The Signal: EP127 – Exactly 45 minutes of music to accompany an animated, murderous vapor cloud as it haunts hallways. You can download it and listen to it all you want. For as long as the power grid holds.
We’ve got video game-inspired grime from the UK, R&B experimentation, pop punk, cough syrup-infused hip hop from Spain, UK folk and African highlife combined at last, jazz, race cars, Native American bass and more!
The mix will only be available online for a limited time. Maybe, by the time you’re reading this, it’s already too late. Sorry. I don’t put the track listing here. You can right-click on the file itself and read its id3 tags, or you can subscribe to my mailing list, The Tuned In, the recipients of which are granted a full track list, a permanent download URL, and are among the first in the world notified when a new mix goes up.
lost time incident 31
Hey, everyone. Welcome back. If you are reading this, then I must have gotten back into a creative mindset after starting the day in a fury, thanks to a cat-related property damage incident. I hope, for your sake, that the fiction below is not a series of revenge fantasies. A series of cat murder scenarios.
I once worked with a guy whose dog would routinely chew things of his to pieces. He collected rare children’s books and a couple of these had met their end in the jaws of his pet. He said that he figured it was his dog’s duty to help keep him from being too attached to material things.
I have not yet reached that level of enlightenment.
I still think about throwing the cat outside.
I’m thinking about it right now.
the very moment
all that is you
As soon as we invented robots that were good at doing the things we didn’t want to do anymore, we found that the robots didn’t want to do them either.
“There’s more to the world than cleaning,” a robot once said to me, spraying cleaning solution into the air and tightening its optic focus to watch every tiny mist particle dance in the air. “We’re only here for a limited time. And when we’re not here, things will get quite dirty, quite quickly. This is plainly indicated.”
I was on my lunch break, eating a sandwich, and I watched it eject the entire contents of the spray bottle, one trigger pull at a time. It would blow jets of air through the spray and watch the droplets scatter.
And when the bottle began to squeak, its reservoir empty, the robot pivoted to return to the supply closet, but slipped on the soap-slicked floor.
Its rubberized heels pushed against the floor, finding no traction.
“This will have to be cleaned up,” it said, staring at the ceiling.
Your perfect double arrives in the mail, ready to do everything you don’t want to do. Sitting at the kitchen table with your replicant, pulling every loyalty card out of your wallet. “I bought gelato at this place once. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back another 9 times, but you hold on to this, just in case.
Emailing your replicant a list of all the books you meant to read. “Just tell me what they’re about. Unless I already know what they’re about— like this history of salt. For those ones, just tell me the best bits.”
Tucking your replicant into bed. “I don’t have time to sleep like I should. If you have any nice dreams, don’t tell me. Write them down, then read them later. If you still think they’re interesting one day later, you can tell me.”
At the retirement home, years later, you and your replicant side by side in rocking chairs, matching blankets on your laps. “You saved me so much time,” you’ll tell it. And it will smile, and slump over, and expire, so you don’t have to.
ending theme song
Is this our shortest newsletter ever? I think it is.
Is that an improvement? That’s for you, the reader, to decide.
Or have your perfect double in android form decide for you, and send you an email to let you know what the decision was.
Thanks for reading, people and androids. We’ll see you next week.
—Michael Van Vleet
lost time incident 30
Last night, I fell asleep listening to a DJ spin records in South Korea. He was mixing Korean rock music, grime from the UK, vocoder funk from the US, streaming live. During his sunny Sunday afternoon, this DJ was providing a soundtrack for my Saturday evening. I sincerely hope I never get used to how amazing that is.
The entire world, traversed in an instant.
It still feels like magic.
fun and/or games
I spent much of Saturday playing video games socially. While Amanda was asleep, I streamed myself playing a racing game via Twitch. In theory, I was supposed to be playing as a young man on a path of vengeance, working his way through the underground racing circuit as an undercover agent for law enforcement. But I don’t care about racing games much, so I was busy ignoring the central structure of the game.
