New Omelas and the Lesser Evils

 

about 6,300 words

Vote Evil

 

New Omelas and the Lesser Evils

by Bryan Perkins

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Another three years had passed, as they always seem to do, and Campaign Season had come once again to New Omelas, the largest and most densely populated city on the entire planet of Infernum, built on the swampy marshes of the gulfward delta of the River Lethe.

In the weeks that had led up to the beginning of Campaign Season, a general air of disquietude settled over the city. Everyone from shopkeepers and restaurateurs—hawking their food and wares from the most ornate and expensive kitchens and the foulest smelling street corners alike—to taxi, streetcar, and bus drivers, hurling more insults and curses than average—quite a lot, in fact—during their daily fits of road rage, even down to the youngest children who couldn’t yet vote and wouldn’t be able to still for a long time to come, every single resident of New Omelas, despite age, race, or creed, was preparing themselves for the year-long freak show circus that was Campaign Season.

A century or so ago it used to be that campaigning wasn’t limited to a specific season. Back then, on Election Day, everyone would pull their chosen lever and the Campaigners wouldn’t even wait for the votes to be tallied before they started arguing against one another—and at everyone else—about what new Evils might come up for election during the next Campaign Season and who the poor, tired residents of New Omelas—who only wanted a moment to relax and forget about the freak show—ought to vote for when those quickly rolling years passed away and the next most important Election in all of history came around—every Election, it seemed, was the most important election in history as long as it was going on, and back then, the campaigning was going on twenty four, seven, three sixty five, every day of every year up to and including the year of the election, so every second of every day was the most important moment of every New Omelassian’s life, according to the Campaigners.

I think we can all see why the New Omelas City Council got together and limited the Campaign Season to a single year. Campaigning was a truly exhausting experience and even the three years rest that had since been legislated usually wasn’t enough to recuperate before the next year-long Campaign—not to mention the strain of dealing with the wrath of whichever Evil had ended up winning the previous election, because there was always and forever that endless stream of sicknesses and bad luck to contend with as well.

Which brings us to the Evils. Yes, they were there in New Omelas all the time, lurking in the alleys and streets, never to be seen but as a shadow of movement out of one’s peripheral vision, never to be heard but as a far off echo of tinnitus that was impossible to be certain actually existed, never to be smelt but as a smoldering cigarette butt in an ashtray far away or the sulphuric aftertaste from the next stall over in a public bathroom, never to be touched or tasted at all—I’m not sure how one would even think of going about that—or why—but always, always they were there, watching, stalking their prey, and slowly but surely, like the tricklings of the River Lethe through the tiny cracks in the New Omelas levee walls, doling out the torments and afflictions that they had promised during Campaign Season in order to secure themselves the Director of Evil position over the next four years.

Let me remind you, however, that these were Lesser Evils. This was New Omelas on Lethe, a not so bad place for not so bad people. What it was not was Bedlam on Phlegethon where the docks, boats, and levee walls all had to be built of tungsten in order to resist the thousands of degree temperatures of the lava and flames that flowed through Phlegethon’s burning banks. From the river side of Bedlam’s levees there was nothing to see but heat, sweat, work, and death, but from inside the levee walls, in the city proper, one could watch as the flames licked and spit against the light washed sky, occasionally curling around the top of the levee and down to kiss the inside of Bedlam, sometimes at night reflecting off the worn smooth and shiny tungsten walls of the levee like a constellation of fireflies taking flight there in the city where True Evils crept—and where sometimes even stalked the worst demons of all: Greater Evils themselves.

Now Greater Evils were something truly terrifying. Giant, indomitable beasts that they were, they had no need to hide away in shadows and farts like the Lesser Evils of New Omelas. In Bedlam, Greater Evils stomped and stamped and clattered and clomped on cloven hooves and octopus claws all throughout the city, doling out whatever pain or pestilence, misery, worry, or strife their empty, non-existent, heart-shaped chest holes might desire. No promises were made and broken or debates held for the residents of Bedlam to choose whichever Evil they thought might be the Lesser. Instead, the Evils chose amongst themselves by inflicting tortures and punishments upon one another—and upon all the poor human souls who were unlucky enough to find themselves caught between the two Evils—until one or the other demon gave up to scurry, sulking, back into the fiery flowing depths of the River Phlegethon, licking their wounds while the victor went on parading through Bedlam, the Greater Evil, committing atrocities at will.

These Greater Evils we’re talking about were giants with big red horns and solid white eyeballs, spitting fire and brimstone through razor sharp teeth, gnashing at flesh with bloody claws and pointed tail alike. These were Great and True Evils who were responsible for genocides and extinctions, atom bombs and more, tearing entire cities off the map in one deafening second, leaving what few survivors there were worse off than dead and getting worse with every second. They’re responsible for nerve agents, torture camps, and all the worst things you’ve ever heard of from all the scariest monsters in your most frightening and recurrent of nightmares. These Greater Evils and True Evils in Bedlam, on the other side of Infernum, perched atop the flaming lips of the River Phlegethon, as far away from New Omelas as possible without being on another planet entirely, were something to really and truly be afraid of, which makes it a little easier to understand why the residents of New Omelas would go on happily choosing between two Lesser Evils every four years—because at least they weren’t as bad off as the Bedlans who had to look their Evils in the eye for what they truly were and couldn’t even drink from their own river without burning their insides out.

