“Mississippi A&M is the largest, richest, most prestigious school in the state,” said CJ.

“And by that, of course, she means we have the best football team that’s able to beat Alabama almost 10% of the time,” Tadlow broke in.

“Yes,” CJ said. “Now, all the colleges and universities in Mississippi are overseen by a statewide Board of Directors. The BOD was put in place back in the segregation days to keep everyone in line, and it does pretty much the same thing today. But what they did with President Brice was different.”

“They fired the old president without cause,” Tadlow said. “At-will employment state and all that.”

“Then they hired Brice to replace him. He doesn’t have a doctorate, has never headed a major university, and is the immediate former president of the state Board of Directors for Colleges and Universities. Oh, and he was also the person they put in charge of finding a new president, meaning he took a $100,000 salary to hire himself.”

I whistled. “Damn. That’s the sort of corruption you don’t see much anymore. It’s almost impressive in its brazenness.”

“And that was before all this got started,” CJ continued. “They wanted someone in their pocket to oversee a calm period, reassure our big racist donors, and spend the football team to glory. Instead, we have someone incompetent at the helm during the worst crisis A&M has faced since integration.

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CJ nodded to Tadlow, who pulled up a photograph. It was of a pretty bog-standard old white man in a seersucker suit, nothing that would be out of place anywhere from a cattle auction to a board of trustees meeting. The only remarkable thing about him was a truly unfortunate mustache. A narrow, close-shaved lip-fungus, it was the sort of thing that would barely have passed muster in the Magnum PI days, let alone 2020.

“That is…a mustache tragedy he’s got going on there,” I said. “Like a porn star. Retired. Or a creepy uncle.”

Tadlow snickered, but CJ kept her poker face.

“It’s the kind of facial hair that says ‘don’t leave me alone with anybody,'” I continued. “A molestache.”

“Well, I don’t know about it being a porn star mustache, but President Brice has sure been screwing us,” said CJ. “Do you want the details we weren’t willing to put in an email?”

“Hit me,” I said.

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The symptoms of anxiety
Are the same as the
Symptoms of the virus

When I think of the fall
Student superspreaders
In enclosed spaces

I feel a sudden rush
Of the same symptoms
They will feel

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“Of course, friend,” the shopkeeper said obsequiously. “There is just one last matter to attend to.”

“Which is?”

With calloused hands, the old man spread what looked like ten additional keys on the table. “Do you wish to buy…all the keys to your new domicile?”

“What?”

“I understand, friend, if you prefer not to. But I’ve my investment in having them made for all rooms, surely you can understand if I rent or sell them to any other interested parties if you decline.”

Eyes narrowed. “How much for the set?”

“Oh, a considerable amount, I assure you.”

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“Witch? Is that the word you’re looking for?” Ettine said.

“Well, I-“

She slapped her hand down, rattling the rough-hewn table and echoing it about the cabin. “That’s a word thrown around a lot by those who don’t know its meaning. Tell me, child, is a woman a witch if she desires to keep her independence and declines to take a spouse?”

“No, of course not,” Jer said.

“Is she a witch, then, if she chooses to live apart from others, valuing her privacy and being pained by the constant interruptions of the vapid?”

“N-no,” replied Jer.

“And what if she ages out of whatever youth and beauty she once had, as all must, through years of toil in this miserable world? Is she a witch then?”

Apprehensive that the questions were leading and increasingly hostile, Jer nevertheless replied: “I don’t think so.”

Ettina leaned in close. “Well, hat if she dedicates her life to knowledge, then, a scholar and recluse and harmit all rolled into one? A witch is she, or not?”

“Some men do that too, and no one seems to care.”

“Well-put, my young friend, well-put,” Ettina said. “Well, then, let’s say that the knowledge she dedicates herself is the world of the arcane arts, knowledge that the superstitious and the fearful call forbidden. Is she a witch yet?”

“Y…yes?” Jer croaked.

Ettina straightened her shoulders and visibly relaxed. “All right, then,” she said. “Glad we got that straightened out. You call me a witch, child, you’d best be doing it for the right reasons.”

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Those who do not understand the troops under their command would do well to look to history for an example.

Take the Naval Battle of Fiayry, for example, fought between the revived Empire of Tellus and the Returner Coalition. The Tellurian Emperor, long thought dead, had reappeared some twenty years later and rebuilt his power base through a vicious program of industrial exploitation, slavery, and the impressment of troops. Thanks to his efforts, the Telluric Navy and Tellural Legion had regained their prewar strength, and stood ready to bring the Empire to its former dominant strength and size.

