Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 38: “A Time to Wait” • by Carol Scheina

…Previously, in The Odin Chronicles

After the ground stopped shaking and the dust settled down, after people coughed their lungs clear and commented that the quake thankfully wasn’t too bad, word began to trickle into the mining town of Odin North that there had been a cave-in. Miners were trapped.

When Father Luigi heard, he rushed to the parish gardening shed to find supplies—a bucket to use as a helmet, thick rope, a sturdy gardening shovel to help dig. His heart beat a frantic rhythm of “hurry, hurry, get to the mines to help.”

With full hands, he dashed to the parish van, only to nearly bump into Father Maria. As always, Luigi felt tiny before the towering priest, but at the moment, he didn’t care. “We’ve got to get to the mine, people are trapped, we need to go now!” The words tripped over his tongue.

Maria kept her arms behind her back. “No, we should wait.”

Wait? That was the absolute wrong thing to do just then. Not when there were unknown numbers trapped in the mine. Not when they could provide an extra hand.

Luigi’s knuckles turned white around the shovel and rope. He didn’t want to argue. He didn’t want to stand around and do nothing either. He was the leader of the parish, but he never seemed to know what to do.

Above all, why did Maria, of all people, want to wait?

§

Luigi first met Father Maria while sitting in his favorite seat at Weber’s Place. He sipped a deep merlot, closing his eyes to savor the taste tingling down his throat.

“Father Luigi?”

His eyes opened to the tallest woman he’d ever encountered, with arms that looked like they could bench-press the parish van with barely a sweat. “Um, yes?”

She kept her strong arms behind her back. “I’m Father Maria.”

Luigi jumped up, repressing a desire to salute. “Yes, of course. I didn’t think you were arriving for another couple of weeks.”

“I found a transport to get me here earlier. I figured better to arrive sooner rather than later. I just landed an hour ago.” She kept her face solemn, her shoulders tight. “Perhaps you could take me to the parish so I can get to work?”

Luigi nodded, and leaving his half-finished merlot on the table, he brought Maria to his van. Yet the keys weren’t in his pocket. He hadn’t dropped them. He didn’t see them locked in the van. He excused himself for a second to dash back into the bar, where thankfully, the keys were on the table near his abandoned drink. With a gulp, he downed the remaining wine.

Ingrid, the bartender, looked on in amusement. “Feeling nervous about something?”

Luigi gave a half-hearted grin as he handed Ingrid the empty glass. “Not at all.” Only he was the senior priest here in Odin North, and he hadn’t made the best first impression. He wasn’t used to thinking of himself as a boss-type figure. Still, things would get better from here on. After all, he’d found the van keys.

Things didn’t improve.

At the parish, Maria glanced around with sharp eyes at the overgrown garden, the rectory sink filled with a good week’s worth of dishes. It was funny, Luigi hadn’t noticed anything wrong before, but as the new priest observed without even saying a word, suddenly it seemed as though everything in the parish was a heaping mess. Luigi tried to explain that he’d been busy with other tasks, plus he was going to be married in a few months.

Maria stayed quiet until Luigi finished his ramblings. “Thank you, Father Luigi. If it’s okay with you, perhaps I can compile a list of items that need to be done. I noticed the toilets need scrubbing. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty alongside me, I hope.” Maria rolled her sleeves up over massive muscles.

Luigi rolled his sleeves up as well. He couldn’t think of any reason not to follow her suggestion.

Over the weeks, the tall woman worked her hands brown and ragged, pulling weeds in the garden, or helping to assemble the new children’s playground at the school. She always found a task needing completion, and Luigi felt he had to chip in as well.

His fiancé, Shelley, grumbled. “You’re working so hard you don’t even have time to spend with anyone. Even me.”

Luigi heard jealously in her voice. He took her hand. “I’m so sorry, but we’re helping people.”

“No, you’re so busy cleaning toilets you don’t even notice anyone anymore.” Shelley crossed her arms. “You’ve no time for anything.”

Luigi was too tired to argue further.

The day came he found a spare minute to settle into his favorite seat at Weber’s and close his eyes. He’d nearly dozed off when Ingrid tapped his shoulder.

“You look like you could use this.” She held out a cup of mulled wine. “On the house.”

Luigi grinned his thanks.

“The new father seems to be working you hard.” Ingrid leaned against the bar. “You know, I hear she comes from one of those old mining planets, where they genetically breed people to be better miners. They’re bigger, stronger, can work longer.”

Luigi sipped his wine and pondered that information. It explained a lot about Maria’s drive. He wondered why she’d become a priest instead of a miner. Then Maria’s voice cut into his thoughts, calling for him outside the bar. He gulped the drink down—he seemed to gulp a lot these days—and went to see Maria. If only things could just slow down a bit.

§

The day of the cave-in, the townspeople rushed to the mine to help. Luigi couldn’t believe Father Maria wanted them to do nothing. Wait, she’d said. He’d wanted them to slow down, but not now.