No, compared to Bedlam, life in New Omelas didn’t seem so bad. Of course, none of the New Omelassians had ever travelled to Bedlam to confirm the stories—who would ever want to go to such a horrible sounding place anyway?—but the media, school teachers, and as an effect, everyone in the entire city kept on believing the stories and preaching them as truth, so they might as well have been the truth even if they were more than likely tall tales concocted by the Lesser Evils themselves in order to keep the New Omelassians in line. Evils, whether Lesser, True, or Greater, could be very sneaky and manipulative in that way.

So when one of the little imps, sometimes tiny, red, and winged, flapping around like a grotesque merger of bat and moth into one, others in the visage of a child, a woman, or a dark skinned man, maybe a talking kitten or something even more random and abstract, like telepathic fry bits, or the tunnel of light that represents both being born and dying, passing on to the after life whatever life it may be after, but when the Lesser Evils would come disguised as menacing child demons or the things that all humans knew and loved, or as humans themselves, and they would say, I promise to steal every first born child in the city and force them into a violent fight to the death against every first born child from outside of the city until only one of them remains alive, the New Omelassians could hold their noses and say, Well, at least these Evils weren’t going to take all the children of New Omelas like those Greater Evils around the world in Bedlam do, so certainly this Evil is of a Lesser variety and I should go ahead and vote for it. That’s how life went for many centuries in New Omelas while no one knew better or how to do any different.

So when the racist cheese snack in a bad toupee promised to exile every immigrant in New Omelas to the fiery shores of Bedlam while also locking every New Omelassian whose skin was darker than milk chocolate in the torture chambers until next Campaign Season, and when at the same time the yellow rat in a blue coat, wearing a pink bow in its hair that smelled like hot sauce, promised to unleash a never ending squadron of flying pig monsters with rabid chimpanzees on their backs to drop fecal bombs that exploded not with fire and instant death but instead a slow, painful death full of gaseous, burning agony in every pore of your body, all with the hopes of creating more refugees to flood the streets of New Omelas and provide cheap labor for the city’s sulphur mines—and of course, in the process, the rat planned on exiling as many immigrants as they could replace with the newly desperate refugees—the residents of New Omelas fell into a flurry of surveys and calculations, trying to determine which of the Lesser Evils’ evil plans would be less burdensome on their own lives and the lives of those friends and family who they knew and loved instead of realizing that both platforms were more evil than even the most evil of platforms run in Elections prior, and especially the most recent Campaign Season in which a sensuous space slug who could only speak in poetics ran against a catdog demi-beast which spoke by controlling a hivemind of killer bees to fly in formation and spell out its promises—a lot, a lot of stinging, and since so many New Omelassian voters were terrified of or allergic to bees, the space slug ended up winning the Election and laying eggs in the ears of every single male in New Omelas, killing only ten percent of them and feeding on the, as a result nightmarish, dreams of the others, a rather traumatizing experience, no doubt, but over all, one of the truly Lesser Evils in all the Evils New Omelas had ever experienced.

In fact, except for a few minor aberrations such as the sensuous space slug every once in a few decades, the Evils running for the Directorship of Evil in New Omelas had slowly but steadily been becoming greater and greater ever since the institution of the Election process—which as far as is known coincided with the founding of the city, that is to say forever ago. Sure, some things were getting better, some Evils getting lesser. Where before the Evils had typically focused on a single race, killing untold numbers for the color of their skin, where before the Evils had specifically oppressed women, cutting their arms off or sewing their mouths shut—in the unluckiest of cases both—all in droves so the women were forced to rely on one another more than ever before, now the Evils were becoming more all inclusive, intersectional, diverse. Men, women, and anything in between or outside of that, any time, any age, it didn’t matter. Everyone was fair game. If they really wanted the directorship, the Evils would focus solely on foreigners to the city and immigrants, trying to seem truly Lesser to the native New Omelassians, but those were usually the most dangerous of Lesser Evils because they ardently craved the power that came with being Director of Evil, and whenever they finally had a hold of it, there was no telling what theywould do—and much less stopping them when they did whatever it was they wanted to do, which inevitably resulted in a lot more evil than promised inflicted upon the residents of New Omelas.

And so on and so on the cycle went, and every new Campaign Season a new pair of disgusting Lesser Evils would take to the Campaign Trail, and it seemed like every single resident of New Omelas would forget everything they had learned from each previous Campaign Season, diving head first and irate into another one, screaming the praises of their chosen Evil and damning those who would dare to find another Lesser, until finally, one or two people started to give up and drop out of the Election Process altogether, letting the voters decide their fate for them. And soon more and more New Omelassians were giving up on the elections. Not a lot all at once, but a handful here and there. And those rare few would meet in dive bars and back alley cafes, in bookstores and around dining room tables, to discuss what they had experienced and try to find some better strategy other than voting between two of them to deal with the Evils.

