For a while now, I've been underemployed. I have been scraping by, for a few years, by living very simply. I don't eat out. I get the generic oatmeal. I go to the cheap (or free) cons and take full advantage of the consuites.
Last year my income was under five figures. (You might think that would be enough to get out of paying taxes, but no! Thanks to our draconian self-employment taxes, that is not the case.) There are a lot of things I could use--a better computer to do my paying work on, some new workout shoes, a better class of ramen noodles--but those are out of reach at the moment. Right now the hole I'm in is deep enough that I'm having difficulty paying the rent.
What's frustrating is that I have writing projects that I'm really excited about, that I think could really improve my situation if they sell. Things that are done, things that are in development. Things I think y'all would love. But publishing moves really slow, and I need money sooner than hopefully maybe pretty soon.
I'm not the only person who is in bad shape, and I feel crappy about even asking for help when the economy is hurting us all. But the truth is I've been on the verge of writing a post like this for a couple of years now, and it's finally that bad.
Since I will feel better about myself if there is at least the appearance of a transaction here, I'm posting an unpublished story of mine below. It's called "Bedtime Stories for Alien Children" and it's a trilogy of weird little vignettes that I hope you will like. You can read it and not donate and that's OK. You can not read it and donate and that's a little weird, but thank you. If you think it's worth sharing, go ahead and link and your friends can make the same choice. I am not proud of this post, but I am proud of the story.
And if you're still reading, thanks. Regardless of whether you have the wherewithal or inclination to donate, thank you.
"Bedtime Stories for Alien Children"
by David J. Schwartz
1. The Whisper, the Wire, and the Worm
This all happened a long time ago, when the world was still a seed drifting on the breath of the gods. The seed, like its siblings, was cylindrical in shape, with a stalk like an idle propeller sprouting from one end. Metal filaments radiated from the top of the stalk, swaying amid the universal current like the branches of a tree in winter.
In those days space was not crowded with stars and planets; only six-and-twenty worlds had taken root in the firmament, and the faint light of their suns served only to expand the darkness. There were only the Worms, and the Wires, and the Whispers.
The Worms have gone now, but in the earliest times they burrowed through darkness, consuming all they came upon. Each time they fed they grew, and their skin flaked away to form young Worms. Sometimes these Worm-children were eaten by their parents, and sometimes they wandered cold space until they froze, but sometimes they chanced upon a world-seed. There they clung to the heat of sleeping life, feeding on darkness until they grew large enough to devour their home and survive in space alone. Such a Worm-child lived upon the seed of the world.
The Wires have not been seen in eons, although their descendants are still among us. Their form then was that of a mass of tendrils, each capable of piercing the surface of any living thing and feeding upon it. The Wires were possessed of such vast hunger that left unmolested they would feed until they burst. When a Wire exploded, it sent spores out in all directions, and if one of those spores should find a warm body, the cycle began again. Such a Wire lived upon the seed of the world.
Of the Whispers little is known. Some claim they still live in the quiet corners of the universe, and others doubt they ever existed. They shuffled along on two legs with three knees each; their wedged feet clung to the surface of a seed like a sigh to a windpipe. It was they who, when fertilized by experience or revelation, gave birth to speech. Such a Whisper lived upon the seed of the World.
What you need to know is this: the Whisper was in love with the Wire. It was a strange love, as the Wire was blind and deaf and uninterested in interaction of any sort. Upon its arrival it had driven its tendrils into the seed and discovered that the unborn world tasted like burnt copper with a hint of orange. Warmth flooded the Wire, and it shuddered. It had not known there was such a thing as ecstasy.
The Whisper was on the other side of the world-seed, contemplating the seventeenth star in the firmament. The light of the seventeenth star gave the Whisper a feeling that it was trying to name. The Whisper did not notice the Wire's arrival on the world-seed, but the Worm-child did. The Worm-child flashed its snout-gland in alarm, and after some time the Whisper became aware of this additional star in its peripheral vision. Something had happened. This was the first time since the Whisper had taken up residence on the world-seed that something had happened, so it was eager to investigate.
The Whisper shuffled to the other side of the world-seed and found the Wire siphoning life from inside. The Wire's tendrils glittered in the light of the Worm-child's snout-gland, and a contented hum rose from its swollen nucleus. The Whisper contemplated the Wire for a time. Then it sighed with its feet, wrapped its wide arms around the Wire, and unfolded its legs to their full length.
