Tag Archives: science fiction

Drive By Sci Fi #3: Hard Time

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime, The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment, Of innocent merriment!
Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado

The twofold topic of crime and punishment has yielded bountiful fruit over the years in science fiction, providing endless speculation on the future of law, law enforcement, civil justice, and criminal punishment, and perhaps no representative of the genre has made more salad from this particular harvest than that icon of television, film, and popular culture, Star Trek. Many of its futuristic scenarios implied things wouldn’t stray far from the familiar: investigations, inquiries, inquests, courtrooms, courts martial, jury trials, imprisonment, exile, and executions (usually averted at the last minute). Occasionally we’d be treated to a fun anachronism, like trial by combat.

Punishment was often surprisingly harsh, given Star Trek’s rosy view of the evolution of future society. One of my favorite Original Series Trek moments was Spock’s dispassionate summation of the various forms of execution jovial con-artist Harry Mudd would face were he ever brought to justice:


Well, I suppose it’s better than stranding me on an asteroid with a few hundred robot duplicates of my ex-wife.

Mudd: Do you know what the penalty for fraud is on Deneb 5?

Spock: Guilty party has his choice. Death by electrocution, death by gas, death by phaser, death by hanging…

Mudd: The key word in your entire peroration, Mr. Spock, was… d-d-d-DEATH.

The issue of justice in sentencing, how to make, in the words of the Mikado, “the punishment fit the crime,” came to mind the other day in the form of a couple of articles discussing advances in our ability to manipulate memory, and possible applications this and other biotech developments might have in the criminal justice system.

obrien-hardtimeThe ideas floated in this article seemed hauntingly familiar. Then I remembered one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, “Hard Time,” in which stalwart DS9 engineer Miles O’Brien is arrested on an alien world, charged with espionage, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Virtual prison. O’Brien lives every moment of that 20 years, indistinguishable from reality, in the space of a few hours. Then, he’s released to Federation custody to put his life back together. He has to orient himself to life outside prison, re-forge friendships, and re-learn his job. But he’s still haunted by the ghost of something horrific that happened during that time he was captive within his own mind, and it nearly destroys him. It’s a tour-de-force of brilliant acting by Colm Meaney, who plays O’Brien, and Craig Wasson, who portrays O’Brien’s illusory cellmate. Watch the whole thing, if you get the chance.


It’s paradise, my friend.

We’re approaching the ability to insert false memories in the human mind, distort its perception of time, and automate these effects with computer technology. So many delicious opportunities here. A convict could experience a lifetime in prison in mere hours of real time. A violent criminal could re-live his misdeeds from his victim’s point-of-view, over and over again, until he was rehabilitated—or so emotionally and psychologically broken that he could never harm anyone again—all in a brief space of time with no danger or need to kill or even physically injure the criminal. Prisons and all their expensive and inherent evils would be obsolete, as would the engines of capital punishment. Justice could be specifically tailored to the perpetrator, the crime, and the desires of victims and their families.

Everybody wins. Right?

Well, maybe. There are some thorny ethical issues here, not the least is whether this sort of treatment constitutes torture and invites abuse. Proportionality of sentencing is threatened, as well. It could be easier for judges to issue excessive punishments—it’s all happening in an imaginary world, anyhow. What does an illusion of 100 years in prison matter if it’s only taking a few hours of real time on a soft couch, and nobody gets hurt?

There’s also no guarantee this technology could remain restricted to use by a legal, accountable authority. Imagine the likely outcome if the ability to lock someone in a virtual hell found its way into the hands of terrorists:

We have your daughter. Oh, please, sir, relax…we’re not barbarians. No harm will come to her, but if you don’t cooperate, she’ll be spending 24 hours in our “private resort.”

