Stringers: Exclusive extract from alien sci-fi novel - SciFiNow

Stringers: Exclusive extract from alien sci-fi novel

A genius is abducted by an alien bounty hunter in Chris Panatier’s Stringers and we are exclusively revealing chapter one of the novel!

Stringers bug

Ben knows a lot of facts in Chris Panatier’s upcoming sci-fi novel Stringers, the only problem is… he doesn’t know why he knows any of them! So when he’s is abducted by an alien bounty-hunter for the location of a powerful inter-dimensional object, Ben needs to use his knowledge to get him out of trouble…

Out this April, here is the synopsis for Stringers

Ben isn’t exactly a genius, but he has an immense breadth of knowledge. Whether it’s natural science (specifically the intricacies of bug sex), or vintage timepieces, he can spout facts and information with the best of experts. He just can’t explain why he knows any of it. Another thing he knows is the location of the Chime. What it is or why it’s important, he can’t say.

But this knowledge is about to get him in a whole heap of trouble, as a trash-talking, flesh construct bounty hunter is on his tail and looking to sell him to the highest bidder. And being able to describe the mating habits of Brazilian bark lice won’t be enough to get him out of it.

Though we have to wait a few more months to discover just whether Ben gets out of trouble, or indeed finds out the mystery behind his genius brain, we can exclusively reveal Chapter One of the novel right here, which finds Ben dealing with a rather annoying customer in his fly-fishing store…


Jim’s in the store again. Jim doesn’t buy shit.

“Morning Ben,” said Jim.

I’d always liked Jim, but he’d never so much as flirted with a spool of 5x tippet.

“You going out today?” I asked, flipping the magnifier up from the brim of my cap.

“Yep,” he answered, fingering some light-wire hooks on a rack.

“You know those are for sale, right? You can buy them with money and they become yours forever.”

Jim didn’t respond, ambling instead to another rack of fly-fishing goods he also wouldn’t end up purchasing.

I knocked the magnifier back down and returned to wrapping a yellow midge.

“Hey,” said Jim, just as I’d regained my focus. “What do you call that fly you made for Winston Hollymead? He won’t shut up about it. He’s throwing all these numbers at me that sound ludicrous. A twenty-five-pound, post-spawn striper? In the Pawnee?” He blew a raspberry. “Makes no sense.”

I chuckled pretentiously at Jim’s underestimation of my work. It made a lot of sense if you knew how to get un-horny fish to bite like I did. “The Alpha-Boom-Train isn’t just for striper,” I said with a shrug. “It’ll work on any post-spawn perciform. They like bloodworms.”

“I don’t get you, kid.”

“I’m twenty-nine.”

“Alpha-Boom-Train? Flies ain’t supposed to have names like that.”

“Customers are supposed to buy things. What a paradox.”

He directed a finger lazily in the direction of my fly-tying vise. “Need you to make me oneuh them boom trains then,” he said, issuing an edict as if I were his personal river Sherpa.

“Sure thing, Jim,” I answered. “Will you be paying for it or just putting it on layaway until the rapture?”

“I’ll pay if it looks right,” he said, heading out. He pushed the door open, then stopped, half-in, half-out, sending the electronic chime into a recursive death spiral. “How you know so much about spawning river fish, anyway? You ever even been out of Kansas?”

Now, I could tell him the truth. I could explain the things I know – that my knowledge goes way beyond fish sex. I could tell him, for instance, that the flatworm Macrostomum hystrix reproduces by fucking itself in the head. It’s called hermaphroditic traumatic insemination. I could tell him that the practice isn’t isolated solely to hermaphrodite worms either. Sea slugs,² also hermaphrodites, fuck each other in the head. They do it with a two-pronged dong, one of which is called a ‘penile stylet’. I could take Jim on a tour of class Mammalia and into the dens of prairie voles, who are affectionate and monogamous with each other unless the male is drunk, in which case he pursues anonymous hookups. I could shock his system with the revelation that earwigs have two dicks.³ That dolphins will fuck literally anything. I could tell him these things I know, but then I might have to explain why I know them. And that, I am unable to do. So, I answered his question with the simple truth. “I just know, Jim.”

