BOOK REVIEW: Corporate Gunslinger by Doug Engstrom

written by David Steffen

Corporate Gunslinger is a science fiction action/drama novel by Doug Engstrom premiering this week with Harper Voyager. Full disclosure: Doug has been a friend for years and is a member of the same small writing group as me, this review was based on an advanced reader copy from the publisher.

Kira is deeply in debt, so deeply that she has decided to sign a contract to become a gunslinger who settles disputes for a major corporation by representing them in good-old-fashioned gun duel (albeit with science fictional tweaks to the format). The story takes place in a sadly-plausible future United States where this is the norm. She must fulfill her contract to make enough money to have a chance of paying off her debt. The alternative is worse: lifelong debt slavery enforced by a chip that makes sure she is always under their control.

Kira is not the fastest, nor the most accurate, but she is working hard to get better at both, and her background gives her an edge that others don’t have. She was a theater major hoping to make it big and she intends to use this the best she can to better understand her opponents and convey the persona she wishes to convey. If she wants to stay alive and in control of her own life she has to find a way to win matches and live with herself afterward.

This story is dark and not for the light-hearted, but I think that it is a glimpse at a future we would better avoid. Kira is a relatable protagonist though she is pressed into doing terrible things on behalf of her corporate employer to save herself. It is no lighthearted book but it is compelling and Kira is easy to root for in her seemingly impossible situation. I quite enjoyed it and am happy to recommend it.

Corporate Gunslinger’s official release date is June 16, 2020. I hope you check it out!

DP FICTION #62B: “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris

You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

Your eyes scan the renovated warehouse where the doctor has set up shop, which doubles as a Pilates studio at night. You ask how many times he’s done this before.

The doctor stops whisking and cracks open a soda can. He says he’s performed this procedure literally dozens of times. Several droplets of Diet Mountain Dew splash into the mixing bowl, but the doctor appears unconcerned. You look for reassurance in the form of laboratory equipment, all of which looks state of the art, judging by the assortment of alembics, vials, and tubes on his table, and the size of the 3D printer, which has been whirring since you arrived, churning out a neon-orange human skull. (The Pontius Pilates T-shirts sold at the front desk also appear to be tastefully designed and a flattering fit.) The doctor resumes whisking, mixing in three cups of plaster of Paris and most of an already-open box of baking soda from the break-room refrigerator. He adds the last of the cremains to the cremixture. With each stroke of the whisk he counts aloud, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. You don’t want to over-beat the batter, he says.

The 3D printer stops, and the doctor remarks on its perfect timing. The skull is the last piece of your husband’s new skeleton. He picks up the skull and examines it like Hamlet pitying Yorick. Think fast, he commands, tossing you the skull. You drop your keys to the table as you grab for the plastic skull. You bobble it, but manage to clamp your hands around it before it hits the floor. The doctor laughs—what fun! You nod as your blood pressure de-escalates out of hypertension. You carefully hand your husband’s skull back to him as he makes the “gimmie-gimmie” gesture. He then wheels a gurney out from behind a curtain, upon which rests a plastic skeleton rendered in lemon yellow, except for the collarbone and left shoulder blade. He had run out of the yellow resin, the doctor says, and used the next closest color to finish up. The hues clash, but God willing, you’ll never see your husband’s candy-corn-colored skeleton again anyway.

He jams the skull onto the spine in a manner resembling, both in physical strain and amount of cursing, the time your husband replaced the front axle of the Hyundai. A loud click makes you think his plastic spine has snapped, but the rapidity with which the doctor extends his hand toward you for a fist bump suggests the skeleton is officially ship-shape.

The doctor startles, realizing he almost forgot an important step. It’s the third important step he’s almost forgotten, but who’s counting? You hand him the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that will serve as your husband’s new brain, which will regulate all bodily systems, including the Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that will be his new heart. You were up all night loading photos of you and your husband, the honeymoon, the house, Max the doggo, and your vacation to Colorado that one time into the special Dropbox folder labeled “FRIENDLY_FILE.” You also sprung for Spotify Premium and loaded it with playlists of his favorite songs. And for good measure, you pirated Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones. The doctor snaps the brain into place, plugging the USB cable into the complex system of wires that snakes through and around the skeleton. Several times he pauses and rewinds a YouTube tutorial on how to wire a drone helicopter to make sure he’s got things right. The doctor sees you looking and reassures you that he’s done this literally dozens of times.

Now it’s time to add the chicken wire. Wrapping it around the bones like he’s taping a sprained ankle, he explains the wire mesh gives the new flesh something to grab onto, like patching a hole in drywall. Most importantly, it functions as a cage for the skeleton. Did you know we’ve all got a spooky skeleton trapped inside us that wants to escape? You point out that this skeleton is plastic. The doctor shakes his head–a well-made skeleton knows it’s a skeleton, ready to burst out of at the first sign of weakness. You can find no fault in his logic; they can do amazing things with 3D printers these days.

The doctor secures the chicken wire with a bag of zip ties from Home Depot. He then grabs a drywall knife and scoops a big pile of the cremains mixture onto the wire-encased right shin. He mentions his patent-pending skin formula is completely full-moon proof. You ask what happens on a full moon. The doctor beams—NOTHING, thanks to his secret formula! His hunched-over posture of concentration reminds you of the tattoo artist when you and hubby got matching pinup girls with the word “LOVE” inscribed underneath. The doctor draws several occult-looking symbols onto your husband’s chest with a chopstick you’re not sure is unused. You decide not to remind him of his promise to re-create the tattoo.

By the by, the doctor wants to know how your husband will be spending his time once he comes back to life. There’s lots of red tape about reasons for reanimating a loved one. For instance, valid reasons include appearing as a surprise witness at a murder trial, spending one last Christmas with the fam, or firing their loathsome successor at the family business. Activities such as acting as a human shield, digging their own grave, or being the patsy in an elaborate jewel heist are strictly verboten (though for jewel heists, the role of “the brains of the outfit” is acceptable). You respond that your husband is dead, isn’t that reason enough? You miss the conversations, the cuddles, the creature comforts of living with your best friend. You can’t cope with your husband’s death without him, and yes, you know how crazy that sounds. The doctor nods—moving on is a lot harder for the living than the dead.

The doctor positions several oscillating fans next to your husband, and invites you to join him outside for a smoke while the new flesh dries. You confide to the doctor that you feel like you should stay there with your once-and-future husband, but part of you doesn’t want to be alone with this mound of corpse batter. He says that’s a perfectly natural response. Also, could he bum a smoke from you?

The mixture has dried, and the doctor tells you—and these are his words—it’s time to turn and burn, baby. Or perhaps he was talking to your husband, and you’re not sure which makes you more uncomfortable. He grabs a series of electrodes connected to a thing, licking each one like it’s a postage stamp, and attaches them to your husband’s new flesh. The doctor dons a pair of heavy rubber gloves, a welding mask, and a lead vest. He then hands you a pair of safety glasses you wouldn’t trust if you were making a homemade birdhouse. When he tells you to stand back, you backpedal behind a reinforced shield wall at a velocity that will leave your muscles sore for two days.

Before he throws the master switch—one of those oversized red buttons labeled “easy” they sell at Staples for six bucks—the doctor rattles off the safety concerns you’d already learned from his website, but which he’s required by law to mention again. For example, your husband will go out looking for those responsible for his death. You reply that he was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. The doctor winks and points at your husband. He knows who did it. Oh-ho-ho-ho, he knows.

The doctor asks if you have pets. You mention your corgi, Max, whom the doctor advises you to give away. When you protest, the doctor purses his lips and puts a hand on your shoulder. In his gentlest voice he tells you that, two weeks from now, one way or another, the dog won’t be living with you. This information was not on the website, and you mention, rather forcefully, that Max had been your husband’s dog and without him you couldn’t have held it together, and it would’ve been good to know he couldn’t stay before you started this process. The doctor thanks you for this constructive criticism. You ask the doctor if anybody loves him enough to reanimate him after you strangle him to death. He laughs and says yes, his credit card company. You don’t know what to say to that.

The doctor asks if you have any final questions. Just one, the one you’ve been dreading, the one about which the website was very vague—will your husband still be capable of love? The doctor’s face contorts to one of revulsion as he tells you no. You only meant to ask whether your husband could still feel love as an emotion. He chuckles, relieved, saying the answer to that is also no. All his favorite sports teams? Hubby hates them now. He will harbor a deep, unspoken resentment toward all living creatures, and you especially. Maybe it’s because you disturbed his rest, or you dragged him away from Heaven, or who knows what. Your husband won’t really know, either. He’ll probably lash out at you. He might say something passive-aggressive while watching TV. He may lift the car over his head and hurl it at you. He might start a petty argument for no good reason. This is all perfectly normal and expected. While you will be legally responsible for him, he still has his own will and desires, and he’ll want more out of his new life than reliving his old one; the dead are, by necessity, better at moving on than the living.

The doctor asks if you still want to go through with this. His face shows none of the mirth he’d exhibited up to that point. You pause, contemplating how easily you could tell your friends the doctor turned out to be a flake. You could walk away and keep your dog with nothing lost but your deposit. Well, that and the idea of seeing your beloved’s face again. And he would still be your beloved, no matter what the doctor said. You give the final okay.

The doctor presses the button. You’re half-expecting lightning to course into your husband’s new body, for him to let out a monstrous growl as raw animal life surges into the waiting vessel. What actually happens is much less dramatic, more like a vibrating massage chair; you hear the muffled ringtone of your husband’s Samsung brain, like when your iPhone slides between the couch cushions.

It takes a minute or so for your husband to boot up. The skin starts to move, then all at once, it sucks inward like a vacuum sealer, forming the contours of your husband’s face.

He rises. The doctor had warned you about the eerie red light that now pours from your husband’s empty eye sockets, but you can’t really prepare yourself for the first time you see a living, breathing monster. The doctor corrects you—the scientific term is “abomination before God,” which his lawyer has assured him is very different, legally speaking.

Your husband looks at you. You go weak in the knees—his loving gaze always made your knees weak, but this is different. He opens his mouth, and the light pours forth from there as well. Oh, God, it’s weird. His voice sounds delayed, like he’s speaking to you via satellite from somewhere far, far away. OH HEY. I MUST’VE. DRIFTED OFF FOR A. BIT. But at bottom, it’s his voice, and you throw your arms around him. He freezes. The light inside him intensifies, redder and redder, so bright you can hear it. He puts his arms around you. For a moment, you think (hope?) he might crush you, but he does not. He pats you on the back a couple times.

Tears overflow from your eyes. You want to kiss him, but you don’t dare, lest that red light enter your body. You just tell him how much you love him and how you’ve missed him and you can’t believe he’s back, and so on.

The terrible red light now glows through his flesh. DID YOU. WATCH GAME. OF THRONES WITHOUT. ME?

You shake your head and wipe the tears away. You were waiting for him.

He shrugs and the light subsides. WHATEVER YOU. WANT, BABE.

You scoff at the doctor’s notion that the dead are better at moving on than the living: you’ve moved on from the very concept of moving on. You forget about the life you may have had as a family of one. You forget about the dog, for what living creature can compete with nostalgia in (mostly) human form? You can sit on the couch with your sweetie again, or a reasonable approximation thereof. The doctor was right, it’s the little creature comforts that make life worth living, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

During your reverie, your husband had started to strangle the doctor. You put your hand on your husband’s shoulder, and at your touch he releases his grip. The doctor gives you a thumbs-up to show he’s okay, this happens all the time.

You smile at your husband. It’s time to go home.


© 2020 by Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris writes mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He has published several short stories in literary journals, and writes an advice column at Writer Unboxed designed to help dilettantes and hacks learn nothing whatsoever. When he’s not typing words into a thing, Bill develops online courses at an organization his lawyer advised him not to name. He has two sons who asked not to be mentioned in this bio, but Elliott and Wyatt forgot to say “please.”


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DP FICTION #60A: “Invasion of the Water Towers” by R.D. Landau

The water towers never showed up on film. That should have been a sign. In the before times, there were water towers on every rooftop. They were highly visible, distinct from the rest of the landscape, cylindrical bodies with conical heads and long spindly legs. Maybe if we hadn’t been so busy whining about work and finding the perfect brand of deodorant and wondering if that cute barista was flirting with us (They weren’t. It is literally their job to smile and draw hearts in foam and have perfect hair. We as a society need to get over ourselves) we would have asked ourselves why the water towers didn’t want us to see them represented in the movies. Maybe if we hadn’t sharpened those not-thinking skills by not thinking about global warming and drone strikes and the asbestos in the ceiling that coated our hair like dandruff, we would have asked the right questions before it was too late.

