Category Archives: Original fiction

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge– Apocalypse Now!

I wrote this piece in response to a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— 1500 words on, as he put it, “a rare, strange, unparalleled apocalypse.”

Well, I took a look at the challenge and thunk real hard, and…went in completely different direction.  If this story puzzles anyone, I would ask them to not consider the modern English usage of the word “apocalypse”, but what the word actually means in Greek.  The story’s inadequacies as a story, of course, have nothing to do with etymology.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“Tell her,” Timon said.  He stood close to Aldan, speaking for his ears only.

“No,” Aldan said, speaking just as low.

It was probably an unnecessary precaution; it was unlikely that either of their voices could be heard over the music and the happy cries of the dancers.  One hundred men and women matched steps in the middle of the hall.  A hundred more urged them on from the sides, or gabbled among themselves beside tables heavy with food and drink.  Timon and Aldan were alone in the crowd, far off in a corner behind pillars, and very nearly out of sight of the newlyweds, who sat atop the dais at the far end of the room.  Aldan dared glance that direction.  Ranald lolled in the groom’s seat, smiling broadly and toasting the dancers.  Rebekah sat beside him the bride’s seat, her spray of flowers in her lap, quietly smiling.

“For the love of the all-seeing gods, why not?” Timon said.

“She marries a great lord,” Aldan said, “and she is happy.  Besides which, she hardly knows me.”

“But you love her,” Timon said.

“What is that?” Aldan said.  “Nothing.  With this marriage we all buy peace among ourselves.  Whatever I feel is nothing in comparison.”

“But, Aldan, your happiness….”

“Stop whispering in my ear,” Aldan told him.  “It will do no good.”

He stepped away, leaving Timon glowering among the pillars.  Aldan moved through the crowd carefully; he was not dressed in festive garb, but in traveling clothes, with his sword buckled on.  His mission started as soon as he could pledge his loyalty to his new lord.  Horses and the men detailed to follow him were waiting on the ceremony; all Aldan could do was make sure they were fed and out of the rain.

He went to the nearest table.  The delicacies here would not sustain him on the ride he had ahead of him; but he had to eat or drink something, out of courtesy.  This was not the time or place to give offense.

He found a plate of dove’s eggs in spiced butter, and ate them slowly as he walked to the other side of the room.  He garnered stares as he did; some of the guests obviously wondered if he were a vagabond who had somehow gotten in past the guards.  Others just as obviously wondered how someone so homely could have been invited to the nuptials of the high warlord of Telania and the fairest daughter of the old Houses.

He finished the eggs, and found a place for the plate in a niche in the far wall.  It was an old icon shrine, now empty, and Aldan reflected that it was possible no servant would find the plate for twenty or thirty years.  He wondered why that amused him.

“Still causing trouble, I see,” someone said from behind him.

Aldan turned.  Scholar Harald approached; his old tutor was unchanged, save for more lines in his face.  Aldan bowed.  “It’s just they never have anywhere you can put the dishes,” he said.

“Ah—then we can blame the host,” Harald said.  “As we can blame him for so many things.”

“Teacher,” Aldan said, warningly, “you should guard your lips.”

“Perhaps,” Harald said.  “Perhaps I’m an old man who doesn’t care who knows what he thinks of our new overlord.”

“If nothing else, restrain yourself for my sake,” Aldan said.  “It would grieve me to see your head displayed on the Traitor’s Walk.”

“Bah,” Harald said, waving his hand in that manner that told Aldan his teacher considered the matter unworthy of discussion.  “It is needful for someone to bear witness to what we are giving up.”

“A generation of civil war?” Aldan suggested.

“Our ancient liberties,” Harald said.

“There will be time for that later,” Aldan said, growing worried.  “First we have to defeat the Galocina.”

“Some would say the Galocina are a convenient distraction….” Harald said.

“Teacher, please,” Aldan pleaded.

“All right– I will be quiet, for your sake,” Harald said.  He smiled.  “It is too bad you never spoke up.”

“Spoke up?” Aldan said.

“To Rebekah,” Harald said.  “If she were married now, the Warlord would have had to find some other woman of the Old Houses to wed—although I doubt he could have found anyone else as highly placed.”

