Diabolical Plots: Year Three by A. Merc Rustad, Rachael K. Jones, and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali by A. Merc Rustad, Rachael K. Jones, and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali - Read Online

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Diabolical Plots - A. Merc Rustad

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Publishing

Foreword

Here we are for the second anthology of Diabolical Plots stories, this one for the stories that were purchased for year three on the zine. Year three marked some major changes in submission guidelines—most notably, an increase in wordcount, an increase in pay, and anthology was part of the original plan instead of being added later. This year also marked a major point of unprecedented recognition, when Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali (the opening story of this anthology) was selected by Neil Clarke for The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 published by NightShade Books.

It has been a busy year catching the anthologies up to the site publication, but we’re almost there! In another few short months Diabolical Plots: Year Four will be published, and that will catch the anthologies up to the website publishing.

Enjoy!

—David Steffen, June 2018—

Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship

By Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-11

Dear Ziza,

You already know what this is about, don’t you, dear Sister? The robot raccoons I found clamped along my ship’s hull during this cycle’s standard maintenance sweep?

Oh, come on. Really? You know I invented that hull sculler tech, right? They’ve got my corporate logo etched into their beady red eyes so my name flashes on all the walls when their power is low. I admit some of your upgrades were… novel. Like the exoshell design–I’ll never understand your raccoon obsession. Impractical, but points for style. I hadn’t thought you could fit a diamond drill into a model smaller than a Pomeranian’s skull, so congrats on that. Not that they made much progress chewing through my double-thick hull, but I’ll give credit where credit’s due.

Still, it was unsisterly of you, and it’s not going to stop me from dropping the terraforming nuke when I get to Mars. Come to grips with reality, sister: you’re in the wrong. You always have been, ever since we were girls. Especially since Mumbai accepted my proposal for Martian settlement. Not yours.

I’m sending back the robot raccoons in an unmanned probe. Back, because yes, I’m still leagues and leagues ahead of you. I only lost a day cleaning up the hull scullers. I’ve kept the diamond drills. I bet they’ll chew right through that Martian rock.

I’ve also included a dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because I know it’s your birthday tomorrow. Happy birthday!

Now go home.

Love your sister,

Anita

• • • •

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-12

Dear Anita,

Remember that summer when Father dropped us off at the northern rim of the Poona Crater on Mars? Alone. For two weeks. This rustic camping trip will be a great learning experience, he said. My precious daughters will bond.

When I learned that there were no pre-fab facilities and that we were responsible for erecting our own dwelling, sanitation pod, and lab, I started plotting ways to poison our father. You, on the other hand, I am still convinced, were determined to thoroughly enjoy the experience just to spite me.

But Father was a conservationist, and now that I am older, I can appreciate that he was trying to instill that same spirit in us. Not all life jumps out and bites you in the butt, he used to love to say. And we learned the truth of that when we unearthed a family of as-yet-undiscovered garbatrites in the red dust on one of our sand treks.

We spent hours watching them under high magnification under the STEHM, trying to communicate with them, recording their activities and creating hypotheses about the meanings of their habits. I have to admit, there was a point when I stopped cursing father and started to secretly thank him. And where I sort of, kind of, could maybe see why you weren’t so bad after all.

I don’t think I’d ever seen you so dedicated to anything before this. You missed meals and stayed up throughout the night trying to communicate with the elder garbatrite. The one you named Benny. Exhausted, you fell asleep at your desk and left the infrared light on too long and effectively fried the poor critter. You cried for days and you even held a formal funeral for Benny, something his fellow garbatrites didn’t seem too pleased about.

With that in mind, how could you possibly want to drop a terraforming nuke on a planet you and I both know is already teeming with life? Creating a new habitable world only has merits if it’s not already inhabited.

If you won’t see reason, then I’ll just have to make it impossible for you. The Council for Martian Settlement may have accepted your proposal, but let me remind you that I’ve never been keen on following the rules.

So, you found the hull scullers, eh? I knew those diamonds would distract you from my real plan. You’ve always been so… materialistic. But hey, someone has to be.

On another note, the cookies were to die for! They were even better than Mother’s, but I’ll never tell her that. I really appreciate you thinking of me. I have a proposal to make. On our next monthly meal exchange, I’ll make your favorite, a big old pot of Anasazi beans and sweet buttered cornbread, if you’ll send more of those cookies.

XOXO

Ziza

P.S. My sweet raccoonie-woonies, Bobo and Cow, liked the cookies too. They also send their love.

