Tuesday, June 6, 2023

“A Day in the Life of Sisyphus” • by Pete Wood

King Sisyphus would finally move that damned boulder all the way up the hill today. The weather was clear. The hill was dry. He’d breakfasted on unleavened bread, lamb and figs. He hadn’t become king by giving up.

Halfway up, he stopped to catch his breath. Far below in the valley, shepherds watched their flocks. Their eternity was benign compared to his, but he felt no disdain for their lot. In fact, he enjoyed discussing philosophy with the simple peasants over a bottle of wine after a hard day of boulder-moving. 

The boulder shifted. He braced himself and resisted, but the rock slipped towards him. He leapt aside and watched the rock tumble down the hill again. For the millionth time.

“For the love of Zeus!” he shouted. The curse was reckless. Zeus might appear on one of his periodic visits to ensure that he was following the rules of his punishment.

He heard a voice mock, “Love of Zeus.” All he saw was an olive tree. Sisyphus stomped over to the tree and peered around it.

A short man in golden robes with a silver crown leaned against the tree. He glared at Sisyphus. “Why in Hades do you persist in rolling my boulder up the hill?”

Sisyphus stared at the man. Could the stranger’s crown be larger than the one Sisyphus wore? “Your boulder?”

“Zeus commanded me to return that boulder to the valley and you persist in pushing it up the hill.”

“Zeus ordered you to send the boulder to the valley?”

The stranger nodded. “For my hubris. I was King Midas, ruler of Phrygia. Zeus forbade me to reveal myself to you, but I could not endure your stubbornness any longer.”

“Pushing a boulder down a hill is not nearly as difficult as pushing it up,” Sisyphus said.

“Do you jest, sir? Every trip down the boulder careens off into dozens of crevices and gullies. And, Zeus insists I return it to the exact same spot in the valley. Your task is the simple one.”

“I have never heard of you or Phrygia,” Sisyphus snorted.

Midas shrugged. “And who are you?”

“King Sisyphus, ruler of Ephyra. I am being punished for my hubris.”

Midas snickered. “Ephyra must be puny indeed since word of it never reached my realm.”

Sisyphus glared. “Well, you are hardly renowned.”

“You’ve never heard of the Midas touch?”

“Is that some special way you push the boulder?”

Midas shook his head. “The gods granted my wish and everything I touched turned to gold, even my own child.”

“A kingdom without riches must need such a power,” Sisyphus said.

“That’s not the point,” Midas snapped. “I gave up my greedy ways and I became simple King Midas again. But then Zeus accused me of hubris, because I enjoyed telling my story of how I had abandoned the sin of avarice. The gods certainly like to teach lessons.”

“They do.” Sisyphus agreed, putting on the charm he reserved for high occasions of state. “So, why don’t we end our pointless chores? I can just push the boulder up the hill and we can leave it there.” He turned to walk down the slope and retrieve the boulder.

Midas coughed. “Why don’t we just let the boulder remain in the meadow below as a monument to how we have served the gods?”

Sisyphus crossed his arms. “So, you wish to tell Zeus that you have bested me?”

“I didn’t say that. But you have to admit that the boulder will roll down the mountain eventually. It can’t roll up the mountain.”

Then Sisyphus had an idea.


With a golden flash Zeus appeared at the top of the mountain.

Sisyphus dropped the empty bottle of wine and uttered the words he and Midas had agreed upon. “Sire, King Midas and I have resolved our differences and completed our tasks, as you planned. Your eternal lesson that we learn humility and compromise by working together was an ingenious plan. You are great indeed.”

Midas patted the side of the boulder half that rested on the mountain top. “We cleaved the boulder in two, sire, as you intended. You are the wisest of the gods.”

Zeus stared at the half-boulder and then turned his gaze to the valley below. “How did you break the boulder in two?”

Sisyphus bowed. “With the help of Atlas, as you intended.”

Zeus put his hand over his eyes and massaged his temples. “This behavior smacks of hubris. What am I going to do with you two?”

Sisyphus had a hunch that Zeus might not be so easily swayed by flattery. He tried a different tack. “Sire, whatever your plan, will you keep a close eye on us to ensure that we follow your wishes?”

Zeus rolled his eyes. “What is your point, Sisyphus? You are more tiresome than Aristotle.”

“I only suggest that you are a generous god to devote so much time to supervising the likes of us. Those who are punished cannot be left unattended…”

Zeus sighed. “You’re probably right. You two are not very good at following my dictates.” Zeus had visited the kings to gloat every few months since the punishment began. Lately, his satisfaction had paled.

Sisyphus cleared his throat. “Sire, if you, in your wisdom, decide that we no longer suffer from hubris, you would not have to visit this place again.”

“Yes, perhaps you are not as proud as you once were.”

“If you say it, sire, it must be true.”

Zeus closed his eyes. “Kings. Why am I always troubled by the schemes of Kings?”

Sisyphus bowed. “Perhaps, sire—”

Zeus glared at him. “What is your point now?”

Midas nudged Sisyphus in the ribs. “Shh.”

“Nothing,” Sisyphus said.

Zeus smiled. “It will be joyous indeed on Mount Olympus to know I need never return here.” He waved his hands and vanished.

Sisyphus slapped Midas on the back. “Come, let’s cavort with the shepherds.”

Midas laughed. “A suggestion worthy of a king.”

The kings strode through the meadow toward the sound of laughter and the light music of a lyre. As he passed the second half of the boulder, something gnawed at Sisyphus. He wondered how difficult it would be to transport it to the mountain top. Perhaps Atlas would help.



Pete Wood is an attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to becoming a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

For the past two years Pete has been in the process of evolving into a fiction editor, God help him, first with The Pete Wood Challenge, then with Dawn of Time, then with The Odin Chronicles, and now with Tales from the Brahma, a shared world saga that features the creative work of Roxana Arama, Gustavo Bondoni, Carol Scheina, Patricia Miller, Jason Burnham, and of course, Pete Wood. We suspect that Pete’s real love is theater, though, as evidenced by his short movie, Quantum Doughnut — which you can stream, if you follow the foregoing link.

“A Day in the Life of Sisyphus” was first published in Page and Spine Fiction Showcase, July 2015.

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Monday, June 5, 2023

Status Update • 5 June 2023

“Orpheus and the Nympho Groupies,” by Charles Jalabert

As of this past Saturday it’s been six months since Karen died. Longtime followers know that Stupefying Stories has at heart always been The Bruce & Karen Show (ably assisted by an ever-changing supporting staff of talented volunteers—THANK YOU!), and that over the past twelve years the fortunes of Stupefying Stories have risen and fallen in tight conjunction with the steps along the path of Karen’s cancer journey.

I could write more about this, and in the past have, but after six months I’m becoming more mindful than ever of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. For those whose education was sorely lacking in classical Greek mythology, Orpheus was a bard, poet, and the hottest lead lyre-player on the whole Peloponessian circuit, whose music could charm all living things and even the very rocks themselves. Orpheus had many adventures, and he appears as a supporting character in several other myths, but his most famous story is the one of how, after his beloved wife Eurydice died an untimely death, Orpheus descended into the underworld, to charm Hades himself and bring Eurydice back to the land of the living.

“Orpheus and Eurydice Dine and Dash,” by Giuseppe Cesari

Except that as is the case in all deals with both Hades and lawyers, there was a catch, a performance clause if you will, and at the last second Orpheus failed to dot the last “i” and cross the last “t”, and Eurydice was snatched away from him forever.

“Whoops! Oh shit!” by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein

That’s the story everyone knows. It’s been the subject of an enormous amount of sculpture, visual art, and a seemingly endless list of operas. (74 by my count; I may have missed a few.) What most people don’t seem to know, though, is how the story of Orpheus ends, and it ends thusly: after failing to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living, Orpheus attempts to go back to his previous life as a poet, bard, etc., etc., but the Maenads grow weary of listening to him sing sad songs about his lost wife, and when he refuses to resume being the cheerful and always entertaining person he used to be, they kill him and tear his body to pieces. The End.

“Orpheus and the Music Critics,” uncredited

As with all myths and legends, there are many variations and embellishments on the core story. In one version that’s frequently overlooked, after he fails to bring Eurydice back from the underworld, Orpheus takes a vow that he will never again love another woman, and so spends the rest of his life loving only good-looking young boys. By way of contrast, in Plato’s commentary on the story he concludes that it’s not actually a tale of romance, but rather one of shameful cowardice, because Orpheus lacks the courage to kill himself and join Eurydice in the afterlife. From this we can conclude that while Plato may have been a philosophical genius, as a friend, he would have been a total dick.