Aldan shook his head.  “You are dreaming, Teacher.  Rebekah hardly knows my name.  And her house would have hardly consented to wedding her to a mere soldier…especially one as homely as I am.”

“You have other qualities,” Harald said.

“None that could overcome the plain terror of my face,” Aldan said.  “Forgive me, Teacher, but I need some air.”

He bowed to Harald, and stepped out on one of the western balconies.  The balcony was covered, so he was not instantly soaked, but out in the dark the rain came down in a steady deluge.  The sound of it actually matched the muffled sound of the celebration within.  Soon enough he would be out in it; there was no delaying his mission for mere weather.

Weddings, though….  

“What a night,” a voice said.  “I am so sorry you’re going to have to ride through all that.”

Aldan turned.  His mother came through the open doors on to the balcony.  Her shrewd eyes examined him, as if looking to make sure his clothes were on straight and he combed his hair.  Her smile, though, was indulgent and proud.

“The fate of a soldier,” Aldan said.  “You get used to it.”

She came near.  Aldan bowed to her, then hugged her close.  “Well, thank the gods I’m not a soldier,” his mother said.  “I’d hate to get used to this.”  She stepped back, examining his face.  “Exactly why are you still here, though?”

“Waiting on the ceremony,” Aldan said.  “I must place my hands between the Warlord’s, and bid the couple farewell.”

“Oh, that,” his mother said.  “Archaic claptrap.”  She looked up and seemed to search Aldan’s face.  “It won’t be easy for you, son.  I am sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Having to farewell the woman you love as she is given to another,” his mother said.

Aldan sighed.  “Everyone seems to be talking about impossibilities tonight.  To Rebekah I am hardly more than dust; and my countenance….”

“Merely provides a covering for singular virtues,” his mother said.  “Well, perhaps it is best you are leaving for the frontier.”  She laid a hand to his cheek.  “But I still claim a mother’s right to want my children to be happy.”

“Happy…is something I stopped worrying about many years ago, mother,” Aldan said.

Soon after they called for the pledging, and Aldan went in.  There were a few courtiers ahead of him, so he had few minutes to wait and fidget and feel the eyes of the guests upon him.  He was used to stares, usually.  For the most part.  Being the object of quite so much gawking at the same time was, he had to admit, a little unnerving.

Then it was his turn.  He went forward, ascended the dais, and knelt before Ranald.  He placed his hands between those of the Warlord.  “My lord,” Aldan said, “I pledge my loyalty and service, my labor and my life.  I pledge this to you and to the realm, in peace and in war.”

Ranald smiled down at him.  “Ah,” the Warlord said, loud enough for all in the hall to hear.  “We are pleased to receive the service of a soldier so brave and skilled.  A little cheated, perhaps, in terms of beauty, but then, you’re not going out to make love to the Galocina, are you?”

Titters from the crowd; Aldan managed to smile.  “No, my lord.”

He stood and stepped over to Rebekah, as the next courtier ascended the dais toward Ranald.  Aldan knelt down before her.  “Lady,” he said, “may the gods bless your union and sustain the peace it brings.”

“Aldan,” Rebekah said.  She said it so softly that Aldan barely heard her, although he was only a foot or two in front of her.

He looked up.  Rebekah stared down at him; her eyes searched his face.  “Are you…well?” she asked him.

“W-well enough, lady,” Aldan stammered.  He was suddenly swimming in her eyes.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry you have to go away,” she said.  “So far away…I want you to be careful, Aldan Osteran.  Please, please be very careful.”

“I will, Lady,” Aldan said.

“I will pray for you constantly,” Rebekah said.  She seemed to want to say something more, her eyes still fixed on his, but the next courtier was done with his pledge, so Aldan had to stand and turn away from Rebekah’s avid gaze, and descend the dais.  He walked out of the hall, straight-backed, despite the way his legs threatened to buckle under the weight of revelation.

The first day of Senior Year

In honor of a certain young lady’s milestone…

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“You’re going to be late,” the father said.

His daughter rolled her eyes. “We’ve got plenty of time, Daddy.” She put the finishing touches on her mascara.

“You should drive to school,” the mother said.

