The Box Unhinged

After giving it some thought, I think I would call the genre of this short story ‘lite horror’. Enjoy!

The shovel struck something hard and solid, the vibrations jarring my hands. Frustration boiled up in me.

“Goddamn rocks,” I said then immediately winced. “Sorry, Grandpa.”

“It’s alright, Jake,” he said, looking at me from the lawn chair, large but solid frame well past its prime making the chair sag. “The Lord can take a little blaspheming.” His blue eyes twinkled. “What he can’t take is how the Bears are playing this year.” He chuckled and took a sip of his coffee.

I grinned and returned to my work, which was not going well.

The hole for the tree was growing bigger ever so slowly. I was fighting every inch of the way against the rock-filled soil. Most of the rocks were small, some were big and required a lot of extra work and digging to shift. 

The towering ash nearby provided merciful shade from the early sun. Somewhere a cicada hummed the soundtrack of summer. The smell of the grass was clean and fresh and mingled with the darker smell of the just-turned earth. 

Visiting Grandpa as often as I could was habit now, ever since Grandma died. I was spending the weekend at his house just across town from where I lived. Sometimes, if I closed my eyes, the house still smelled like buttery french toast and frying peameal bacon, my favorites that Grandma always made for breakfast when I stayed over.

I chopped down with the shovel again. I took aim farther and farther away from what I hoped was the center of the rock.


It must have been huge, bigger than a watermelon, sitting there a foot from the surface. 

Clang, dull and metallic and hollow. Rocks aren’t metal or hollow. 

I started scraping with the shovel working around to the edges, then got down on my knees to dig with my fingers. 

Gray undulating metal peeked through the dirt. I dug faster like I was chasing sand crabs at the beach as they burrowed down, down into the wet sand. 

“Grandpa, look at this.”

Caught napping, Grandpa opened one eye. “What?”

“Come here.”

“What’s that? A piece of sheet metal?”

I shrugged.

“Well, keep going. That’s where I’m putting my maple.”

I heaved the shovel and set to work. I dug furiously as shadows grew short towards noon and the ash leaves whispered overhead. I dug at the sides and sent dirt falling back over the exposed metal, thankful that the shovel was hitting soft soil again rather than the hard metal that jarred my arms.

Curiosity replacing fatigue, I dug faster, widening the hole to three feet across and removing all the loose dirt. 

I found myself standing on a badly rusted piece of sheet metal that extended under the earth far beyond the area I had exposed.

“There’s no edge, Grandpa. I can’t pull it up.”

“Get the angle grinder,” he said without opening an eye. “Wait.” He checked his watch. “Lunch first.”

We sat there eating sandwiches and drinking cold beer in the shade of the ash tree. “Don’t tell your mother or I’ll get in trouble,” he said winking

I grinned and nodded, mouth full of sandwich. 

We both watched the hole as if waiting for something to happen. 

Sandwich eaten and the quarter of my beer left to sweat in the shade, I slapped safety glasses over my eyes and fired up the angle grinder. The hot orange sparks cascaded over my legs and feet, bouncing around the hole in a fiery display. The noise was deafening. I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t stand on that thing. It might be hollow and you’ll fall in.”

Alarmed but grateful I climbed out, laid down on my belly, head, shoulders, and arms dangling over the side and resumed cutting. 

After a foot of progress, a rich, earthy smell came wafting up, mixing with the smell of burnt metal. After cutting more than halfway around the sheet metal began to sag and as I completed the final cut it fell down into the darkness. 

We stood looking down into the hole not quite able to make out the bottom with the sunlight alone. 

“Go get a flashlight in the garage. Bring the ladder too,” he shouted as I had already started running.

I rounded the side of the house, went in the open garage and grabbed the flashlight from my grandpa’s workbench and the aluminum extension ladder from where it leaned in the corner and, making sure to keep clear of grandpa’s car, a blue Buick sedan with impeccable paint, I hurried back.

I turned the flashlight on and pointed it down the hole. 

The circle of sheet metal was lying on the ground. All around was hard, cracked earth. The walls looked like bricks or cinder blocks of some kind.

We lowered the ladder down into the hole. I grabbed the flashlight, put one hand on either side of the hole to steady myself and stepped onto the ladder. It held.

“You good?” Grandpa said.

“I think so.”

I descended the ladder carefully. As the sunlight faded, my eyes started adjusting to the darkness. The air was old, musty, thick. It tickled the end of my nose. The ground crunched underneath as I stepped off the ladder. I thought it would be soft and wet, even flooded, but it was dry. I flicked on the flashlight and sent the beam around the room.

“What do you see?” Grandpa’s voice sounded far off and echoed, even though I was only about ten feet down.

“A lot of dirt. Some old rags. Wonder how they got here. The whole thing is round, like a big cylinder. The walls look like cinder block. It’s pretty dry though. ”

“Probably an old cesspool or cistern.”

“A what?”

“A cesspool is an old kind of septic tank before there were septic tanks and a cistern was used to collect water.”

“I don’t see any pipes though.”

Grandpa grunted acknowledgement. “If there’s nothing else come on up.”


I darted the flashlight around one more time and kicked the pile of rags for good measure. My foot struck something solid and heavy. I squatted down and threw the rags aside. There in the middle of the dirt and decaying cloth was a beautifully ornate wooden box, a perfect cube with rounded edges and corners. It was covered in a twisting vine-like pattern that gleamed in the light.

“I found something. It’s a wooden box, I think.”

“Well bring it up.”

I tried to pick it up. About a foot across, high, and deep, it must have weighed fifty pounds and it resisted my efforts, seemingly stuck to the soil. I bent down, sweat dripping into my eyes, braced my back and heaved. The box groaned and broke free of the soil. I set it down at the foot of the ladder.

“I can’t carry this up the ladder.”

“I’ll get a rope.”

He disappeared. Leaning on the ladder, I stared up at the oculus sending a shaft of sunlight into the earth. Clouds drifted lazily across the opening making me feel as if I were peeking through a rift between worlds. 

Several feet of rope smacked me in the face.


“It’s okay.”

I tied the rope around the box. I lifted the box to chest height and Grandpa pulled the rope taut. Then I pushed it up above my head and, supporting it from below while Grandpa pulled up, I slowly made my way up the ladder. 

One final heave at the top and the box thudded to the ground in front of my grandpa’s feet.

“What on God’s green earth…”

“I don’t know.”

“Get the hose. We’ll wash it off.”

“It’s clean.”


“Look at it. It’s clean.”

“Well give it a wash anyways. Who knows what’s been down there.”

The box gleamed faintly in the afternoon light. I ran my fingers over the carved surface feeling where each face of the cube ran into a perfectly rounded edge and cascaded over onto another side.

We dried the box and Grandpa carried it into the house, showing no sign of struggling with the weight. 

The round mahogany kitchen table creaked as we set it down in the middle. Grandpa flicked on the light.

The cube was made of wood, darker than the table, without the reddish mahogany color. Perhaps black walnut. It was covered on every side with the same intricate, wandering carving that twisted and spiraled in a totally irregular pattern, reminiscent of ivy or vines, each side blending into the next over each corner and edge. 

Grandpa got his reading glasses from the counter, pulled a beer from the fridge, and sat down at the table. I sat down next to him. Glasses perched on the tip of his stubby nose he peered at the box, then scratched his head and attempted to smooth the short white hairs that crowned his bald head.

“What the hell did we find, Jake?”

“I don’t know.” I rotated the cube. It made a dull thud as it flipped onto another side. “It looks like each side is the same, and not. It’s the same carving but each side isn’t quite the same. How old do you think this is?”

“No idea. I’d like to know what it is. Does it open?”

“I can’t see a hinge or a key hole or anything. It looks like it’s made of wood though.”

“What kind of wood? It’s damn heavy, too heavy to just be wood.” Grandpa leaned back in the chair. “It got knocked around coming out of that hole but it doesn’t have a mark on it. It should be chipped and scratched. And it’s been in the ground out back for how long? It should be rotting. That’s not wood.”

“Could it be petrified? You know, hardened?”

Grandpa shrugged.

“I guess it could be stone, but it’s got grain, just like wood.”

“I’ll call Harold over at the historical society in the morning. Maybe he’ll know something.”

We were silent for a moment.

“Grandpa, what was here before your house?”

“Nothing. Well, farmland. Developer subdivided the parcel into lots and Rose and I built in ‘57. Your dad wasn’t even born yet.”

“Was the farmer’s house nearby?

He thought for a moment. “No, I think it was right up on Springfield. Makes sense to be right on the road.”

“Then why have a cesspool all the way out here?”

“I don’t know. Might have just been a cistern to water the crops or animals. After the historical society we can stop by the county clerk’s office and see what records we can find about buildings on the property.”

We ate dinner in silence, the box looming over us until Grandpa got to his feet, hoisted the thing through the air, and slung it into a corner. 

“That’s better. I don’t like the look of that thing. Don’t know why.”

I pushed back my plate. A faint whispering sound drifted through the air. I looked around. 

“Grandpa, did you leave the TV on?”

“No. I never do that,” he said smiling.

I went to the living room and checked. It was off.

“Is there a window open somewhere?”

“Not in this heat. I’m not sending the AC out the window.”

“Then what am I hearing?”

He paused to listen. “I don’t hear anything. Come on. It’s almost bedtime. You can get ready and then read in bed or something.”
“Okay,” I said, eyeing the box suspiciously.

I was lying in bed reading one of my grandpa’s old books, The Adventures of Buster Riggs, adventurer, archaeologist, ladies man. Through the wall came the gentle drone of Grandpa’s radio. He didn’t sleep most nights and liked to listen to the news or talk radio. 

I woke with a start when my book, propped precariously in my hands above my head, fell and hit me square in the face. The radio was off. The clock showed it was nearly two in the morning. 

A voice, gentle, whispering but insistent, called from downstairs.


I closed my eyes.


That sounded like Grandma. But she was very much dead. Dead and cremated and packed in an urn on the mantelpiece that Grandpa couldn’t yet bring himself to bury. And there it was, the rich butter and cinnamon smell of french toast and hot peameal bacon, crispy around the edges, the yellow meal breading giving way to a thin bit of soft fat and finally the salty pork loin in the middle. My mouth watered.

I got out of bed, not quite believing but totally entranced. Despite the darkness, I knew my way and walked as quick as I dared, heart thumping, to the top of the stairs.

