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 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

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

SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

ANOTHER SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you want to get an early look at Eric’s latest work, READ THIS POST NOW!

Sunday, May 28, 2023

“The Final Command” • by Matt Krizan

As Captain Liska rode the turbolift to the bridge of the science vessel Galileo, her executive officer fidgeted alongside her. Commander Quiller tapped the thumbs of his clasped hands together, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“Something on your mind, Commander?” said Liska.

“Just not sure this mission's a good idea, sir.”

“Yes, you’ve made that quite clear. You may still opt out, if you’d like.”

“No, Captain. I’m with you, as always.”

Liska nodded, and Quiller settled into parade rest, gaze focused on the turbolift’s deck indicator light.

When the doors hissed open, they stepped onto the bridge.

“Good morning, AISA,” said Liska. “Status report.”

“All docking links have cleared. Engines are on standby,” replied the ship’s computer. “The Abernathy awaits your command, Captain Dascomb.”

Liska squeezed her eyes shut, suppressing a groan. “Very well,” she said, not bothering to correct AISA. “Back us out of the docking ring.”

Quiller shot her a dark look, but she ignored that too.


The third time Liska overrode AISA in the two hours since leaving the docking ring, manually correcting the ship’s course, she began to wonder if Quiller was right. AISA altering their flight path the first time hadn’t come as a surprise; such course changes had been happening with increasing frequency over the past three weeks. Liska hadn’t expected so many to happen so quickly, however.

“Is something the matter, Captain?” asked AISA. “Is our destination not Io?”

“We’re headed toward Sagitta,” said Liska, much as she had done the two previous times AISA had asked that question. “This is the Galileo, not the Abernathy.”

“The Galileo?” AISA emitted an electronic hiss, followed by a series of clicks. “Ah. Yes. My apologies, Captain. There would seem to have been some complications during the upload of my consciousness into the Galileo’s systems.”

Liska muttered something noncommittal, not bothering to point out that AISA had been fully integrated into Galileo’s systems for fifteen years.

“We are en route to Sagitta,” confirmed AISA. “I can resume helm control, if you would like.”

“No thank you, AISA. I’ll keep it on manual for now.”

Liska motioned Quiller over. As he leaned in, she whispered, “Go check on the homing beacons. Make sure they’re actively transmitting.” When he nodded and headed off, she muttered, “And let’s hope the Hauser is still tracking us.”


“Captain Liska?” said AISA. “Internal scans indicate the Galileo’s crew complement is the minimum necessary for normal operations, and I notice you are manning the helm yourself. My mission parameters are likewise sparse in comparison to those with which I am accustomed. Is there a reason for this?”

Liska hesitated, considering how to respond. The skeleton crew had been one of Command’s conditions when they’d reluctantly approved this mission. The “sparse” parameters, however, were Liska’s own doing.

“The purpose of the mission,” she said carefully, “has been classified Secret.”

“Even from me?”

Especially from you, Liska didn’t say.

AISA’s course changes, with her believing herself still to be integrated within her previous vessel, a military cargo hauler on the Jovian run, had been the first sign of something wrong with her. Other lapses had occurred in the subsequent weeks, with AISA referring to Liska as Captain Dascomb, the Abernathy's commanding officer, or with her reperforming sensor scans she’d already completed the day before. Over the past two weeks, AISA had repeatedly subjected Liska and Quiller to her observations on the Necklace Nebula, an unusual planetary nebula within Sagitta with which AISA was especially fascinated, so much so they could have repeated them verbatim.

While each of the other ship-based AIs of AISA’s generation had experienced similar degradations, for reasons the design engineers had been unable to determine, AISA’s decline was happening much quicker. Command had wanted her removed from service and a new AI uploaded into the Galileo’s systems, but Liska had persuaded them to allow AISA one last voyage. Given AISA’s increasingly frequent lapses into the past, AISA would probably forget this mission’s purpose even if Liska told her. Still, the captain felt it best to keep it to herself.

“Don’t worry, AISA. All will be revealed.”

Liska waited for a response, was surprised not to get one.


“Yes, Captain Dascomb?”

Liska shut her eyes, sighing heavily.


“Approaching Sagitta, Captain. Initiating a level-one survey of the Necklace Nebula.”