“Mooom,” the daughter said, wilting. “I’m going to be fixing my hair.”

“I’ll drive,” the father said. “If we ever get going….”

The daughter growled as she applied lipstick.

The son came up from the basement with his backpack. “So, Ms. T-Rex is a senior,” he snided. “The only good thing is that you’ll be gone by the time I’m a freshman.”

“Lucky for you, you little genetic deviation,” the daughter said.

“I pity the kids who do have to suffer under your reign of terror,” the son said. He headed for the door. “Try not to let the power go to your head.”

The traffic was heavy around the high school. “Take the back way, Daddy,” the daughter said, as she ratcheted her hair taut.

The father maneuvered around the curve of the passenger loading lane, stopped. “I’m going over to Bethany’s after school,” the daughter announced, as she opened her door.

The father handed her her backpack, but held on to it for a second as she tried to take it. “Just remember,” he said, when she gave him a questioning look. “With great power come great responsibility.”

“Daaaddy,” the daughter said, rolling her eyes again. She took the backpack and slammed the door.

He watched her walk away. Seventeen years before he had carried a tiny baby up to the neonatal unit, frightened in a way he had never been frightened before. He wished he could tell his younger self how well everything had worked out. But then, that would have spoiled the surprise.

The lady in the SUV behind him blared her horn.

Mondays Finish the Story – July 13th, 2015– Climbing

Flash fiction challenge for July 13th, 2015– 150 words around this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“Delphine always wanted to pilot her father’s plane and when he forgot his keys on her tenth birthday, she knew that taking off would be easy.”

This is an utter bit of fluff….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel

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Delphine always wanted to pilot her father’s plane, and when he forgot his keys on her tenth birthday, she knew that taking off would be easy.

Nobody told her landing an airplane is the hard part.

“Landing is the hard part, honey,” her father told her over the radio.

“Now you tell me!” Delphine said, as the plane climbed.

“You’ll exceed the plane’s ceiling soon if you keep climbing,” Traffic Control said.

“What happens then?” Delphine said.

“The plane will stall and crash,” Traffic Control said.

“Oh,” Delphine said.

“Honey, you have to push the control column forward to level out,” her father said.

Delphine, who was always directionally challenged, pulled the column back. The plane climbed higher.

“Goodbye, Daddy,” she cried.

On the ground they saw the plane dwindling in the heights. Then the giant alien spaceship zoomed into view. A beam enveloped the plane.

“Such a brave child– what an intrepid climb,” the aliens said over the radio. “Come, join us.”

And that is how Delphine Eloise Novotny became humanity’s first interstellar ambassador.

The daily routine of a man newly unemployed (warning– may involve some whining….)

1. Wake up at an unnecessarily early hour.
2. Get up about an hour later.
3. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
4. Take daughter to school. Don’t get out of the car, because you’re still in your pajamas.
5. Get dressed.
6. Walk two miles to Safeway to buy a bear-claw.
7. Walk home.
8. Shower.
9. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
10. Sit down to edit current novel-in-progress.
11. Fall asleep over current novel-in-progress.
12. Wake up.
13. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
14. Eat lunch.
15. Check state job boards, Monster, Linked-in, Indeed.com, Dice, Ziprecruiter, Siemens, Volt, Kforce, and about a dozen other job sites.
16. Submit one resume.
17. Watch forty to fifty Youtube videos about cats and World of Tanks and guys ranting about movies, most of which you’ve never seen.
18. Go to library.
19. Check out a book.
20. While at library, try not to get depressed looking at all the other people’s books that got published.
21. Go home.
22. Think about doing a blog post.
23. Fall asleep thinking about doing a blog post.
24. Eat dinner.
25. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
26. Play World of Tanks.
27. Watch Youtube cat video to make yourself feel better about the pummeling you just received on World of Tanks.
28. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
29. Go to bed.

(repeat)

Mondays Finish the Story – April 27th, 2015 – Morning flowers.

Mondays Finish the Story flash fiction challenge for April 27th, 2015– 150 words based on this image–

© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham
© 2015, Barbara W. Beacham

and this initial sentence–

“Are you laughing at me?“

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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“Are you laughing at me?“

“No, no—it’s just—well, the orchids are a little silly looking….”

