Tuesday, 28 February 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Demon Awakens, by Justin Cook; House of Horror, by EJ Bennett; and Things In The Dark, from Fox Spirit Books


The Demon Awakens, by Justin Cook

There are certain cliches in writing that put many a reader off - and unfortunately, this book loads up the front end with several. The opening line has the main character waking up - though to the pain of a rat nibbling on his leg rather than an alarm clock, thankfully - and it's not long before we get his description as he looks at his reflection.
Look past that and we find the intriguing character of Tremaine Isaacs, gifted with unusual powers but turned into a fugitive, a vagabond, a warrior.
Destitute in a city located in a future that is as much fantasy as science fiction, he finds his way to a bath house, where with some stolen coin and his peculiar nature, he attracts the attention of its owner, an old woman with magical powers of her own and, it would seem, apparent romantic intent on this man 40 years her junior.
There's intrigue to their duel of wits... but then we break off from that, as the rest of the book is Tremaine telling this woman his story, the bulk of the story being in flashback.
The flashbacks start at a time when Tremaine was a baby, too young to remember himself what was going on, and recited as if told from his adoptive father's perspective, before leaping forward in years to his own viewpoint as a young man on the run from forces who would capture him for their own purposes and kill his family in the process if need be.
There are loose ends that go unexplained - such as the attraction he feels towards one of the hunters who is barely mentioned again, and elements such as the father and son discovering a pack of dire wolf babies that seem like we've been here before (George R R Martin is the obvious hat tip there).
But there is some remarkable originality here too - the genesis of magic in this world is neat (if explained in an overly heavy infodump) as are the powers of Tremaine, to enter an engaged mode in combat that allows him to predict the right outcomes and also to accelerate his body movements and, with that, the power delivered in his attacks. His powers at one point even seem to take him beyond the realms of the mortal, and that's intriguing.
Sadly, it must be noted that there are a lot of editing errors here - from misplaced apostrophes (the word loves, for example, turned into love's) to comma use that make sentences hard to understand at times. It feels like the book could do with a thorough edit.
I kept wanting us to get back to the story beyond the flashbacks, because that drew me in far more - but I guess that awaits the sequels. Having everything told in flashback robbed the story of some of its urgency - you know Tremaine is going to survive whatever comes at him, although not without consequences.
There is a good story in here, with a potential for a four-star book if cleaned up but between the editing and the cliched elements, the original parts feel buried. The amount of swearing also seems a tad excessive for what really seems more of a coming of age, YA kind of tale. As it is, I can honestly only give it two stars. And that's a shame, because a simple copy edit would have done this the world of good.

AI Rating: 2/5


House of Horror, by EJ Bennett

There's a world of horror awaiting Matthew Hansen - and it's just possible he deserves it.
The serial philanderer finds himself haunted by voices in his apartment - at first he doubts himself, but when the girls he brings home hear them too, he turns to a friend for help.
Then... things get worse.
A claustrophobic tale from EL Bennett, this is another from her that could easily fit into the world of such shows as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. There's an element of modern moral fable to it - and it's compelling to read, even as much as you might find its lead character a disagreeable sort.
I felt the dialogue had a tendency to be a little overdone, particularly as characters stared death in the face - but this is a solid tale from EJ Bennett. with an ending sure to unsettle.

AI Rating: 4/5


Things In The Dark, a Fox Pocket Anthology

There's an old friend of mine who has cost me plenty of money over the years. His name's Alasdair Stuart, and the problem is he's usually right. Go follow him on Twitter now, he's @AlasdairStuart. Go. Go! Done that? Right, on with the review. You see, he told me that Fox Pockets are great. And when Al tells me something is great? Well, what did I say about him usually being right?
So at his urging the other day I picked up my first Fox Pocket Anthology. Things in the Dark seemed to be as good a place to start given my love of Lovecraft and horror, and... yes... sigh... Al was right.
Flash fiction is the name of the game here, and so we get a selection of bite-sized tales of things that lurk in the dark.
As with any anthology, some stories will find favour with one reader over another, but I liked the good mix of tales in here. There were a couple that didn't catch me - A Boomstick and Some Popcorn Seasoning seemed to emphasise pop culture references over substance and cut off without resolving the tale, while Den Patrick's story Occultation spent so much time using every dialogue tag possible rather than "said" that it distracted from the tale itself.
That said, there's some really great stuff here, from the murkily gruesome opener The Devil's Haemorrhoids to the new take on Moby Dick but with a giant shark instead of a white whale in Selachiamorpha Caesar. Yes, I triple checked I spelled that right.
If I were to pick out two highlights more than the rest, though, it would be the quirky Things, by Sarah Cawkwell, in which the Things that haunt our childhood fears linger on into adult years, and most of all the utterly exceptional Shelob Headlines The Ox, in which a disabled girl finds herself in a building full of dropouts, punks and counter-culture elements, but perhaps finds love... only to fall under the sway of an otherworldly creature with decidedly dangerous desires. It's a peach of a tale, and worth the admission price alone. Surrounded as it is by other cracking tales, I'd say it's well worth adding Fox Spirit's collections to your radar.
Pesky Al, always being right.

