This Show Case features seven pieces submitted in response to our fourth Writing Prompt: Devolving. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt:
Submissions are due by the end of Monday, November 29, 2021, and will be published here the following Friday. Please attach yours as a .docx, .doc, or .pdf to an email to email@example.com. (Guidelines: any genre, approximately 6 – 1,000 words.)
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Ove Versus Volvo
by Scott Vander Ploeg
[The following anecdote is riffing liberally off of the novel, A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman. I innovate on the character by giving him a speech issue and presuming he frequently speaks English, neither of which is true in Backman’s narrative. If there is objection to my use of another author’s creation, I plead that I’m advocating for his work and suggesting that if you haven’t read it, you really should do so.]
Ove had a slight speech impediment, which amounted to mispronouncing the ‘th’ voiceless dental fricative as “de” or “duh.” This occasionally got him into miscommunication troubles. Normally his frequent assertion that “Dis day is dismal” would go unremarked. When he would argue with his former best friend over international politics though, his reference to “dermonuclear d’reats” caused the friend to giggle mercilessly.
Ove also had a rather strong penchant for the Saab line of automobiles. He was a purist in this view of the world, and would become apoplectic over other peoples’ habits of driving lesser vehicles. He truly and deeply hated foreign-made cars, but he reserved a special place in his Hell for domestic competitors, particularly Volvo.
Saab unfortunately had a limited appeal to consumers and never quite became popular enough to sustain the Swedish automobile maker. They negotiated a buyout with a Chinese firm circa 2011, but that turned into a trade disruption issue and the company effectively dissolved in 2012. It was replaced by National Electric Vehicle (of) Sweden, NEVS. As the new name indicates, they opted to change to one-hundred-percent electric cars. This was hailed as a great change, and certainly an environmentally positive improvement over a history of Saabs getting mileage per gallon in the low 20s, in spite of their claim for the mid-30s. For Ove, it was heresy.
NEVS of course touted the change in the former Saabs as “revolutionary.” When Ove came across this promotional advertising in his morning newspaper, he claimed it was “de Volvolution,” an apparent attempt at naming the electric innovation as a devolution of Volvo.
by Victor Acquista
JUVENIX—THE REVOLUTIONARY ANTI-AGING SUPPLEMENT:
Our unique, proprietary scientific formulation is based upon epigenetics and the selective activation of dormant codons within your genome. Subsequent natural production of cytokines, biomodulators, and hormonal regulators combine with the supplement’s powerful adaptogens and super-antioxidants. These ramp up your body’s protective mechanisms to rejuvenate your DNA and stop, or in some cases even reverse, the aging process at the cellular level…
Day 1: I almost can’t wait to start my Juvenix trial subscription. I felt hesitant that I had to set up an account and give my credit card information, but the company says I can stop any time and even get a refund if I’m not 100% satisfied. Yes, it is expensive, but I’m worth it.
It sucks getting old and I’m tired of looking in the mirror and seeing my thinning hair, flagging muscles, and expanding waistline. It’s time I recapture some of my youthful vitality and sexual prowess. The literature says it takes about a week before I’ll begin to notice the effects.
Day 5: Super encouraged! Less than a week and I definitely feel stronger.
Day 8: This Juvenix is amazing!! I notched my belt back one hole. There is some new hair starting from the receding portion of my forehead. It’s almost like the follicles that had been in full retreat are mounting a massive counter-offensive. Hair on top is thickening too.
Day 10: Unbelievable!!! I played some basketball today and was actually able to jump high enough to dunk; I was hanging from the rim like a showboating NBA star. The strength and quality of my erections has noticeably improved. Goodbye ED, hello old me. I feel at least fifteen years younger.
Day 13: My barber was shocked to see me back so soon since my last cut. He kept asking if I had switched haircare products and said he’d never seen anything like it. I had a buddy shoot some video of my basketball hoop-heroics and wore a tank to show off my biceps. The guns are looking awesome and it’s not from working out. It’s the Juvenix! I’m posting the video on my dating app profile.
Day 18: Becca, just the latest in my recent dating successes, called me an animal in bed. She couldn’t get over my lanugo. I didn’t know what the word meant but she noted it, especially on my back—soft baby hair that she kept stroking. She found it really sexy. I did check in the mirror and she’s right.
Day 20: The body hair has thickened and darkened. I checked the side effects listed for Juvenix and it mentions hirsutism. I had to look that word up. I really don’t want to have to start shaving my back. There are a lot of other listed side effects. The only other thing that caught my eye was “Musaphilia,” which I had to research. It comes from the taxonomy of bananas (genus Musa) and basically means love of bananas. Strange that I have been craving banana smoothies and fried plantains. The latter goes especially well with a big juicy cut of rare tenderloin.