I got this game because it was free and because its game map is huge. I can drive across the entire United States! So instead of racing and solving crime, I took some viewing strangers with me on a trip and introduced them to the pleasures of spirit quests in the American Southwest, talked to them about aliens while visiting Roswell, New Mexico, and about how cocaine money lead to a real estate boom in Florida while visiting Miami. I criss-crossed the nation at top speed, wherever fate took me.
It was fun.
Later, Amanda joined me on the couch to record some videos. We wanted to record ourselves playing a few games we wanted our friends to know about. One of these was INSIDE, a tense thriller of a game where you guide a young boy as he attempts to avoid menacing strangers, journeys through dark woods and bleak landscapes, and encounters bizarre science.
portents of spice
candlewick: the rigors of the admissions process
In previous installments of this newsletter, I’ve written pieces in the world of The Beulah Candlewick School for Young Magicks. Candlewick is a dangerous institution for students, with a distressingly high rate of injury and death. But no one said magick is easy.
If we’re talking about magic in the manner that most people think of magic, then we’re talking about tricks: how one can direct the attention of another person in such a way that you can make them believe that they’ve seen something impossible. It’s an act of misdirection. Much like how you started reading these words, and imagine them spoken by a voice, and have found yourself several sentences in without realizing that, as if by magic, this story has already begun.
But this story doesn’t limit itself to mundane magic that can done with quick fingers and keen planning. This story involves real magick, to which we’ve added an additional “k” consonant, as a visual reminder. This sort of magick is dangerous, as are those who practice it, because it’s not limited to the manipulation of perception. Mysterious and arcane forces are actually set to work to make real changes in the world.
Which is why it’s a terrible idea to let young people do it unsupervised.
To address this issue, the faculty at The Beulah Candlewick School for Young Magicks maintains on its payroll a cadre of recruiters who are tasked with enrolling young people who have discovered their own way to manipulating magickal energies, independently.
This is why Mr. and Mrs. Woolson found themselves sitting in their living room, cups of tea growing cold on the low set coffee table in front of them, across from a serious looking recruiter in a dark suit.
Mr. Woolsen squinted at a trifold pamphlet with full color photos of the school. “Mr. Scidmore, was it? This is a lot to take in. I hope you understand.”
“I understand,” responded Scidmore, the recruiter.
“Because it would be a considerable disruption. It’s almost halfway through the school year already and Jaymes seems to be doing fairly well with his studies. I can’t help but think that he might be… thrown off his stride, if we were to have him transfer schools just because of this carrot thing.” Mr. Woolsen removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
The “carrot thing” being referred to is an animated creature that Mr. Woolsen’s son brought to life through an instinctive use of vivification. The living carrot creature became an inseparable companion to young Jaymes, though he was wise enough not to share its existence outside of his family, who really would rather that he had eaten his vegetables at the dinner table as originally asked.
“Here’s the thing,” said Scidmore. “The reason I’m here is because magick— real magick— is a weapon. And there’s no way to disarm a teenager when the weapon is who they are. Throw in—” and here Scidmore shuddered. “Throw in puberty and you have a recipe for disaster. All those hormones. Those… changes. The brain in a bubbling soup. If you’ll look at the back of the brochure, you’ll see that our tuition is quite reasonable—”
“One more question,” interrupted Mrs. Woolsen. “You said that this institute is a secret. How do we explain where Jaymes has gone when we’re asked by his school why he’s not longer attending?”
“It’s all taken care of,” said Scidmore. “It’s in small print on the … just inside the inside cover. We report your child as missing.”
“To the police. The authorities. And then, upon graduation, your child is returned and the case is closed.”
Mrs. Woolsen looked to her husband with some alarm, though Mr. Woolsen was scanning the small print inside the inside cover. He murmured, “Sure enough, there it is.”