“Jacob, breakfast.”

“Coming,” I said, not believing that I had spoken. Who was I talking to? Grandma was dead. And yet. 

I took each stair slowly, too slowly.

Hurry up or she’ll be gone. This is your one chance to see her again.

I came to the bottom of the stairs and rounded the corner.

The kitchen was dark. There was no french toast or peameal bacon on the table. No Grandma standing at the stove. I turned on the light.


I jumped. My stomach jumped, that kind of jump when you’re expecting something to happen but you’re not sure when and you aren’t sure you want it to.

The voice came from the dark corner where the box still sat. 

“Jacob, come here. Isn’t it wonderful we can see each other again?”


“Of course, silly. Come here and let me out.”

“I don’t think I should, Grandma. I don’t think that’s you in there.”

There was a whining note to her voice. “Don’t be silly. We go to different places when we die. I woke up here and I don’t want to stay in here anymore. Let me out and I can make you something to eat. Think of how happy Grandpa will be to see me again.”

“There’s no way to open it. I tried.”

“Don’t worry,” she said cheerfully, “I’ll show you how. It’s quite simple.”

I moved one leaden foot at a time over to the corner. The box felt remarkably light in my arms, though I distinctly remembered struggling to get it out of the hole. I placed it on the table. 

The twisting carvings on the box seemed to dance and swirl, moving from one side over the edge to the other side, constantly changing direction. 

I felt a wave of relief. It was so easy and it would be so nice to see her again. “Okay. How do I open it?”

“I’ll show you. Go get a knife.”

“Jake, what the hell are you doing?”

That voice clawed at my consciousness, buried deep beneath the fog in my brain. Who was that? There’s the box, there’s the knife in my hand. Is that my hand? Yes, that’s mine. Now, what was I supposed to do with it? And who’s shouting my name?

Grandpa was standing in the doorway.

“Grandpa,” I said, smiling, “we’re going to see Grandma again. She’s going to make us breakfast.”

“Jake, what are you talking about?”

“George,” came the voice from the box.

“Rosie?” Surprise, consternation, grief, then anger. Ripping out his hearing aids he flung them to the floor. He came at me, moving fast for his age, twisted my wrist and made the knife drop. He forced me into a chair, put the knife away, hefted the box under one arm and stormed out.

“Jacob,” the box said, pleading. “Jacob, help me.”

The door slammed. The engine roared, tires squealed, then nothing.

I was left alone in the kitchen, now so quiet the ticking of the wall clock was deafening.

I was still sitting there when a few hours later the car purred into the garage, then the door closed softly, and Grandpa was there again in the doorway.

He looked tired, grim, older. He bent down to find his hearing aids, placed them back in his ears, and straightened up looking at me as if to try to reassure me. I ran over and hugged him.

“It’s all over now, Jake.”

“She’s gone?”

“The box is gone, yes. That wasn’t your grandma.”

“I wanted it to be.”

“I know. But that’s not how it works.”

“What was that?”

“I don’t know. Something very old and dangerous. But it’s gone now.” He paused. “You know what this means, Jake?”


“We’re going to have to put that tree someplace else.”

I laughed through my tears and held on tight.

An Unexpected Guest

I’ve written a short story called “An Unexpected Guest” that’s been published over on the Substack of the Soaring Twenties Social Club. You can read it here: I think it’s funny and I hope you do too!

Do also check out the main page of the Soaring Twenties Substack ( which has lots of great essays, short stories, and poems by other members as well as The Commonplace ( by Thomas J. Bevan the founder of the STSC.

Growing and Dying

This is my submission for the next Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club. The topic for May is death. You can check out the STSC here:

Scott pulled onto the two-lane road his daughter Charlotte safely buckled in the back seat. A two lane road was all that was needed for a rural highway in the farmland on the edge of town. Corn fields stretched for miles, broken up by copses and thickets. Everyone drove fast on those roads, not because they were in a hurry, but because there was a lot of ground to cover. 

There’s a difference between driving fast and being in a hurry while driving fast. Being in a hurry is frantic, an anxious thing, the knowledge you probably won’t get there on time. Driving fast is zen. The gas pedal is down and that’s it. No cares or worries.

Driving is one of those activities where people feel safe, encased in armor, a mass of metal shielding them from the outside world. There’s very little that can hurt you in a car except perhaps another car, and even then it’s rarely serious. But maybe such armor cannot protect you from all injuries, especially the least expected. 

With Charlotte in the car, Scott was always just a little bit tense. She unknowingly, unintentionally created that little bit of worry, the seed of anxiety, the potential for loss.

He checked on Charlotte in the rear-view mirror. She had grown quite a lot, the blonde hair of her infancy turning to brown, though highlights would still emerge every year in the summer sun. It was hard to remember those early years even though she was only six and they were really such a short time ago. Children have a way of growing so quickly that they are hard to pin down in your memory. Each iteration only exists here and now and in a short while they will be a different person, ten instead of six, appearance changed, spending more time out of the house with friends. Scott struggled to remember what Charlotte had looked like as an infant in the same back seat of the same car. 

Approaching the edge of town the road expanded into four lanes in front of them and dipped down into a little dale before rising up to meet the sprawling suburban city. Mysterious glacial forces had carved gentle rolling valleys out of the landscape leaving nothing uniformly flat. 

Heading down into the dale, there was sudden movement on the right. Scott hit the brakes, his vision narrowed, a side effect of adrenaline and surprise. 

Two deer, brownish gray coats blending into the scrub, their presence given away only by their movement, darted into the road. One turned back, the other kept going amid honking from the oncoming traffic. The cars slowed. The lead deer scrambled across, the straggler waited. It seemed to disappear from view to his right. 

“What is it, dad?”

“Deer crossing the road.”

Scott whipped his head back and forth trying to see if it was all clear, vision still narrowed, adrenaline coursing as it has a way of doing in unusual situations. Anything unusual can be a threat to your child. 

He pressed the gas cautiously just in time for the second deer, unable to be separated from its mate, to dart out in front of their car. 

Scott hit the brakes again. He was going slow enough that there was no danger of hitting it. 

The deer, gray coat, high head, panicked gait, ran across just in time to be caught full in the chest by the SUV coming up behind Scott and Charlotte in the left lane.

The squeal of brakes. The soft, dull, fleshy thud. The broken body flailing. 

The deer rocked back and crumpled, limbs thrashing and kicking as it lay on its side. It stared straight at Scott and Charlotte, stretching its neck unnaturally, eyes bulging, mouth open, pleading, seemingly like it was trying to speak but had no air left in its body. 


“I know, I know.” Scott wanted to reach out, to comfort the innocent life leaving its body. The eyes stared, uncomprehending, blind with terror and shock. He inched the car forward and around the deer, still convulsing in the road.

“Dad!” Charlotte was crying now.

“We can’t just sit here,” he said, his voice sounding harsh and feeling harsh in his throat.

The SUV that had hit the deer pulled ahead and onto the right shoulder. Scott followed but didn’t stop.

“Dad, we have to go back.” Charlotte’s voice was choked, tears streaming down her face.

“Go back for what? It’s dead. There’s nothing we can do.”

“We have to help her. She’s just lying there in the road. Someone’s going to hit her.”

“Someone already did. It’s dead, Char. I’m sorry.”

“Dad!” She was pleading now, like the deer had been pleading.

“Okay, okay.”

Scott took a quick right, wheeled around, waited for traffic to clear, then made a left back the way they had come.

The SUV was still pulled off on the shoulder. The deer was where they had left it. It was lying completely still now and was blocking the right lane. Cars and semis swerved into the left lane to avoid the body. 

Scott turned left at the nearby intersection then pulled over and parked.

“Come on, Char. Let’s get it out of traffic at least.”

Charlotte unhooked her buckle and took off from the car, hair streaming, little legs spinning in that not yet fully coordinated running style of kids her age.

“Charlotte, wait,” Scott said, panicked as all parents are when their children are around fast moving two-ton objects.

They stood together on the side of the road looking back and forth, up and down the road, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Scott had no desire to recreate the deer’s death with his own or, God forbid, his daughter’s.

Between the roaring of engines they could hear the little stream that ran from the field behind them, under the road, and out the other side. The stream was shaded by a wild, scraggly wood watered by the runoff that gathered in the stream.

“Stay here,” said Scott as the traffic cleared for a quarter mile in either direction.

He darted out into the road. Grabbing the deer’s hind legs by the ankles with one hand and the forelegs with the other he pulled it backwards off of the road. 

He felt a hand on his.

“Charlotte,” he growled. “We gotta hurry up.”

The middle of the road is an unnatural place for a person to be and the surety of that feeling gnawed the length of his spine. 

He checked the traffic again. They were okay. Only a few more feet. He resisted the urge to leave the deer, pick up his daughter, and set her back down safely off of the road.

The deer stopped a few yards from the road. It had been surprisingly light, probably no more than a hundred pounds.

They stood there looking at it. Its eyes were wide and staring, completely unseeing now. Its mouth was almost closed, the tongue just visible. There was a bald patch on its left side, the side visible, right where the car had hit it. 

“Oh, dad.” Charlotte knelt down and stroked the deer’s neck. Scott joined her. He put one hand on Charlotte’s shoulder and the other joined Charlotte’s on the deer.

Though each hair of its brownish gray fur was coarse its coat was surprisingly fluffy and soft. 

“She looks fine, like she did before. But she’s gone now,” said Charlotte. 

“Yeah, she’s gone.”

Cars sped past us at sixty miles an hour. Cars, not people. They’re just cars at a distance. What might they think when they saw a man and a girl kneeling next to the body of a deer on the side of the road. They didn’t see what happened, didn’t experience the suddenness, the violence. 

Roadkill is just roadkill. There’s the dead animal on the side of the road. Here you are in your car. Complete separation. Never the twain shall meet. You say, “It got hit,” and you go on with your day.

But seeing it, experiencing it, being close enough to touch its death changes things. 

“Why did she have to die?”

Scott sighed. “These things just happen. There are a lot of deer around. Cars drive fast. The deer cross the road. It’s bound to happen. It’s not the first dead deer I’ve seen on this road.”

“Did you see her? She really hurt.”

“I know. But it was quick.”

“What are we going to do, dad?”

“I don’t know.”

The thought of fresh venison crossed Scott’s mind, a way to honor the animal. Practical considerations sprang to mind: where would he hang it? There would be a lot of blood. What would Charlotte think?