Having come together, all these Abstainers, and shared their experiences with one another, the first thing they realized was that they truly had been forgetting their histories. Each had a story to tell going back until about the time that the previous election had been decided on then nothing more. None of them could remember any part of their lives before four years prior.

After some time of arguing, debating, and experimentation around the matter, the Abstainers came to the conclusion that it was the waters of the River Lethe that were causing their forgetfulness. It must have been some magical property of the river, they had decided, that was no doubt created or controlled by the Lesser Evils, and the only method of overcoming the effect was by not drinking the water at all, abstaining from that, too. What was easily enough said, however—and what had been so difficult for the New Omelassians to discover—was not so easy to do.

First of all, there was no possibility of digging wells in New Omelas. Whatever water could be found in the swampy ground there would no doubt be polluted with the forgetful liquid of Lethe and digging any deeper would only lead to the same lava and brimstone that flowed through Bedlam’s Phlegethon—that same fiery semi-liquid which filled Infernum almost to the brim, leaving just enough topsoil and water reserves to support a few small pockets of human life, the largest of which being New Omelas. But pockets of life there were, bringing up the second difficulty: how to convince a large enough group of adventurers capable of making the journey out there and back again that a potentially fatal trip to another city, looking for water, was worth the effort and inevitable casualties it would entail.

It took two more election cycles to assemble a team—Lesser Evils getting incrementally more so and their Campaigners becoming exponentially more fierce in their campaigning the entire time—due to the understandable deterrents of the True Evils that stalked the ragged dead zones between cities, picking off travelers at will, and to the added forgetfulness of the Lethe waters which the Abstainers were forced to drink in order to survive. Mountains of sticky notes and other written and recorded reminders had finally gotten the Abstainers around that second difficulty, however, and eventually a team of a dozen or so explorers set off north toward the Wailing City of Ymir and the Frozen River Cocytus.

Sure, it was going to be some work carving out the ice and hauling it the thousands of miles home to New Omelas, and sure the legends and campfire tales all told that the waters of Cocytus induced fits of moaning and wailing when drunk, but an ice block would be easier to travel long distances with than as large an amount of unruly liquid water would have been, the people of Ymir had to drink something themselves in order to have survived long enough to build a city, howling beat forgetfulness if the Abstainers ever planned on ridding New Omelas of Evils altogether, and no one wanted to risk drinking the waters of the River Acheron in the south that were said to burn and hurt any flesh they touched—including throats on the way in and urinary tracts on the way out—or those of the River Styx in the west that were said to contain all the souls of all the dead who had ever lived on Infernum—something about ingesting another human’s soul just didn’t sit right with any of the Abstainers. So the Frozen River Cocytus of Wailing Ymir in the north was the only viable option left to them.

The expedition took months and months, and those Abstainers who had stayed in New Omelas to recruit others and brainstorm methods of dispatching the Lesser Evils had entirely forgotten about the adventurers several times—only happening to remember with chance glances at old and quickly fading sticky notes—before the expedition returned a few adventurers shorter and every once in awhile wailing and screaming the words they only meant to speak.

The howling side effect was grating, no doubt, and the ice block they had returned with wouldn’t last long, but those brave explorers had opened the lines of communication with Ymir, and the Ymirese people had thought that forgetfulness might be better than involuntary screaming in some instances, so three Election Cycles later the pipes between Ymir and New Omelas had been completed and each city was pumping a supply of water from their respective rivers to the other. The Abstainers were making progress.

Now that the new Omelassians—or at least those Abstainers who had a problem with the Election System as set up by the Lesser Evils—had a source of water other than the Lethe and could remember beyond the past four years, they had a chance to actually change the future for the better. They continued to slowly and quietly accumulate new members, attracted mostly by the howling remembrances that were a side effect of the Ymirese water, and at the same time began to put into effect experiments as to how to overthrow the Lesser Evils once and for all. Finally being able to remember their history, the Abstainers could tell for certain now that the Lesser Evils had been becoming greater and greater for some decades at least, and the last thing they wanted was for New Omelas to become Bedlam—creeping with True and Greater Evils alike, taking no care as to hide their presence—so they had to do something other than fighting over who was the lesser Lesser Evil about it.

The Abstainers’ first plan was to get everyone, the entire population of New Omelas, to abstain from voting just the same as they were, and at first, it really started to work. Though they were only Lesser, the Evils up for Election were still no doubt evil, so it wasn’t difficult to convince people not to support them. More and more New Omelassians decided to abstain over the next two Election Cycles until the Lesser Evils took notice of the falling voter turnouts and promised to enact both Evils at once if not enough votes were cast in order to elect one or the other to the Directorship. Voter participation skyrocketed after being given the ultimatum until enough time had passed and enough of the waters of Lethe had been consumed such that the residents of New Omelas—besides those few Abstainers who remained drunk on the once frozen waters of Cocytus, wailing in misery—forgot everything they had once learned and returned to their normal fervent levels of participation in Campaign Season.