• • • •

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-15

Sister:

Come now, Ziza. Let’s not make me out to be some kind of villain. Of course I remember that summer. I remember how we licked the condensation inside our lab windows to stay hydrated because Father’s Orion Scout childhood romanticized survival stories. It’s the real reason we’re such die hard coffee drinkers nowadays. He ruined the taste of water for us.

And I remember the garbatrites. How could I ever forget? That dusty red boulder we found in the sandstorm provided just enough shelter to pitch our emergency pod while we waited out the squall. Nothing to do but talk with each other, or play with the STEHM. Which meant we chose the STEHM, obviously. It’s the closest look I’ve ever gotten at you, all those disgusting many-legged organisms crawling on your skin and hair, in your saliva, your earwax. You’ve always had an affinity for vermin.

But I’ll be forever grateful you suggested taking samples around the boulder. When we first saw the garbatrites, their tiny little dwellings drilled into rock like mesa cities–that might be the closest I’ve ever felt to you, each of us taking one eyepiece on the STEHM, our damp cheeks pressed together, our smiles one long continuous arc. When the light brightened or dimmed, they danced in little conga lines. We weren’t sure if it was art, or language. Is there really a difference?

There’s something I realized when Benny died. The sort of revelation you only have when you’re nudging together an atomic coffin beneath an electron microscope with tiny diamond tweezers just three nanometers wide: life is short. Life is painfully short, full of suffering and tragedy and wide, empty spaces. And those rare spots hospitable to life are just boulders tossed into an endless red desert, created by accident or coincidence. The only real good we can do in life is to spread out those boulders, minimize the deserts where we find them. Make a garden from dust. Plant our atomic coffins and let them bloom. Terraform whole planets, so we’ll have more than just the blue boulder of Earth.

That’s what you never understood, dear sister. It’s why when you spent your youth chasing pretty men, I betrothed myself to science, burned my hopes of human love in the furnaces of my ambition. Do you remember when Asante, my poor besotted lab assistant, proposed to me at the Tanzanian Xenobiology Conference? How I laughed! As if any children he could give me would approach the impact my terraforming nuke will make on our species. Never forget, Ziza, that this mission is my life’s work, my legacy. You will not stop me.

In other news, I got the Anasazi beans and cornbread, still warm and fresh in their shipping pod. How did you know I had the craving? That was a kindness. I remembered you while making salaat today.

I was less pleased about the virus installed in the shipping pod’s warming program. Nice try, but I saw through that in about five seconds. Here’s a tip: next time, beta test it on all the shipboard systems I invented, not just the navigation. My sanitation program does more than filter my own crap.

I’m sending you an e-manual on Programming 101, and an ordering catalogue for Anita Enterprises in case you’d like to support the family business.

XOXOXO,

Anita

P.S. Go home.

• • • •

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-28

Anita,

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last spoke, and of course, you know why. When you told me to go home, I knew that you were serious, but I never thought you’d resort to using the health and welfare of our dear mother as bait to get me to turn around and head back to earth.

I’m still trying to figure out how you managed to simulate for video not only our mother’s countenance, darkened and marred by some mysterious illness, but her voice, the cadence like smooth stones tumbling in water and her accent. When she pleaded for me to return home, telling me that she was afraid to die alone, of course I turned back.

How much time did it take for you to create those videos, one arriving each day, her looking progressively worse? The worst was that one video with her by the window in her study, Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. It came on the third day. The sunlight that glinted through her silver hair, like icy filaments, made her look so painfully beautiful, yet it was not enough to erase the shadows beneath her eyes or the sadness in them.

A better question, I suppose, is "Why?" Why resort to that when you know how much Mother means to me, especially now that Father is gone? Are you still jealous of our closeness? Do you still believe she loved me most?

Not that you deserve to be, but I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to believe Mother loved me more than you as well. One day, I must’ve been about twelve, in my pathetic need to always be reminded that I was loved and cherished, I asked her why she loved me more than you. I waited a few moments, as she looked skyward, it seemed, for the answer. I was sure she’d say it was because I was more beautiful, more kind, smarter, that I had a more generous spirit, because truth be told, these things are true. But she didn’t say that. Mother told me that she did not love me most. Nor did she love you more than me.

Then why do you spend so much more time with me than Anita? Why do you kiss me goodnight and not her? I numbered all the things she did for me and not you. Do you know what she said?

Because you need me more than Anita.

In her way, which was always kind yet honest, Mother was telling me that you were the stronger of the two of us. But now, I wonder. Would a strong person use her sister’s weaknesses against her just to win? This was a low blow, Anita.