Day 24: Kinda weird, but my collared shirts don’t fit anymore. It isn’t possible that my sleeve-length shrunk on a whole closet full of shirts, so the only thing I can conclude is my arms got a little longer. I don’t see that mentioned as a side effect. Maybe I should stop dunking and hanging from the rim. Besides, my ball-handling skills seem to have diminished and my center of gravity is off. At work, my boss said I looked hunched over at a meeting and it wasn’t a good look. I think he’s just jealous of my youthful vigor.
Day 27: Physically I feel fantastic but there is something wrong with my hands. The Juvenix packaging mentions loss of fine motor skills and digital dexterity as possible side effects of the supplement. I took a walk in the forest, climbed a tree, and ate a banana while weighing the pros and cons of continuing the trial.
Day 30: Sitting has gotten very uncomfortable and I can’t work squatting. I determined the reason why it’s become so painful. Using a mirror and some careful probing, there is no question that my tailbone is elongating. I wrote to the company as I could not find anything in the package insert about this as a potential side effect of Juvenix.
Day 31: A company rep called me. While there have been two cases of individuals taking Juvenix growing tails, there was not sufficient statistical power to determine if this represented a causal correlation. I can afford the extra bananas and depilatory products until I get electrolysis, but growing a tail is a deal-breaker. I asked for a refund; unfortunately, my 30-day trial subscription had expired and they already charged me for another month. It sucks getting old, but Mother Nature doesn’t go in reverse without crashing.
Day 50: I hate bananas!
Devolved: A Tale of Unraveling Interstellar Alliances,
Imperium Space Force Practices & Customs,
&Atomic Rearrangement of Troublesome Subject Peoples
by Carl E. Reed
The Hammer of God MCXXVI kthrummm-poinked out of hyperspace just beyond laser battery, psychic scream and nihilist missile range of the planet Holst Pak. A forbidding crenelated and gothic-spired death ship, it hung in the cold void of space like some nightmare blending of 31st century star destroyer and defensive medieval religious architecture.
“We are being hailed, commander,” announced Bravo Tango, the ship’s communications officer. Its bobbing eyestalks swiveled towards the captain’s chair.
“Ignore them for the moment,” Brok Groktonk ordered, rocking gently in the high-backed leather-and-chrome chair atop the command dais in the center of the bridge. He had the ape-like physique, caterpillar brows and dull gray eyes of the Imperium’s racial elect. His crisply starched black uniform shirt bore the pink crossed phalluses and crimson clenched-fist collar tabs of high command. “Weapons officer: lock plasma torpedoes on all major urban, exurban and suburban centers.”
Centered in the bridge’s viewscreen: a fertile blue-green planet.
“Done. Farms and rural villages?” inquired Omega Zulu, a high-sentience mud puddle bubbling in its heated, eight-handed tensor suit.
“Don’t anticipate the command.”
“Pardon, Grand Archon of Maximal Benefice and Judiciously Administered Acts of Terror.” Omega Zulu turned partially around on his swivel seat, nodded deferentially toward his black-uniformed and silver thigh-booted commander. “I have been justly upbraided; my children burn.” It offered the standard ritualistically phrased apology for having committed a breach of military discipline and courtesy.
“I piss on your children; grievance waved,” Comander Groktonk formally intoned. “Lock disrupters on all farms and villages housing upwards of a dozen sentient beings.”
Omega Zulu punched buttons and flipped switches on his weapon’s console. “Disrupters and plasma torpedoes locked on. 94,175.514,321 targets ready for tough-love jumbling.”
The doors to the bridge schlocked! open.
An upright-walking, uni-horned lizard stepped off the elevator and strode to the command dais. She halted beside the commander with a swirl of silken robes and twitch of studded tail, one dagger-fingernailed hand partially obscuring her long-snouted mouth as she uttered a rattling belch.
“People’s Commissar Verbeik Verbeikl on the bridge,” acknowledged Commander Groktonk.
“All hail the Scourge and Whip; kiss-lick the comrade’s bunghole,” chanted the bridge crew.
“At ease; party and state demand your deaths tomorrow,” Verbeik Verkeikl formally responded, a pendant snot bubble bursting in her left nostril.
“We serve to die!” the bridge crew responded as one.
Commander Groktonk raised an imperious gloved hand for attention. “Bravo Tango, open a hailing channel to the planet’s prime minister. One-way communication only.”
The insectile Delta Tango slid a lever on its console and twisted a dial to maximum gain. “One-way communication established, commander.” It’s rutilant chitin gleamed mellowly under the soft lighting.
