The Effects of Multitasking

(I wrote this 600-word short story as an exercise. It had to be about “the effects of multitasking.”)

Professor Kirkpatrick sat at his computer desk, eagerly awaiting the moment when his hijacked CIA satellite would be positioned exactly above Dublin. In another few minutes, he would be able to dispatch his psychoactive message of peace directly into a million minds, obliterating their violent instincts and leaving them docile and ready to be commanded.

Kirkpatrick had carefully planned this assault for a Thursday evening because Thursday was cross-stitch night, the only time in the week when his wife would be away from home for more than an hour or two. So far, everything had gone smoothly.

Kirkpatrick set the microphone to activate automatically when the satellite reached its final position above the city’s center. Although the message was mostly subliminal, the verbal command had to be delivered at the right moment and in the right inflection based on the atmospheric conditions. He was forced to speak it manually to ensure it would be properly received by the citizens’ brains.

As Kirkpatrick began to test the microphone’s sensitivity, his daughter Angie entered without knocking, as usual. She was rubbing her eyes and dragging her favorite stuffed bunny along the carpet behind her.

“Mr. Bunnifer can’t sleep!” she said, forgetting to use her inside voice.

Kirkpatrick turned toward Angie with a start, accidentally setting his microphone’s sensitivity to its maximum.

“Daddy can’t put Mr. Bunnifer to sleep right now,” he said. “I’m preparing to conquer the capital of Ireland.”

“He needs to be tucked in right.” she said, resolute. “Mommy does it right.”

Kirkpatrick checked his watch. “Sweetie, if I hit Limerick instead of Dublin, it’s not going to have as much of an impact on world politics.” He gave his daughter a stern look. “Mr. Bunnifer can wait fifteen minutes to get tucked in.”

Angie looked back at her father with a doe-eyed face and held up the stuffed animal. “If you don’t hug him, he won’t sleep ever again. I know it.”

Kirkpatrick’s expression softened as he looked into her innocent little eyes. His daughter was the reason he had started this project in the first place, and she deserved all the love and comfort he could provide. After all, how could he command an army of mindless servants if it meant neglecting his own daughter?

Kirkpatrick picked up his daughter and bunny in his arms and hugged them both tightly. He felt his daughter sigh as he set her back down on the carpet.

“Mr. Bunnifer can sleep now,” she said.

“Good. You can go to back to bed, then.” Kirkpatrick knelt down and patted the stuffed animal on its head. “Be a good bunny,” he said.

Angie plodded out of his office with her bunny behind her. Kirkpatrick turned back to the microphone and prepared to deliver his command to the people of Dublin, but froze when he saw that the satellite had already moved past the center of the city.

“Oh, no,” he mumbled, trying to figure out message what he might have broadcast. “I just told them to sleep, right? It’s not ideal, but it’s still a good test.”

Kirkpatrick cut to the live feed from his surveillance cameras in Dublin hoping to see a city of narcoleptics, but the reality was much worse.

All the citizens were crouched on all fours, wiggling their cheeks and looking around furtively. Occasionally, they would leap forward a few feet and land awkwardly. The parks were now full of men and women gnawing on the grass, bushes, and trash. The citizens were certainly docile enough, but they would be useless servants now. At least they would breed quickly.

A Fine Art Heist

(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 46 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting (again!), a time traveler, a log cabin, joining a pirate crew, and the first line, “He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division! That makes two years running!)

He watched the ship as it hovered, then landed no more than five feet in front of him. The space pirates were right on time, as always. Then again, they were able to control time, so punctuality was expected. Thomas would finally be able to join their ranks, just as soon as he gave them his prize.

The entry hatch popped open and the metal stairway extended out. The captain stood at the top, waiting for Thomas to ascend. She was radiant, as always. The again, she could control time, so her beauty was unchanged by her centuries of service in the Space Pirate Brotherhood. Eternal life was one of the many perks that pirates enjoyed after joining the crew.