The most chilling part of this topic for me is people’s readiness to entertain the idea of creating that virtual hell, for any purpose. Much ink has spilled in the last few years about the incomprehensibility of a loving, merciful God consigning anyone to Hell, no matter how heinous their crime or unrepentant their heart. We poor, feeble human beings would never consider sending someone to eternal punishment. We’re better than that.

Mm-hmm. We’d do it in a heartbeat. We’re already talking about it. We’re halfway to figuring out how to make it happen, and we don’t have to worry about being constrained by any of that “loving, merciful” jazz. On this issue, my faith in the beneficence of my fellow man is rather limited. A source of innocent merriment!

We have an affinity for hell.



Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Opinion, Technology, Writing


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Time to Take the Plunge: Aquasynthesis Again

Aquasynthesis AgainA brisk wind teased whitecaps from the shallow bay, but the water in the tide pool didn’t yield a ripple. It was flat and still as a sheet of glass. The old man crouched at its edge like a carrion bird, swathed in black…Stiff vertebrae crackled as he turned to inspect the moon. Kal’s pale orb was sinking below the horizon, tugging regretfully at Dysias’ watery mantle as she departed. It would be high tide soon. Time for the pool to grant its magic. Time for the visions. He rubbed his neck, kneading it back into line with more crackles and pops, then bent forward to glare at the inscrutable surface, as if he might evaporate it by sheer force of will.

And so, the stories begin. Warriors and castaways, wizards and gunslingers, pioneers and revolutionaries. Wanderers, elves, rebels, saints, and tired old men. Interstellar voyages. Monsters from outer and inner space. The end of all things…or, perhaps, the beginning.

Sixteen extraordinary visions of science fiction and fantasy from the authors of Splashdown Books, woven together within the depths of a magic pool at the edge of a vast ocean.

The time has come for Aquasynthesis…Again.

Now available in paperback at and, E-book in Kindle. Other e-reader formats coming soon.

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Posted by on February 7, 2014 in Writing


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Book Review: On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de BodardLe Thi Linh arrives on Prosper Station fleeing the inferno of revolution. She was a respected leader on her homeworld, but now she’s just another refugee forced to beg the charity of distant relatives. One is a cousin, the station administrator, who suspects both her story and her motives. The other is the Honoured Ancestress, the ancient cyborg Mind who serves as the station’s nerve center and corporate memory, watching everything and everyone, whispering through the Trance, the biotech network that links the station’s inhabitants together.

Can Linh overcome her cousin’s suspicion and disdain to find a place of honor and respect on Prosper Station? Even if she does, will the civil war she left behind cross the deeps of space to claim her life? The Honoured Ancestress has promised safe haven but is strangely distracted, and as malfunctions multiply across the station, Linh begins to wonder how safe she can be, in a world where even immortals can die.


I’d say I knew Aliette de Bodard before she was cool, but she’s always been cool, even a few years ago when she was still pitching short stories to obscure online magazines. The wider world just took a little longer to discover it than I did. Now, she’s a multi-award-winning author whose kudos include the Nebula, Locus, and BSFA awards, and she’s routinely found in any number of nomination lists and annual “Best Of” compilations.

On a Red Station, Drifting is a showcase of all the goodies that make her stories so wonderful. The novella is set in her Xuya universe, a future ruled by a spacefaring Asian empire and traversed by cyborg-controlled FTL starships. It’s a tale striking for its focus on timeless traditions and human relationships that both define and transcend culture. It’s a saga of powerful ties of blood and the iron law of family hierarchy strained to the breaking point. Enslaving lies and liberating truth, cowardice and courage, betrayal and redemption, death and immortality dance together on the stage. Technology and art intertwine until it becomes difficult to perceive where one ends and the other begins. The author draws from her Vietnamese heritage and a deep wellspring of history and folklore to paint a convincing, credible picture of a strong culture that has woven itself into the fabric of space without losing its distinctive identity.