He didn’t like this kind of direct conflict, but he was the senior priest. With his bucket-helmet balancing on his head, Luigi stood tall, ready to order Maria to hop in the van with him when he paused.

Luigi didn’t notice weeds or dirty dishes; he noticed people. It was why he enjoyed sitting at the bar, watching the ones who walked up to the bar with stiff shoulders and tight lips. He could give them a friendly smile and a welcome ear to listen.

Just then, he noticed Maria’s neck muscles bulging, her cheek twitching. She was holding back tears, Luigi realized. As much as he wanted to help the trapped miners, he needed to wait a moment.

“What is it, Maria?” Luigi kept his voice soft.

“Once they release the names of who’s trapped, someone’s got to help their families. No one ever remembers them,” Maria’s rasped.

Luigi exhaled. He’d been so fixated on saving people he hadn’t thought about the families.

“You’re right. We should be on standby to help those people.” He pulled the van keys out of his pocket. It was a miracle he hadn’t misplaced them, and with a mine cave-in, today seemed a day in which they’d need a lot of miracles. They’d be ready to drive to any house, once they had more information.

§

Two days later, Luigi sat in Weber’s Place with his fiancé, Shelley. His arms were tired after relentless praying and hugging worried children, concerned spouses and parents. Neither he nor Maria had slept until the last rock had been removed and the miners freed with only minor scrapes and broken bones. A miracle.

Shelley patted his hand. “You did good work.”

Maria’s voice added, “That you did.”

Luigi jumped up. He’d just sat down. He didn’t want to scrub toilets again.

Instead, she stood, straight-backed as always. “Mine cave-ins always make me nervous. My parents died in one. No one noticed me, as they were all busy with rescue operations, until a father comforted me. No one remembers the people stuck waiting for news. That’s why I decided to become a priest.”

Luigi nodded, thinking of her thick arms comforting the children of the trapped minders with a tenderness that surprised him. Somehow, she’d grown softer during the mine cave-in, for all her muscles and straight back. “I understand.”

“Well, now that we’re done with that, should we move on to our next task?”

Shelley gave Luigi a hard look. Stay, she mouthed.

Luigi closed his eyes a moment. He had to remember that he was a senior priest. “It’s good to work, but sometimes, people need to be able to slow down too. If someone needs to talk, they can find me here.” Luigi added, “Maybe you can join us? Tell us more about yourself?”

Shelley’s teeth clenched. Luigi raised his eyebrows, would it be okay with her? She gave a tight nod.

Maria blinked as she considered the words, then she slipped into a chair. “Why not? Perhaps you could tell me about the people here before we start our next task.”

A grin on his face, Luigi signaled for Ingrid to bring over another bottle of merlot. He was growing into this senior priest role, and soon he’d be a husband. He could juggle it all. Right?

 


 


Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative author whose stories have appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, Stupefying Stories, and others. Her writing has been recognized on the Wigleaf Top 50 Short Fiction Longlist, and she has become a fan favorite for her finely crafted flash fiction pieces on the Stupefying Stories website. You can find more of her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to read “True Love is Found in the Bone Sea,” here on SHOWCASE, or “The Burning Skies Bring His Soul,” in STUPEFYING STORIES 24. Or at the very least, read “The Disappearing Cat Trick,” in The Odin Chronicles, Season 1. 

This link will take you to a unorganized list of Carol’s previous stories on this site. I’m particularly fond of “The View from the Old Ship.” You should read it. You should also take a look at “The Burning Skies Bring His Soul,” which you’ll find in SS#24, which is now FREE for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.


Coming Saturday: Episode 39: “The Church of a Million Gods,” by Jason P. Burnham

New to Odin III? Check this out.

The Odin Chronicles: The Complete Episode Guide (So Far) 



 


Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 37: “Odin Speaks in Flowers” • by Travis Burnham


…Previously, in The Odin Chronicles

Odin III was a harsh place to live for humans and plants alike. 

Vujadin Novaković—Voya to his friends—knew this better than most. He’d emigrated to the remote mining colony with his wife, Becca, and daughters, Poppy and Aster, to study Odinium mariscoides, a species of sawgrass that lived in the mineral-heavy soils of Odin III. Its population had been decimated by an introduced fungus. Voya hoped to splice together genes and exo-genes to solve alien ecological problems.

But in an ugly twist of fate, the first things Voya placed lovingly in the soil of Odin III were not engineered rye grass or Indian mustard, but his daughters—swept away by a nitrogen leak in their cabin just before arriving. Becca survived the trip, but not the broken heart. And then he was alone. Voya cursed fate that he wasn’t buried beside his family.