Thomas entered the ship, carrying the large paper-wrapped rectangle in front of him like a shield. The captain gave him a rare smile as he walked past her and into the cargo bay.

“This is it?” she asked, looking it over with her piercing gaze.

“You bet,” Thomas replied. “The most valuable painting the 21st century has to offer: Girl with a Pearl Earring. After I stole it, I burned the museum to the ground. History will say it turned to ash with the rest of the artwork.”

“But we know better,” she said. “How did you escape detection? Did anyone spot you stealing this?”

“Not a soul. After I wrapped up the painting, I hid out in the abandoned log cabin where you picked me up. It’s been three months and no one has found a single trace of my existence.”

“Excellent.”

The captain led Thomas to the bridge, where they could begin their return to the 24th century. The painting was considered the perfect example of fine art, a beautiful oil painting that would sell to the highest bidder for an exorbitant amount.

“Return us to the future,” she told the pilot. “One second per year should be quick enough.”

The ship took off and began speeding through the years, safe from the passage of time and its damaging effects. As they shifted silently through time, the captain tore away the paper wrapping and exposed the painting within. Her faint smile vanished immediately, replaced by a stern, incredulous expression.

“Dogs?” she said. “Playing … poker?” She touched the surface. “This isn’t even canvas; it’s some kind of nasty velvet!”

Thomas began stuttering a response. “Th-the guard! He-he must’ve switch paintings on me! B-but he swore he was trustworthy!”

The captain turned her gaze on him, her otherworldly beauty shining through her furious face.

“You lost the artifact and you fraternized with the natives? You know what that means, don’t you?”

He did. The Space Pirate Brotherhood punished all infractions with premature aging. Unless he became a member, he would never be able to reverse the process.

“You’ll be aged another 99 years,” she said, “and you’re blacklisted. Fortunately, the hospice center will be able to keep you alive for quite a while, but you won’t be able to move. I imagine you’ll be in endless pain.”

Thomas began feeling the effects immediately, his body aging as quickly as the ship moved through time. In minutes, he became a living shriveled husk.

The captain smiled as she tapped him with her foot, her gorgeous grin brightening the entire bridge.

“I might hang this up in my ready room,” she said. “I never really cared for fine art, anyway.”

True Tales of Human Firsts

The first time I touched a kiwi, it exploded.

I encountered said kiwi when my mother and I were shopping for produce at the local grocery store one day. I was six years old or so, and I’d never seen a kiwi at home because my family is American. While Mom was looking at the produce that real Americans buy, like apples, peaches, watermelon, and victory, I saw a shallow crate by the kiwi pile that had only one kiwi left inside.

To my naive eyes, this kiwi was like any other: brown, fuzzy, and roundish. I’d never really felt a kiwi before, so I touched it ever so slightly, no more firmly than one might poke a sleeping cat. The kiwi burst open, unleashing its green innards across the bottom of the entire box, leaving only an empty, brownish husk in the corner. Amazingly enough, the kiwi carnage was completely confined to the box; even my hand was unscathed.

Although I was surprised by this turn of events, I felt in no way responsible for the incident, so I wandered back over to my mother and continued shopping.

But I’ve been a little nervous around kiwis ever since.

When I was about seven, I watched my brother drink his first beer. I was clearly too young to be drinking beer, but he was ten, so it was okay.

Of course, I can’t guarantee it was actually his first beer for two reasons:

1. I can’t remember whether he told me it was his first beer or not.
2. He was probably lying anyway.

If he’d had a beer before, he couldn’t tell me or he might have gotten himself (and presumably other kids) in trouble. If he hadn’t, he couldn’t tell me or he’d seem immature and inexperienced. I imagine he just kept his mouth shut on the matter.

This particular beer-drinking opportunity presented itself one evening when we had been left without a babysitter for a relatively short amount of time. A solitary can of beer had been sitting in the back of the fridge since our parents’ last dinner party. Of course, they hadn’t thrown a party in my entire life, so the beer was probably older than I was.