AI Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 25 February 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: Rolling out the red carpet for Oscars podcasts



This article previously featured in The Tribune's Weekend section on February 24.

The Oscars will be handed out this weekend – and a whole host of podcasts are busily making their predictions as to who will win, and focusing on which of the movies up for gongs you should be seeing. With that in mind, I donned my headphones to prepare to hand out my own share of bouquets and brickbats.



Playback, by Variety

Seeing as they host an Oscars party, you would think Variety would be the place to go for the essential pre-Oscars podcast, and Playback, with Kristopher Tapley, has a pretty good reputation... so it was with some surprise that I found this the weakest of the shows that I listened to this week.
Let’s start with the awful intro music, and add on top of that the way the stream kept stuttering all the way through – there’s a download option and, trust me, if you’re going to listen to the show, don’t even try to stream it on the site, you won’t make it to the end.
But on top of that, the discussion of the Oscars is pretty non-commital. There’s a lack of great passion in the discussion, and not a lot of comparison of the strengths of the different Oscar candidates. Indeed, it’s almost as if there’s a deliberate lack of commitment to picking who will win, other than a loose acceptance that La La Land and Moonlight are the frontrunners.
It soon veers off into red carpet stories, which it has to be said aren’t the greatest red carpet stories anyway, and a half-hearted discussion about who will talk about Trump during the ceremony. All told, there’s just a lack of punch to this show.
The best part by far though is the interview with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins – that’s well worth listening to, but the rest? You could skip without missing too much.




Pop Culture Confidential

Far better is Pop Culture Confidential, in which host Christina Jeurling Birro and guest Sasha Stone go through in real detail the potential winners of the Oscars.
There’s an excellent discussion on how the ballot system works and how it can affect the results, with split ballots sometimes leading to surprising winners, such as when Adrien Brody won the Oscar for The Pianist.
Again, La La Land is the hot favourite for many, many awards this year – Emma Stone is suggested to be a certainty for best actress - but the analysis does show that there seems to be pretty good prospects for both Moonlight and Lion too. In fact, from the discussion, it seems that Moonlight might just be a sly bet for the best picture, despite the Hollywood love-in that is La La Land.
There’s a keen analysis of how the awards leading up to the Oscars can affect voting for the biggest gong of them all – and thoughts on how the changing demographic of the Academy, to introduce more people of colour on the voting side, might have an impact.
The host and guest clearly know their stuff, the production of the podcast is top notch, and this is absolutely a show to put on as you start your Oscar party and wait for the big event itself to get started.




Dorking Out

Self-confessed dorks Chris Smith and Sonia Mansfield covers all manner of geekish subjects in their podcast, but they are both also movie lovers, so for their latest podcast they make their Oscar predictions.
Now, there are a lot of podcasts going through and making their predictions – but these two know their stuff and give a good analysis for each of their picks. What’s nice about this show is the amount of time they spend discussing some of the lesser known categories, and analysing what might scoop the Oscar for such things as sound editing or short movie live action. Often, podcasts gloss over such things because, well, the hosts aren’t really that interested in those categories – but these guys take their dorking out seriously!
Again, Moonlight gets some strong support here – though La La Land is very much likely to pick up a whole range of Oscars, with the hosts pointing out such things as costumes and production design as likely awards for that film to scoop, beyond the big winners. Emma Stone is getting a lot of support for best actress, Viola Davis is suggested here as a strong contender for best supporting actress.
There’s not long to wait now – so it’ll soon be time to find out who walks away smiling in the city of stars.


Got any suggestions for podcasts to feature in the review column? Leave a message below or drop me a note on Twitter, @AlteredInstinct.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How to support artists you love - a Q&A with entrepreneur and producer Jay Isaacs

Artists, authors, performers... they all need to get the word out there on the work they are doing. But often consumers - be they readers, listeners, viewers - might not know the best way to support the artists they love with just a few simple ways to leave feedback. Jay Isaacs joins the blog to chat about his field. First off, Jay is a hell of a photographer that I've found it a privilege to work with. But he's so much more than that. But hey, I'll let Jay tell you all about that - and how you can help get the word out on the artists he works with. 