Though they’d never lived on Odin III, Voya felt his family everywhere—the red in a bar coaster was the exact shade of the tutu that Poppy had worn on her first day of hip-hop ballet, or the jingle of someone’s key ring struck just the same note as the tiny, metal dandelions on Aster’s charm bracelet. Missing Becca was a different pain altogether. He missed the music of her laugh and the way her elegant fingers plucked at banjo strings. Or the taste of her skin and the warmth of her stretched out beside him.

So Voya just went through the motions on Odin III, oxygen in, carbon dioxide out, half-heartedly studying the indigenous and now nearly extinct O. mariscoides sawgrass along the eroding banks of the Eligar River, which was just one of the many ecological challenges facing Odin III.

More and more often, Voya spent his evenings at Weber’s Place, hoisting a brew. He usually sat with Duncan Strasser. Most others found Duncan’s company unbearable, but when Voya found out Duncan was a fellow widower—his wife Elke had died a year and a half ago—his annoyance with him was tempered.

“Yo, Voya,” Duncan shouted a bit too loudly before ordering a Valkyrie Lager for Voya.

“Hey, Dunk.” Voya raised a hand in greeting, but then hesitated. “Something’s different with you.” Duncan hid his misery behind pointless rambling and bluster, but the two of them were both miserable. “You look…happier?”

“I started a painting class at the community center.”

“Yeah? You any good?” Maybe that was why he seemed happier, Voya thought. Had Duncan found that he had a gift?

Duncan’s face broke into a wide grin. “Horrible. But I’m painting for Elke. I’m terrible at all things art, but she knew that. I like to think she’d love every crooked line and messy smudge.”

§

Voya lay in bed that night, thoughts tumbling.

He couldn’t paint, and he was too much of a perfectionist to embrace the chaos Duncan apparently slapped onto canvas.

What Voya did know was how to modify genes. Though he had since regretted moving to Odin III with every cell in his body, after the conversation with Duncan, Voya felt inspired like he hadn’t in years and he set out to create something worthy of his family.

He’d design two species whose characteristics would replace the decimated Odinium mariscoides population that prevented erosion along the Eligar River. He leaned heavily on genes from the native Odinium mariscoides, but also extracted genes from favored Earth species. He wasn’t sure it could be done. Previous attempts to merge the disparate genetic material had failed.

Voya and his AI, Arthur, ran hundreds of thousands of gene insertion and protein folding simulations, as well as hundreds of ecological calculations and hundreds of environmental models, but still there were things that couldn’t be predicted in the real world. 

At the end of four months, Voya and Duncan—he’d insisted on coming along—drove out to the test site and sowed the seeds that would hopefully hold the river’s banks steady. But if they were fertile, then the possibilities for some of Odin III’s ecological problems were endless. On the trip there, Duncan’s obnoxious rambling faded to a dull, background hum as Voya’s thoughts turned to Becca and his daughters.

Even though it was only Duncan, Voya was glad he wasn’t alone as they sowed the seeds.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

§

From stem to sepals to petals, the days passed in a blur.

Clouds scudded across the leaden Odin III sky.

The twin suns rose, fell.

And then, one morning dawned a little warmer, the sunlight lasted a little longer.

Voya climbed into the work hovercar and headed out towards the site. As before, Duncan came, this time carrying something covered under his arm. Despite Voya’s thirty-eight years, he felt like a sad old man at the end of the universe. But he hoped he still had some beauty to offer the world.

Stepping from the vehicle, Voya was greeted with something that wildly exceeded his expectations. Despite heavy spring runoff, the Eligar River’s banks had stayed true.

And where there had once been a nearly barren, eroded river bank, there was a blanket of flowers—two different species growing side by side.

Both flowers’ genus was Becca, and the first species was pappoides, from the Latin for ‘resembling a poppy.’ The Rebeccaea pappoides’s bright, delicate petals were hip-hop-tutu red and danced in the gentle spring breeze. How Poppy had loved to dance, Voya thought. He’d woven characteristics into the flower’s genome that reminded him of Poppy. She’d been kind and helpful, and her namesake flower had the ability to send out tillers like ryegrass that cooperatively shared nutrients like Odin sawgrass. Voya also used sequences from kudzu to reflect Poppy's competitive nature—she had really, really hated to lose.

Aster’s flower, Rebeccaea asteroides, had a corona of lavender petals splayed out from a dark brown center the exact same shade as Aster’s eyes. R. asteroides was resilient like Aster—and like yarrow could survive poor soil and drought. Aster was the older sister, and she’d been so undemanding. Even when Voya had been insanely busy with his PhD thesis, Aster had never been clingy. How he wished he had the time back to spend with her instead. She’d been the most like him, and he’d always imagined her following in his academic footsteps.

Duncan hung a painting from a tree overlooking the flowered bank’s of the river. “Just so Elke can join in,” he mumbled. “I used all biodegradable inks, ‘cause I know you’re into all that crap.” Voya caught a glimpse of the man Duncan must have been when Elke was alive, keeping his more obnoxious urges in check.

