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Short Story Contest 2020-21


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The Christmas tree still stood in the corner of the living room, its bulbs unlit and hanging from loops of green electrical cord among the fake branches and plastic pine needles. Ted’s daughter, Sherry, had left some of her new toys beneath the tree, lying amidst torn gift wrap and ribbons. Her My Buddy dolls lay next to one another, discarded and left there like corpses soon after the boxes containing them had been opened, despite Sherry threatening before Christmas she would throw a tantrum if Santa didn’t bring them. Santa was true to his word, but Sherry threw a tantrum anyway about not receiving a Popples Playhouse. Magnum PI played on the television although the sound was turned down and no one was in the room. It was the evening of January, 27. Dr. Ted Ryerson sat at his desk in the den pouring over pages of computer print-outs of graphs and numbers. After two hours of staring at page upon page that he looked at repeatedly, flipping back and forth from one page to the other, his eyes ached, and his mouth was as dry as the leftover 1986 New Years Eve celebratory brie that  remained uncovered on a plate in the refrigerator. He groaned – a mixture of pain and dread – and picked up the glass of scotch that had sat on his desk the entire time, the ice now melted. He downed it and then picked up the phone. “It’s not good. I’d call it off,” he said into the receiver as soon as the voice at the other end said, “Hello.”


At 11:39 A.M. EST the next day, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke into pieces and exploded seventy-three seconds after blasting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The seven crew members aboard the shuttle died instantly, the disaster televised in real time for the entire world to see.

Two days later as Ted boarded a plane for Moscow, his house, wife, and Sherry were blown to pieces in a fireball created by two bombs, one left at the front door and the other at the back door. He didn’t hear about it until he stepped off of the plane and onto the tarmac at the Pushkin International Airport. The U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union walked up to him, and after placing his hand gently on Ted’s arm, told him. Ted collapsed to his knees in shock and grief as he wondered how he could have missed something about to happen so close to home –  his own home –  to be exact.


The halls of the newly named Gorbachev Institute were long, cold and gray. Two days after learning his family had been killed and feeling emotionally numb, Ted walked past the doors that lined one hallway and turned a corner. He barely noticed that down the next hallway there were no doors until he reached the door at the far end of the hall. With him were two Soviet scientists, both with their arms loaded with reams of paper on which was printed lines and lines of numbers, with only minor variants in the number sequences appearing every twenty or thirty pages. He didn’t know the names of the scientists and had never seen or met them before. In the United States he had very little interaction with NASA, and even less with the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA), whose name was printed on the door. The military guard walking with them pushed the buttons on a keypad on the wall next to the door. The air that escaped the room as the door opened carried the scent of cheap cigars.

Inside the room a dozen men and women in white lab coats sat around a large oval table.

A man with a graying beard and wearing wire rim eyeglasses at one end of the table stood up. “Welcome, Dr. Ryerson. I’m Dr. Kuznetsov, “ he said. “Please be seated.” He waved his hand in the direction of the only empty chair. “We’re anxious to hear your conclusions.”

The two scientists who had accompanied him placed their stacks of paper on the table where Ted sat down, turned and left the room.

Dr. Kuznetsov sat down and placed his folded hands on the table.

Ted looked around the table. The others all peered at him expectantly. “I’m not an astronomer,” he said, “and until I received your call last year I dealt only in things that took place on earth.”

One of the women cleared her throat. “But you understand numerical codes and sequences more than anyone alive, isn’t that so?” she said.

“There are computers that do calculations better,” he said. “My work is more intuition-based.”

“How did you know ahead of time that your country’s Space Shuttle Challenger mission would fail?” another man asked.

“As a phenomenologist I predict what will happen in very specific events based on a combination of numerical patterns and a very targeted form of ESP.”

“ESP, bah!” a man wearing an obvious toupee said. He turned to Dr. Kuznetsov. “This man isn’t even a scientist.”