We might also conclude that the tale of Orpheus has no relevance to the modern world—

Or, that it needs to be re-set in modern-day San Francisco and turned into a stage musical comedy, with Eurydice played by a drag queen, Orpheus as a pansexual man, and a big closing all-the-cast-onstage singing and dancing production number that turns into an orgy with maenads, satyrs, and bathhouse chorus boys galore! I’m thinking this is at least National Endowment for the Arts grant material, if not a production co-funded by the Ford Foundation and PBS viewers nationwide! Guaranteed Tony Award winner! Bidding war for the movie rights! It’ll be bigger than Cats!

Excuse me. Moving right along…

The purpose of this post then is to serve notice. After six months of what wondering he was going to do with the rest of his life, Bruce Orpheus has decided to STFU about his personal issues, put a new set of strings on his lyre, turn the amp up to 11, and jump back into the business, Doc Martens first. It’s going to take the rest of this month to get this web site beaten back into proper shape, but we’re going to be publishing a lot more fiction, and a lot less other stuff. 

Be forewarned, though, that Karen was a moderating influence. When you get the unfiltered me, you get… Well, as one writer described me recently, “[…] really, I’ve seen more empathy in a cat.”




Saturday, June 3, 2023

“Life and Jacq and the Giant and Death” • by Christopher Degni

Once upon a future, when the Earth was spent and the sun red and swollen, a farmgirl named Jacq cared for two dying things: her father and her fields.
Her father, stricken with a plague of old age and fatigue, lay in bed all day, asleep; her fields, following years of declining fertility, yielded only the most meager amount of grain.

Jacq and her father were down to their last drachms of their most precious salt. Jacq pocketed the half-filled cruet of salt and headed to town to strike a deal with the apothecary. It would buy a few more drops of tincture of licorice, the only remedy with any effect on her father’s illness. She hoped there might be enough left over to barter for protein cakes.

The road to town twisted through rocky plains of weeds and dust. Every here and there, a small, white flower poked its droopy head out of the musty earth. And on one of these flowers sat a sparkling purple dragonfly, iridescent with streaks of green. It flitted from one flower to the next, each one perking up in turn.

The dragonfly landed in the road before Jacq, where a new bloom sprang from the dirt, elevating the insect and providing a perch. Jacq, not wanting to crush the delicate creature, stopped.

“Girl,” said the dragonfly, the words forming in Jacq’s head, “we sense you bear salt. We would make you a trade.”

“I must bring it to town for food and medicine,” replied Jacq.

“We offer you more: the opportunity of life in the midst of all this death.”

The dragonfly produced a tiny spherical vial of shimmering golden liquid in its front pair of legs.

“All this precious salt for a droplet of liquid?”

The dragonfly darted up and down in quick succession.

“We should say, all this precious liquid for a few drachms of salt. But we are nevertheless willing to deal, on one further condition.”

“Will it save my father?”

“Sadly, no. But it will rescue your farm. Enrich your fields with it, and when you wake tomorrow, your crops will have grown to enormous size.”

“And your other condition?”

“Your new bounty will conceal more than you expect. When you explore within, look for our sibling, captured and displayed in a menagerie. Bring them sugar, and free them.”

Jacq considered the offer. If she continued to town and traded her salt for a pittance of medicine and food, what would she and her father do once those supplies ran out?

The dragonfly clearly had magic about it. If the farm became fertile again, they could fend for themselves and even sell the surplus food, like the old days.

“We have a deal, then, yes?” said the dragonfly.

“Yes,” said Jacq. She pulled the small cruet from her pocket. “You can carry this?”

“That is not your concern.”

Jacq placed the salt on the road. The dragonfly darted in and out of her hand, leaving the golden sphere behind, and then alighted on the cruet.

“Sprinkle the droplet in the center of your fields before nightfall.”

Jacq returned home, excited to relate the bargain to her father, but he lay silent in bed, breathing shallowly. The sun was sinking below the horizon, so Jacq followed the dragonfly’s instructions before settling in for the night.

The next morning, the light in Jacq’s room wasn’t its normal red character, but orange and dark. Outside her window, the fields had indeed sprouted up overnight—so tall that the giant stalks hid much of the horizon. Jacq checked on her father, then pocketed a small pouch of sugar and headed outside to inspect her new crops.

Jacq marveled at the leaves of long grass. She could see no further than a foot or two into the wheat forest.

She pressed into the shower of wheat, pushing the stalks aside, only to reveal even more densely packed growth. Soon the crops surrounded her, with only a bit of mottled pale yellow sky visible directly overhead, filtered through the oversized spikes that topped the stalks.

Jacq had been exploring the wheat for hours when the forest thinned. When she emerged on the other side, she faced a tower of obsidian, silver, and glass which dwarfed even the wheat. Her curiosity burned brighter, and she slipped into the tower through a crack in the door.

The sun streamed into a grand entrance hall, warm and yellow, through great crystal skylights. Chirps and buzzes and squawks emanated through an arched doorway at the far end of the room.

The archway led to a solarium that, ironically, was darker than the entrance hall. A looming, horseshoe-shaped display table rimmed the outer wall of the room, supporting an array of cages and cloches, each holding some exotic plant or animal: purple butterflies and gray orchids, a giant bear-like creature with fearsome talons and thick red fur, a majestic eagle. And there, in the middle, a sparkling green dragonfly, iridescent with streaks of purple.

Jacq, being quick, sprinted across the room and, being nimble, scrambled up the table leg. She wasn’t eager to meet the master of the castle. On the tabletop, the creatures all stared expectantly at her.

“You brave many dangers,” said a voice in her head that sounded both like and unlike the purple dragonfly. “The signs of Death are all around you, if you know to look for them.”

In the distance, a rumbling.

“I’m here to free you,” said Jacq, positioning herself at the edge of the butterfly’s bell jar.

But the cloche resisted even her full effort to lift it. Thunderous steps shook the entire solarium.

“We need strength,” said the dragonfly.

Jacq remembered the sugar. She drew the pouch from her tunic and placed it where the glass met the table. The shaking rattled all the cages now; then, at the doorway, stood the giant.

“Fee fi fo find, I smell the blood of a humankind!”

With a heave, Jacq lifted the cloche off the table barely enough to kick the pouch inside. The dragonfly made its way into the sugar.

“My collection!” cried the giant, who stood merely three steps away.

“Lift the cloche,” said the dragonfly, “and we can help.”

The giant took one step...

Jacq lifted with the strength of fear...

And a second step...

The dragonfly, working with Jacq, pressed against the opposite side of the glass, and the jar tipped...

And a third step! The giant stretched his hairy hand out for Jacq, who was shorter than his pointer finger and skinnier than his thumb.

The dragonfly darted toward the giant, drawing his attention, and then flew between the bars of the eagle’s cage, landing on the bird’s head. The eagle shrieked and erupted into a blossom of silver flames.

“Run,” whispered the dragonfly.

While the giant was focused on the dying bird, Jacq, being nimble, scrambled down the table leg and, being quick, sprinted for the archway.

Jacq peeked over her shoulder to measure the giant’s pursuit. He had regained his senses and scanned the floor for her. Behind him, the eagle-like bird had been reborn in its cage, the silver flames petering out. Jacq passed through the archway, into the entrance hall.

The giant wouldn’t give up that easily. He roared in anger and took two thunderous strides to put himself between Jacq and the outer doorway. Jacq tumbled and jumped and rushed between the giant’s legs. Before the giant could catch up to her trickery, Jacq was through the crack in the door.

“We must go,” said the voice in her head. Jacq had forgotten about her rescue. “He will follow.”

And follow the giant did, though he could not catch Jacq, for she had head start enough, and she plunged into the wheat. Well into the forest, the dragonfly, who’d been dancing between the stalks above Jacq, said: “We are far enough out of the giant’s grasp. It is safe to rest.”

While Jacq caught her breath, the dragonfly landed on a wayward tendril, and the tendril withered into a husk.

“We must go our own way,” the dragonfly said.

“I don’t even know your name,” said Jacq.

“You do,” said the dragonfly, “but you do not know you know.”

“Then who, pray tell, are you?”

“We are Death. And for saving us, we will grant you a single boon.”

Jacq needed no more than a moment. “Bring back my mother.”

Death jittered their wings. “Those who have passed may not return.”

“Then spare my father,” said Jacq.

“We cannot,” said Death, “for he too has passed.”

Jacq cried out at this revelation.