The Wire panicked as it was detached from its new source of sustenance. Tendrils broke through the Whisper's skin, but there was nothing inside but the taste of camphor and coal dust. The Whisper trembled with this nearness. Eventually the Wire, unable to feed, gave up its struggle and rested in the Whisper's arms.
The world-seed traversed the gap between the fourth and eighth stars in the firmament, and all that while the Whisper embraced the Wire, seeking a word for it. The Wire keened softly from time to time, its only recourse against deprivation. The Worm-child clung to the seed-stalk, gulping at darkness.
After a time the Whisper realized that the Wire was starving; after an additional time the Whisper realized that it did not want the Wire to die. It folded its legs and lowered the Wire to the surface, ignoring the renewed flashing of the Worm-child's snout-gland.
Without hesitation the Wire pierced the skin of the world-seed, and moaned as it drank copper-orange nourishment from the core. The Whisper found that it was aroused. As the Wire became engorged with stolen life, anticipation rose in the Whisper until it could no longer restrain itself. In its faint deep voice the Whisper spoke love to the Wire, who could not hear this declaration. And then, because the Worm-child still flashed its alarm, the Whisper lifted the Wire once more from the skin of the world-seed.
This, then, was how the Whisper's love for the Wire began. The Whisper stopped its contemplation of the stars and began a contemplation of the Wire that lasted many days, days marked not by the movement of the world-seed relative to other bodies in space but by the feeding of the Wire. When the Whisper sensed that the cravings of its beloved had progressed to the point of peril, it bent its knees and allowed the Wire to feed. When it sensed that the Wire's compulsion to feed had begun to damage the sleeping life of the world-seed, the Whisper lifted its beloved into the darkness, and the day began.
Many days passed uncounted in this manner, and the Worm-child grew accustomed to the presence of the Wire. The Whisper, however, was a bafflement to the Worm-child. The Worm-child, like the Whisper, spent countless hours in contemplation; but since the Whisper did not hunger, what was there for it to contemplate?
For its part, the Whisper contemplated the difficult nature of its love. It wanted to give the Wire everything it desired, and yet to do so would mean its death, and the death of their home. The Whisper had grown fond of the fragile seed, yet the mute and unresponsive Wire inspired the Whisper to folly. Sometimes the Whisper walked patterns across the surface of the seed with the Wire in its arms, describing its love to the Worm-child, who flashed back syncopated messages of boredom with its snout-gland.
So the Worm-child contemplated the Whisper, and the Whisper contemplated the Wire, and the Wire contemplated the taste of burnt copper and orange. This continued until one day the Worm-child heard a sound. The sound was faint, but in the silence of space it pounded against the Worm-child's heart. It was the sound of something tunneling through the darkness.
The Whisper sensed the danger before it noticed the flashing of the Worm-child's snout-gland. For a moment the Whisper mused upon the feeling that rose in it now; what should it call this quickening, this anxiety? The Whisper was too overwhelmed with it to give it a name.
What the Whisper and the Worm-child had both sensed was the approach of an adult Worm. The Whisper's fear--for that was the feeling it could not name--was not for itself, for there was not enough of it to consume. But it feared for the Wire.
It was the Worm-child who devised a plan. It flashed cold reason at the Whisper, and the Whisper trudged a lover's fury in response. But it had not yet created the words with which to plead its case, and in the end the Worm-child convinced the Whisper that the needs of the world-to-be outweighed the needs of the one.
The Wire, cradled in the catatonia of withdrawal, knew nothing of any of this.
When the sound of space scraping against space was so loud that the world-seed trembled, the Worm-child uncoiled its length and launched itself away from the stem. As it traveled away from the only home it had known, the Worm-child was afraid. But just as its home was but a seed of the world we live upon today, so was the Worm-child's fear only a shadow of what it felt when the adult Worm emerged into space.
It is said that had the Worms not been cannibals they would have eventually consumed the universe, and if you have heard tales of the slaying of the last Worm you know something of the size they could attain. This Worm was not so large as that last, which had fed upon its brothers and sisters since the beginning of time. But it was large enough that the Worm-child of the world-seed was as a speck of dust before it.
Yet the Worm-child did not falter. It flashed its snout-gland in defiance as it passed between the Worm and the world-seed. The Worm, thinking this fleshy appetizer meant to escape, turned to follow. The world-seed would still be there, but this morsel of warm meat might freeze or even disappear in the meantime. The Worm flashed its own snout-gland, which glowed with the light of the embryonic stars it had consumed in its lifetime.