This story was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards last year, and it’s a fine example of the artistry required to compete at that level. If you’d like another taste or two of Ms. de Bodard’s Xuya stories, check out “Ship’s Brother,” featured in this month’s issue of Clarkesworld Magazine and free to read online (UPDATE: Clarkesworld has posted a free podcast of “Ship’s Brother,” too). She’s also offering a free read of “The Waiting Stars,” a story I expect to find on the award shortlists this year, via her author website.

UPDATE: And looky there, “The Waiting Stars” is a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novelette.

On a Red Station, Drifting is available on Kindle from, or on Nook at, $2.99 either format.

You can find my thoughts on other works by Aliette de Bodard here.

Aliette de Bodard’s author website

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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Book Reviews, Writing


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Drive By Sci Fi #1: “Castoff World,” by Kay Kenyon

The North Pacific GyreNew feature! Every so often, I note something in the news or my everyday life that eerily echoes a science fiction story of my acquaintance.

Since science fiction is all about projecting science and its implications into the future, near and far, it should be no surprise that it’s prescient with a frequency exceeding random chance, if only by a little. It’s also often dead wrong, but it’s fun to be able to say you read a story about the latest market-busting gadget, mind-boggling discovery, or apocalyptic freakout five or ten years ahead of time.

“Oh, that? Saw it coming ages ago, old bean.”

Anyhow, this morning, I read a news report from Great Britain’s Mirror about a ginormous island of trash from Japan’s 2011 tsunami that’s beginning to make landfall on the U.S. west coast. ‘Ginormous’ meaning three times the size of Great Britain.


Don’t be too scared. This is a very diffuse island, a fact the Mirror article obfuscates with a gallery of the 2011 tsunami damage in and around Japan. Hey, Mirror‘s a tabloid. It’s what they do. Reference this article for a less feverish assessment. Also reference the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon, a.k.a. The North Pacific Gyre.

Now, read Kay Kenyon’s “Castoff World,” the wistful tale of a little girl and her grandfather who live on a floating island of garbage in the North Pacific. The story appeared in the 2010 anthology, Shine, which I reviewed here. Kenyon adds a speculative wrinkle—her island is both enormous and dense, the result of technological meddling meant to sweep the Gyre clean of pollution. It also has other…qualities…but no telling here. You’ll have to read the story, and it’s a good read.

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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in Writing


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I Found a Cool Story the Other Day, #23

giraffeSometimes the oddest things will bring a cool story to mind. This time, an irritating Facebook meme involving giraffes was the spark that dredged F. Paul Wilson’s 1978 gem “Lipidleggin’” to mind. It premiered in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, which I was fortunate to be reading regularly at that time.

From today’s vantage point, it’s a disturbingly prescient rumination on government meddling and the clever ways people circumvent it. In the case of Wilson’s homespun narrator, the key is knowing your customer—and their poison.

The new guy puts his hat on the counter and glances around. He looks uneasy. I know what’s coming but I’m not going to help him out. There’s a little dance we’ve got to do first.

“I need to buy a few things,” he says. His voice has a little tremor in it and close up like this I figure he’s in his mid-twenties.

“Well, this is a general store,” I reply, getting real busy wiping down the counter, “and we’ve got all sorts of things. What’re you interested in? Antiques? Hardware? Food?”

“I’m not looking for the usual stock.”

(The music begins to play)

I look at him with my best puzzled expression. “Just what is it you’re after, friend?”

“Butter and eggs.”

Of course, back in 1978 I didn’t care about any of that. I’d found a cool story, and nothing else mattered. It left me with a lifelong wariness of a particular sort of giraffe, and the certainty they could never really win.

Give it a read. It’ll leave you hungry for more.

And, hey…somebody made a short film based on “Lipidleggin’”. It won’t win any Academy Awards, but it’s cute and captures the mood pretty well. Check it out, after you read the story.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Writing


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New Story Online: “Allies,” at Avenir Eclectia

Avenir EclectiaAnother episode in the ongoing saga of Avenir Eclectia—a deep-space colony struggling for survival, long-forgotten by the world that built it.