Then revulsion crept into his belly. He’d never butchered anything before and the thought of doing that to an animal so violently killed, an animal he’d seen die, that looked at him as it died, turned his stomach. The contradiction was immediately apparent to him. He ate meat all the time but somehow he rationalized the difference. This deer’s death was not only violent (as with all deaths of animals destined to be eaten), it was accidental, unintended, wrong.

“Why do people drive cars? It’s stupid.”

“I know.”

“We should take her home and bury her.”

“She’s already gone, Charlotte. Bringing her with us will not make her live, it won’t keep her with us. You have to let her go.”

Charlotte was crying again. “But she’ll be there. She’ll be at home with us.”

“She’ll always be here,” Scott said, putting a finger to Charlotte’s chest.

Charlotte was almost screaming now. “It’s not fair.”

“I know it’s not. But she’s gone and there’s nothing bringing her back. Holding onto her body and holding on to the memory of her are two different things. You can remember her without bringing her home and burying her.”

“I don’t want to remember!” Charlotte threw herself into her dad’s arms and wept.

Scott too felt tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut but that just pushed them out and down his cheeks. He kissed the top of Charlotte’s head. 

“It’ll be okay, Char. It’ll be okay.”

They stayed there for a while.

“Come on, Charlotte. It’s time.”

He made a vain attempt to close the deer’s eyes. Was that for her or for myself? Scott wondered.

He put a hand on the deer’s shoulder. Charlotte joined him.

“Bye,” she said and collapsed into him crying.

The left her there in the grass on the side of the road, still and quiet next to the little stream and the trees and the screaming cars.

Scott carried his daughter to the car. Back in her car seat, tears still leaked from her eyes and she hiccuped on occasion, but she didn’t weep anymore.

Scott pulled the car back onto the road and left the deer in the rear-view mirror. He tried not to look back.

“What’ll happen to her?”

Scott almost lied. “Someone from the city might take her away or coyotes or other scavengers might eat her just like if she died out in the woods.”

“Then what happens?”

“I suppose what’s left will decompose. Break down.”

“She won’t look like that anymore?”

“No.” Scott didn’t like this line of questioning. No parent does.

Charlotte was silent for a few moments.

“Will I die?”

Scott sighed. “Yes, Charlotte.”


“Hopefully not for a very long time.”

“Will you die?”



“Hopefully not for a very long time. Hopefully before you.”

“I’ll bury you, dad.”

Scott couldn’t help but laugh. In the rear-view mirror, Charlotte’s face was dead serious, the way kids can look serious without looking mean.

“Thanks. I know you will, baby. How do you feel about that?”

She thought for a moment then shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I’ll be sad.”

“That’s okay. It’s okay to be sad.”

“Dad, why do we die?”

“Most animals, and we are animals, just fancy monkeys in a way—” Charlotte laughed, “—animals just can’t live forever. Our bodies get old and give out. Or something happens, like that deer.”

“I wouldn’t want to be hit by a car.”

“No, me neither. No, we all have to go sometime. We don’t know when. We just have to make the most of the time we have.”

With the deer out of sight it was fading from Charlotte’s mind already. Scott hoped it would fade quicker. Not to shun the realities of life, but hoping that a six-year-old wouldn’t need to grapple with them so young. But maybe she was resilient enough, and maybe talking was what she needed. Maybe talking was what he needed.

“Charlotte, you want to go get some ice cream?”


“Okay. Let’s go.”

Good News

I’ve written a short story called “Good News” that’s been published over on the Substack of the Soaring Twenties Social Club, the cult, I mean club, that I belong to. You can read it here:

Do also check out the main page of the Soaring Twenties Substack ( which has lots of great essays, short stories, and poems by other members. Thomas J. Bevan, our dear leader, takes submissions from other club members and posts a few each week. I especially enjoyed “Crossed Wires” by Terry Freedman (

Good News
Jack was bored.

The year was 2135 and a few years of rapid innovation and diplomacy had solved every major problem of the 21st century. 

Climate change had been stopped in its tracks and reversed thanks to a simple carbon-capture device that could be attached to any air conditioner or air filtration system. The sea levels had continued to rise but rich nations built their own sea walls. Elsewhere people had moved inland and where it wasn’t possible to move the richer nations of the world had contributed to build barrier walls or accept refugees where barrier walls were insufficient, as in the South Pacific. Due to building delays caused by failed contract negotiations between the builders, shippers, and labor unions the sea wall for Lower and Midtown Manhattan was not built in time and the southern half of the island, including the financial district, Soho, and Times Square, was inundated and became uninhabitable but everyone agreed this was for the best and was no great loss. 

The nuclear powers (United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea) and every other country with or without nuclear ambitions all agreed that nukes had been a bad idea and voluntarily agreed to disarm and dismantle every last nuclear weapon. The United States government apologized to the residents of New Mexico and Nevada for the nuclear tests that had been conducted in those states in the 20th century. They also apologized to the Japanese for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki stating, “We’re sorry but you guys were asking for it.”

The former nuclear powers then coordinated on multiple nuclear fusion power plant projects which succeeded in providing free, unlimited power to the entire world, even to the former residents of Lower and Midtown Manhattan who were forced to slum it with the rest of humanity, a burden which the rest of humanity resented.

In a surprise turn of events every nation in the world disarmed its military, police force, and citizenry confiscating and disabling or destroying handguns, rifles, armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers. Russia officially retired its force of attack dolphins, a relic of the Cold War, and the United States finally dismantled the last pigeon-guided missiles. The pigeons were released and, having been trained to attack targets in Russia, migrated to St. Petersburg and displaced the local pigeon population in the Great Pigeon War of ‘64. No one but a few ornithologists cared about the Great Pigeon War of ‘64.

As a result, national militaries looked more akin to their 14th century ancestors than the walking guns of the early 21st century, armed as they were with swords, pikes, spears, bows, and crossbows according to the terms of the 2087 Burgundy Accords where the delegates all got drunk on wine and decided late-Medieval warfare, that is warfare before gunpowder, was “bitchin” and should be the limit for any future wars.

Of course, the next year the Universal Non-Aggression Treaty was signed by every nation on Earth and their respective militaries became entirely ceremonial. 

In an even greater surprise, Israel and Palestine patched things up and formed a united country, Israelestine, after deciding that Jerusalem “was just a boring old city that wasn’t really a big deal” and that Jews and Muslims weren’t so different after all. They agreed that their real enemy was anyone that didn’t like humus and that such people should be shunned by the community, but in a nice way.

Innovations in agriculture and the impact of cultural change over time meant more people flocked from the cities back to the fields to enjoy simple lives on farms producing their own food for themselves as well as massive surpluses with the result that world hunger was eliminated. 

Everyone was pretty happy. 

Everyone except for Jack.

Jack Stern was a news executive at the somewhat neutered Globe Media, formed by the merger of Viacom and News Corp in 2058. The Big Six media companies, Viacom, AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, and News Corp had once had a combined net worth of $430 billion in the 2020s, wealth and power which had increased for a time before everyone starting ditching television and other mass media in favor of books, local sports, community functions, and subsistence agriculture, and social drinking. They had to pivot to stay alive by covering all the positive news, which was plentiful and boring, and also sports, although the occasional natural disaster provided blood with which to spatter the headlines. Soccer, or football as the rest of the world called it, had become the new world religion which provided a lot of ad revenue but still, not all of the media companies made it.

And so Jack was bored. 

He was bored with the cheery news cycle of this 22nd-century utopia. Bored with the lack of real news like they had back when things actually happened. Bored with the lack of conflict. Bored with the comfortable lethargy of humanity.

Jack lounged in his comfortable Manhattan office smoking a Cohiba. The office was an anachronism. Dark wood paneling, mid-20th century furniture, a large desk in which Jack liked to keep his only friend, a bottle of Old Forester, and on which he did all his important work: signing papers, making phone calls, playing Solitaire, and banging secretaries. 

Despite his comfortable surroundings and lifestyle Jack was long and lean with the face of a jackal, a wolf’s smile, the long-fingered hands of a man with hands with long fingers, and the toes of a tree frog. People didn’t often see his toes.

Jack lounged and tried to enjoy the cigar but there was an itch at the back of his mind. A bored itch. He tried to ignore it but it burned and festered. He sat up, smashed the cigar into the ashtray, and thumbed the intercom.


Veronica was Jack’s newest secretary, a pretty brunette with curves in all the right places that he kept around for one reason and one reason only: she was an extremely efficient secretary. 

The office door opened and Veronica entered.

“Yes, Mr. Stern?”

“Veronica, I’m unnerved. I’m suffering from some kind of ague. It’s burning at me.”

“But, sir, you didn’t have the Wagyu last night. I remember clearly, I had the Wagyu and you had the lobster tail. Maybe it was the lobster?”

“Ague, ague, you twit. Not Wagyu.”

“No need to get snippy.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just this feeling.” Jack sank back into his chair. “I’m so damn bored. There’s nothing going on anywhere.”

“What about soccer?”

“I hate soccer.” Jack sighed and let out a frustrated growl. “No action. No real news. Nothing I can sink my teeth into.”

“You can sink your teeth into me,” said Veronica with a suggestive look.

Jack smiled halfheartedly. “I may take you up on that sometime but right now, I’m just completely out of sorts. There’s not even a natural disaster to spice things up. Just peace and prosperity and goodwill towards men. How the hell am I supposed to sell ads or influence what people think if there’s nothing happening and no one watches TV or reads the paper anyways?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“That was a rhetorical question.”

“You’re right, it is a historical question. What with all the progress over the last hundred years—”

“No, rhetorical, rhetorical. Nevermind.” Jack sat up. “You know what’s needed? Action. If the news won’t come to me, I’m going to go make it,” said Jack.

“Like old school investigative journalism?”

“Something like that. What time is it?”


“Perfect. I’m out of here. Rain check on the sex?”

“Sure thing.”


After Jack left, Veronica went over to the sidebar, poured a slug of whisky and knocked back half of it. She stood there sipping the rest looking out the 35th floor window at Central Park spread out beneath her like a big green carpet or a big green park. What a whiny misanthrope, she thought, but he’s got good taste in Scotch.