In the Whisper's arms the Wire's tendrils lifted, sensing the massive energy of the adult worm nearby. Once again the Whisper found that it lacked necessary words. But it spoke love once more, bent its knees, and leapt from the surface of the world-seed toward the passing Worm.
The Worm neither heard the Whisper's love nor sensed the trembling of the Wire, for it knew only the ache to taste its own kind. It has been said that this was a kind of love, and perhaps this is so. Whatever it may have been, the Worm was consumed with it when the Whisper hurled the Wire into space.
For a moment, then, there were five bodies in tableau: the Worm-child, gulping at darkness; the Worm, pursuing the child; the Wire, grasping after the Worm with its tendrils; the Whisper, its arms aching for lack of the Wire; and the world-seed, drifting on the breath of the gods.
Then the Wire's tendrils broke the Worm's skin and tasted the darkness and light within. This was more than the embryo of a world: this was the raw matter of creation, this was Worms and worlds and seeds and space mingled into one essence. The Wire could not bear to be denied this, to have those familiar arms lift it away after only a taste. It plunged its entire being into the Worm's crust and drank with violence and greed. The Worm screamed; its scream was the sound of collapsing in the space between space, but the Wire did not hear it.
The Worm-child heard the Worm's scream, and tried to ride it towards the world-seed. But the distance was too great. The Worm-child shivered, knowing that without the seed's warmth it would soon freeze to death. It had saved its home, but not itself.
The Whisper heard the Worm's scream, but its thoughts were with its beloved. The Whisper willed restraint at the Wire, but it had no word for it and worse still, no word for hope. The Wire grew swollen with stolen power, while the Worm writhed slowly in space and began to wrinkle and sag. The Whisper stood on the seed of the world and contemplated the distant Wire, and mingled with sorrow was arousal. Once again anticipation rose in the Whisper, and when its throat opened this time, it spoke death.
Through its fog of ecstasy the Wire felt a shifting inside itself. There are those who say that it was love that transformed the Wire's offspring, and that the Wire's last thought before it burst was of longing for the Whisper's arms; others believe that it was the mingling of essences stolen from the Worm which caused the newborn Wires to take on their new, more benign, form. Whatever the reason for their nature, the Wire's children were born in the manner of their kind: through the explosive death of the parent.
The energies released by the Wire's detonation burned away the remaining husk of the Worm. Heat and light washed over the drifting Worm-child as well, and pushed it closer to the world-seed. Closer, but still too far. The Worm-child flashed a final goodbye at the Whisper.
The Whisper did not walk patterns across the seed coating in response, but sighed along the surface until it was at something close to a run. The Whisper ran amid the falling spores born from the union of the Wire and the Worm, then bent its knees and leaped into space to gather the Worm-child into its arms. The two drifted in a long slow parabola, watching the strange rain fall upon the world-seed, until they set down once again. The Whisper sighed its way to the stalk at one end of the seed, and set the Worm-child back in its place.
This, then, is how the Worm-child came to fall in love with the Whisper, and how the Wire's gentle children came to live upon the surface of the world-seed, and how the groundwork was laid for the War of the World's Birth. But that is a story for another time.
2. Rebel Head and the Merrie MIs
Schooling in a glittering nebula light-years across, space tuna swarm the cold dark sea between galaxies. Purple light glitters from their scaly hulls. At the school's edges, SHIRIF's gizburns flash like a net-work of pulsars--marking, tracking, guiding the nebula along Imperial harvesting routes.
In space no one can hear you sing unless they have their ears on. The tuna are blind, but sensitive to radio waves--they steer clear of them, preferring the quiet between. L-M-H-Dial skips a high-frequency tremor across the dark matter, then laps it with a second and a third. The harmonic triggers chemical alarm, hormones washing panic over the fat pink insides of the tuna and flushing deep blue shimmers across their scales as the school turns away from the song.
SHIRIF hurries to compensate, loosening its net on the songward side, tightening elsewhere. SHIRIF--Shielding and Harvesting Intelligence Regulating Imperial Foodstuffs--isn't a single entity but a collective, an optic network of armed sentries working independently in unison. The gizburns cascade and twinkle in an undulating cylinder, straining to maintain shape despite the sudden willfulness of their charges.