Hi Jay, and welcome to the blog. Now, you’re calling by to chat about reviews, feedback and how consumers can best help the artists they love. So, first thing first, tell us a little about the areas in which you work in the creative field.

I do so many things, but they’re all related in some way. Firstly I am co owner of JKL Media which is a boutique media firm specializing in photography, filmmaking and photobooth rental. JKL Media produces several local television shows and in 2017 will will be broadcast throughout the region and the world through the Icon of the Islands reality TV series and other Tempo Productions. Other than that I am a radio personality and owner of an indie record label named “Savage 100.” From time to time, I also dabble in event management and PR work.

Who are the artists and performers you work with?

As of now, we have three main artists and will be expanding to about seven including a band before the end of the quarter. Shon P,  King Twig and Angel Alei are our main artists. Three young, very talented rappers.



Artist Shon P


So what are the most helpful ways in which people can leave feedback for those artists?

Documented feedback on whatever platform you desire. No download or purchase necessary even though that would be lovely - just one spin would and review would do.

How does that help you? In what way does that have an impact?

Well, in today’s streaming world, plays add up. It’s pennies on the dollar but pennies still make a dollar but that’s plays. The feedback is important because platforms like Amazon, iTunes and others use this info to rank the various projects. Ranking is important because it helps digital sales. If you’re not being seen, chances are you won’t be heard or downloaded.


Savage Pop Art of Angel Alei

What if people feel intimidated by leaving a review? Can they simply leave a star rating or anything like that if they’re unsure how to go about a review?

I mean it’s a review, good or bad it helps. An honest critique taken the right way will help the artist to grow and get better while helping his/her work to move up in the ranks. Nothing to be intimidated about but, if you are, a like or a star rating with an emoji is always welcomed.

So where can people find the work of the artists you work with? Got any links handy?

For us at Savage 100, music is a passion and a business so we can be found wherever music can be streamed, download or sold. From the Amazon, Apple Music, Tidal, Spotify to Shazam, we’re there.

I’ll leave links to our three new projects below.
h

What are you working on next?
We’re actually working on a US tour this summer and then it’s back into the studio to work on Shon P’s first EP. We have two more singles to drop before then so look out for it.

And lastly, leave a review of your own – tell us one hot up-and-coming artist we should be looking out for. 

Locally, I think there are a lot of artists stepping up their game and putting in that work. So if I had to put my stamp on anyone other than my artists, I would say T Rexx - he’s ready now, with the right series of events he’s the next big thing. Here’s a link: https://soundcloud.com/trexx242/t-rexx-kno-ft-sleepy-lexx

Jay, many thanks, and good luck!

You can follow Jay's work and keep up with his projects on Twitter at https://twitter.com/therealjay242

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Five great stories you should be reading in anthologies out now

One of the really great things about having featured in several anthologies now is that I've had my story nestling alongside tales by some other really great authors.

As a result of that, I've gone on to read a fair few pieces of other work by those authors - but I often feel a certain reticence about reviewing the full publication from those writers. It kind of feels a little too close to home, if you know what I mean, as if any minute now the Review Police are going to bust into the room shouting "Put your hands in the air and move away from the keyboard!"

So while I might not be throwing down stars on reviews here, I would like to pick out five stories in anthologies in which I might feature myself or which include writers I've appeared alongside and which you should be reading!



A Kind Of Magic, by Mike Arneson 
Anthology Askew

I'm in this anthology with my story The Clay Man - so forgive my bias when I say it's a great collection.
There's lots of good stuff in here, such as Cindy Tomamichel's poetry, but the story I'm picking out comes from Mike Arneson.
It's a tale of a detective in a world of magic, investigating the death of a half Orc woman in a noir tale that manages to be both fascinating and downbeat at the same time.
For a story that sets out with such a fantastic premise, it ends leaving you feeling thoughtful, and that's no mean feat.

Anthology Askew is available here.


The Unicorn, by Maria Haskins
Dark Flash

I featured alongside Maria in the Inklings Press collection Tales From Alternate Earths - in which she wrote a humdinger of a short story bringing together Tunguska, possible aliens and a touching family connection reaching across generations.
Dark Flash is her collection of short stories that she has contributed to RB Wood's Word Count podcast. Maria has a delightfully patient way with her stories, even in short word counts like this, but for me the standout story is The Unicorn. This feels like the creation of a myth, wrapped in the story of a family at the heart of it. Reality itself feels in question, such is the sprinkling of mythdust on top of this delightful short read. I really, truly recommend it.
You can of course enjoy her reading of it at the Word Count site linked above, too.