Three days before the invasion, my barista, Zed (not the barista I mentioned earlier, that was a hypothetical barista and anyways, their eyes are way too green, like who has eyes that green, it’s obviously colored contact lenses and I could never date someone who puts colored pieces of plastic in front of their eyes) said, “I think the water tower on my building moved last night.” 

“Oh really?” I said, my pulse beating at a normal tempo for a pulse to beat.

On the day of the invasion, I was waiting for Zed to turn around so I could put milk and sugar in my coffee, when the radio cut off the Inoffensive Station suddenly: “We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to report that the water towers are moving. We do not know what they are, where they came from or what their intentions may be. All citizens of New York and New Jersey are required to stay indoors.”

We all checked Twitter, desperate for more news, but the water towers had destroyed the internet. Stripped of our dignity and our Wi-Fi, we sipped in stunned silence until Zed said, “free drinks for anyone who helps barricade the doors,” in a voice so confident and commanding and melodious and mellifluous and pleasing, that everyone obeyed instantly. We hauled tables and chairs and sacks of beans against the door.

Then a water tower shuffled past. I could see its long spindly legs through the advertisements for Basilisk Frappuccino that covered the window. Zed held a chair out legs first as a weapon. The other barista thrust a customer in front of him as a shield. I did… something badass and heroic. But the water tower passed us by, paying no attention. Afterwards, everyone sat on the floor drinking caffeine because what we really needed during an alien invasion was a faster heart rate.

“I thank you, fine purveyor of caffeine,” I told Zed, who was leaning on the counter, exhausted.

“Thanks,” said Zed with a tired smile that did not make me imagine massaging their shoulder blades while they lay naked in a bed of coffee grounds. 

After the water towers seized control of the banks, the city government and the bagel shops in that order (according to the radio which might have been controlled by the water towers), after we huddled in the Starbucks for 72 hours, living off soymilk and increasingly stale lemon poppy seed muffins, after we cried and wet our pants and said our prayers (we meaning everyone but me – my pants and eyes stayed dry), after we gave up hope of seeing our families or our friends or our safety-code-violating apartments ever again, we ran out of food. Various solutions were proposed: cannibalism, shoe-eating, waiting for the government to save us. While we voted, the other barista chewed on an elderly customer’s hair.

“STOP,” said Zed, in a booming voice like a sexy sea captain. “It’s way too early to turn to cannibalism.”

“Hair is dead cells,” said the other barista. “So it isn’t technically cannibalism.”

“We have to go out and get food,” said Zed. 

The (probably-water-tower-controlled) radio had warned us that if we went outside, we would be captured by the water towers. Rumor had it that the water towers drank their prisoners. So everyone avoided eye contact with the same intensity as when an accordion player asks for money on the subway (everyone including me.) 

Zed sighed. “I’ll go alone then.” They removed the barricades, while the rest of us huddled in a pile on the opposite corner. They opened the door.

A water tower crawled in, then a second, then a third.

“We have come for the coffee,” said the water tower.

Zed brandished the blade of a dismantled coffee grinder. “We can’t let them take our coffee! Who’s with me?”

No one said anything.

The three water towers surrounded Zed, sloshing angrily. “You will make us coffee, or you will be eliminated.”

Zed was beautiful and flawless and perfect in every way but they were only a barista. What good is a barista against a water tower?

“What can I get for you?” said Zed.


© 2019 by R.D. Landau

R.D. Landau recently fled New York. Her work has appeared in Star 82 Review, Heavy Feather Review and tl;dr among others. Her hobbies include watching musicals, making truffles and hiding under the bed. 


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DP FICTION #58B: “The Problem From Jamaica Plain” by Marie L. Vibbert

I was waiting for the teakettle to boil, and the office wasn’t due to open for, oh let’s say three minutes. The phone blinked and I considered not answering, what with those three minutes of leisure ahead of me, but I needed every client I could get. I put on my phone voice and chirped, “Jasmine Alexa, Attorney at law.”

The voice on the other end trembled with fear and flat, Bostonian vowels. “I’m not shuh, but Ah think I might have killed someone.”

That was as good as a shot of straight caffeine. “Excuse me? Wait… right now?”

There was an unsettling long pause. “No?” It was a woman’s voice, rough and deep, but definitely feminine.

You are no doubt thinking exactly what I was thinking at this point: This person is a murderer. After years of handling divorces and wills, I was suddenly transported into an episode of Law and Order: Special Weird Calls Unit.

Before my brain could decide if murderers paid well, my mouth said, “I’m sorry, this is a civil law office. I don’t do criminal cases.”

“Crap. Wrong number.” She hung up.

I stared at my phone. Should I call the police? Report the call? The number? The time? I was still writing down the digits when my phone lit up again. The same number. I let it ring once, but oh, I was too curious to let it go to voicemail.

“Jasmine Alexa.”

“Yeah, you said you were a lawyah?”

I propped the phone on my shoulder and wrote down the rest of the phone number, and the times for both calls. “Civil law,” I said.

“I wanna ask you about a custody problem.”

I set my pencil down. “What about the person you might have killed?”

A pause. “Aw, I don’t need a lawyer for that. So, uh… lemme ask you, and does it cost money just to ask? What happens if someone leaves a baby on your doorstep, say like in the movies, in a basket with a note and all that? Is that your baby?”

“Uh… no. You’re under no legal obligation, but you should call the authorities. The police will try to find whoever abandoned it. If the baby ends up a ward of the state, you’ll have to apply for adoption the same as anyone.”

“Thanks,” she said, and hung up.

What the hell?

This time I called her. She answered the phone with, “This is Elle.”

“This is Alexa. Did someone leave a baby on your doorstep?”

Elle sighed, long and heavy. “I guess ya better come over.”

The teakettle whistled. I looked at my note for the police. I picked up my car keys. You don’t go into business for yourself as a lawyer unless you’re more curious than smart.

*

Elle’s apartment was a walkup above a consignment shop, so the story about doorsteps was probably fabrication.

From her accent on the phone I expected a husky white woman with a cigarette permanently attached to her lip. Elle was skinny and very, very black. Almost blue. Never assume. Elle had a short afro pushed back by a yellow daisy headband, bright pink lipstick and a yellow shift dress. Glam.

Her deep voice sounded warmer than on the phone. “My girlfriend Veronica and I were arguing. Nothing serious! It got maybe a little heated, and she fell.” Elle backed into the apartment, twisting the hem of her dress between nervous fingers. “I mean… I pushed her,” she said, like a caught-out child. “But it wasn’t that hahd, I didn’t even expect her to fall but… anyway, that’s what’s left.” She lifted her chin to the right.

This was the moment when I could turn around, head back down the rickety steps, and forget the whole thing. I closed my eyes as I turned, picturing splattered blood and gore. I opened my eyes.

An adorable baby, about six months old with Asian eyes and drool-wet lips, looked up at me from a pile of rumpled laundry.

Before I could censor myself, my mouth blurted out, “But where’s the body?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Elle groaned. She stomped over to just to the left of the baby. “I was here. Veronica was there.” She gestured at the air over the baby. “I pushed, she fell. She didn’t move or nothing. I got scared. You were the first lawyer in the phone book. Then while we were talking, she just…” Elle waggled her fingers in the air. “Melted or something. So I’m looking at this pile of her clothes, and that – that kid crawls out!” Fat tears spilled down her cheeks. “Did I kill Veronica? Did I make her a baby? Gawd, I never even step on bugs. She just… I just…”

“This is not the sort of problem I’m trained to deal with,” I said. Understatement of the Month.

Elle walked around the baby, reaching out like she was afraid to touch it or to let it crawl away. “So what do I… do I call the cops? What if that’s not a baby?” She bit her lower lip. “What if this is Veronica?”

“I’m not following.”

Elle squatted down, peering at the baby, who stared back with an adorable “oo” expression. “It… it kinda looks like Veronica. I’m afraid to pick it up and check its parts to see if it’s a girl.”

“However it got here,” I said, “you are now the proud finder of a lost infant.”

“I should just treat it like that?” She looked at me like I was her mom and could solve all this for her.

I get that look a lot from potential clients. “Want me to call for you?”

Her skinny, anxious face bloomed into this relieved smile. “I’ll get ya some cake,” she said.

I didn’t believe Veronica was from Mars or whatever. I believed there was a logical, if odd, explanation. Elle produced a slice of cinnamon pound cake and a mug of Red Rose tea for me. She didn’t act like she’d recently had a head injury. The baby picked at Veronica’s discarded clothing with baby-like intense scrutiny. We made awkward small talk until the police came.

Elle paid me for my time, which was nice of her, and I wrote it all off as an unexplained mystery I’d enjoy telling at parties.

Not so lucky. Two days later, Child Protective Services called.

“Yeah, we got you as a witness to a foundling recovery in JP two nights ago?”

I knew right then it wasn’t going to be good. “What about it?”

“There’s a problem.”

“Did you find the birth mother?”

“Lady, you have got to be kidding me.”

“I… really am not kidding you. What’s the problem?”

“Your ‘foundling’ is a teen and asking for her lawyer.”

“I’m not…”

“Yeah, well, her much older girlfriend says you’re their lawyer, so you better come down here and talk to your client because she ain’t in the system and we aren’t in the habit of letting kids walk out of here without a legal guardian.”

I took one longing look at my lunch – fresh pesto on shells from the market up the street – and sighed. “I’m on my way.”

*

Veronica Wong, if you believed that was her name, was a coltish teen with shaggy, short hair. She wore oversized sweats and sprawled on the sofa in the front parlor of the Forbes Home for Wayward Youth.

In my briefcase I had a Xerox of Veronica Wong’s Massachusetts driver’s license proclaiming her to be twenty-five and a resident of Jamaica Plain. The photo was uncannily similar, but older, with longer hair.

“You’re sure this is the kid you brought in?” I asked the social worker.

She was a thickset black woman and she looked about one second away from flipping out. The whites showed all the way around her irises. “We get a lot of kids in and out,” she said, “but we tend to notice if one grows five years every night.”

Veronica blew a tuft of hair out of her face. “I want my lawyer,” she said.

The social worker asked, “You want to back out?” She asked it like she was asking if I wanted to stab her in the back.

I stepped forward, hand out. “Veronica? I’m Jasmine Alexa. We… may have met at your apartment, when you were…?” I stopped myself short of saying “destroyed and reformed as a baby.” It’s bad to assume things.

Veronica gave me a quick once-over. “Elle trusts you,” she said. “Is she still mad?”

I retracted my hand. “I don’t know what you were fighting about.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “She thinks I’ve changed. Like I’m not the same person. She’s the one who changed! I’m me. I’ll always be me.”

“Well, right now that’s not as important as the question of your custody. You are… you appear to be a minor.”

“I know that. I’m adolescent, not stupid.” Veronica sank deeper into the couch, her legs spread wide. “They wouldn’t even let me see Elle until an hour ago. Tell Elle to stop freaking out and I’ll come home. And tell her I’m not going to replace her in her sleep! Jeeeeez. Why do people always think that about us, huh? We don’t go replacing any old person just to do it.”

I looked to the social worker for some help. She held her hands up and backed out of the room.

I sat down. “Right, so if you agree to have me represent you, I can hold anything we talk about in confidence. If your legal guardian—”

“I’m not an orphan. I told them, my parents live on Long Island.”

“Yes,” I said. I opened the file CPS had given me. “And those parents are a little confused how their college graduate daughter ended up in a home for minors.”

Veronica examined the ceiling through her bangs. “This sucks,” she said.

“Well, what do you expect me to do about it?” It wasn’t the tone I usually take with my clients, but this was getting unreal.

“Can’t you get them to release me into Elle’s custody? What if my folks wrote a note?”

“You can’t get Herbert and Julia Wong to come fetch you, why would they write you a note?”

Veronica flicked a hand dismissively. “They just hate taking the expressway.”

“I don’t think you understand: your claimed parents are officially denying you.”

She looked wrecked. After a long minute staring at her own sneaker digging holes in the carpet, she said, “Yeah, I guess they would.”

“Veronica, are Mr. and Mrs. Wong really your parents?”