Smith and Kate discover the orphans’ abduction, perhaps too late. For the first time in his life, Smith the Artful Dodger is fresh out of ideas.

Their search revealed nothing. No children hidden beneath the wreckage, no trail, no evidence they’d ever been there. Smith slumped against a wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor, head bowed on his knees. It was as if someone had drained all the air from his body.

Kate knelt down and stroked his cheek. “Don’t give up hope. Moving a dozen orphans is no easy feat, whether or not they’re cooperating.”

“Or dead.”

Her gentle caress flashed into a stinging slap. “If that word passes your lips again, it’ll be you in need of a proper burial. Think, man. Which route out of here would Beadle and his henchmen take?”

Smith scowled and rubbed his jaw. “It’s pointless.”

“Humor me.”

Read the whole thing at Avenir Eclectia. If you’d like to catch up on Smith’s story from the beginning, start here.

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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Writing


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New Story Online: “Intersection,” at Avenir Eclectia

Avenir EclectiaTwo worlds collide as the Dreamers struggle to fend off Avenir’s spider infestation from behind the scenes, and then stumble upon a greater evil. Will they choose to protect their secrets or emerge from the shadows to defend the orphans of Avenir?

The colonists will have to take it from here. I only hope our assistance was enough to keep them from being completely overrun. Before you log out, double-check the lower levels…make sure the pest control agent is working. You may need to dispense another blast if spiders are still moving about.”

“Way ahead of you. Checking the last couple of ring segments now.” Vicky’s fingers paused on her console and she leaned forward to squint at one of the windows, tilting her head to bring it into alignment. “Whoa. That’s weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“Enforcers who aren’t running away. They’re at a corridor intersection, having an argument with some raggedy bum, and there’s a skid next to them with bodies piled on it.”

“Those are probably unfortunates caught in the first swarm.”

“I’m zooming in on it. Monitor A-34. The Enforcers sure look angry. I wonder if…ohmigod.”

“Now what?”

“Miss Sherikov…the bodies…they’re children.”

Read the whole thing at Avenir Eclectia—the continuing saga of the space colony time forgot!

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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Writing


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On Tour: Mind Over Psyche, by Karina Fabian

Karina Fabian

Karina Fabian

It seems to be Karina Fabian Week here in the Frederation, as I’m trying to chip away at the backlog of much-delayed reviews and book blogs I’ve piled up over the past several months.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Karina’s work. If you do a quick search for her name on this site, you’ll find a variety of articles, interviews, and book reviews. I’ve even set a couple of my own stories in universes she created. She’s a fresh breath of lightheartedness and humor in a genre that takes itself far, far too seriously.

Dragon detectives, faery mischief, zombie-hunting reality shows, and nuns in space all find their place within her curriculum vitae, as well as some wonderful non-fiction about the Catholic expression of the Christian faith. She’s also a leading light in the Catholic Writers Guild and married to a recently-retired Air Force officer, which, if it doesn’t qualify her for sainthood, at least requires the patience of a saint, as my own Lovely Wife can testify.

Mind Over Psyche, by Karina FabianIn lieu of a fireworks show or pie-eating contest, we’ll cap off the celebration of one of my favorite authors by showcasing her latest novel, Mind Over Psyche. It’s the sequel to Mind Over Mind, a star-spanning adventure of psychic warfare on the razor’s edge of sanity.

There are voices in Deryl’s head.  They call him from consciousness, make him do odd things, overwhelm him with their needs. After five years in an asylum, he had a tenuous hold in his sanity, but no hope of a normal life–and he’s only 18. Joshua, a talented but arrogant psychiatric intern, is hired to befriend Deryl.  Not content with a “buddy” role, Joshua uses neuro linguistic programming to help his troubled charge.  His methods work, but that’s when the true danger begins. Here’s a taste:

As soon as Roger left, closing the door behind him, Malachai spoke. “You honestly think you will be leaving our institution soon, don’t you, Deryl?”