“That internet, then,” he said, answering the question for himself. “See ya in a few days, kid.”

I flipped down the magnifier. “Jim.”

The truth is I was jealous of Jim. Of his obliviousness, his ability to step into the world from the shop and move on with his life, while mine never changed. Wherever I went, my brain came with, bringing along its innumerable tidbits of faunal knowledge which infected my every thought. There was no explanation and no apparent source. And it would have been completely useless if I didn’t work in a fishing shop trying to figure out new ways to get post-coitus fish to bite at fake bug larvae.

I’m no fly-fishing fanatic. I’m just too distractable for any other job.

Every waking moment is a constant barrage of intrusive thoughts with even the

² Siphotperon species  1.
 Oh, here we go, doing the scientific names showing-off thing.

³ There’s a trick-dick in the event of a broken penis.

most innocuous stimuli churning up commentary from deep within the folds of my brain.*4 See? I’ve tried training myself to think of it as background noise, but it’s tough to tune out when your overactive brain is also an asshole *5.

The door chimed again as if it were being strangled. Through the magnifier came a giant yellow blob that I immediately recognized as Patton, my never-employed stoner friend. He wasn’t a stoner by choice – well, it was by choice, but it wasn’t just for getting high. Weed legitimately helped him function. Patton was the only person I’d ever met who got paranoid as a consequence of not being high. Also, weed is generally pollinated by wind, not by bees.

He struck a pose and pointed at me, suggesting a pop quiz. “In which Order will we find D. sylvestris?”

“I’m not doing this, dude.”

“Hymenoptera,” he said, proudly answering his own question.

“How long did you have to train your eight neurons to remember that?”

“A while,” he said breezily, removing a blunt from within his hair somewhere. “You can’t smoke that in here.”

“I know that.” He sniffed it and returned it to his haybale.

In one of his many attempts to get me to broaden my horizons, Patton had tried to get me to audition for Jeopardy (R.I.P. Alex Trebeck), convinced I’d make a bazillion dollars. What he failed to appreciate was that the only way for me to win would be if every single category was natural science.

I don’t know jack about much else.

Okay, I also know a lot about clocks. Mainly watches. Ugh. This is so embarrassing.

If areas of knowledge were like college specializations, then entomology, with a focus on bug-sex, would have been my major, with a minor in time pieces.*6 Antiques for the most part – anything older than about three decades. Imagine seeing a watch and

4 Koalas and koala-like animals have smooth brains. A condition known as lissencephaly.
Kill me.

5 I’m just a distilled version of you, buddy. Besides, assholes can be really useful. The giant California sea cucumber, Apostichopus californicus, eats and breathes through its butt.

6 Horologics.

having your head suddenly flooded with facts about said watch, while at the same time not giving two shits about the watch or the facts. A six-thousand-dollar Rolex that gains five seconds per day is said to be within tolerances. That’s over a thousand dollars for every second it steals from the Universe. The NASA astronauts who landed on the moon were wearing Omega Speedmasters, all except Neil Armstrong, who left his inside the lunar lander as a backup clock. Watches on display are almost always set at ten past ten or ten till two because the hands form a smiley-face, a subtle form of suggestion for the prospective buyer. Do I come from a family of watchmakers or antique dealers? Nope. I just know. And it’s exhausting.

“Well if you won’t do it, then at least train me, man,” said Patton. “Be like my game-show sensei. Just put all your knowledge up here.” He popped the side of his head with his palm.

“Plenty of room.”

“I know, right? So, there’s no excuse. Please dude? Winning gameshows is the only way for me to get enough cash to start my own Formula One racing team.”


“When you off?”


“Want to get wings?” he asked.

“No, busy.”

“Not research again. Come on, dude. Every night?”