Voya reached into the hovercar and turned up its sound system to play an old recording of Becca’s, a cover she’d done of an old Earth song, “Wagon Wheel.” Duncan and Voya sang along quietly and Voya could imagine notes thrumming out from Becca’s banjo, and his daughter’s voices, high and bright.

As the sound washed over the river and through the flowers he’d made, Voya smiled through his tears—instead of just seeing shadow memories of his family in the dark corners of Odin III, he would now see them everywhere.



 

Travis Burnham is an SF&F writer and science teacher. His work has or will soon appear in Far Fetched Fables, Hypnos Magazine, South85 Journal, Dream of Shadows, and Stupefying Stories, of course, among other places. His most recent previous story for us was “10 Ways to Survive an SF Story.” If you have not read it, you should check it out.

Originally from New England, he’s lived in Japan, Colombia, Portugal, and the Marianas Islands, and currently teaches science at an international school in Malta. He’s a bit of a thrill seeker, having bungee-jumped in New Zealand, hiked portions of the Great Wall of China, and gone scuba diving in Bali. He’s got some novels currently looking for homes and can be found online at travisburnham.blogspot.com, or infrequently on twitter @Darwins_Finch

 


Coming Tuesday: Episode 38: “A Time to Wait,” by Carol Scheina

New to Odin III? Check this out.

The Odin Chronicles: The Complete Episode Guide (So Far) 



 

Friday, June 21, 2024

“Wielder of Wit” • by Ian Li


Eileen eyed the wicked wizard with curiosity, for few foes dared duel her. Her sharp wit made her a formidable sorcerer, wielding jokes as incantations to deliver devastating spells.

Raising his spell-casting arms with a flourish, the stern-faced wizard taunted her. “Petty jokes are useless against me.”

As the wizard gathered darkness for his spell, Eileen began reciting an impromptu joke. But at the critical moment, she stumbled over the punchline.

The wizard cackled. “Bwahaha! You can’t even complete your joke.”

She smiled. “That’s okay. My spells only require you to laugh.” Ashen-faced, the wizard fled her surging flames.

 


 

Ian Li (he/him) writes speculative fiction and poetry and lives in Toronto. Formerly an economist and consultant, he loves spreadsheets, statistical curiosities, and brain teasers. Find his writing in print or forthcoming in Solarpunk Magazine, Radon Journal, and Flame Tree Press, as well as at https://ian-li.com

His most recent appearances in our pages were “Summit, in Memory,”  “Hosting a Tempest,” and most delightful of all, “The Potato Singer.”

 



Now FREE for Kindle Unlimited subscribers!


The Pete Wood Challenge is an informal ad hoc story-writing competition. Once a month Pete Wood spots writers the idea for a story, usually in the form of a phrase or a few key words, along with some restrictions on what can be submitted, usually in terms of length. Pete then collects the resulting entries, determines who has best met the challenge, and sends the winners over to Bruce Bethke, who arranges for them to be published on the Stupefying Stories web site.

You can find all the previous winners of the Pete Wood Challenge at this link.

This time the challenge was to write a flash fiction piece playing off key word: punchline.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s batch of Pete Wood Challenge stories. Next week, we return to our normal SHOWCASE schedule.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

“A Behemoth Problem” • by Kimberly Ann Smiley

Brittany forced a smile at Behemoth. “Have you thought of any potential catchphrases?”

“I’m trying out a punchline.”

“A … punchline?”

“Yeah, I’ve been saying, ‘Behemoth smash!’ when I punch someone.”

“But—”

“And for my kickline, ‘It’s clobbering time!’” 

“Kickline?”

“I still need to think of a good deadline.”

Brittany sighed. “Captain Valor wants each hero to have a catchphrase. One original catchphrase.”

“But I want more lines!”

“How about we brainstorm catchphrases next meeting?”

Brand manager of a new superhero team had sounded like her dream job. Maybe her old boss would take her back if she groveled?

 



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 stories have appeared both here on Stupefying Stories and in Daily Science Fiction and Sci-Fi Shorts.

Learn more at https://kasmiley.wordpress.com/



The Pete Wood Challenge is an informal ad hoc story-writing competition. Once a month Pete Wood spots writers the idea for a story, usually in the form of a phrase or a few key words, along with some restrictions on what can be submitted, usually in terms of length. Pete then collects the resulting entries, determines who has best met the challenge, and sends the winners over to Bruce Bethke, who arranges for them to be published on the Stupefying Stories web site.

You can find all the previous winners of the Pete Wood Challenge at this link.

This time the challenge was to write a flash fiction piece playing off key word: punchline.

More stories to come every day this week!

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

“Cruel, Unusual, and Optional” • by Gustavo Bondoni


“I can’t go to jail for three weeks. I’ll lose my job.”

The judge looked down. “This is the third time you failed a roadside blood alcohol test.”

Dom swallowed. “I’ll take the optional.”

“You’re sure?”

