Thought experiment concerning objective moral values

Much of what I’m writing currently revolves around morality and Christian apologetics. My reading on the subject delves into some areas I hadn’t thought much about before, one being objective vs. subjective morality.

I have a thought experiment for you. It is short, and responses are anonymous. It is limited to one login via Google though. Be forewarned that it deals with some fairly dark psychology and morality. Should take 1-2 minutes.

If you tested it: thank you, and your responses are still in the data. I kept the results.

Sharing of the link as broadly as possible is encouraged to avoid skewing data toward people like myself. I’ll close it on or around July 1. If enough people take it to form a statistically significant group, I’ll post the results.

Take the poll via this link: https://goo.gl/forms/a42lVKtxQnK5jjU43

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The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Vol. 5

I’m super-stoked that “Homunculus,” my 2018 Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award winner, has been selected for inclusion in Vol. 5 of The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, edited by David Afsharirad and published by Baen.

This is the first time I’ve signed a second contract on a story, and I’m quite honored that it’s for a “Best of” anthology. It comes out June 4, 2019, and you can get it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Here are some links to pre-order this awesome anthology: AmazonB&N.

Broad emotional palette

Last year I read a novelette by Ted Chiang called “Understand,” which is about a guy with rapidly accelerating intelligence due to a super-secret experiment. As part of this process, he realizes that he feels things that other people don’t feel because they don’t dissect their experiences as deeply or understand nuance.

Part of writing well, based on my early-career assessment of my writing that sells vs. what doesn’t, and what I enjoy reading, is allowing the reader to wear another life through emotion. If a writer has correctly conveyed an emotion that I’ve either felt (relevant connection) or want to feel (wish fulfillment), I will enjoy wearing their written life more. I listened to an interview on the radio several months ago in which an artist talked about capturing a feeling that would resonate with maybe just one person, but that would bring them a sense of connection that they didn’t get elsewhere. Perhaps you’re the only other person who’s felt that exact thing, and by writing it well, you’ve just become a reader’s most intimate friend.

So I’ve been making a study of things I feel that don’t seem to have names, or that I see written/acted rarely.

We moved several times when I was growing up, but the places we moved to were within an hour or so drive of each other. I travelled through that area recently, and so I visited the place where I went to grade school, and the place we lived when I was in high school. I revisited my undergrad college recently also, and simply jumping in this time machine brought memories out of my head and into reality. I’ve had the same experience when going through old paperwork to compile resumes, background investigation forms, etc. I don’t think “haunted” is the right word. It’s too generic. When I go on these physical trips to facilitate mental travel, I get all the bad with all the good. Even stranger is the feeling that one of my grade schools is an antique store (most of it had to be closed because it was a death trap) and a building where I had some fun memories at college had been torn down completely. My high school is going to be demolished in the summer of 2019, and I was fortunate to get one last look after-hours when a Spanish teacher let me in. Part of me resides in not-so-ancient ruins, and places that no longer exist. That is a useful feeling–one worth putting onto the page.

I got onto the elevator at my church (I’m lazy) a couple of months ago, and there was a woman whose body-language was very introverted. We were the only two people on the elevator. I’m usually a bit of an introvert too, but she seemed to be honestly afraid that I was in the elevator with her. I hadn’t spoken a word to her, and held the door open when she went inside. Sometimes when I’m alone with people, and thinking entirely benign, non-aggressive thoughts, they will give me the vibe that I’m a scary person. I have a little bit of rank in the military also, and sometimes, before I get to know the new kids and they realize I’m laid back and often not serious about anything, I’ll get the scary-officer vibe from them. I was on the other end of it when I was brand new too, so I get that one. Is there a name for the fear of causing fear in others? That seems like a character trait worth giving to someone on the page also.

What about the guilt of feeling some joy at the horrible death of someone who’s done you wrong? Schadenfreude is a word, but it means something before that guilt kicks in. What is the guilt of having felt schadenfreude? Is it just normal, every-day guilt?