The Abstainers’ next attempt at defeating the Lesser Evils was their longest and most tedious. They had decided that there must be some power in the election itself, so the Abstainers became instead the Ultimate Participants, attempting to get their own, human, candidate into the running against the Lesser Evils. But lo and behold, and of course, the Evils controlled the entire Election Process, and knowing that any human would readily beat any Evil given an equal playing field, they did everything in their power to keep the Abstainers out—and were flawlessly successful. Even when the Abstainers had gone so far as to build their own levers into the walls of every voting booth in New Omelas, the Lesser Evils had seen it coming and amped up their platform of terrors so much—each promising nukes and deformities, ecological collapse and soggy cereal for life, such horrible things it was impossible to tell which of the two was truly the lesser Lesser Evil—that it scared the New Omelassians into throwing their votes away on an Evil they thought might be Lesser instead of using it on a human who obviously was—all of course, except for the Abstainers who had been responsible for researching, building, and installing the voting levers in the first place.

Running their own campaign for the Director of Evil position against the Lesser Evils, as it turned out, was a bust, never could have saved the Abstainers in the first place, but it had served to attract more interested New Omelassians at a higher rate than the Abstainers had ever been able to attract before. As such, the Abstainers continued to “attempt” their own campaigns—with full knowledge that the Lesser Evils would never let a human being into the running, much less let one win the Election—all while simultaneously searching for, debating, and discussing other avenues through which to end the reign of the Hellish Lesser Evils—who were daily looking more and more like True Greater Evils—once and for all.

The more New Omelassians who joined the Abstainers, the more perspectives from which they could see the situation, the longer time went on, and the more history from which they had to draw, one thing became utterly clear: the only way to end this charade once and for all was going to be to destroy the Lesser Evils entirely. As soon as it had been aired, no one knew by whom, and only as a joke at first, like a meme that had taken on a life of its own and gotten out of hand, becoming more serious than any meme ever should be, the idea took hold and became the only plan that could ever save them.

And so the Abstainers went about determining a method of doing just that, some way to kill the Lesser Evils and liberate the humans of New Omelas. But first, the Evils had to be found. They were never to be seen or heard but in shadows and shit, as previously mentioned, so how could the Abstainers expect to destroy them? But never wasn’t entirely accurate, they had soon realized. The Lesser Evils did come out into the open twice every four years: Once to announce their candidacy for the Directorship and make known the plagues and torments in store if they were to be elected, then again on the day of voting to be announced the winner or to concede defeat. And so our brave Abstainers chose the day of coronation for their rebellion efforts, thinking they could use the hectic Campaign Season as cover for their actions and perhaps along the way convince more voters to join them in fighting against the Lesser Evils.

Campaign Season dragged on, and the Abstainers slowly stockpiled what makeshift weapons they could lay their hands on—pitchforks, shovels, torches, your typical low tech riot gear mostly—all the while they were bombarded on both sides by arguments from the Campaigners:

“It must be nice being as pale as your ass is, y’all are never targeted by the Lesser Evils, but dark skinned people have to be afraid of the fanged worm eating the core of an apple, because it promises to lock everyone whose skin is darker than ash in the torture chambers, and if you didn’t know, that includes my wife and her kin.”

Followed by, “You think the fanged worm eating the core of an apple is scary? You must not have heard what the black hole at the center of the universe promises to plague us with, because they’re gonna torture twenty percent of people whose skin’s darker than charcoal and flip a coin as to whether to exile or murder every single immigrant in the city.”

And the Abstainers would argue back that neither of the Lesser Evils were desirable, that the Evils seemed to be getting greater with every new vote that they consumed, and even going so far as to share their plan to destroy the Evils once and for all, inviting the Campaigners to give up on campaigning and join them in abstaining, but inevitably such arguments would fall on deaf ears, because the Campaigners were so convinced that their only option was to pick one of the two Evils that they couldn’t be bothered to stop arguing with one another for long enough to listen to—and much less seriously consider—any other position. A small percentage of New Omelassians could be convinced away from Campaign Season, of course, or there would never have been Abstainers at all, and those few were going to have to do what they could with the numbers they had or do nothing at all, and nothing was not an option.

Election day came with its typical mixture of nervous excitement at finally knowing the outcome of Campaign Season and relief at having made it through another year-long circus to a three year break that was never long enough, but this time the Abstainers were actually going to try something unique to Campaign Season so their excitement was of an entirely different nature than that of the general population of New Omelas.

The votes came in and were instantly tallied, and by eight o’clock that night, in the lamplit Center Square of New Omelas, under the giant statue of two Lesser Imps, magnified over a hundred times size, shaking hands with one another, flapping wings and wagging tails happily, in front of as much of the city as could fit into Center Square, probably more than a hundred thousand of New Omelas’s more than seventy five million strong population in the five or so acres of space going all around in front of and behind the candidates on the stage, the two Lesser Evils stood, one, the black hole at the center of the universe, to concede defeat, and the other, a fanged worm eating the core of an apple, to begin raining down its first promised pestilences on New Omelas, while no one, the Lesser Evils least of all, noticed the Abstainers, hiding on the wings, backs, arms, and heads of the statues above the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.