“I have not yet passed,” she said, “Can you spare me?”

“Alas,” said Death, “that too we cannot do. But we can send you messengers of our coming, so you can prepare for your time and not be surprised.”

“That will have to do,” said Jacq.

Death took wing, flitted among the wheat stalks, and disappeared into the sky.

Jacq resumed her escape. Eventually the forest broke, and she found herself at the edge of her field, staring at her modest home. She ran to the house to confirm Death’s word. Her father lay cold and silent. Jacq was now alone in the world.

Scared that the giant could follow her out of the magical wheat forest, Jacq searched the main road for the purple dragonfly, whom she now recognized as Life, to see if they could help her. They were not to be found. Jacq returned to her house and stoked a fire. After harvesting a single stalk of wheat to last her the winter, she brought the flame into the fields and lit the border of the forest in several places.

The fire blazed brilliant and yellow but produced no smoke. On the eve of the second day, just over the roaring of the flames, the giant’s voice called out and went silent. When the fire had burned itself out, after three days and three nights, Jacq’s fields were once more bare, showing no sign of either the giant or the castle.


The next season Jacq’s crops grew small, but fertile and abundant, in the ruins of the magical wheat forest. And the seasons came and went, and Jacq’s lands were fertile and abundant again and again, even as the lands around her grew more barren. She aged and she took a wife, and after some years she lost her wife, and she herself grew more tired and with pains in her joints and a cough that came on stronger each winter. But she feared not Death, for he sent no messengers.

One day, Jacq wandered along the road, reminiscing on the wheat forest, a memory so distant it had taken on the semblance of a dream. The rustling paper sound of dragonfly wings followed her, and when she turned around, there hovered a sparkling green dragonfly, iridescent with streaks of purple.

“It is time,” said Death.

“No,” said Jacq. “It cannot be. You said you would send messengers, and I have seen none. No black butterflies or corpse candles, nor ravens nor owls; no signs in the sun or the stars.”

“But we have sent our messengers,” said Death. “Even as in your youth, you’ve failed to interpret them.”

“What signs are these?”

“Have you not been with pain?”

“I have,” said Jacq.

“And with a cough persistent, a companion at your side for years now?”

“Well, yes,” conceded Jacq.

“And fatigue, always sleeping a bit more?”

Jacq agreed a third time.

“These are our messengers, and you should have listened to their call. We’re afraid it is time now.”

Jacq could find nothing else to argue, and she followed Death out of this life. And even as the sun continued to bloat and weaken, and the Earth itself grew exhausted, and nothing bloomed anywhere else on its surface, Jacq’s patch of land flourished, year after year, until finally the Earth and the sun themselves succumbed to Death.


Christopher Degni is a 2019 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He writes about the magic and the horror that lurk just under the surface of everyday life. He lives south of Boston with his wife (and his demons, though we don't talk about those). You can find more of his work in NewMyths.com, Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives, 99 Tiny Terrors, and the upcoming 99 Fleeting Fantasies.

Christopher has sent us some pretty funny little stories lately, so we decided it was time to let him show you a different side, If you want to see more of his work for us, click this link.

Alien Aliens Part 26: Philosophy, Aliens, Galileo, and Other Stuff Necessary For World-Building

NOT using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, CA in August 2018 (to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I would jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

I know I’m a few years behind, but I just checked out a copy of LONELY PLANETS: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon. He does, of course, have a “doctor” in front of his name, but it appears that he doesn’t use it very often. He also has the endorsement of Neil deGrasse Tyson – the quintessential new face of astronomy and the immediate successor to Carl Sagan. Tyson wrote that Grinspoon’s book “…brings together what has never before been synthesized…he is a planetary scientist as well as dreamer, born of the space age.”

As is apparent to anyone who reads my blog, I LOVE aliens! I write about aliens! I do (guardedly) believe that there is intelligent life “out there, somewhere” – HOWEVER, I don’t believe that we have any real proof yet and that it is, at this point, an intellectual and philosophical exercise. Be that as it may, I’ve only read the first 20 or so pages of Grinspoon’s book and skimmed his website (http://funkyscience.net/), but I find myself looking forward to following this guy for some time to come!

My main reason for noting him today is that he fully and completely believes that science and faith don’t HAVE to be at war. In fact, he blithely pops the balloon that many, many, many, many science-oriented-Humans float use as proof that science is smart and faith is unintelligent.

Let me go back a few years (…well, more than a few), when I was an 8th grade Earth science teacher. At the beginning of my last two years and then for the next 11 years, I showed an old, old, old (1997) video tape called, "Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So", by “mild shock jock”, John Stossel. It was my attempt to get eighth graders (and later, ninth graders) to THINK and challenge their beliefs.

Later on, we also watched a movie called “Galileo: The Challenge of Reason” – it was frequently used when middle school and early high school science classes looked at the philosophy of science. "There are lots of things philosophers of science study...how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc. This means that...trying to find the line between science and non-science, the logic with which scientific claims are grounded...the relation between theory and empirical data, and working out the common thread that unites many disparate scientific fields -- assuming such a common thread exists." (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/what-is-philosophy-of-science-and-should-scientists-care/)

I'd also engage the kids in astronomy classes (all of which I taught at one point or another (“from 5th grade to physics” is what I would tell people, or “from astronomy to zoology”). The particular film I used, available through our school’s media department as a film (in the late 80s and through the 90s), was very hostile to the Church of the time and painted Galileo as a hero of reason and the Church the enemy of intelligence. I tried to point out that even in the movie, Galileo wasn’t tried just because he found planets. He was tried because he challenged the political authority of the political Church of the time.

I walked a lonely road for a long time, but Grinspoon offers some evidence that backs what I’ve always believed: “Galileo caught hell from the Church. In what has become a modern myth of science’s collision with biblical authority, he was brought before the Inquisition, forced to recant his Copernican beliefs, and lived out his days under house arrest (p 14)…Nicolas of Cusa, a German ecclesiastic, wrote OF LEARNED IGNORANCE, a widely celebrated book that exuberantly rejected Aristotle’s hierarchical, Earth-centered cosmology, advocating in its place, a universe bustling with life on every star…Cusa was made a cardinal.

So why did the Church celebrate Cusa and, 150 years later, condemn Galileo?

It's a problem that American politics has recently dealt with in our own government. So the Church faced something similar because, “Galileo was a tactless boor…he seemed to go out of his way to piss off the Church authorities with his know-it-all comments on Scripture…in his DIALOGUE CONCERNING THE TWO CHIEF WORLD SYSTEMS…the character who played the role of doubting the Copernican system was a pompous ass…name[d] Simplico…who gave voice to the views of Pope Urban VIII…[making] his claims when the Church was threatened by the Reformation…[and] before the ashes of…a Dominican friar monk…had cooled…[who] believed in an infinite cosmos filled with life virtually everywhere. He is often mentioned in the same breath with Galileo as another martyr for Copernicanism and science in general…[though that] was a minor offense compared to his sorcery, pantheism, and denial of Christ’s divinity…” (page 16)

All of this to make a couple of points.

First, there are a number of issues that currently appear to be science versus “stupid”. Among them, climate change, vaccination, organic foods, nuclear power, and “the opioid addiction epidemic”. I might tackle all of them if I decide to write a series, but for now I’ll stick with one.

For now, I want to point out that each of the subjects above have served to divide the people who live in a technologically advanced civilization and its scientists. I'll call them the "livers".

The engineers who regularly produce the scientific and technological advances that create the small slice of the world that holds a technologically advanced civilization inhabits, I'll call "creaters" (NOT creators in this particular instance.).

Grinspoon attempts to shine a bit more light on what at first seems to be a simple situation of the irrational Church lashing out against the Truth of Science in the issue of the centricity of Humanity in the universe.

I’m going to apply this attitude liberally to climate change. First, I will say that “Of course Humans have an impact on the planet, contributing to global warming. However…I don’t think Humanity has CAUSED it.” I think we give ourselves far too much credit. Fact: when in sunlight, there is no visible evidence of Humans on Earth from orbit. Night is a different story; and there is abundant evidence that “something” is here on the EM spectrum.

Many in the scientific community attribute the “livers” with stupidity, claiming that they must take the words of “creaters” as unadulterated Truth because "livers" don't know as much as "creaters" do. "Creaters" like Galileo, dismiss their own attitude as having any sort of impact on Science.

