “As you know, Bob” or overly pedantic moments.

The second is that it’s constructed in a way that is incredibly hard to do: overlapping points of view, and plenty of them. When you switch POVs, you bounce the reader out of the story just a little, and Gussoff does it in a way that swiftly gathers the reader back in.

I like to include a beginning chunk of the book I’m discussing to show you what the author’s prose style as well as what they set. Here’s the first three paragraphs from The Birthday Problem:

Chaaya wasn’t surprised when she woke up and saw lips aimed directly over her face. It was beginning. It’d been just a matter of time.

It begins with one, good solid hallucination.

That was how it had happened to her Nani.This is how it would happen to her.

Gussoff also makes the most of her setting in a way that will delight Seattleites. There’s a joy to imagining Pike Place Market as a post-apocalytic trading post or the SF Museum hosting a cadre led by an aging rock musician.

If you’re interested in more of Gussoff’s work, she’s got a novella appearing this January from Aqueduct Press, Three Songs for Roxy. Its main character is an alien raised by Romany, and Gussoff draws on her own heritage to create a realistic, unromantic, and absolutely appealing narrative.

#sfwapro

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You Should Read This: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Cover of Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Ammonite is beautifully real, and a good example of the heights speculative fiction can reach.

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith, is subtle and beautiful and a terrific piece of speculative fiction. An anthropologist, Marghe Taishan, arrives on the planet GP, there to test a vaccine against the deadly virus that has killed all but a few of the original colonists. She finds that the survivors, all women, have developed the ability to give birth without men.

The book won both a Lambda and Tiptree Award, and it’s easy to see why. A dynamite protagonist interacting with intriguing and beautifully three-dimensional characters. The world is fabulously drawn, evocative, and both the anthropological and physical science are accurate and carefully thought out.

Ammonite was Griffith’s debut novel. I’d also recommend her most recent, the absolutely amazing Hild, a retelling of the life of historical figure, Saint Hild of Whitby. Come to think of it, nothing I’ve read by her has been shabby, including Slow River, a near-future thriller that is also beautifully told and engaging.

I had the luck to sit in on a class Griffith taught for Clarion West a couple of years ago. She is a consummate, careful wordsmith. The word “luminous” keeps appearing in reviews of her work, and that’s because it’s so beautifully crafted that it seems to glow from within.

The first three paragraphs of a piece set up so much. Here’s the first three of Ammonite, to give you a taste:

Marghe’s suit was still open at neck and wrist, and the helmet rested in the crook of her left arm. An ID flash was sealed to her should” “Marguerite Angelica Taishan, SEC.” The suit was wrinkled and smelled of just-unrolled plastic, and she felt heavy and awkward, even in the two-thirds gravity of orbital station Estrade.

She stood by the airlock at the inside end of A Section. THe door was already open. Waiting. She rested the fingertips of her right hand on the smooth ceramic of the raised hatch frame; it was cool, shocking after two days of the close human heat of A Section.

The sill of the airlock reached her knees; easy enough to step over. No great barrier. The lock chamber itself was two strides across. THe dar door was still closed, sealed to another sill, like this one. Four steps from here to B Section. Four steps. She had recontracted with SEC, endured six months of retraining on Earth, traveled eighteen months aboard the Terragin, and spent the last two days on the Estrade bumping elbows with the three-member crew, all to take those four steps.

#sfwapro

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WIP: Teaser from “You Remind Me of Summer”

IMG_9664From the SF story I’m working on, “You Remind Me of Summer”. Think it will end up being 6-7k.

Madhur hesitated in the doorway of the bar. No sign on the outside other than a weathered metal plaque set at eye level to the right of the door. It showed a complicated red knot on a chipped white background.

This was dangerous territory but it was also anonymity, a place where no one would be looking at her flags. The privacy field inside kept all such information unavailable.

Someone was coming up behind her and there was nothing to prevent them reading her right now, so she gave the metal knob a twist and pulled it toward her to slip inside.