“Good evening loyally frightened residents of New Omelas,” the black hole at the center of the universe said in a thousand different tortured, screaming, inhuman demonvoices that seemed to echo up from far away in every direction at once, even from inside the head of every listener. “It is with great displeasure that I, the black hole at the center of the universe, must stand before you today and concede the position of the Director of Evil for New Omelas to this here fanged worm eating the core of an apple.” The black hole at the center of the universe floated silently above the podium for a moment, sucking what light that came out of the lamps around the square toward it in curly cue patterns like an impressionist painting, photons floating toward the darkness to be crushed down into a single point like a postmodern moth to the flame, and when the black hole started to speak again, the A-Team leapt into action.

One by one, like spiders without webs to slow them down, the four or five dozen Abstainers who were brave enough to take up arms against the Lesser Evils dropped from atop the towering imp statues, pitchforks and pick axes brandished and ready, aiming for the floating black hole and the worm eaten apple which both somehow could be seen to look up at their would-be predators before lashing out in kind.

One airborne Abstainer fell directly on top of the black hole at the center of the universe and was sucked into it like any other ray of light to become smaller than a lepton and infinitely more dense, a singularity, along with everything else that had ever been consumed by the insatiable vortex of destruction. Another two Abstainers landed on the apple being eaten by a fanged worm, one piercing the apple with their pitchfork and the other hitting the rapidly embiggening worm in the head to stop its razor sharp teeth from landing on flesh.

All at once, two Lesser Evils transformed into two Greater Evils—and getting more so by the second—right before the frightened crowd’s very eyes. The fanged worm eating the core of an apple was discombobulated, confused, and angry. Roaring irately, the worm head thickened and hardened, turning red and taking the shape of a devil with giant black horns and glow in the dark eyes and teeth, while the apple morphed into a cloven hoofed, six packed satyr, bleeding from a gash on its shoulder. Blind rage whipped the beast’s razor sharp tail and claws spastically, seeking revenge on the flesh of Abstainers who still fell like bees in attack formation, diving from the top of the tall imp statues onto the Lesser Evils below.

The black hole at the center of the universe, however, paid no attention to any of them. It was busy thinking about revenge on a larger scale. Against the Abstainers for pulling a surprise attack in the middle of its speech. Against the worm eating the core of an apple now turned Greater Evil for winning the Directorship of Evil in the first place. And against the residents of New Omelas—Hell, against the entire city itself—for voting to elect a stupid worm instead of it, a badass black hole. The entity didn’t even have to change form to exact its vengeance—not qualitatively, at least—instead it simply grew.

As the black hole at the center of the universe expanded, its gravitational pull multiplied exponentially. The aura of deep dark blackness glowed at further and further distances around the point that was the center of the black hole at the center of the universe, and soon, more and more beings were being pulled in and crushed into that same singular space. First the podium and a few Abstainers, then the worm-eaten apple turned Greater Evil and those Abstainers who were still trying to fight it, and soon even members of the onlooking crowd who didn’t have time to run away, the statues and all the Abstainers who had still not dropped off of them, the road, lamps, buildings, every single thing in that square, all hundred or so thousand human beings, eaten and crushed into one singular point at the center of the black hole at the center of the universe in the blink of an eye. Just like that. Creating the crater in New Omelas’s Center Square where Elections and Coronations of greater and greater Lesser Evils are still held to this day.

“I am the Director of Evil now,” the black hole at the center of the universe boomed out in a thousand demonic voices, echoing in and through every single mind in the entire city of New Omelas, waking or asleep, all adding their own voices to the chorus as well—mother’s speaking these words in the middle of bedtime stories, older brothers yelling them at their friends instead of curse words, even dogs barking whatever grotesque mimicry of speech they could manage with their non-human voice boxes, all at once and all together with the black hole at the center of the universe in a hellish chorus: “These four years will be the worst you’ve ever experienced, and you’ll be lucky if you get another election after that. Don’t believe me? Visit Center Square and see.”

Rain, hail, lightning, and hurricane force winds pummeled New Omelas all through that night—the River Lethe lapping hard at the levee walls but never quite breeching—and the black hole at the center of the universe did its best to make the next four years a living Hell, but nothing ever seemed that bad when compared to the crater left in Center Square. Inevitably a new Campaign Season came along and the residents of New Omelas forgot all about the last one, as those people who consume the waters of Lethe can only do, but luckily, by that time not all of the residents of New Omelas still drank from Lethe, and though most who drank otherwise had been consumed by the black hole at the center of the universe along with the rest of Center Square on that day of attempted revolution, there still existed some who survived solely on the imported waters from Ymir’s Cocytus—you could tell them by their mournful wails, which came out predominantly at night, both as a side effect of Cocytus’s magical properties and as a result of still remembering the faces and names of all those poor souls lost in the regimes of Lesser Evils previously.

And so those surviving Abstainers regrouped and regained themselves, and they started again the long and tedious process of attracting people to their cause. They ran more candidates in elections where their names weren’t even on the ballots, and they helped those who were interested attempt to build their own voting levers, all the time reminding the New Omelassians that no amount of voting would get rid of the Evils, there was only one way to do that.