What about the feeling of becoming detached from your own emotional experience so that you can observe and record it for your work? Is “going to the balcony” (from negotiation doctrine) or “observing ego” (from psychology) descriptive enough?

Schrödinger’s Pockets

Do you remember Schrödinger’s cat? Of course you do. Everyone does. It was conceived as a joke–not against quantum physics, as many believe–but against ethics. Why should one poor cat be stuck in two states as both alive and dead while no one else suffers such disparate fates?

It wasn’t until the discovery of Pandora’s Box–yes, the actual box handed down from Olympus–in the basement of a collector in Crete, that Erwin Schrödinger was willing to bring his thought experiment into reality.

That was, as everyone knows, the beginning of two pocket universes–one without trouble, evil, and darkness, and one with all of those horrible things. A man named Voltaire started to write a book called Candide once upon a time, but he threw his manuscript away when he realized that we live in the best of all possible worlds. He realized that without problems and evils, there could be no plots.

Imagine it–a world with racism, poverty, and infidelity. Who could conceive of such a place? It boggles the mind that people should even exist in a world where Pandora’s Box sprang open when a quantum was observed.

Give thanks then, dear reader, that we live in the world we do. We live in the best of all possible worlds.

Leaders Taste Better and Other Stories

Pre-order a collection (published July 20, 2018) that includes all my published work from 2017, a couple of previously unpublished stories, and a contest-winner from 2015. Contents of “Leaders Taste Better and Other Stories” include:

Leaders Taste Better (urban fantasy, humor)

Moonlight One (hard science fiction, mystery, space colonization)

The Death of Arthur Owsley (mystery, urban fantasy, philosophy, noir)

Game Theory (hard science fiction, flash fiction)

Gifted (hard science fiction, mystery)

Bullet Catch (hard science fiction, space colonization, space medicine)

The Green Fairy (urban fantasy, humor, dad jokes)

The Aeronaut (steampunk, military science fiction, hard science fiction)

Homunculus

So I won the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award this year, which is pretty cool. The story that won is called Homunculus, and you can read it for free on their site.

I used as much existing science as possible for this tale of rescue and adventure set on Titan, a moon of Saturn. In my original blind submission, I had footnotes to proofs of concept for things in the story like turning methane (abundant on Titan) into plastic and human powered flight with strap-on wings. One of my friends thought it read too much like a research paper with all the footnotes, but I sent it that way anyway. The editors thought they were unnecessary for folks who just wanted the adventure story.

Here, for the curious, are my original post-script notes for the story:

 

Notes and proofs-of-concept

  1. Tholins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tholin

http://perma.cc/ZE6U-BDFD

 

  1. Quantum entanglement testing

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/china-shatters-ldquo-spooky-action-at-a-distance-rdquo-record-preps-for-quantum-internet/

http://perma.cc/D88J-VS2L

 

  1. Julian Nott: flying on Titan

https://www.scribd.com/document/301383521/Titan-s-Unique-Attraction-It-is-an-Ideal-Destination-for-Humans

http://perma.cc/Y99R-ZFVT

 

  1. Turning hydrocarbon gases into plastic proof-of-concept

http://beta.latimes.com/business/la-fi-0712-newlight-20150712-story.html

http://perma.cc/5LN8-Y3M2

 

  1. Lithium-Ion Batteries exploding:

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/lithium-ion-batteries-turn-skin-searing-firebombs/

http://perma.cc/27T9-8NUR

Doggo

Doggo was next up for judging at the dog show. The wheelchair-bound Mr. Gordon rolled up with Mrs. Peet walking next to him. They were the most formidable judges in all of dog showdom.

Margaret, Doggo’s owner, knew her pup had a propensity to jump on people in chairs.

“Heel,” Margaret whispered quietly, with a nervous glance at Mr. Gordon.

To Margaret’s horror, Doggo lunged toward Mr. Gordon’s wheelchair. Doggo leapt up and placed his front paws on Mr. Gordon’s shoulders. Too horrified to react, Margaret could only watch as green glowing energy emanated from Doggo’s paws and flowed into Mr. Gordon.