First impressions: booze-scented brown darkness broken by a single strand of red and green Christmas lights, tables centered in pools of yellow light from overhead lamps, constructions of spiderwire and sickly glow crystals. Along the back wall, a photo mural tried to provide the illusion of looking out onto a great deal seascape from a high cliff, but stains and a few tears made the illusion ineffectual. Underfoot, plas-crete, worn and a little slippery. A dim jukebox pulsing out a watery rendition of “I’ll be Home for the Holidays.”

The air smelled of sweat and alcohol and here and there a whiff of cologne or perfume. The inhabitants were varied – even a few nonhumans and mechanicals, but most shared a uniform dispirited look, a slump to their shoulders that made them seem aged and discouraged. Many nursed drinks, but three teenagers lounged at a back pool table, talking trash talk to each other as the balls clacked defiantly against each other.

This morning on the train into the city, she’d looked out the window and seen three young deer, springborn, now nearing fall adolescence, playing with each other by the side of highway running parallel to the track. They darted back and forth; one reared, sharp little hooves flicking out in play, catch me if you can, full of fearless stupidity and no thought for the cars rushing past so close to their play.

Then they were gone, and the landscape kept flickering as she tried to ignore the porter’s stare.

She chose one of the few empty tables, close to the wall, sliding into a wobbly seat, touching a faded video display, freckled with dissipated pixels, alight, tabbing through the choices, contemplating beer and onion rings. Her mouth watered at the thought not just of the greasy food, but the sensation of being unlooked at –

— then someone sliding into the seat across from her, a woman perhaps two or three decades senior, face unfrozen by the conventional anti-aging techniques, but instead wearing tattoos across forearms and cheeks, purple streaks almost as faded as the menu.

Alarm blared against her nerves, but she refused to let her breath quicken or her tone be anything but bland. “Thanks, but I’m not looking for company.”

“Neither am I if bedplay’s what you mean,” the woman said sharply. Her hair was a silver Mohawk, tipped with blue along the six-inch strands that stood up like a parrot’s crest. She looked strong, was Madhur’s first thought, like some sort of warrior goddess cum blacksmith or stevedore.

“I just want conversation,” the woman said, “and any man I talk to is going to think I’m trying to pick him up, even if I lead with a denial of that. Humor an old broad and entertain me this evening. Unless you really do want to be by yourself, in which case I’ll slide off and leave you alone.”

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You Should Read This: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Cover of fantasy novel The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs.

The books have been reissued, but this is the cover I'm familiar, and which immediately evokes the book for me. I love the magic system in it - read the book to see why.

John Bellairs wrote a host of children’s books, including one of my favorites, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and a single adult novel, The Face in the Frost. I wish the ratio had been in the opposite direction, because The Face in the Frost just has such an engaging world and characters that I would have loved more of it. Much, much more. It’s a woefully slim little book, and I will not claim that it has the world’s most satisfying ending, but it delights me in so many ways.

Much of the book’s richness lies in the banter between the two old friends (there’s only one place it falls flat, and it says something about the quality of the texture elsewhere that the flat spot drives me a little nuts every time I read it), who are both skilled and eccentric wizards. The friendship is a longtime one, built of mutual affection, exasperation, and shared experience. Pieces of this book are a buddy roadtrip, taken through a series of small kingdoms, some only town-sized, and the supernatural menace is one that is genuinely haunting.

I’ve read other books by Bellairs, but with the exception of The House with a Clock in its Walls (which has lovely Edmund Gorey illustrations as a bonus), I find that his children’s literature falls flat for me, though I know it’s well-loved by many middle-graders. For me, it lacks the menace that both Face in the Frost and Clock in Its Walls hold.

I used part of the first paragraph for the description of Prospero’s house for our clan housing on Dark Castle MUD, (back in the innocent days of the early Net when the majority of us had no idea what copyright meant); for all I know (and hope) it’s still there, but I somehow doubt it. Here it is, for your delectation:

Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there wa a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either. He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked in the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads, and fat women in togas holding sheaves of grain; a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather-vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus; as the wind changed, it blew through the nostril’s of the hippo’s hollow head, making a whiny snarfling sound that fortunately could not be heard unless you were up on the roof fixing slates.