Morosely, to her feet, she said, “I’ll be twenty-five in a couple more days and it’ll all smooth out. Guess I just gotta wait.”

“I’m not sure this will smooth itself out. I think we’re about five minutes away from black helicopters coming in to take you away.”

She half-grinned. “Guess I really need a lawyer, then.”

“My first question, as your lawyer, is: are you going to persist in being Veronica Wong? Even if everyone who knows Veronica Wong denies you?”

Hands clasped between her knees, every inch a vulnerable teen, she said, “I don’t know how to be anyone else.”

“Okay. Okay, so, Veronica, um… was there an original, other Veronica I should be concerned about?”

She rolled her eyes, and in almost exactly the inflection of Elle, but with a distinct Long Island lockjaw, said, “I don’t need a lawyer for that.”

*

The social worker stopped me with a hand on my chest as I tried to leave the building. “Look, we processed her as an infant two days ago. We got the paperwork all in place – we had adoption people breathing down our necks – but suddenly she was too old to be a newborn. Had to re-process as a toddler. The hospital bracelet had to come off. Three times. That’s a re-admit, full paperwork. Then there were the vaccination questions at each age landmark. You want to explain to the state why you can’t vaccinate a five year old because it hasn’t been twenty-four hours since their two-year-old vaccinations? I’m losing my marbles and no one is helping. District, City won’t touch her with a forty-foot pole. We don’t have procedures for this. The fourth time they asked me to re-do the paperwork, I put her in as school-age, which incidentally is loads worse with extra considerations, but I figured if we jumped a few years ahead we’d be in the clear. We are NOT in the clear.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that, regardless of what CPS is saying right now, she’s going to look eighteen soon enough and I’d really like to release an eighteen year-old into her lawyer’s custody. We’ll say she aged out of the system. It won’t be a lie.”

I didn’t think adults could get their eyes that round and puppy-like. “This is asking a lot.”

“You’re a civil lawyer. I’ll owe you a favor and I’m sure you’ll be back to collect before too long. You do divorces? Custody disputes?”

“Wouldn’t I love to,” I said.

*

Elle stood at the base of the stairs up to her apartment, arms crossed tight across her chest. “I don’t want her in here.”

“She lives here,” I said.

“That isn’t Veronica. I don’t know what that is, but it is not my girlfriend!”

Veronica groaned. “I’ve been Veronica as long as you’ve known me.”

“And how do I know that?”

It was drizzling – that soft, fuzzy drizzle that you hardly notice but that soaks you through after a while. “Look,” I said, “I got her out of official custody, but I’m not taking her home like an abandoned kitten. My landlord would kill me. Veronica has to live somewhere.”

“Veronica does,” Elle said, lifting her chin.

I said, “You’re accusing your girlfriend of being an illegal alien and identity thief. That involves contacting Immigration. That involves criminal charges. I’d be required to report that to the police. If they arrest her and can’t find a record of her citizenship, what do you think will happen?”

Elle took a step back, into the shelter of the covered stair. “I don’t want anybody deported, but come on – she’s a damned pod person! Or, or that thing from that movie in the Artic with the dogs and whatshisname. That… what was that thing called?”

“The Thing,” I provided. “Veronica, you can weigh in on this at any time.”

Veronica stepped forward, chin down, hands clasped before her. “I’m the same girl you met on the red line, Elle.”

“Your folks don’t say that. Your folks are more pissed than I am.”

Veronica’s contrite posture evaporated. She balled her fists on her hips. “You’ve been talking to my folks behind my back again?”

I said, “Can we please have this argument indoors?”

Elle gave in. She kept shooting glares at Veronica, but she let us follow her up into the apartment.

“Have a seat,” she gestured at the couch.

“I’m not a guest. I live here,” Veronica said. “I bought that couch.”

“A pod person bought my couch,” Elle said, disgusted.

Veronica started crying, helpless, wracking sobs, standing there in the middle of the room.

It was an ugly couch: tomato-soup red tweed. I charitably assigned the disgust and the tears to it. I said, “Veronica, she’s not trying to hurt you; she really wants to know who you are. Elle, she’s trying to tell you who she is. Be patient and listen. If she was going to melt your brain and use it to destroy the Earth, I think maybe she’d have done it by now.”

Elle frowned hard, but she turned to look at Veronica. “Who are you?”

Veronica sat down on the couch. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I’m not the original Veronica Wong, but it’s not like I killed her. My parents – my real parents, my pod parents – put an ad on Craigslist, looking for someone who would want to trade identities, get away. Veronica answered, and they sent her my pod.” Veronica shrugged. “That’s the way we do it. The real Veronica put my pod on her bed and slept next to it for a week, until I formed. Like I’m re-forming now. We grow to adulthood fast, then we age normal. So I… I will look a few years younger now. Because I kinda got re-set. It’s my stem, see… we’re like plants?” Turning to me, she said, “The real Veronica is in Nevada, driving a truck. We keep in touch on Instagram. You never met her. I mean… she’s not me. She’s straight, and she likes pro wrestling.” Veronica wrinkled her nose.

“I’m relieved I won’t have to recommend you a criminal lawyer for her murder.” I reconsidered my Understatement of the Month.

There was an awkward pause. I found myself listening for black ops helicopters. Perhaps, in the real world, there’s no funding for Mulder and Scully.

Elle squinted. “Wait. But how old was Veronica when you took her place? If she, like, consented and all? She can’t have been younger than… how old are you?”

“It was seven years ago, but…”

“Holy crap!”

“…but that’s like thirty in human years! Come on! I’m a pod person, remember? You see how fast I grow back. Oh, and thanks for killing me, by the way.”

Elle’s lips trembled, her eyebrows canted high. “I… I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Well, you did. And now you know what happens when you break my plant stem. It gets weak in the winter and I don’t move backwards so good, and then you stepped on my toe and SNAP. Do you know how much it sucks being a baby again?”

“But… seven? V, I can’t date some child!”

“In pod years. Jeez, it’s not like I had to spend a whole year growing up! Figure year one is actually eighteen years, development-wise.”

I raised my hand and held it in the air until they remembered they had an audience. “So,” I said, “to recap: Veronica is a pod person who replaced another girl who was over the age of consent. None of us have ever met Veronica the First, and she is not a party in this dispute. Elle did not know of Veronica’s non-human nature, a fight broke out, and, if I’m hearing this correctly – Elle, you actually did kill someone that morning when you called me?”

“Aw gawd,” Elle said, and fell down on the couch next to Veronica, twisting her fingers together.

“Not, like, permanently,” Veronica said. She reached out like she wanted to put her arm around Elle but wasn’t sure it would be accepted. “Didn’t even hurt all that much. I was just… startled. And a baby.”

“I didn’t… I don’t wanna be that kind of girlfriend,” Elle sniffled. Now they were both wet-faced.

I said, “Do we need to do something about this? We’re talking about deadly assault.”

Veronica gestured wide. “I’m not pressing charges or anything. Elle didn’t know I’m more fragile than a normal human.”

“I’m so sorry!” Elle threw her arms around Veronica. They hugged each other tight, sobbing together. “I’ll never walk again if it means not stepping on your adorable little toes. Oh gawd!”

“No, Elle. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, about your mother.”

“She is a bitch. Oh, honey. I shouldn’t have let her pressure you.”

“No, no, she’s right. I mean… it’s been four years. Maybe we are taking things too slow.”

I was beginning to feel like a fifth wheel, but I still had some things to clear up. “So, if you don’t mind, I’ll charge this as a one-hour consult?”

They looked up like they were shocked to remember I was still there.

Elle sniffled, and grasped my hand. “Thank you, Ms. Alexa. Really. I don’t know how we’ll ever pay you back.”

I said, “Consider getting a prenuptial agreement and filing power of attorney writs. You never know what will happen.”

Elle quickly said, “Oh, no… I mean, I asked, but she…”

Veronica pulled her girlfriend back and looked her in the eyes. “Yes,” Veronica said.

Elle said, “Oh sweetie, no, you’re all emotional and with all this…”

“Shut up, Elle. I’m saying ‘yes,’ and you can’t take it back now.” She glared sternly at her girlfriend, who melted – in the normal, romantic sense.

They kissed, and I saw myself out. When I got back to the office, I sent them my standard prenup packet and a note to pass my name along to anyone who needed special legal attention as a pod-American. There were identity theft issues, legal status, citizenship – gallons of delicious, charge-by-the-hour paperwork.

I think those two crazy kids – and my business – are going to make it.


© 2019 by Marie L. Vibbert

Author’s Note: My friend Alexandra, a lawyer, related to me a puzzling wrong number she’d received.  The first phone call is verbatim from her memory.  I found myself trying to come up with an interested reason why this person wasn’t sure if they’d killed someone.  Then I decided to set it in Boston because, well, I hadn’t set anything in Boston yet, and two of my Clarionmates were living there at the time.  Shout out to Christian and Thom!

Marie Vibbert’s writing has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF, among other places.  She is a computer programmer and played tackle football for the Cleveland Fusion for five years.


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DP FICTION #58A: “Consequences of a Statistical Approach Towards a Utilitarian Utopia: A Selection of Potential Outcomes” by Matt Dovey

Maximised Total Happiness

Michelle smiled, exhausted, as her baby’s cry filled the hospital room. The lights above her were harsh and cold, and the sheets beneath her were tangled and scratchy, soaked in her sweat and stinking of iodine, but none of that mattered against such a beautiful sound. She heard it so rarely—just once a year.

“Congratulations, Mrs Bergeron,” said the midwife. “It’s a girl.”

“Oh, thank you so much! I’m ecstatic!” She looked over at Nathan, cradling baby Danielle face down in his strong arms. A Happiness Moderator stood by them, uniformed with the usual black suit and easy smile; he lined up a large needle at the base of Danielle’s skull and implanted the HappyChip with a swift movement. Danielle’s cries quieted, then turned to a happy giggle.

“You should be very proud,” said the midwife, smiling. “What number is she?”

“My 22nd!”

“Well, congratulations again. I look forward to seeing you next year for number 23.”

Highest Possible Mode

Raj stepped into the kitchen and the welcoming arms of Alejandro. The air was heavy with spice and the sizzle of frying pork, the promise of a celebratory dinner as only Ali could prepare.

“I knew you could do it,” whispered Ali, embracing him. “Team manager!”

This, more than the promotion, was what made Raj happy: that he had made Ali proud. Falling in love with him had made everything click for Raj, and he understood, at last, what it meant to call someone your other half: not just a casual joke, but an honest statement that I am not me without them. Seeing Ali’s pride made him swell. It meant more than anything.

A firm knock sounded at the door, and Raj all but floated down the hallway to open it.

Pain flared in his toes. Raj crumpled, grasping at his right foot. He looked up; a Happiness Moderator stood in the doorway, already filling out his worksheet on a tablet. The Moderator had stamped on Raj’s foot as soon as the door had opened, breaking two, maybe three toes by the feel of it.

“Why?” gasped Raj.

The Moderator didn’t look up from his monitoring tablet. “Your level of happiness had risen to be equal to a large number of other citizens, but was nonetheless lower than the current societal mode. As such, your happiness threatened to establish a lower level as the new mode, undermining government targets.”

“Couldn’t you have given me some flowers or something? Made me even happier and lifted me above the others?”

“Sorry sir,” said the Moderator. “Pain is easier to invoke, and longer lasting. Have a happy day!

Highest Possible Mean

Roger cackled as he switched the traffic lights to red again, having let only three cars through the intersection. He was watching the drivers on an array of video monitors that glowed in the dim control room, displaying an orchestra of impatience rendered in drumming fingers and revving engines.

“Sir,” said a Happiness Moderator, stepping up to the desk. “Please be careful not to cause too much irritation. As soon as their combined frustration outweighs your delight…”

Roger looked up, a manic, almost hysterical grin on his face. He hadn’t had this much fun in years! Lights go green… lights go red! Pedestrians cross now… and again… and again! But not for too long—got to make them run once they’re halfway across! He laughed uproariously.

“Never mind, sir,” said the Moderator, stepping away.

Smallest Possible Standard Deviation

Cecile clicked the plastic lid onto the latte and passed it across the counter with a smile. The businesswoman smiled back with the same easy contentment and stepped away into the chatter of the airport, merging seamlessly into the efficient flow of foot traffic.

A cry went up from the arrivals line: Delphine! Oh Delphine! Two silver-haired women ran towards each other and embraced, clinging to each other with a frantic longing, their shoulders shaking as they sobbed on each other’s shoulder.

