Introduction: The reclusive (but convention-attending) J. Franklin March sometimes comments at File 770 and is retired, living in Florida. March says: “I wrote most of this story (my first fiction publication) over three years ago by hand and without having to think about it. After I edited the text into English, it took me over a year to come up with a satisfactory ending–the method I used was to write one with an alien text and then attempt a sequel; the sequel didn’t work but in the process of figuring out the magic system, I got an idea for a better ending.”
By J. Franklin March
Part 1: The Convention
Anna carefully arranged the necessary objects around her desktop computer into a pentagon: sharpened pencils, a legal pad, a half-empty coffee cup, and a copy of Science Without Sorcery, with the chair at the fifth point. This done, she intoned the spell that would open the channel to her muse for long enough to write the final pages of her work-in-progress. Then she could get ready for the convention.
Like most pros, Anna was both appreciative and protective of the talent that enabled her to channel the muse. Other facets of writing fiction could be learned: beginnings, middles, ends, plotting, pacing, character depth, and even voice. But without the muse, these were all useless. One had to be born with talent—or one had to steal it.
Having gotten her badge and name tent (already folded to stand up) at program ops, Anna headed for the green room. It was safe there with only other pros and a couple of carefully vetted volunteers. Every pro had their own talent with no desire for another’s. Soon, however, she would have to appear at her first panel of the con. It was on “Writing Believable Antagonists”, so the audience would be full of would-be writers, the most dangerous fans. But as a seasoned science fiction pro, she had been on over a hundred panels; it would be okay, especially after the panelists’ magical introductions.
At the start of her Kaffeeklatsch later, Anna realized that one of the fans there had attended both her panels so far. He had a hypnotic stare and a badge that said, “Not That Jim”.
“Which of you want to be writers?” she asked the people sitting around the table. Most of them, including that particular fan, raised their hands.
That’s what I was afraid of, she thought, a likely talent-stealer. Readings were tricky, but Kaffeeklatsches were the worst—one was so exposed to the fans’ curiosity. Now, autographing sessions were perfectly okay, provided one took the precaution of always scribbling something that bore no resemblance to one’s real name.
At her following reading, Anna decided that a story on her phone would be best—the phone had both the story-guard and the talent-guard apps installed. Printouts just weren’t safe.
Early the next morning in her hotel room, Anna edited the work-in-progress on her laptop. She saw where the first page could be tightened, swapped two scenes, and eliminated some adverbs that had slipped in. There. Now it was time to do her daily no-matter-what writing, which not even rogue asteroids could drag her away from. She set the objects up as before, intoned the spell, and sat in the chair with fingers poised. But nothing happened.
Oh no; writer’s block! How could this happen? Could it be talent-theft after all her precautions? If so, it violated the convention code of conduct. But no; going to the safety committee was out of the question. The news would quickly become public, with an article and vigorous discussion on that notorious science fiction news site Page 404. Then she’d be in trouble with SFWDCA—the Science Fiction Writers’ Defense Council of America.
A wretched four hours passed. Anna could hardly eat the expensive hotel buffet breakfast. Fortunately, P.D.A. McAllister, Grandmaster and author Guest of Honor of the con, was in the green room when she arrived. She told him what had happened and he agreed with her conclusion.
“I’ve seen this sort of tragedy occur many times before, though note that we’re not entirely out of resources. There’s a special ritual that can be used to recover a talent that’s been stolen. One of the challenges is that it requires proximity to the thief.”
Jim was seated at a table in the hospitality suite, delighted at finally writing a complete story. He had resisted the temptation to edit as he went along, since all that could be done later. After all, he’d attended all of Anna Coral’s writing panels so far and anticipated the ones remaining.
Why could I not have accomplished this years ago, he wondered.
He was getting a lot done. Last night’s Color and Shadow filk circle had been satisfying, too. Especially after he’d had to type and print the lyrics sheets at the last minute.
Anna and Grandmaster McAllister got to the panel room just as the audience was applauding the preceding panel. McAllister had arranged with program ops to substitute for another pro, who, it turned out, hadn’t known why they’d put him on the panel anyway. The moderator would tacitly let them insert the disguised recovery spell into the ritual introductions. But would the thief show up? Anna scanned the crowd. Where was that guy?