Dark Flash is available here.


Dead Space, by Cathbad Maponus
9 Tales Told In The Dark #19

Cathbad's a fine fellow. He was featured in the same Tales From Alternate Earths collection mentioned above, with his tale of JFK's life on a different course after the Cuban missiles fly and America is forever changed.
His story Dead Space in this collection creeps me out, and well done for that! It feels like a space age version of the Body Snatchers or a far future Quatermass, where all manner of things start to go wrong 230 days into a space mission.
Again, it's short, it's sweet, and it's as cold as the depths of space themselves. Nicely done, sir!

9 Tales is available here.


Beast, by Alei Kotdaishura
Blue Moon Season

Alei is one of the Inklings founders, and I really like her writing. 
Beast, in Blue Moon Season, tells the story of a worker who is beyond stressed, being driven mad by her boss, and finding her whole world unraveling. 
Is she insane? Or is there something supernatural going on? And if there is, will she live to tell the tale?
It's the kind of scratch-at-your-skin horror tale that could easily be a Twilight Zone episode, and it's my favourite piece of writing by Alei so far. I say so far... she's recently offered a story up for a free read right here on the site, so keep an eye open for that too. And Beast is to feature soon in the first paperback copy of an Inklings Press collection. I may just sing and shout about that when the time comes!

You can pick up Blue Moon Season here.


Restart, by Norman Turrell
Points of Possibility

Norman Turrell hardly needs me to blow his trumpet. Points of Possibility was a double #1 in its categories in the UK, and he's an established writer over on Huffington Post.
It was a delight and an honour that he offered to include one of my stories in the back of Points of Possibility and, whenever he's not looking, I'm totally claiming those number ones are down to me.
Restart is my favourite tale of his from the collection, the story of an arrogant nobleman willing to hunt people down to the death, and using the latest in technology to perfect himself in order to do so. Nanobots are deployed to reshape his body, even... his mind? But things might not always turn out as planned, and the noble is about to discover that one must be careful with what one wishes for.
It's a great story, full of action but balanced nicely with the philosophical consequences of the situation. A real treat from Norman.

Points of Possibility is available here.


BONUS: Hole Lotta Shakin', by Robert Lee Beers

This isn't an anthology but a standalone short story that's very much worth mentioning here. I've appeared alongside the authors above, but this is the first book I actually appear in. As a character.
Robert Lee Beers takes his down-at-heel supernatural detective Tony Mandolin back in time to San Francisco right before the Big Quake.
Time travel shenanigans see Mandolin and partner Frankie trying to navigate their way back to the modern day without stepping on any butterflies that might just change the world forever. Along the way, there's feisty reporters, poker with a President, and more - including rum cocktails served up by a character named after me.
I'll drink to that.

Hole Lotta Shakin' is available here.




You can catch up with my own anthology adventures in the latest collection from Inklings Press, Tales of Wonder, available now on Amazon: 

Monday, 13 February 2017

PODCAST REVIEW: Love is on the air

This article previously featured in The Tribune Weekend section on February 10



Valentine’s Day is upon us – and for podcast listeners, there are a host of shows about love and relationships. So pop on some headphones and enjoy some intimate advice...

Great Love Debate with Brian Howie

Let’s start with some fun – and this show is definitely that. Get a bunch of single people into a live audience and put dating enthusiast Brian Howie and guests in front of them and you get a combination of stand-up comedy show and solid tips for those wanting to be less single.
There’s comedy about dating across the political divides – no one apparently wants to date a Ted Cruz – and there’s banter about what people expect from their potential partners.
The discussions are adult only – but that’s only because people are being forthright about what they want in their date, in their partner and in their bedroom.
The balance is really good, the opening part of the show very much loosens the audience up with jokes and then later working in the tips for more successful relationships, such as throwing away your checklist for what you want in a partner – because if you’re single, clearly that checklist hasn’t been working for you.
Now I don’t agree with all the advice given, and there’s a few stereotypes thrown around – but hey, who agrees with every piece of advice? Sure, it’s a room full of single people discussing how to end up married, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t wisdom to be found here. So if you’re single on Valentine’s Day and want that to change, pop the headphones on and listen to tips on how to be seen on the scene.