Cecile’s eyes welled up. She suddenly missed Nicole desperately, a huge hollow of longing opening up beneath her heart. It had been two months now, and Cecile still had no idea when the Venezuelan dig would be completed and Nicole would be home again, curled up on the sofa with Cecile under blankets and cushions and Henri the cat purring between them, a shared bottle of merlot by candlelight…

Happiness trickled across Cecile’s body like warm water, flowing out from the base of her skull, dampening her sadness and leaving it as an academic awareness of loneliness to be acknowledged with a smile. The two women in arrivals broke apart, arms dropping to their sides and broad grins smoothing down to gentle smiles. The same gentle smile as Cecile. The same gentle smile as everyone. Easily-maintained, easily-controlled, for everyone everywhere, always.

Highest Possible Median

Moderator Laidlow looked up from her monitoring tablet into the crying man’s puffy eyes. He stood in his doorway, dressed in a grey, ratty dressing gown, his hair unkempt and face unshaven. His bottom lip wobbled as he explained.

“Honestly, I’ll be fine again in a couple of hours. It’s just—my cat died overnight, and I might be a little down now, but I’m getting over it, I promise!”

He danced a sad little jig in the sour morning light as if to demonstrate, but he only made it four beats before sagging in defeat.

It wouldn’t have mattered. The tablet had already confirmed his status: he was the saddest person in the local area, with the least chance of improving above the median before the end of the day, judging by his current emotional trajectory.

She nodded at Moderator Rence, who reluctantly drew his HappyTaser. Laidlow had noticed his increasing reticence through their recent duties, though she struggled to understand it. She took great pride and satisfaction in her work; in knowing that she was improving society. Rence’s mood was completely at odds with her own approach to the work.

Without ceremony, he pressed the HappyTaser to the man’s forehead and executed him. He stood for a moment as the body crumpled, jerking slightly with the electric discharge, then slowly lifted the Taser and examined it.

“Do you ever wonder,” he said, “if what we do actually helps? Does it fix anything, or are we just papering over cracks? Does our work merely hide society’s ills behind an artificially inflated number, not only doing nothing to help directly but actively preventing greater self-examination of the true causes of our problems? Does the work not, in fact, burrow under your skin and eat away at you in the cold hours of the night, leaving you filled only with doubts and a raw, jagged uncertainty? Having walked out of the darkness of ignorance and come to find the truth beneath the façade, I do not know as I will ever be truly happy again.”

Laidlow said nothing. She swiped about on her monitoring tablet, looking for the next unhappiest person in the vicinity now that this job had been completed.

Moderator David Rence said the display.

She raised her HappyTaser to his temple and executed him.

Well! she thought, smiling. That was efficient! What an excellent day!


© 2019 by Matt Dovey

Author’s Note: I can’t recall precisely what triggered the combination of utilitarianism and statistics in my mind—just the general everyday mush that is my brain, one supposes—but I never expected anyone else to find it funny. There’s not much more to be said for it than that, perhaps, except perhaps it shows the absurdity of taking any system to its logical extreme without constraint. I wonder if that will ever occur to the free market adherents selling off all the public infrastructure in Britain. Special thanks must go to Ric Crossman (@SquidFromSpace) for his statistical consultancy, in particular pointing out a far more efficient method for maintaining the optimum median value, an idea that will surely make him a hero come the revolution.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He once got too happy after finding a packet of Golden Crunch Creams at the back of the cupboard, and has a scar on his arm where the Moderators intervened. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Flash Fiction Online and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or follow along on Twitter and Facebook both as @mattdoveywriter.


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GAME REVIEW: Xevious

written by David Steffen

Xevious is a 1983 vertical-scrolling top-down shooter arcade game published by Namco.

In the game you have two weapons: a laser that fires straight forward that can destroy air targets, and a bomb that fires forward suitable only for land-based targets. As you travel through the level, other flying ships are firing back, as well as ground-based turrets and tanks, reflective obstacles that can only be avoided, as well as boss fights.

I played this game for the first time at the Game Changers exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Visuals
Quite good for the era! Much more detailed than some of its contemporaries.

Audio
Typical for the era.

Challenge
High.

Story
Not much story (typical of the era and format).

Session Time
Depends how good you are!

Playability
Simple, apart from it not being immediately obvious that ground forces CAN be destroyed (lasers fire over the top of them and it takes a little trial and error to figure out the bombs). Joystick for movement, and two fire buttons.

Replayability
Not in the usual way I mean, but if you like this kind of game there’s certainly plenty of fun to be had.

Originality
It was a groundbreaking design of this type of its time, so any perceived lack of originality may be because you’ve played other games inspired by it..

Playtime
I don’t know how long it would take to play all the way through.

Overall
This is a fun shooter arcade game if you like classic shooter games this is a solid one from the era. If you want to play it now you can find it on some recent-ish game systems, such as Game Boy Advance on Amazon for $12.

DP FICTION #56B: “Save the God Damn Pandas” by Anaea Lay

My job? Purity shaming pandas. It’s great. You loom over a living, breathing, talking embodiment of the international fixation on world peace and you shout, “Why won’t you fuck, you lazy motherfucker?” And then you play them some porn.

Okay, it’s not actually like that.

At all.

Really, my job kind of sucks.

*

“You. Purity shame. Pandas?”

The dinner entrées have just arrived. There’s a real wax candle, with fire and everything, on the table. Tinny speakers are playing pretentious string music. Wine which came from some sort of grape a hippie read bedtime stories to every night through the long summer fills our glasses. And my date is judging me. Hard.

“Why would you do that?” she asks.

Her name is Samantha. She’s wearing a red dress which, if we were animals, would mean she wants to get laid. Maybe she did want to get laid, five minutes ago, when all she knew about me was that I ordered the wine made from happy grapes. Now that she knows what I am, I may not make it to dessert. I am in serious trouble. “We have to do something. They’re going extinct.”

She gapes at me. If I made that face, my mother would be all ‘Don’t do that, Jason, you look like a carp. Are you a carp?” I don’t know much about carp. My job is pandas. “Can’t you use artificial insemination or something?”

Because that’s better. The pandas won’t even fuck, but how do you think momma panda is going to feel when a few weeks after she has a weird close encounter with a zookeeper she finds out she’s in the family way. Shit like that is where alien abduction stories come from, but the minute a cuddly furball with good PR is involved, the public is all over it. “Some of us think that wouldn’t be the best for Fen Fen’s mental health.”

Samantha is not following.

“Gestation and the eventual cubs have better outcomes if the mother agreed to the act that led to the pregnancy. We’re pretty sure Fen Fen would get very depressed if we inseminated her. She’s basically said as much. So we’re counting on Lan Lan to work some panda seduction.”

I clearly should have brought worms to my date, because I spent the rest of the main course trying to pry conversation from a carp. And no, dessert did not happen.

*

It was hard enough to get those fuzzy fuckers to breed before they could talk. But some jackass had the bright idea that if we used these new neural implant things that had been developed for stroke patients, we could give panda bears the ability to speak and we could explain the gravity of their lack of gravidity. Also, they were hoping for insights into the deep wisdom of the panda, or something.

What they got was Lan Lan the fat ass complaining about the tenderness of the bamboo we feed him, and Fen Fen the would be career woman with a penchant for writing memoir. Meanwhile I, Jason Constans, the Breeding Encouragement Specialist assigned to the fat ass, am basically a glorified sex therapist turned pimp.

So yes, I spend most of my working hours wanting to punch a panda in the face. That is not unreasonable.

*

“Sorry, man,” Cory, my roommate and best bud from way back in our collegiate days, says when I collapsed on our couch. “Bad date?”

I give the universal primate grunt of utter defeat.

“Was it her, or you?”

“Lan fucking Lan. It’s not enough for that celibate bastard to take down his whole species. He’s wrecking my life, too.”

Cory hands me a beer as he plops down on the couch next to me. We’ve had that couch since our first place, senior year of college. It’s part of the family. “Just don’t tell them what you do. You don’t have to open with the pandas-not-fucking thing.”

“It’ll come out eventually and then I’ll have another Rachel. I can’t do another Rachel, man.” Broke my heart. We were engaged. I was living the dream, ready for the picket fence and 2.5 kids and all of it. But she just had to meet Lan Lan, and what kind of monster has daily access to those cute! adorable! overgrown raccoons and won’t hook his fiancée up with an interview? Ten minutes of conversation with Lan Lan, and I was one sad sack of a dumped Breeding Encouragement Specialist.

Actually, it’s unfair to raccoons to compare pandas to them. Raccoons are ambitious little fuckers, and they can sense light with their hands. That is bad ass. Fen Fen’s incisive memoir aside, pandas are useless.

Cory takes a swig from his beer. “They won’t all turn out to be Rachel.”

“I was with her for two years. I can’t waste two years again. I’m getting old. My biological clock is ticking. If they aren’t going to survive finding out they’re dating a panda pimp, I need to get them out of the way in a hurry and look for the one who will.”

“Michael liked that I live with a panda pimp.”

“Michael was a nutcase, as evidenced by his idiotic life choices, first in dating you, then in not dating you.” I glance at Cory to see how he’s taking the ribbing. It’s only been a couple weeks since he and Mike broke up, and I’m pretty sure we’re to the teasing and ragging on the ex stage, but I haven’t tested it out yet.

Cory rolls his eyes and punches me in the arm. I called it right.

“Maybe we should go out and look for dates. Right now. You’re getting old, too. We are on the road to becoming the dude version of platonic cat lady roommates.”

He grimaces. “There’s nothing wrong with cat ladies, and I’ve got work in the morning.”

I do, too, but I’m not looking forward to it.

*

The problem with pandas, aside from everything, is all that bamboo. They’re bears who eat grass. Bears. Eating woody grass. Think about that for a minute. It’s basically the same as if we decided to subsist entirely on popcorn and stuck to it so hard that after a few generations our gut bacteria went, “Okay, fine, I guess we’ll do something with this, but you’re never going to be happy about it,” and so we were tired, sleepy, useless fucks all the time. But damn if we don’t like popcorn so much that we’re not going to bother looking for anything else. Yum, popcorn.

Do not talk to me about the nobility and enlightenment implied by an essentially carnivorous species going vegan so hard they subsist on glorified grass. I don’t care how eloquently Fen Fen writes about it. That is shit. And I would know; I’ve scooped plenty of her shit in my time.

*

The day after Samantha’s aborted red dress, I do my zombie strut into the panda enclosure at my usual cheery dawn-o-clock in the morning, quadruple mocha caramel caffeine fest clutched in my hands. Everything is soft and quiet like things are when the sun hasn’t even bothered to crawl its ass out of bed yet. Lan Lan, the fuzzy mother fucker, is curled up in his custom designed rock cave built by some Swedish company that specializes in harmonizing Feng Shui principles with Scandinavian minimalism, all while authentically replicating nature. What that means is that the cave is made out of stones that were very precisely cut and fit together like an Ikea jigsaw castle, and somebody apologized to the rock the whole time they shaped it.

I’m still tetchy about the date with Samantha, so I don’t hesitate before firing up the projector and starting the day’s therapy right then and there. The enclosure is immediately transformed from a finely honed replica of perfectly balanced authentic nature, into an immersive theater experience. In this particular case, we’re immersed in a very authentic replica of Antarctic winter. The cave is overlaid with images of a wall of emperor penguins squinting against the wind and huddling together like the paragons of bad ass dedicated fatherhood they are.

Lan Lan opens one eye and harrumphs. “Bad date?”

“She wore red.”

“Then you should be more cheerful.”

“I would, except you ruined it again.”

“You could quit your job,” Lan Lan says. He’s said that before.

“Then I’d be the guy who walked away and let the glorious panda go extinct. That’s not going to win me any blushing brides, either.”

“You’re perverse.” Then he closes his eye and goes back to sleep. I’m tempted to have them install industrial fans so we can blast him with a fraction of the Antarctic winter. Or maybe we could give an emperor penguin the neuro-enhancement hardware we’d installed in Lan Lan and Fen Fen and let a real, dedicated member of a popular and thriving species talk some sense into our pig-headed mascots of peace.