“I never claimed to be,” Ted said. “You asked me to look at your data about the space signals you are receiving from beyond our galaxy before you launch on the 20th of this month the first module of the Mir space station, and I have done that.”

“And your findings, er, your intuition, about the safety of the launch after you have looked at all the numerical sequences on the table in front of you?” Dr. Kuznetsov said.

“I have no indication of anything going amiss.”

“And what about your family? Did you have no indication there was something amiss before they were murdered?” the man with the toupee said sarcastically.

Ted glared at the man. Barely able to get the words out between his clenched teeth, he said, “My wife and daughter were never reduced to numbers on computer paper.” He rose and strode out of the room. When he was half way down the hallway, Dr. Kuznetsov came out of the room and called out to him. Ted turned around.

“Please forgive my ill-mannered colleague,” Dr. Kuznetsov said. “The explosion of the space shuttle, receiving signals from outer space that grow stronger every day, and the murder of your family has us all on edge.”

“I understand,” Ted said. “I’ll be returning to the United States tomorrow morning to bury my wife and daughter. I’ll be in touch if I have a change of mind about the Mir launch.”

“Thank you,” Dr. Kuznetsov said. “I assume you know that your life may be in danger also, for whatever reason that has cost you your family.”

“Yes, I assumed that.”


Ted’s house had been in Georgetown, one block off of M Street in Washington, DC. It’s burnt-out remains stood out amidst the tidy red brick two-story homes on each side of it. As snow flurries danced in the cold breeze, he stood on the sidewalk holding the tapestry handbag that he had given his wife for Christmas. It was one of the few items he recovered from the debris and ash that showed no signs of damage. Lost in thought, he passed the handbag back and forth from one hand to the other. When the car horn sounded from the limousine that stopped in the street behind him he stuffed the handbag into his coat pocket, turned, and walked to the vehicle, opened the door, and got in the back seat.

Seated on one of the two long seats on each side of the back of the limo was Dr. Amelda Haung. Her black hair was pulled back tightly and bunched in a bun at the back of her head, giving her face an impression of severity. “I’m sorry, but there’s not much time for delay,” she said.

“You could have just sent me your data,” he said.

“The information is too sensitive and we have come to understand that there are dark forces willing to see you dead to stop you,” she said.

He slipped his hand into his pocket and gripped the handbag. “What can be sensitive about Halley’s Comet? It shows up about every seventy five years. 1986 just happens to be another year we see it as it passes.”

She lowered her voice to above a whisper as if she could be overheard, although the only other person in the limousine was the driver, who was separated from the back by a closed rectangular window made of thick glass. “There are anomalies in the readings,” she said.


“You will see it for yourself and maybe make sense of it for the rest of us when you see the data,” she said.

“Where did you get the data?”

“The Pioneer Venus Orbiter was in orbit around Venus in February of this year and took the comet’s measurements. That’s when something odd showed up.”

The limousine took a turn in the opposite direction of the Washington National Airport.

Ted noticed. “This isn’t the way to the airport,” he said, agitated.

“Don’t worry, Dr. Ryerson. We’re not taking you to Singapore. Booking tickets on a commercial TWA jet was a ruse to throw off whoever may be after you,” she said.

From there they rode quietly across DC until the limousine pulled into an empty warehouse. Ted got out of the limo and waited for Dr. Huang to get out as three men in dark suits approached him.

“Come with us doctors,” the lead man said. The five walked to a freight elevator and got in. One of the men pulled the gate closed across the front of the elevator and spoke briefly into a walkie talkie he held in one hand. They rode down three levels before stepping out in a large room where dozens of men and women in cubicles sat at computers, the screens lit up with constantly changing graphs and continuously rolling lines of numerical data.

Ted walked over to one of the cubicles and peered over the shoulder of the young man sitting in front of a computer. On the screen lines of data scrolled down in constantly changing sequences. Ted suddenly grasped his head, in agony. “The readings on the screens. What are they?”