It was 3:00 pm now. The moderator started speaking her opening lines. Just then, the fan in question entered the room and managed to find a chair in the third row. Perfect. The spell was cast and the rest of the panel on “Raising the Stakes” proceeded smoothly.
Anna hurried to her hotel room, excited to be “back in the saddle.” Arrangement, spell, butt in chair, ready to write. Yet, again, nothing happened! What had gone wrong?
Anna found McAllister in the green room.
“It, the spell, it failed!”
“Calm down and let us determine why.”
He pulled out an old, old book issued only to SFWDCA Grandmasters and, not too soon, located the appropriate page.
“Ah. It says there are only two reasons why that spell could fail to restore a stolen talent. When (A) the talent is not the one stolen and (B) the talent didn’t originally belong to the victim. When did you first channel your muse?”
“I always made up stories as a child, even before the teacher taught me the spell in creative writing class. I started submitting stories at age fourteen.”
“Then it must be (A). We’ve got the wrong thief.”
Just then, there was a commotion at the door. A number of pros were coming in, audibly upset.
“I tell you, I never get writer’s block and now this,” said Bob Azuneau.
“Me too, and don’t tell me I spent too much time at the bar,” said Linda Mills.
“If I don’t get my talent back, I’ll be forced to work as an editor,” some author said.
“Hey, I heard that,” said an editor from the green room.
McAllister said to Anna, “It’s not an isolated case, I see.”
He stood up and, in the calm, professional manner of an award winner, got the attention of the room. “My fellow authors, this situation is clearly bigger than any of us individually. First, how many of you have developed writer’s block since arriving at the con?”
Most of those present responded.
“Before we can magically solve the problem, we must determine the cause.”
At this point, there are secrets which must not be divulged to the mass of ordinary fans. Suffice it to say that the volunteers were dismissed and consultations were made as well as literal hand-waving, albeit without success.
But the green room volunteers would be anxious to return to their duties. There must be another venue for the continuation of the discussion. The bar, of course. Only pros would be there, including a few who were (for financial reasons) not actually attending the con. Their input might be crucial.
Sometime later, someone asked, “What time is it?”
“5:50. I think I have a panel coming up somewhere and I’ve lost my name tent,” said Linda.
“Don’t worry,” said Bob, “I’ll look it up in the pocket program. Saturday evening. ‘Pseudo-Lovecraftian filk circle’? No, that’s Friday night. Why don’t they print the day on the pages? Oh here it is. ‘Writing Hard Fantasy’, in Garden III. And it looks like you’re the moderator, Linda. Better hurry.”
“Did you say that Lovecraftian songs were sung last night? That could be dangerous,” said McAllister. “In fact, that may be why the talents were erased, if the right people sang the wrong words.”
“It’s not theft?” asked Anna.
“No, it will require a ritual completely different from what we’ve tried, and the presence of people in costumes. We must, for once, attend the masquerade!”
“Are you all clear on your lines? It must be perfect,” McAllister said a while later, having carefully hand-copied the talent-restoration ritual from the ancient book.
Anna and the others outside the hall nodded.
“And now,” said the convention Toastmaster, “we have a special presentation while the judges are deliberating.”
The pros filed onto the stage with the costumed competitors and recited the innocuous-sounding, yet potent, lines of the spell. They would have to wait to see the result, just as everyone else present would await the judges’ decisions.
Finally, it was Sunday morning. Anna sat down in front of her laptop, having again performed the muse-invoking spell. Triumphantly, she began to type:
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hank Gunnison, the new hired gun, was getting ready to deal with those pesky renegades.
Part 2: Trouble at the Gulch
Back at home, Anna got on the phone.
“I’ve got a big problem, Linda. I just realized I’m writing a western.”
“So what’s the problem? Just look up the markets for westerns when the story’s ready.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not even a good western. It’s full of clichés and has other problematic elements.”
“That’s what rewrites are for.”
“Why couldn’t it at least be paranormal romance?” Anna resisted the temptation to moan.
“Well I’m sorry, but I have other worries.”