By now you’re probably wondering how I eventually figured out that the videos from Mother were merely a cruel ploy to get me to go back home without a fight. It was the video from Day Eight.

Mother lay in bed, slight as a sliver of grass. When her image popped up on the view screen my heart felt like it was trapped in a vice. She reached out. A tear traveled from the corner of her eye toward the pillow. She coughed, then called out my name. Her voice was so soft, so small and weak.

Please hurry home, Ziza, she said. I don’t want to die without laying eyes on my favorite girl at least one more time.

Favorite girl? No, Anita. Our mother never would have said that.

You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. Yet, you don’t know kindness or humility. You don’t even know your own mother.

The decision to dedicate your entire life to science was an error. Life is so much more than entropy, polymerisation, and endothermic reactions. You really can have your coffee and the cream too. You should have married Asante. He would have humanized you. He would have taught you to slow down and enjoy the precious little moments, that together they all add up to a great big life full of disappointments, yes, but also joy and love and mystery. He would have saved you from yourself and cold loneliness.

This is where I remind you that you know nothing about programming that I didn’t teach you. Anita Enterprises is the mega-conglomerate it is because of me, your older sister and mentor. If I wanted to shut down every system on your ship, including life support, I could. And believe me, after this latest stunt of yours, I’ve been giving that idea serious consideration. The fact that I haven’t sent a couple of torpedoes your way is a testament to my love for our mother. She’d be angry if I killed you. So, I won’t.

See you on Mars.

Ziza

P.S. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

P.P.S. Bobo and Cow are very displeased with you.

• • • •

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-01

Ziza,

It’s been weeks since I last wrote, but you haven’t been far from my thoughts. Far from it.

While I continue toward the planet, I’ve been passing the time on my escape pod making a list of all the reasons I hate you, numbered and ordered least to greatest. It’s a long long list, forever incomplete. A sister’s hate is like the heat death of the universe: infinitely expanding, eternal, the last flame burning in this cold, barren desolation where God abandoned us.

Reason #1,565: I hate the way you eat popcorn with chopsticks to keep your hands clean. Are you too good even for butter smudges?

Reason #480: I hate how you laugh at bad jokes. Puns aren’t actually funny, Ziza. Everyone outgrew why did the chicken cross the road after elementary school.

Reason #111: Blue eye shadow. Self-explanatory.

Reason #38: Don’t start none, won’t be none. Really? Better knock that shit off. Like you’re not an adult responsible for her own actions.

Reason #16: I hate how Mother named you after herself, like you were the pinnacle of all her hopes, while I was named to placate our pushy grandmother.

Reason #15: I hate how you always laugh at me.

Reason #10: I hate how your favorite animal is the raccoon. You only picked it because it’s endangered. You can’t resist a lost cause, even if you don’t actually want to do anything useful about it.

Reason #9: Seriously, blue eye shadow.

Reason #4: That last family dinner we had before Father died, when we took the shuttle out to the Moon to picnic on Mons Agnes while we watched the Perseid meteor shower dancing bright upon Earth’s atmosphere like the footsteps of angels. Mother brought her heirloom silver for the occasion; I think we all knew in our hearts it was a special trip. We’d agreed for Father’s sake to get along, just for a few hours. He hated how we fought, how we picked at each other like children picking old scabs that won’t heal. Do you remember the white curling through his black hair? His cheeks sunk deep by the chemo? He wanted to dish up the jasmine rice and flatbread himself. His hands trembled so badly the peas rolled onto Mother’s quilt beneath the picnic pop-up, just skirting the regolith.

We both know I wanted to talk with him about the inheritance. I just wanted my share, my 50/50 split, but Mother was so concerned about poor helpless Ziza, who had run into such tough times after college, chasing after pretty men and idealistic wide-eyed save-the-raccoons causes that she needed a larger cut to keep up her lifestyle. Anita Enterprises cost me everything while all you ever did was chase your girlhood dreams of love and happy endings.

We were having such a great time. Your useless pet raccoons were recharging their solar batteries in your lap. Father told us stories of his childhood, how they didn’t even have a family shuttle when he grew up, and you could only sleep rough in wild places like Antarctica’s rocky plains. Mother held his hand and kissed him, love shining in her eyes. No matter how sick he got, he was still the dark-skinned 17-year-old godling she’d met on the road to Mount Kilimanjaro in their youth. We even tolerated a few of your puns.

It would not last. I volunteered to scrape the leftovers into the recycler at the service booth down the path. It was so close, I didn’t bother to bring a communication device. You deny it,