“It’s data being sent back about Halley’s Comet,” Dr. Huang said.

He staggered backward and grasped onto the side of cubicle. “It’s not a comet,” he said. “It’s some kind of space craft that looks just like a comet.”

“Just as we suspected, “she said. “What kind of threat does it pose?”

He straightened up, and rubbing his temples, said, “It’s too soon to say for certain, but my intuition and what I saw in the numbers tells me there is no immediate danger.”


“I would keep a very close eye on it,” he said. “There’s danger there but what the danger is, is very unclear.”


On the ride to the small apartment that Ted had rented, the limousine driver had the window behind him down. The radio was on.

“This just in,” the announcer said. “A TWA airliner with 150 and six crew on board that departed Washington National Airport en route to Singapore veered off course about twenty minutes ago has disappeared from radar above the Great Smokey Mountains. Persons on the ground report seeing a plane descending quickly from the sky and then disintegrating in a flash of light.”


“I’m not a telepath,” Ted said to the FBI agent who sat on the other side of the metal table. “My mind doesn’t work like that. I have to be looking at very specific data, about a place or upcoming event in order for my abilities to kick in.”

The agent scratched his smoothly shaved chin. “And you have no idea why anyone would want you dead?”

“As I told the other FBI and CIA agents right after my family was killed, I have no idea. It has been almost a month since I may have been targeted, so apparently I don’t pose a constant threat to whoever wants to see me dead.”

The other agent, a young woman in a gray suit, seated at the end of the table, lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it. She then exhaled several rings of smoke. “Do you believe in extraterrestrials?” she said.


“Have you seen any?”

“Not that I’m aware of. They could be just like us and we might not know it. You could be one.”

She let out a raspy laugh. “Are you aware of the reported crash of a UFO in Dainegorsk, Soviet Union in January of this year, a day after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?”

“Yes. Nothing conclusive was ever found to confirm it was a UFO,” he said. “Is there more to it that I haven’t heard about?”

“The cattle in that area became sick and died and no one can figure out why. What do you make of that?”

“I’d have to see the data,” he said.

“We understand you will be on your way to Chernobyl, Ukraine tomorrow to look at some data regarding the nuclear reactor there. What have you been told about it?” she said.

“There’s just some concerns about it, from low level Politburo officials in the Communist Party. This is a routine check up. I’ve been there before.”

“We know,” the male agent said. “Do you have a gut feeling that something could go wrong with their reactor?”

“With a reactor something could always go wrong,” Ted said. “What are you driving at?”

“If aliens wanted to create a major disaster, wouldn’t messing with a nuclear reactor be one way to do that?” the agent said.

“Why wouldn’t an alien just blow up one of our nuclear warheads?” Ted said.

“Maybe they will.”


On Saturday, April 26, Ted sat on the sofa in the apartment in the town of Pripyat assigned to him by one of the managers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. He put a tape of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” in his cassette player and leaned back, trying to ease his grave concerns. There had been nothing in the data on the reactor to warrant concern, but his gut feeling – his intuition – told him something indefinable and intangible was terribly wrong. He told the party officials and the reactor supervisors what it was that he felt, but it was greeted with utter skepticism.

“This is the safest reactor in the world,” one of the officials told him. “You were asked to give us exact details and you tell us of a gut feeling. We all have gut feelings, but wash them away with vodka and carry on.”

When the floor shook and the tape skipped, Ted sat bolt upright.


Ted sat in his office in the Gorbachev Institute assigned to him by the Polituburo to monitor the data accumulated about the radioactive fallout that had spread across Ukraine, Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe. Just as it happened every day since arriving there, one of the Soviet officials had just left the office, being reassured by Ted that, “It could have been a lot worse. The world was lucky, this time.” Then there was a tap on the frosted glass in his door. He rose from his seat behind a large black walnut desk, walked to the door, and opened it.