“I’m sorry—they’re what they had.”

“I’m not complaining…they’re very nice—in a buck-toothed sort of way.”

“You are laughing….”

“At the orchids, just the orchids.”

“Okay…so you really like them?”

“Yes, I do. What’s the occasion?”

“No occasion. It’s just, I’ve, you know, never given you flowers. Thought I might.”

“Hmm…a man gives a woman flowers, there’s usually some sort of occasion. Or he’s got something on his mind.”

“Why should I have anything on my mind? What gives you the impression I have something on my mind?”

“Weelll…the economy has collapsed, the country is in revolution, a mutated plague is sweeping across Asia, and heavily-armed aliens have landed and claimed Earth for their own, and the one thing you think of is to bring me flowers? At 3:42 AM?”

“Um…yes. There might not be time later.”

Mondays Finish the Story – February 16th, 2015– Jazz in Amber

Another Mondays Finish the Story challenge, based on this image–

Copyright Barbara W. Beacham
Copyright Barbara W. Beacham

and the initial sentence–

“Little did they know when the photographer took their picture that they would find themselves trapped in a painting.”

Well, I followed the prompt for the most part, but I completely blew away the word count limit, so I won’t be adding my link to Barbara’s page. As usual, I’m not sure this works, but I’ll go with it for now.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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Little did they know when the photographer took their picture that they would find themselves trapped in a painting. The photographer was a Derinti cross-dimensional Preserver in disguise. He was so taken with their performance that he felt compelled, in the whimsical way of his race, to preserve it, and the performers.

In doing so, he created the first immortals of the human species—Jimmy, Blake, Lawrence and Steve. The living image in which the four found themselves was now a part of the back wall of the First Mercantile Bank. In this state they knew neither age nor decay. They merely played on and on, and anyone who had the ears to hear could detect their sweet brand of jazz, and, for a moment, feel their hearts lift.

The four musicians saw the building up of the city, in the years of the Great Warming, with massive towers two and three miles high rising to blot out the sun. They saw the towers fall into ruin, during the dark years that followed, and witnessed the savagery of men and women who had forgotten their heritage.

They saw the rise of the New Men, and glimpsed their silver ships rising into the sky as they abandoned the Earth forever.

They saw the return of the ice, and the long frozen wildness that embraced the forgotten husk of the city. They played on when only strange, mutated beasts in their dens of ice were there to hear them.

They beheld the rise of the seas, and for millennia played only for the sea beasts, the great porpoise-whales, the sapient squid and the terrible thalassadonts.

They were buried in sediment, and for ages played on for the secret beings of the deepest earth.

The sediment hardened into rock; in the fullness of time, as the seas receded, and erosion wore away at the rock, they saw the sun once more. The ice returned, encasing the world in glittering armor, and then melted again as the Sun flared and scorched the Earth.

They saw the Sun return to its quiet, ordinary ways, and the Earth grow green once more.

They saw the rise of the Silenidons, who heard their music and worshipped them for millennia. They found this distressing, as Jimmy and Blake were Catholic, Lawrence was a Presbyterian, and Steve, the tuba player, did not believe in God at all. They could do nothing, however, but continue playing. The four saw the Silenidons rise to mastery over the Earth, achieve great heights of intellect, and then fall into war with themselves. Rites of blood were performed before the ruined wall of the First Mercantile Bank, while the four played on. They played on while the Silenidons faded and dwindled away, until there was nothing left but their empty halls.

The four saw more inundations, more burials, the rise of mountains and the delving of seas, more ice and flaring sun, over and over across periods and eras and eons.

At last, they saw the Sun, swollen and dying, rising on the last day over the worn-out and weary Earth, and they played for it. They thought, perhaps, this would be the end, at last.

It was then, following up on a review of the files of the Preserver Corps, a Derinti scout appeared. He beheld the shattered remnant of the back wall of the First Mercantile Bank, saw the faded images of the four musicians, heard their music, and said, “Oh, dear,” which is a very loose translation of the Derintinese, and in no way, shape or form captures the profound dismay of the original.