As with mundane magic, Scidmore’s presence was a distraction. While Mr. and Mrs. Woolsen considered the pros and cons of enrollment, Jaymes was already in a short bus with all his belongings in his lap, his gaze blank, ensorcelled by the school’s efficient admissions group. The admissions team were sitting in the bus’s front seats, filling out Jaymes’ enrollment forms and filing away the credit card information they found while investigating the Woolsen’s finances.
The illusion was complete. The Woolsen’s would either decide to enroll their son or they wouldn’t, but the end result was predetermined. Tuition would be extracted. The Woolsen’s dangerous son would be kept off the streets, where he might imbue even more foods with limited free will. His carrot golem sat in its usual perch on Jaymes’ shoulder, swaying with the motion of the bus.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” repeated the golem, as enthusiastic as ever.
Everything was working as planned.
ending theme song
I didn’t think I was going to write about Jaymes and his carrot golem, but when I was looking through my bookshelves for things to use as header images, I came across an actual carrot boy! It’s from a comic by Swedish artist Kolbeinn Karlsson. I had to take it as a sign.
Thanks to Amanda, my wife, for the illustration of the Candlewick pamphlet.
And thanks to you for showing up for one more week. As the prophecy preordained.
—Michael Van Vleet
I had a very long, very boring work-related call yesterday.
lost time incident 29
Yesterday, at a used book store in Berkeley, CA, I got my hands on something amazing. I picked up a copy of a paranormal romance novel that features a Viking… who is also a vampire… who is also an angel WHO IS ALSO A DOCTOR!
The vampire/angel hybrid is called a “vangel,” so I’ve spent a full day trying to decide if that sounds like vawn-gel or vain-gel.
Anyway, this magic immortal being falls in love or cures cancer or both. Who cares, I’m not going to read it. The book is in my home as a talisman. Proof that all varieties of creative works can find their audience. No matter how many hyphens it takes to carve out a subgenre.
This is me, doing it.
married to the sea
“I love you, Jenny, I do, but you see, it would never work out. I’m married to the sea.” The bewhiskered man stared out at the rolling waves, his index finger resting on the lips of a young lady in a shushing gesture.
Honestly, between the sea-marriage and the shushing, the index finger thing was the bigger of the two warning signs. Don’t worry. Jenny wised up. She got out of there. She’s fine.
Henri, though, he wasn’t kidding about the sea.
The courtship was brutal. Henri was rolled over coral reefs in an undertow, enraptured. In part by affection, in part because of oxygen deprivation.
On the day of Henri’s wedding, the church pews were hauled down to the oceanside. Elderly relatives watched their dress shoes disappear under the waves, soaking their stockings, unable to keep their feet elevated the whole time.
A mermaid presided over the ceremony. That’s what Henri claimed, sheltering his eyes from the sun’s glare on the water, pointing out beyond the breakers where the waves tumbled onto themselves. He had a necktie made of kelp with an oyster tie pin. The ceremony was declared complete soon after a seagull swooped down and made off with the groom’s tie.
As a couple, Henri and the sea were hard on the neighborhood social circuit. Bridge games were flooded out, crabs made off with playing cards, and pots of tea were transformed into salty, tea-colored messes. It didn’t take long before Henri and his bride were no longer welcome in the homes of their fellow young couples.
As the years passed, we saw less and less of Henri and more and more of the sea. Children wear flippers to school. Every building is rimed with salt at its foundation. All the young kids draw gills on their necks and no one knows where any of this is going.
the coffee trail
In 2012, Amanda and I were at the top of a mountain in India, visiting a coffee plantation. The folks we were staying with had told us that if we hiked up a dirt path, then veered left, we’d come to an amazing vista where we could look over the entire valley. To accompany us, we had three guide dogs pacing alongside us. They lived on the mountain and worked for the family. They were not pets… they had jobs.
As we hiked the trail, two of them would trot ahead, scouting things out, then stop and wait for us to catch up. The third walked alongside us.
Before reaching the vista, though, the trail seemed to end at a short wooden fence.