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5 Holiday Gifts for Speculative Fiction Writers: 2014 Edition

Cup of Coffee

Coffee cup

Last year I provided a list of five gifts for the speculative fiction writer on your list. Here’s another installment of that. Sure, you can go for the old standbys: notebooks, pens, a gift certificate so they can buy books, t-shirts with amusing sayings and, depending on the writer, coffee or chocolate. But if you want to go a little further…well, here you go.

  1. I know I pushed Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook last year, but I’m going to push it again, because it’s just such a cool book and Jeremy Zerfoss’s illustrations are so wacky, wildly beautiful, and wonderful. There aren’t that many books on writing I’d be willing to go back to over and over again, but this is one.
  2. A SFWA membership if they’re eligible, a subscription to Locus Magazine if they’re not. For me, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have been a source of professional networking, career advice, and some great friends. If you go to Worldcon, the SFWA suite has always been a welcome place to hang, nosh a little, and talk to some of the greats. In the interest of full disclosure, I am currently the organization’s Vice President, and I’m looking forward to great things next year, which is SFWA’s 50th. If they’re still aspiring, encourage them with a subscription to the F&SF trade journal, Locus Magazine
  3. An anthology (particularly if they write short fiction). One of my favorites from this year was edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin, Dangerous Women. If you’re interested in something that I’ve got a story in, the anthologies I appeared in this year were By Faerie Light, Fiction River: Past Crime, Shattered Shields, Stamps, Tramps, and Vamps, and Unidentified Funny Objects 3.
  4. Something to fiddle with. A puzzle, a worry stone, a Lego minifig. Writers are often superstitious creatures and we like our little totems, whether they’re pop culture icons or natural objects.
  5. A ticket somewhere. Get your writer out of the house and somewhere that will provide new ideas. Doing it on the cheap? Plan a day trip with a picnic basket? More extravagant? Well, there’s plenty of choices there, from riding the Orient Express to cruising the world. Tailor your destination to the recipient.

#sfwapro

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Reminder About Upcoming Flash Fiction and Idea to Draft Online Writing Classes

Image of a feline mermaid.

If you're looking for an interesting online writing class to keep productive during December, I've got both a flash fiction and a "Moving Your Story from Idea to Draft" workshop coming up on the 20th and 21st.

Time is fleeting, and December is rolling along. Here at the writing retreat I’m on this week, I’ve finished one story and a couple of flash pieces and am well on the way to finishing up “Carpe Glitter”. I hope to finish at least three of the half-finished pieces I brought with me.

On the 20th and 21st of December, I’m teaching two online writing classes focusing on speculative fiction. If you haven’t taken a class with me before, they’re done online via Goggle Hangouts, they’re a lot of fun, and you will emerge with some flash from the flash workshop and a well-fleshed out idea and some techniques for fleshing ideas out in the future from the Idea to Draft class.

Here’s the descriptions:

Flash Fiction Workshop
One day workshop focusing on flash fiction consisting of a mixture of lecture, in-class writing exercises, discussion of how to turn fragments into flash, and an overview of flash fiction markets. Come prepared to write! 8 students per section.

Saturday, December 20th, 9:30-11:30 AM PST
OR
Sunday, February 22, 9:30-11:30 AM PST
$89 for former students; $99 for new students

Moving Your Story From Idea to Finished Draft
Come with a story idea, no matter how vague. We’ll discuss several ways of plotting a story, as well as engaging in class exercises designed to hone your plotting skills. Learn how to build a roadmap for your story that will help you complete it.

Sunday morning, December 21st, 2014, 9:30-11:30 AM PST
$89 for former students; $99 for new students

To register, mail me at catrambo AT gmail DOT com.