Jack hailed a cab and directed the driver. The cab’s electric engine was silent. The traffic in New Lower Manhattan, a blur of color and sound that Jack did his best to ignore, was not. The southern half of Manhattan had moved to the northern half of the island and took over, a development which had driven many residents of the world to pray for another great flood to wipe out the rest of the city, but their prayers went unanswered. 

Jack dialed the phone. “Travis?”

“Hey, Jack. It’s been a while,” came the voice on the other end.


“Yeah, the usual?”

“Yep. See you at ten.”


The Manhattan traffic passed noiselessly by outside, cut off by the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet music trickled in from hidden speakers. The air smelled like money and the clientele and sharply dressed staff screamed that the place existed for spending it.

Travis McDonaugh was a creature of habit. He insisted on eating his meal in peace before talking business. He pushed back the plate, drained his drink, then looked at Jack. “So, what’s up?”

“Why does something have to be up?” Jack eyed Travis’s broad, honest face atop a dockworker’s heavy body, one that was developing a paunch, his appearance belying what he did for a living.

“You’ve got that look. And you asked me to lunch. It’s been, what, three months?”

“I’ve been busy.”

Travis snorted. “You? Busy? I’d like to see that.”

Jack laughed. “Just like you’re busy at the embassy, I’ve been busy being bored and trying to find material to fill the air.”

“The age of the 24-hour cycle is over. Why don’t you guys just run less programming?”

Jack looked at Travis as if he had asked him why he didn’t just eat live pigeons for breakfast. “Not possible. There are twenty-four hours in a day and I’m going to fill them.”

“And if people don’t watch?”

“I’ll give them something to watch. That’s why I wanted to talk.”

Travis shifted. “What do you want?”

“How does one get invited to those embassy dinners you hear so much about?”

“You want to go to an embassy dinner? Nothing happens and they’re all diplomats, the most boring people on the planet. You really want to go to an embassy dinner?” said Travis incredulously. 

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

It was Travis’s turn to laugh. “No one wants to go to those. Yeah, sure you can go.”

Jack tilted his head. “That was easier than I expected.”

Travis leaned across the table. “Why do you want to go to an embassy dinner?”

“I just want to talk to them.”

“Diplomats? Again, why?”

Jack gave a wolfish grin. “To stir the pot a bit. Maybe start an argument or two.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Travis, everything is so boring and predictable.”

“People like boring and predictable.”

Jack sat up, suddenly intense. “No they don’t.” He prodded the table with a long finger for emphasis. “They don’t know what they want. People want excitement and conflict and stories with good guys and bad guys. They want to get off their cozy farms and see something and do something. And I’m going to deliver it to them on a TV screen and they’ll lap it up like they used to. Haven’t you ever read a history book? Things were great a hundred, two hundred years ago. War, famine, global pandemics, people at each other’s throats all the time. What a time to be a newsman, to craft stories, to feed the people’s hatred back to them magnified a thousand times.”

“That’s sick, even for you. I don’t think you should come.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed. “You owe me.” He spoke in a low growl.

Travis stiffened, but not like that. “You’re still going to hold that over my head? Dammit. Fine, but you better not cause a scene.”

Jack brightened. “Of course not. I’m not a savage. What’s the dress code?”

Travis glowered. “Formal.” 


The embassy ballroom glittered, informal and expensive. Chandeliers covered the ceiling, the walls were a pale gold, the floor, a deep blue carpet, was largely obscured by round tables with expensive-looking place settings and centerpieces. Glitz and glamor for the most useless group of people on Earth. Or the most useful. Time would tell.

Jack surveyed the room sipping a whisky sour. Black suits and glittery dresses mingled in groups. Conversation was polite, hushed. The alcohol had yet to kick in. He wondered if these things ever got a little raucous. Probably. These people had to be bored to tears.

An older man with white hair, large ears, and a regal face punctuated by two bright, intelligent blue eyes floated up to the bar next to Jack. He stood ramrod straight and gave his order like the bartender didn’t exist. He was an anachronism. So was his order: a whisky and soda.

“What part of England are you from?” said Jack.

He sniffed. “One usually introduces oneself first to people one doesn’t know.”

“Does one? My mistake. Must be my bad American manners.” Jack smirked. “We Americans declared independence and never looked back. Jack Stern, Globe Media.” 

He held out his hand. The man didn’t take it.

“Are you trying to make me dislike you, Mr. Stern?”

“No, sir. Just a little self-deprecating humor.”

“Globe Media. What are you doing in our little corner of the world?”

“I’ve always been fascinated with diplomacy and wanted to see what it was all about. There are fewer dark, smoke-filled rooms than I imagined.”

The man took a drink. “We prefer clean air and the bright light of day in the 22nd century.”

“My mistake.”

“You seem to be mistaken a lot, Mr. Stern.”

“It would seem so, Mr…?”

“Viscount Thistledon. Twenty-Seventh Viscount Thistledon, English Ambassador.”

“A viscount? I might have known from the RP. I didn’t know there was any gentry left.”

“I am a peer, Mr. Stern, and we are alive and well. We haven’t all given up and sold our country manors to be turned into museums. And it’s not RP. I’m English. Born and bred in Gloucestershire. We must maintain standards, you know.”

“Standards like your soccer team?”

The viscount reddened and he turned to face Jack.

“I’m sorry. That was a low blow,” said Jack.

“I don’t believe the United States has ever won the World Cup.”

“No, but we aren’t expected to. You guys invented soccer—”


“—but it seems the French have perfected it. Three World Cups in a row, ‘26, ‘30, and ‘34. It’s a wonder they let England host the next World Cup given your performance last year.”

“You are entirely without tact, Mr. Stern.”

Jack shrugged. “Better than being phony. I hate phony people and I’d hate myself if I were phony.”

“I’m hardly, as you say, phony, Mr. Stern. I imagine The Catcher in the Rye is your favorite book,” the viscount said with a voice that made it clear this was an insult.

“Nope, Darkness at Noon. That Gletkin cracks me up.”

Viscount Thistledon raised an eyebrow. “I’m genuinely gobsmacked that you’ve read Darkness at Noon. But why am I not surprised that you sympathize with Gletkin?”

“He’s an up-and-comer. The vanguard of the new sweeping away the old.”

“You mean a Communist party apparatchik conducting show-trials and carrying out summary executions.”

Jack smiled. “Exactly.”

“You’re disgusting.”

Jack inclined his head. “Thank you.”

The viscount sneered at Jack. “Were you one of those moody, misanthropic children that hates the whole world and can’t wait to take revenge for the hand you were dealt?” 

Jack shrugged. “No, I don’t think I was a moody, misanthropic child. I suppose you’d have to ask my mother.”

Viscount Thistledon feigned surprise. “You had a mother? I thought people like you were spawned from the gunk that accumulates around a sink drain.”

Jack laughed. “I’m surprised you know about that stuff. I wouldn’t have thought you cleaned a sink in your life.”

“I’ve not.”

“Well there you go.”


Viscount Thistledon stormed away from the bar, his nose seemingly attempting to poke a hole in the ceiling.

The seed was planted, the football-shaped chip on the shoulder enlarged. Not enough to make something happen, but a start. 

He turned to the bartender. “Don’t mind him. He’s just cranky cause his wife’s sleeping with the head gardener.” He gave the bartender a knowing wink, finished the whisky sour in a few quick sips, savoring the whisky and lemon, and set off to prowl the room.

He knew their weak points. One was football, or soccer, which had overtaken all other forms of international competition for nearly a hundred years. Competition between nations was fierce as it was the only outlet for nationalism and aggression after the signing of the Universal Non-Aggression Treaty. Even the United States went soccer crazy since it was now the only way for Americans to throw their weight around, either through competition or by climbing the ranks of Global Regulator of All Football Teams (GRAFT), the successor to FIFA.

Another weak point, which went hand in hand with international football, was pride. Despite the human race’s progress, everyone was still very proud of who they were and where they came from. The final weak point: military disarmament. This may seem counterintuitive but they had something right with the MAD policy of the Cold War. Now warfare was so low-risk for humanity in an existential sense, that with the right levers pulled, the right buttons pushed, there would be war again. What are a few swords and arrows compared to an intercontinental ballistic missile?

He picked up snatches of conversation. A new fusion project in Morocco, wheat yields in Ukraine, the olive harvest in Italy, comments on the German car industry. There was the occasional flutter of laughter at a joke, but one at no one’s expense. It was all very neat, orderly, polite. 

Through it all the underlying thrum of football. Who beat who, who was going to beat who, what formation they were using, the condition of their striker, the goalie’s incredible save, who was captain, who was going to be captain, did who was captain matter, should diving count as a goal. And on and on.

Jack insinuated himself into conversations here and dropped hints there, much more carefully than he had done with Viscount Thistletwit. I heard the Italian ambassador saying Italy was robbed by the German referee. Yeah, I’m sure someone was bribed. You’ll never believe which country’s coach is having an affair with which football official. Oh yeah, he gets special treatment alright, on and off the field. No, it was the Spanish minister that accused the French of cheating. I believe her exact words were ‘dirty French something something’. How much money did England need to bribe GRAFT in order to host after their abysmal performance in the World Cup last year? There’s bribery all over the place at GRAFT. What about referees? It wasn’t just the German referee. How do you think Singapore beat Brazil last year? I hear refs charge by the card. In international matches, one million for a yellow, five for a red. 

Nevermind that they were all lies. The Italian ambassador never said anything of the kind, there was no affair, the Spanish minister didn’t accuse anyone of cheating, England might not have paid to host, Jack knew nothing about anyone bribing GRAFT or referees.

Some of it might have been true of someone somewhere. And that’s all that mattered. It was all just the kinds of stories that everyone was prepared to believe. They had their pride and righteous indignation and wanted to point the finger at someone when their team lost.

Conversation took on a sour note. Arguments started. There were threats to cancel deals and cut off trade. Someone mentioned the word “war.”

Jack didn’t want to push the Globe Media machine too hard too fast. He let news travel back from the embassy dinner on its own then ramped things up slowly. People were watching the news again and reading newspapers. There were rumors of broken trade deals and increased arms manufacturing. Military exercises were carried out near borders throughout the world. 

Then the clouds burst.

The French crossed the Rhine and in a new tradition kicked a soccer ball onto German soil in a declaration of war. At the same time, Spain invaded France, which now had to deal with a two-front war. England took advantage and also invaded France. The Irish took advantage and invaded England. France somehow beat the Germans, Spanish, and English but, after walking over Poland, made a fatal error and invaded Russia in winter and had a long retreat back to Paris. They manage to raise another army to kick out the English who then kicked the Irish army back to Ireland.