“You know the drill,” I said.

“It’s Friday though. Friiiiiiiiday.”

I gave him serious-guy face.

“Alright,” he relented. “Roll over to my place in the morning. Aunt Lisa will make us chorizo empanadas and refried beans and we can play Simon.”*7

“Your Aunt Lisa microwaving frozen breakfast empanadas is not making

7.  The original Simon was first marketed by Milton Bradley in 1978 and later on by Hasbro. The console has four colors: red, blue, yellow, and green, running clockwise from the upper right. The colors light up with a corresponding sound in a random sequence and each player’s challenge is to repeat the combination exactly.

breakfast. And I’ll pass on the beans. But Simon is awesome. I’ll be there.”

“Yeah!” He reached around the counter and patted the underside of that bit of my belly that hangs over my belt buckle. I fired a palm into his sternum and he crashed satisfyingly into a rack of indicators. “Duuuuuuude,” he wheezed, accepting my justice.

“No more fat slapping, Jesus Christ, man. Grow up.”

He staggered away from the rack and smiled passively at the door. “Okay bro, whatever you say. Hasta mañana.”*8


“See you tomorrow. Empanadas.”

“Yeah, bye.”

I needed to get to the library, but I also wanted to finish off a fly I’d been tying – a Hutch’s Penell – for one of the area’s best anglers, and possible future wife of me, Agatha Jensen. It’s used in the UK for catching coastal sea trout but it also closely resembles the sedge-flies that the local bluegills, Lepomis macrochirus, love to eat. When I started tying them a year ago, the locals couldn’t get enough and it kept the shop owner, also named Jim – I call him “Owner Jim” – pretty happy. I could do them in my sleep: size 4 hook, black 8/0 thread, a red tippet, Peacock herl, zebra hackle and silver wire for the rib. Fly fishermen were always looking for an angle (anglers, right?) and this Penell had them shelving their Silver Sedges – the traditional go-to when throwing loops for fish that go for the caddis fly.

I tied in a white hackle feather, wrapped it with thread, thickened the front of the hook to form the fly’s “head” and tapped a bead of glue at the top of the shank just under the eye.

After locking up the shop, I had thirty minutes until the library closed, which was fine, because I already knew the book I’d ordered was waiting for me. I jumped into the used Subaru that I’d bought after graduating high school. At the time I’d let Patton talk me into souping it up so we could race it on weekends – an actuality that always seemed to get sidelined by our full schedule of being stoned. Now I just had a car that sounded

8 Spanish.

          Wow, really?

like a weed-eater in a port-a-potty. But it was fast and I got to the library in sixteen minutes, per my twenty-five dollar Timex brand digital wristwatch, which does not gain five seconds per day unlike a certain unnamed luxury brand performing “within tolerances.” *9


“Ludlow the Librarian!” I said, miming the solo sword dance of Conan the Barbarian as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ludlow was similar to a barbarian, if you replaced the muscles with nougat and the leather armor with black nail polish.

“I got your book right here. Reserved for Ben,” he said, tapping a lacquered finger on a stickie note reading same.

“Oh, great. Thanks,” I said, rolling up to the circulation desk.

Ludlow prepared to scan in the book, pausing first to consider the cover. He pulled his long, warlock-black hair behind an ear. I could see a question forming. Oh, here it comes. “You studying to become a psychiatrist, Ben?”

“Ah, no, Ludlow.” I didn’t have much more of an answer for him that I cared to give, though he was well aware of my borrowing history.

“Just a hobby, then? Remote viewing? Claircognizance?”

“Not so different from your weekly séances,” I quipped. “You get up in all your customers’ business?”

“Only if I think they might be performing witchcraft.”

“Afraid you won’t be invited?”

“I’m talking about,” he lowered his voice, “the occult.”

I stared at him incredulously. “Have you seen yourself, man?”

He recoiled with offense. “I’m a goth, Ben, not a wiccan.” He slid the book across the counter with a corpse-pale hand.