I sip at my liquid confection, waiting for the sugar to hit and make me jittery, as I watch the movie. After twenty minutes we get to my favorite part, when the wind eases up and the sun breaks through. All the dads turn their tuxedo faces up and blink at the light. They look so god damned bewildered, like they’ve gotten into the groove of hellacious winter misery and had forgotten it was going to end. “Oh, right, spring! That’s a thing,” their beady little eyes say.

Then the penguin moms come swimming in from the ocean and waddle across the ice and dad gets his first meal in six months and falls over exhausted and they’ve got their little chick and it’s like the perfect triumph of the nuclear family on the world’s largest desert and the sugar finally hits which is the only reason my eyes got misty even though I’ve seen this movie something like five hundred times.

“Have you ever considered that I’m not the one who needs therapy?” Lan Lan asks, his voice rumbling through his chest because he doesn’t even bother to move his face from where he’s buried it in his paws. Parents would shit diamonds to let their kids see that pose this close. They deserve hemorrhoids.

“Do you see what they go through? And that’s just for one egg. You guys usually get twins out of the deal. Why is this so hard for you to get behind?”

“I’m not the family type. And neither is Fen Fen. There’s not enough penguin footage in the world to change that.”

“As far as we can tell, there isn’t a single member of your species who is the family type.”

“So we go extinct. Big fucking deal.” His butt waggles as he shifts to get more comfortable.

“You are the living, breathing embodiment of the symbol of peace. We can’t let that go extinct. What would that say about us?”

The long silence Lan Lan answers me with might be commentary if I didn’t know he was too lazy to work up the effort necessary to judge us. At long last he grumbles, “Make the penguins your symbol of peace.”

*

The dick thing about Michael and Cory splitting is that Cory wants to settle down and have kids as much as I do. I was honestly getting a bit jealous of him because it looked like Michael was going to be the one. My consolation was that I could be the weird straight uncle, like maybe Cory’s kids could be methadone to my raging paternal instincts or something. Dude has seriously let me down by letting that relationship fall apart.

*

“Bad day at work?” Cory asks when I got home. He’s already offering me a beer. All he needs is a string of pearls and he’d be a queer-guy Mrs. Beaver.

“I got sniffly over the penguins again.”

He sighs, withdraws the offered beer long enough to take the top off for me, then hands it back.

“Thanks,” I say, and take a long swallow. Then, “Is it cool if Kim comes over? We want to have a work confab thing, but keep it casual.” Kim is Fen Fen’s assigned Breeding Encouragement Specialist. Super sweet, with three-year-old twin girls who are constantly doing adorable things that get posted to Kim’s Facebook page. She was married before she got the job and her approach so far consists mostly of being utterly and jealousy-inducingly happy for all the world to see. She doesn’t seem bothered that Fen Fen isn’t getting the hint.

“Panda pimps unite?”

“If you cook for us, we’ll let you have one of the team T-shirts.”

“Deal.”

Cory does mysterious things to food objects in the kitchen while I bust ass cleaning up the apartment to make it presentable for company. Kim shows up with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread.

We uncork the bottle right away and she and I hover near the kitchen island while Cory works. The bottle is nearly defeated, and Cory is serving something gloopy that smells like garlic and obesity when Kim gently steers the conversation toward work. “No, I’m serious. Fen Fen really has something good going on. She’s going to be a star.”

“A stand up panda act?” Cory asks as he grinds black pepper over the bowls. “Don’t they only have one punchline?”

“Exactly!” Kim says. “But she uses it really well. Even Jason will like this one.” She nudges me in the ribs to make sure I’m braced for it. “What does the female panda say when her sex therapist asks why she has low expectations for intercourse?”

I wince and bury my face in my hands.

Cory snickers. “Because he just eats, shoots, and leaves.”

“See. Brilliant!” Kim and Cory chortle.

I give the primal ape groan of abject despair. “You’re encouraging her.”

“Of course I am,” Kim says. “She’ll come around in her own time. And when she does, I want to make sure she’s as happy and fulfilled as she can be. That will lead to the best outcomes.”

“Don’t mind him,” Cory says as he hands Kim a bowl. “He’s bitter because he struck out at dinner last night.”

*

Kim waits until dessert to break the news that she and her husband are trying to get pregnant again. Twenty minutes later I’m on the couch trying not to bawl while Cory sees her out. He brings me an extra slice of Marie Callender’s calories-in-lieu-of-happiness pie, puts the plate on my knee, then sits down at my side. “You’ve got to get a handle on this.”

“I’m sorry. I know. It’s just…I’ve always wanted kids and the whole world has always been telling me I’m not supposed to care and even my job is telling me that but Kim’s just, whatever, guess I’ll have another one. It’s not fair. I feel like I’m running out of time.”

Cory picks up the fork from the plate, opens my hand, then manually closes my fingers around the fork. “Shut up. Shovel pie into your mouth until I’m done talking.”

I raise an eyebrow at him, but take a bite of the pie.

“Michael and I split up – ”

“Because he’s an idiot,” I jump in to say. Cory stabs a threatening finger toward my pie. I shut up and take another bite.

“We split up because he wasn’t ready to settle down and I was tired of waiting for him.”

I…hadn’t known that part of it. “Oh, man, I’m sorry. You didn’t say – ” I stop when he slaps the back of my head. A brotherly slap, not a domestic abuse slap. A hey-dipshit-you’re-supposed-to-be-eating slap.

“I’m sick of waiting around for you, too. Catch up to the 21st century. Let’s have a baby.”

It’s a really good thing I don’t follow instructions well, because otherwise I’d be strangling on a bite of Marie Callender. “I’m not gay.”

“I wasn’t planning to get you pregnant. We’ve been living together forever, we throw a mean dinner party on short notice, and we both want kids. Either you can wake up and face the facts, or you can keep getting weepy about penguins. Your call, but I’m done living with a mopey sex-pusher.”

I take a moment with that.

Cory takes my hand, steers the fork to scoop up a piece of pie, then delivers it to my mouth. Which is hanging open. Apparently I learned carp impersonation from Samantha.

“Our kids don’t get to play football. Concussions are serious bad news.”

“Fair deal,” Cory agrees.

*

So, adopting has a fuck-ton of paperwork and takes forever. At the rate we’re going, we could have gestated a baby elephant. But whatever. We’ve got it. It’s not like we’re balancing an egg on our feet all winter.

I still want to give Lan Lan a black eye more often than not, but I’ve switched him over to some great footage of seahorse dads. It’s kind of peaceful to watch them bouncing along in the water.

Fen Fen’s got a Facebook page now to support her self-published memoir, so she’s getting inundated with the photos of Kim’s twins and her ecstatic baby bump updates. Cory and I are trying to keep pace by posting selfies with stacks of paperwork, but it’s not quite the same. Not going to lie, though; it’s still fucking awesome.

The new strategy for Team Panda Pimp is to conspicuously have so much fun, Fen Fen breaks down and asks for insemination, if nothing else, to get material for her next memoir. It might even work. The international symbol of world peace won’t lift a paw to save itself from extinction, but humanity will bend over backward to perform test tube miracles on their behalf. There’s got to be some inspiring symbolism in there somewhere.

And it really hammers home Cory’s point: fucking is not required to make a family.


© 2019 by Anaea Lay

Author’s Note:One of my very good friends is extremely frustrated by pandas, to the point where he’ll happily go on at length about what a waste of space they are, and how we ought to let them go extinct.  Frankly, he has a point.  I was thinking about him while watching a documentary on emperor penguins, one thing led to another, and here we are.  This story was more on than I realized though, as demonstrated by a pair of would-be penguin dads in Berlin.

Anaea Lay lives in Chicago, Illinois where she is engaged in a torrid love affair with the city.

She’s the fiction podcast editor for Strange Horizons, where you can hear her read a new short story nearly every week.  She’s the president of the Dream Foundry, an organization dedicating to bolstering and nurturing the careers of nascent professionals working with the speculative arts.

Her fiction work has appeared in a variety of venues including LightspeedApexBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and Pod Castle.  Her interactive novel, Gilded Rails, was released by Choice of Games in 2018.  She lives online at anaealay.com where you can find a complete biography and her blog.  Follow her on Twitter @anaealay.


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DP FICTION #56A: “Tracing an Original Thought” by Novae Caelum

It’s like this: if the world has a food shortage, you eliminate hunger by leaving the planet, taking all your animals and plants in your genetic ark, and finding a new planet on which to grow and flourish.

It’s also like this: if the world has a distribution of wealth crisis, you eliminate poverty by never having elites in your new society. At least for a little while. At least, that was the plan.

And if the world has a gender crisis, an inability for equality, you eliminate gender.

You eliminate sex. The need for physical reproduction. Genetic disease. Gender politics.

You eliminate.

And then maybe you’d live in Arioth, city under the vast hanging visage of a ringed gas giant, black towers that reach for the stars, portal tubes flicking citizens from building top to street corner to corner office.

*

I’m not one of the elites. They lounge in their penthouses, looking down at their domains, moving the tides of originality. They own the artisans, the writers, the thinkers, the scientists—the hearts, the minds, the souls—all valuable trade commodities. Original thoughts, a groundbreaking currency. The first time you have an original thought, you’re a slave of the elites for life.

I decided long ago to never have an original thought. Which is why I became a tracer, hunting the original thinkers who have the very unoriginal idea of running away from their fates.

On a dingy street corner smelling of rotten garbage, where red marks mottled the concrete from the last clearing of a shack village, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, flipping up the eight-centimeter cylinder to activate the holographic display. It unfolded with a cheery chime and showed me a map of the city district in blue lines to the edge of the biodome, which was about a half kilometer from where I was standing.

It also showed me the path my target had taken, a haphazard red weave through streets and alleyways. Did they think they could lose me? Everyone in Arioth was genetically tagged since before emergence. Every child, traceable in every way since the time cells hit cells and became more cells, replicating in the gestation pods. You couldn’t run, not as a toddler, not as an adult. Tracers didn’t have to have original thoughts, because the most strenuous part about being a tracer was the violence, not the tracing itself.

Except.

I scrolled the holo to follow my target’s trail, but it went to a street corner in a particularly seedy district and stopped. I stared at the red dot on my display. It wasn’t blinking as it should have been. And it wasn’t white like it would have been if they’d died. Just solid red staring back at me, like they’d stopped themself somewhere between life and death. That little dot with the name “Emin 4892” beside it.

I’d been a tracer for six years, and I’d never seen a dot do that.

I slapped my phone against my neatly pressed jeans, hoping to jolt out any malfunction. The tracer department was not a department that had a lot of originality, and therefore not a lot of chance for technical upgrades. This phone was at least ten years old and buggy as hell.

The red dot remained, though.

I sighed, shoving down my growing unease. I’d have to investigate—following procedures, of course. Not with anything like original thought.

*

I had my personal numbers and stats in my vision at all times, eyes opened or closed. Everyone did. We saw our names—mine was “Gin 8381.” We saw our physical attributes—cropped brown hair, mid-brown skin, green eyes. Average height, below average weight. We saw our vitals—fit and healthy. We saw, when we were adults, when it was time to visit a clinic and let them harvest cells for the production of the next generation of creche children. We saw alerts from the elites. We saw traffic routing, job assignments based on genetics and aptitudes, and alerts on where to take our daily meals. Everything pertaining to personal, daily life.

And on the left side of my vision, always in movement, was the red to green bar of original thought.

The theory was that if you had an original thought, you would be elevated. You would have a chance, if the thought was original enough, and if you had enough of them, to become an elite. Or at least work under the elites, a few steps higher than you had been.

Some people strove for original thoughts. Their slavery was swift and usually unknowing. They’d lose themselves into their dream worlds and never know how many trade empires depended on their originality.

Some tried hard not to have original thoughts but had them accidentally. Those slaves went fighting and screaming into their elevated exiles.

But most people, from an early age, learned to manage the level of their originality bars. Keep it above red—where you’d be kicked to the streets as genetic chaff—but below yellow-green. If you could hold a steady yellow-orange, you’d have a nice, ordinary, productive life. No great upheavals. No great risks, no great rewards.

*

My originality bar was steady in its usual yellow-orange as I trekked through the litter-strewn streets. A rain had been scheduled for earlier that day, and my boots made soft splashes in black puddles. I’d known the rain was over when I’d come out, but I’d worn my brown duster with its weather-proof coating anyway, because I liked it.

There were no portal tubes in this district, and auto cabs wouldn’t come here, so I had to walk. People would strip both portals and cabs for the metals and resell the parts. That thought was hardly original.