Deryl smirked and crossed his arms. He didn’t think it; he
knew it. Thanks to Joshua and his unique way of helping Deryl “tackle his issues,” he’d learned to control his powers and shield his mind from others—even the Master. Even Tasmae, but he couldn’t think about that now. Not if he was going to have to prove his sanity.

“I agree,” Malachai affirmed.

Deryl forced his jaw not to drop at the chief psychiatrist’s
statement, but he didn’t trust himself to speak.

Malachai continued, “You need to keep one thing in mind,
however: Our star intern has made remarkable progress with you, but Joshua will be gone at the end of the summer, either finishing his degree or pursuing that music career he’s so set on. Meanwhile, I remain the ultimate authority at South Kingston Mental Wellness Center. Further, your family has trusted my judgment for years.”

He paused, letting Deryl draw his own conclusions.

Deryl stomped to the chair in front of the desk and sat down.“What do you want?”

“What I’ve always wanted, Deryl. To better understand your unique abilities.

Deryl isn’t crazy; he’s psychic. Desperate to escape the insane asylum, he teleports to Kanaan, a world of telepaths who regard him as an oracle. But freedom comes at a price. The Kanaan expect their oracle to teach them to use their powers to wage war. Meanwhile, he’s falling in love, but to be with her means to share his psyche, which could drive her insane. Most dangerous of all, he hasn’t escaped the Call of the Master, enemy of the Kanaan, whose telepathic manipulations were why Deryl was committed in the first place. Now, the Master will forge Deryl’s powers into a weapon to kill all he loves or destroy his mind trying.

He found himself in the small glen Tasmae had imagined for them the first time they’d actually “spoken” together in the Netherworld. The canopy of branches and leaves shrouded them in privacy. It cut off the view of the sky, yet somehow there was plenty of light to see by. It didn’t matter; Deryl only cared about seeing one thing.


She ran to him, and they embraced. Then he pulled away. “Terry said I’d hurt you—”
She touched her fingers to his lips, and he understood that Terry didn’t know everything, and that the only pain she felt was at their separation.

Then she flooded into his mind, and where she touched, waves of cool healing washed over his psychic wounds. He sighed with relief, and actually swayed a little. She caught him, and he wrapped his arms around her, first for support, then for something far more intimate. This time, they would be alone.

A familiar voice, a voice from nightmare, interrupted them. I WOULDN’T BE SO CERTAIN ABOUT THAT.

As one, they turned toward the intruder and blanched.



They turned and stared at each other. They knew him?

The Master, once known on Kanaan as Alugiac, laughed. A triumphant satisfaction flowed from him like the thick fog that was slowly rolling from where he stood at the glen’s edge.


“Tasmae, run!” Deryl shouted. A sword was suddenly in his hand, but though he held it at the ready, he was shaking so hard the blade quivered.

The fog had surrounded them now. The trees, moss, even the rocks had eroded at its touch. Colors fled, leaving them in a gray and black world, with only an indeterminate ground and low fog as landscape.

I’ll post a review of Mind Over Psyche at a later date, but don’t wait for me to finish cleaning off my virtual desk—pick up a copy yourself and enjoy.

Purchase Mind Over PsycheHardcopy  Epub  Kindle

Karina Fabian’s Author Page

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Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Writing


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New Story Online: “Perspective,” at Avenir Eclectia

Avenir EclectiaA flurry of new episodes lately in my contribution to the epic saga of the Space Colony the Universe Forgot, with several more enroute. Sometimes you follow the inspiration where it leads, and of late, it’s been hanging out at Avenir Eclectia.

In “Perspective,” John Milton’s entré into the virtual-reality society of the Dreamers is expanding his mind in more ways than one:

Outside Jiro’s house, the sun was setting, its last light splashed across the fading blue sky in pastel streaks of orange and pink. John felt a pleasant urge to stretch and yawn, which he indulged, an even more enjoyable sensation. “I guess I should begin work on my own personal space now. I’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough.”