A moment later, Doggo leapt back and sat next to Margaret’s leg.

Mr. Gordon wiggled his feet, then got out of his wheelchair.

“Holy crap,” Mr. Gordon said. “My legs work. I can walk!”

“Doggo,” Margaret whispered, embarrassed, “I said ‘heel.'”

“Darn it, Margaret,” Doggo said. “I am so sorry. I thought you said ‘heal.'”

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide

I’ve been working on a project for several months with some friends, and it’s finally coming to fruition.

The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide, Series 1 follows Thursday Forrester as he’s forced to leave his home in Louisville, Kentucky to travel across the remnants of the United States, fighting barbaric clans, monsters, and worse, even as his body fails him.

These stories also function as tourist’s guides, and are written by people who live in each city (or have for a significant portion of their lives). I’ve spent months researching Louisville’s history, and the stories behind some of its neatest attractions–especially the ones you won’t normally see in a tour guide. Want to know where I’d take a date? Thursday might fight his way through its ruins. Want to know where I’d eat? You’ll find that too.

You can pre-order “The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide to Louisville” at the Kindle Store. It’s about 18,200 words (90-ish pages). It will be published November 1, and features cover art by award-winning graphic artist Preston Stone:

Subsequent episodes will be published every 2 weeks, at $3.49 each.

Series 1 is comprised of 6 episodes, and will take you across the US.

Series 2 writers will take you a bit farther.

Follow us on Facebook: The Post-Apocalyptic Tourist’s Guide,
Twitter: @TPATGofficial, and
Instagram: TPATG (where we’ll post research-in-progress pics)

Our official site is www.tpatg.com. This will have links to Kindle releases, author bios, pictures, maps, and more.

 

The Breakthrough

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk had long since passed away, but two men who looked and spoke very much like them met at Social Media Guy (SMG)’s lab. Mars-Colonizing Solar Panel Car Guy (MCSPCG) sipped a $500 cup of tea made from leaves that had been carried 100 miles on the backs of virgin mules in Tibet.

“I’ve finally done it,” SMG said. “That’s why I brought you here.”

“Done what, exactly?” MCSPCG asked.

“I’ve solved the energy crisis and found a way to enable faster-than-light space travel,” SMG said. “We can go anywhere. We can do anything.”

“Come now,” MCSPCG said. “Saving mankind and becoming a solar-powered AC-induction Hyperloop space-messiah is my department, isn’t it?”

“Hear me out,” SMG said. “Or actually, just watch.”

SMG took a cable marked “The Internet” in one hand, and connected it to a socket on the wall of the lab’s quarantine area.

“Inside that lab, I’ve linked batteries that can hold enough juice to power the United States for a year–about 4,000 Terawatt hours’ worth,” SMG said.

MCSPCG raised a single eyebrow in amusement as he sipped the $500 tea.

“Now,” SMG said. “I’m just going to connect my ‘The Internet’ feed from the outside world through this converter, and open Facebook. This system converts negative energy into usable energy.”

“Negative energy?” MCSPCG asked. His eyes widened as he set the tea cup down. “But the–”

“Trust me,” SMG said. He then typed two words into The Internet: ‘Politics. Discuss.’

“But you can’t–” MCSPCG stammered.

One of the batteries exploded before SMG was able to throw the emergency shutoff. The experiment had lasted 1.037 seconds.

The rest of the battery meters read ‘100% full.’

A lab tech raced into the room, breathless.

“Sir, Mr. Umm—whatever your name is–we’ve gotten an urgent message from NASA!” the tech said.

“An urgent message?” SMG asked. “What does it say?”

“One of the cryogenic orbital ships–the ones containing all the Walt Disney-eque frozen heads in off-world secure storage–its orbit decayed, and well, it fell into the ice giant planet it was orbiting.”

“That’s terrible,” SMG said. “What do they need from us though?”