Anna turned back to her desk computer thinking, “I wonder if I can somehow force myself to write science fiction?” She intoned the writing resumption spell and began typing:
Meanwhile, back at the asteroid base, Hank Starshooter, the space mercenary, was getting ready to deal with those pesky Qq’Xcj’hs.
She stared at the screen. No good. Magical intervention was needed. She would have to get in touch with P.D.A. McAllister or maybe another Grandmaster, since it was the ritual he’d selected that hadn’t quite worked. Now, Bob knows some Grandmasters fairly well. She tried his number, but got the recording:
“Hello. This is Robert Azuneau. I’m busy dumping information. Leave a message with your name and number and I might call you back. BEEP.”
Anna left her message. She would just have to wait.
Jim was humming the tune to one of the pseudo-Lovecraftian filk songs. Editing his story was going well, except for the punctuation. Learn too many languages and proper English punctuation bites the dust. He’d have to look up all the rules again before sending the story out to a critique group.
Getting a little too exuberant, he clumsily knocked a pile of papers off his desk. Drat. He started to pick them up. What’s this? One of the song sheets. Something about it bothered him. Then he saw the typos. Why hadn’t he noticed them during the filk session? Also, what might happen if you sang an ode to the Ether Gods instead of the Elder Gods? Probably nothing; the occult wasn’t real. But he should fix these before the next convention.
Bob finally did call back.
“Hi Anna. Do you have more engineering questions?”
Bob was overqualified for writing hard science fiction.
“No, it seems I’m working on a western.”
“A cowboy western. That spell at the masquerade connected me with the wrong muse!”
“Are you sure? I’ve been in editing mode and following the asteroid news, not writing new material.”
“I’m certain. What about the asteroids?”
“A new object appeared in the asteroid belt today. There was no sign of it before. The astronomers have been watching it and are wondering if it’s an alien artifact.”
“That’s very interesting—I’ll have to follow up on it—but right now I need the magical help of a Grandmaster. Aren’t you on good terms with a couple of them?”
“I know several. They’re not equally adept at magic. Some of them were selected for their fiction-writing abilities. I’ll see what I can do.”
Grandmaster Godfrey Burke was explaining to Anna over the phone. “The trouble with magic is that using it reveals the presence of flaws, not the absence.”
“I thought all those spells and rituals were old and tested many times, like the phone apps.”
“They are, but each situation provides new input to the spell. The techno-magical interface still presents some interesting questions, even for the phone apps.”
Anna thought about that. “So what was new?” she asked. “It was at the masquerade, with all the contestants on stage with us.”
“Were any of the masquerade entries occult-related? Or it could be the presence of some magical object or person, as rare as they are, affecting a global variable assumed by the spell. Or a combination of factors. Do you know exactly which ritual McAllister selected?”
“No, he guards the book carefully. The masquerade theme was first contact. But why was only my talent affected?”
“Why, indeed. I shall have to study the matter.”
Jim had enjoyed the masquerade even though the entries weren’t as good as those based on last year’s steampunk theme. But that moment when those pros and all the contestants were on stage together was such a magical experience, figuratively speaking. Now back to work. Jim had to finish writing a critique of some other writer’s story before he’d be allowed to send his own to the group. Not so easy!
Until contacted by Godfrey Burke, McAllister was unaware of Anna’s misdirected talent. Oh dear! Though he supposed that badly written westerns could be considered alternate history, a sub-genre of fantasy. Godfrey might come up with a new magical solution—he was after all the leading expert in magic among science fiction writers—but it was time for P.D.A. McAllister to act! So, he intoned the “Don’t just stand there, do something!” spell.
Anna was also thinking about action. “It’s time to be proactive,” she told herself, “since I have no trouble writing characters with agency. I can’t depend on magic or even techno-magic. What’s left? Burke mentioned magical objects and persons. Search engines!” She tried searching for those phrases. Too many results. If she were a fictional character, she’d simply hack a database or even upload herself into a hypothetical hypernet. “Let’s think of something practical.”
Jim scored a few Anna Coral books he didn’t already own at the new used book store. Too bad they weren’t there last week; he could’ve gotten them signed at the con. Hmmm. Doesn’t she live somewhere in this region? I wonder if there’s a bus route. Strictly as an exercise, I could find out—No, better not.
