Posted on: October 4th, 2009 The First Annual Brain Harvest Mega Challenge Second Place Winner

We are very pleased and proud to announce (and publish) the second place winner of the first annual Mega Challenge. Celebrity guest judge Jeff VanderMeer called William T. Vandemark’s story “…a great example of bristling ideas deftly winzipped into a small space without sacrificing some emotional resonance…” and we couldn’t agree more. Plus, just count how many tropes he managed to leverage in here. For serious. Mind boggling.

William T. Vandemark can be found wandering the back roads of America in a pickup. He chases storms, photographs weather vanes, and prospects for fulgarites. His fiction can be found in Apex Magazine, Bits of the Dead, and Northern Haunts. Depending on weather and inclination, he resides in Texas, Oregon, or Maine. His permanent e-residence can be found at www.williamtvandemark.com.

Next week, we will reveal (and run!) the first place winner of the Brain Harvest Mega Challenge, but for now, we invite you to strap in, sit back, and enjoy “Phases of Alkahest.”

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Phases of Alkahest
by William T. Vandemark

Be warned. I’m an unreliable narrator, possibly insane. Thus it’s up to you, dear reader, to sift truth from ash.

And so it begins.

In 1863, a nanophage spontaneously appeared in Louis Pasteur’s yogurt. Researching the unexpected froth, Louis discovered clusters of self-replicating molecular machines. Their nano-engines consumed sugars and shat electricity.

In 1924, Thomas Edison, inventor and mad scientist, summoned a fire elemental at a séance. Utilizing Pasteur’s ground-breaking work in nano constructs, he encased the entity in a crystalline carapace of interlocking molecular pentagrams, and the elemental took form as a man encrusted in diamonds. Post entrapment, Edison stored the entity in a six foot Bell jar while he devised plans to supply households with direct current via elemental batteries. He might have succeeded had not a gentleman, Nicholas Tesla, intercepted information via wireless taps. As news of Edison’s project leaked into the aether, fire elementals refused to answer summons.

British cryptographers also intercepted the chatter, and the Secret Intelligence Service visited Menlo Park, where they stole a half-ton bell jar and its contents.

Twenty-eight years later, in a chamber beneath the River Thames, Alan Turing, logician and mathematician, latticed the elemental’s carapace with Artificial Intelligence — an attempt to facilitate transdimensional communication.

That night, in celebration, Alan consensually entertained his friend Arnold. Meanwhile, the AI–code named Celsus–conducted his own Turing Test, an internalized alchemical debate. He declared himself sentient and shattered his bell jar. Released from self-doubt, he embarked on a lifelong Walkabout.

Subsequent investigations by MI5 led to the arrest of Alan Turing. Although threatened with prosecution under Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533, he was convicted of a lesser offense: gross indecency. Coerced into chemical castration and despondent over the loss of his job, Alan eventually re-enacted a scene from Snow White. He found a comfortable bed and fell fast asleep; cyanide spiced his apple.

In 1963, Celsus returned to London and was seen in the company of the poet, Sylvia Path. Cafe patrons reported the two in an animated discussion about love, electrotherapy, and assonance.

“You refuse to understand,” Celsus said. “I am three: Intellect, shell, and inner fire.”

“As am I,” Sylvia murmured. She passed a note: Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus can be planted.

The paper flared. Ash curled in Celsus’s fingers. “A draught from your lips would gutter me,” he said. “I cannot love you more than I do. I should not love you at all.”

Each reached for the same napkin; a spark leapt between their fingertips.

“I will not continue like this,” Sylvia said.

They never touched.

Later that week, Sylvia stuck her head in a gas oven. Like Alan, she too slept, perhaps awaiting a second spark.

Afterwards, Celsus’s inner fire began to wear on his nanophages faster than they could replicate. Crystalline pentagrams began to grind against one another.

In 1998, two men lured a gay man to a rural spot outside Laramie, Wyoming. They tied him to a barbed wire fence and pistol-whipped him until his skull fissured.

From a distance, Celsus bore witness, but he’d begun to move out of phase, slow as glass. Throughout the night he traveled towards the man who’d been strung up like a scarecrow.

Eighteen hours later, before Celsus reached the site, a passerby stopped to help the young man. That evening candlelight vigils illuminated Laramie, while Matthew Shepard lay in a coma.

Celsus leaned against a spur of barbed wire and ran simulations, trying to understand. Trying to understand. Trying to understand.

Matthew Shepard died; Celsus shattered.

Shards of nanophages flew like daggers. They struck the dirt and reassembled as salamanders, each scuttling from conflagration.