The beer was a typical, authentic American-style lager. I honestly can’t remember the brand name. It was next to a bag of rock-hard coconut flakes and some ancient peanut butter chips that we didn’t throw away until we replaced the fridge several years down the line.

I am fairly sure the beer-drinking was Mark’s idea. The two of us gathered around the beer can, on the side of the kitchen table nearest the trash can, possibly due to some prescience on our part. Intelligent children would have poured the ancient can of suspicious beer into another vessel, preferably a transparent one, to examine the beer before consumption. We did not. Perhaps we were trying to minimize the evidence, or perhaps we were just morons.

Mark took a large sip and immediately ran to the sink. I followed close behind, trying to determine the results of the tasting. He spit the entire mouthful of beer into the sink, then grabbed the can and dumped it in as well. I don’t remember exactly what the liquid looked like when it came out, but it was at least partially white. Hopefully, that was just foam.

He didn’t say much else, but we made sure to bury the empty beer can deep within the garbage to escape detection. Our parents arrived home shortly thereafter, making for quite a close call. Mark later claimed that the beer wasn’t that bad, presumably to save face.

Based on his drinking habits since, it seems he has come to enjoy beer even more. He also drank soap once.

I made my first prank call one evening when I was eight, during the only dinner party my parents hosted throughout my entire childhood. My brother and I were confined, quite appropriately, to the basement. After three hours of playing Nintendo, we needed a break, so Mark suggested we make some prank phone calls. I have no doubt the escapade was his idea.

We sneaked up to the kitchen and grabbed the phone book, then sat down by our archaic basement telephone. The plan was simple: First, we had to think of kids we knew from school who had distinctive surnames, then we would look up that name in the phone book. If there was only one entry for that name, we would call it and ask to speak to the kid. When the kid answered the phone, we would unleash our witticisms and promptly hang up.

Although I think we tried the plan with several different names, I only remember reaching one kid successfully. When his big, dumb voice answered the phone, I had to think quickly. I accused him of not taking a bath in 243 days, which was an insult I had plagiarized from one of the Wayside School books. It wasn’t exactly the harshest rebuke, and it may have even been true, so the victim was not properly annoyed. His response was a sluggish, slurred “Huh?” I tried to save things by giggling, but ultimately hung up, dissatisfied. At that point, I began to discover that I lacked the imagination necessary for prank calling.

The payoff for a successful prank call is all in your head. After you hang up, you have to chuckle heartily and say, “I bet they reacted angrily to the uproarious things we just said.” Your companion will then say, “Yes, they must surely be steamed at us, due to this astounding prank.” (You must have a companion; making prank calls alone is reserved for sociopaths and drunken ex-boyfriends.)

In reality, the victim’s reaction is usually just a confused shrug. Once I realized that, I lost the desire to make prank phone calls. Mark and I did make a few more futile efforts that night. At one point, we tried calling the same number multiple times, which is a risky maneuver, especially for rookies. Eventually, one of the parents threatened to call the police or something, and we were properly discouraged from further prank calling that night.

I have not prank called since, so my first night of prank calling was also my last. Don’t get me wrong, I could still come up with some creative prank calls if I tried, but I just don’t have enough imagination to enjoy them.

I didn’t learn the difference between my left and right until I was in sixth grade. I’m not sure how I remained ignorant that long, but even at the time, I remember being stunned that my education was so inadequate. I’m still relatively certain it had never come up in conversation until then, but I spent a lot of time alone and no one really liked talking to me.

I needed to learn my right and left, but I didn’t know where to look or who to ask. Eventually, through subtle questioning (or some other subversive method), I learned a critical, life-saving trick from a friend: The “L” Method. You see, the word “left” begins with the letter “L.” Whenever you need to determine which way is left, you hold your hands in front of you, palms outward. (If you try the method with your palms facing in, you will have a difficult, confusing experience.) The index and thumb finger of your left hand will form an “L” shape, thus signifying that it is your left hand. The hand which is not left is right, and thus, you have determined the difference.

After I learned the trick, I was able to identify the appropriate direction about 80% of the time. Eventually, I only used the trick when I needed absolute confirmation of my initial assessment. I haven’t had to use the trick in years, but I’m always prepared to employ it if the need arises.

An Unusual Closet

I don’t mention it very often, but I am asexual and aromantic. The main reason it doesn’t come up in conversation is that I don’t think about it very much. Just like the other things I don’t do (hockey, quilting, billiards, bra shopping, squash, meditation, etc.), I rarely talk about sex or romance. When people ask me about asexuality, I explain what it means and answer a few questions. People are usually somewhat interested for a while, then we all talk about something else.

However, I haven’t been completely upfront about it. I’ve always told my family that I’m not going to get married and have kids, but I think they just assumed it was a phase. Instead of discussing it at length, I’ve mostly shrugged and moved on. Now that the phase has entered its 25th year, I’ve decided to provide some more details.

I recently answered some questions about my orientation for a freelance reporter, who incorporated three different perspectives (including mine) into one article (on Vice) to provide a general overview of aromanticism. Of course, my personal experience doesn’t perfectly match up with anyone else’s, so I decided to post my complete answers to the original interview questions in order to provide a better explanation.

###

(Personal Background)
I never dated anyone when I was a teenager, but I always just assumed I didn’t pursue romantic relationships because I never really “clicked” with anyone. After a while, I decided that I wasn’t missing out on anything by staying single, and I was probably about 21 when I finally acknowledged that I had no interest in romance at all.

(Definition)
Aromanticism is the absence of romantic attraction to other people. As an aromantic person, I’m not interested in romantic relationships because I don’t derive any pleasure from intimacy. I understand why other people are romantically attracted to one another and I can appreciate what makes people attractive, but don’t experience that attraction myself. If you think of romance as a personal interest like golfing or bondage, you’ll understand that some people just aren’t interested.

(Societal Pressure)
I think there is a tremendous amount of pressure for people to get married, particularly women. The expectation that women should avoid becoming “old maids” has definitely lessened, but there’s still a vague implication that women who don’t get married have failed somehow. I think the best way to change those expectations is being more realistic about marriage and parenting. It’s important to remember that spouses and parents aren’t always happy, and not all single people want to marry and have kids. I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being single.

(Past Relationships)
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, but I’ve gone on a couple of casual first dates with women. Nothing ever went beyond dinner and a movie, and I didn’t experience any romantic feelings. I can’t speak for the women, though. Maybe I’ve broken some hearts.

(Asexuality)
I’m asexual, which means I have no desire to have sex. I know there are people who are aromantic and have sex drives, but I’m not sure how they live. I imagine some maintain long-term relationships and some just have casual sex once in a while. I mostly just stay in my apartment and read.

(Other People’s Reactions)
No one has ever had a very strong reaction when I’ve told them, but there are a few customary responses. Disbelief is the most common reaction. Because people often don’t believe that someone could be aromantic, they assume there is something wrong with me, like I’ve been hurt or I’m afraid to pursue a relationship. Occasionally, people feel sorry for me. Romance is a wonderful part of their lives and they think my life would be better if I were like them. Very rarely, people are jealous. I guess they feel like romance is holding them back from doing something else they want to do. I think the best reaction is when people try and understand aromanticism from my point of view. There’s really no reason to be jealous or sympathetic.

(“Friendship Monogamy”)
I like having a circle of close friends for social interaction and support, but I don’t want an extremely close relationship with one person. Lots of asexuals and aromantics have relationships, though. One major concern with close relationships is reciprocity. Whenever just one partner is asexual or aromantic, there is going to be some conflict about sex and intimacy. One partner might just want a platonic relationship, or maybe they just want to have sex with no strings attached. There are conflicts in any relationship, but I think they can be more acute in those situations. Of course, I’m not speaking from personal experience.

(Nature vs. Nurture)
I think aromanticism is innate, but individuals choose whether or not they pursue intimate relationships. There are people who are aromantic and still get married, just like there are romantic people who never wind up in a relationship. I suspect everyone knows someone single who wants to get married and a married person who desperately wants to be single.

(Other Thoughts)
From the outside looking in, I’ve found that the positive aspects of romantic relationships are usually overhyped and the negative aspects are usually overlooked. Although there are plenty of drawbacks to being single, there are a lot of benefits, too. I think it’s much better to be single than to be in a relationship with the wrong person. Somewhat paradoxically, I’ve noticed that the people who are most comfortable being single tend to attract the most romantic interest, especially from other confident, attractive people.

I also don’t think people should define themselves as half of something. Aspire to be more than just a romantic partner, and have your own interests even if your partner doesn’t share them. You should be your own person, because you will always have yourself, no matter what. It can even be comfortable to be alone.

Relationships seem like they will last forever, but many of them don’t. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a partner for life, one of you will outlive the other, which means half of all married people will be single again someday. It might be bleak, but it’s true. It’s important for people not to be afraid of being single, as long as they have friends and family to rely on.

Messenger

(This is a moderately violent poem featuring time travel. Even though it’s bleak, rest assured that I am doing fine. I’m a trained professional.)

One day, a man from the future appeared
and carved a message into my chest.
He smeared black ashes into the wound
to remain beneath my skin for life.

As he worked, he told me to be strong,
but ignored my innocent cries of pain.
He finished and told me to do the right thing,
then vanished as quickly as he had arrived.

The message bore only one word: “SCISSORS.”
I was too young to know what it meant.
When I learned how to read, I knew what to do,
and I carried my scissors wherever I went.

One day, my father tied himself up
to the ceiling. I found him there,
gurgling and growling and gnashing his teeth.
I took my scissors in hand and cut him free.

After my triumph, an ambulance drove him away
to the hospital, where a kind doctor explained
there just hadn’t been enough air in his brain,
but the damage was minor. His outlook was good.

As the months went by, it became quite clear
that the father who dropped from the ceiling
was not the same one who attached himself there.
The new one was angry, abusive, and cruel.

One day, my father discovered an ice pick
was the best way to get his point across,
in various places to various depths,
whenever things didn’t quite work out his way.

The dots ached for days and darkened to black,
but never had time to vanish completely
before more red dots joined them all over
my flesh. I still clutched my scissors.

My furious father struck a nerve at one point
in my forearm. My stinging, tingling fingers
grasped my scissors more tightly than ever,
drove them into his eyeball, and twisted.

One day, I looked in the mirror and saw
my attacker. His face was directly above
the hideous scar from the wound he had carved
among hundreds of pale white circular dots.

He was a man who once rescued his father
and killed him, whose numb hand still holds on
to a brand new pair of extremely sharp scissors.
All his mistakes can be fixed with one effort.

I’m always trying to find my way back
with a much better message: “KILL.”
When I deliver it, I’ll be strong,
and I’m going to carve it very deep.

Difficult But Not Impossible

I should have told you this months ago, but I have a mild neck injury. You might want to get yourself checked.

One morning in December 2012, I woke up with a stabbing stiffness on the left side of my neck. Whenever I moved my head backward or to the left, it got worse, so I ended up holding my neck in a weird hunched position. As it happens, I am an obsessive hypochondriac, and circumstances convinced me that I was suffering from spinal meningitis.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctor told me I had a mild muscle strain in my shoulder. I left with an accurate diagnosis and a bill. After a few days, the muscle strain went away on its own. It showed up again in February 2013, so I saw my regular doctor, who told me I had wry neck and prescribed muscle relaxants. I took the pills three times a day and recovered quickly. In the meantime, it has showed up on and off, but I always took a few more muscle relaxants and it would go away.

About two months ago, my neck started hurting persistently, so I decided to see a chiropractor. He told me I had a virus and some small parasites and suggested that I avoid eating corn. After that, I decided to see a real doctor, specifically an orthopedic specialist in Lawrence. He took X-rays that showed my incredibly straight neck, told me that my shoulder muscles are just strained, and prescribed 12 sessions of physical therapy over the next six weeks.

I saw the physical therapist for the first time on Friday. His office consists of several small consultation rooms and a gymnasium full of elderly people and athletes learning to use the new arms their doctors built for them out of titanium and ass flesh. The physical therapist said that my shoulder strain is the lamest affliction he’s ever seen. He didn’t say it out loud but he was clearly thinking it. Once he located the problem area, he used an ultrasound transducer (yeah) on it and prescribed a few simple exercises I have to do twice a day beef up my lame shoulder muscles. I also had to buy a new pillow at Bed, Bath, and Beyond that was neck-friendlier.

Anyway, it seemed to be doing better on Saturday, and things will presumably continue to improve as I continue the physical therapy. My neck mostly just hurts when I think about it, which includes right now as I’m writing this.

Aside from the dull throb of my trapezius muscle or something near it, I’m doing okay. I am growing steadily more frustrated with the lack of progress in all my endeavors, especially since I currently have more undertakings than a Tarantino movie (yeah). I can’t finish a story, sell a book, or even get my air conditioner fixed. The say that patience is a virtue, but the difference between patience and complacency (or complacence, I can never remember) is not easy to figure out. Am I waiting or just wasting time? More importantly, is everyone tired of hearing me bitch about it?

I’m still looking at all my different pursuits, but none of them seem viable right now. Hunter S. Thompson said that if you have eight purposeless paths to choose from, you have to find a ninth path. In keeping with that risky advice, I have decided to pursue an idea so a ambitious, stupid, and failure-prone that I refuse to mention it until it’s too late to change my mind.

Why do I always choose to do such difficult things? Not only that, why do I complain when I fail at something difficult when I could just do something easy? One reason is that I’m an exceptional complainer; the other is that there truly is value in failure. Successful people always talk about the importance of failure without ever addressing its shittiness. Failure in retrospect is kind of quaint, but failure in progress is heartbreaking. Honestly, I’m not afraid of failure unless it keeps going indefinitely. Fail me once, shame on me, but fail me a few dozen times and the shame gets kind of unbearable.

One way to address failure is by moving the goal posts, or as I like to say, “adjusting” them (yeah). Denial is a great approach, too. To quote the boss said in the Dilbert TV series, “We’re calling it a success because that’s just what we do.” In the end, no matter where I put the goalposts, the odds are thoroughly surmountable. If I didn’t believe persistence were key, I would strongly consider moving on, but I have a lot more bad ideas and plenty of failure left in me.

Space Doctor

(I wrote this 500-word short story as an exercise. It had to be about a space doctor delivering news (good or bad) to a patient.)

The space doctor emerged from the backroom laboratory and entered the brightly lit examination room with a gloomy expression on his face.

“Well, give me the bad news, space doctor,” I said.

“I’m not a space doctor,” he answered. “I’m a janitor.”

I laughed. “If you’re not a space doctor, then what are you doing with that medical apparatus?”

He glanced at the instrument in his hand. “The mop? I was cleaning the floor in the women’s restroom.”

“I see. So if that’s the women’s restroom, then where is the medical laboratory?”

He seemed confused. “We don’t have any laboratories here.”

“Are you trying to tell me we’re not in an intergalactic hospital?”

“No. This is a grocery store.”

I looked around and realized the space doctor was right. In fact, we appeared to be in the freezer section of my local Value For Less, a grocery outlet that offered tremendous savings on a wide variety of everyday merchandise. Concerned about this distressing development, I turned back to the doctor.

“Listen, doc, I desperately need to be treated for a serious case of space syphilis. You’re the only one who can help me.”

He deposited his so-called mop in a large yellow canister nearby. “Look, if you have syphilis, you should see a real doctor at a real hospital.”

“It’s not syphilis, though; it’s space syphilis. I contracted it during sexual intercourse in space.”

“I seriously doubt you’ve ever been to space.”

I was about to laugh at his incredulity, but I paused for a moment. Had I been to space? Once I thought about it, I couldn’t remember ever having left the planet Earth.

“So maybe I’ve never been to space, but I still need to be treated for my syphilis.”

“There’s really nothing I can do for you,” the space doctor replied. “If you’re sick, see a doctor.”

“I don’t feel sick, though. Syphilis has no symptoms.”

“Yeah, it does.” He gave me a funny look. “So there’s nothing wrong with you, but you’re still convinced you have a sexually transmitted disease?”

“Actually, if I’ve never been to space, I’ve probably never had sex.”

“You’ve never had sex?”

“Not with another person, no.”

“If you’ve never had sex and you don’t feel sick, I don’t think you can possibly have any kind of syphilis. Honestly, you look fine.”

I sighed with relief. “So you think I’ll be okay?”

“Absolutely. Anyway, I need to get back to mopping the bathroom or my supervisor will write me up.”

“Thank you so much, doc.” I shook his hand.

The space doctor collected his cleaning equipment and returned to the women’s restroom.

I retrieved my shopping cart from the nearest aisle and continued shopping for frozen goods. As I picked out a selection of ice cream treats to celebrate my clean bill of health, I muttered aloud to myself, “Space can be a strange and confusing place.”

The Chatters

(I wrote this story at ConQuesT 45 in Kansas City. I had to write it in less than one hour and include a velvet painting, a trapped ghost, an alien planet, hiding from an unseen danger, and the first line, “He could feel the water rushing into his lungs.” It won best sci-fi story in the pro division!)

He could feel the water rushing into his lungs. Dr. Gladwell had told him the planet was completely devoid of water, so either something had filled the craters with it or Dr. Gladwell had been wrong yet again.

“The surface of the planet is like a velvet painting,” she had said. “There is a fine layer of hairlike follicles on the surface, but it appears to be perfectly smooth. Over the centuries, meteors have left vast craters in the ground, but the follicles eventually covered their floors.”

He asked if the planet was like a giant hairball.

“Of course not. These follicles, despite their ever-changing nature, couldn’t possibly be the byproduct of a living organism,” she replied.

As it turned out, his theory had been more accurate than the doctor’s. The fuzz, as he liked to call it, was most definitely alive. It was the sole source of sustenance for the Chatters, an alien race whose existence Gladwell had also failed to anticipate.

The Chatters took no interest in his landing pod or his meaty flesh, but they did crave one thing: idle conversation.

The planet lacked anything remotely akin to weather, but the Chatters discussed it anyway. They had no family structures, but they still complained about relatives. They knew no hunger or thirst thanks to the fuzz and their underground water supply, but they still talked about planning meals and their worries about “the harvest.”

There was no harvest.

He started to lose his temper after three days of hearing about the nonexistent sports the Chatters never played. He tried plugging his ears, but the Chatters were telepathic.

The rescue craft was not due for another six months, but after a week, he finally lost it. He tried to run and hide during a lull in the dull conversation about traffic jams. (The Chatters had no vehicles).

He rushed to the underground river, which was accessible through a tunnel in one of the craters. He was able to hide and survive on fuzz and river water.

After a week, he felt the Chatters’ psychic energy probing the tunnel, looking for his brain waves. They wanted to tell him about their stressful jobs, even though none of them worked. He had no choice but to swim downriver.

The current swept him away too quickly, and he ended up in the largest domed crater on the planet with almost no air left. He struck a patch of fuzz on the crater floor then tried to swim away. He couldn’t. The fuzz was less like a velvet painting and more like a sheet of hairy fly paper. Movement was impossible. He cursed Gladwell’s name as the water filled his lungs and he drowned.

His ghost floated to the surface and up to the dome, where it stopped moving. The dome was composed of transparent dolomite, an incorporeally impermeable mineral. He had nowhere to go; his ghostly form wouldn’t let him sink and the dome wouldn’t let him rise.

The Chatters rushed into the lake, and then they climbed out of the water and onto the rocky shore. Their telepathic voices began speaking in unison, directly into his soul’s thoughts.

The Chatters wanted to talk about politics. They had no government, but they definitely had a lot to say.