Commander Groktonk lowered his hand. “You may read the state’s judgment and pronounce appropriate penalty, People’s Commissar.”
Verbeik Verbeikl cleared her throat, folded small forehands over one another and assumed a more upright stance. “Whereas the government and various confederated races of Holst Pak have renounced their association with the Imperium of Majestic Peoples in favor of a new alliance with the Fascist Federation of Far-flung Planets–such repudiation of our Imperium resulting in the loss of rare minerals, divers finished goods and a significant audience for our subspace radio teleplays, four-dimensional holo-vision scent dramedies and compelling tactical/taste commercial advertisements–the I.M.P. sentences you to a sentience-disrupting reordering of your atoms. Churn and burn, bitches.”
“Weapons officer—stand by to fire,” commanded the commander.
“Standing by,” said Omega Zulu.
“Fire!” barked Commander Groktonk.
The death ship lurched slightly.
Fiery plasma torpedoes and coruscating disrupter bolts shot toward the planet. Seconds later, the blue-green world turned reddish-orange as its surface shattered and rose in roiling dust clouds into the upper atmosphere and beyond, into the icy coldness of space.
Commander Groktonk stroked his clean-shaven chin. “Damn shame. We had such high hopes for a long and fruitful master-slave relationship with these vermin.”
Verbeik Verbeikl twitched her green-green tail. “Most unfortunate. Relations devolved.”
“So have we,” science officer Alpha Oscar muttered, an albino cat-like being with glowing golden eyes seated at her console, eyes fixed upon the apocalypse playing out on the bridge’s central viewscreen. She wore sable-soft Periodic Table vestments, a starched unified field equation breechcloth and clatter-clack slide-rule sandals.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t quite catch that.” Commander Groktonk swiveled the chair to face his science officer.
“I said, ‘Long live the Imperium of Majestic Peoples!’ ” Alpha Oscar cried, leaping from her seat to give the double stiff-armed obedience salute whilst kicking her own ass with a backward-snapping heel of her right foot. A slide-rule sandal flew off clattering and clacking.
“That’s what I thought you said,” Commander Groktonk commented. He swiveled his chair back to face the viewscreen.
Alpha Oscar resumed her seat. She made no move to retrieve the errant sandal.
“Charlie Roger,” Commander Groktonk called, addressing his navigation officer, “lay in a course for the pleasure planet Vagellium.”
“Course laid in, sir.” Charlie Roger, a rainbow-colored crustacean, tapped console buttons with its claws. “Speed?”
“One moment.” Commander Groktonk thumbed a switch on his chair’s armrest. “Sickbay.”
A voice crackled from the chair’s speaker. “Dr. Irquixi here.”
“Doctor, what is the libido status of the ship’s crew?”
“Give me a second, Brok.” Five seconds passed. “High yellow verging on redline,” came the response. “Ship’s log records rising rates of surliness, insomnia, general restlessness and erectile compunction.”
“Warp factor ten, Charlie Roger,” ordered the commander.
“Warp factor ten, aye-aye,” acknowledged Charlie Roger.
“Boogie,” commanded the commander.
The fiery image of the smoking, cindered planet Holst Pak disappeared from the viewscreen, to be replaced with an image of myriad white streaks–stars whipping past at warp speed.
“Erotic pursuits are a contemptible and counter-revolutionary waste of energies better utilized in achieving the indoctrination and production goals of the Imperium’s five-year plan,” the People’s Commissar sniffed.
“Quite,” agreed Commander Kroktonk. “Dismissed.”
Verbeik Verbeikl saluted with a jerk of her forearm. “There is no god but the people.”
“There are no peoples without gods,” Commander Groktonk formally riposted, returning the salute.
“I stand relieved,” said Verbeik Verbeikl. She stalked from the bridge.
There were dynamic tensions and unresolved contradictions aplenty gnawing at the heart of the Imperium, as the aforementioned closing exchange between the ship’s commander and People’s Commissar indicates. But that is a tale for a later ten-volume series of novels (of decreasing interest, artistry and relevance).
For now, all you need to know is: The anti-matter fueled engines of the Hammer of God MCXXVI thrummed away at 99.12 efficiency.
One thing more: Down on the planet Holst Pak, a battle-hardened cadre of elite, venom-stingered humming birds and velociraptor tit mice—secure in their command bunker miles underground—watched the glowing engines of the I. M. P. star destroyer fade in their consoles’ viewscreens. And plotted vengeance.
Worn out from constant battles with her studio,
repeatedly denied the respect she craved,
Maisie’s tough-as-nails façade had begun to crack.
by Mimi Speike
- The silent screen was the ideal showcase for her talents, but the silent era was rapidly coming to an end.