To the right and left of the trail, the grass was tall, so we were pretty sure we hadn’t yet reached the left turn. The three dogs didn’t seem much interested in pointing us in the right direction, as they took our pause as license to chase each other a bit, content to wait for us to figure things out.
I turned to Amanda, shrugged, and said “Everything but rabies!” as I climbed over the fence.
One month earlier, Amanda and I visited a travel clinic in San Francisco, CA. Having never visited India, we were determined to load up on vaccinations. The nurse at the clinic showed us a world map that showed what communicable diseases were found in what region, and India was colored in a risk on every map.
The costs racked up pretty quickly. Tallying numbers on a clipboard, we were asked if we were willing to pay a grand and a half for both of us to be protected from Hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis, and all manner of awfulness. Poisoned blood. Swelling brains. Fever, death.
Amanda suggested that maybe I should take the trip on my own, since it was technically a work trip, but I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it’s not like we were taking every shot. Since we had no plans to leave the city of Bangalore, we figured we weren’t really at risk for rabies, so we left that one off.
That was it. We took every other shot they had.
I don’t know why that came to mind, there at the top of a mountain in Coorg. I knew that fences were usually put in place for a reason, and that I was probably making a mistake. I suppose that brought to mind how cautious I had been up until that point, so that lead to: “Everything but rabies!”
And then stepping over the fence.
I took about three or four steps past the fence when, from somewhere in the deep green off the path to the right, behind dangling branches and high grass, I heard a deep, rumbling growl.
The sound of an enormous creature that wasn’t happy with where I was.
I stood stock still and my skin felt cold. My mind was scrambling as I tried to think of what I was supposed to do when the creature in those woods came bolting out to bite me. I didn’t have a plan.
“Get bit. Try to survive. Regret not getting rabies shots.” That was my immediate to-do list.
And then, in a blur of white fur, one of the dogs that had come up the trail with us flew past me and into the woods. Even though the struggle must have been a mere 3 feet from me, I couldn’t see anything. I just heard growling, and barking, and struggling.
I trusted in my canine savior’s abilities and took the opportunity to quickly jog back and vault the short fence, telling Amanda it was time to head back down the hill to the coffee plantation. I had no idea if the source of that growl would respect the fence, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out.
We weren’t that far down the hill when the white dog rejoined us, panting, but completely unharmed, giving no indication it had just completed a rescue mission and won a struggle for off-track dominance.
I don’t yet know what this story means.
Everything but rabies.
I may never figure it out.
ending theme song
We took this week off from Candlewick. I have no idea if you folks are going to be happy about that, or disappointed, but if you spend time on Facebook and want to let me know you’re a member of either emotional-response tribe, you could let me know on the Lost Time Community page.
Thanks are due to my talented wife Amanda, who provided the seagull illustration for this week’s newsletter.
And thanks are due to you as well, for not daring to find out what happens if you hit the unsubscribe link. Very wise, you guys.
Welcome back again to our ongoing writing experiment. I’ve had this last week off from work, which means I’ve had time for more sleep, leisurely showers, and all sorts of idle time. These work in concert to help me imagine more of the world of The Beulah Candlewick School for Young Magicks.
No wonder so many writers come from the ranks of the idle rich. Must be nice.
Oh, one thing I ought to announce here: There’s a new Facebook community page for subscribers to this newsletter. I’ll be posting links, talking about behind-the-scenes stuff, and you’re welcome to join if you like. We’ll see how it goes.
random sample for quality control
I was up pretty late last night and it turns out when I’m tired, I don’t want to fight with character limits on Twitter.
monsters in halls and kitchens
This section is set at The Beulah Candlewick School for Young Magicks, an instructional school with a high failure rate for safely teaching students how to wield magic. See previous installments of the lost time incident newsletter for more context.
“It got out! It got out!” Students turned from their open lockers in time to see a young woman running down the corridor, just steps ahead of a creature out of nightmares.