I went through memorized procedures over and over in my mind, a numb and soothing counterpoint to a rising anxiety. My left hand played with the cool metal of my phone in my pocket, a nervous habit I’d never tried to break. I had a sour feeling in my stomach, something that rarely happened on a trace. Tracing was usually as simple as finding the target and bringing them in. Give or take a few bruises or tase gun singes.

But as I neared the place where my target had stopped and saw the sign above the grimy storefront glass, my unease grew.

It was a cuddle shop. There were hundreds of them around the city. If you didn’t have a domestic partner or two, or if you were desperate enough for human contact, you could find it here.

I’d been to some of the middle-class facilities—called Human Contact Therapy there—I wasn’t a recluse. But everyone who was sane stayed away from shops in districts like this. Places like this, people found ways to piece together originality without ever having a full original idea on their own. How to build illicit tech to simulate nerves and responses that were no longer in the human genetic code. Because humans had apparently not out-evolved the need for sex, despite the lack of equipment for it or the stability of a truly sexless society. Which was ridiculous. Genetics were more stable without the haphazard nature of biological reproduction. People didn’t go into hormonal rages like we learned about in ancient history. And there was far, far less abuse. Who could imagine a society so divided that one half subjugated the other purely based on genetics?

I pushed through the creaking door into the shop and had the thought I sometimes had, that maybe our society wasn’t so different from the old horrors in the history texts. That eliminating biological sex and gender had only transferred the problem to a different arena. Humans would always find a way to dominate others, and maybe that domination was still genetic. The bred thinkers vs. the bred non-thinkers. The elites vs. those in shacks on the streets. All watched, all pre-disposed to their lives, and if someone broke their prescribed mold, it was because they were supposed to. Genetic destiny, because the geneticists did not make mistakes. Everyone in their place.

The originality bar on the side of my vision hardly twitched. This thought I was having was not an original thought. Not for me, not for the millions of people monitored by the system.

“Can I help you?” A squat, older person with wild gray hair came toward me in the shop’s humid, off-white lobby.

I grimaced at the tang of sweat in the air. But I pulled out my phone, flipped open the holo, and showed a picture of my target. “I’m looking for this person. Have you seen them?”

“Oh,” the squat person said. “Oh, yeah. Yeah, they’re here.”

I tilted my head. “Still here? Still alive?” I flicked my phone’s holo back to the map. The red dot was solid, and close.

The person fidgeted, a sort of nervous dance. I focused on them, my tracer’s license giving me the ability to see their vitals, their originality bar. All were dangerously high. In a city that tried its best not to do anything out of the ordinary, fear was an original thought.

“Come with me,” the squat person—Dev 1126, the registered owner of this property—said, and led me into the back.

I passed steamy, translucent cubicles. I did not think about what was happening inside them, my lips tightening against the perversity. Human touch was fine. Benign affection was fine. More than that was dangerous.

The owner led me past all the cubicles to a room in the back, a room that had a sterile edge about it, with medical objects and tech on steel counters and an unoccupied medical table in the center.

“I don’t do anything here,” Dev 1126 said. “I just own the building.”

A standard excuse for one part of an original idea. Someone would own the place. Another would facilitate the tech parts, and a few more daring idiots would brush against fate by having just enough of an idea to spread it around. To build whatever they were building.

The room was empty. I checked my map again, and the red dot was centered just beyond this room. I reached into my right coat pocket for my tase gun.

“Hey,” the owner said, putting their hands up. “Hey, I didn’t do anything. Your target’s in there. Back through there.” They nodded at a back door.

Everything about this felt like a trap.

Fortunately, there were procedures for traps.

I shouted, “Emin 4892, come out peacefully, or I will use excessive force!”

I wasn’t expecting my target to come out so easily, and fully expected to have to turn my tase gun’s settings to demolition, but the door cracked, and a slim hand poked out and waved.

“I’m coming out,” a high-pitched voice said. Abnormally high. High with fear?

My brows knit and I hesitated, my aim wavering. Did I have the right person? There was something…off…about that voice. My originality bar jerked precariously upward, and I set my thoughts into reviewing the case file again. The voice did partially match the voiceprint on genetic file for Emin 4892. Thirty-three years of age. Food tester for a gourmet food chain. Nice job, don’t know why they left it. Don’t know why they wanted to have an original thought, if they wanted to at all.

The whole person came out through the doorway. Below average height and weight, bowl-cut black hair. They both were and were not my target. Cosmetic surgery had been involved, certainly. But had it healed this quickly? I’d only got the alert on my target that morning.

Emin 4892 wore a loose, surgical-type green gown and crossed their arms under…anatomy that should not be there.

We all knew what we came from. We all knew the barbaric forms our ancestors had been forced to live in for thousands of years before they were evolutionarily liberated. We knew the carnal drives that society insisted we were no longer slaves to but places like this insisted still lingered in our minds, like an itch that was never quite scratched.

I had never seen an actual throwback, a female, before. For a fleeting, dangerous moment, I wondered if I would feel something more than I should, if my thoughts would turn too original, but they didn’t. I guess I’d never had that itch.

But Emin 4892 apparently had.

They read my judgment, my horror, and their black eyes turned cold. They held their arms tighter around themself.

“That’s right, look at me,” they said. “This is who I am. You can’t take it from me.”

Emin 4892 and the people of this shop must have found a way to perform surgery—no, some kind of genetic splicing or modification—without scars and with rapid healing factor. That in itself was massive originality and an incredibly valuable commodity.

I stared at Emin 4892, and I couldn’t see their vitals. Their red locator dot still shone on my phone, but it hadn’t moved from the back room. Whatever had been done to them had been done there, and that’s where the dot had stopped. Where “they” had stopped and become “her.”

It was physiological, wasn’t it? Not just a cosmetic change. This person was actually female.

I tightened my grip on my tase gun. “Yes, I can take it away. Emin 4892, congratulations. You have had a highly original thought. You will be taken to originality processing where you will be given new accommodations to match your risen status.”

Emin 4892 flipped me the finger. But she didn’t try to bolt. She wasn’t going to run, was she?

“I’m original,” she said, voice tight and smug. “I’m original. I’m an artist, and this is my art.” She waved down at her body. “I decided to make a study of ancient human anatomy. That is an acceptable branch of study. I made an original breakthrough in the field of this art. Look at me—a living sculpture. You can’t destroy that, or return me to how I was. Destruction of originality is a capital crime, isn’t it?”

My thoughts jittered, following her logic. I tried to keep my thoughts in line, but my originality bar rose dangerously into yellow-green. My heart rate intensified.

“Yes, destruction of originality is a crime,” I gasped. I closed my eyes, still watching my originality bar, and ran backward through my most-used procedural manual.

My thoughts began to flow again. To slow. The originality bar went back to yellow-orange.

I exhaled and opened my eyes. I’d take my target in. They were not my problem—they were for someone much more original than I to deal with. It didn’t matter that my target had a point to make, or a sculpture to display, or whatever perversity they thought they were getting away with. It would all smooth out in the end. And it was not my problem.

Emin 4892 sensed their victory, whatever victory they thought they’d gained, and held out their arms. I slapped cuffs on their wrists and shuffled my target out of the shop. I flagged the shop for immediate lockdown and further investigation. It would be shut down, the valuable tech confiscated and taken to be studied by more original scientists. Those who’d built the tech would be traced and taken in, too. You couldn’t escape the fate of original thoughts.

Society would continue in its stability.

Or would it? I darted a glance at Emin 4892. Were they—I couldn’t use “she” without my originality bar climbing, and maybe it wasn’t even “she,” did I even have a right to determine that?—as deranged as our society dictated? Did they just want attention and infamy or did they seriously think that going back to humanity’s original evolutionary forms was a good thing? And if Emin 4892 had caused this much stir already, how could so much originality, so much chaos in concepts like gender or sex, possibly be good?

Emin 4892 walked beside me with a confidence, a carriage in their step I’d only seen in elites. And their eyes flashed with something beyond the defiance, their mouth tight with intense determination. This meant something to them. Something more than status, maybe even more than a statement.

My originality bar started to climb again, and I shunted my thoughts back to procedures, looking away.

Emin 4892 grinned. A sour, knowing grin.

And I hated myself for feeling the contempt in that grin and knowing that I maybe deserved it. That maybe we all did.

That was also not an original thought.

I escorted my willing target down the city blocks to the nearest portal tube, doing my best not to think of societies and change.


© 2019 by Novae Caelum

Author’s Note: Being queer and non-binary, one of the things I think about a lot is what a future society might look like where gender and sexuality aren’t an issue, and everyone freely expresses who they are. Usually, that feels like a big, happy world (or worlds!) to me, and I truly hope for that future. But this story was born out of what if that idea went horribly wrong and the concepts of gender and sexuality weren’t normalized but banned—what would that society look like? Turns out, pretty dark.

Novae Caelum is an author, illustrator, and designer with a love of spaceships and a tendency to quote Monty Python. Stars short fiction has appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Escape Pod, Clockwork Phoenix 5, and Lambda Award winning Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. Most days you can find star with digital pen in hand, crafting imaginary worlds. Or writing alien poetry. Or typing furiously away at stars serial genderfluid romance novels, with which star hopes to take over the world. At least, that’s the plan. You can find star online at novaecaelum.com.


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DP FICTION #55A: “Empathy Bee” by Forrest Brazeal

I’m at the microphone for the first round of the 32nd Annual National Empathy Bee, and I can’t feel a thing.

*

ROUND ONE

Good morning, Alex. A man is sitting in a banker’s office. The banker says: “You have great collateral — I’ll give you credit for that.” Is this a joke? If so, why is it funny?

*

Press photographers in the front row dazzle my eyes with flashbulbs. The hotel ballroom stretches behind them, vast and dim, a fog bank of blurry faces. Mom sits somewhere in the audience, but I’ll never spot her with the naked eye from up here on the stage.

Fortunately, my brain implant has an image processing feature. I scroll through options in my mind, zooming, enhancing, upscaling. There she is, slumped on a straight-backed gilt chair with her “guardian of contestant” credentials drooping around her neck. The seat beside her, Dad’s seat, is empty.

*

ROUND TWO

Here is your next question, Alex. A middle-aged man posts pictures of his neighbor’s new sports car on social media, but he says the pictures are of his own car. Give two different reasons why he might be doing this.

*

The National Spelling Bee is deader than ancient Greek. So are mathletes and chess club. Now that every middle-school kid is running around the playground with a microchip in their head that syncs directly to the internet, traditional tests of academic knowledge are pointless. But those of us who aren’t good at sports still need something to do in the afternoons, so we get Empathy Bee.

The goal of the famous Turing Test is to stump a computer with questions that would be easy for a human. Empathy Bee is sort of like that. But the questions here are tricky for people, too. We’re supposed to be showing off our human potential by solving problems our brain implants can’t. It’s great practice for college essays, I’ve heard.

Some contestants spend a lot of time developing software to hack Empathy Bee and its hundred-thousand dollar grand prize, building databases of questions and using deep learning to predict responses. Veterans like me call them “chip kiddies.” The Bee stays a step ahead of technology, you only get sixty seconds at the mic, and it’s almost always better to go with your gut.

The problem right now is, my gut is missing in action. I’m used to nerves — they give me an edge — but not this dull incoherence.

*

ROUND THREE

Alex, you are late for class. You see two older kids bullying Ben. You know that if you stand up for Ben, he will think you are his friend. You don’t want to be friends with Ben, and you are scared of the older kids. What should you do?

*

I stumble on the third round question, speaking in half sentences, and I see the head judge’s hand hover scarily close to the dreaded buzzer before she decides to accept my answer.

Empathy Bee uses five judges at the national level. They score our responses on a ten point scale and determine if we’ve done well enough to advance. Because Bee questions are highly subjective, the judges take a lot of crap every year from angry parents, but I guess they’re used to it. Some of them used to judge beauty pageants.

Last year, when I got buzzed out in the fourth round on an answer I still think was pretty good, Mom spent two hours outside the judges’ greenroom demanding an explanation. She didn’t get one, and I don’t think I’ll get that kind of support from her this year. She’s spent the last few days wan and distant, refusing to talk about anything except nothing. She won’t discuss what happened the night Dad left.

*

ROUND FOUR

Alex, you are four years old. You have lost sight of your family in a crowded theme park. How do you feel, and why?