“Word of your discovery has already leaked,” the lab tech said. “They’re asking for use of your negative energy harvesters to pull one of the frozen heads out of the ice. It’s a prominent politician from 2017, and the cryo-pod’s AI has sent out a distress call asking for rescue.”

“I see,” SMG said. “Let me do some math.”

He doodled on a white board, but quickly became frustrated.

MCSPCG stepped in, picked up a dry-erase marker, and doodled some other figures. He too became frustrated.

SMG turned to the lab tech, who’d been waiting in breathless anticipation.

“Tell them we’re sorry,” SMG said. “Send this message to the politician’s AI: ‘We have all the energy we could ever want, sir, but it’s still not going to be enough energy to pull your head out of Uranus.”

###

Copyright by Stephen Lawson, 2017. Feel free to link to it.

Cold Shoulder

I haven’t posted any non-flash fiction in a while. Actually, I haven’t posted anything at all since the end of June, mainly because I’m working on a novella that’s going to make your world explode with awesomeness. It will also probably give you nightmares when it goes to KDP this November.

This story, though, emerged out of a dream I had when I was in high school, and it’s taken several forms in my mind before making the transition into text. I’d put it in the Young Adult Science Fiction box if anything, but to me it’s a dream on paper (or a screen. Whatever. Just read it.)

 

Cold Shoulder

 

“He just keeps spacing out,” Principal Krueger says. He looks to my parents, then to me. “He’s been in my office three times this week–twice when teachers thought he was ignoring them, and once when he sat in class for an hour after the last bell rang. Mrs. Hopkins just left him there until the janitor found him. She said she was tired of his nonsense.”

“Stan,” Mom says, “what’s going on, sweetie?”

It still feels fuzzy, like my head’s full of cotton.

“I’m cold,” I say. “Don’t they have heat in this building?”

Mom puts a hand to my forehead, then looks to Dad.

“It feels perfectly warm in here to the rest of us, Stanley,” the principal says. “I think we’d see some other symptoms if you were sick–runny nose, things like that.”

I rub my hands over my arms, trying to warm them. I wore a coat today, while all the other eighth-graders are in t-shirts.

“My boy isn’t a liar, Principal Krueger,” Dad says. It’s gratifying when the principal breaks eye contact and begins shuffling papers on his desk.

“I think maybe we’ll keep Stanley at home until Monday,” Mom says. “It’s not like he’s going to get behind.”

Principal Krueger looks up from his paper-shuffling.

“It’s only Tuesday,” he says. “Regardless of your son’s advanced–”

“My wife is right. We’ll keep him home until Monday,” Dad says.

“An idle mind is the devil’s playground, Mr. Cray.”

“Well you’re clearly not stimulating his mind here. I think we’ll take the week to look at other options for our boy.”

#

I sit in the basement, staring at the box on the table.

Why won’t you work?

I have a space heater an inch away from my legs and a fur-lined bomber hat on my head. They don’t seem to do anything for the cold though.

I feel it in my bones.

The tapping on the window startles me. Through it, in the darkness outside, I see Dani’s face.

“It’s almost midnight,” I say when I open it.

You’re still up,” Dani says before grabbing the inside ledge and wriggling through.

“My parents pulled me out of school for the week,” I say.

“I heard,” she says. “Did you get it to work yet?”

“No,” I say, staring at the box again, “which doesn’t make sense. It opened a tunnel for sound waves, but I can’t send or receive the tiniest bit of actual mass through it. Sound has to move something to be heard. Why won’t the ping pong ball go through?”

“Maybe you need a bigger energy source,” Dani says.

“I don’t think that’s it,” I say. “The portal’s open, so anything should–”

“Are you not hot?” she asks. “You’ve got this heater turned up full-blast.”

“I can’t seem to get warm,” I say, “no matter what I do.”

“Does it feel any different with it off?” she asks, turning the rheostat all the way down. She sits on the threadbare plaid couch that my Dad dragged down here when he thought he was constructing a man-cave. He hasn’t been in the basement for more than five minutes since then.

“Not really,” I say. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

“Well I don’t want to burn up if I’m crashing here tonight,” she says.