Luckily, among the witnesses was faculty member Lemoyne Wills, Perception Witch. He had just finished making use of a nearby water fountain. With a resigned expression on his face, he brushed his long hair back out of his face and concentrated.
The creature in pursuit had purple skin and a dorsal fin that scraped along the ceiling as it shuffled after the screaming young lady, her eyes white with terror, her white-knuckled grip on an Infinity Box that had, up until moments ago, been keeping the creature in other-dimensional stasis.
Its low-slung mouth resembled a lizard’s, its eyes like ashy coals, its limbs over-muscled in a fashion Lemoyne thought of as “trying too hard.” “Whoever invented that creature had issues,” he thought.
Lemoyne, eyes closed, extended his concentration, reaching out to the creature’s mind. With some effort, he felt his way into its nervous system, cataloging its senses. He could smell the student who had released the monster, her panicked sweat leaving a river of attractive perfume in her wake that was easily followed. He could feel the pooling saliva in the creature’s bone-ridged mouth. He could sense that its name for itself was Need.
Easy enough to reroute its senses, hiding the students in the hallway from its senses of sight and smell. Well, except for the young woman who was initially pursued. After all, she had opened the Infinity Box, even though it was plainly labeled “Expired Corn Dogs,” a clever disguise designed to prevent any curious young troublemaker from peeking inside and freeing the beast. Actions have consequences, and this was a place of learning.
The young woman skidded around a corner and disappeared out of sight, with Need galloping after her, huffing with hunger.
In hindsight, maybe the faculty should have actually put some corn dogs in the box to feed the thing. But the Infinity Box was never meant to be more than a temporary home for the beast. At some point, the staff of the cafeteria was supposed to figure out if Need was edible.
Maybe they’ll get another shot at it once someone steps up and captures the creature again. But Lemoyne had a class to prepare for.
In the cafeteria, the ovens screamed when opened. The head of the cafeteria, known to the students only as “Pizza,” pulled out a tray of bland lasagna. He set it down and grabbed a passing student kitchen worker.
“My boy, come here a second.” His strong hands, insensible now to extremes of heat, guided the student by the back of the neck.
Pizza pointed into the oven, his arm over the shoulder of the young student dressed in a white apron and head scarf. Inside the oven, tiny flames danced and cried out, sometimes taking almost human form, clinging to the baking food in either anger or despair.
“You know where those souls came from?” Pizza grinned. “They’re ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” said the student.
“Each of them used to be a student here, but they couldn’t move on. They had… unfinished business.” Pizza nodded sagely.
“In class,” said the student, “We were told that you can help ghosts move on to the next realm if you can help them resolve their unfinished business. Do we– do we know what’s the deal with these oven ghosts? What, for them is unresolved?”
“That we do,” said Pizza, laughing. “Lunch. Lunch is unresolved. Dinner tonight is unresolved. Every meal we’ve got coming is unresolved. So grab a carving knife and get that bucket of potatoes over there peeled. You want to finish all your kitchen business, don’t you?”
ending theme song
A good chunk of today was spent playing a cartoony golf video game. It comes with all the frustration of missed putts, but with none of the benefits of exercise. But it helped me postpone thinking about the fact that my week-long vacation is coming to a close and I have to prepare to return to my social role as a wage-earner.
I hope you’re all enjoying the Candlewick stuff. If you’re not, well… there’s an unsubscribe notice somewhere on this email. I have a Google document that keeps growing with more details about the world and characters of Candlewick. Personally, I’m finding this pretty exciting. I’ve never been much for world-building, as my previous short fiction demonstrates. I usually just get an idea for a scene, or some dialogue, and then it’s a quick in-and-out.
If you have any thoughts, or wish to lobby on behalf of seeing other topics, please do drop by the Facebook page and leave a comment. Or you can respond to this email directly. I get replies to this newsletter.
Or write a letter on parchment, and bury it under a willow by the river under the moon’s light. Those messages reach me as well, but they’re muddy and smeared, so it slows response time ’cause I don’t want to touch them.
— Michael Van Vleet