*

We get a restroom break before the fourth round. Standing in a line of seventy kids with nervous bladders, I flip my implant out of “do not disturb” mode and check my messages. The Bee jams network communications in the ballroom to block hints from parents or coaches, but here on the upper level of the hotel I’ve got a little bit of service.

When I feel the message coming in from Dad, the little jolt of electricity seems to travel right down my spine into my stomach. I haven’t heard from him in eight days.

Hey son. Good luck up there. His words jab into my mind like pins.

I message him back, keeping my eyes fixed on the tiled floor as neurons flow in and out of the implant. Where are you? Don’t you know the bee is on right now?

Yeah, I’m watching it on TV. You look great.

Is she with you?

Come on, Alex.

No, I want to know, are you with your mistress?

Long pause. Her name’s Cynthia, okay?

I don’t want to know anything about her.

*

ROUND FIVE

Alex, here is an excerpt from a child’s picture book. Please read it to the judges. Watch our body language carefully. Slow down, point to the pictures, or explain the story if it appears that we are losing interest or getting confused.

*

I don’t know how I’m still in the competition. Answers spring out of me without a second thought, like I’m one of the robots the Bee is designed to outwit. Three years of experience and hundreds of hours of preparation are keeping me alive, somehow. For now.

I started preparing seriously for the Bee in fifth grade, sitting at the kitchen table doing practice tests with Mom. When I got frustrated and wanted to give up the whole idea, she would simply put the books away and bring them out again the next day. Around the time I won my first regional playoff, her enthusiasm became mine, and I didn’t need any more encouragement to study.

Dad helped out, too, in the early days. I remember lying with my face in the living room carpet, feeling rather than hearing his deep voice reading me the prompts. I’m not sure when that stopped. This past year, he mostly lay on the couch in the evenings, eyes rolled up in his head, communing with his implant. Keeping up with work stuff, he claimed.

*

ROUND SIX

Hi again, Alex. Let’s pretend you have a young brother, Matt, who has ADHD. Day after day, he invades your personal space and messes up your belongings. How can you help him learn a sense of boundaries?

*

I tried to look up “adultery” in my implant yesterday. I didn’t get very far at first. The chip has parental controls enabled. My parents’ implants, however, do not.

My parents aren’t especially chip-savvy. They leave their implants unsecured on our shared network at home. That means I can pair my implant wirelessly with theirs and use their access credentials to get online, especially if they’re sleeping and unlikely to notice. That’s usually how I download the Q-rated headgames that my friends are playing. I used to be able to get those on my own implant, before Mom read some article about the supposed negative effects of virtual reality inside developing brains.

If Dad could do what he did — which is to say adultery, noun, voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone else who is not his or her spouse — I don’t see what’s the big deal about a stupid game.

*

ROUND SEVEN

Tell me a story about a time when you experienced a feeling of schadenfreüde.

*

The contestants are dropping out fast now. The questions get a lot harder in this round, separating the championship contenders from the chip kiddies. Aliya Dhumal, last year’s champ, fails to explain why a controlling parent would trust alternative medicine over science. She leaves the stage after the buzzer with her head down. It looks like I’m going to make the top twenty, maybe more.

I go to the restroom again during the commercial break halfway through the round. I don’t need to pee — I just want to see if Dad has messaged me again. He hasn’t.

I really wish you were here.

He responds after a minute. Me too, Alex. I’m sorry things worked out like this.

You could still make it. We have your entry badge and everything. I can see your seat from the stage.

Look, you know things with me and your mom are rough right now.

Yeah. I know.

Alex.

What?

I love you, okay? You have every right to be upset about all this. I hope you’ll understand some day that I had to do what was right for me.

Alex?

I reach behind my ear and flip the little switch that comes out of the implant, cutting off all access to the chip. My arms and legs are shaking.

*

ROUND EIGHT

You are a politician at a state dinner. The Italian ambassador starts telling a joke that you know will offend the Japanese prime minister. How do you intervene so that nobody’s feelings are hurt?

*

Mom insists I can’t blame myself for what happened that evening, but how can I not? I was the one who paired Dad’s implant with mine while he was sleeping on the couch after dinner. I only wanted his headgame password. I didn’t mean to look at his messages, and when I saw the pictures of the naked woman I didn’t know what to do. I probably shouldn’t have told Mom.

No, I had to tell somebody. I couldn’t carry that secret.

Maybe I should have kept it to myself until after the finals. I would have felt the embarrassment and the guilt, Dad’s guilt, wrenching my stomach, but at least I would have felt something besides this emptiness.

The kid sitting onstage beside me, Ginnie Worley from Cedar Rapids, mutters to herself each time she thinks the judges are about to buzz somebody. “He’s gone.”

*

ROUND NINE

Alex, Oscar Wilde once wrote that “each man kills the thing he loves.” If you truly love something, why would you let it go?

*

The flashbulbs blast in my face, leaving floaters all around my field of vision. It’s like looking into a Petri dish. My implant is still disabled, and I have no idea how to answer this question. I don’t know why someone kills their love. I don’t even know what love is supposed to be. I’m too young to be here.

The head judge leans into her microphone. She’s an elderly woman with a constantly sympathetic expression. “Thirty seconds, Alex.”

I could turn on the implant and search the database for Oscar Wilde. That’s what a chip kiddie would do, but there’s no time now.

Did I kill Dad’s love for me when I accessed his implant? If I hadn’t done that, if I hadn’t learned who he was, wouldn’t we still be together? Or was he bound to leave anyway, like Mom says, in which case nothing matters and this whole question is stupid?

“Alex. Time’s up. If you love something, why let it go?”

I close my eyes and speak so softly into the microphone that I can barely hear myself. “Because I have to do what’s right for me.”

“Please repeat that toward the judges?”

I turn toward the judges’ table. “I have to do what’s right for me.”

The judges put their heads together, murmuring. Somewhere behind me Ginnie Worley hisses jubilantly. “He’s gone.”

The sound of the buzzer strikes me right in the chest, vibrating all through my body. The head judge sighs, looking as always like she just put down a beloved family pet. “I’m sorry, Alex, that’s not an acceptable answer.”

I look out beyond the microphone, over the judges’ table, past Mom and the sea of people, right into the TV camera on the platform at the back of the ballroom. I look through the lens of the camera into the hotel room where I imagine Dad sits in bed with his arm around his mistress. I speak slowly and with emphasis, the way they teach you. “You’re darn right it isn’t.”

Then I walk off the stage and into that strange holding pen for just-eliminated contestants called the cry room. Mom is there, and I put my head on her shoulder, and all of a sudden I have more feelings than I know what to do with.


© 2019 by Forrest Brazeal

Author’s Note: I competed twice in the National Spelling Bee and still follow it from afar. In my opinion, the Bee is fundamentally broken in the digital age — kids keep getting smarter and prep tools get better, but the dictionary stays the same. I started thinking about the evolution of academic competitions, and came up with what I think would be a much more interesting event. (I’d watch it, anyway!)

Forrest Brazeal is a software engineer, writer, and cartoonist based in rural Virginia. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, StarShipSofa, and elsewhere. Find him at forrestbrazeal.com or on twitter @forrestbrazeal.


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DP FICTION #53B: “Lies of the Desert Fathers” by Stewart Moore

The Abbot’s eyes stared up at the ceiling. The reflections of blue-robed angels flew across his gray irises. Not much blood had spattered on his face. His chest was another story. The stains had finally stopped spreading from the rents in his brown wool robe. I noticed a smear near the hem of my long skirt where I stood too close.

Revulsion erupted in my throat and I clamped my hands over my mouth. I could feel the dampness of the blood on my leg. I fought the urge to tear the bottom of the skirt off.  I needed to stay calm. If I panicked, all was lost.

On the Abbot’s shaven scalp, the lights of his implanted sanctifications still blinked, attempting to change the thought patterns of a dead brain. One finger slowly twitched. The motor cortex must be getting extra juice. I focused on that. A simple, physical issue in the neurological wiring. I could fix that. I slowed my thinking around that problem.

For some reason, the Abbot’s other hand held a saw. That problem I couldn’t solve right now.

Light from the overturned lamp shone on the wall behind the Abbot’s desk. There Saint Dymphna’s painted neck stretched out to meet her father’s sword in frozen, ecstatic martyrdom.  I locked eyes with her, my hot breath seething through my fingers. She could be calm.  I could be calm.

A shadow moved across Dymphna’s face. I almost turned and fled, but it was only a tarantula crawling inside the fallen lampshade. It hurried out across the wooden floor, so new the room still smelled of varnish in the dull evening heat.

The spider investigated the bloody chisel. Finally, it decided against crawling over the blade. It ran toward the monk in the shadows by the door. He stood so still, all I could see of him was his multicolored winking sanctifications, forming a halo around his head.

I smiled shakily, my gorge still in my throat. “Come here, please, Beta.”

Uriel Beta stepped forward shyly. He was a young man with a scar down his right cheek. His scalp and face were clean-shaven. What a change he made from when I first met him in prison, with lank dark hair and vomit-encrusted stubble.

Now, his hands were sticky with drying blood. I had found him desperately performing CPR on the Abbot.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Beta’s eyes went blank for a second as a blue light between his eyes flickered quickly. That implant stimulated his anterior cingulate cortex. His pupils contracted again. “…I’m Uriel Beta, a brother in the Order of Saint Dymphna.”

“Who am I?”

Again the momentary blankness. I couldn’t reduce the processing time for his sanctifications any further. That was why he had to be here, in the Order’s tightly sealed compound. He wouldn’t last a minute back on the streets, where his old friends, his victims and the police would all be waiting for him.

“…You’re Doctor Abigail Wainwright.”

“Good. Now lie to me, Beta.”

“…I can’t.”

“Try.”

Beta’s mouth worked, forming the beginnings of words, only for his sanctifications to start blinking more rapidly. Intracranial magnetic stimulation pulsed through his anterior cingulate cortex. Sociopaths have low activity in that region. Finally he let out a shuddering breath.

“…I can’t, Doctor Abigail. …The words won’t stay in my head. …It’s like they’re written in sand, and the wind… it blows the sand away, and what’s left is written in stone, and it’s the truth.”

“Excellent. Now: did you do this?”

Beta stared down at the Abbot, and at his scarlet hands. He knelt down, heedless of the blood on his robe. He looked up at me, tears in his eyes. A yellow light on his forehead faded on and off, stimulating his orbitofrontal cortex, giving him sympathy for the dead man he couldn’t feel on his own.

“…No,” he said at last. “You do believe me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. But we have to find out who did this. I’m going to have to call the police pretty soon, and if we can’t give them the murderer, they’ll have to investigate. That means asking questions, and you know how the police already feel about this place. They might even try to force you to leave.”

Beta’s lights flickered. “…Yes. I understand. …We’re all very grateful to you, Doctor Abigail.”

I remembered how Beta had been when I met him: a monster seeking only his own immediate gratification. I set my jaw.

I looked over the monitors in the corner of the Abbot’s office. The lone guard was still in the booth at the entrance to the compound, oblivious. There were no guards inside the Order. We didn’t need any: no one wanted to get out. Besides, guards would have brought their own agendas, their own ideas of regulation and punishment, inside this place, and that would ruin the delicate work I performed here.

The rest of the monitors showed empty rooms and halls, but I knew where everyone was. It was nine o’clock: time for compline, the last service of the day. I held out my hand. “Come with me, Beta.” He took my hand and stood. I didn’t mind the blood. What kind of neurosurgeon would I be if I did? I took him over to the sink where the Abbot got water for blessing, and washed our hands.

Beta scrubbed at his fingernails as his tears ran down the drain. “…He was a great man. …You and he together made me whole. …You were like my mother and father.”

I squeezed Beta’s shoulder. “I know.”

We left the Abbot’s office, and I locked the door behind us. In the hallway, the ceiling lights reflected in the dark lacquered floors, as if we were hopping on stepping-stones in a frozen river. The adobe walls slowly released the day’s heat. The air was close, and sweat beaded on my forehead.

From up ahead came the chanting of the gathered monks. I recognized the canticle at once: the “Dies Irae,” “The Day of Wrath.” I mostly knew it from funeral services. An ill-omened thing to have come up in the lectionary for today. I saw Beta’s pupils dilate, and I knew it wasn’t just the dim light. I’d given all the brothers an implant in their anterior insula cortex. It gave them an experience of being one with each other when they worshipped together: a reward for their commitment to communal life. Now the music was taking hold of Beta. I gripped his arm.