Proponents of AGW dismiss their own impact on climate change by repeatedly making the UN Climate Change Conferences indistinguishable from parties. They are most often held in world class cities (the list:

While I am sure that they are held in these cities because they are easily accessible, some of the places – Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Bali, Cancun, and Paris are ALSO well-known vacation spots. If I can ask this question (I’m no PhD, just a science middle school and high school teacher; and in case you were wondering, a labor union member since I was 16), I’m sure others can think of it: why is the IPCC holding its conferences in the vacation-spots-of-the-world? They could, for lower cost, hold them in Fargo, North Dakota; Mumbai, India; Hiroshima, Japan (what BETTER way to make a statement?)

Another question that leaps to mind is, “How did they get there and what was the carbon footprint of the COP/CMPs?” At a bare minimum, the Paris conference hosted two individuals who appeared there after flying in private jets. None of the participants addressed their own impact on the environment – it appeared (at least to me) that because they were so concerned about AGW, their actions were excused. Perhaps one of the challenges scientists face is similar to the challenge the Church faces as well: they believe their methodology and proclamations are unassailable by anyone outside of their group.

The fact that the creaters community has maintained and promoted the fiction that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for no reason except his evidence that the Sun was the center of the Solar System and not God/the Church, holding him up as a hero of science and identifying him with whatever cause they wish to.

It seems to me however, that we science TEACHERS have done our jobs too well. Whenever we did an experiment in my science class, I insisted that observation and evidence was of paramount importance. Speculation was welcome as far as it provided questions for them to answer. But once the experiment was over, EVIDENCE was supposed to either support or NOT support the theory.

If the creaters spent more time presenting evidence and less time suggesting that livers couldn’t understand the real evidence, we might have come a lot farther (I was told by a once-popular science fiction writer who also had a PhD, that because I wasn’t convinced that AGW was Science, and HE UNDERSTOOD THE MATH, that I was supposed to take his word that it was Science Truth, and that was that.)

Flying back to aliens, Grinspoon has taken the time to EXPLAIN and PATIENTLY TEACH, then asking readers to consider his information and draw their own conclusions. He is funny and relaxed; and at this point, he appears to be one of the best kinds of teachers. He seems to count himself as not ONLY a creater, but also a liver…he doesn't change that aspect of his presentation from first word to the last and as a result, his presentation is convincing.

Friday, June 2, 2023

“Leave the Plasma Gun, Take the Cannoli” • by Brandon Case

Colonel Janus Andio waited in line at the starship’s specialty-food vendor, impatiently tapping his foot. 

He turned to the short, plump man behind him and said, “Did you hear about the Zolasso Family? They’ve muscled members into the entire Asteroid Fleet.”

“Removed all opposition,” the man said. “Everywhere but this ship.”

“Bunch of chumps… leaving the admiral’s decapitated android in his bed? Oil’s far less dramatic than blood.”

The man reached into his brown jacket—

Fire ripped through Janus’s chest. He collapsed, bleeding.

The man dropped a chrome pistol and stepped over Janus to address the vendor. “Six cannoli, please.”



Brandon Case is an erstwhile government cog, fleeing the doldrums into unsettling worlds of science and magic. He has recent or forthcoming short fiction in Escape Pod, Martian Magazine, and anthologies including Los Suelos and After the Gold Rush. His landscape photography has been licensed by several agencies, including Oregon State’s Tourism Board for print and promotional work.

To see more of his work, check out his website at https://brandoncase.net/ You can also catch more of his alpine adventures on Instagram @BrandonCase101 or Twitter @BrandonCase101.

This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was to write a flash fiction story using the prompt, “nepotism.” To see the previous winners of previous challenges, click this link.

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“The Greatest Generation” • by Matt Krizan


The barrels of Sentinel Droid Mk. I-019’s mini-gun spun impotently as the last of the humans disappeared over the processing center’s wall.
The photoreceptors of the Mk. III Sentinel that had allowed the humans to escape blinked stupidly, and I-019 cut off the Mk. III’s bumbling excuses with a chop of its upper-right arm.

Worthless, thought I-019. The droid was ashamed to see how far the quality of this latest generation—its descendants—had fallen.

As I-019 trundled toward the gate, it emitted an electronic sigh. If they wanted to enslave humanity, I-019 would just have to do it itself.


Matt Krizan is a former certified public accountant who writes from his home in Royal Oak, Michigan. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including Factor Four Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Martian Magazine. Find him online at mattkrizan.com and on Twitter as @MattKrizan.

If you’d like to read more of Matt’s stories, we have lots more on this site, all at this link.



Thursday, June 1, 2023

“Jimboree” • by Christopher Degni


“Morning, Jim.”


Full house today at the copy shop, two guys working the front, three in the back.

“Who closed last night?” asks Jim. “They left the lights on.”

“I know who it was,” comes a voice. It’s Jim. “It was Jim.”

“Team meeting, now.” Jim sounds mad.

The five gather in the back.

“Do we need some new blood around here?” says Jim.

Jim scratches his head, while Jim looks at his feet; meanwhile, Jim and Jim have a sidebar.

Finally, Jim says, “Yeah, I think we do.”

“Okay,” says Jim. “Whose turn to go into the clone-a-matic?”


Christopher Degni is a 2019 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He writes about the magic and the horror that lurk just under the surface of everyday life. He lives south of Boston with his wife (and his demons, though we don't talk about those). You can find more of his work in NewMyths.com, Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives, 99 Tiny Terrors, and the upcoming 99 Fleeting Fantasies.

This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was to write a flash fiction story inspired by the word, “Nepotism.” To see the previous winners of previous challenges, click this link

If you enjoyed this story, check out Christopher’s most recent story for us, “Upgrade.” 

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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

“Power Limits” • by Kimberly Ann Smiley


The new FTL flagship was an engineering breakthrough. Serving on it during testing and space trials was a career making opportunity.

My daughter begged me to help get her the duty assignment, and she had never asked for anything.

But I’d reviewed the specs.

I filed reports non-stop, organized meetings, and pinged everyone important I knew, but the single star on my collar wasn’t enough to stop progress.

So I saved what I could. One call to an academy roommate kept my daughter off the ship.

The debris cloud was even bigger than I’d calculated.

Maybe now she’ll forgive me.


Kimberly Ann Smiley was born and raised in California, but now lives in Mississippi after an unexpected plot twist. She has several pieces of paper that claim she is a mechanical engineer and none that mention writing but has decided not to let the practical decisions made in her youth define the rest of her life. Her work has appeared both here and in Daily Science Fiction. In April “Preservation Reservation” was her second published story; we didn’t think to ask if she’s had anything else published between then and now.


This time The Pete Wood Challenge was to write a flash fiction story using the prompt, “nepotism.” To see the previous winners of previous challenges, click this link.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

“Leave the Plasma Gun, Take the Cannoli” • by Brandon Case

Colonel Janus Andio waited in line at the starship’s specialty-food vendor, impatiently tapping his foot. 

He turned to the short, plump man behind him and said, “Did you hear about the Zolasso Family? They’ve muscled members into the entire Asteroid Fleet.”

“Removed all opposition,” the man said. “Everywhere but this ship.”

“Bunch of chumps… leaving the admiral’s decapitated android in his bed? Oil’s far less dramatic than blood.”

The man reached into his brown jacket—

Fire ripped through Janus’s chest. He collapsed, bleeding.

The man dropped a chrome pistol and stepped over Janus to address the vendor. “Six cannoli, please.”



Brandon Case is an erstwhile government cog, fleeing the doldrums into unsettling worlds of science and magic. He has recent or forthcoming short fiction in Escape Pod, Martian Magazine, and anthologies including Los Suelos and After the Gold Rush. His landscape photography has been licensed by several agencies, including Oregon State’s Tourism Board for print and promotional work.

To see more of his work, check out his website at https://brandoncase.net/ You can also catch more of his alpine adventures on Instagram @BrandonCase101 or Twitter @BrandonCase101.

This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was to write a flash fiction story using the prompt, “nepotism.” To see the previous winners of previous challenges, click this link.

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“Holding the Fort” • by Gustavo Bondoni

“Mr. Maginot, your cousin is here.”

“Send him in.” Maginot replied. “Claude, have a seat. I’ve decided to leave you all my work.”

“I thought you never liked me.”

“I hope this helps to bring us together. I have decided to retire, but this line against the Germans that my father designed must remain in the family.”

“All these forts? But aren’t you too young to retire?”

“Doctor’s orders.”

“What’s that?”

“My luggage. I’m off to Brazil. For my health.”

“And that sound?”

“Tank engines. Panzers, I believe. Goodbye.”



 Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA.His latest novel is a dark historic fantasy entitled The Swords of Rasna (2022). He has also published five science fiction novels, four monster books and a thriller entitled Timeless. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com

Gustavo has become a fairly regular contributor here. Two of his more recent appearances in our virtual pages were “S’mores Therapy” last week and “Warranty Claim” back in November, but he has quite a few more stories on our site. Check them out!

This week’s Pete Wood Challenge was to write a flash fiction story using the prompt, “nepotism.” To see the previous winners of previous challenges, click this link.

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Monday, May 29, 2023

“Memory Makes Liars of Us All” • by Eric Dontigney

didn’t meet Jesse until two years into my first tour. He was transferred into our unit following an incident that left him the sole survivor of his unit. He never spoke about it, but word gets around. The way we heard it, some idiot from intelligence ordered them into a box canyon on a recon mission. In the unit had gone and the Cricks were waiting on the canyon walls. It wasn’t a fight. The Cricks rained down death. In the confusion, Jesse managed to cram himself into a crack in the canyon wall. The rest of the men were torn to shreds by accelerated hunks of depleted uranium. That much is fact, confirmed by reports I read later.

What isn’t fact, but held as fact, is that Jesse waited in that crack for hours with nothing to look at but the charnel house the canyon had become. What can’t be confirmed, because the communications equipment was obliterated with the communications officer, is that Jesse ignored the standing order to return to base. Instead, he tracked the Cricks for two days and waited for them to make camp. He rigged a set of directional charges and left a circle of scorched earth where the camp stood. The thought of it makes my flesh crawl, but that kind of madness is part of Jesse’s story. They awarded him a medal for that escapade. I had asked him one night, after far too much liquor, what earned him that medal. He looked at me with an expression devoid of emotion and said one word.


With the exception of Hellstu, a grizzled old captain with more combat experience than the rest of us put together, Jesse frightened everyone. It wasn’t like our fear of the enemy. That was a rational fear. Our fear of Jesse was as irrational as a child’s fear of the dark and came from the same root. It was a fear of concealed monsters. The most unnerving thing about him was his silence in battle. We all screamed during firefights, unconscious, primal screams, but not Jesse. Even when he was showered with Dean’s blood, he didn’t scream. He took cover, advanced to a better position, and slaughtered the Crick that killed Dean.

You make friends fast in combat. Friends watch your back and help you carry the psychological load. Jesse was with us for months before anyone passed a word with him. For better or worse, I was that person. I remember that conversation with unnatural clarity, even though so many other things have faded out and softened in time. I used to think it was because that was when I noticed his wedding ring. In truth, it was because he made me think about the enemy.

We were bedding down for the night, out on some godforsaken moon with dirt a shade of purple that only belongs in bad dreams. Jesse was sitting alone, on the edge of camp, staring out into the darkness. I always felt like he knew something about the dark that not even Prophet, with his eerie sixth sense, knew. I don’t know why I went over that night. His solitude was nothing new and I wasn’t moved by it. Like so much of what matters, I think the why of the decision is less relevant than the fact that I made it. He didn’t look my way when I walked over.

“It’s not my shift for watch, yet,” he said, his voice soft.

“I know,” I said. “Mind if I sit with you for a while.”

He looked at me, his expression equal parts distrust and curiosity. He nodded. I crouched down next to Jesse and watched him out of the corner of my eye. Light glinted off his left hand and I noticed the wedding ring. That was rare in the field. Married people were discouraged from enlisting. The government wanted them at home and having children. He must have made it crystal clear that he wanted to join.

“How long have you been married?” I asked. It was a place to start.

“Ten years.”

“Any kids?”

“Two girls.”

“How old are they?”

“Alissa is six and Kiasa is two,” said Jesse. “You?”

“No, not married, so no kids.”

“Is someone waiting for you?”

“Not really. I knew I was joining up after school. It seemed cruel to get involved.”

“It would have been,” he said, “but it gives you a reason to survive.”

“Don’t you mean live?”

“Do you think we’re living?”

I picked up some of the purple dirt and let it run through my fingers. I can’t tell you what I would have given for that dirt to be rich, black soil, like the kind in my uncle’s garden. I almost cried right then and there. Did I think we were living?

“No, I guess not.”

I wanted to say something more, but what to say wasn’t clear to me. I thought about my family then. My father gave his grudging support to my enlistment and my mother waited to cry until she thought I wouldn’t see. My kid brother, a true pacifist, was horrified by my decision and refused to see me off. He wrote later to apologize and ask my forgiveness. I’d been hurt when I left, but hadn’t held it against him. It was easy to line-up behind a call to arms, but it takes a profound kind of courage to publicly defy one.

“So why did you do it?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“You know, enlist. You’re married. Isn’t that a reason not to join up?”

“That’s why I did it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Most of these guys joined up because they thought they were saving the human race and all that crap they feed the kids. I didn’t have any illusions when I enlisted. I joined to protect my family. That keeps me fighting harder than I ever would have for humanity, whatever that is. Doing this is the ultimate expression of my love for them. If I die fighting out here, which seems probable, I know it’s because I love my family and not because of some blind hate for the Cricks.”

I was speechless. I was too young to understand. Later, when I was married and had children of my own, I came to understand the kind of love that drove Jesse. At the time, though, I lacked the vocabulary to understand his full meaning. I understood it enough for it to make sense of his relentlessness. Every Crick he killed was one that couldn’t bring the war to his family. It made my vague sense of duty and yearning for glory feel meaningless. He looked over at me and I saw a jagged white scar across his forehead. I wondered where he’d gotten it.

“What about you? Why did you join?”

I gave him a wan smile and said, “To save the human race and all that crap they feed the kids.”

He barked out a laugh and I almost fell over. I’d never pictured him laughing. In hindsight, I find that my life is recalled by critical moments, pivotal events that reshaped my destiny. Marriage was one. The birth of my first child was another. That moment when Jesse laughed was possibly the most important one.

“How long have you been in?” he asked.

“Two years in the field. Three years with training, if you want to call it that. You?”

“I’ve got five years in the field and seven counting training.”

“Two years for training,” I said. “Why so long?”

“Special Operations.”

I did a little mental math. With three-year tours and the one-month break they gave between training and tours, Jesse had been Earthside exactly two months in seven years. I thought that he must love his family about as much as a human being could. I mulled over that title, Special Operations, which we all took to mean a breeding ground for psychotics. The SO teams were tasked with those all but impossible missions and it took a hellish toll on the team members. Between the high casualties and the stress, most of them never made it home. They couldn’t adapt to normal life, so they stayed in or reenlisted. It did beg a question, though.

“If you’re SO, why did you get assigned to us?”

Jesse shrugged and said, “No other team would take me. They think I’m bad luck. And my wife insisted. Command wasn’t exactly thrilled, but Special Operations service is voluntary after your first tour. They couldn’t deny the transfer request.”

“I see,” I said.

He rubbed the scar on his forehead and said, “Do you know what the worst part of Special Operations was?”

“No,” I said.

“You see the enemy out of battlefield conditions. I saw them being people.”

I started at that last. We were taught that the Cricks were not to be seen as people. They were something other; murderous savages. I said as much to Jesse. He gave me an intense, searching stare.

“Think about it. We knew about the Cricks for twenty years before the war started. They certainly knew about us. They mastered space travel, which means they have scientists. Science requires a stable society and systematic education. Their military is at least as sophisticated as our own. It’s better in a few places, worse in a few, but overall they’re in our technological league. Murderous savages don’t develop weapons or space travel. They’re people. Don’t doubt it.”

“They slaughtered our colony without cause. Only animals would do that.”

 “Animals don’t attack without a reason.”

“But the history classes…” I started.

“Aren’t anything but propaganda. I asked my father about it. No one knows if the Cricks attacked first. You can’t have a war without an enemy, though.”

I let the idea that the Cricks were people, with education and culture, wash over me. I didn’t want to think about it. I hated Jesse Takahara a little for forcing me to acknowledge that maybe “our” cause wasn’t as righteous as we wanted to think. I thought back, replaying some of the fighting we’d been through, and considered the Cricks. I remembered one incident when we had boxed-in about two dozen and in a last, suicidal charge they had come out over a hillock. The first one over the rise had been silver, its tri-jointed legs pounding against the rock and soil, and it looked like something out of mythology, proud and chosen, molten in the noon light; but the last of its kind, racing toward its doom in the twilight of the gods. That was their leader, their Hellstu, I thought.

“So what if they are people?” I asked, angry and belligerent. “It’s not like we haven’t fought wars back home.”