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WIP: Teaser from Carpe Glitter

Knocked out a good 2200 words on this, which is rapidly stretching towards novelette length, plus a flash piece, and another 500 words on something that may go anywhere, not sure at all with it. Hurray for productivity! Anyhow, here you go.

There was nothing else to do but tackle what I’d put off for so long: Grandmother’s suite. It occupied a good half of the Tudor house’s second floor – bedroom, lavishly appointed bath, sitting room. The high ceilings might have been lovely but they also allowed her to stack the boxes even higher there.

I’d avoided this spot even though it made no sense. If there were valuables, this was the logical place for them. No, it was something else that deterred me. Elsewhere in the house I could explore and pretend that my grandmother had just stepped out for a moment. To invade her bedroom, that was a different thing.

That was to acknowledge that she was dead.

I don’t believe in glorifying the dead. I will not pretend that my grandmother was a nice woman. I will not pretend that she was a kind woman. In truth, she was self-absorbed, strong-minded to the point of being a force of nature.
But she loved me. I was her only grandchild and when I was smaller, I could have done no wrong in her eyes. That was, perhaps, one of the things that divided my mother and I. She’d tried so hard all her life for her mother’s approval while I’d gotten it without even asking.

When someone loves you like that, deeply and unconditionally, it’s very hard not to love them back. My grandmother may have coerced me into the college of her choosing, but we’d both known the truth: while she’d do plenty to hurt my mother in the long and complicated game they’d been playing all their lives, she might have threatened to keep me hostage, but it was a strategy that would have worked for either side. My mother had not used it, but I wasn’t sure through unawareness or some moral scruple. I’d never understood all the currents of emotion that ran between them.

I paused in front of the oak double doors. They weren’t original to the house – she’d brought them back from somewhere in Bavaria and they were carved with willow trees and Rhine maidens. The handles were brass swans. I laid my fingers on one’s neck and tried the handle: locked. I sighed and began trying keys from the vast loop of unmarked ones I’d found in the kitchen. After ten minutes of trial and error, the lock clicked and I swung the door open.

I flipped the light switch on one side back and forth, but the bulb had long ago burned out. You couldn’t see the room for all the boxes. A narrow passageway led between the stacks of cardboard cartons – some old liquor boxes, others from thetrical supplies. The one at eye level to my right read: White Feathers: 1 Gross. White tendrils still clung to the tape along one edge.

I pushed my way forward through that cardboard corridor, so narrow that my shoulders brushed it on either side. It went straight for a few steps then branched, one side leading towards the window and (I presumed) the bed area, the other snaking towards her sitting room.

I opted for the latter.

At the threshold between the two rooms, I sought another light switch, but it was just as fruitless. The air smelled of dust and perfume and ancient cat pee. There had always been a cat around when I was a child, but in later years, Grandmother had renounced them and turned her nurturing side to the succulents out in the courtyard.

I was using my cell phone as a flashlight by now, holding it out between my fingertips. It startled me when it rang.

I glanced at the screen. My mother. I answered, standing there in the dusty darkness that smelled like Grandmother.

“Yes?”

“I need you to pick me up at the airport at 3:23,” my mother said.

“Today?”

“Of course today! I’m about to get on the plane. I’m flying on United, flight 171. Do you need me to repeat all that so you can write it down?”

“Why are you coming?”

“So I can help you, of course.”

Suspicion seized me. “Where are you staying?”

A pause, as though my question were in some foreign language that required translation before it could be processed. “With you, of course. Aren’t you staying there at the house?”

I imagined my mother “helping” me. It made my throat tight. All my life I’d watched the two of them do battle. Now my mother had come to crow over a victory that consisted of simply having outlived the other. Or, worse, like the others – the agents, Eterno – she wanted something here but would not tell me what.

I steeled myself and said, “No, you can’t do that. I’ll find you a hotel.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Why on earth can’t I stay there?”

My mind cast about for excuses. There must be some reason.