Even as the bloated Sun reached out tendrils of fire to engulf the Earth, the scout erected a temporal realignment-decoder. With swift commands to his machine, he lifted the four from the wall and transported them back to the sidewalk on which they had been playing, on that one summer day, mere moments after the Preserver had departed, feeling pleased with himself.

For several minutes the four of them stood there, not speaking, not meeting each other’s eyes, while pedestrians streamed around them and traffic passed by. Then, still not speaking, they packed away their instruments and left, each their several ways.

Lawrence caught the Number Five bus across town, to the quiet street where his house stood. He went in, and put his trumpet case down inside the door.

“Lawrence? Is that you?” Millie peeked into the living room from the kitchen. Her apron was stretched over her bulging belly. “Your timing is good—I’m just starting dinner.”

Lawrence went over to her. He peered into her puzzled face for a moment; then he went down to his knees. He embraced her, ignoring her startled protest. He put his ear to her abdomen, listening for the heartbeat of their unborn child.

Flash Fiction Challenge- 100 Words- Scavenger

Really, I wonder if I’m getting a little obsessive with the flash-fiction challenges. Here’s one I haven’t tried before, 100 words (eek!) incorporating the word “feasting”. Doing anything in less than 2000 words makes me dizzy and strains my skills to the breaking point, but here’s my attempt. I’ll just go lie down now….

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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Ryan dashed across the debris-strewn street. Machine-gun fire echoed among the shattered buildings, but far away.

He circled the burnt-out tank, hurried down the steps to the basement door. He knocked; the door opened. He went inside.

Magda lowered the pistol she held. “You were gone so long,” she said. Behind her, in a corner, Lara huddled with the nameless boy, who never spoke.

“It was worth it,” Ryan said. “There will be feasting tonight.”

He showed them what he had found— three loaves of stale bread, a block of moldy cheese, and three shriveled apples.

Magda burst into tears.

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Mondays Finish the Story – The last chopper

Another Finish the Story challenge, using this initial sentence–

“Silently as the people watched, the black hawk helicopter lifted into the air.”

and this image–

Copyright 2015 Barbara W. Beacham
Copyright 2015 Barbara W. Beacham

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Silently, as the people watched, the Blackhawk helicopter lifted into the air.

“That’s it, then,” Drake said.

“Yeah.” Patrick’s mouth was dry. He had drunk all the water in his canteen hours before.

“At least we got the kids out,” Ahmed said.

“But they’ll be coming back for us? Right?” Sims said.

Patrick shook his head. “They’ll never make it back in time.”

Sims began to cry, like a child.

Patrick paid him no attention. He looked around the position, at the soldiers and the civilians pressed into fighting. He saw resignation, anger, sadness, dull weariness.

“We hold here,” he said. “Otherwise they might overrun the launch site.” Just over the horizon, beyond the trees— close, but now infinitely far away.

Maybe we’ll last long enough to see the ship lift off.

“Fix bayonets,” he said.

The sound of bayonets rasping out of scabbards, clicking into place on muzzles. Patrick turned to face the ravening enemy, as they crested the far hill.

A disturbance in the Force….

“I’m going to read this,” the father said, holding up the book.

His daughter stared at him. “You haven’t already?” she said, her disbelief radiating brightly.

“Well, no– I just never got around to it,” he said.

“What are you reading?” his wife said, stepping in from the hallway.

He showed her. She looked worried. “Oh, be careful reading that on the bus,” she said.

“Why?”

“Well, you sit in the back among all those drug-dealers and punks,” she said. “You know, they’re all homophobic.”

He blinked. “So a guy my age who reads this book is gay?”

“No, no,” the wife said, “but they’ll think you’re gay.”

His daughter wore a I-can’t-believe-she-went-there look on her face.

His son came up the stairs from where he’d been battling aliens in the basement family room. He spied the book in his father’s hand, and his eyes went wide. “I sense a great disturbance in the Force,” he said.

“You’re too young to be that sarcastic,” the father said.

“It’s just…I’ve never seen you read anything other than sci-fi,” the son said.

The father grimaced. “‘Doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.’ And vice versa.”

His son looked dubious. “Ok, when you start quoting Shakespeare, Dad, it’s time to exeunt omnes.”