Brazil and Argentina squabbled over dividing up South America. China grabbed Taiwan and the Philippines. Italy lost the plot and invaded Ethiopia again.

Mexico invaded Texas in an attempt to reclaim their territory but soon discovered that the Texans, instead of giving them up had secretly hidden their guns. The war was short. Texas then seceded from the United States.

Canada sent the RCMP, now mounted on horses again, to invade Vermont and burned their stores of maple syrup to help the Canadian maple syrup market. The Canadian army then captured all of New England as far south as Connecticut. The United States agreed to a truce and gave up New England in exchange for access to Canadian maple syrup, which everyone agreed was a good deal.


Staring out of the office window in New Lower Manhattan at the evening shadows grasping at Central Park, Jack could almost feel the warm glow of the fires he had started around the world. 

Finally, some good news, he thought.

The door opened behind him.

“Congratulations, Mr. Stern,” said Veronica. “The Pope has just declared a crusade.”

“Oh, against who?”

“England. There were rumors the English wanted to change the rules of football. Nations loyal to the original rules are to assemble in France and take back the site of the first meeting of the Football Association on October 26th, 1863 in London where they established the rules of modern football.”


She ignored him. “It used to be the Freemasons’ Tavern but it was partially demolished in the 20th century and rebuilt as a hotel.”

“More good news. Looks like the French will finally get to invade England. Serves that old bastard right.”


“The Twenty-Seventh Viscount Thistledon.”

“Who’s that?”

“Nevermind. Thank you, Veronica.”

“Also, I quit.”

Jack turned to face her. “Was it something I said? Was the sex not good enough?”

“No, the sex was great,” said Veronica flatly. “If you really have to ask then you’re beyond help.”

“What, all that?” Jack gestured out the window, as if the various wars around the world were happening right out there in Central Park.

“Yes, all that, you twit. You blew up the world.”

Jack shook his head. “Hardly. I gave people what they wanted: excitement, passion, an outlet for aggression and national pride. And most importantly, an end to soccer.”

“An end? It’s the world religion, one so accurately recreating the past that there’s now a crusade.”

“Yes, and like all religions it will burn itself out in petty doctrinal squabbles and infighting.”

“So you got exactly what you wanted.”

“Of course.”

She sighed. “Goodbye, Jack.”

“There are a thousand more secretaries like you.”

Veronica paused, hand on the door.“No. Not like me,” she said quietly and walked out.

He turned back to the window and the fleeting sunset on Central Park, ablaze with the light of a new world.

Jack was happy.

A Meeting with Death

David Walters was just sitting down to breakfast, espresso and a croissant, one cool morning in early May. As he perused the paper, The Daily Beacon Chronicle Gazetteer, which featured an article on a string of home invasions in the area, across the table from him appeared a man. The man was nondescript, like someone who works at a gas station or the Department of Motor Vehicles; not tall, not short, not fat, not thin. He had a blank expression on a blank face. 

David looked around. “Where did you come from? Who are you?”   

“Me? I’m Death,” said Death.

“Like the Death?”

“The very same.”

“Why are you here?”

“Everyone asks me that as if the answer isn’t obvious. It’s your time to go.”

David stared blankly. “Go where?”

Death tipped his head up and back, the reverse of a nod, to indicate a spot somewhere over his right shoulder. “Go, pass away, depart, kick the bucket, buy the farm, give up the ghost, meet your maker, shuffle off this mortal coil, become like poor Yorick (I knew him, Horatio, a man of infinite jest). Die.”

A puzzled expression settled on David’s face. “Is this some kind of joke? Are you really Death? You don’t look like Death.”

“No, but you do! Ha ha,” said Death. “God, I love that one. Gets me every time.”

David smiled weakly, then grew serious. “Well how is it supposed to happen?”

Death looked meaningfully at the croissant in front of David.

“I choke on a croissant? Seriously?”

Death shrugged. “Sorry. You don’t get to decide.”

“No, clearly. Look, I don’t mean to be rude but this really isn’t a great time.”

“No?” Death was taken aback. “I’m just doing my job, you know.”

“I know, I know, but I really can’t do this right now. I’m busy at work and I’ve got my kids and my wife to think about. I was planning on living for another thirty or forty years. I mean, I’m only forty-five”

“Hmm, thirty or forty years,” said Death. He leaned back and drummed his fingers on his chin. “I generally run on a pretty tight schedule. I am not sure I can allot another thirty or forty years for you.”

“Really. This is a bit hard. I mean, here I am in the prime of life, or close enough,” said David self-consciously, “and along you come to bring the whole thing crashing down. It’s terribly inconvenient; a real nuisance.”

“I am sorry. But it is our policy.”


“Ah, yes. Me and the other Deaths.”

“There are other Deaths?”

“Of course. There are other people than you dying right now. I can’t be everywhere at once; well, actually I can but not in that sense.” Death stared off in a thoughtful, puzzled manner like he had confused himself.

“Then in what sense do you mean? Are there other copies of you?”

Disgust showed clearly on Death’s face. “Copies? Absolutely not. I am unique. There is only one Death.”

“You said there are other Deaths? How can there be others if you’re unique?”

“You are familiar with quantum mechanics?”

“No,” David said flatly.

“Ugh. Well, in quantum mechanics, particles can be in one place and not be in that place, but rather be in another place altogether, all at the same time. It’s kind of like that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Jeez. Okay. Take electrons, for example, one of the basic building blocks of atoms with protons and neutrons. They’re particles, right?”


“Wrong. Electrons, like quarks and gluons, are really fields, continuous fluid-like substances that act like particles only when we take into account the effects of quantum mechanics. Every electron in your body is a field that is a particle only when treated as an excited state of the underlying field.”

David’s head swam and his eyes began to droop. “Science never was my strong suit.”

Death continued, undeterred. “This is of course fundamentally because of particle-wave duality. Like photons, an electron can act as a particle and also as a wave. This wave-like property of a particle can be described mathematically as a wave function and squaring the absolute value of the wave function gives the probability that a particle will be observed near any given location.”

“So you’re a particle and a wave. Here but not here? Elsewhere, with all those other dying people, but not there?”

“Exactly. Now you get it.”

“Do you know everything? I would have thought that Death’s knowledge would be a bit more, Stone Age, if you will.”

“Well, not quite everything, but I’ve picked up a few tidbits over the years.” Death cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. “So, about this pickle.” He trailed off.

“Look, isn’t there anything I can do to put this off? It’s really inconvenient, what with the golf weekend coming up and all.”

Death brightened visibly. “Golf? You play golf? I had literally no idea.”

“Oh yeah; a few pals of mine are coming into town and we’re going to play all weekend; weather should be beautiful. Do you play?”

“Oh, I love the game. I don’t know iron from wood, or a hybrid from a hole in the ground but I love it. Fresh air, clubs, knocking balls, aiming for birds as often as the hole. And I can get a tee time any time I like. Just do that,” Death snapped his fingers, “and oh look, a spot opened up for me. It’s always someone’s time after all.”

The smile faded from David’s face. “I usually just call in advance. I don’t generally have to kill anyone to get a tee time.”

Death shrugged. “To each his own.” He rubbed his hands together. “Well, keeping you from your golf outing is the last thing I’d want to do, especially considering the wife and kids,” Death said with a wink. “I’ve reconsidered. Have your thirty to forty years. Just one condition. I get to play through with you once in a while.”

“Of course; sure, sure. Anything you want. Just join in, no need to ‘free up a spot’ and all that. My friends wouldn’t appreciate that.”

“Ha ha, no, no, of course. Well, I’m off.”

A few moments later David’s wife Rebecca entered the kitchen. She wore a puzzled expression. “David, do you know that man?”

“Oh, you saw him did you?”

“Yes, it’d be hard to miss him. We passed on the front walk.”

David shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “It’s a bit odd, but, well—he said he was Death.”

“Death?” she said incredulously. Her fingers massaged the bridge of her nose. “David, what are you talking about?”

“He said he was Death and it was my time to die. What else can I say? But he let me off, gave me another thirty or forty years like I asked. We found that we have a mutual love of golf.”

“Oh, so golf finally did something for us?”

“Now, Rebecca, don’t be like that.”

“Is that today’s paper?”

“No, yesterday’s. Why?”

Rebecca dropped a newspaper on the table, opened it and pointed. “Look familiar?”

There, staring back at him on page 2A was a nondescript face with a blank expression, like someone who works at a gas station or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I don’t understand.”

“He was trying to rob us, David. This is the guy that’s been breaking into houses around here. They identified him yesterday. His name is Thomas Harville. It says he suffered some kind of psychotic break and also became a kleptomaniac.”

“But—but, he said he was Death. He knew all this stuff about electrons and waves; said that’s how he got around. I mean, there’s got to be a scientific explanation somewhere. It can’t just be magic.”

“David, you are so gullible. He’s an out-of-work quantum physicist, and you are a moron.”

David stood up and sniffed, head held high. “I may be a moron but at least I know the difference between an iron and a wood.”

“What does that have to do with—?”

David held up his hand. “If you need me, I’ll be on the links.”

“He stole your golf clubs.”

“I said I’ll be on the links.”

A Poem for You, Part 2

“Hello dear, I wrote you a poem.”
“Is this one actually for me or is it another passive-aggressive revenge composition?”
“No, Mabel, it’s actually for you.”
“Go ahead then, Gerald.”

Along the alabaster arc of joy,
Stretching beyond the mind’s membranous skeins,
The heart cavils at dull, dull persiflage.
Time’s bright shadow lengthens now.
A moment, grant just one. That is enough.

(aside) “That is enough.”
“What, dear?”
“Nothing, nothing.”
“Do you like it? It’s iambic pentameter, like Shakespeare.”
“Is it? I couldn’t tell. Don’t let Shakespeare know you’re comparing yourself to him.”
“That hurts, Mabel. I am trying.”
“What does it mean?”
“What does it mean? Ah, well, that’s for the reader to determine.”
“I see. So it doesn’t mean anything.”
“No, it does. Would it help to hear it again?”
“No! No, no; wouldn’t want to spoil my first impression. Just give it to me.”
“Do you like it though?”
“Oh yes, I love it. I thank God every day for your poetry. In fact it’s exactly what I was hoping you’d bring me. I need some kindling for the fire.”