Dani melts into the couch, her eyes finally betraying how tired she is.

“Were they fighting again?”

“Yeah,” she says. “My mom doesn’t seem to know what overdraft fees are. She’s still using the receptionist with the fake tits as a defense for everything.”

“Kids these days,” I say.

“Don’t get me started,” Dani says, a weak smile on her face as she curls into the fetal position, her hands clenched together between her knees.

I pull the quilt from the back of the couch and unfurl it in the air so that it lays perfectly over her.

“Stanley?” she says, eyes barely open. She holds an arm up from beneath the quilt.

I sit on the edge of a cushion and lean in. She hugs me close to her, and I feel warmth against my body for the first time in…days? weeks?

“Thank you,” she says.

I want to stay there, where it’s warm, but I know I can’t.

I pull away gently when her arm relaxes, and draw the quilt back over her shoulder.

Her breathing changes, and I turn back to the box.

I flip the toggle switch on the converter I’ve plugged into the house current, and the DC volt-needle swings into the green zone. An electric hum fills the air.

I turn the knob on the box slowly to the right. A pinhole opens in the air above it, and it slowly widens into a fist-sized portal as the rheostat reaches its clockwise stop.

White ice reflects sunlight into my eyes on the other side–ice I can see, but not touch. I pick up the ping pong ball from the table and hold it to the portal, hoping that this time it will go through.

When I release it from my thumb and forefinger, though, the ping pong ball falls onto the table as it did before.

I wait ten minutes before the voices come.

“Thaan difta negrata tul?” the first voice asks, in a low whisper.

“Garn difta. Fand elran Beranga,” whispers the second voice.

I put on my headphones and click an icon on my laptop. Google translate came up dry when I first built the portal box, so I’m running my own software now. I push the external microphone closer to the portal.

“Get Beranga,” the first voice whispers. “Tell him it’s opened again.”

“Okay,” the second voice whispers. “Just don’t forget to hit record this time. There were two voices last time, just before it closed. I think one was female.”

I remember this conversation. It’s like this has happened before. The ping pong ball was supposed to go through, though.

#

I wake up at noon, unsure why I’m instantly alert.

The doorbell rings several times in quick succession, like someone’s mashing the button repeatedly. Loud knocking follows the ringing.

I throw off the covers, pull on some shorts, and rush down the stairs.

Through the window next to the door, I see not a cop or a fireman, but a man in utility worker’s clothes.

I open the door a crack. Dad told me to always keep the sliding lock in place unless it’s someone I know, so it only opens enough for one intense blue eye to stare down at me.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yeah,” the man says. “I’m from LG&E. Name’s Branga. Is this the Cray house?”

“L, G, and who?” I ask.

And what kind of a name is ‘Branga?’

“Louisville Gas and Electric,” he says, “–the power company? Is your dad home, kid?”

“He’s at work,” I say.

He studies me through the crack in the door, then looks up at the sliding lock. I’m not sure I like how nosy he is.

“We got a report of a massive drain on the system from this house last night,” he says. “Several houses down the street lost power. We’re lucky it didn’t cause a bigger blackout, but most of your neighbors were asleep.”

“Well I’m not sure what’s–”

“Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I’m sick, so–”

“Well look, kid, if you don’t mind me having a peek, I could see if there’s anything wrong with your appliances.”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone inside,” I say.

Branga takes a long look at the sliding lock again.

“Your locks are your locks,” he says. “Why’d you let Dani in, though?”

I slam the door, twist the lock in the knob, and turn the deadbolt. I run upstairs to Dad’s closet and pull his Remington 870 from behind the suits he never wears anymore. I release the pump, check the barrel and magazine to make sure I see shells, and lock the pump back in the forward position. Then I sit at the top of the stairs and wait.

“Dani?” I yell. “You’re at school, right? Yell if you’re here.”

No answer.

After my heart rate slows, I look out through all the upstairs windows. I don’t see any sign of Branga or an LG&E truck.