Which brings us to today, the present, our current Campaign Season in New Omelas. We now have a giant flaming phoenix lit in blue, green, and purple flower patterns running against a three headed crow with nine eyes and feathers made out of ice. These are two apparitions of Lessers Evils that we Abstainers feel we can actually defeat. We have a much better chance than when we went up against the black hole at the center of the universe at least, of that much we’re sure.

Not only do we have more comrades in arms ready to fight, we have better weapons and more efficient tactics with which to do it. These here nets of copper are filled with “water” from the River Phlegethon. The Ymirese and Bedlans have been working together on the weapon for many centuries while forgetful New Omelas still slept under the spell of the River Lethe. The Ymirese say fire nets are the only way to catch a snow crow if you want to kill it before the thing becomes enraged and transforms into a Greater Evil—which would be thousands of time more difficult to kill, though not entirely impossible—and the Ymirese can be trusted on this because frozen Cocytus is the favorite haunt of many snow crows and other such frozen Evils, giving the Ymirese more experience with such demons than anyone would ever desire. And here we have heat resistant shielding and spray cannons which the Bedlans have been able to combine with reserves of Lethe’s and Cocytus’s water supplies to defend against the fire moths and other burning things that haunt the River Phlegethon. As you can see, these are the perfect defenses for the particular combination of Lesser Evils we are now faced with in New Omelas.

As election day approaches, we hope you read this transcript or listen to the recording soon enough that you can come to see past the flowery burning rainbow phoenix and beyond the three headed psychic snow crow to a better option, to our option, the Abstainers who choose to build a better system rather than perpetuate an unjust and Evil one. With help from the humans of Ymir and Bedlam—and those who live in the badlands in between, which we now know are more populated than we’ve been led to believe, and not just by Greater Evils but by many tribes of humans as well—together, all of us, sharing our technology, resources, and knowledge, will rid Infernum of Evils Greater, Lesser, and True no matter how long it takes or how many times we fail along the way.

That’s all there is to say on the matter. It’s time for you to decide for yourself. Go on living life like everyone in New Omelas always has, drinking the forgetful waters of Lethe to soothe their minds as they choose between the rainbow phoenixes who promise to immolate every first born along with every other female or the psychic snow crows who promise to freeze every second born to death along with those females who wouldn’t have been burned by the phoenix, or you can join us, the Abstainers, and grab a pitchfork and net, or operate a hose and pump, as we put an end to this Evil freak show circus once and for all.

Your choice. But you’ll know where to find us when Election Day comes. Good luck to you and good luck to New Omelas, from the Wailing Abstainers living here amongst you and those in Bedlam, Ymir, and beyond. We do nothing alone, and we will succeed.

☭ THE END ☭
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The Song From Outer Space

I’m not quite sure I really like this story, and yet I’m the one who wrote it. That’s why I’m sending it out by paper airplane here and giving up on selling it to the birds. Only a mother could love this one, and maybe the people who follow the blog will be more forgiving like only a mom could be. Without further lowering of expectations, here it is:

length: 1,000 words

The Song From Outer Space

by Bryan Perkins

 

I dropped the pick and rubbed wet palms on skinny jeans, clenching my eyes tight, waiting for any response. After an eternity of silence, it came.

A chuckle? My heart sank into my stomach. The beat stopped. My knees knocked, probably a more rhythmic performance than I could ever play on my guitar. It was shit. I knew it.

“Stop it!” Erin said. I hear hand slapping jean jacket. “That’s so rude.”

“Sorry,” Phil said, trying to stifle his laughter. “I was laughing at something else, not you. Your music was…well…your music.”

I opened my eyes. Only Zane was left to respond. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, hiding behind his swooped black hair.

“Well, what do you think?” I said, unable to wait longer for his verdict. My life was in his hands now.

“I don’t know,” he said, flinging his hair to the side with a tic of his neck, revealing his piercing blue, lined eyes. “It’s like–and I never thought I’d ever say this–but it’s like, too out there or something. Alien almost. Am I right?”

“Oh, yeah. For sure,” Erin said, nodding too hard. She always went along with Zane’s opinion, no matter how stupid it was. She wanted to get into his pants. Well, guess what, girl. They’re too skinny. There’s not even room enough for him in there.

Phil chuckled. “Outer space,” he said, probably because he was so high that’s where he was. Maybe I’d join him in the clouds when this was all done.

“Right,” Zane went on, nodding and swiping his hair to the side. “Like it was from outer space. It gives me a weird feeling. I don’t know. I don’t like it, bro. I’m sorry.”

“But–You said–” I said. “You said you were tired of the mainstream. You said you wanted something new, something different. Well, here it is.” I played a few notes.

“I don’t know what to tell you.” Hair swoop, sending all my hopes out the window. “I guess you’ve shown us today that there is such a thing as too unique. Let that be a lesson for all of us. C’mon guys. Let’s go. We’ll talk to you later, bro.”

Zane walked out first, Erin followed right up his ass, and Phil lagged a few steps behind, chuckling to his own joke.