AISA’s pleased, almost eager, tone of voice brought a smile to Liska’s face, as had AISA’s delight when Liska assigned her the task. The smile was tinged with sadness, though. AISA gave no indication she remembered having performed the exact same survey six months ago.

Alongside Liska, Quiller sighed, his expression mirroring Liska’s mixed emotions.

“It was good you of you to do this, sir,” he murmured over the series of soft chirps AISA emitted while she worked. “My apologies for doubting you.”

“No apologies necessary.” Liska gave his forearm a squeeze. His fears about what could have gone wrong along the way had been valid, concerning Liska far more than she’d cared to admit.

“I must say, PN G054.2-03.4 is quite remarkable,” said AISA, referring to the Necklace Nebula by its official designation. “At its center was once a pair of orbiting stars, one of whom transitioned from main-sequence to red giant and devoured its counterpart. Before its eventual destruction, the counterpart actually orbited within the transitioning star.”

“You don’t say?” Liska traded smiles with Quiller.

“Indeed. And the colors we perceive, the red, green, and blue, result from the emission of specific elements.” As AISA continued, Quiller mouthed the words as she spoke them: “The red portion is comprised of nitrogen, the green represents oxygen, and the blue corresponds to hydrogen.”

Liska covered her mouth to hide her laughter.

As Quiller headed off to signal the Hauser and inform the trailing ship of their safe arrival, Liska settled in to wait. She listened, responding politely when appropriate, while AISA continued her survey.


“The rest of the crew have transferred over to the Hauser,” Quiller informed Liska quietly an hour later, “and the Galileo has been rigged for towing. We’re ready to, um…” He hesitated, glancing around as if AISA was standing right behind him. “We’re ready.”

Liska nodded, gritting her teeth. “Right.”

She listened for a moment longer as AISA chattered away happily, still fully engrossed in her survey. Liska had long ago ceased replying with anything more than the occasional murmur of acknowledgment, but AISA didn’t seem to mind.

With a sigh, Liska rose and crossed the bridge to the engineering workstation. She had wanted to wait until after they’d returned from Sagitta to take AISA offline, but Command had insisted it be done now. The one trip out had been risky enough, they’d said. As Liska input the necessary commands, a growing tightness gripped her chest. She hesitated, fingers hovering over the control panel.

“Captain?” said Quiller, coming up alongside her. “Would you like me to…?” He gestured toward the control panel.

“No.” Liska shook her head. “Thank you, Commander. This was my idea, after all.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

As Liska keyed in the final command, AISA’s voice cut off abruptly. A series of trilling chirps sounded before those, too, trailed off.

Liska lingered amid the heavy silence that hung over the bridge.

“Goodbye, AISA,” she murmured. 


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 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.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

“No One Noticed” • by Avery Elizabeth Hurt

They landed on a hill just north of the city one morning during rush hour.
The ships were tall and narrow, some 150-meters high, and glowed with that deep, intense white of floodlights in sports stadiums. They stood there like sentinels, humming softly.

And no one noticed.

Cars keep alternately zooming and creeping toward the offices scattered on the hillside just below the ships. The people in the cars were thinking about the rudeness of the people in the other cars, how late they were or were not going to be, the arguments they’d had with spouses or children that morning or the night before, how lousy the coffee was getting to be at their local coffee shop, what sort of car they’d get next time they traded, how rude were the people in the other cars, and on and on ‘round the loop, circling back and circling back, going not much of anywhere in their minds just like they were going not much of anywhere in their cars.

The ships stood there glowing and humming for several weeks, then the aliens got off the ships and began to take over the city. At this point a few people noticed, but not many. It wasn’t that the aliens were being crafty or subtle. In the same bold way they landed their ships at the spot they were most easily seen from the city, they marched openly into city hall, and the major banks and corporations, and began reprogramming computers and destroying files, and changing coffee vendors and cubicle layouts.

But for most people life went on pretty much as it always had. A guy would pass a ten-foot-tall semi-transparent creature with slits for eyes, mutter “Good morning,” and go into his cubicle and start doing whatever it was he had done before they took over. After a few weeks, the few people who had noticed decided that something had to be done. They formed a committee.