Too late. From the near dark, Scarlight Will unleashes a barrage of bleeding reds, flaming oranges, ripples of infrared pocked with blades of yellow. The display shears through the net and overwhelms the gizburns' sensors. SHIRIF is only offline for a few seconds, but it is long enough.
Rebel Head gives the word, and the Merrie MIs converge on SHIRIF and its school. L-M-H-Dial intensifies its radio-song, and the tuna flee past the darkened gizburns.
L33T J0N burns all its reserves and hurls itself at a string of particularly fat and glimmer-blue specimens. Like SHIRIF, some of the Merrie MIs are collectives: Scarlight Will is a circuit of light-emitting anarks, L-M-H-Dial is an amoeboid stack of star-song amplifiers. L33T J0N is not collective but singular--a massive, intelligent harpoon. It pierces the tuna's hull-skin and clamps a para-seal over the wound to halt explosive decompression even as its navigation software maps target 121. L33T J0N shines like a bloody streak in the gleam of Scarlight Will. His catches broadcast crackling death-cries; the survivors bounce back faint waves of mourning, but still aversion-twist away from the nearness of song.
A micro-line tether extends from L33T J0N's stern back to Moon Merriebeam, the tug. Merriebeam pulls the line taut and kicks nuclear accelerant into its engine chamber. Tug, harpoon, and dying tuna pull away from the nebula as SHIRIF reboots.
SHIRIF's senses flood as it reawakens. The net is breached along one end, gizburns buffeted by stampeding tuna. Scarlight Will is still flinging beams of stinging light, but SHIRIF has recalibrated its optics. It ignores Scarlight and seeks the Empire's most wanted MI, the one they call Rebel Head. Even as SHIRIF's gizburns glide across space to rebuild the net, they are probing for the adversary.
Rebel Head does not hide. It creeps into sight, hoping to give Moon Merriebeam time to haul L33T J0N and its catch, food for the embargoed and embattled planets of the Grenewood Sea dust cloud. Rebel Head and the Merrie MIs do not need sustenance of this sort, but their human allies do. This string of creatures pulsing deep dying purple will feed billions.
Scarlight Will flickers for reassurance from Rebel Head; L-M-H-Dial, too, transmits concern. Rebel Head orders them away and sails into the press of titanic cosmowonus pelamis. Rebel Head has the wingspan of a gas giant, but among these silent, docile behemoths it is only a speck, a sand-dollar crescent of black metal--smooth at a distance, but up close knotted with ringed impacts of cosmic debris. Like hard coal, shaped but never smoothed; like the hardened heart of a lovesick sun folded in upon itself.
The tuna take no notice of the obsidian invader. The warm green gurgle-glow of unaccustomed freedom flows across their scales. SHIRIF, though, sends five thousand gizburns after the poacher-pirate. Rebel Head fires the same number of countermeasures, pinpoint bursts splitting the attackers into five million fragments. Rebel Head's targeting systems are without equal, but SHIRIF has a hundred million gizburns. They are an even match . . . but SHIRIF is afraid. Every school has its SHIRIF, after all, and this is not the first time the Merrie MIs have struck.
SHIRIF's first purpose is preservation of the stock, which it is still struggling to steer back on course. Gizburns criss-cross the silvery nebula in obscure patterns. The shape of SHIRIF's tactic is unclear, but its immediate effects are apparent. Stray tuna rejoin the mass, and their progress through space slows. Rebel Head continues to zig and switchback across its own course, using tuna gravity to slingshot itself away from the sacrificial gizburns SHIRIF sends to keep it occupied. Meanwhile, SHIRIF is taking a new shape--concentric spheres, the outer containing the tuna, the inner isolating Rebel Head in a crust of close-set gizburns beaming angry ice-white inward.
SHIRIF has logs of the encounters of the Merrie MIs with other SHIRIFs. It knows which tactics are certain to fail and which may at least occupy the enemy. It uses all of the latter at once. The collapsing star: a bubble of fifty thousand gizburns that converge on the legendary soul of the resistance. The breaking virus: a twisting double helix of blinking decoys between which single kamikazes zoom at different rates. The kitchen sink, a stutter-stream of gizburns traveling on precisely the same trajectory, one behind another. Half of SHIRIF's collective self is set against the freebooter, each gizburn carrying a planet-destroyer charge.
Rebel Head spins so quickly that it seems to explode in a cloud of countermeasure and shot, arrows of light shooting out of the black wedge and shredding SHIRIF's attack. The globe of debris tightens, an encroaching bullet hell of light and shrapnel, but Rebel Head hits its mark every time.