- A headstrong personality, she was labeled a troublemaker by the studios. At a certain point, no one would employ her.
- She was typecast. She played the same shallow characters again and again, generally in spoofs of top-grossing films.
- On the brink of a breakthrough role (in the Canary Murder Case), she shot herself in the foot. Did she realize Canary was the end of the line for her in cinema, and opt to go out on her own terms?
I explore Maisie’s remarkable journey in a cozy ‘You Are There’ format. I knew her well, having been her housemate for more than a decade. Sharing those wonderful memories is a therapy for me. I miss her terribly, even after all this time.
She slipped away from us in 1988. Did you happen to catch the obit in the New York Times? I reproduce it at the end of the biography I am preparing. Maisie in Hollywood is nearly finished. Expect to see it in bookstores at some point. (Can’t say just when, you know how these things go.)
“I swear to God, Bea. I’ll go out on strike. I’ve had it. You tell B.P., give her Rodentino back. Tell Percival (Benjamin Percival Schulberg, head of Paramount): you owe it to her. She’s the one discovered him. But for her demanding a skinny street rat be given a screen test, you’d be without your number one kiddie-matinee idol. No more, please, of sap costars who don’t know the first thing about fleshing out a role, who she’s expected to coax into giving a creditable performance.”
Bea sighed. “You’re on B.P.’s shit list, doll. He calls you a fad that’s run its course. He’s put out the word: Paramount is holding open auditions for animal actors. He wants fresh faces.”
“Run my course! Whose fault is that?” shrieked Maisie. “Write me better roles! I’ve got a wider range than that turd gives me credit for. I could handle Shakespeare, if he’d let me.”
“Lord! Don’t start with Shakespeare again!”
“What I’d really love is a chance to sing. Yes, to sing. I’m serious. Hey, you go to an opera, you don’t expect to understand what’s said. An opera, it’s the spectacle, the costumes, the vocals.”
“Get a grip, lady. You’re out of your ever-loving mind!”
“You’re tight with Donatella. (Bea Wanger, Maisie’s companion/manager, was friends with Donatella Ciccone, Schulberg’s personal assistant.) Put a bug in her ear: everybody’s favorite mousie is working on a tremendous new routine. Tell her, play Cossi Fan Tutti, she sings along, in perfect rhythm. She’s got the moves. Salome’s jig ain’t so very different from that Dance of the She-Dervish.”
Bea rolls her eyes. Maisie glowers.
“Okay, Bea-zee, maybe I agree with you. Maybe Shakespeare won’t go with my audience. But opera, opera has potential. It could be a hoot, and it’s right up my alley. Polly’s mama (Polly Benedict was her best friend back in Wichita) was a big opera fan, had tons of records. Aida … La Boheme … Casta Diva.” Maisie unleashes a string of sounds in ascending pitches, then cranks out a few bars of melody from Aida. “Ha!” she cried. Didn’t know I had it in me, did ya?”
Bea’s diplomatic reaction: “That’s something, that is. But what good is it, in a silent?”
“Look, talking pictures, they’re in the works, it’s no secret. Tell Percival, if he wants to make movie history, I’m his ace in the hole. Capture my voice, ship the recording out with the film. Comes my big scene, I’ll wiggle my ears, the cue to set needle to disk. Presto! Sound married to action, not the real thing, but amazing all the same.” (The effect would have been not much different from the genuine first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, in which Al Jolsen warbled in the middle of an otherwise silent film.)
“Beaz! My career is on the skids. This is the shot in the arm I need. Get Donatella on board, offer her a fat kickback. She’ll sell it to B.P. She works her ass off for the turd. Dollars to doughnuts, she’s despicably underpaid for it.”
“I’ll try, hon. I’ll try my best.”
“I need recordings. I’ll write you out a list. I know the tunes, but it wouldn’t hurt to refresh my memory. We’ll start with Carmen, move on from there. You intend to create a series of dances based on operatic themes. To get a grip on the lingo will help you focus. Get us a vocal coach, off the lot. Don’t tell me our boss-man ain’t preparing his actors for the switch-over to sound. You sing, I mimic you. Wow! I pick it up in nothing flat! I’m amazing! Get us Reynaldo. He’s a pal of mine.”
“A pal! Since when? You’ve never mentioned him to me.”
“Reynaldo is a grand gossip. He’ll make sure news of my newly discovered ability reaches the boys in two-seventeen (the building housing the executive suites). That’s the plan. What ‘ja think?”
“Could work,” mumbles Bea. “Could work, I suppose. If we’re lucky.”
“I supply my own luck,” says Maisie. “Always have.”