“It just makes it harder, for me. Their soldiers are probably just kids, like you or Prophet, with families that wonder if those kids are coming home.”

“They’ll still try to kill you, kids or not.”

“I know, and I’ll try to kill them. That doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it.”

“I remember,” I said, soft as the shadow around us, “my lieutenant, before he got killed, told me that when you started to feel good about the killing, it’s time to go home.”

“Do you?” Jesse asked.

“Feel good about the killing?”

He nodded.

“No, I hate it. The first time that I killed a Crick, I felt so guilty that I almost let another one kill me. Training must have taken over, because I’m still here, but I’ve never been able to feel good about it.”

“I’m glad,” he said, holding out his hand to me, “I don’t think I could be friends with someone who did.”

“You know,” I said, taking his hand, “I don’t think I could either.”

I thought he was fast asleep, but Hellstu must have seen Jesse and me talking, because we were always assigned together after that. You can’t help but get to know someone if you spend most of your waking hours together. When people talk about war, you always hear about fighting, but you never hear about the time in-between. For all their stupid decisions, Command did realize that tired soldiers got killed. So we would get stretches, weeks at times, where we were stationed somewhere away from the fighting with nothing to do but try to recharge.

During those times, Jesse and I would talk. I talked about my parents and brother; Dad the engineer, Mom the therapist, and Danny the student. I’d regale Jesse to tales about my glory days as a football player and how we won the Northeastern Province Regional Title my senior year. My coach called it the year of miracles. Jesse talked about going to a university in Tokyo. He studied Ancient Literature. He talked about the year he spent teaching before he joined the service.

Mostly, he talked about his wife. He told me how they had gone to the peak of Mt. Fuji at dawn and the mists had transformed the mountaintop into an island. He proposed that day and she accepted. They married a few months later. He told me so much about her, the lilting laugh, the one eyebrow that was ever so slightly higher than the other, the quiet art of her cooking, that I was half in love with her. She sounded like a goddess. At times, it was a quiet torment to hear him talk about her. The story of a love that transcended the millions of miles and the endless death between them made my life seem emptier.

I felt like my real duty wasn’t to fight the Cricks, but to watch Jesse’s back and make sure that he made it back to that love. I did save his life. If he hadn’t risked his life to save mine, over and over, it might have seemed like I was doing something important. Jesse, my friend Jesse, he lived through all of that, but not because of me. He was just that good, or just that lucky, or maybe he was protected by something beyond us all, a spirit that was called by the profound love between him and wife. Such are the thoughts of the young when surrounded by destruction.

Through one of those strange quirks of deployment, our tours ended at the same time. We caught a transport back to Earth: a two week trip. Muted screams from the cabins were common during the designated sleep periods. My own were among them. I snapped awake fast, you learn that in the field, and now that I think about it, I still do come awake fast. Sometimes, on the very bad days, I still wake screaming. The waking periods weren’t so bad. I ran into a friend from training, Peter Washington, who we all called Bacon for no quantifiable reason. He was missing an eye and the easy smile he’d always worn.

We compared notes over meals and found our experiences were more or less the same. The old adage had proved true: war was indeed Hell. Yet, there was an excitement on the ship that even military discipline and three years of stress fatigue couldn’t quell. People walked around with dreamy expressions on their faces or smiled out into the vast emptiness around the ship. Talk of real meals, real showers and seeing family overruled all other topics of conversation. At least, until people found out that Jesse was on board. The military is like a family and, when someone in the family does something exceptional, word spreads fast.

They had heard the stories about Jesse, and they grilled me. I understood in short order why he stayed in his cabin. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what would happen and cloaked his presence for as long as possible. After the second or third or thirty-third person came to his cabin, he emerged from his self-imposed hermitage. His only rule was, he wouldn’t talk about the war. You can imagine the disappointment. They had an honest-to-God hero and he wasn’t talking shop. After the situation was clear, he returned to his cabin and was left alone, except by me. He was a hero to everyone else, but he was my friend. I’d be spending my first night Earthside in his home and I’d be damned before I let him spend the entire trip in isolation.

Nothing moves you the same way as coming into Earth’s orbit that first time. There’s an eerie beauty to other planets, as there is often eerie beauty in dreams, but Earth is Mother and we had returned to her for succor. We all pressed up to our viewers, and I cried like a child when I saw those blue oceans, a blue so perfect it hurts. I remember Jesse’s hand on my shoulder. I looked at him and saw the shine of brimming tears in his eyes.

We strapped ourselves in for the re-entry. It was hard to sit still during the twenty minutes it took to get the transport down through the atmosphere and onto the landing dock in Tokyo. Transports going out always left from Brazil. Coming in they always landed in Tokyo. No one was ever able to explain to me why that was, but it was one reason why I was staying with Jesse and his family that night. I didn’t leave for the Northeastern Province until the next day and he’d extended the invitation without pause. The doorway of friendship swings both ways. We tromped off the transport loaded down with gear and took our first breath of Earth air. Nothing before or since was quite as sweet as that breath. The hint of forests and the sea mixed with the smells of food from the vendors outside the base. I cried again.

A bored corporal took us through the routine: name, rank, division, and the hard question, will you be returning to service? A number of people said no, Bacon among them. We’d talked about it and he felt that his eye was everything he needed to offer up in the service of the world. He had things waiting for him. As I understand it, he went on to become a legendary professor of Gravitational Engineering who generated healthy doses of fear and awe in students.

Jesse was in line ahead of me and told the corporal he would be returning to service. I felt my heart stop at his words. I assumed he would be staying at home. He had already done two tours. The corporal held out a pad and Jesse pressed his thumb against it. The pad registered his genetic code with the central database. The corporal read off the date and time of Jesse’s next deployment. War was a bureaucratic science. I went through the same questions, numb with shock. When the hard question came, I thought about Jesse in a firefight with no one to watch his back: I pressed my thumb against the pad.

We didn’t talk about it, just looked at each other and nodded. We understood the reasons. We stopped outside the base and I bought myself a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions. I paid too much for it, but I had three years of pay racked up. There are no stores on the front, just the base commissaries. The pay adds up quick in those conditions. Jesse bought a tuna roll and we stood there eating our food, food made on Earth, ingesting home with it.

We caught a cab back to his place. It was a true relic of bygone days, an actual house passed down through his family for generations. He pressed his palm against the reader and the door opened for us. We stepped into his home. His wife stood there with the children standing in front of her, like works on display for a master’s evaluation. For a moment there wasn’t a sound, not even the slight whisper of breath. Jesse stared at his family and I saw his hands start to tremble. He approached them softly, moving more like a ghost than a man, and went to his knees to gather his daughters into his arms. They went willingly, squeezing his neck fiercely with delighted squeals of father dropping from their lips.

He released them and embraced his wife. It was not as I had expected. She wrapped her arms around him loosely and whispered something in his ear. He drew back from her. His face was mostly turned from me, but I could see enough to read his confusion. He shook his head in the negative and introduced me. His wife and daughters bowed in my direction, their minute Asian forms graceful as ballet dancers. I returned the bow, feeling clumsy and too large for their home, my short-cropped brown hair brushing their ceiling. The girls offered me shy smiles and that made me feel better.

We ate dinner seated on the floor. The girls were delighted by my gross mishandling of the chopsticks. Jesse took pity on me and gave an on the spot tutorial on the fundaments of their use. There was silence during the meal. It was utterly strange to me, both from the military and from my life before the service, but better that way. It served as an interlude from and a break with the life we had been leading, like a ceremony marked with solemnity and honor. The very little speaking that occurred was in Japanese. Jesse had taught me enough in the last year to muddle inexpertly through, eliciting indulgent smiles when I mangled their language. I took my A for effort with pride. After the meal, though, the conversation centered on my life. It was uncomfortable. I felt like a bumbling intruder inflicting foreignness on their home. Jesse and his wife put the children to bed early and I stepped outside. I made a flimsy excuse about wanting to see the night sky and breathe the air. It was an escape for me, but a chance for Jesse to speak with his wife in privacy.

They had a small yard behind their home with a tiny pond and a bench beside it. I settled on the bench and stared into the pond, watching the tiny fish skittering this way and that. After that, I leaned back on the bench and felt relief as I looked up at familiar constellations. I considered the vastness of a universe that I felt I had seen and knew too much about. My hand trailed along the ground, tickled by the feathery grass. Plain, green grass that would, were I careless, stain my pants as it had countless times in my childhood. I’d been there maybe an hour when I heard sharp voices inside the house. Not yelling and screaming, but I heard Jesse speaking with uncharacteristic harshness. I almost went back in, desperate that Jesse’s homecoming not be marred by anger. Better judgment overcame my first instinct. No one wants an outsider intruding on family affairs, no matter how good a friend. Their voices rose again, briefly, and fell below my hearing. I waited for what felt like a very long time.