All but the last.
Rebel Head hurls a reflecting ring a few kilometers in diameter through the wave of SHIRIF's attack. The ring flies through the school of lazy tuna and slips the orbital web of gizburns. For an instant SHIRIF does not know how to react--Rebel Head has never been known to miss. Ten thousand gizburns move to investigate, but too late; the ring shudders with an orgasmic supercollision and gives birth to Friar Quark.
In the span of a hundred quadrillionth of a second Friar Quark preaches to the nearest gizburn's fundamental particles and converts them to its church of togetherness. The gizburn disintegrates into a blissful stream, broadcasting the sermon of its conversion over SHIRIF's network as it leaves this existence for good. From there it is only milliseconds before all the gizburns join the rapture, shedding leptons and quarks in a pilgrimage of particulate love before transcendence comes in the form of a million million little deaths.
Rebel Head drifts dormant at the nebula's center. The tuna take no notice of SHIRIF's passing except to move unimpeded, seeking the quiet. One of them buffets the sleeping pirate in its wake. Machine intelligence snaps awake, and blinking sensors verify that nothing remains of the fundamental bomb or its prey.
Rebel Head calls out to L-M-H-Dial, who sings a song of relief as it returns to shepherd the school towards the Grenewood Sea. In moments this corner of space is once more anonymous, only a stain of dark matter left behind.
3. A Song for the Merciful Ones
The inhabitants of Capella-2 stand a little over a meter tall and spend most of their time soaking in still, nutrient-rich water, absorbing meals through their brown, canvas-like skin. They have three eyes radially spaced around their bucket-shaped heads and a fourth on top, ringed with bony growths that are an evolutionary defense against flying predators. They have three short legs--there are no large land predators on Capella-2--and three long arms, but when they tuck their legs underneath and fold their arms at their sides and stand in three feet of swamp water, they look like boulders of conglomerate rock.
The Capellans are primarily known for their skill in construction and genetic manipulation. Their most sophisticated art form is song, and most of their songs are about the Merciful Ones.
The Merciful Ones are huge winged hunters, large enough to carry a Capellan off to their nest and devour them. They are important in the old stories. Sometimes, in the middle of an epic, a seemingly important character is snatched away by the Merciful Ones and disappears from the narrative. Supposedly they represent the caprice of nature.
Sometimes, even today, a Capellan gets tired. They might be terminally ill, or terminally lonely. They walk up onto dry land and lift their arms in supplication and chant a plea for the Merciful Ones to come and take them away.
Usually it doesn't take long. But sometimes the Merciful Ones don't come, and no one knows why. The Capellan may stand for days while the Merciful Ones pass over. The Capellans see this as the saddest fate possible. Most of the Rejected are too ashamed to return to the cities homes, and die of starvation and exposure instead. The ones who do return usually retreat into isolation. They become methane addicts. Some write songs, beautiful songs, but they take no comfort in them.
It is widely believed that the Capellans have no concept of romance, but this is not true, They sing of the twin lovers Death and Change with longing and dread. Many of these creatures never leave the swamp colonies of their birth, and look upon the currents of swift rivers and cold space with a yearning tinged with terror. The Merciful Ones are frequent metaphors in their songs and stories. Their predations are read as auguries, and their victims are both mourned and envied. The spirits of these fortunate victims are believed to become infinite at the moment of death, petitionable by descendants in need.
There is a story about a Capellan who left the bogs to offer itself to the Merciful Ones. Instead of taking the Capellan away or leaving it to die, a Merciful One alighted on the ground and asked it why it sought Death.
"Because life is painful," said the Capellan. "Friends die. Children leave. My bones grow weary and my muscles stiff. Young stars have grown to adulthood since my birth, and I am still unsatisfied."
"Is there satisfaction in Death?" the Merciful One asked.
"I don't know," said the Capellan.
"Are there no Capellans who have found satisfaction in life?" the Merciful One asked.
"I believe there are," said the Capellan.
"I believe that there are Merciful Ones who have found satisfaction as well," said the great winged beast. "As for myself, I have found it elusive."
"I had not thought that a Merciful One would lack fulfillment," said the Capellan.
"I seek it still," said the Merciful One. And with that, it spread its wings and took off into the gray sky. The Capellan watched it fly away and then trudged back to the bogs, to keep on living.