§

Cops escorted Dom along a line of hard men.

He stopped in front of a guy who looked a little shorter than the rest. The man gave a gap-toothed grin and said, “Bad choice.”

Then his hand slammed into Dom’s chin.

Water on his face woke him, and Dom heard the words. “Sentence served.”

He tried to mumble his thanks through missing teeth.

 


 

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 regular contributor to Stupefying Stories and we have quite a few stories of his stories on this site. Check them out!


The Pete Wood Challenge is an informal ad hoc story-writing competition. Once a month Pete Wood spots writers the idea for a story, usually in the form of a phrase or a few key words, along with some restrictions on what can be submitted, usually in terms of length. Pete then collects the resulting entries, determines who has best met the challenge, and sends the winners over to Bruce Bethke, who arranges for them to be published on the Stupefying Stories web site.

You can find all the previous winners of the Pete Wood Challenge at this link.

This time the challenge was to write a flash fiction piece playing off key word: punchline.

More stories to come every day this week!

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 36: “Stratigraphic Homesick Blues” • by Pauline Barmby

…Previously, in The Odin Chronicles

Turning a silvery river stone in her hand and sniffling back tears, Nina stared out the scratched window of her tiny office. A half-finished report glared from her computer screen; images of a smiling, curly haired family covered the tablet in her lap.

Nina’s boss, Raisa Popov, barged in without knocking. “Report ready yet? I need that assay before we can start drilling in sector seven.”

Nina started and switched off the tablet. “Nuh … no,” she stammered. “I’m, uh, just calculating.”

“Same as two hours ago. Galactic isn’t paying you to mope,” Popov growled.

“I know.” Nina’s voice was small, her eyes brimming.

Popov sighed. “Go home and get your head on straight. Be back here tomorrow, ready to work.” She stomped out, rattling the office’s flimsy aluminum door.

§

Nina drifted out into the dusty afternoon. Head bowed, she plodded along the road to town. Her wind-whipped hair tangled in her glasses.

A rattling vehicle wearing a faded Galactic Mining logo slowed to pull up alongside her. Through its open window, a youngish man grinned. “Nina, right? I’m Jonas.”

“I’m the new geologist.” Nina was polite but distant.

“I know. Popov assigned me to be your driver, starting tomorrow.”

“Driver? For what?” she blurted.

“Dunno. I just do what she says. Want a ride to town?” His tone was hopeful.

“I’d rather walk.”

“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.” He gave her a wave and drove off.  Nina coughed at the kicked-up dust.

§

Nina arrived at work the next day to find Popov and Jonas waiting with a shiny red Galactic truck. “Ready to get back to work?” Popov asked. Nina nodded silently. “Good. Grab your field kit.”

Jonas bumped the truck over washboard ruts and swerved it around axle-breaking potholes while Nina’s head swiveled back and forth at the sight of crumbling hoodoos and distant peaks. Popov signaled Jonas to pull over at the base of a five-meter-high outcrop. She hopped out and Nina followed her to the rock face, blinking away dust. Nina’s eyes widened as she reached out. “Are those…”

Popov swatted her hand. “Fossils? You tell me.”

Nina pulled a magnifier from her kit. “Trilobites? But how could there be Earth fossils here? That’s a huge discovery!”

“A huge discovery that could put this planet out of business. If word gets out, mining could be shut down for years while we sit around and wait for hordes of scientists to show up. Galactic suspects they’re fake. You need to prove it.”

“Fake? Why? How?”

“Don’t care,” Popov nearly spat. “Galactic wants proof one way or the other. If they’re fake, to refute nosy questions. If they’re real, to stall while they figure out what to do.”

Nina pushed up her glasses. “How long do I have?”

“A week,” Popov grunted.

“Okay…” Nina thought Galactic was being a bit paranoid. No scientists would be rushing out here. With time dilation, they’d be giving up years of their lives on the voyage.

“Then I need you back on those assays. Keep this quiet. Even from him.” She nodded toward Jonas, waiting in the truck.

§

For two days Nina and Jonas shuttled back and forth to the site, hauling field equipment and collecting samples. The first trip required all Jonas’ concentration to stay on the road. On the second trip, he tried to make conversation.

“Saw you alone in the bar last week. Heard you’ve been having a tough time.”

“Thanks, but I’d really rather not talk about it.” Nina fiddled with a sample case.

“I get it. I left for a decade. When I came back, I hadn’t aged but my brother—”

“You’re from here? You don’t get it at all.” Nina glared at him.

“I do,” he insisted. “I was homesick the whole time I was gone. Then when I got back, I still felt like an outsider.” Under his breath, he muttered, “Still do.”

“At least your family is here!” Nina cried. “You don’t understand! Just leave me alone.”

Jonas’ face hardened. The rattle of rocks in the truck bed was the only sound for the rest of the trip.