Cassie, head rested against the seat in front of her, cursed her stupidity, her lack of focus, desire for perfection. The others on the bus chattered like so many fatuous birds in spring whirling on a current of air, happy to be alive and too dumb to know they must die unknown and unremembered. They were fools who were too stupid to know that their work was trash and were utterly uncaring anyway. In this moment she hated them, even her friends who tried to comfort her.

“It’s just a five-minute presentation, Cassie,” said Jake sitting next to her. “No one cares. You’ve got time. Just make something up at lunch.”

Cassie rolled her head side to side against the seat. “Just make something up?” she said. Her voice was shrill, almost hysterical. 

Jake shrugged. “Nelson  likes you. He won’t even notice. Isn’t that what creative writing is anyway, just making things up?”

Cassie groaned and slammed her forehead back down. The heat from the early morning sun coming through the window made her feel ill. Mr. Nelson’s words gnawed at her mind: “You’re good, but not good enough. To create something true. That’s the challenge. You have talent but you haven’t cultivated it. You haven’t put the work in. And if you don’t, if you don’t give it somewhere to go, it will drive you crazy.”

Cassie didn’t think she was crazy, yet. There were times she felt pressurized, like there was a hatch cover somewhere waiting to blow open and vent her mind into the vacuum of space in a violent, uncontrolled burst of creative power. In the past she had been able to write to release the pressure, to buy herself some time and avert calamity. This time, nothing had come, or at any rate, she hadn’t been able to write. The swirl of incandescent matter in her mind, the fodder of a thousand stories, had failed to coalesce.

She jumped when the bus doors clanged open and she almost retched at the hot smell of exhaust from the line of buses idling in front of Thomas Jefferson High School. The wave of nausea passed, though it was not helped by the heat radiating from the asphalt.

The morning passed in a blur, a malaise of shame and dread. During lunch period she couldn’t eat. Jake sat across from her eating his lunch then helping himself to hers.

“How about I throw out some ideas and you just pick one and we’ll do it together,” Jake said.

“You think I don’t have ideas?” Cassie said, derision clear in her voice. “I’ve got a thousand ideas, they just won’t come out.”

Jake grinned. “You’re constipated.”

“Fuck off. I’m serious.”

Jake slid a few papers across the table. “Here. Read mine.”

Cassie scanned the pages. “A story about your dog dying? I’m sorry, but it’s shit.”

Jake recoiled. “What the fuck is your problem today?”

Cassie took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I loved Lily and I’m sorry she’s gone. But this,” she held up the papers, “this is sentimental crap. It’s easy.”

“Then why don’t you grow a pair and write something if it’s so easy?”

“Because. I don’t want to write something. I want to create the right thing; something true.”

“What’s the point of creating the right thing if you never actually do it?” Jake said, snatching his story out of Cassie’s hands. He waved it in her face. “Maybe it’s not great, maybe it’s shit, but it’s mine.”

“It certainly is.”

Jake stood up. “I would like to still be your friend so I’m going to forget this conversation ever happened. See you in English.” 

Mr. Nelson’s eyes met Cassie’s. She looked away.
Everyone else had already presented. Jake had read his story about his dog and was now attempting to give Cassie a reassuring look on his way back to his seat.
Cassie walked to the front of the class, eyes darting around looking for something. What that thing was, Cassie didn’t even know.
She faced the class. Her leg trembled. She shifted her weight. 

“Memorized it, did you Cassie?” Mr. Nelson said.
“Um. No, not quite.” She answered without looking at him.

“Let’s have it then. Whatever it is.”

Cassie winced. Jake had a pained look on his face. She found the ceiling suddenly interesting. A wave of vertigo overcame her.

Something true. Something true. There is nothing, nothing. What’s the point of creating the right thing if you never actually do it? she thought. 

Somewhere inside her she felt the hatch explode open, but instead of her mind spreading out into the infinite of space, the vast pressure of the ocean crashed in on her.

Cassie opened her mouth and sang. She sang in a rhythmic chant. She started low, quiet, barely above a whisper. She sang the beginning and the first, chaos and creation. Her pitch rose as did her volume, her voice growing stronger and she, without needing to think, turned a page and found a new wellspring, a font within that glowed without light. She sang transformation and adaptation, the coalescence of the cosmic swirl into a single atom. She sang growth and life and love. Louder still, she sang rivalry, jealousy, war, fate. 

One part of her watched tears stream down her face. Another part felt them.
She sang now at the top of her voice and beyond in registers unregistered by her audience. She sang death and with death, the barest hope. But hope nonetheless. Hope triumphant. 

The song stopped. Cassie opened her eyes. 

Her classmates were dazed. Some were weeping. Others were swaying to music that she couldn’t hear. Jake’s face showed long claw marks down his cheeks. One student was crumpled on the floor, blood trickling from a cut on his head. Two others were kissing.

Mr. Nelson had a faint smile beneath a vague, rapturous expression.

Afterward, she asked her classmates and Mr. Nelson, but no one could tell her even a single word she had sung. Soon, they forgot the incident altogether. 

Cassie tried to remember the song to write it down, but found it hard to recall even the feelings it had evoked. She tried to find the place within her that had opened. It was locked or gone. All that was left was a vague sense of sublimity, a tremendous feeling of loss, but the certainty that she had created something true. 

It was her last creation.

This story was written as part of the monthly Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club ( You can find the August 2022 issue on Procrastination here:

A Poem for You

“Hello dear. I wrote you a poem.”

“Gerald, that’s so sweet of you. Let me read it.”

Who cast the stone, who first the deadly blade
Did forge and sank it deep into my soul?
Who made these chains I wear, bound hand and foot?
Who caused this torture terrible, the heat
Of countless suns burning my charred eyes blind?
You, you have left my sundered body torn
to pieces—

“Jesus, Gerald. I just asked you to clean the garage.”

Alpha Centauri

Jessica set the navigation computer’s matrix to a point approximately 50,000,000km away from Alpha Centauri and engaged the enfoldment drive. The ship Folded space, winking out. It reappeared instantaneously several million kilometers away from her starting point. It had taken days of hopping this way to get to Alpha Centauri from Earth.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from the nearby star.

“What the—? A solar flare?” Jessica said.

An alarm sounded. A red light blinked on the control board.

“Manual reset? Dammit. New tech on an old ship. What a great idea.”

The control board blinked back at her. She caught her reflection in the cockpit window. Short brown hair, oval face, high cheekbones, rounded nose.

She pushed away from the ship’s controls and swung her chair around to check the navigational computer. It clicked and beeped. The display showed the ship’s position relative to its starting point. Jessica stomped down the cockpit ramp, her boots clomping on the steel decking.

It was typical for one of these ancient LZ-42s to fall apart at the seams but she’d hoped that it wouldn’t be so soon after leaving port. This was not a good sign for the rest of the cargo run.

Jessica descended four levels to E deck, the engine room, taking each ladder slowly. There was no real hurry. Besides, breaking a leg going down a ladder was not the best idea when she was the only crewmember awake. She keyed in the code for the engine room and went down the last ladder.

The ship’s drive, flanked by two banks of computers, thrummed in the middle of the room. The computers gave off a faint glow. This was the only indication of the activity happening inside the metal cube to which they were attached by massive cables snaking across the floor.

Jessica checked the computer readout. It gave no indication of the malfunction. All systems were normal.

“Well, something’s got to be wrong,” Jessica said.

As if prompted, the hatch above her clanged shut. Jessica whirled around. The hatch acted as a safety bulkhead, separating the levels of the ship in case of a fire or plasma leak. But it shouldn’t be able to close on its own.

She pressed the hatch release next to the ladder. Nothing happened. She tried the manual release lever. Luckily, the company mechanics had done a good job overhauling the whole ship after they installed the new drive and the lever was jammed—rusted in place.

“Great,” Jessica said. “Well, one thing at a time.”

She turned back to the drive computers. She pulled up the drive operation manual on the computer. It was the only file available to display. She opened the file. It read:




“Thanks. I’ll try to keep it in mind,” Jessica said. She scrolled to the next page of the manual. It read:





“What the—?” Jessica pressed the button to scroll further down the screen. It didn’t move. “That’s it? You’ve gotta be kidding me. And how are we supposed to get back to spacedock if this doesn’t work?”

There was a single switch above the computer display. Jessica searched around the computer banks for any other switches or controls.  Except for the display, its control buttons, and the switch, there was nothing she could push or switch on the monolithic computers.

“Alright, so just turn it off, wait an hour, and turn it back on again.”

Jessica stood for a moment, hand on the switch. She couldn’t help but wince as she flipped the switch. The drive’s thrumming stopped. She pressed the computer’s power button. Its lights and display dimmed and went out.

She let out her breath. It was as anticlimactic as she’d hoped. She looked at her watch: 0721 hours.

Jessica turned back to the ladder and tried the hatch again. It stayed closed. She pounded the bare metal. Taking a deep breath, she surveyed the hatch control panel. She pulled an omnitool from her belt and popped off the panel cover. She’d cursed the ship for being old. Now she was grateful. The control panel was full of wires, not the newer nanochips. Not that it would have made sense to completely overhaul an old junker just to upgrade the door tech.

She started tugging at the wires, figuring out which ones led up to the hatch at the top of the ladder. She pulled out the wires from the back of the panel cover. Blue electricity arced out of the open panel and connected with her bare hand.

Jessica hit the floor with a thud and blacked out.

Pain; confusion. Fuzzy blackness gave way to a semblance of consciousness. Groaning broke the silence. Jessica rolled to one side and onto her knees. She lost her balance and her shoulder slammed into the floor. She lay there for a moment breathing. She managed to sit up and open her eyes. The control panel was still open, staring, mocking her.

“Gloves, Jessica. Gloves,” she said, shaking her head and wondering how long she’d be out for. She checked her watch. “Well, that’s ten minutes I won’t have to wait for the drive,” she said, grunting as she got to her feet.

But the power discharge shouldn’t have happened. They were very low power connections from the ship’s reactor to the control panel and the hatch. There shouldn’t be a charge in there capable of knocking her out. And the safeties would have to be off or malfunctioning.

“What a piece of junk. This thing’s going to get me killed,” Jessica said, pulling on her work gloves. “Okay, let’s try this again.” She rearranged the wires—bypassing the main power conduit and taking power from the auxiliary lines—closed the panel, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. “That should have done it.” She switched the wires back and tried again.