Donatella has succeeded in negotiating a deal for Maisie’s next picture. It’s not what she’d hoped for, but she won’t be filming on sand dunes in Palm Springs.
“I’ve got good news,” Bea tells her, “and I’ve got bad news.”.
“Let’s have it. Bad news first.”
“B.P. has nixed the opera idea.”
Maisie scowls. “Can’t say I didn’t expect it.”
“But he’s given a thumbs-up to Donatella’s brainchild, an updated version of The Taming of the Shrew.”
Maisie perks up.
“Easy, girl. Not Shakespeare’s Shrew. Another goof, I’m afraid. Well, that’s your shtick, no? Look at it this way: if you carry it off, it’s your win, you don’t share the credit with a hunky costar. This project is set. It’s in the works. Donatella is one hell of a schmoozer. Percy’s sold on it. So sold, he’s made her executive producer.
“Here’s the first taste of the meatier fare you hanker after. Shrew is no Siren Sands. You’re not a half-naked slattern, you’re dignified. You’re a gypsy princess. The down side is, you’re saddled with another sap, this time by a shrew. It’s got to be a shrew, or the concept falls apart. Live with it, eh? This could be your breakout role. You’re headed in the right direction.”
Maisie’s eyes signal her consternation.
“No long face there, cutie. Deliver for Donatella. Once B.P. believes in her judgment wholeheartedly, she’ll push the operatic idea. She’s in our corner on this. She’s pledged to make it happen.
A bit of Tinseltown trivia: It was Ciccone who got Mulot into The Canary Murder Case, in a juicy cameo appearance alongside, get this: Louise Brooks and William Powell! Maisie blew that opportunity by refusing to return from Europe to do publicity for the film. The silent was dubbed (find the awkward re-do on YouTube) and released as a talkie, her big scene reshot without her.
The demise of a marvelous film career was her own doing. What might she not have accomplished, had she submitted to Schulberg’s not-so-very-onerous demands!
Sadly, much of her work has deteriorated past the possibility of restoration. Landmark early films have been revitalized. No one saw fit to spend time and energy on the lightweight two-reelers she specialized in.
A delectable creature enthralled the popular imagination in the latter half of a turbulent period known as The Roaring Twenties. The scrapbooks she left me document her remarkable achievements. I include thrilling never-before-seen stills in my bio-in-progress.
Story of Life
by Mike Van Horn
“Explorer 25, report. Have you found the blinker?”
“Affirmative, Control A. There’s an object at the northern pole of a small airless planet circling an orange dwarf. It’s broadbanding at a regular period. We’re launching the drones and ai-bot to get a close up.”
“You are 4,000 light years from Home in toward center. This is far beyond any of our Confluence worlds, right?”
“Affirmative, Control A. Yet clearly not a natural phenomenon. Stand by, first images returning. In a crater on a high ridge, a smooth iridescent object, looking like a flattened pearl. Half a kilometer across according to radar.”
“Any sign of life?”
“Only the winker. Seems more like a beacon. This is not an auspicious location for life. No atmosphere, beyond goldilocks, near absolute zero, gravity point two.”
“Send in the ai-bot; maintain protection with drones.”
“Roger. Ai-bot going in. We maintain orbit at Lagrange 4. Drone 1 on surface; no reaction, no vibration.
“Ai-bot touch down on surface of object. It’s hard, cold, no vibration. Featureless. Iridescent pearl color. Seismics suggest it’s hollow, not solid.
“Stand by, Control A! Darkening where ai-bot landed. An opening directly beneath it. It’s hovering above an opening.”
“Explorer 25, bring up four drones to provide cover, then send ai-bot slowly into opening, maintaining comm on all frequencies, especially visual.”
“Copy that. Ai-bot is inside. Turned on its lights. Airless. Two drones enter to provide more light. Hard to get the scale of this.” Rangefinder says 450 meters side to side. A winking light below. Ai-bot settles toward it. A pedestal with a silvery sphere atop it, like a golf ball on a tee. 30 meters high; sphere is 5 meters across.
Spread out around it on the floor is a huge entity, looks like a giant worm, but shriveled and desiccated looking. About 150 meters long if stretched out.
“One moment. The glowing sphere is extending a rod toward the ai-bot, with petal-like flanges opening on the end. Radio waves in broad range of frequencies, beeping, counting, 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4. It’s trying to communicate. Our ai-bot moves in, touches it. We pick up a multiplicity of signals, some electronic, some musical.
“It’s trying to communicate with our ai-bot. And vice versa.” Very rapid exchange of signals, presumably data.
“I deduce they’re coming to agreement on numbers, and operators. Equations.”
“Now channeling to you through the ai-bot.” Static, a flashing line. Resolves into video images.