I flip the safety on the 12-gauge and carry it into the kitchen.

Five minutes later, armed with a sandwich and a glass of milk in addition to the shotgun, I venture back to the basement to have another look at the box.

#

“I didn’t tell my parents about him,” I tell Dani. “He knew you were here last night. Did you tell anybody–”

“No,” she says. “That sounds like somebody my dad knows, though. He probably asked Branga to stop by. I’m sure he’s harmless.”

“That makes one of us.”

“Did you turn it on last night, after I fell asleep?” Dani asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “It was more of the same–just voices. I think they’re watching it from the other side. I can’t see them, though. All I see is ice.”

“What would you do if you could climb through?” she asks.

“I’d explore,” I say. “I’d get out of this black-and-white, bovine, boring town, and see what’s on the other side of the universe.”

“That’s it?” she asks. “You’d just see what was there? What if the people you were listening to were weaker than you somehow? What if you could hurt them without even thinking about it?”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“The universe–I mean the world–is full of stories of powerful people exterminating weaker people, or enslaving them.”

“What would I enslave them to do?” I ask. “I have everything I need here. I’m just curious.”

Dani studies me for a long moment, but I don’t mind it. I watch her watching me.

“Last night,” she says, “when I held you close, I felt something.”

“Me too,” I say. “It was the first time I felt warm in–”

Dani leans into me. I start to put up a hand, but she rests her hand on top of it, stopping my protest before it becomes one. She kisses me, searchingly, like she wants to know what’s in my heart.

Then I’m kissing her, and my hand is pulling her into me, leaning over her on the couch. She’s warm, and it’s the second time I’ve felt warm in…forever?

“Stanley,” she says.

“Yes?”

“If I let you go–”

“What?”

“If I let you go, will you promise not to hurt us?”

“Hurt who, Dani? What are you talking about?”

She places a hand in my chest and pushes me away from her. Dani stares at the wall as her other hand moves in a strange gesture.

The world dissolves. The threadbare plaid couch fades into a gray blob. My portal box becomes a black pinpoint. The room around us fades to shadow.

And then I open my eyes.

It’s so bright.

I’m looking up at a solid block of ice. I try to get up, and find that I’m crunching my elbows into a snow bank. I’m wearing a parka and insulated pants, but I still feel the cold creeping into my bones.

Everything around me is snow and ice, except the two boxes on tripods. Each box emits a blue beam, which is pointed at my head. I lean forward, crunching more snow under my arms, and manage to sit upright.

I look into the pale blue eyes of the creature seated in front of me. She studies me, but I don’t mind it. She has Dani’s shape, but her skin is a translucent white.

There is no Dani. I remember most of what really happened, but I stayed home for the week because I got into an argument with a teacher.

“What’s your name?” I ask. “You clearly know mine already.”

“Dennai,” she says. The box at her side echoes it without translation, since it’s a name. “It was close enough to adapt.”

“Branga wasn’t,” I say.

“Beranga is my father,” the box says, translating for her. “I’ve told him you mean us no harm, but–”

“How in the world could I harm you?” I ask.

“I will show you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “Be still for a moment.”

She leans forward with a snow-white hand outstretched. She brings her fingers close to my cheek, and I watch as the ice crystals of her fingertips begin to melt.

She cringes, pulling the fingers to her chest.

“Did you see it?” she asks.

“I saw. You’re sentient ice crystals.”

“As you are sentient amino acids, yes.”

“So you constructed a dream engine to imprison me.”

“We have compressed ice weapons,” she says, “but we also have a prohibition against killing innocent life. We had to know your intentions. It took longer than expected when you fortified yourself.”

“Fortified myself–in my house you mean?”

“Your parents were aspects of you, Stanley. You walled yourself off from our attempts to extract information. Why did you let me in, but no others?”

“Because,” I say, and that’s as far as I get for a moment. I made Dani real in the dream because I wanted her to be real. I didn’t question her presence the way I did the principal’s or the electrician’s. “Because you’re beautiful.”