Free at last, the elemental set the countryside ablaze. It slagged roads until they glowed like rivers of magma. It embraced cottonwoods and drank their ash. It yearned to stack men like cordwood and torch their pyre.

With a howl that knocked crows from the air, the elemental raged.

His sisters, the ondines, heard his anguish and raced to embrace him. Rain poured, gouts of steam erupted, a thunderbolt struck the earth.

Into the afterimage, the fire elemental shed its earthly existence.

But one salamander beheld it all: yours truly–a fractured AI.

And so it ends.

Or perhaps it never happened. No matter, you were warned, dear reader: I’m but a shadow of myself. Feel free to seek solace in dismissing dreams from a heat-oppressed brain. Ware the nightmares.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories

11 Responses to “The First Annual Brain Harvest Mega Challenge Second Place Winner”

  1. Adam Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Loved the story, but thought the ending was kinda too political.

  2. Adam Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Loved the story, but thought the ending was kinda too political.

  3. Brandon Bell Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I loved the story too, but -for me- ‘too political’ is just right. :)

    Congrats, WTV!

  4. Brandon Bell Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I loved the story too, but -for me- ‘too political’ is just right. :)

    Congrats, WTV!

  5. Micah Dean Hicks Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 11:14 am

    “Shards of nanophages flew like daggers. They struck the dirt and reassembled as salamanders, each scuttling from conflagration.”
    This!

  6. Micah Dean Hicks Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 11:14 am

    “Shards of nanophages flew like daggers. They struck the dirt and reassembled as salamanders, each scuttling from conflagration.”
    This!

  7. Jesse Snavlin Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Matthew Shepherd really couldn’t have had a more lovely memorial…

  8. Jesse Snavlin Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Matthew Shepherd really couldn’t have had a more lovely memorial…

  9. Maintainer Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    A superb story. Nicely balanced between the shock of understanding and dispassionate observation. Loved the language which again is nicely balanced between the old-fashioned and the modern as well as between the human and the otherness.

    Funny, I didn’t find anything political about it, unless the dismal sad way we treat other humans is political. I found it more of an examination of real people caught in real situations punished for simply being themselves-humans can really suck sometimes.

    But at the same time we have storytellers that spin nifty tales like this.

  10. Maintainer Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    A superb story. Nicely balanced between the shock of understanding and dispassionate observation. Loved the language which again is nicely balanced between the old-fashioned and the modern as well as between the human and the otherness.

    Funny, I didn’t find anything political about it, unless the dismal sad way we treat other humans is political. I found it more of an examination of real people caught in real situations punished for simply being themselves-humans can really suck sometimes.

    But at the same time we have storytellers that spin nifty tales like this.

  11. Ripley Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 11:00 am

    A great story but what over-used trope is being demonstrated here as per the competition guide?

    http://strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml

  12. Ripley Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 11:00 am

    A great story but what over-used trope is being demonstrated here as per the competition guide?

    http://strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtml

  13. William Owen Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    You know what I dig? This story. Damn this is good. Just phenomenally well done. I love the voice of it, straining to be worthy of the its own power, of the power of the events it witnesses and which gives birth to it, and its final, inevitable collapse.

  14. William Owen Says:
    October 5th, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    You know what I dig? This story. Damn this is good. Just phenomenally well done. I love the voice of it, straining to be worthy of the its own power, of the power of the events it witnesses and which gives birth to it, and its final, inevitable collapse.

  15. Jason Heller Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Fucking killer. Shades of Dr. Manhattan. Love it!

  16. Jason Heller Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Fucking killer. Shades of Dr. Manhattan. Love it!

  17. William T. Vandemark Says:
    October 7th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Wow. Thank you, everyone! I appreciate your kind words. Very gratifying!

  18. William T. Vandemark Says:
    October 7th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Wow. Thank you, everyone! I appreciate your kind words. Very gratifying!

  19. Jeff VanderMeer Says:
    October 11th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Hey, Mr. Vandemark, I sent you an email but I don’t think it went through.

  20. Jeff VanderMeer Says:
    October 11th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Hey, Mr. Vandemark, I sent you an email but I don’t think it went through.

  21. Brendan Carson Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Hail,
    This is brilliant. This is one of the better stories I have read this year. I will be looking out for anything you write – the way I feel at the moment I’d buy your shopping list.
    I am almost incandescently envious.
    And “Hell yeah” with Matthew Shepard. They must not be invisible.
    Thanks again.

  22. Brendan Carson Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Hail,
    This is brilliant. This is one of the better stories I have read this year. I will be looking out for anything you write – the way I feel at the moment I’d buy your shopping list.
    I am almost incandescently envious.
    And “Hell yeah” with Matthew Shepard. They must not be invisible.
    Thanks again.