Two entities are exchanging images and naming them, looking for commonalities. “I think they are teaching each other their languages. Images of its world and ours; ours is blue and white; it’s is gray and has parallel latitude lines.”
“Look. An image of the huge worm on the floor, but alive and moving.”
“It wants to speak to us.”
“It’s gonna take a while for these two to learn to carry on deep conversations with each other.” “But not that long. We’re building up a lexicon of this thing’s language.”
“Yes, and it’s building up a lexicon of ours. Is that a good thing?”
The image of the giant worm speaks. It’s brightly colored skin patches ripple. “Look, it’s smoking! Something like a hookah. Like that worm in Alice in Wonderland. Absalom? We’re relaying what it is saying, as translated by our ai-bot.”
It speaks. “Who are you? Who are you that has found us here? We have disintegrated, decayed. Are there any pieces of us left?”
“I’m going to respond to it, Control A.” To the image, “We see a lifeless being curled beneath us. How long have you been here? Where are you from?” It puffs on its hookah.
“Too bad this is only an image. Here it is again.”
“Our stars are no longer. They have grown dim. They shatter and fling their very being into the void. Very far from here in time and distance. I know not where I am.”
“Ai-bot, give our friend here data on where and when we are.”
It took a moment to assimilate our data. “Ah. This celestial body and its star once orbited much closer to the core of our galaxy. Knowing the rate of spread of the galactic rings, we estimate that we have drifted for more than three turns.”
“What’s a turn?”
“I think it must mean one rotation of Milky Way galaxy—about two hundred million years.”
“So it’s saying seven hundred million years.”
It shifted. “Alas, alas, our worlds thrived for over twenty turns before that.”
“That’s four to five billion years at least. As old as Earth’s sun.”
“Unknown beings, may I inquire, how old is your world race?”
We had to stop and calculate. “Us? We go back only two parts in a thousand of one turn.
Silence. “Do you know the stories of the ancient beings from all the turns?”
“No we do not. The oldest world races we know of, or have heard of, go back a tiny fraction of a turn.”
“It is as we feared. We are forgotten.” “What do you want? Why are you here?”
A puff, filling the image space with smoke. “Punishment. I am punished. For believing our story was everlasting. I was locked into this pebble for all eternity to prove to me that no other story would emerge. Device minds propelled me far into the outer reaches of the galaxy, far beyond where our hot worlds had thrived.”
“Yet here we are, hearing your story.”
“Yes, you have released the curse on my being.”
“Let me tell you of my life. The universe is getting old,” it intoned, and puffed. “In my youth, in the youth of our kind, in the youth of the galaxy, the stars were plentiful and close. New stars constantly erupted into existence, and old stars blasted their innards into the cosmos to form the next round of living stars. The roar of cosmic energy enlivened all the world races of the nearby galaxies. Easy for us to move from one star to the next.
“And we did. Vast were our confederations. Spread across this galaxy and its neighbors. All the beings of all the worlds reveled in our fight against dreaded entropy.
“In my youth, in the youth and strength and joy of my world race, our story was everything. The most valuable thing we had. To tell our story, to preserve our story, was our most important task. For billions of your years, if I am converting numbers accurately, we sang.
“I was keeper of the story for our worlds. We rejoiced in the story, and I was renowned in my telling, that drew all the beings of the myriad worlds together. I sang their stories at the Songstone on our beautiful main world.”
It sang a discordant song:
The universe is cold and uncaring
Life is a nothingful scum.
We life, we always crave meaning
where no meaning can ever be found.
So let us create some meaning
to build our short lives around.
We build temples and towers,
our passions and stories,
our shames, our wars,
our conquests and glories
while starwheels spin uncaring above.
Thus we sing and continue the story
the most valuable gem that we hold
Tell our fleeting hope and our glory
When song dies, so too dies our meaning
so sing it till heavens grow cold.
“As the universe aged, it expanded, and the rate of star formation diminished. The onrush of cosmic energy that had long powered us cooled down. The rivers of hot ionized gas became trickles, constrained by the gravity of the stars.
“Our worlds also cooled, became lethargic, staid, less interested in reaching out to new world races. In fact, hostile to them. We pushed them away. Pieces of the broad confederation broke off. Peoples began to drift away, no longer keep their story connected to the central stream. World races died, leaving behind the detritus of ancient civilizations and dead stories.
“Yes we degenerated, we devolved. The Confederation of oxygen breathing races, we story tellers, we space farers, fell apart.
“The wise could see the ultimate futility of preserving our story, as we sank into inevitable cold entropy. Yet I still believed; thus I was sent into exile as my punishment.
“Now, after all these turns, you have found me, and I desire to pass along to you and your races our story. Then I can pass into the realm of entropy without regret.”