Anna was leaving an electronics repair shop when a bus arrived and let out a stream of passengers. One of them turned out to be that fan from the convention. He saw her and looked very surprised. She was surprised too.
“Anna Coral,” the fan said, “What a coincidence! I just bought your Unlikely Planet trilogy.”
“It certainly is a surprise—I remember seeing you at the convention. Where did you find the books?”
“At Peggy Sue’s, a new used book store. I’m Jim, by the way.”
Suddenly, a weird, ethereal glow appeared. A magic portal opened up, changing the city street in front of them into a forest clearing. In the middle of it stood a large, boxy machine. Anna walked up to it and pressed the START button. Now, strange bell-like sounds and fragrant odors emanated from the machine. Then, a previously unseen door to the machine irised open and out stepped a magnificent being.
Part 3: Divine Coffee
Anna asked the being, “Are you a god?”
The being answered with a question: “Why do you want to know?”
“Because a deus ex machina is just what we need to solve all the problems.”
Just then, McAllister walked around the machine.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “I thought I heard voices. I suppose Godfrey should have warned me. And who is this magnificent person?”
“Grandmaster McAllister, may I present the deus ex machina, and vice-versa?” said Anna.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise. Would that Godfrey you mentioned be one Godfrey Burke? He would surely try to disassemble my machine.”
“Yes, he would.”
Jim said, “Maybe he could be next year’s Guest of Honor.”
“Please, let’s get back on topic,” Anna said. “We still haven’t restored my original talent or solved any of the other problems.”
“Other problems?” asked McAllister.
“When I last connected with my muse, I got gibberish. Look at this transcript,” said Anna, pulling out a printed page that looked like a bunch of passwords. “And on top of that, everyone’s too concerned about that mysterious object in the asteroid belt to care.”
They were interrupted by flashing red and blue lights. A police car pulled up to the edge of the forest clearing and two officers emerged.
The man said, “You have to move this apparition. It’s blocking traffic.”
“Do you know who this is?” asked Jim, indicating the god.
“I don’t care who any of you are. You’ve got to clear this street. Now.”
“Okay, wait a sec,” said the god. He pulled a phone out of his toga and invoked a hide-portal app. The forest scene, along with the machine, disappeared and two long lines of honking cars took its place. Satisfied, the police officers got back in their car and drove away. Anna, Jim, McAllister, and the god decided to head for the nearest Miami’s Best Coffee franchise.
“Mr. Deus ex Machina,” said Jim, once they had all gotten their orders, “We can’t keep calling you that. Do you have a name we can use?”
“I suppose you could call me Am-a-deus,” the god replied. “Of course, that’s not my real name.”
“I notice you don’t have mouth tentacles, Amadeus. Are you not a Lovecraftian Elder God?” asked McAllister.
“No, I’m an Ether God, invoked by a song. The Elder Gods don’t exist in this universe.”
“A song?” asked Anna, “Not a spell? How can that work?”
“It must be sung by someone who’s inherently magical,” said Amadeus, looking at Jim.
“That explains a lot,” said McAllister, “But why didn’t you show up at the convention?”
“I didn’t have a membership.”
Amadeus took another sip of his complimentary café con leche. “Ah, this is excellent. We don’t have anything like it back in the ether. I’m glad you invoked me even if I can’t solve your problems.”
“What do you mean, you can’t solve our problems? That’s what a deus ex machina is for!” said Anna, almost spilling her café cubano.
“The thing is, resolving the external conflict requires resolving the internal one.”
“I didn’t know we had an internal conflict,” said Jim.
“I suspect Amadeus is referring to Anna’s distrust of fans,” said McAllister.
“Finish up your cappuccino, Grandmaster, so you can return home.”
Amadeus pulled out his phone again and made the forest scene reappear. As the god entered the machine, McAllister walked around it, cup in hand. Finally, the magic portal faded out.
“Might I see that transcript?”
“Sure, here it is. By the way, I’m sorry I suspected you were trying to steal my writing talent. Thank you for understanding.”
“De nada. Say, I wonder if this is a telepathic transmission from that object near the asteroid? I understand that experts can take years to figure out this sort of thing.”