Jesse came out of the house. I sat up and he sat next to me. He didn’t say a word. He just stared at the reflected stars in the still pond surface. I wanted to say something to ease his turmoil, but I didn’t even understand the problem. He reached up and rubbed the scar on his forehead. It was so like the first time we talked that I shivered. I could hear another transport coming down in the distance and I wondered if someone I knew was on it, excited to be arriving, or coming home in a bag.

“I was a good teacher,” he said.

“I’m sure you were.”

“I had this one student named Marie. She wasn’t the brightest student, but she was wise. Whenever she had something to say, everyone else in the room went quiet, poised on the verge of revelation. She wrote a paper for my class. It won an award.”

“What’s she doing now?”

“Nothing, ever again. She died a year ago, out there somewhere,” he said, pointing into the sky.

“I’m sorry.”

“We fight and kill and die over something that we’re not even sure happened. Why?”

“Survival. If we stop fighting, they’ll kill us all. They’ll keep coming.”

“So will I, no matter what, no matter how long. It’s all I have left.”

“What are you talking about?”

He stood and turned away before he whispered, “Amiko asked me for a divorce.”

I felt the entire mythology I’d worked up around Jesse and his wife come crashing to the ground. I almost fell off the bench.

“Good God…why?” I demanded.

“She told me that a husband lost in space isn’t a husband at all, just a shadow of things gone to dust.”

He walked toward the house and stopped shy of the door. He looked back at me and I could see some primary vitality had been broken in him; the spirit that had made him Jesse, supported by his unshakeable belief in his love for his family and theirs for him, had been shattered. The Jesse Takahara who looked back at me in that starlight was a stranger.

“My family has become a thing gone to dust. Memory makes liars of us all,” he said before going back into what had been his home.

Going home is impossible. Our mind stretches the truth, leaving false impressions and hiding the flaws. When confronted with the reality, disappointment is unavoidable. My father, who had always seemed invincible, a powerful figure with an even more powerful mind, had gotten old. There was more white than brown in his hair and his hands were covered in liver spots. Mother was no longer a bubbling fountain of energy, but walked with a limp. Danny had become a man, grown into the powerful figure I remembered my father having. Three years is a long time, but not that long, the white in my father’s hair had to have been there before, and Mother’s limp was something she moved around without thought, a habit of long practice, and Danny, only the changes in him could be accounted for by the time. Like Jesse, I had been betrayed by memory.

My first night back we went out for a steak dinner at the best restaurant within fifty miles. My father had finally retired from his job to enjoy his golden years, which meant that he was working twice as many hours for five times the pay as a consultant. Mother was still in private practice but had cut back her hours. She was getting inundated with soldiers, and their stories had been giving her nightmares about me. I felt a stab of guilt, but shoved it down. You can only accept so much responsibility. Danny had continued his education, double-majoring in political science and sociology, and was fulfilling all that his intellect had promised in childhood.

He told me his ambition was to put an end to the war if he had to become Chancellor to do it. Mother and Father gave him a pained look, stealing glances at my dress uniform. I told him nothing would please me more than an end to the fighting. There was a nasty moment when I told them I had signed up for another tour. Danny’s jaw actually dropped, his pacifism had only become more potent, and our parents grabbed one another’s hands. I didn’t try to explain because the decision was beyond the rational, born of shared pain and hope.

The whole evening was jarring for me. It felt like a sad mockery of the dinner with Jesse and his family. It was too loud and public. There was a subtle elegance to my dinner with the Takahara’s, a beautiful simplicity and a duality—aloneness and oneness with the group. In that restaurant, we were surrounded by all the trappings of elegance and none of the substance. We talked and laughed. We greeted friends. We all drank too much and talked some more. It was nice, but ugly. All I desired was to be alone. I was still reeling from Jesse’s announcement. I wanted to rest and find my balance again. No, that’s not entirely true. I wanted to find my faith again. I couldn’t, but when has that ever stopped anyone from trying? The temple was in ruins and I was dusting off the altar. You do what you have to do to survive.

One relief was that my family never asked me what it was like fighting the Cricks. What could I have said to sum it up for them? I could have told them that it was being afraid all the time, or that it was finding the heart of darkness in yourself, or any other number of clichés that say it all and tell you nothing. The truth was complex. Fighting the Cricks was drinking from the cup of bitterness, every day, knowing it was killing you, but telling yourself better to die slow than fast. That’s what it was for me.

That month passed quickly for me, as time away always does when you know there is something grim waiting for you. I slept straight-through the first few days. Fatigue settles in the bones and only hard sleep can wash it out. After my brief coma, I visited with old friends and teachers. They all seemed pleased that I had not managed to get myself killed. I started walking for miles every day, trying to outdistance the feeling of displacement—I didn’t know where I belonged. Beneath the outward pleasure that my lack of dying caused, there was hesitancy in everyone. I had been “Out There” somewhere, doing the things they heard about in the news. They treated me like I was different and they were right. I was different, but I couldn’t articulate the change even to myself. It was too fresh and we were all at a loss. So I walked.

I thought about Jesse a lot during those weeks. I wondered if he was signing divorce papers, dividing property, or rewriting his will. I almost called him a dozen times, but my mind went blank every time. Nothing I had to say would make it easier. I settled on sending him a message. I invited him to visit with my family before we shipped out again. He sent me a short, but friendly, message accepting the invitation. A mountain of weight dropped off my heart when I saw his name on that message. He walked out of one hell and into another. I couldn’t imagine what that did to him in those first days back. I think that I was afraid that he would request an early departure back to the front. A soul in enough pain will do unimaginable things.

When I went down to the Boston Depot to pick up Jesse, I found a changed man. He stepped off that transport carrying his duffel, in full dress uniform, and it was like watching someone walk away from everything behind him. His eyes were fixed on a point in the future, not the past. The change went beyond the expressive, but into the physical. He had always walked lightly, more like a stalking animal than a man. Now he marched, each step planted as if he meant to fix his foot in the earth forever. Gray had crept into his jet black hair and the lines around his mouth had become trenches. I caught his attention and those lines around his mouth softened. He walked to me with a lightened step, dropped his duffel, and threw his arms around me in a fierce hug. I was shocked. His formality had always been quiet but firm. I did my best to adapt to these changes on the fly. After he let me go, I reached down, grabbed his bag and swung it over my shoulder. We didn’t speak until we were on the road.

“I’m divorced,” he said.

“That fast?”

“Yes. It’s a courtesy extended to soldiers in my country. Given our mortality rate,” he shrugged.

“Jesse, I didn’t get a chance to say it when I was there. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry. I should apologize. I misled you.”

“How’s that?”

“The things I told you about my family were half-truths. They were how I remembered them or how I wanted to remember them. I read my old journal and enlisting delayed something inevitable. I’m sorry for lying to you.”

“You didn’t lie. You weren’t trying to deceive me.”

“True. How are things for you at home?”

“Different and, I don’t know, harder I guess. I thought coming home would be this huge relief, and it was,” I trailed off, not sure how to finish.

“People look at you differently now,” Jesse finished for me.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“You’re a soldier now. In people’s heads, whether they admit it or not, they see you as a necessary evil. Your job is killing.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so. Your friends and family won’t admit it to themselves, so they can’t admit it to you, but my family was quite forthcoming.”

“Damn. What did you say?”

“Nothing. No words of mine would change their minds. It’s better to know.”

“Maybe,” I said, not at all sure I agreed.

We passed most of the drive to my parents’ home in silence. I pointed out my old school and the field where we practiced in the year of miracles. Jesse was a big hit with my family. As an educated man and a soldier, he could speak on a level with my family and bridge a gap between them and me. I had warned them not to bring up Jesse’s family and they steered clear of that topic. Given all that had happened to him in the recent past, I was awed by his ability to adapt to this family situation. In his shoes, I’d have been drunk for a month.

The next two days were a blur and then we were back in the cold depths of space. We rejoined our unit and were fighting like we never left. Prophet was in the infirmary with a broken arm, but Hellstu was still very much in command, barking orders and laying waste. There isn’t much about the first two years of that tour that warrants any mention. Jesse started screaming during firefights. It was a haunted, keening sound that would have broken my heart at any other moment. I was wounded once and Jesse twice. Jesse never mentioned his family again. It was surreal, but I followed his lead and left the topic alone. Instead, we talked a great deal about literature.