She reaches forward with a hand again, but stops short of touching my face. She closes her hand, a pained look in her eyes.

“Dennai!” a voice says from the doorway. “The prisoner is awake! What have you done?”

“He’s not dangerous, father, he’s just–”

“You know nothing about such things, girl. He could be a spy. Can’t you see he’s exploiting your weakness?”

“He’s not,” Dennai says. “I promise you, he’s–”

“Out!” he says. Beranga clutches an ice staff in his hand, its end sharpened to a fine point. Dennai stands in the doorway behind him.

“You come through your space-hole to melt my daughter,” Beranga says, pointing the spear at my left eyeball. “You come through, thinking you’ll walk over us with your indestructible form and body heat? Well I have news for you: you’re not indestructible, Mr. Stanley Cray space-hole man!”

He jabs the spear point into my left shoulder, and it stings. There’s a rip in my parka now. I stick my finger into it, and it comes away bloody.

“I didn’t come here to hurt you or your daughter, Mr. Beranga,” I say. “I just wanted to explore.”

“Aye,” he says. “Maybe, but what about the other ones on your planet? What about the ones you’ll sell your portal box to? They’ll be here in an hour, enslaving the ice men of Throstvale IV to mine fossil fuels, or make telephones, or some nonsense. The universe is full of–”

“I know what it’s full of,” I say. “I’ve had enough history classes. I’ll–”

“You’ll what?” he asks. “Make me a promise that everything will be fine?”

“When I get back,” I say, “I’ll destroy it.”

“No!” Dennai says, and Beranga looks back at her.

“I told you to leave,” he says, but she takes a step forward.

“I would stay in your dream forever with you, Stanley Cray,” she says. “We would wake to feed, but return to a life spent together. Give me the blue beams also, father, so that I can dream.”

“Do you see what you’ve done, boy?” Beranga asks. “Go now, before I pin you to the wall.”

He gestures with the spear, and I see a door to my right. I walk through it into the open ice field.

My feet slide under me, and I take small steps to avoid losing what little footing I have. It’s colder out here, away from the scant insulation the igloo provided.

Five feet in front of me I see a hole in space. It’s roughly twice the diameter of my head, and I distinctly remember dropping a ping pong ball through it before I stuck my hand through.

On the other side of the hole, I see my basement, with my books and Dad’s threadbare plaid couch against the wall.

I look back to the doorway, and see Dennai watching me. She has both hands pressed to her face as though she’s attempting to stifle a sob. I wave to her, once.

I wish I could–what?–hold her close to me, as she melted into nothing?

I climb through the portal, lose my balance on the table, and crash onto the floor in a heap of emotional, physical numbness. I turn the rheostat on the portal box all the way to the left, and pull the toggle switch on the converter.

Mom and Dad left for the weekend. That’s why I felt safe going through the portal. If I’d been killed on Throstvale IV, they’d have never known what happened.

     I pull the plug from my surge protector but stop short of actually breaking the portal box.

My stupid life was better with Dani in it, even if I can never go back.

#

I pull my Physical Science textbook from my locker. It’s Monday, and I’ve decided not to argue with any of my teachers about any of the nonsense they want to tell me.

“Hey Stanley,” Megan says. She clutches her books to her chest and studies me with bright green eyes. Megan’s on the verge of blossoming into heart-rending gorgeousness. She doesn’t know it, so she talks to me instead of whoever popular girls talk to.

“Hey Megan.”

“You were gone, so I didn’t get a chance to ask you, but I thought that–”

“Thought what?”

“There’s a dance after the football game Friday. Josh and Kelsey are going. Do you want to come?”

She’s not on the verge of heart-rending gorgeousness. She is heart-rendingly gorgeous, especially under the accouterments and lack of makeup that black-and-white, bovine, boring girls wouldn’t understand.

“I’m flattered,” I say. “I want to go to the next one with you if you’ll let me, but right now I can’t.”

Mentally, I’m looking back through the portal one last time.

“You seem sad,” Megan says. “Are you okay, Stanley?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “I just need some space.”

###