While Jim studied the transcript, Anna had to decide if she could trust him with any aliens; he might say the wrong thing. Fans tended to do that, at least when talking to authors.
“But how can we possibly understand it, much less reply?” she asked.
“We need a magical solution. Let’s schedule a brain-storming session.”
“Okay, then, I’ll call Bob Azuneau.”
McAllister sent Burke a text message reading, Godfrey, you were absolutely right about the magical person. He showed up with Anna as you said, along with a literal deus ex machina—who, incidentally, seemed to know a lot about you. More later.
When he reentered his house, his wife asked, “Where did you go?”
Still holding the cup, he said, “Just out for a cappuccino at Miami’s Best Coffee.”
“I didn’t know they had a franchise in this town.”
Part 4: Alien Messages
Anna and Bob arrived together at Jim’s apartment. Bob had been inexplicably wrong about the object being in the asteroid belt; it was a near-Earth asteroid that had the new companion. There was media talk about sending a robotic mission to investigate, but any launch would still be many weeks in the future. Everyone was arguing about dangerous alien visitors and what the powers-that-be might do about them, but there was no indication that the object was interested in Earth or humanity—except maybe Anna’s gibberish text. If it was indeed a telepathic alien message, was it a one-way communication or could she transmit back? They could only try and see.
They all talked about possible magical solutions, but to no avail. After Jim went to the kitchen, Bob said, “I’ve obtained this little book—don’t ask how. I think it may have some language-related spells.”
“Let me look,” said Anna. “How about this one: Universal Translator?”
“You’re forgetting about Jim’s talent. The spell has a high probability of malfunctioning.”
“You’re right. We need the opposite, a language garbling spell.”
Now Bob looked through the book. “I think I’ve found it. Babel Spell: will confound communication by changing the languages. Jim’s talent will almost certainly reverse the effect. But wait—a tower of some kind is needed.”
“Does it have to be a real tower, or can it be a miniature tower we could construct?”
“Oh. The latter is better, since the tower is toppled by the spell. But what can we make it with?”
Just then, Jim returned from the kitchen holding a large tray. “Does anyone want some bagels?” he asked.
“Bagels? That’s it! We can build the tower using bagels. How many do you have?”
So they constructed the tower of bagels next to Anna’s laptop, inside the pentagon.
“Here goes,” said Anna.
WHOOMPF! Bagels went rolling everywhere. It was a good thing they hadn’t used the cream cheese.
“Anna,” said Jim, “try typing something now.”
Anna sat in front of the computer and typed: We are the <Qq’Xcj’h> hive. We are speaking to each hive of this stellar complex. What hives will answer us?
“It worked!” they all said.
Why hive?” asked Bob.
“Well, aliens are always assumed to be like social insects in science fiction,” said Jim.
They decided that Jim would tell Anna how to reply.
Jim said, “We are the SciFiFan hive. What do you need from us?”
Anna typed that.
The aliens responded with an explanation of their activities, with Jim interposing queries.
Bob said, “Those responses were pretty quick. Alien telepathy must not be limited to the speed of light.
Finally, Anna typed: We will leave a gift for the SciFiFan hive.
Jim said, “I guess that’s all.”
Bagels were retrieved. While Anna and Jim relaxed, Bob studied the astronomy news on his tablet. After almost an hour, he announced that the object in question had disappeared, according to those currently able to observe it.
Anna asked, “Does that mean I get my original muse back now?”
Jim said, “I hope you do—I’m not a fan of westerns.”
“What about the gift they said they’d leave us? We can’t just run out to that asteroid and pick it up!”
“It doesn’t matter; somebody will someday.”
With Bob and Anna gone and everything taken care of, Jim felt a little let down. Not only that, he realized he’d never gotten Anna to autograph the books. Oh well, there would always be another convention—and magic!
Anna was glad to be back at her desktop computer, ready to write science fiction again. Pencils, paper, coffee, book, and chair set in their places and the spell intoned, she typed:
Once enough energy has been gathered, the child ships bud off from the adult ship and land on the asteroid to collect matter. Some of this will be returned to the adult ship, but the rest will enable the child ships to grow and eventually become adult ships themselves.