Dr. Kuznetsov stood in the dimly lit hallway, holding an armload of papers. “I just heard you were here,” he said.

“I’ve been here for two weeks, “Ted said. “There’s no problem with the Mir station is there?”

Dr. Kuznetsov shook his head. “Everything is going smoothly with it just as you predicted it would.”

Ted grimaced. “What I do isn’t predicting,” he said.

“My apologies,” Dr. Kuznetsov said. “May I come in?”

Ted stepped aside. “Certainly.”

When the two men were in the office, and Ted had closed the door, Dr. Kuznetsov laid the papers on Ted’s desk. “What I’m sharing with you hasn’t been discussed with anyone outside a few of us scientists. I thought perhaps you would look at the data?” He tapped the papers.

“What is it?” Ted said.

“Evidence of some kind of mind control.”

Ted chuckled. “Mind control? Are you serious? Whose minds are being controlled?”

“Our data suggests it may be happening at varying levels across the globe.”

Ted picked up the top sheet of paper. A sensation, like a subtle jolt of electricity, coursed through his body. He stared at the numbers and graphs on the sheet of paper. “Where did this data come from?”

Dr. Kuznetsov adjusted his glasses, pushing them back to the bridge of his nose with the tip of his middle finger. “It’s compiled from data accumulated from disastrous events that have happened since the beginning of 1986, including the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in your country and the reason you’re here, the Chernobyl disaster.”

“What do disasters have to do with mind control?” Ted said.

“Those disasters were no accidents. They were orchestrated.” Dr. Kuznetsov said. “But we need your abilities to ferret out the truth.” He turned and walked to the door. “Please have a look at the data. Perhaps it’s  nothing, but then again those who have tried to kill you may also be leading up to killing all of us.” He opened the door.

“Let me ask you something,” Ted said. “Do you have a theory as to why anyone would want me dead?”

“Because at some level you know more than they do, maybe more than anyone does.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.

Ted sat at his desk, pulled the papers to him, and began to pour over the data.


In his Georgetown apartment, Ted stared with rapt attention at the television where news coverage of Hands Across America showed hundreds of volunteers with their hands linked standing along a highway in California. The faces on the participants all held that same expression: borderline ecstasy.

“There are some concerns among some about this Human Genome Project that is being looked into,” Dr. Haung said. “Don’t you think it’s foolish to question if knowledge about human genetics is on the cusp of going too far?”

“Maybe they know too much about us already,” he said.

She snuffed out the cigarette she had been smoking in the glass ashtray on the coffee table. “Who is they?” she said.

“The same ones who are driving comets across the universe,” he said. “For whatever reasons, and none of them good I can assure you, they’re studying us like we’re microbes in a petri dish,”

“We looked at our data again and decided we were wrong,” she said. “Halley’s Comet was just a comet.” She paused, and then said, “You haven’t told anyone about our initial findings, have you?”

“Of course not,” he said. “I’ve had my hands full with the data about the Chernobyl disaster, but I don’t think my abilities as a phenomenologist got that wrong.”

“Good,” she said, and then pulled out a handgun and pointed it at him. “I’m sorry I have to do this.” She then pulled the trigger.


In November, Ted sat in the day room of the Reagan Psychiatric Hospital, and sedated with psychotropic medications stared listlessly at the television screen. Oprah Winfrey stood in front of an audience of screaming women as she dangled keys for brand new cars that would be given away. He rubbed the spot in his head where the bullet from the handgun had entered his brain. “Suicide attempt” was written in his hospital chart when he first arrived there. Other words had been added since then. Delusional. Paranoid. Schizophrenic.

Oprah’s show was interrupted by a news bulletin. “People in England are being warned not to eat beef due to the possible transmission of Mad Cow Disease from infected cattle,” the announcer said.

“Damn, going mad from eating Bessie the cow,” the patient sitting next to him said. “What next?”

Steve Carr (USA)

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 560 short stories – new and reprints – published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, came out in January 2022.

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