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Social Media and Internet Links for November, 2014

Photo of a clock shaped like a Neko Cat, altered with the Percolator app.

Covers the basics of creating and maintaining an online presence for writers. What you need on a website, how to effectively use social media, how to find readers via social media, what free resources are available to writers, whether it's worth it to pay for online advertising, and, most importantly, how to promote yourself online without using all your valuable writing time.

Nobody reading your blog? 10 reasons to persist!: Tne more than valid reasons to keep blogging, even when the only person commenting is your mother.
12 Places to Find Fabulous Content: Some good stuff here that’s adaptable to whatever type of blog one might be working with. “Your own bloopers,” for example, is a nice one.
How to Use Social Media Listening to Create Better Content for Your Audience: Along the same lines, identify relevant topics to write about on social media as well as identifying influencers and building relationships.
How to Get Interviewed by Popular Blogs (Even If You’re Not a Big Shot): If you’re trying to build your authority — as well as links to your website — getting interviewed is a valid strategy. This should help get you started, but be aware it requires a little bit of brazeness.
Content Distribution Tools: A variety of additional ways to share content, such as a list on List.ly
13 Experts on How To Promote Content Before Hitting Publish: Some of these steps seem more actionable than others, but some useful stuff to think about when strategizing content production.
7 Practical Ways to Find Content Your Followers Will Love: Primarily about tools rather than different approaches. Covered are Buffer, BuzzSumo, ContentGems, Feedly, HootSuite, Klout, and Swayy.

Community
Building a Sustainable Community. As a sometimes moderator of the SFWA boards, and the person the moderators currently report to, I keep an eye out for interesting or useful community building pieces. This is one,although it’s aimed at a community of fans.

Privacy and Security
No one knows where it came from, but there’s new spyware called Regin out there, and it is widespread in crucial industries such as energy, telecom, hospitality, and travel. It’s there and actively monitoring, but experts don’t know why. “Once they [Regin’s operators] gain access, they can remotely control a person’s keyboard, monitor Internet activity, and recover deleted files….O’Murchu said Regin is part of a disquieting trend of government-written and government-enacted malware.”

Social Media
What Is Pinterest? A Database of Intentions: An interview with Evan Sharp, one of Pinterest’s co-founders, about the image-centered social network. “What’s cool is that because every object was put there by a person. It’s not the largest inventory in the way that maybe a nerd like me would get excited about. But everything that’s on there, at least one human found interesting, so there is a very good chance that at least one other human is going to find that interesting. So, it’s a good set of objects. It’s the world’s largest set of objects that people care about.”
I put a couple of Twitter-related blog posts out in November. They were Twitter Basics and Best Practices and The One Twitter List You Should Be Keeping: My thoughts on some Twitter best practices.
2014 Social Media Image Size Cheat Sheet: “Understanding why you should use images is the easy part. It’s the mastering of how to actually do it that can be tricky. In addition to finding the right images to post, tweet, pin, and share across your different networks; you also need to figure out the right dimensions for your images, as well.” That’s pretty dead on, which makes this a very useful resource.
The 10 Latest and Greatest Social Media Strategies to Boost Your Results and Save You Time: Some useful and interesting stuff here, at least a couple of which I plan to try.
Social Sharing Powerhouses: Some places (or strategies) you may not be trying, like Guy Kawasaki’s approach of tweeting a piece of content four times over the course of eight hours.
10 Data-Driven Steps To Dominate LinkedIn Publishing: I still don’t feel like I’ve got a good handle on how to use LinkedIn, but this article may provide a decent starting point.
Whats the Best Way to Spend 30 Minutes of Your Time on Social Media Marketing? Unsurprisingly, being able to schedule content plays a part here too. Includes the 12 tasks of a social media manager.
8 Piece-of-Cake Ways to Get More Pinterest Followers: Pinterest remains a social network of interest to me. These are some decent best practices for posting on there.