The hatch opened.

Jessica sighed and shrugged. “I’ll take it.” She hurried one level up to D deck: reactor core. While the drive in the engine room let the ship Fold space, the drive did not power the ship itself. The fusion reactor provided electricity to the ship and powered the maneuvering thrusters. She checked the power levels and various indicators on the control panel for. Everything showed normal. She read the log reports on the computer, scrolling through several times to make sure she hadn’t missed it.

“No power spike? I know what I saw and I sure as hell felt it. I thought they gave these things a complete inspection before sending them on jobs.”

Suddenly, metal clanged behind Jessica. She whirled around. The upper hatch leading up to C deck was closed. A sinking feeling settled into Jessica’s stomach. This is not good.

She tried the same trick as before, switching the wires for the hatch control and then switching them back. Nothing both times. The manual release lever wasn’t stuck this time but it didn’t do anything either, which shouldn’t have been possible.

The hatch down to the engine room was still open, but that wouldn’t do her any good. It was the only way in and out of the engine room. She needed to get back up to the cockpit. Luckily, there was another door out of the reactor core that led to the cargo hold.

Jessica cranked the wheel lock, ignoring the warning sign. The door hissed and swung open. Jessica stepped out onto the balcony. She might as well have walked out an airlock. The cargo hold was a chasm of blackness punctuated by pinprick lights. A catwalk extended out before her, disappearing into the dark. The lights in the massive expanse gave the impression of a star field, but even these grew so dim they disappeared into the distance.

A wave of vertigo overcame Jessica and she grabbed onto the railing. The field of lights became a blur. Breathing hard, she turned back to the doorway. A solitary light revealed nothing above the door. There was no way to get to the living quarters or cockpit directly from the cargo hold. But there was a dim shape off to one side of the door. Jessica grinned. A maintenance locker. There was a plasma torch inside.

“Guess I’ll have to do some work of my own. Screw their licensed mechanics,” Jessica said.

She lit the torch and immediately turned her head away, squinting from the light. She pulled the goggles she’d found in the locker down over her eyes and set the tip of the torch to the sealed hatch. The blue plasma reacted with the metal to give off a white hot light. Molten metal spread from the contact point. Hopefully it wouldn’t fall down onto her unprotected head. She didn’t like the idea of burning her face off under any circumstances—much less when she was trapped in the lower decks of a broken-down cargo ship somewhere near Alpha Centauri.

Sweat ran down Jessica’s neck. Her arm cramped from holding onto the ladder awkwardly. The steel hissed a final time and Jessica leaped out of the way, extinguishing the plasma torch. The deck plating rang like a bell as the hatch doors fell.

Jessica hauled herself up onto C deck: storage and maintenance. It was a jumble of food containers, replacement parts, tools, O2 tanks, space suits.

Jessica hesitated, looking up at the next hatch leading to B deck. The lethal hatch doors were hidden in the bulkhead between decks. Any trust she had in the ship and its most basic systems was gone. The malfunctions had to be random, but they sure didn’t seem random—at least the ones happening to her. There could be other things going wrong on the ship that she didn’t even know about. And the moment she was between decks would be a great time for the hatch to close and put an end to her doubts—permanently.

There was no point in disconnecting the power to the hatch doors. There was another connection at the control panel on the other side of the doors so that the hatch could be opened from above.

Jessica hauled herself up the ladder, plasma torch in one hand. She paused just below the hatch, eyeing the two halves of the hatch retracted into the bulkhead. She stretched her leg to rest her right foot a few rungs from the top and catapulted herself through the open hatch, yanking her foot through behind her. She rolled, sat up, and stared at the hatch. It didn’t move.

Jessica laughed at how ridiculous she was must look.

She stood up. Even in the living quarters, everything was steel and hard angles. A few seats, a kitchen, bunks for sleeping, bathroom, and a passage leading to the iceboxes where the three other crew members were in stasis. There was no ice nor were they cryogenic chambers; rather they called them iceboxes because everyone came out of stasis freezing and shaking.

Jessica had been lucky so far. A minor issue with the drive requiring a simple, if lengthy, reset and two malfunctioning bulkhead hatches. It could have been far worse. It could still be. She needed to wake up her crewmates. They’d be annoyed. Going down for stasis was somehow worse than waking up from it, but she was going to need help if things got any worse.

Four pods, each with vitals displays, filled the small room. Jessica’s stood open and empty. One other was empty. The displays on the two middle pods showed life signs.

Jessica approached the pod on the left. She tapped the display then pressed two buttons simultaneously. A damp smell filled the air. Jessica wrinkled her nose. The lid of the pod lifted revealing the mostly naked body of man about forty-five years old with prematurely gray hair, a square face, and a flat nose.

Groans. His body convulsed violently.

“Easy, Hawk, easy,” Jessica said, laying a towel over his shivering body.

Hawk sat up. “Jess, wha—? Why are you waking me up?” Hawk said through chattering teeth.

“We haven’t gone very far. We folded space just fine for a while. Then the drive needs a manual reset. Then the bulkhead hatches start going haywire and I get zapped and I have to cut my way out of the reactor core.”

Hawk exhaled. “Shit. Okay.” He tried to stand and fell back against the pod. “I think I need a sec.”

“Take it easy. I’ll wake up O’Brian.”

Jessica repeated the procedure for O’Brian’s pod. Nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing. “Hawk—” Jessica said, not even trying to keep the panic from her voice. “It’s not working.” She jammed the buttons.

“Just relax. Let me try.”

The control panel went dark.

“Oh, God, Hawk.”

“She’s fine. She’s fine. She doesn’t even need air in stasis. She’ll be fine until we get back to port.”

Jessica wasn’t very reassured. “We need to send out a distress call and check the ship’s systems to see if the computer can tell us anything.”

Jessica grabbed the plasma torch and Hawk, having quickly dressed, followed her up the ladder to the cockpit. Jessica hesitated for a second before scrambling through the hatch. She stood up and immediately grabbed for the wall, lightheaded.

“You alright?” Hawk said.

“Yeah, I think so,” Jessica said, blinking and shaking her head, trying to clear it.

Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair. The red light on the control panel no longer blinked red. Hawk glanced at the navigational computer. “Alpha Centauri. Well, we’re not too far. A ship or two should come by at some point.” Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair and ran his fingers through is hair. “I’ll have to send out a general distress call. All channels. Hopefully someone will hear us.”

“What’s the status of the ship’s systems?” Jessica said.

Hawk navigated the computer display. “All normal. That’s impossible.”

Anxiety knotted in the pit of Jessica’s stomach. “It should be. The reactor computer didn’t show a spike either, but I certainly felt it.”

“So there are malfunctions with the drive, iceboxes, and door controls. Two completely separate systems—great. And there’s something wrong with the main computer too.”

“We need to just shut everything down.”

“You can’t shut down the reactor.”

“I know. I mean the main computer and everything the reactor powers—cut it off from the rest of the ship.”

“Yeah, but what if we can’t get it back on?” Hawk said. “Why don’t we just wait and see if anyone answers the distress call?”

“What if there’s a malfunction with life support or the reactor? There might be nothing and no one to rescue if we just wait. And if the main computer’s malfunctioning we might not even be able to talk to anyone that answers. If only we could get O’Brian out we could take the skiff and leave. We need to get the ship moving. Now.”

“You’re right.” Hawk smiled. “Hey. We’ll be fine, Jess.”

“Sure.” Jessica tried to smile.

Hawk exhaled slowly. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Jessica sat in the co-pilot’s chair and almost pulled her knees to her chin but stopped herself. She didn’t need Hawk knowing she was panicking; didn’t want to admit to herself that she was panicking. It wasn’t even time to panic. The ship was still in once piece. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong. It was just some screwy hatches and poor O’Brian stuck in the icebox.

Hawk turned around to the computer and started pressing buttons. The cockpit lights dimmed and went out. So did the control panel and the navigational computer and their displays. The cockpit went dark. A single emergency light pulsed overhead.

The main lights came back on. The computer whirred and its displays lit up along with the piloting control panel.

Suddenly an alarm blared.

Jessica glanced at the computer display. “Life support!” 

“That’s not possible,” Hawk said.

“Yeah. I’ve been hearing that a lot. But it’s happening.”

“But the computer’s back on. And there’s the redundant system down on D deck.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”  Jessica tapped the display. “I’m locked out. I can’t do anything about life support from here.”

“I’ll go to D deck and restart the life support system from there. Still, we should have hours unless we lose air somehow.”

“Yeah, no we haven’t—.” Jessica looked at Hawk, her eyes wide. “I had no way out of D deck. I went into the hold. It’s a minimal atmosphere in there. Which means we lost most of our air out of here into the hold. I’m so stupid! No wonder I felt lightheaded after climbing the ladder.”

“It’s alright. So, how long do we have?”

“I don’t know. We need to hurry.”

Hawk leaped to his feet and swooned. “Shit.”

“Easy. Hurry, but not too fast.”

Jessica turned back around to the computer display. Life support was still not responding to her commands. She checked the distress signal. It was broadcasting on all channels. She tried to boost the signal.

Minutes passed. Jessica pressed the intercom. “How’s it coming down there Hawk?” There was no response. “Hawk?” Static.

Jessica’s breathing came fast. Her chest was a leaden knot as she got to her feet. “Okay, okay, okay.”

Jessica left the cockpit, dread filling her boots. She came to the hatch.

And the lights went out. All of them. No emergency lights came on this time.

Jessica stumbled back from the hatch to avoid falling in. She got down on her hands and knees and felt her way over to where she had left the plasma torch. A faint blue light illuminated the area around her but she could only see a few feet down the ladder. The hatch between B and C decks looked like it might be closed but she couldn’t tell for sure. Holding the plasma torch as far away from her face as possible and hurrying through the hatch, Jessica descended the ladder.

Her boots squelched on the deck plating. She looked down. Hawk’s dead eyes met hers. Jessica recoiled, slipping in Hawk’s blood and falling to the floor. The plasma torch started burning a hole through the plating. It filled the room with a brilliant white light. Hawk’s head lay on top of the closed hatch, along with one of his hands.

Jessica sobbed. Her whole body shook like she’d just come out of the icebox. She pulled on her gloves and set Hawk’s head and hand to the side, covering them with a bit of cloth. I can’t do this alone, she thought. Wait—O’Brian!