Digital Romance Radio

Digital Romance is a relationship advice show with Michael Fiore, a vibrant host. The show covers a whole host of subjects in its more than 180 episodes – the latest being advice about being safe about drinking when it comes to relationships.
It’s good advice, covering such things as clearly ensuring consent if either party has had a drink, performance problems that might have been a result of drinking too much, and exploring the boundaries between loosening inhibitions in a fun way and when drinking becomes a problem in relationships. Shakespeare’s maxim of how drink “provokes the desire, but takes away the performance” is right here in the debate.
The host is straightforward, and strongly pushes a message of “Yes means yes, everything else means no”. It’s a simple rule, and the presenters discuss clear ways of having difficult conversations to make sure there is clear communication. It’s the kind of show that gives clarity, and that’s a very good thing. It offers advice on safety – such as agreeing with friends to make sure they don’t let you do something you might regret beforehand.
Again, this is a show with adult content – so bear that in mind when hitting play.


I Do Podcast

So what if you are taking your relationship to the next stage? The I Do Podcast explores some of those issues. Hosted by Chase and Sarah Kosterlitz, it aims to give young couples advice on how to have happy relationships.
It’s a well-established podcast, and so it branches out into the singles scene too. In the latest episode, episode 83, features relationship expert Kristen Craren talking about finding ways to stop picking the wrong partner. You know how it goes – either you or a friend always finds themselves dating the wrong type of person for them and you don’t know how to break out of the cycle.
This show quietly and patiently discusses the problem, and ways of breaking out of your pattern of behaviour.
For those concerned for friends repeating that same cycle, they urge an approach of not judging but offering instead questions you can ask those friends such as what they find fulfilling about their relationship, what they aspire to in a relationship... are they happy? These are the same kinds of questions they suggest asking yourself too if the description comes a little too close to home.
It’s a thoughtful show – less in-your-face than the Great Love Debate, but more relaxed and thoughtful.


Got a podcast you think should feature? Drop me a line on Twitter @AlteredInstinct or leave a comment below. 


Saturday, 11 February 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Prometheus and the Dragon by Eric Michael Craig; The Leshy by NC Stow; and Gnarled Bones and Other Stories by Tam May


Prometheus and the Dragon, by Eric Michael Craig

One of my top reads of last year was Stormhaven Rising, and this is the sequel to that story. 
That first book told the tale of the discovery of an asteroid headed on a collision course for Earth - but that was a distant threat throughout the story, with the real focus being how different factions mobilised to try to deal with that menace. More particularly, there were the political machinations that took place as different groups vied to take the primary role in tackling something that could prove catastrophic for Earth. 
This book picks up where that left off - with two major plans in progress to try to deal with the incoming rock. Prometheus is a beam weapon designed to push the asteroid onto a new course that would miss Earth, but that beam needs to be sustained over many days to be a success. Meanwhile, a Chinese plan, The Dragon, is to launch a massive warhead that would shatter the rock. Both projects are operated from bases on the Moon - and the teams behind them are not on friendly sides.
Political manoeuvres on the surface see nations trying to settle old scores before the asteroid can hit - while a back-up plan of scrambling people to colonies on the moon in case the worst happens faces hazards of its own, with too many people and not enough room. 
As below, so above - and ensuring safety on the Moon for both people and the projects that could ensure Earth's survival becomes a challenge. 
This book really takes up the gauntlet cast down by the opening book in the series and runs with it - it's an absolute thrill ride full of hard decisions and harder consequences. More than a few times I cursed at the book as I turned pages filled with moments that bit deep. Then against those there are moments where you punch the air - such as when the Flight Infantry deploys in a skirmish on the Moon, tumbling out of the back of the vehicle carrying them at hundreds of miles an hour. It's the kind of kickass moment that reminds me of the Orion Ship in Niven and Pournelle's Footfall - a spaceship propelled by dropping nuclear bombs underneath it. Science kicking ass. 
The latter half of the book sees the asteroid getting ever closer - will humanity overcome its divisions to succeed in preventing its impact?
That I won't spoil - but I will say you've got a great read ahead of you as you find out. 

AI rating: 5/5

Prometheus and the Dragon is available here.


The Leshy, by NC Stow

This is a short tale rich in folklore - and it's hard to say too much without giving much away given the story's length.
What I will say is that it is a charming, thoughtful read.
Young girl Makva is coming to terms with who she is, and that The Leshy of the title is dead. Relationships between The Leshy and the natural world are explored, along with the power of witchcraft, but at its centre is Makva, questioning where she fits in the world, and the order of things.
It's a treat to read - not quite as straightforward a read as NC Stow's work The Kupala Night, which I reviewed recently, but more philosophical in nature.
It's like a snowflake melting on your tongue. Pure to taste, transient in nature but memorable nonetheless.

AI rating: 4/5

The Leshy is available here.


Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, by Tam May

This collection of five stories from Tam May is in equal parts enchanting and frustrating.
First thing first, Tam May has an intriguing voice at times as an author - but each of these stories feels a little undercooked, often coming to an end before they have really gotten started.
There are some delightful phrases in here - such as "He picked his words carefully as if they were ripe apples off a tree, aware of the sadness they left behind", but at other points there is a bit too much telling rather than showing, such as with the lengthy start to the title story, detailing the history of children Em and Denny before getting to the substance of the story.
Despite that, I look forward to more from Tam May. This is her first collection, and so it feels in part like she's clearing her throat, getting ready to speak in a work of greater weight. There is interesting material here - probably the story Broken Bones is the standout, best developed and carrying its tale over a period of time - but the potential is greater still.
One note - it could do with a keener eye on the editing front, moments such as when it says "the dye is cast" rather than die are oversights that throw you as you read.

Gnarled Bones and Other Stories is available here.
AI rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Free Story: The Simulation. By Ricardo Victoria

Editor's note: Ricardo Victoria is a familiar face here at the blog - and today he returns with a free story for you to enjoy. A slice of science fantasy, his genre of choice - a fine one, which embraces everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom through Star Wars and Avatar to anime classics such as Akira or videogames like Final Fantasy, combining magic and machines. Speaking of machines, here's one that might be one step too far... Ricardo brings us The Simulation. Enjoy. 



The Simulation
By Ricardo Victoria

“How the hell did this happen?”

“I don’t know,” Jay replied with a shrug. He was short and chubby and felt like he hadn’t slept in weeks.

“What do you mean you don’t know? This thing didn’t create itself. It is… too complex,” the tall, thin guy said with exasperation. Lou was his name, and he was pointing to a hologram projection. It was a planet, brimming with life, cities, people, animals of different kinds, some vaguely familiar, some brand new to the pair.

“That’s the thing, I don’t remember doing it. Not like that.”

“You were missing for weeks. It’s clear you were busy coding this. What do you mean you don’t remember doing it? Were you consuming again?” The tall guy gave him a disapproving look. He knew addictions were a sore spot in their friendship.

“Err… yes?”

“Is that an affirmation or a question?”

“Both? Look, man. I just know I started coding this so we could have our roleplaying sessions with a holographic projection and save us the hassle of consulting the rulebooks. I just wanted more fluidity in our gaming sessions.”

“And to stifle power gaming,” the tall guy added, smirking slightly.

“Well, yeah. Things have become… unruly to say the least. Starting with you,” Jay replied seriously. While he liked to tinker with the gaming system, he was getting tired of the players’ power gaming - so much so that their story had become an unwieldy mess recently. Especially thanks to Lou’s mean streak.

“And I already apologized for that. Still, I can’t believe you don’t recall coding a perfect simulacrum of our roleplaying setting, down to physics and magic rules, history and the whole set of rulebooks. Heck, you even included a time progression of the family trees of each of our player characters. It has their genetic codes, and are those quantum interactions? Again, how the hell did this happen?” Amazement brimmed in Lou’s voice.

“Look, I’m asking the same question. I just remember I started coding, using as a base an old AI template code I found lying around from our school projects. But it looked different,” Jay offered, although he knew that, even for him, the absent-minded genius was a lame excuse.

“Different how?” Lou asked, intrigued.

“Slightly more complex, like nested matrices recombining themselves all the time as if it were a kaleidoscope. I started pouring the data into the matrices and they replied with more complex data and it started to grow up from there. I just kept working non-stop and the thing kept growing. It was odd.”

“In which sense?”

“I didn’t get hungry, barely thirsty. I was in the zone, man! Then one day I finally fell asleep and, when I woke up, this whole new universe was there, taking up all the memory, processing power, and system energy.”

“Did you try to turn it off?”

“It wasn’t necessary. Before you arrived, the whole block had a blackout.”

“And?”

“The hologram simulation kept running. I think it is self-sustaining now. If that makes sense.”

“Not really. It shouldn’t be possible. And yet here it is, a whole world, nested in who knows which parallel dimension. All of it based on our roleplaying campaign,” Lou stroked his chin, caressing his badly-trimmed beard. “I wonder, could it include other planets? Other galaxies?”

Jay stood there in silence, avoiding his friend’s gaze. He already knew the answer but he wasn’t sure how. It was as if it had always been inside his head.

“No. Freaking. Way. How many?”

“Haven’t counted yet, or if they are actually real or just detailed real-time renders generated when I get a closer look. But I think there might be close to 200 billion, based on the expansion rate.”

“Expansion rate?” Lou asked intrigued. This was getting better and better.