Technology
10 Boring PR Tasks to Automate: Some of this is probably stuff you don’t worry about doing, like tracking the click rate of your e-mails, but I strongly suggest automating social media where you can with something like the Buffer app.
What do I mean when I say something like click rate? Here’s a basic overview of terms like click rate and conversion.
List-Building Strategies: Your email list is supposed to be your best place for selling things. Here’s some hints on building that mailing list.
7 Indispensable and Free Website Graders and Content Scorers: Some useful ways to look at your website for weak spots. Very nice to have something to looks at accessibility issues, which is a review that (IMO) websites should conduct every year.
How Big is Email? This big.

I follow links like this in order to keep my next edition of Creating an Online Presence up to date. If you want to track my links as they occur, you can follow me on Delicious. If you’re interested in the next online class on it, it’s Sunday morning, February 15th, 2015, 9:30 AM-12:30 PM PST. The cost is $89 for former students; $99 for new students.

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You Should Read This: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Cover for feminist utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

"There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver." - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Last week, I pointed to one of the foremothers of science fiction, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, and her work The Blazing World. Herland comes several centuries later (in fact, it’ll be exactly a century old in 2015) but it’s just as important a landmark in this often murky territory.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American editor, writer, and lecturer whose short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman’s descent into madness, is often revisited in college literature classes. She was a single mother who supported herself by writing — no small accomplishment today, let alone at the time she was doing so, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Herland is often treated as though it stands alone, but it’s actually the middle volume of a trilogy, preceded by Moving the Mountain in 1911 and followed by With Her in Ourland in 1916. The work was origianally published as a serial in a magazine called The Forerunner that Gilman edited; it did not appear as a complete book until 1979, when Pantheon Books published it.

Herland is a utopian novel, in which three men, Vandyk (the narrator), Terry, and Jeff stumble across a civilization where the women reproduce asexually and there are no men. This turns out to lead not to a perfect civilization, but certainly one that seems more appealing than the one Gilman found herself in. Gilman uses the book as a device with which to explore constructed ideas of gender. It is an appealing society in many others; in others, it’s a bit cold and calculating. Girls who are overly rebellious or mouthy, for example, will not be allowed to reproduce.

One of the things that’s refreshing about the book is that it’s not written as though the lack of males is a deficit that warps society. Instead, it’s simply the way things are, and the Herlanders seem capable of getting along quite well without it.

Gilman was one of the important suffrage speakers of her time and a bit of a polymath. If you want to go further into her writing, I suggest a piece of nonfiction, her work on economics, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, which originally appeared in 1898.

You can find Herland online in its entirety at Project Gutenberg, along with much of Gilman’s other work.

#sfwapro

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Teaser: From “Red in Tooth and Cog”

This is what I’ve been working on today. It’s a lot closer to being done that it was.

This is how Renee lost her phone and gained an obsession.

She was in the park near work. It was a sunny day, on the edge of cold, the wind carrying autumn with it like an accessory it was trying on before settling for it for good.

She set her phone down on the bench beside her as she unfolded her bento box, levering back metal flaps to reveal still-steaming rice, a quivering piece of tofu.

Movement caught her eye. She pulled her feet away as a creature leaped up onto the bench slats beside her, an elastic band snap’s worth of fear as it grabbed the phone, half as large as the creature itself, and moved to the other end of the bench.

The bento box clattered as it hit the concrete, rice grains spilling across the grey.

She’d thought it an animal at first, but it was actually a small robot, a can-opener that had been greatly and somewhat inexpertly augmented, modified. It had two corkscrew claws, and grasshopper legs made from nutcrackers to augment the tiny wheels on its base that had once let it move to hand as needed in a kitchen. Frayed raffia wrapped its handles, scratchy strands feathering out to weathered fuzz. Its original plastic had been some sort of blue, faded now to match the concrete beneath her sensible shoes.

The bench jerked as the robot leaped again, moving behind the trash barrel, still carrying her phone. She stood, stepping over the spilled rice to try to get to the phone, but the leaves still on the rhododendrons thrashed and stilled, and her phone was gone.

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