“How will you do that?”
“This shining sphere contains all our stories, our knowledge. Use it wisely.”
“Control A, you have heard this, right? What an opportunity for us! We can tap into technologies and knowledge beyond our imagination. This could provide the biggest ever boost for our worlds. Our confederation of worlds will thrive and spread throughout the galaxy. Perhaps beyond.”
“I think not, Explorer 25. It’s dangerous. We’re not ready for this. Such knowledge would tear us apart.”
“What if we kept it secret? Allow only a special few to have access to it?”
“No, they would become a controlling elite.”
“What then can we do with it.”
“I say we destroy it. It’s an egg, a seed. A noxious weed. If we let it take root in our civilization, it will overwhelm us. It will spread throughout our star systems.“
“It can’t do any such thing as long as we keep it here and only interact with it via our AI devices. This would allow us to live for a billion years.”
“Sorry, we can’t allow you to continue with this. We have trained the drone’s laser weapon on the pearl in the crater.”
“No, don’t . . .”
My Brother’s Keeper
by Curtis Bausse
‘Come on, own up.’
‘No, you own up, Jock. You did it, not me.’
‘What? Are trying to deny it? You were caught red-handed!’ I shake my head, more sad than angry, but I’m getting fed up all the same. ‘Now look where you’ve landed us.’
Jake wriggles his shoulder like something’s crawling over them that he can’t get rid of. For a moment I think he’s going to cry. His weapon of last resort. But this time I’m not going to soften. This time he’s gone too far.
‘When I give you something to do, you don’t just do it, you accept the consequences, OK? It’s too easy otherwise. Never any blame when you screw up – the world doesn’t work like that. I can’t do everything myself, that’s why I employ you. It’s called devolving, it’s a managerial skill. Do I ask you to make the plans, set everything up, stay awake at night worrying? No, I don’t. That’s all on me. I’ve got enough to do without looking after you. Am I my brother’s keeper?’
‘I’m not your brother! Stop calling me that!’
‘It’s just an expression, Jake. And I’ll call you whatever I want.’ He’s whimpering in the corner now, face buried in his arms, but I’m determined. Tough love maybe, but he’s got to understand. It’s for the good of us both. I prise his hands away from his face and make him look me in the eye. ‘Now you’re going take a deep breath and tell me who did it, all right?’
A long, sullen, resentful silence. I’m afraid he’ll refuse yet again, but eventually he whispers, ‘I did.’
I pat his shoulder. ‘Good lad. There, it wasn’t so difficult, was it?’
‘I’m sorry, Jock.’ He sobs openly now. ‘Punish me any way you want, but please don’t fire me.’
‘Don’t worry.’ He’s confessed. That’s all I wanted. We’ve been punished enough as it is, I’m not going to punish him more. I rock him in my arms, murmur the words he desperately needs to hear. ‘You’re safe with me, Jake, you always will be. I’ll never get rid of you. Never.’
Some time later Jake is softly sleeping, and I’m thinking things might not be so bad after all when the door swings opens and a guard pushes the new guy inside. Surly scowl, scar all down his cheek, and mean, murderous eyes. Christ! That’s all I need! They told me we’d have to share, but a thug like that? Jake will never survive.
‘What?’ I leap to my feet, grab hold of the guard as he turns to leave. ‘There’s no room. It’s me and my brother in here.’
‘Huh?’ He looks around the cell, bewildered. ‘What the hell are you on about?’
From the Highest Heights
by S.T. Ranscht
“Blotter acid?” Damon asked. “What’s blotter acid?”
Robert fidgeted and rolled his eyes waiting for his tab.
Stephanie drew a card and moved her piece to the next yellow square. “It’s just a different delivery system,” she said. “Blotter paper gives you extra fiber with none of the empty calories of a sugar cube. Even diabetics could take blotter acid.”
“Okay, okay,” Robert leaned across the board with his hand out. “Nobody here is diabetic are they?”
“Check your attitude, Bob. If you have a bad trip, it’s gonna ruin it for all of us, and Mom and Dad will find out.” She gave a little square of soft paper to each of the boys and placed one on her tongue. Zipping the rest up in the baggie, she smacked Robert’s hand away when he reached for it.
“Hey!” He looked offended. “You’ve got plenty. I just want one more. What’s your problem?”
“I’m not the one with a problem. Don’t be an idiot. You don’t know how strong this stuff is yet.”
Damon held his square between his thumb and forefinger, studying one side and then the other. “How long till we feel it? How will we know if it works?”
“If it’s good stuff,” Robert said, mashing his between his molars, “15 or 20 minutes, maybe less. And you’ll know, believe me.”