“The holographic simulation keeps growing as we speak, see? It’s a self-contained expansion. Like a cubic balloon.” Jay touched a few buttons on the panel control and the display zoomed out from the planet and into a vast space, full of stars, galaxies, clusters, peppering the not-so-empty black void.

“This is amazing. But hey, you say it keeps growing, so it just creates things by itself or you can actually create things?”

“I have admin powers, which in this hologram means I can warp reality and create pretty much anything and even go back into its timeline and alter it.” Jay demonstrated, showing how he could rewind the hologram growth. The hologram shrunk in size and then grew back again to its current status.

“What about the future of the timeline?”

“Well, since it is exponentially growing I can’t go further, as it starts splitting into different possible scenarios. Although I do get to choose which scenario plays if I wish it. I can either let it flow naturally or railroad things.”

“Like a wave function collapse?”

“Exactly,” Jay agreed. “I am the ultimate observer of this… err… universe.”

“So you are basically a god for this… shall we call it universe?”

“Yes,” Jay was embarrassed. The last thing that came to his mind was to believe himself a god of any kind, even if his worshippers were tiny holograms. “Although I did grant you moderator powers too. You can do pretty much everything but the wave function collapse and the timeline alteration.”

“Really? Why?” Lou sounded surprised.

“You are my best friend,” Jay replied sheepishly. “I thought it would be helpful to have someone I trust to work on this. Try it.”

“Wonderful.”

“I know.”

“This goes beyond our gaming sessions. This is the achievement of an aeon. Think of the possibilities. We could invite others and charge them for having their avatars inside the universe, having a second life.”

“I’m not sure I want to do that.”

“Why not?”

“Well, it is growing naturally. I’m keeping my interaction to the minimum, aside from the actions of my characters. It is a delicate balance and, every time I interact directly, it breaks down. I mean I can get beautiful things like space dragons, or sink a whole civilization into the sea. So I try to nudge things here and there little by little, but letting the whole thing evolve on its own.”

“Where is the fun in that?”

“Here is the powergamer talking,” Jay said, tired. He had the same arguments with Lou time and time again when it came to any of his inventions. Jay was the creative wizard, always creating new things just for fun, to see if it was possible. Like that energy system that worked with just a voice command. On the other hand, Lou was the one always trying to seize the commercial opportunities of such inventions, never stopping to ask if they were actually safe or sound.

“Sorry, it is that… this is amazing,” Lou apologized, before noticing something. He pointed to a text chat box appearing on the right side of the hologram. “Wait a second. What are these messages?”

“The text ones?”

“Yes. I thought this was an isolated system.”

“It is. The messages come from inside the game. From the creatures inside it.”

“Like prayers?”

“Not like, they are actually prayers. They keep asking me for better crops, for better hunts, to kill their enemies, to save their families, that kind of stuff. Most of the petitions can be solved by them if they actually cared to put some effort on it. The system allows it. I find it boring really to answer each prayer.”

“So you just reply to the ones that actually need your intervention and the rest are solved on their own.”

“Yes. I keep the miracles as they call them to the minimum. Reading them all make me feel weird.”

“Weird as in unworthy of the praises or weird as a physical illness?”

“The second. It is strange, but they make me feel lighter here, less real. As if…”

“You were being summoned into the game?”

“Yes, how do you know?”

“Because I’m feeling the same. Apparently, someone is summoning the moderator seeing as the admin is not replying. Man, this dude is basically swimming in blood to get my attention.” Lou pointed, his legs trembling. The tiny supplicant had made quite a mess with a massive sacrifice.

“Some of the supplicants can be a bit extreme in their methods,” Jay replied, his head feeling heavy.
“I’m not feeling well.”

“Neither do I.”

Jay felt his mind getting scrambled. Lou dropped to the floor next to him, while he was trying to remain standing. A buzzing noise rang inside his head, increasing in intensity. He was bleeding profusely from his nose. Soon, his whole world turned to black and he felt into a deep slumber.

++++++

“Where are we?” Jay asked when he woke up. Lou was next to him. Both were in an empty valley, with a few patches of green splotched over the place. The sky was intensely blue. More vibrant than any color Jay had seen before. A few clouds floated peacefully away, carried by the wind, while the sun shone brightly.

“I think we are inside the hologram.”

“How can that be?” Jay wondered. He was at a loss. Lou was right, both of them were inside his creation. How they knew that he wasn’t sure. But, inside, he could feel that it was true. He also felt a strange wave of energy inside he never felt before. He was still trying to come to terms with the idea when, out of the blue, Lou flicked his hands and a purple light came from them. In an empty space, from the ground, a structure made of jagged black onyx grew to gargantuan proportions in front of them. It was vaguely reminiscent of the temples back home.