“You’re so behind the rest of the world,” his daughter said.

“Just be careful,” his wife said.

“I’m going to work,” the father said, through gritted teeth.

At the bus stop, he pulled the book out of his backpack as the bus approached. A young woman, waiting in the crowd, eyed the cover. “Are you a professor?” she asked.

“Good grief,” he said.

He found a seat in the back. The kid in the baggy pants sitting across from him saw the cover and sneered. The father resolutely opened the book.

Now, let’s see what I have been missing.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

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TO: The Supreme Investigator, Department of Cultural Survey and Contact, the Shanzar Hegemony.

FROM: Gartishan, Eggling of the Fifth Prime, Tenth Spawning of Loor, Commander of the Upsilon Quadrant Survey Expedition.

Subject: Cultural Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Boss– per my hyper-wave of the last cycle, I am forwarding this informal abstract of the formal cultural survey of system 15AlphaQ, reference 198Tzed, which is following via standard channels. I wanted to get this abstract before your eyes as soon as possible, so you are aware of some pretty oddball stuff, and one big problem.

I’ll spare you the technical details of the particular solar system in this survey– it is utterly ordinary, even sub-normal in some respects– for example, some of the planets don’t even have ring systems. The inhabited world is small, Class Zed122, but quite habitable, with an active and diverse biosphere.

At least, in its natural state. The biosphere is currently suffering serious degradation, largely because of the activities of the sole sentient race on the planet (although there may potentially be other sentient species extant we had no time or opportunity to closely observe– see Appendix A of the full report, “On Dolphins, Dogs and Ants”). It is unclear why the primary sentient species is in the process of destroying its own habitat– several members of the Cultural Ecology team believe that the damage is accidental. Considering our overall assessment of the species, we cannot exclude this explanation.

They call themselves Homo Sapiens, which means “wise person” in one of their ancient languages. This is surely one of the greatest pieces of self-delusion we have ever seen in an alien species.

In twenty-five epochs of survey work I have never encountered a more bizarre, confusing, and paradoxical species. On the technological achievement scale, they rate a 12.6, just shy of the contact threshold– in fact, they are probably only a few generations away from star flight, for they are on the verge of describing the functioning relationship between gravitation and quantum mechanics. And this from a technological civilization that is not yet three centuries old. Even our glorious hegemony took three thousand to go from steam power to fusion. This rate of development is unprecedented.

Paradoxically, however, on the socio-cultural scale they cannot be rated any higher than 3.4. That’s not an error– we ran the numbers several times. In the first place, this species’ planet-wide population is currently divided among several thousand extant, distinct cultural traditions. One tradition, entitled “The Western” for no logical reason we can discern, has managed to impose a sort of global dominance, particularly in relation to technology, but in many planetary regions it is no more than a patina– basic cultural assumptions vary widely across human populations. I don’t need to tell you how out of the ordinary this is– with a 12.6 on the technology scale, this race should already have achieved at least a 9.3 on the socio-cultural, representing the achievement of consensus of a common cultural pattern species-wide. Instead, these humans rate no higher than the egregious Turlanians, and we both know what kind of disorganized slobs they are.

Worse, this cultural chaos is spread, very unevenly, across dozens of political units of wildly varying sizes and strengths. Were a decision taken to contact this species (not recommended– see “Conclusions and Recommendations” in the formal report), we would have severe difficulties negotiating the intricacies of planetary politics.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that, at any given moment, any number of these political units, called “nations”, are at war with each other. That’s right, war– the kind of conflict between organized political units that nearly all other sentient species leave behind at about 10 on the tech scale. Worse, sometimes the conflicts are between factions within nations, or between conspiratorial groups, often with obscure goals, against nations or other groups. And this is not ritualized warfare of the sort most sentient species understand– it is often unlimited, bloody, and utterly vicious, as if the two sides were members of two separate species and not members of one.

Within the last century this species has survived two conflicts large and far-reaching enough to termed “world” wars, encompassing the entire (or, at least, the majority) of the planet, and causing casualties in the tens of millions (yes, millions) and widespread destruction. Among the humans there is considerable speculation about the possibility of a third world war, with the understanding that it might spell the extinction of their race, but little of substance is done to prevent it.