“It’s not always the same for everybody, even from the same batch. But Robert’s right — you’ll know,” Stephanie assured him. “Just don’t start laughing.”
“You won’t be able to stop. Whose turn is it?”
Robert snatched a card. “Mine! Cool, double blue.” He hopped his piece from the next blue to the one after that.
With a doubtful look on a face anticipating disaster, Damon squeezed his eyes shut as he slowly brought the tab to his mouth. Stephanie and Robert watched him chew and swallow.
“Take your turn,” Robert urged.
Damon drew Plumpy. “Crap!” He moved his piece all the way from Princess Lolly to the bottom of the board.
“You’re going the wrong way, man,” Robert said with glee, jumping to his feet. “I’m gonna go get something to drink. You guys want anything?”
“Do you have Dr. Pepper?” Damon asked without much hope.
“Dr. Pepper?! Who drinks Dr. Pepper?” Robert wanted to know.
“There’s some out in the garage,” Stephanie said. “If you want it cold, I can put it in a glass with ice.”
“That’d be great,” Damon said. “Thanks.”
Robert and Stephanie left the room.
When Stephanie and Robert returned, Damon was bent over the board, staring intently at the Peppermint Forest.
“Look at this, you guys,” he commanded. “The trees. Are waving. In the wind.”
Stephanie started to laugh and clapped her hand over her mouth instead.
“It’s woooorkiiing!” Robert sang.
Stephanie handed Damon his drink. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Dr. Pepper,” she reminded him.
He took a sip. “Wow. It tastes like… being buried alive. But in a good way.” His other hand swept past his eyes. He looked worried. “What’s wrong with my hand?”
“Nothing,” Robert said. “It’s just trails.”
“Let’s go outside,” Stephanie suggested.
They got as far as the front porch. Robert shut his eyes and leaned back against the house. Damon stood at the rail scanning the sky. Stephanie sat in the rocker but didn’t rock.
“If I don’t move,” she announced, “this is just a chair. I have the power to define my surroundings.” She watched Robert for… ever. “What are you doing, Bob?”
Without moving or opening his eyes, he answered, “I’m”
Fifteen minutes passed.
Fifteen more minutes passed.
“What do you see?” she asked.
After several minutes, he said, “The temperatures are coming off me in different colors.”
“Cool,” she said. “Let’s take a walk.”
“I don’t think I can,” Robert objected.
“Yes, you can,” she told him.
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“It doesn’t matter. They know what to do.”
Damon whimpered, “I can’t stop them.”
“Who?” Stephanie asked. “What are they doing?”
“The words,” he answered. “They’re marching in my head.”
“What words?” Robert asked.
“Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you are ABCDEFG HIJK elemenopee Marry had a little lamb—”
She took Damon by the hand and led him down the steps.
“Whoa,” Robert said. “You just went through me and I disappeared.”
“Can you walk now?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Damon looked closely at his hand holding Stephanie’s. “There’s so much energy.” He looked at Stephanie’s face. “Can you feel it?”
Stephanie looked surprised. “Yes. It feels good.”
Robert tripped over something as he passed them. He stopped to investigate. “Look. It’s a rock. But feel it.” He held it out to his sister. He whispered conspiratorially, “It’s not solid.”
“Neither is your foot,” Damon offered.
“That’s right,” Robert remembered. “So my foot should have gone right through it.” He stopped. “Oh, no. I’m in the wrong universe.”
“You know the story about the infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters for all eternity?” his sister asked him.
“Typewriters?” he countered.
“Eventually, they will type the complete works of Shakespeare.”
Damon’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Can they read?”
“No. Monkeys can’t read.” Robert sounded indignantly certain.
“They don’t have to read,” Stephanie clarified. “Their typing is totally random. But if they type forever, they’ll type everything that ever was, and everything that will ever be. In every universe.”
“And a shit-ton of complete nonsense,” Robert added.
They stood silent for no one knew how long.
Looking up, Damon declared, “The sky. Oh my God. I just realized the sky goes all the way to the ground.”
Robert followed Damon’s gaze. “Does it go all the way up?”
Stephanie joined them. “No.”
“Why not?” Damon asked.
“Because of Space,” she said.
Damon’s jaw dropped. “Wow. That’s real.”
Robert turned to look at her. “Is that where the monkeys are?”
Cocking her head to scrutinize him, she started laughing a gasping, unstoppable tsunami of absurd laughter. So did they.
She dragged them back into the house to collapse on the living room floor, briefly aware — but not really caring — that they had lost control. Only Stephanie noticed how grungy the walls looked. Like they were covered with cobwebs. It would take hours to clean them off.
This trip was definitely over.