My knees ended their performance once the three hipster stooges were gone, giving out entirely, and I fell to a heap on top of my guitar.

#

It doesn’t matter how long I laid there, almost sleeping. When I awoke, I lined the room with candles, lighting each one by one, and sat in the middle of the circle of flames with my guitar in my lap and pill bottle next to me.

It wasn’t that bad, was it? I started to play, staring into the fire. Sure, the time signature was overcomplicated to the modern ear, but what of the future ear? The melody followed patterns and progressions with alien logic but logic nonetheless. It produced–

The lights changed color. A rainbow chorus of candles sang out in perfect harmony with my melody. I couldn’t stop playing.

The colors flickered and danced in geometric patterns while the flames grew and shrunk. Smoke billowed. I almost stopped playing before the smoke resolved itself into physical forms. Standing atop each colorful flame were tiny, barrel-bodied figures, singing in chorus with each other, in chorus with my guitar, my song.

I stopped playing. My muscles grew too weak to carry on. The stupor produced by the vision was too much. The song kept going, though, with the little visitors keeping it alive.

One of the figures, standing atop a green flame, grew larger and larger as the chorus sang, to about the size of a toddler, dwarfing all the rest. “You sing more beautifully than we have ever heard,” it sang, and the chorus crooned their agreement.

I blushed. The whole lot of them flashed red with me. “Oh–well–I wasn’t really singing,” I said, feeling a little light headed about everything. “That was my guitar.”

“Your song was beautiful,” the green one sang. “It opened our pathway here. We had to come see what perfect creature could have such an angelic voice. Please, sing it again. For us. Bring us closer to your presence.”

“Yes, sing for us,” the chorus sang.

I tried to play something, anything, but it took too much energy to even lift my pick. All that came out was randomness. The chorus and the green one, whatever they were, flickered and squealed.

Noooo! Stoooop!

I dropped my pick, dropped my guitar, knocked over the empty pill bottle, and the aliens–I was convinced now that’s what they were–flickered back into solidity, standing atop their flames, singing my song better than I ever could.

“Come with us,” the green one sang over my own alien melody.

I couldn’t even lift my head, slumped over the dead guitar, to respond. I tried to move. I think I waved.

They sang my song louder, giving me energy. I raised up, reached for my phone, clicked the last call, and it rang.

“It doesn’t work as well from this side,” the green one sang. “Come with us or keep playing. The connection will be lost soon.”

“Hello?” said the voice from the other side, Zane. “You there, bro?”

“Come with us,” the green one sang, flickering, still singing my song, the song from outer space.

“Do you hear that, Zane?” I mumbled. “It’s so beautiful.”

“We’ll be awaiting your voice,” the green one called, blinking into nothingness along with the rest of the chorus, blowing out the candles on their way, and leaving me in darkness.

“Did you hear that, Zane? They’ll be waiting for my voice.”

The phone fell to the floor in a clatter. So did I, humming my melody, waiting for Zane or the green one, whichever came first. My life was in their hands now.

END

Dinner for Two

Here’s another short fable for you all to enjoy. Come back now, ya hear.

length: 600 words

Dinner for Two

by Bryan Perkins

Fast Food

 

“She’s gourmet,” I said to the phone. “Of course I want to go out with her. Next to her I’m like dog food.”

“So what’s the problem?” the phone asked back.

“The problem? I can’t even afford to go out to a nice restaurant by myself, that’s the problem. How do you expect me to afford a dinner for two?”

“Oh, come on,” the phone said, putting on that concerned tone like he knew what I was going through. He didn’t. Phones had all the money. Everyone everywhere needed a phone to do everything. He couldn’t help but to roll in the bakers—it was how he was built. “This is a new day and age,” he said. “The girl will even pick up the waiter these days. They call it dutch ovening or something, I don’t know. The point is, even a cheap ass sack of fries and a greasy burger dressed up in a paper suit deserve to sit on a nice table with a pretty girl every once in a while.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” wasn’t too difficult for me to say. “You’re a phone.”

“What?” the phone said, tone: offended. “You think my life is problem free? Those animals are always grabbing me, spitting on my ass, putting my face—that’s where my mouth is, you know, and my nose—up in their ears, and making me whisper sweet nothings from some other phone’s ass. You’re tellin me you want that life?”

“No,” I said. I did not want that. “But I’m fast food. I’m gonna—”

“What? So you’re afraid then?” the phone cut me off. I wasn’t even sure I was close enough to his butt for him to hear me.

“No, I’m not afraid,” I said anyway.

“You’ve never dreamed of sitting on a fancy table, candlelight between you and your gourmet date, a sweet, beautiful violin singing in the background, accompanied by an a capella orchestra?”

“Well, sure, who hasn’t? But I’m fast food!”

“It doesn’t matter, kid. It’s your destiny. I’ve made the call already. Get ready for the ride of your life.”

#

I won’t bore you with the details of the ride. Suffice it to say that it was the ride of my life. The table I ended up on deserves a little more description, but the phone has already gotten to that: candles, a capella orchestra, and—best of all—my gourmet date.