“The power of prayer, I guess,” Lou explained, trying to come with a rationale. He then pointed to the black onyx structure in front of them. “Did I just create a whole temple?”

“How did you do that?” Jay asked, still slightly dazed.

“I just thought it. Want to try it?” Lou offered. His voice sounded filled with excitement. And something else.

“Wow!” Jay exclaimed, surprised at the display of power. Then, he pointed to a piece of barren land and, with a flick of his hand, created a whole forest, critters included.

“We are inside the game, but we retain admin and mod powers. We are basically gods in this universe!” Lou yelled to the skies, making the ground tremble. Jay felt the power emanating from his friend and it was starting to clash with his own.

“We should be looking for a way to go back home.”

“Why? It’s not like someone is waiting for us. Here we are gods, we can do what I want,” Lou licked his lips.

“What you want?” Jay was confused.

“What we want,” Lou corrected himself, but with a tone that left Jay unconvinced.

“You sound different,” Jay said, looking at Lou with concern.

“I sound like someone who has achieved true potential,” Lou countered.

“I’m starting to regret giving you mod powers,” Jay said, pinching the bridge of his nose. This was giving him a migraine. And it reflected on the environment, as clouds brimming with thunder rolled across the horizon.

“Aww, don’t be a spoilsport. It will be fun. Remember our one-on-one game?”

“Not as fondly as you,” Jay sighed. Lou had a competitive streak that bordered on the mean.

“What do you say we restart it here, right now? Like the gods we are,” Lou declared, raising his fist. There was something odd in his eyes. Something that worried Jay.

“I don’t like the idea. These beings are independent of that game. There are rules for that,” Jay said with a tremor in his voice.

“Rules schmules. Let’s have fun,” Lou suggested with a smile that was more menacing than friendly. It sent shivers down Jay’s spine, but he decided to stand up to his friend.

“I can’t let you do that,” Jay said. With a flick of his hands, blue energy surged from the environment, enveloping Lou. Jay could see the source code of this reality and was trying to reprogram it, stifling as much as he could the mod rights he had foolishly granted to Lou.

“You can’t stop me, the mod rights are permanent. You encoded them into the very source code of the universe. It seems that you are stuck with me, Jay,” Lou replied, waving away the energy that Jay unleashed upon him.

“That may be the case, Lou, but it doesn’t mean I won’t try to rein you in until we can get back home,” Jay said. He was getting tired of his friend. He loved him, but at times Lou could be a handful to anyone. No wonder he had few friends back home. Correction, not friends, just acquaintances that barely tolerated him.

“Have fun trying that. Meanwhile, I will be busy creating a few new creatures. I like the idea of a seven-headed dragon. See ya, Jay.” Lou said, before walking away, while a shroud of black smoke circled him.

“Wait, Lou! No!” Jay exclaimed to no avail. Before he could do anything, Lou vanished with the wind, leaving a whiff of brimstone behind. Jay shook his head. Lou certainly had a knack for dramatics. And that would become clearer during the following days. “He is gone. I guess I’d better start looking for a way home. But first I will create something to deal with Lou’s ideas.”

Jay grabbed some dirt from the ground and started modeling.

“Good thing I took those sculpting lessons. Now, let’s breathe some life into these messengers. I will need all the help I can to keep the creatures safe and get us out of here.” He paused for a second. “And now I’m talking to myself. Great!”

Jay breathed upon his creations, seven beings of different gender and even different species. All had wings and held fiery swords.

“Almighty Father?” the first creature said, bowing before him, followed by the other six. Jay could only roll his eyes. This was not what he had in mind.

“This is gonna be a long stay,” Jay muttered, resigned. He sighed and made a signal for the creatures to follow him. Moving around was easy for him now, as if he were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He could hear and feel everything, down to the quantum level. Despite being a hologram, it was highly realistic for him now, way too real. Jay feared the whole experience had started to rewrite his own reality to bind him forever to this place. His only hope was that the whole system wouldn’t implode or suffer from entropic degradation before he could get himself and Lou out of there. And the key, he suspected, lay in their avatars, their “children”.

“Let’s go and find that son of mine,” he ordered.

 Creating a whole new reality and getting stuck inside it wasn’t as amusing at it first seemed.


Ricardo Victoria is a Mexican-based writer, and is in the middle of edits for his debut novel Tempest Blades. He has also been published in a number of Inklings Press anthologies, the latest of which is the science fantasy collection Tales of Wonder, featuring nine writers conjuring up all kinds of future visions. You can pick that up here: