Welcome to the second installment of “My Crappiest Stories.” I’ve decided to do this every five weeks on a regular basis. Every five Saturdays, dear readers, you are going to get a front-row seat to some of the worst science fiction writing on the face of the planet. These are stories I’ve had knocking around my USB drives for weeks, months, even years, and have been rejected by at least one major New York sci-fi magazine (Asimov’s, F&SF, Apex, Analog)…sometimes as many as five or six. They are unequivocally awful. And I’m showing them to you without hesitation.
Why am I humiliating myself like this? For you, dear reader. After reading these stories, you’ll have a better understanding of what NOT to do. Make sure your stories actually go somewhere. That they don’t waste the reader’s time. That the protagonist is an interesting person who has a problem. That the setting makes sense. All the things my stories totally suck at doing, in other words.
And so, without further ado, I present…
Through lips cracked and oozing, Sergeant Mueller said, “I think I’ve got it.”
To be human, he thought, is to suffer.
“Yes, that’s it,” he croaked into the searing wind of Citium.
Before the battery for his GPS system had died and the good sergeant had lost all hope of rejoining his unit, he had mentally run down the list of definitions of humanity: strive, create, explore, kill, destroy, command, receive, migrate, invent, transcend, transform, and quite a few others besides. But now, approximately thirty-six hours since his lips last felt the touch of liquid water, Mueller had come to the inevitable conclusion.
To be human is to suffer.
It seemed like a logical choice to Mueller, as he slogged through knee-deep reddish sand, as the twin suns of Citium burnt his exposed wrists and the back of his neck to a crisp, as windblown silicates stung his mucus membranes and rasped in his throat, as predatory viragos circled above his head and waited for him to keel over.
“This whole planet,” he whispered with a swollen tongue, “can go take a flying leap.”
Suffer, suffer, suffer. Toil and trouble. That’s what he’d gotten for joining the army. Five weeks at boot camp on some jungle planet whose name he couldn’t even pronounce, where the humidity was perpetually 90 percent, and the chiggers were the size of poker chips. He’d first seen action on Bokides, at the far-flung edges of human space, where Mueller’s only souvenirs had been a handful of pebbles and a bullet in the kneecap. Medical leave on Hesseltine, a world of tropical islands, white-sand beaches, and turquoise waters—where the unfortunate Mueller, when he wasn’t being wrung through PT by his Spanish Inquisitor of a therapist, was confined to bed.
Now this new assignment: Citium, a barren world desirable only for its mineral wealth and inhabited only by political exiles, subversives, ne’er-do-wells, and disgruntled miners—members of the Syndicate. Mueller had taken a bullet in his tin can at 1100 hours the previous evening, while clambering on top of an APC to man a gun turret. He’d woken up alone, his unit having packed it in and bugged out during the night. Left for dead. For God’s sake, didn’t anyone in his squad know how to take a pulse?
So he’d set off for the RV point with nothing but his rifle, his kit, a dented helmet, and a helluva headache. That had been six days ago. Since then it had just been Mueller and the never-ending scarlet wasteland that was Citium’s surface.
Let this planet die a slow, horrible death.
His booted toe clubbed into something hard. Mueller spared a moment from his busy day to roll around in the sand, grasping the smarting member and cursing under his breath. When the pain had subsided, he sat up and looked around. A ruined military hovercraft stuck out of the shifting sand like a beached ship. A debris field of ammo crates and barrels lay around it. Mueller stared in mulish hatred for a moment. He bore no love for Citium’s barren emptiness, but this hovercraft’s presence here was like an open sore. It was incongruous and mucked up the view.
He was about to slap his knees, get on his feet, dust himself off, and leave when an idea occurred to him. He began to rummage through the supply crates, throwing lids aside with reckless abandon.
Spare batteries for an Iwanishi FS-22b comm unit such as Mueller had in his pocket. He fished out the derelict radio, yanked out the dead cells and threw them away, and inserted the new lithium-ion batteries into the unit. Excitedly he spun the dials and pressed the “TALK” button.
This is Sergeant Mueller of the 175th Cavalry, broadcasting on the emergency frequency 117.5, over.”
He repeated this message three times. He received only static in reply. The fuzzy hiss on the radio seemed to match the listless, windswept void of Citium’s surface.
He was about to throw the radio away when a thought occurred to him. The military may have pulled out, but there were still superluminal signal interceptors on every terrestrial world. An interplanetary news broadcast might be on, and he might catch up on the latest news. He extended the antenna to its fullest length and switched frequencies.
“—abandonment of Citium by the Betelgeuse Coalition, what might be the Andromeda Syndicate’s next move?” a newscaster’s voice was saying.
“Simple,” grunted a gruff voice, which Mueller knew to be General Stinson’s. “We regroup and attack again, in some weaker and more remote cluster. We keep harrying them until they return to the table to talk turkey.”
“That will never work,” said a lilting, effeminate voice which Mueller did not recognize. “These hit-and-run attacks will only harden the Syndicate’s resolve. It is time for the Coalition to withdraw its forces from the cluster immediately and present their own suit for peace.”
“Dr. Niigata,” said the pundit quickly, cutting off General Stinson’s outraged rebuttal, “you’ve lectured at length on the fundamental philosophical issues underlying this conflict. What does this latest development mean in relation to your theories?”
“The human being’s first and last inclination is to do his or her duty,” said Dr. Niigata. “In the case of the Syndicate, their allegiance was neither to planet nor country before the war. They are a sociopolitical paradox: half educated political exiles and undesirables, half countrified miners and laborers. They have no loyalty but to themselves. But when the Coalition’s encroachments inflamed their passions, they unified and became the Andromeda Syndicate. Foremost in their minds now is to press their advantage and bring a swift end to the war in their favor.”
“Balderdash,” growled the general. “Our boys will give ’em what for if they ever—”
Mueller clicked the radio off and threw it aside.
Hours later, he was stumbling through a patch of flat white sand when he felt the ground begin to give out beneath his feet. He leaped backward, his arms prescribing circles in the searing air, but it was too late. He plummeted 30 feet through empty space, bouncing off rock shelves, and landed on yielding sand.
When Mueller had hoisted himself into a semi-upright position and scraped the sand out of his face and stubble, he found himself in a dim subterranean cavern. The shaft through which he’d tumbled was narrow and sinuous; the light which trickled in from the blazing sun above was meager. Most of the illumination in the cavern, Mueller now saw, originated from dozens upon dozens of tiny blue flowers. Mueller crawled forward on his elbows and knees to examine one in more detail. It looked rather like a diminutive lotus sprouting from the basaltic rock walls of the cave, its petals a delicate cerulean, pistils and anthers a cheery golden yellow. Its petals gave off a faint bioluminescent glow, filling the cave with their soft light. The catacomb stretched away into the inky blackness, flowers coating every meter of its interior surface. The sight took Mueller’s breath away.
It was incredible, he thought. Up above, no more than a few days before, a ferocious battle had raged on the surface of Citium. Human forces and the terrible energies of their ingenuity had clashed with all their force just a few meters away from this cave and its beautiful, delicate contents. Yet here the cave and its flowers were, untouched, heedless of humanity and its petty conflicts.
Mueller thought of Professor Niigata and General Stinson, and promptly profaned the cave with a hoarse bark of laughter. They were whistling Dixie, both of them. Fighting? Duty? These were what it mean to be truly human?
Mueller looked again at the flowers, wishing he could freeze them and their ethereal beauty in his mind forever, and shook his head.
Then he got to his feet and stripped off his armored vest, his unit patches, his insignia, his gloves, and his boots. He wouldn’t need them where he was going. Slowly, he made his way deeper into the cave, seeing his way by the blue glow of the cave flowers. Perhaps somewhere farther in, at a pool of bioluminescent azure, would be something to drink.