“Think nothing of it. You’ve been pleasant company, not at all the spoiled socialite I expected. Forgive me. I should know better than to judge people from my own prejudices…especially someone who’s managed to catch Anya’s eye.”

“I…expect she’ll find me less impressive as time goes by. I’m no altruist, Father Sukahara. I’ve spent my whole life looking for an edge, manipulating situations to my advantage, chasing power and influence. Even my decision to come here was selfish.”

“I prefer to believe you will find it most profitable to seize this opportunity to start afresh. Become the person you’ve always wanted to be, John Milton. You’ve stepped onto a blank canvas. Anything is possible.”

John’s about to discover that a fresh start may require him to rethink his most basic assumptions about life in the Avenir Eclectia colony. Read the whole thing at

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Writing


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New Story Online – “Options,” at Avenir Eclectia

Avenir EclectiaSince last I mentioned Avenir Eclectia, the ongoing saga of The Space Colony Time Forgot, but I Won’t Let You Forget, four more of my episodes have posted. To catch up:

In “Chaplain,” “Nightingale,” and “Satori,” John Milton finally enters the virtual-reality world of the Dreamers as a full member and is welcomed by an unlikely guide:

John Milton’s sandals crunched on fine gravel as he walked with Jiro Sukahara along the meandering path through the chaplain’s expansive private garden. His balance was improving with each step, enough to let him savor the subtle splendor of the flowers and greenery. Feathery blossoms from a giant cherry tree at the garden’s heart filled the air and tumbled across the footpath.

In one corner, a sandy basin was dotted with angular stones arranged in a pattern that, to John, seemed orderly and random at the same time, and the white sand was raked into curving grooves that flowed into a complex spiral. A tiny brook roughly bisected the garden, its murmur punctuated by the slow metronome of a shishi-odoshi, a pivoting bamboo tube that filled and emptied itself at the base of a trickling fountain, making a pleasant wooden thunk with each cycle. Jiro explained the device’s original purpose was to startle wandering deer and discourage them from munching on the foliage.

“But mostly, I enjoy the sound it makes.”

Today, in “Options,” we return to the story of Smith the Artful Dodger and his little covey of orphans. He’s reluctantly sent them off on a smuggling mission after a little arm-twisting from an old and most unsavory friend. Now, he’s trying to convince himself it was the right thing to do. His companion Kate has other ideas:

All Wallace cares about is the money. We have a deal. We help him smuggle his parcels, and he lets us be.”

“How very warm and cozy.” Her smile was acidic. “’Tis a glorious day indeed, when we clasp hands with the likes of Wallace Beadle.”

He wouldn’t look directly at her. “You think I’m enjoying this? I had no choice.”

“There’s always a choice, Smith. You taught me that. Your speciality is finding the choices nobody else can see. Since when do you give up so easy, or toe the line on a contract with a piece of filth without conscience or scruples of his own?”

“This is different. Peacekeepers are involved. I can crack Wallace’s skull if gets too high and mighty, and I can lead a few fat Enforcers a merry chase, but I can’t dodge Peacekeepers. Their resources are unlimited, and they have license to kill.”

“Fine. You were backed into a corner, with no other options, so you ducked your head and tugged at your forelock, for the sake of the children.” Kate stood up and gazed into the depths of the long corridor where they’d skipped away on their dubious errand.

“Something like that.”

Read the whole thing at Avenir Eclectia. If you want to catch up on the adventures of John Milton and Smith from the beginning, links to every episode are listed on my Publications page (scroll to the bottom).

Avenir Eclectia is a shared-world speculative microfiction project sponsored by Splashdown Books. If it catches your interest, consider finding your own place within the emerging history of our lost colony! Submission guidelines here.


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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Writing


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