These beings fight each other over just about everything—land, economic domination, ideology, affronts to “national honor” (a strange concept that supposes that an abstraction such as a nation can have an honor to be offended). These humans even fight each other over religion. Religion, boss. That concept was so shocking that one of our junior ethnologists cocooned herself and went into a hysterical hibernation, from which we have to yet to rouse her.

As a corollary, these nations expend huge proportions of their economic outputs on weapons and military formations. One of the largest nations, Murica, spends more on its weapons and military than most of the other nations combined. Paradoxically, it nevertheless has not launched a campaign to conquer the rest of the planet. Our historiographers are still trying to explain that one.

When they are not fighting each other, these humans spend much of their time engaged in trading goods and services, mostly for symbolic units of value (called “money”), often, gill-scratchingly, with other nations that are potentially—sometimes actually—enemies. This economic exchange consumes enormous amounts of energy, but the humans have taken no real steps to rationalize the process so that goods are equally distributed among groups, which means that many sectors of the planet are impoverished compared to other sectors, just because they don’t have enough of those symbolic units of value. Sometimes large populations in localities actually starve to death because of this, while wealthier sectors go about their business.

It makes you want to scream and swim in circles.

The humans do have a rudimentary global information network (it would be surprisingly, given their technology rating, if they didn’t), but, instead of being focused on information dissemination and education, major portions of it are dedicated to more economic exchange, entertainment, and, weirdly, sex—or, at least, the portrayal of sexual activity, in bewildering varieties and types (see Appendix B—“Sex and the Bipedal Primate”). As difficult as it is for us to grasp, humans are obsessed with sex. Doubtless this is because of their mammalian, and particularly, primate, origins, but they carry this obsession to extremes we have never seen in any other surveyed species. They appear to spend major portions of their short lives either doing it, thinking about doing it, or, (because of perversely complicated and wildly variant taboos) working hard to prevent other humans from doing it. Moreover, all this copulation or semi-copulation is largely divorced from actual procreation. That’s right, Boss—they’re doing it for fun. Seeing all this, the Chief Ethnologist told me, “Thank the gods we’re fish”, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

All of this may give you a clue as to our assessment of the basic psychology of human beings. In our view, they are quarrelsome, aggressive, cold-blooded (metaphorically speaking, of course), cruel, cunning, greedy, and untrustworthy. They routinely betray, enslave and murder one another. One shudders to think what they would do to other sentient species. They are, in short, unpleasant shits.

As to what their relations might be with other sentient races, we have but to look at what they have done and are doing to the sub-sentient species of their own world. Their planet, at this very moment, is undergoing a major extinction event, largely due to human activities. Terrestrial biomes have been ravaged, usually in the name of all that economic exchange. Also, the planetary climate and oceanographic biomes (and they have the most splendid oceans, boss, simply gorgeous) are undergoing radical, and detrimental, changes because of human actions. But, perversely, the humans continue to engage in these activities, which they know are damaging the biosphere of their world. Our Chief Cultural Psychometrician was left speechless for several cycles when he came to an understanding of this self-destructive behavior. He still can’t decide if this mere stupidity or a sign of some deep-seated, species-specific psychosis.

For the details of our recommendations, please see the formal report, but, in short, we advise—rather forcefully—that this planet and this species be placed under a Level Ten quarantine. I know that sounds extreme, but frankly these weird monkeys are frightening. Our historiographers came up with some projections (see Appendix C—“Probable Human Future Histories”), which, although mostly conservative in their numbers, are truly scary—particularly if the humans get star flight sooner rather than later. It is our assessment that this species needs to be isolated immediately, and kept in a state of ignorance from which they cannot threaten us.

Which brings me, unfortunately, to the problem I mentioned.

One of our junior ethnologists was Shinzankeehor, eggling of the tenth spawning of Talakeehor, on his first field expedition. Aside from his high status, he appeared to be a bright and well-informed cultural investigator. A few cycles from the end of our investigation and our departure date, however, his school leader informed that he was exhibiting signs of depression and agitation—not swimming during required exercise periods, not feeding with his school mates, failing to rest in the shaded pool chambers, and so on. As a consequence, knowing how this investigation had upset the entire crew, I went to talk to him privately. I took the precaution of recording our conversation; below is an excerpt—

Gartishan: I hear you’ve been down in the gills, Shinzankeehor. I wanted to check in with you, see how you were doing.