It was several more weeks before the committee actually met. First they had to reserve a conference room, and that was tricky now that the aliens had changed the scheduling software. It took three IT guys the better part of a week to reconfigure the calendar app so that they could reserve the room they wanted (a small one, on the quieter side of the building—they wanted to keep this on the DL, of course). Then there was a problem with getting the agenda sent ‘round to everyone and signed-off on. Kirby from finance kept adding items, and Sommers from marketing kept suggesting they have the meeting catered and spent a couple of weeks soliciting opinions about which delis were best for these smaller meetings.

Eventually, however, they managed to gather (Harder’s deli, great wraps that they cut into bite-size pieces so they were easier to eat at meetings, and inexpensive, too, which appealed to Kirby) late one Thursday afternoon and put their heads together about the problem of the alien takeover.

Suggestions were floated and noted. And there was a bit of a kerfuffle over whether to confront the aliens openly or to use some kind of subterfuge. There was also a big discussion about which humans could be trusted. But after a great deal of back and forth, the committee came up with a plan. It was agreed that the plan would be drawn up, submitted for review, and then presented to the proper authorities as soon as the committee in charge of deciding who were the proper authorities had made its recommendations.

A few months later, an alien passed a human in the hallway. The human, Patterson from human resources, was one of the founding members of the resistance. He glanced away quickly, avoiding the alien’s eye, and clutched close to his chest the folder containing the fourth draft of the seven-point statement of resistance. The alien didn’t notice.



Avery Elizabeth Hurt is a science journalist and author. Her science writing has appeared in many national publications, including Discover, National Geographic, and Medscape. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, SciPhi Journal, and Double Helix magazine.

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 26: I Made A REALLY Weird Sapient Alien…What Do YOU Think?

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota. Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction. After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

I’ll be expanding on Creating Alien Aliens Part 15 – you can read it here:

I’m going to assume that if you want to follow along with my process, you’ll read that first – I did before I tried this. I also at least SKIMMED the links I found, too. The most important point in this exercise is this: “The biggest difference between Humans and Sapient Jellyfish is that one Jellyfish is an entire world. The parts of the Jellyfish ARE NEVER ALONE! They are always together; always experiencing each other. Would they even understand the IDEA of the alien? I think Humans get it because anyone outside of us is an alien. You don’t know what I’m thinking; I don’t know what you’re thinking. And even with my very dearest friend, my wife…I truly have no idea what she is thinking.”

“An Intelligent Jellyfish would never be alone because it would be aware of all of its parts…”

So…The boat pulls alongside the spiral, careful not to keep the motor going. I’m trying to make first contact with something that I’ve never even seriously considered being sapient and chopping it into little bits wouldn’t be a particularly effective opening contact. I look down into the water, then in a suit, I slip in. No tech to start with, no wetsuit, just a mask, snorkel, and flippers, I recall an observation from the article: “This gelatinous, stringy siphonophore is composed of millions of tiny cloned organisms called zooids. Many of the smaller components are equipped with lethal stinging cells that stun and kill the bizarre animal's intended prey. Those specialized organisms connect into a coiled string that cooperate together as a team.” And then, “Witnessed in a saucer-shaped feeding position, the fragile organism floats in the fathomless depths searching for food like some otherworldly phantom. It’s made of millions of interconnected clones. There are about a dozen different jobs a clone can do in the colony, & each clone is specialized to a particular task. THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behavior: it’s hunting.”

According to research and a dab of speculation, we know that the Siphonophoroid would have zooids that are either polyps (stick to things) or medusae (move around like tiny jellyfish – or as a groups, they would amplify what an individual would do; nectophores assist in the propulsion and movement in water and can coordinate the swimming of colonies or work in conjunction with reproductive structures in order to provide propulsion during colony detachment. Others zooids like bracts protect the colony and maintain neutral buoyancy; gastrozooids are polyps that assist in feeding; palpons regulate the circulation of gastrovascular fluids; pneumatophores are gas-filled floats that help the colonies maintain their orientation in water and assist with flotation and in some, function to sense pressure changes and regulate chemotaxis in a direction corresponding to a gradient of increasing or decreasing concentration of a particular substance.