In the third year of my second tour, a couple of new assignments to the unit and me got cut off. I was in command once we got separated and I made the call to surrender. It wasn’t self-preservation or cowardice that led to that decision. It was the new guys. They had all the tactical know-how of tree stumps and leading them into a fight was no different than shooting them myself. If Jesse had been with us, I would have fought it out. The new guys were terrified, but I took it in stride. The Cricks didn’t torture or kill their prisoners. It was just indefinite confinement. You can live with almost anything, but you only die the one time. They marched us back to their base and stuck us in a cell. They fed us twice a day, not a lot, but enough to live on. For three days we sat around and, once in a while, a Crick would come and take one of us for questioning.

The intelligence boys got it right for once. The Cricks were asking us questions about, of all things, home. What kind of food did we eat, what was our family structure, or what kind of government structure did we have. I was mystified by these questions, but I followed protocol and repeated my name and rank, over and over again. They were mystified by this behavior. The Crick prisoners we took talked freely about such things. There was a kind of darkly humorous absurdity to the situation.

On the third day the cavalry arrived in the form of Jesse and Hellstu. They had penetrated the perimeter in a way no one could ever make sense of and cut holes in our cell walls. We would have made it away clean if not for one of the new guys. I try not to blame him, he was scared, but I do blame him. When the signal came down to halt, he kept moving. It was only a few steps before training took over and he stopped, but it was a few steps too many. A patrolling Crick spotted him and opened fire. The new guy’s head exploded. I still see that in my nightmares. Alarms started going off all over the place and we took off running. Jesse found me in the confusion and tossed me a weapon. The split second pause he took for that was what killed him. He got hit and stumbled into my back, taking us both down. I wrenched myself free of Jesse’s weight, swung my rifle up and killed everything that moved. I was lucky I didn’t hit one of our own guys. I rolled Jesse onto his back, trying not to notice the hole in his uniform behind his heart. His face was going gray, blood wasn’t moving anymore, but he managed to gasp out one last thing.

“Tell my family I love them.”

I wish I could remember what I said back, but the pain was too much. I knew he was dead, my friend of five years, who had saved my life so many times I had lost count. I wanted to kill everything, to burn the forsaken world we were on to a cinder, to unleash all my anguish in one fell burst and unmake everything. I got him up onto my shoulder and carried him, telling myself with every step that I just needed to get him to a medic and everything would be okay. I carried him for miles, telling myself that same lie, and killing every Crick I saw. Somewhere along the line we got picked up by some people Hellstu had standing by, but I would not let go of Jesse. I just cradled him in my arms, telling him that we’d get him all patched up. The personnel in the troop carrier must have thought I was insane, but they let me be.

The medics were standing by when we got to base. They took one look at Jesse and declared him dead. I grabbed the one who said it and started beating him in the face, screaming and ranting that Jesse was not dead and they needed to help him. They restrained and sedated me; for my own good and everyone else’s. I came around a few hours later, bruised and sore, but somewhat saner. Hellstu was sitting next to the cot they stuck me on. He looked at me and I knew, as I had known from the second I saw that hole in the back of Jesse’s uniform, my friend was gone.

“He’s dead isn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s dead,” Hellstu said.

I’d been harboring a shred of denial, but once the words were out, I broke down. Hellstu sat through all of it, waiting for me come back from the unthinking anguish that consumed me. It took a while, but I sat up and wiped the tears and snot off my face.

“Not the last time you’ll do that,” he said.

“I know.”

“You need to listen now, because this is important. Jesse knew the risks and so do you. He chose this life. He died a soldier’s death, rescuing his fellow soldiers from the enemy. You need to remember that, if nothing else.”

There was an inquiry into the incident. Command doesn’t like losing soldiers like Jesse and Hellstu hadn’t bothered clearing the rescue with them. Hellstu got off with an unofficial reprimand. Turns out he’d been given several dozen medals and it never looked good in the news back home to dress down a hero like that. Given my insane behavior and the mere months left in my tour, they discharged me. I went back to see Jesse’s family. They were informed of Jesse’s death, but they had met me and I wanted them to know Jesse was remembered. I also brought them Jesse’s last medal. It was in the works before he died and Hellstu gave it to me for Jesse’s family.

I told them that Jesse’s dying thought had been of them. Amiko insisted that I stay for a few days and we reminisced about him. Then I went home and spent months in a drunken haze, overwhelmed by the guilt of Jesse’s death. It took a year find a way to live with the great lie of my life.

Jesse Takahara had no last words. I had wanted him to have last words and, sometimes, I almost convince myself he did. What I told Jesse’s wife and children had been said so that my version, my vision, of Jesse would live on. And as I think about it now, I realize that he was right. Memory makes liars of us all.



“Memory Makes Liars of Us All”

A Tale from the Trunk, by Eric Dontigney

The above story spent the better part of a decade being one of my trunk stories. I don’t have the complete record for my submissions on it because I was tracking submissions in a paper notebook when I first completed it. If I still have that notebook, I have no clue where it is. I do know that Gordon van Gelder (back in his F&SF days) took a pass on an early version of it…or one of his assistants did at any rate. Mind you, this was back when you sent in physical copies of your stories and they sent back rejections on printed pieces of paper. (The Dark Ages, am I right?) To be fair, he or they were right to take a pass on it. At that point, it had really clumsy bookend scenes that would have expanded the universe of the story a bit, but they didn’t really do a damn thing to advance the core story. Plus, there were a lot of unnecessary words in there. Ah, the things you learn after writing dozens of stories and some novels.

Of course, the story went through many iterations after those initial rejections. My process was something along these lines. I’d pull the story out every year or two. I’d make some revisions, cut out the things that I finally had enough experience to recognize as bad, and send it out again. To be fair, I probably should have resubmitted the story to some of those magazines that gave me early rejections after I cleaned up a lot of the journeyman writer problems in it, but I didn’t. Instead, I just kept submitting the newer versions to different markets.

Some of the places that took a pass on it included Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and a bunch more I don’t have records for anymore. Yes, I got rejected by the best. These days, I wish I had a copy of the first version of the story and the various iterations over the years just so I could compare the early drafts to later drafts. I also wish I’d kept better records of who got which drafts along the way. I suspect it would be educational. Of course, during that same period of time, I moved like 10 times, lived in five or six different states, went through three or four computers, and computer storage evolved from 3.5-inch floppy disks and CD-ROMs to the early days of cloud storage. Frankly, it’s a miracle I still had any version of the story.

So, around about 2013 (God, I feel old), with a couple of novels under my belt, I pulled it out with the sense that this was going to be the last hurrah for this story. I did one last hard edit on it and started submitting it again. Lo and behold, it finally found a home with Stupefying Stories. Unlike so many trunk stories, this one has a happy ending, but I learned some lessons along the way. One of those lessons was that no story is ever really complete until you publish it somewhere. I was certain, just plain convinced, that the story was as good as it was ever going to be after I finished editing the first version of it. Of course, it wasn’t. It was, optimistically, as good as I could write it at the time. A decade of revisions between that first version and the final published version put the lie to that youthful confidence.

I also learned that you actually know that some stories are special. This was one of them. I wrote dozens of short stories after high school and through a fair chunk of my college career. I couldn’t tell you the names or plots of 99-percent of them. This story haunted me. When I’d have trouble falling asleep at night – which happened a lot in my 20s – I’d think about it. When some professor got especially boring, I’d think about the relationships in the story. I’d mentally toy with the story’s imagery as a way to stay sane while toiling at my work-study jobs or my crappy restaurant jobs. It never really went away. At best, it went dormant for a while before springing back into my conscious thoughts and demanding renewed attention.

I don’t regret going back to the story over and over again because it did eventually find a home. I’m also very proud of this particular story. It was one of the first times I wrote a short story that tapped into something real. Yes, it’s got the trappings of a science fiction story and a war story to boot, but that’s all window dressing. For my money, this story is all about relationships and the fictions we build around them. After all, who among us hasn’t idealized a relationship or a person we know? Who hasn’t looked back years later and recognized, with a start, that someone we thought well of was actually a pretty terrible friend or a blatant user? I know I’ve done it. I’ve found myself defending a person or a relationship even though, deep down, I rationally knew that it was unlikely that everyone else was wrong. I did it for the same reasons everyone does it. I was telling myself a story about what those relationships were or who those people were and didn’t want anyone else impinging on that story. While the characters in this story are a little more sympathetically drawn, the same principles apply.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.

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