The Returner Coalition, meanwhile, had gathered every available fleet battleship and cruiser available into a ragtag fleet that suffered from a divided command structure and highly variable training. Though it was a match in numbers for the Telluric Navy, the Returner fleet was decidedly inferior in technology. The smart money was on the Empire of Tellus reborn.

Fiayry was the principal naval base of Tellus, a large and sheltered bay with narrow approaches. Lurking just out of gunnery range, the Returner Coalition fleet mustered at the Fiayry Roads offshore, seeking to engage the Tellurians on their own terms. The Emperor took their bait, not only ordering his fleet to attack, but also boarding his flagship to take personal command of the battle.

Clearly, he hoped to smash all resistance to his renewed rule at a stroke.

Instead, as it sailed through the Fiayry narrows, the Telluric Navy was wracked by widespread mutiny. Many of the ships crewed by slaves and impressed sailors from other nations turned on their officers, killing them and dumping the bodies overboard before running up makeshift Returner Coalition flags. Not every ship in the fleet was in open mutiny; some were crewed by old loyalists while others had captains that were able to maintain control. But in the end, it hardly mattered; the rebel ships turned their guns on their oppressors at point blank range and even those ships that remained loyal couldn’t count on their crews to perform well.

Seizing the opportunity, the Returner Coalition closed to point-blank range and joined with the rebel ships to batter the fleet into submission. At battle’s end, the entire fleet was destroyed–scuttled, sunk, or captured. The Tellurian Emperor took his own life as mutinous sailors broke down the door to his stateroom, and his broken body was hung from a lamppost in Fiayry Square before being burned and scattered.

The moral of the story? Cruelty can only take one so far.

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“Where I come from, it’s the United State of Vespuccia. I met a guy once from the Columbian Confederacy, a real asshole and a racist to boot, though I’m not sure if it’s his fault or his lousy parallel skein.”

“Uh-huh.”

“The really spicy alternate realities, at least as far as I’ve gone, are ones where things worked out a lot better for the people living there when the Europeans showed up. One lady from…Ixachilan, I think it was. No smallpox in that one. What I’d give for one of their history books. I actually read one from the Republican Empire of Runa Pacha. Remember Pizarro? The Incas sent home his head on a spike. Same with the Empire of Abyayala. And boy oh boy, you’d love the Turtle Island Confederation. Let’s just say that Tippecanoe went very differently there, and leave it at that.”

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“I guess I never expected to get this far,” he said with a crooked smile. “If you’ve got nothing to lose, it means you’ll push just that much harder, right?”

His eyes were clearly searching for affirmation, and in her mind’s eye she told him the truth: “No, I think it means you just got lucky and are rationalizing it.”

A moment of silence followed, as the battered craft bobbed on the mirror-still water amid the flotsam from the recent storm.

“Right,” she said, with a forced smile.

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The creature slowly disembarked from the craft, its true form hidden behind a space suit that, in form as well as function, hinted at a truly alien physiology.

“What do you want?” the brigadier general cried, waving back his troop at the alien’s apparently peaceful approach.

A hidden speaker crackled, and in an inhuman but intelligible voice, the creature answered:

“This is Earth, yes?”

“Yes,” the general cried back, his hand resting lightly on his sidearm.

“I have heard that you accept radioactive waste. I would like to leave some Polonium-209.”

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“Why wouldn’t I?” Thomas said.

“Because it’s violent, unpleasant, and may lead to irrational behavior on your part.” Dr. Antonacci pressed her lips together. “Honestly, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t even mention it. But we’ve been accused of withholding information before, so I feel I must.”

“Let me see it.”

Click. A slide of a person, face-down, with the same figure literally carved, over and over, into their lower back. The lack of blood from the later incisions made it quite obvious that the subject had bled to death long before the final cuts were made.

“Subject eventually expressed the memetic entity in a violent and compulsive way,” said Dr. Antonacci. “In this case, her husband. Death was by exsanguination and shock. The lined paper is what they were able to give her at the Department of Mental Health state hospital.”

Thomas turned away, breathing heavily, and Ari bit her fist, eyes locked on the image. “Does it…always end this way?” she whispered.

“Of course not. As with any virus, to return to our earlier metaphor, interaction with a host can lead to anything from nothing to death.”

“Why…why do they do it?” Thomas said, still looking away.

“Why does anything that needs a living host do as it does?” Dr. Antonacci said. “I suppose one way to think of it is that these memetic communications–images, songs, thoughts, what have you–simply need to exist. And the only way they can exist, I’m sorry to say, is to express themselves through us.”

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