“Uriel Beta, I need you to stay with me now. You’re the only one here who can’t lie to me.”

Beta looked at me with a slowly fading smile. He shook his head hard. “…I’ll try.” We continued down the hall. The chanting grew louder. Beta, struggling with the music, fighting its insistent communion with his brothers, started a whispered conversation to try to stay present with me.

“…Why didn’t you make it so we all can’t lie to you?”

I laughed quietly. “I’m good, but I’m not that good. All psychopaths need stimulation of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices. That just reverses the particular manifestation of their disability. There are many ways to be a psychopath. You were a compulsive liar; now you compulsively tell the truth.”

“…But do I deserve any credit for that, theologically speaking?”

“That’s not for us to decide. You’re not hurting anyone anymore, and that’s the important thing.”

I remembered the photos of his victims, and shuddered. I was acutely aware of being alone with him, but I knew I was safe. Turning off the brothers’ sex drives had been the easiest operation. A simple matter of cutting off that pathway between the amygdala and the hypothalamus. I had to, or we’d never get anything done.

Beta and I emerged into the back of the candlelit chapel. Darkness filled the circular stained-glass window, giving just hints of deep reds and blues. On the woven altar covering, flowers with lush green leaves bloomed in the desert.

Without the Abbot, the brothers still knew the rites. The slow chant of the song went on and on. The harmonies were rough: I could work no magic with musical talent. But the joy they felt as they sang, or droned, or howled, hummed through the floor. Beta trembled. I put my hand on his shoulder. He smiled beatifically.

Counting Beta and omitting the Abbot, there should have been twenty-two monks in the chapel. It only took a moment to know that one was missing. All I could see was the back of their shaved heads, each blinking with its own constellation. That was enough: I knew each of their implants better than I knew their faces. I had spent hours placing each one. There were Uriel Alpha and Gamma; there were the Raphaels, all six Gabriels, the Michaels…

My breath died inside me. Cold rose up my back despite the heat. I squeezed Beta’s shoulder hard, and he looked at me hazily. “Sariel,” I whispered. “It’s Sariel.”

Beta’s eyes widened. I pulled him back into the shadows. “He must be somewhere where he can’t hear the service, and can hide from the cameras,” I said. “Where?”

Beta thought a moment. “…The library. The special collection. There’s one corner the camera can’t see.  We all know about it.”

“Let’s go.” We retreated from the chapel, back into the dark hallways.

Sariel. Our celebrity: Samuel Hutchens, the one serial killer I’d attempted to sanctify so far. Once I controlled his temporal lobe epilepsy, the rest had seemed fairly straightforward. I’d named him for the angel who taught humans about the moon. It matched the cyclical course of his murders.

Beta slowly opened the big oak door that led to the library. It creaked the tiniest bit. I prayed that only we heard it. Inside, green glass lampshades cast a watery light with pools of white on the ceiling. Books encased the walls. The shadows of shelves collected darkness. They gave off the odor of heat and paper.

I took off my shoes. We tiptoed along the shelves to the end of the row where the books about the Old Testament joined those of the New. The door to the special collection stood closed. On the floor lay a copy of the Lives of the Desert Fathers. Very slowly, I slid it out of our way with my foot.

Beta took hold of the door handle and looked back at me. I nodded. He gritted his teeth and threw it open.

Sariel stood in the corner, his nose in a book. He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man. His head was encrusted with sanctifications, like a phosphorescent reef. He looked up at us. His eyes gleamed in the dim light.

“Doctor,” he said softly. “You’re here late.” His accent was aristocratic Southern: Savannah, I knew, from his records. He sat down at the reading table.

“Why aren’t you at compline, Sariel?” I asked.

“I’m finding greater enlightenment here.” He closed the volume and turned it so I could see the cover. Neurocybernetic Behavior Modification. My first book.

“What’s that doing here?” I asked.

“The Abbot thought it was important that we know what we are.” Sariel ran his finger along the crevices of the brain on my book’s cover.

I sat down carefully across from him. “And what are you?”

“Spiritual beings, freed from the thorns of the flesh. Human as human was meant to be, human as in the Garden of Eden, free to praise God eternally until senescence. At which point we will resume the practice in heaven.”

I smiled. “That’s what you’re meant to be. You’re supposed to be better than the rest of us.”

“That’s what the Abbot thought, at least.” He looked at me from under heavy lids.

“Sariel… Have you seen the Abbot today?”

“No,” he whispered, his finger still moving over the convoluted lines. “Not personally, I mean. I saw him at worship this afternoon. And at noon. And this morning.”

“Then why aren’t you there now?”

“Because I’m tired!” he shouted. He picked up the book and slammed it back down. “I’m tired of feeling one with the universe whenever we sing a minor fifth. We’re slaves to your damned brain-machines, and I have had enough.” He reached down into his lap and brought up a tool. My whole body tensed. It was a vise grip. He set it gently on the table. “Eating and f-f-f… mating.” He spat out the word with the force of the interdicted vulgarity. “That’s what it is to be human. So how human do you think I feel, Doctor?”

“Where did you get that?” I asked, stalling for time.

“The workshop. You wanted us to be productive, after all. Idle hands, and so on. You were so sure of your work, that we wouldn’t use the tools to hurt each other. And you were right, of course. I couldn’t hurt another person now, even if I could want to.”

“Then what are you going to do with it?” My voice felt strangled in my throat.

Sariel’s fingers walked over his sanctifications like the legs of a pale spider. “I believe I know now what each one of these things does. This one, for instance—” He tapped a tiny box with a blue light on the left side of his head. “—This one regulates the communication between my amygdala and hypothalamus, so I can’t feel sexual excitation. This has been a particularly painful loss for me.”

He picked up the vise grip and closed it on that box. I stood up. “Jesus, don’t do that, Hutchens!”

He stood too. “Don’t come closer, either of you. I know what will happen. It’s like a fishhook: it does more damage coming out than going in. But it doesn’t matter, since I’m already dead to everything important in life. I’ll give you this, Doctor: you made the death penalty look good.”

He ripped the sanctification out of his head. Most of the implant tore off inside his skull, but the wire came out crusted with pinkish-gray neocortical flesh. Blood pulsed down his scalp. His right arm instantly flopped down at his side. He had torn straight through his motor cortex. He looked down at the useless limb.

Sariel grinned. “If your hand offend thee, cut it off.” His voice was thick.

“Beta, stop him!” I shouted. But when I looked back at him, Beta was shaking. His eyes rolled back into his head. He collapsed against the table and flopped onto the floor. His sanctifications scraped against the hardwood. I turned him on his side. His breathing was ragged but clear.

“And if your eye offend thee, pluck it out,” Sariel said. He gripped another sanctification and ripped it out, destroying Broca’s area, the center of grammar. “Interesting. Is. Feeling. You. Good. To me. Look. Feel… normal, almost.” He giggled, and ripped out another and another. Twitches writhed under his skin, contorting his face. His good hand trembled, so he had trouble getting at a sanctification at the back of his head. When he pulled it out, his right eye blinked furiously.

He was now blind on that side. I slipped around the table that way.

“Where… Go?” Sariel choked. He searched to his left, but like many people with damage to their left occipital lobe, he ignored his right completely. He brought his shaking hand to the center of his forehead, trying to get a grip on the winking red light there.

I grabbed the vise. It came easily from his loose fingers. I threw it away. He howled. Blood streamed down his face. His arms flailed out blindly. I grabbed my book off the table, a heavy tome full of illustrations. I swung it at the back of Sariel’s skull. I had to hit him three times, ruining more sanctifications as well as the book’s cover, before he fell down and lay shivering.

Beta moaned and tried to sit up. I knelt down and supported him. He looked around blearily under the table and saw Sariel’s bleeding head. Beta smiled weakly, then threw up. I moved to block his view of Sariel, and slowly he recovered. “…Not much good, was I?”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I turned up the activity in your mirror neurons to give you more empathy. Empathizing with that was just too much.”

“…I think I’m okay now.” I helped him stand up.

“Can you stay here and watch him?” I asked. “Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself any more?”

“…Yes. Are you going to call the police?”

“No.” I patted Beta’s arm. “It’ll be all right. I want to see if I can can save Sariel.” I sighed. There probably wasn’t much left of Sariel to save. I had worked so hard on him. “I’ll be right back.”

I left the library, retrieving my shoes as I did so, and headed for the Abbot’s office. I had to make sure it was undisturbed for the police. Soft chanting still drifted down the halls. The unity of the sound made it all worthwhile.

I passed by a small shrine for Saint Dymphna in the hallway. A single votive candle flickered under her portrait: a young, pretty, red-haired girl. The patron saint of the mentally ill. I wondered who had lit the candle. I thought of the men in the chapel, brains malformed at birth, who had never had a chance to choose the good at all. I freed them from that. I made it possible for God to save them. I opened the doors of Heaven.

Saint Dymphna’s ghost of a smile was not really reassuring. Neither was the crimson line across her throat.

I stalked down the hall. The brain is a physical system, I told myself, running over the old arguments in preparation for dealing with the police. A human brain is run by chemicals and electricity. You can measure it, alter it, even hold it in your hand. For God to change the flow of electricity in these men’s brains would have required a miracle, a bona-fide miracle, no less than splitting the Red Sea. And God doesn’t work that way anymore. Just read the news.

I reached the Abbot’s door and unlocked it. All I knew was, I saw sickness. I’m a doctor. So I healed it. What else was I supposed to do?

I walked around the desk. Two pools of sticky blood marked where the Abbot’s body and the knife had been.

I looked up. Uriel Beta stood in the doorway. Behind him, the other monks filled the hall. They sang quietly. I had mistaken volume for distance.

Beta’s left hand held something the size of a large rock. When he stepped forward I could see what it was.

“Uriel Beta, what are you doing with that drill?”

Beta looked down at his empty right hand. “…I’m not holding any drill, Doctor.”

“You can’t lie to me, Beta. I know you can’t.”

“…I’m not lying, Doctor. You did your work very well. See?” He waved his right hand languidly at me. “Nothing.”

“What about your other hand?”

“This?” He looked down at his left hand. It stayed very still. The knuckles were white, except the one on the trigger. “…This isn’t my hand. This is God’s hand. I don’t have any control over it.”

“Jesus. Beta, you have alien-hand syndrome. I should have known it was a possibility, it’s associated with disorders of the anterior cingulate. I stimulated that region to help your empathy, but I must have overloaded something somehow. I can fix it, Beta, I swear I can, but you have to give me the drill.”

The tarantula scurried in front of him. He knelt down.

“God doesn’t want you to take this,” he said softly. He triggered the drill and stabbed it through the spider’s body and into the floor. He never took his eyes off me as he did it. “But don’t worry. He doesn’t want to kill you either. Not like the Abbot. The Abbot wanted to saw off God’s arm.” He pulled the drill out of the floor and stood. “God only wants you to know the happiness we feel.” I realized he wasn’t pausing before he spoke. He believed what he said absolutely.

I saw blinking lights in another monk’s hand. It took me a moment to realize they were Sariel’s bloody sanctifications.

Beta’s left hand tested the drill. It whirred loudly. He stepped forward. There was nowhere for me to go. For the first time I really saw the window bars from this side.

“He’s going to sanctify you, Doctor,” Uriel Beta said as the other monks surrounded me. They grabbed me and pulled me to the floor, singing the whole time.

“You’re going to see what we see. What you gave us.” Beta knelt down over me. “Thank you, Doctor. We all thank you so much.”

I heard a sound. I couldn’t tell whether it was me screaming, or the drill. I looked up at the shaved heads all around. A cloud of blinking lights surrounded me, pulsing in complex rhythms. I knew each blink and flicker.

They were all working perfectly.


© 2019 by Stewart Moore

 

Author’s Note: “Lies of the Desert Fathers” was born out of research in the hard doctrine of original sin, that no human can achieve godliness unaided.  But who knows what helps towards saintliness might be available after 50 more years of technology?

Stewart Moore began his peripatetic career by graduating college with a degree in theater, following which he directed a production of his play Henry and Beckyin New York City.  Later, he earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Yale.  His researches there led to the publication of his first book, Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt (Brill, 2014).  Turning from nonfiction to short fiction, he has been published in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow (The Beastly Bride, 2010) and Paula Guran (Halloween, 2011).  He has also been published in the magazine Mysterion (2018).  He lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter and an odd number of cats.

 

 

 

 


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