Lemme abbreviate that: they can stick to stuff or move; coordinate movement of different parts of the organism; detach parts of the colony; protect the colony; eat; circulate what was eaten; stay in a particular orientation; sense pressure changes and concentrations of chemicals in the water.

Once in the water, the Siphonophoroid…ugh! Let’s call them Sipho – because the sapient isn’t a creature like us. It’s a colony. If it does something, maybe it has to agree to do something. I sort-of understand that – I only have a limited number of parts of me that can act independently. I’m sure you can think of some, but I’m going with my heart – not doing anything exciting, it beats nice and steady. When I see a Blue or Bull or Hammerhead or Great White, but heart uncontrollably begins to beat faster! Theoretically, Sipho can ALL act independently.

So why doesn’t it? Why does this alien creature choose to stick together when any single part of it can take a vacation and no one would care? One advantage: so OTHER predators won’t eat it. Together, they make a rather intimidating creature – it certainly weirds me out, there swimming inside a huge coil of literally trillions of organisms!

I think I have enough to begin to “think like an alien”. This is first contact, so what does the sapient Sipho think?

There is unexpected movement near Us. Not the smooth movement of the usual creatures of our world – the sleek rush of a shark, not interested in anything like us; though the electrical activity of its neuron clusters are minor and mostly organized along simple response to environmental stimulation. The longer tendrils that might mean longer thoughts are not present.”

Even the larger Swimmers, while their electrical activity is long, it feels…slow. Content. Stay too long in their breeding waters, and We fall asleep! When we drift down where the pressure flattens us and there is no sense whatever of the shortened stimulation of the electromagnetic spectrum that amuses us. But we only look at the Deeps to see its differences. We bathe in the glory of the closeness of the light above the water.

The Unexpected startles the parts of us nearest and a highly coordinated pulse of EM races from one end of us to the other. The impulses of the Unexpected are long indeed – though not because it is long as we are. It is COILED impulse, as if the fizzing we speak with from one end to the other instead spins frantically in a very small space. It contemplates as we do, yet its thoughts are frantic; as if fearful.

The colony mostly decides to investigate. As we close the colony around the Unexpected, we form a tube, not touching it, but around it. We can now taste it – many tastes are the same, but some? Some are both unknown and startling. It is more solid than we are as well; we subject ourselves to the worldwide currents, drifting sometimes even into the near-freezing waters where the EM waves grow long; lazy; and the fluids must concentrate in us to avoid freezing solid. But the Unexpected is…entirely alien; like nothing…

Pause, some of the colony are clustering. Shortly we know that the Unexpected isn’t Unknown! Some have felt and tasted something like this. The Unexpected moves like we do, but…it is not like us. One part of it remains above the world, in the Above where we go to die; but it plunges into the water, and it’s as if the water around it lights up!

The part now in the water fizzes like the water in the highest storm or the deadliest struggle between the largest of the water’s inhabitants. It is stunning in the intensity of the fizzing. It nearly matches ours when we coil tightly to explore new parts of the world…

THAT is what we are reminded of! Our body, when we draw so close together, one of the sleek swimmers finds it worth their effort to hunt us. Then we must waste the fizzing on protection rather than experiencing. So little time passes and the Unexpected vanishes. There was no warning. It didn’t not swim quickly like the sleek ones. It is gone, as if only a dream. We decide to sacrifice a group of chemical tasters and move the memories of the Unexpected to one place.

Perhaps we will taste them again; feel their fizzing clusters again? Is it truly a “they” as we are? Might they be somehow less than Us? THAT is an strange thought…we begin to compose the memory.

What kind of Human-Sipho story could I create with this? What kind of conflict? Sipho would be familiar with being prey; Humans are academically familiar with being prey – probably what keeps more people from wilderness camping or swimming with sharks or hunting lions. We’d just as soon not find ourselves on the menu.

I will say it was a…strange experience trying to…feel alien…Later…

My alien:
Resources: (basic background on the lifeforms and their characteristics); (article is more informative on the Siphonophore discovered a bit over a year ago off the coast of Australia), the larger YouTube on the bottom is a more general survey of the creatures (colony????), the Tweet is just a 30 second clip from the larger video…); (how fast does a nerve impulse travel?)