§

Nina threw every test she could think of at the outcrop samples: isotope composition. X-ray diffraction. UV fluorescence. She had to get this right. While she didn’t believe in Popov’s prophesied “scientific hordes,” she knew Galactic could and would fire her if she screwed up. In between tests, she snatched naps on the lumpy break room couch under a threadbare blanket that must have arrived with the first landing. Her fractured dreams featured her parents and sister, and strangely enough, Jonas.

When she followed the sunrise into town after five non-stop days of lab work, of course Jonas was the first person she encountered. He goggled at her disheveled appearance.

“I thought geologists had cushy office jobs. Looks like you’re earning your living.”

Nina was too tired to remember how annoyed she’d been with him. She trudged toward her apartment, trying to smooth her wild hair.

“So, what’ve you been doing?” Jonas asked, following her.

“Can’t say.”

“Come on. I work for Galactic too. What’s so secret?”

She gritted her teeth. “Cushy geologist stuff. Can’t say more or I’ll be in trouble with Popov.”

Jonas laughed. “Is anybody not in trouble with Popov?” His eyes met hers. “Listen, I’m sorry for butting into your business.”

“No, I’m sorry for yelling at you like that. It’s just…”

“Look, I know one thing about being homesick: you need friends. And something to do. Okay, two things,” Jonas laughed again. “Seems like you have something to do, whatever it is.”

“That’s for sure.” Nina’s eyes went unfocused and she yawned. “I just thought of another test to run…” The yawn turned into a small smile. “Can’t tell you what it is though.”

“Right. Secret.” Jonas winked. “But if you need a friend…” he trailed off as they reached her door. “Want to meet up for lunch later? Hans at the deli has a new pickle-and-cheese sandwich.” 

Nina’s head lifted as her eyelids drooped. “Thanks. I need a nap first, but lunch later sounds great.”

§

On her way to the mine offices the next day, Nina’s feet felt lighter. It wasn’t the gravity; the ache of homesickness was receding. She was beginning to feel like she might belong on Odin III someday. The next time she wrote home, she’d tell her parents and sister she was fine, that she had a friend and something to do. Eventually she’d actually feel that way, she hoped.

She reached Popov’s office door and held out the chip with her report, admiring the suns streaming through the dusty office window. Popov took the chip.

“They’re fake,” Nina said. “The specimens have machining marks. The isotope ratios are completely wrong for Earth or Odin III. The stratigraphy is completely unphysical. It’s all there.”

“Good work,” Popov said. “Galactic will be happy to get this.” She turned back toward her ancient desk.

Nina lingered in the doorway. “But why would someone fake a fossil bed? That would’ve been so much work.”

“Good question,” Popov said. “I guess you’ll just have to stay and figure it out.”

“I guess so.” Nina said.




Pauline Barmby is an astrophysicist who reads, writes, runs, knits, and believes that you can’t have too many favorite galaxies. She lives in London, Canada and hopes to someday visit her namesake main belt asteroid, minor planet 281067. Find more of her words at galacticwords.com.

Pauline has become a regular contributor to Stupefying Stories in recent years. If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read “Trans-Earth Injection,” “The Triennial Igneous Tri-Partite Competition,” the deeply disturbing “Songbird, Jailbird,” or our personal favorite, “There is Only One Black Cat.”

 



Coming Saturday: Episode 37: “Odin Speaks in Flowers,” by Travis Burnham

New to the story? Check out

The Odin Chronicles: The Complete Episode Guide (So Far) 



 

“Green Shoots” • by Christopher Degni


They give us all false hope: tickets, with barely one in a hundred making the punch line. 

I focus on the screen flashing the winning numbers—I’ve already memorized my daughter’s and my own. The prize? A new life, away from here.

There! The afterimage lingers: my daughter’s number.

While I concentrated, she slipped away into the crowd. “Chloë!”

“Daddy!” She comes running. I take her ticket. That’s not right—

“My number was lucky. I traded with someone who needed it more.”

My heart chokes me. Then I see her shining eyes, and I’m reminded of what true hope is.

 


 


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). He was part of the editorial team for the anthologies Playlist of the Damned and the Stoker-award nominated Mother: Tales of Love and Terror. You can find more of his work in NewMyths.com, Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives, 99 Tiny Terrors, 99 Fleeting Fantasies, and of course, here on Stupefying Stories.

Christopher has been a frequent contributor here in recent years. If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read “Upgrade,” “The Infinite and the Infinitesimal,” “Life and Jacq and the Giant and Death,” or one of our personal favorites, “A 125-Word Story About Writer’s Block in the Style of Italo Calvino.”


 

The Pete Wood Challenge is an informal ad hoc story-writing competition. Once a month Pete Wood spots writers the idea for a story, usually in the form of a phrase or a few key words, along with some restrictions on what can be submitted, usually in terms of length. Pete then collects the resulting entries, determines who has best met the challenge, and sends the winners over to Bruce Bethke, who arranges for them to be published on the Stupefying Stories web site.