Ooh, what was she, though? I couldn’t see her from that angle, with the burning candle blocking my field of vision, but I could almost smell something exotic—maybe Thai. More than likely it was my own unkempt stench which I’ve probably never smelled anything beyond.

Ahem.” I cleared my throat of greasy phlegm. “Hello,” I ventured over the candlelight.

Gourmet gagged. “Ew. You have got to be kidding me.”

“I—excuse me.” I didn’t like the tone of her voice.

“You’re fast food!” she screeched.

“I—uh—” Of course. “The phone didn’t tell you?”

“I thought it had to be a joke. It is a joke, isn’t it? You’re not fast food, there’s something more under that paper veneer.”

“No, I—” I complained, but a hand—ugh, the most disgusting thing imaginable—ripped my clothes off and lifted me naked for the entire world to see.

Gourmet giggled now. It was so much worse than gagging. My insides turned pink. I gave up, gave in. There was nothing more for me. Thank the Holy Cow, Creator up above, a slobbery, cavernous black hole devoured me, sending me on a journey unknown, through depths even darker than these.

END

If you enjoyed that, click here to read more fables or here for other short stories in general.

Review of Pocosin by Ursula Vernon

Here’s installment number two in my short story review series. Click here to see the rest and enjoy.

Title: Pocosin
Author: Ursula Vernon
Magazine: Apex Magazine
Publication date: 1/6/15
Genre: Fantasy
Wordcount: 5,000
Rating out of 5: 4.5

Pocosin by Ursula Vernon

reviewed by Bryan Perkins

“The preacher laughed. He had a gorgeous, church–organ laugh and Maggie’s heart clenched like a fist in her chest at the sound. She told her heart to behave. Witchblood ought to know better than to hold out hope of heaven.”

Maggie Grey was born old and she grew cynical. She’s a witch who’s been settling other people’s fights for too long now. All she wants is a little time to herself. She’s no quitter, she knows that what she does is necessary, she is a witch after all, but are a few weeks alone to drink whiskey, tie fishing flies, and stare at the pond too much to ask?

Pocosin presents itself as a modern fable complete with a possum god, the God, the Devil, and Death herself, all personified. What initially seems to be a simple fairy tale, driving toward a well-worn commentary on human interaction with nature, becomes instead a treatise on what it means to be a woman. Maggie, sitting on the porch with her grandmother Death, venting about her frustrations, says four words which make this theme all the more obvious and which drove me to give the story a second reading: “Ain’t I a witch?”

Maggie Grey is a witch like Sojourner Truth is a woman. And though witchkind has been dealing with these same issues for so long, though Maggie is sick and tired of stupid, sick and tired “of taking care of things, over and over, and having to do it again the next day,” she knows she has no choice but to carry on. All she asks for is a few weeks alone with her whiskey and fishing flies, the world can get on fine without her for such a short time.

END

Read the story here. See more reviews of short stories here.

Review of Vacui Magia by L. S. Johnson

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, getting a feel for the market, and a post on /r/printSF got me to thinking that I should start writing reviews of some of these as I go along. So, I’m going to do just that–starting with the ones I like so get ready for some rating inflation. They won’t be very good, because I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I’m sure they will lead you to some enjoyable short fiction at the least.

Without further ado, for my first installment I’ll be reviewing L. S. Johnson’s Vacui Magia which was published in Strange Horizons Magazine. Click the link to read it or scroll on to read my review first.

Title: Vacui Magia [Podcast Reading]
Author: L. S. Johnson
Magazine: Strange Horizons
Publication date: 1/5/15
Genre: Fantasy
Wordcount: 3,500
Rating out of 5: 4.5 (Because I’m new to this. I don’t know what constitutes a five yet. Give me a break.)

Vacui Magia by L. S. Johnson

reviewed by Bryan Perkins 

“The most crucial element in any conjuring is, of course, conviction. You know this. Every witch knows this. You must believe, utterly believe, that it will work, despite what your senses tell you, despite what your reasoning mind tells you.”

You cannot conceive. Your mother is dying and all she ever wanted was to see you with child, to meet her grandchild. How much are you willing to go through to give her what she desires? Anything? What does “anything” entail?

L. S. Johnson purports to teach us the principles of conjuration, but in reality teaches us something deeper about the human experience. The same principles which guide you through the creation of a clay golem, designed to fulfill your mother’s dying wish, apply to all human endeavors and creations. Nothing is made in a vacuum, we must know and understand our purpose, that which we sneer at is that which we become, closeness breeds empathy, and our actions reveal our true desires.

Vacui Magia is full of life, and although the unnamed main character (you) may have realized in the end that your purpose was something other than you originally thought, something your heart truly desired, I don’t think that magic was empty. Though I won’t argue with you about it, especially if believing the magic was empty helps you feel better after the unmaking.

In the end we are all conjuring clay golems, or we are all clay golems conjured. Perhaps we are both, and though the journey to the unmaking is long, there will always be the walk back, “wading and stumbling, blinded by tears,” giving us enough time to forget our losses and relearn our freedom.

END

Read the story here, or click this to listen to the podcast.