“I’ll remember that for next time,” I said, taking the book and tapping the side of my head. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

The car rumbled into the gravel drive at the house where I rented an above-garage

9 It’s Rolex.

          I know!

apartment. I opened the driver’s door to a thundering chorus of Neotibiden linnei *10 booming away like nature’s own heavy metal string symphony. Although, that’s a bad analogy, because while crickets utilize stridulation for their song – the rubbing of one body part against another, a crude version of pulling a bow across strings – cicadas are percussionists, vibrating a membrane in their exoskeleton called a tymbal.

Yeah, so anyway, it was noisy outside.

I tossed the new book, Harnessing Your Psychic Powers Part IV: Remote Viewing & Claircognizance, onto a larger pile of similarly themed texts beside my desk and quietly hated on myself for possessing any of them. Taking in the collection, I began to appreciate the merit of Ludlow’s witchcraft accusation. I even had a stack of religiously- themed candles on a nearby end table, though those had come with the apartment. Sure, I lit them from time to time, but for ambiance, not any ceremonial purposes.

On my way to the fridge, I paused at the giant LEGO sculpture that had risen from the surface of the coffee table in recent months. My parents had treated my moving out as their cue to begin a steady process of getting rid of anything I’d ever owned, including a massive tub of the plastic bricks. I’d planned to give them away, but started pressing them together one day, and soon, well. I found playing LEGOs to be a calming and cathartic exercise; and yes, I am almost thirty. What began as a mindless ad-libbing of pieces ballooned into a gargantuan living room monument that looked like one of those spiky naval mines set atop a golf tee. I reached down to the pile, grabbed a grey eight-by-two and a brown six-by-two, overlapped four of the studs, and pressed them together with a satisfying skritch, then added the component to the ponderous hulk.

There was leftover kale and chicken hash in the fridge, which I warmed, doused in barbeque sauce, and devoured with a spatula as I snapped more LEGOS onto the art. I subscribed to the canceling-out method of eating, where you eat as much junk as you want, so long as you cancel it out with something healthy. I figured the kale would counter tomorrow’s breakfast empanadas.

Holding the spatula between my teeth, I dragged my laptop over and tapped it to life.

10 Known to laypersons as cicadas.

So. Why was I burning through library cards checking out books on psychic phenomena? Why was I there almost every night and then on the internet for hours after that?

Well, it had to do with the bug fucking and watches. As a child, tiny pieces of information would crystalize in my head before there was any way for me to have learned them. Déjà vu was one possibility, but I’ve had déjà vu and it isn’t quite the right fit for my experience. You never actually learn anything from déjà vu. It’s just the sense of vague recollection that fades almost as quickly as it comes. My experience was different. Repetitive. Verifiable. I knew things I had no business knowing. Male soapberry bugs, Jadera haematoloma, are absolute sex hounds, screwing for up to eleven days in one go just to ensure that other males don’t inseminate the same female. What in the National goddamned Geographic fuck, right? No one should just know that.

My parents recognized early on that there was something weird happening. The second I could make words I began referencing obscure facts, the truth of which could be verified with a little research, but for which my knowledge had no basis. At first, they’d just assumed I was a focused listener. Maybe I’d heard someone drop an interesting nugget in line at the grocery store. Kids repeated stuff all the time. But as I crossed out of toddlerhood, the pattern settled in. Instead of the occasional, passing fact bomb, I might give a play-by-play of the mating habits of Brazilian bark lice, leaving out no detail. In between bites of mac n’ cheese I’d let slip that the female actually has a dick that she uses to scoop sperm from the male bark lice’s vagina. I remember my parents being in such awe of science that they’d not cared that I was blabbing about insect uglies at the dinner table.