You can find all the previous winners of the Pete Wood Challenge at this link.

This time the challenge was to write a flash fiction piece playing off key word: punchline.

More stories to come every day this week!

Monday, June 17, 2024

“Punch Flavored Punch” • by Yelena Crane

 

The music, décor, and activities were biometrically enhanced to perfectly attune to individual taste. Alice made sure this would be the party to end all parties.

“Anyone want punch?” she asked.

A line had formed at the bar. She could not have lines at her party, unless her invited guests were into that.

“First rule of any party is never drink the punch!” the crowd said.

“Oh yea?” Maybe they couldn’t vouch for their punch bowls, but Alice hadn’t even used digital security. She’d watched over it personally.

Alice took a big swig and smiled before she blacked out.



 


Yelena Crane is a Ukrainian/Soviet born and USA based writer, incorporating influences from both into her work. With an advanced degree in the sciences, she has followed her passions from mad scientist to sci-fi writer. Her stories often explore the boundaries of technology, the complexities of human nature, and the consequences of our choices. She's published in Nature Futures, DSF, Dark Matter Ink, Flame Tree, and elsewhere. Follow her on twitter @Aelintari and https://www.yelenacrane.com/.


If you enjoyed this story, you might also want to read her most recent previous stories on our site, “Like Clockwork,”  and “Literally.”


 

The Pete Wood Challenge is an informal ad hoc story-writing competition. Once a month Pete Wood spots writers the idea for a story, usually in the form of a phrase or a few key words, along with some restrictions on what can be submitted, usually in terms of length. Pete then collects the resulting entries, determines who has best met the challenge, and sends the winners over to Bruce Bethke, who arranges for them to be published on the Stupefying Stories web site.

You can find all the previous winners of the Pete Wood Challenge at this link.

This time the challenge was to write a flash fiction piece playing off key word: punchline.

More stories to come every day this week!

Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 35: “A Good Boy” • by Kimberly Ann Smiley

…Previously, in The Odin Chronicles

Dr. Peyton Putnam collapsed onto her couch. 

It had been a day. The patients were nonstop at the Odin Pediatric Clinic from the moment she unlocked the door until after the second sun set. To top it off, a massive storm had drenched her as she walked the five blocks through town to her bungalow.

At least it was the start of the weekend.

Normally, Peyton was a little embarrassed about her addiction to Twelve Times Round the Sun, but not tonight. Tonight, she had earned a few episodes. Baxtor, the stray cat she had adopted shortly after she arrived on the planet Odin III last summer, settled on her lap as the opening notes of the theme song played.

Peyton was completely absorbed in the antics of the new detective character with the silly catchphrase when she became aware of meowing. Loud, insistent meowing. Meowing that sounded just like Baxtor, who was still happily heaped across both of her legs.

Following the sound, she opened the back door to find a ball of gray fluff curled up on the mat.

Making soothing noises, Peyton moved towards the creature. It turned, and two things were immediately obvious. It was adorable, and it was definitely not a cat. Or any other animal she recognized. The shape of it was unusual, much longer than it was wide, with massive eyes and oversized pointed ears.

She’d been told that most native animals on Odin III were dangerous, but it didn’t seem aggressive. The creature looked scared and just sat blinking up at her. After a minute, it stood and limped towards her, dragging one of its back legs behind it.

“Oh no. You’re hurt. It’s okay. Come in.” Peyton was moving before her brain had a chance to question the decision. She could never turn away a patient in pain. “Let me grab a towel and my scanner.”

By the time she’d returned, her visitor had found Baxtor’s dish and was devouring the contents.

“Probably hard to catch food with that leg, poor thing.”

Baxtor watched the creature closely but didn’t seem alarmed. That had to be a good sign. She grabbed a second dish, set it on the ground, and added a heaping scoop of cat food to each. Soon, both animals stood side by side with their heads buried in the bowls.

After the food was gone, Peyton wrapped their visitor up in the towel, careful not to jostle its leg. She slowly ran her handheld medical scanner over the unexpected patient.  A huge yawn revealed the sharp fangs of a predator, but it hadn’t attempted to bite her. 

“Looks like you’re young. Not quite a baby, but close. Definitely a boy. No known diseases so that’s a relief. The bad news is this leg is broken. But the good news is that everything seems to be in the right place. I’ll splint it, and you should be good as new soon. Until then, you can bunk with us as long as you don’t try to eat Baxtor. Or me.”

Peyton spoke softly to the creature while she splinted his leg. The creature cocked its head like it was listening, but it never made a sound.

“It’s been a long day and I think we better get you settled for the night.”

Peyton opened the hall closet and grabbed Baxtor’s carrier. Carrying it into her bedroom, she set the carrier where she could see it from her bed.

“I think you better sleep in here. We’ll see how you’re feeling in the morning and decide what to do with you then.”