She ran to the third icebox, her mind racing. She would have never tried to cut her out if their lives didn’t depend on it. Jessica might be unable to revive O’Brian or she might already be dead. Or cutting into the pod might kill her.

Smoke billowed out of the open pod. O’Brian’s charred body was twisted and black.

Jessica turned and vomited onto the floor. She stumbled over to the hatch and started cutting. She tried to ignore the acrid smoke coming from Hawk’s vaporizing blood. She vomited again. The hatch doors crashed to the floor below. Jessica prepared herself for what she knew was down there.

Hawk’s body was heavy. Jessica could only bring herself to pull what used to be her friend out of the way of the hatch. She hurried down the ladder, trying not to move too fast so she wouldn’t pass out.

The reactor was normal. The redundant life support system was off, the display blank and unresponsive. There was no oxygen being produced. She would soon be unconscious and as good as dead unless she could move the ship or get off it.

The enfoldment drive computer stood lifeless in front of Jessica. It was 0825: over an hour had passed. Jessica could feel the pulse in her head. Blackness crested the edges of her vision. She pressed the power button and flipped the switch.

The computer whirred, lights flashing.

The drive came to life.

The thick power cables glowed. Had they done that before?

The edges of the massive cube began to warp. Jessica closed her eyes and shook her head. It was no illusion. The thing seemed to be folding space in on itself.

Jessica scrambled up the ladder as fast as she could. Alarms blared and lights flashed all over the reactor control station. She ignored them, screwing up her eyes in an attempt to stave off unconsciousness. She ignored Hawk’s headless body and the blood on her hands. She forgot about everything except the skiff on A deck—the only escape.

She also forgot about the hatch leading to A deck. As she pulled herself up, the hatch snapped closed, catching her boot heel in its jaws and twisted her ankle. Jessica cried out in pain. She tugged frantically at the zipper and managed to pull her foot free. Limping to the escape door, Jessica smashed the panel. It didn’t respond. Screaming in frustration, she ripped open the panel and burned out the controls with the plasma torch then yanked on the manual release. The door slid open and she threw herself inside, leaving the torch behind.

The skiff rocketed into space. Jessica just breathed, making a desperate, guttural sound in the back of her throat.

Yellow light seared the window. Jessica stopped the thrusters and repositioned the skiff so she could see the ship.

There was no ship. Where the ship had been was a newborn star, pulsing and expanding.

“My god. The fusion reactor.”

Wave after wave of radiation cascaded over the skiff—solar flares buffeting it like a cork tossed in the surf. The star was being stretched, like an unseen force had grabbed the right side of it and pulled, distorting its perfect sphere. Suddenly it exploded. A leaf in a storm, the skiff rolled over and over. Jessica managed to stop screaming and steady the small ship.

But someone was screaming. It was in her head. It was coming from outside the ship. It was everywhere and nowhere.

The star’s heat and energy and light were disappearing. And where they went was nothing. Or rather a sphere of inky black nothingness, pulling in everything around it. Everything including the skiff.

Jessica vainly jammed the thruster controls. She couldn’t even tell whether or not they were on. The black sphere became larger and larger. As the last bit of the star’s exploded energy went out, Jessica crested the event horizon.





The Intersolar Corporation LZ-42 freighter Drake en-route to mining colony SK91 disappeared near Alpha Centauri shortly after leaving Earth orbit. A distress call sent from the Drake was received by a nearby freighter, the Sophie, at 1550 hours on May 23rd. In the distress call, the crew of the Drake reported malfunctions with their enfoldment drive, stasis chambers, electrical systems, and door controls. Only one distress call was sent. The Sophie detected a massive amount of residual energy from the distress call’s point of origin. Upon further investigation by Intersolar, a newly emerged black hole was discovered in the area where the Drake disappeared.

Our theory is that a series of malfunctions led to the catastrophic failure of possibly both the fusion reactor and the enfoldment drive. The cause of the malfunctions is unknown.

There were no survivors out of the three person crew.

The Drake’s mission was to transport raw materials back from the SK91 mining colony. Thus the only major losses were the ship’s reactor core and drive. The ship and crew are easily replaced.


For Immediate Release

The Intersolar Corporation Freighter Drake was lost in a tragic accident near Alpha Centauri on May 23rd, 2107. Intersolar is working hard with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident. Our hearts go out to the families of the three crew members lost in this tragedy. Intersolar takes workplace safety very seriously and endeavors to do everything possible to safeguard the lives of our team members.

The Battle

    Marcus danced away as the others faced him, the sun glinting feebly off their bloodstained blades. The wind whispered through his short-cropped hair, barely cooling the sweat pouring down his neck. He glanced around him, looking for a way out. The bodies of his brothers lay a short distance away, blood showing red and stark on their tunics. Telltale signs of what were most likely fatal wounds. There was no time for grief now. His three opponents stood between him and the forest, the way home. He fought to quell the panic in his gut. Three against one, he thought. There’s no way. I can’t.

    He and his two brothers, Decius and Kaeso, had marched proudly from Castelmare leaving behind the cheering crowds.  Their white tunics seemed to glow in the sunlight which bounced off their bronze breastplates. A spear and shield were in each hand and a short sword hung from each belt. Marcus, the youngest, had walked behind while his older brothers each carried the standards of their city and their family; a black ram on a field of white and a red oak on a field of green. They had marched mostly in silence that day, the tension mounting as they walked to the arranged meeting place. They slept under the stars, feeling and hoping that their enemies would hold up their end of the bargain and not kill them in the night. The Aemilians were their enemies, but they were generally honorable. Marcus slept fitfully, his dreams varying from scenes of victory to tableaux of blood and screams. The next day had found them face to face with their three opponents under the morning sun. The three Aemilians were similarly equipped and carried standards showing the blue Aemilian bull, set off by a background of yellow and four white stars on a purple field so dark it was almost black. A brief ritual had followed. They started by staking their standards in the ground. Then each combatant cast a stone beyond the line demarcated by their enemies’ standards and spoke the accustomed words to initiate the contest. They squared off against the Aemilian champions in pairs. Marcus focused all his attention on his opponent who was a head taller with eyes darkened by paint and a breastplate gleaming over a thick leather shirt that hung to his knees. He dodged the Aemilian’s spear and looked over in time to see Decius go down with a sword embedded in his abdomen. Kaeso was already lying on the ground, a spear emerging from his chest.

   There was no escape for Marcus, but he would not run. Despite the fear gripping his chest, making it difficult to move his legs, it was his duty to stand and fight. Anything less would dishonor him and his brothers’ memories. But his legs felt leaden and weak at the same time.

    Move! Marcus stepped back once, then took another step. Relief washed over him in an instant. At least I’ll die fighting. The thought was little comfort.

    He would have to deal with his man first. Marcus notice that his opponent was separating him from the other two Aemilians; one was limping, the other bleeding from his belly. The big man narrowed his painted eyes and lunged. Marcus skipped to the right, the sword barely missing him. The big man motioned to the other two who started to circle around Marcus. As Marcus hoped, his opponent’s overconfidence got the better of him. When the big Aemilian lunged again, Marcus ducked and rolled under his defense, like he had done so many times training with his brothers. He buried the sword in his enemy’s groin, jumping away as the other two soldiers swarmed behind him. He escaped but tripped and fell. His sword went flying in the dust; his shield lay by the body of the dead Aemilian, discarded when he had gone in for the kill. He rolled over to see the Aemilian with the belly wound advancing on him, the limping soldier following behind. Marcus panicked. Scrambling backwards his hands and feet flailed at the ground, kicking up dust but not moving him very far. Something behind him stopped his advance. He twisted his neck and found himself staring into the lifeless eyes of his brother Decius. Blood had soaked his tunic turning the brilliant white to a deep red. He turned back and the Aemilian was bearing down on him, slowly, savoring the kill. His sword dripped with Decius’ blood. Marcus saw the smug satisfaction in his eyes turn to surprise as a spear seemed to appear in his chest. He collapsed next to Marcus, still staring in surprise. Marcus leapt to his feet and whirled around.

    Kaeso lowered his arm and grabbed at his upper chest with a grimace plain on his face. “What are you waiting for? Finish it.”

    Marcus turned, stooped, and pulled the spear from the Aemilian’s chest in one fluid movement. The hamstrung Aemilian limped backwards, a shocked look in his eyes. The look of a man who knows he is going to die. Marcus advanced on him, hefting the spear and preparing to drive it home. The Aemilian dropped his sword and fell to his knees, reaching for the hem of Marcus’ tunic.

    “Please,” said the Aemilian. “Don’t. Spare me. My name is Regulus. I have a wife. A little boy. You win. I can just go.”

    Marcus stopped short, unsure of himself. The spear fell to his side. Behind him he could hear Kaeso howling, shouting to finish him. Marcus saw his own pain in Regulus’ eyes. His head swam. Blood pounded in his ears, throbbing in his temples. He shifted, about to step back when Decius’ eyes appeared, lifeless, staring, filling his vision.

    Marcus growled. “Coward.” “We both knew what we were getting ourselves into,” he heard himself lie. “And you killed my brother.”

    Regulus screamed as Marcus rammed the spear home. The screams became gurgles that rose along with blood from his throat. Marcus pulled out the spear and Regulus’ face slammed into the dirt.

    Marcus turned around and ran to Kaeso. “I thought you were dead.”

    “I’m alright,” said Kaeso. “I hit my head when I fell. Good thing I came around when I did.”

    “Decius—,” Marcus started to say.

    “I know. We’ll take him home.”

    They quickly lashed together the Aemilian standards and whatever bits of rope and cloth they could find to fashion a rudimentary bier. Marcus and Kaeso walked through the night, not bothering to stop to sleep, focusing only on the goal of getting home.

    It was early morning. The sun, obscured by low clouds, was casting a feeble light. Marcus, exhausted, shifted the weight of the bier behind him from one hand to the other. He knew the necessity of what they had set out to do, felt the weight of responsibility and expectation lifted from him. But any feeling of victory was tinged, tainted by bitter grief for his brother and perhaps even for himself, for his lost innocence.

    “I’ll remember you Decius, the way you were,” Marcus said, more to himself than to his brother’s body. The road turned one last time and reached the edge of the forest. Marcus looked up, eager to see Castelmare. “You can rest now. It’s done. We’re home.”