So off I went to the pediatrician for the basic is-this-kid-okay *11 checkup, and on from there to the child psychologist. My parents explained to her that I was some sort of genius, but some simple tests quickly dispelled that hypothesis. Unperturbed, they insisted on a full battery of IQ tests, which were conclusive: I was solidly average, entirely unremarkable. I was simply regurgitating information and terminology of unknown provenance. They went for a second opinion. My scores went down. I was a

11 No.

parrot, not a prodigy. Still, my parents wanted answers. So did I.

A barnacle of kale and chicken plunked the laptop’s touchpad. I set the spatula down next to it and eased it back onboard with my pinky, then hoovered it up.

Together my parents explored every contrived and far-flung theory to explain my curious condition, going so far as to accuse me of reading books in secret. Sneaking off to read? I mean, do people do that? Certainly not me, I had video games to play and snacks to eat (which I then later cancelled out with different snacks).

There was a phase, thankfully brief, where my parents became quite manic in trying to answer the ultimate question. The house was filled with books on gifted children, from verifiable prodigies like Bobby Fischer *12, Blaise Pascal, *13 and Maria Agnesi, *14 to the entirely paranormal – ghost possession by historical figures unwilling to cross the River Styx. They got into psychophony, *15 retrocognition, *16 transference, *17 claircognizance, *18 and of course, remote viewing. *19

For an entire year, every horizontal surface of our downstairs was covered in crystals. The local news even did a story once. There I was, blithely regaling the weatherman with a credible, and detailed, description of grasshopper sex gear as he grinned nervously into the camera. The whirlwind of brief regional fame disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and by fourth grade I was a local oddity that most people noted and then promptly forgot. The novelty wore off. One minute, you’re blowing your teachers’ minds, and the next they’re sending you to the principal’s office for offering to explain how liver flukes spread via sheep shit. It wasn’t like I could help it. Holding in what my brain was spewing was a form of torture. My mind was a kettle under pressure and my mouth the spout.

12 Youngest ever U.S. Chess Champion at age 14.

13 French inventor and mathematician, authored a treatise on projective geometry at age sixteen.

14 Wrote solutions to complex math problems in her sleep.

15 Spirit speaks through a medium (me, in this case).

16 Knowledge of a past event which was not learned or inferred.

17 How doctors say “possession”.

18 Like omniscience, except with more incense.

19 Knowledge of something one cannot directly perceive. Also known as ESP, or extra- sensory perception.

Or the scientific term: “bullshit.”

Ultimately, my parents kept their sanity, resolving to accept the way I was. It wasn’t like I had a disease or anything, just an interesting glitch in my wiring. A mutation maybe. It was a party-trick. Like being double-jointed or popping out an eyeball. They moved on.

I couldn’t.

You can ignore another person if you want. Put on headphones, tell them to buzz off if they won’t take the hint. Brains are different.*20 You’re a captive audience to an unfiltered version of yourself. The “me” that occupies my cranium is a know-it-all jabberer. I’m trapped with someone who won’t shut up. Like that guy in line at the coffee shop who wants to discuss his passion for latte foam art. Now imagine he’s in your head, but instead of heart doodles in bubbled milk, it’s precision timepieces and the toothed vagina of the cabbage white butterfly.*21

Sleep is my only respite, and even then, the thoughts creep in.

I lit some of the candles, illuminating four different versions of white Jesus, then hopped on the internet to begin the evening’s search. As I did every night.

Knowing what I know has never been a gift. And I was singularly driven by an obsession to find the cause. My life was a mad search for answers that occupied my time and attention, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. If a patient wakes up from surgery with a bit of gauze sewn into their arm, it sucks but at least they know how it got there. My condition had no explanation. It was too specific to be the result of chance or coincidence. It felt . . . purposeful – planted – inserted into my head. It wasn’t mine. And if the knowledge wasn’t mine, was I even myself? Was I an experiment? Someone’s project or toy? And to what end? I didn’t know. That is why I searched so vigilantly.

Like I said: it isn’t a gift. It’s an invasion.

20 We never take the hint.

21 Just imagined it.

Stringers by Chris Panatier is out on 12 April from Angry Robot.