Today the Washington Science Fiction Association announced the finalists for the 2020 WSFA Small Press Award, honoring and recognizing the best short fiction published in small press anthologies and magazines in the previous year.

The Finalists are:

  • “The Blighted Godling of Company Town H”, Beth Cato (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/3/19)
  • “The Weight of Mountains”, L. Deni Colter (DreamForge 6/19)
  • “The Sound of Distant Stars”, Judi Fleming (Footprints in the Stars)
  • “Give the Family My Love”, A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)
  • “Fairest of All”, Ada Hoffmann (The Future Fire 8/19)
  • “The Partisan and the Witch”, Charlotte Honigman (Skull and Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga)
  • “Somewhere Else, Nowhere Else”, Juliet Kemp (Portals)
  • “Painter of Trees”, Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld 6/19)

The award will be presented at Capclave, to be held online from October 17-18, 2020. The winner will be chosen by members of WSFA. For more, see the WSFA Small Press Award site

Our congratulations to eSpec author, Judi Fleming, as well as the other finalists.

Here is an excerpt from Judi’s story “The Sound of Distant Stars,” published in Footprints in the Stars, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail.

The Sound of Distant Stars

Judi Fleming

The screeching feedback through Evelyn’s comm made her instinctively cover her ears making her club the bubble of her plazglas helmet with her awkward sampling gloves. The specialized collection fingertip attachments scratched across the side of the clear plazglas adding an irritating squeal.

She toggled off the external comm on the command screen inside her helmet with a flick of an eyeball and switched to the text-only screen in frustration. This was the third time today it had done that.

“Supervisor Shelly, I’m text only on incoming comm because of the feedback for the rest of the sampling assignment.”

The acknowledgment of “Noted” scrolled across the interface and she flicked an eyeball to clear the screen. Back to work.

Evelyn trudged down the slope to the coordinates at the base of the canyon close to where she had landed her survey skiff. Looked like they wanted samples of the deep red bands of rock at the base of canyons today.

This planet was old. Old and dead. Carved with millions of deep chasms, which coiled and flowed around the entire planet surface. Irregular enough to be natural, but irregularly irregular enough that it seemed constructed. Huge deep canyons ten times deeper than the Grand Canyon back on old Mother Earth. Beautiful and flowing, multicolored and multi-tiered, curving and sinuous, making the planet a work of art carved by a millennium of solar winds channeled through a weak atmosphere as wispy as gossamer. Thus, the need for the archeology crew’s suits. Only twelve archeologists staffed this “dig” but no luck so far in finding any sort of artifact. Just a dead ball of rock. No ruins, no roads, and no trace of weathered foundations. Boring.

Evelyn had hypothesized that there had once been water endlessly rushing willy-nilly through the maze-like series of channels. Her fabulous work supervisor, Shelly, had told her that made no sense at all. The whole planet surface of canyons wound and twisted like a child’s labyrinth puzzle, begging Evelyn to find her way to the center without getting lost in a dead end. At least she thought of it that way.

As the most junior of the team she did the endless samples, scraping different colored rock particles from all over the planet. Every day she took her little skiff out, fighting the buffeting winds as she negotiated the crevices to each new coordinate, returning exhausted at the end of each day to eat, sleep, and start over again. A year of hard work and no solid hypothesis on why this crazy planet had all these swirling canyons twisting deep into its surface. They had found nothing else like it on any of the known worlds the human race had expanded to either. And nothing out as far as they could see on even the newest, most powerful telescope arrays. And here she stood scraping bits of rock and sand into sample bags. She paused, stretching her aching back, flicking her eyes across the suit’s command window to tighten the lumbar support to hold her angle for the next sample.

Lately, her assignments seemed almost as random as the curves and turns she explored. Evelyn was still miffed about not being able to see the results from all this work.

“Too incomplete for any real meaning,” she’d been told.

She snorted. “Too much grunt work to be done is what you really mean,” she muttered under her breath.

“What was that, Ev?” her supervisor asked in crisp white text on a smoky background on a small patch of the bottom right of her helm.

“Nothing, nothing. Faulty comm. Going to full text, no audio.”

“Affirmative” flashed across the side text readout inside the plazglas bubble helmet. “Be careful out there, Ev.”

She tipped forwarded and rested her head on the ledge, closing her eyes and sighing as the blush crept up her neck. Dumbass. Why was she always doing stupid things like that? Probably because she worked alone so much. Forgetting the connection to her coworkers as she flitted between the cavern-like abysses made by the curving walls soaring above her head.

She sighed and stood up straight. Stretching, she turned her head to the cathedral-like walls soaring high above. The weak sunset glinting off her helmet blinded her so she turned just enough to remove the glare.

An infinitesimal sound vibrated softly through her body. She froze. She shouldn’t have any sort of feedback with the comm on full audio shutdown. Evelyn breathed shallowly, hearing her own pulse echo inside her helmet. No, the sound hadn’t come from the comm unit. It came from outside.

She eyed the screen’s command buttons and toggled the exterior audio on. Music seeped into her bones. Softly swelling and waning as the anemometer tagged the rising wind speeds and their directions as they swirled around her.

The sky faded to blue then indigo and stark black as she gazed fixedly at the sliver of the heavens far above, enjoying the music. Evelyn watched the stars spark into existence and then the winds picked up, crashing a symphony of sound around her. She gripped the rock face, glad she had stiffened the back support.

The helmet’s autoclean warmed her face and she sniffled, realizing that tears had been streaming down her face as she stood transfixed. Still, she could not look away or move a muscle, afraid that the beautiful, heart-wrenching music would stop. The wind shifted again, changing and softening the sound to a pulsing, yearning rhythm that beat in time along with a particular star flashing through the thin atmosphere. She blinked. The star’s pulse matched the music’s beat at the same tempo. No illusion then.

A hand clutched the arm of her suit without warning and she screeched, heart racing as she whirled around to confront her attacker. Shelly stood there, hands raised in wariness to tap on her own helmet, signaling audio on. Evelyn stared dumfounded at the paragraphs of text scrolling in never-ending loops on the corner text feed on the plazglas. The red lights of her recall beacon blinked in warning, baleful dots inside the screen. And she hadn’t noticed one of them. Then she noted the time. Six hours had passed since she looked up at that sunset.

She eye-toggled the comm audio from exterior to standard and whispered, “Sorry, I… I… I…” and fainted dead away as the music released her.

Judi Fleming2019

Judi Fleming works as a training specialist and instructional designer for the federal government in her day job and thus much of her writing is of the non-exciting technical sort. She is a graduate of Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction Master’s Program. Her stories have appeared in No Man’s Land, Best Laid Plans, Dogs of War, If We Had Known, and Footprints in the Stars.

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