Peyton placed the creature in the carrier and shut the door tightly. It quickly curled up and settled down, never making a sound.

§

The next morning, Peyton startled awake to a loud beep. Fumbling with her comm, she managed to hit answer before she missed the call. It was one of those annoying automated messages that Constable Jenkins sent sometimes.

“There was considerable damage from the storm last night. No injuries have been reported, but recovery will take some time. All nonessential activities are canceled for today. Additionally, there were multiple break-ins reported last night. The suspects are still at large and should be presumed dangerous. Please lock all doors and report any suspicious activity to the constable’s office immediately. Thank you.”

Peyton sighed. The constable never had positive things to report, but at least she had already been planning to stay home today to tend to her mystery guest.

Peyton looked over at the cat carrier. Big solemn eyes stared back at her.

“I’m guessing you want breakfast.”

She opened the carrier. The creature walked out and stretched. He leaned against her ankles and headbutted her hand when she reached down, just like Baxtor when he wanted attention. He definitely enjoyed pets.

“You’re a little lover, aren’t you? I think I’ll call you Romeo.”

After feeding herself and the animals, Peyton did a few chores, but still felt tired and out of sorts. All morning, she kept thinking she was hearing things. Beeps from her comm, the tea kettle, meowing. It felt like she’d spent the entire morning checking things that were perfectly normal.

At least Romeo was settling in without drama. He clearly felt better. His splint didn’t seem to slow him down. He spent the morning following Baxtor around and copying everything the cat did, even using the litter box after watching Baxtor do it. Peyton worried about letting the creature wander her house freely, and kept a close eye on it, but both animals seemed perfectly content with the new arrangement.

After lunch, Peyton finally gave up on productivity. Feeling only a little guilty, she turned on Twelve Times Round the Sun. Romeo followed Baxtor as he jumped on the couch, and both animals were snuggled up with her before the theme song ended. Baxtor was soon snoring, but Romeo seemed to stare at the screen intently.  He only looked away to rub his head on Peyton when she petted him.

“Romeo is a good boy. Such a sweetie.”

The show was ridiculous and exactly what Peyton needed. She laughed every time the detective character said his silly catchphrase, “Sounds like someone’s looking for a fight. Honey, grab my guns!” You wouldn’t think the show could work it in so often, but somehow, they pulled it off.

That night, Peyton decided to skip the cat carrier so Romeo could access the food and litter box. She left him sleeping belly up on the couch when she went to her bedroom, shutting the door to keep the animals separated while she slept.

§

Peyton woke to the sound of something slamming into the back door. When she heard the sound again, she grabbed her comm and hit the emergency button to call the constable.

“Hello?” she whispered. “Constable Jenkins? I think someone’s trying to break in.”

“Dr. Putnam?”

“Yes.”

“Shoot. I’ll be there as fast as I can, but I’m a few minutes away.”

“What should I do?” Peyton’s skin felt icy with fear.

“Hide. Don’t engage with them. We’ll get there as fast as we can.”

Peyton crept as quietly as she could to her closet. The sound of her breath was loud in her ears, but after another loud bang, she heard the distinct sound of a door creaking open.

Suddenly, someone bellowed, “Sounds like someone’s looking for a fight. Honey, grab my guns!” in the exact threatening tone of the detective on the show.

Peyton wondered briefly if she’d left her monitor on before a different voice with a distinct Crystallian accent yelled, “Crap! Run!”

There was the sound of multiple people sprinting away. Soon, she heard her back door creak again and the familiar voice of Constable Jenkins.

“Hello? Anyone here?”

Peyton stumbled out of the closet and hurried towards the door.

Jenkins studied her. “You okay? The lock is busted. My deputies are checking the perimeter, but we haven’t seen anyone.”

“Someone shouted and scared them off.”

“Wh—” Constable Jenkins froze as Romeo strutted into the room. “Get behind me.” She moved so that she was between Peyton and the animal.

“It’s fine. That’s just Romeo.”

“You knew it was here?”

Peyton looked at the constable questioning. “Why are you freaking out? I splinted his leg. He’s sweet.”

“Did it hurt you?”

“Of course not.”

Jenkins’ face went through a whole series of emotions. “Do you know what that is?”

Romeo had slipped past Jenkins and was busy curling around Peyton’s ankles. Both women stared down at him. He blinked his enormous eyes and said, “Romeo is a good boy,” in a perfect impression of Peyton’s voice.

Jenkins looked shocked. “They’re mimics? That isn’t in the records.”

“It certainly explains a few things.” Peyton picked up Romeo and held him close.

“Put that thing down! It’s a Night Razor. Extremely dangerous.”

“I don’t care what he is because Romeo really is a good boy. He can stay as long as he wants.”




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 stories have appeared both here on Stupefying Stories and in Daily Science Fiction and Sci-Fi Shorts.

Learn more at https://kasmiley.wordpress.com/