Shinzankeehor: Forgive me, Commander—I didn’t mean to distract you from your duties….

Gartishan: Nonsense, crew welfare is my duty. How are you feeling?

Shinzankeehor: …I have to admit, Commander, I have not been myself.

Gartishan: How so? Is there something about this investigation that troubles you?

Shinzankeehor: A great deal, Commander, a very great deal indeed.

Gartishan: Your particular brief is assessment of cultural linguistic artifacts, concepts and memes, is it not?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, Commander.

Gartishan: Has something in your studies disturbed you?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, indeed, sir.

Gartishan: Please tell me what is troubling you.

Shinzankeehor: Prayers and songs, Commander—prayers and songs.

Gartishan: I don’t understand….

Shinzankeehor: I have gathered and listened to the songs of the humans. Many are puerile, forgettable—but many others show something about humans you would never guess from their behavior. These beings dream, Commander—and not of blood, or conquest, or riches, but of peace, and righteousness, and a future where there is no want or pain.

Gartishan: Want and pain are part of life….

Shinzankeehor: And yet the humans dream of more—or have been granted visions—

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

Gartishan: What is that?

Shinzankeehor: A passage from a human holy book. There is much in their literature and their songs of such hope.

Commander: Hope for them, after they have conquered and destroyed all things?

Gartishan: No—at their best, their dreams speak of healing, and restoration. It is as if they know their brokenness–

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Gartishan: A lofty sentiment—but you would not see it in their actions.

Shinzankeehor: No, not very often—that is what troubles me—the dichotomy between what the humans dream and what they do. But every major religion now extant on this world speaks of the necessity of righteousness—and the unity of humanity and the other creatures with which they share their world–

Born of Thee, on Thee move mortal creatures; Thou bearest them-the biped and the quadruped; Thine, O Earth, are the five races of men, for whom Surya, as he rises, spreads with his rays the light that is immortal.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, you can’t let the rambles of a species as obviously…deranged as this one trouble you. It is because they are so broken they have to invent fantasies of redemption to assuage their guilt….

Shinzankeehor: And yet there is dignity and courage in their thoughts—a willingness to persevere through failure and loss—

Come, my friends,
It is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

They always believe they are bound for greater things, and a better way, despite their failures and sufferings. It disturbs me, sir– I cannot reconcile their dreams and their crimes.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, I am going to suspend you from duties, and order you to rest; you have obviously taken this all too much to heart. We are leaving this world in a few cycles, anyway, and after that, this benighted species will be someone else’s problem.

Shinzankeehor: Perhaps, sir, perhaps….

Boss, I thought I had settled the youngster down. But after we departed the human solar system we discovered that Shinzankeehor had left the ship just before we left orbit, without telling anyone, and obviously without authorization. Once we were committed to hyper-space and unable to turn back, I received a recorded message from him– “I must discover the truth about these people.”

Desertion is bad enough– but then we found that Shinzankeehor had taken two fabricator units, an educational unit– and a transmogrification device.

Boss, I promise you that every safeguard and lock-down was in place on the device, but somehow Shinzankeehor managed to overcome or bypass them. The Chief Somaticist tells me that, because our ancestors chose to adopt amphibianism and a bipedal stance, the transmogrifier may just be able to give Shinzankeehor a superficially human appearance– it would have been impossible, he says, if we still had more perfectly piscine forms. The process will be agonizing, but it is possible. So it may be that Shinzankeehor will be able to move among the humans with some freedom– and that we will have great difficulty in finding him.

This is why I wanted to send you this informal note before the full report arrives and blows up. Chew my tail off if you want, Boss– obviously I miscalculated with this youngster. I didn’t think he would charge off on some idealistic quest. I tremble to think what he might do. With the equipment Shinzankeehor stole, he could manufacture almost anything short of an FTL drive, and teach the humans how to use it. All our assessments of when the humans might threaten us may be obsolete very soon.

What are we going to do, boss?