Short Story Ideas

Tales of Tau’s World

First phone day

A short story by John Healy


It was first phone day. A memorable day, for several reasons. It was a day things changed.


For the younglings, a change in social status. A rite of passage, a blessing (or hope) for safe conduct in cyberspace. In times past, perhaps it was like first bicycle day. No more training wheels.

A big deal for the minors. A small step in legal accountability. A milestone for a continued community.

For some it was a set age. For others it was readiness. For some it was a simple unboxing experience. For others it was installing additional tech. And for yet others it was enabling a dormant capability.

The ceremony began. Tau had looked around. Pilgrims from many worlds. Mostly anthropomorphic. All his pals were there.

An elder intoned the greeting: “Welcome, welcome, to everyone.” The music started, the roll was read.


Or at least, it was the last one that Tau recalled on his home planet.

Tau’s family had been lucky. Tau’s colony had been lucky. He had looked forward to other celebrations of growing up before reaching for the sky.


Why would anyone be interested in my home world?” – Tau had reflected, some years later. As a youngling, he’d felt that the colony was like other colonies. They had what he had there. A decent living. Nothing to covet. Traders visited. Lots of shared connections.

But then the strange ships had appeared.

Tau and his friends never considered that it wasn’t what they had (or didn’t have) in a scale of prosperity. It was who they were. They were a product to powers beyond the landscape. Their freedom from want, their freedom to dream, was part of the “terms & conditions” their ancestors had signed. The bargain in taking a wagon train to another world.

Only too late, did he realize the old Earth saying, “if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.

© 2023 John P. Healy

the concierge deity

Two golden keys
crossed at start,
5-star keepers

of the heart.
enjoy all things
for your part!
A perfect democracy can come close to looking like a dictatorship, a democracy in which the people are so satisfied they have no complaint.” — Huey Long, 1933 [T. Harry WilliamsHuey Long (1969), p. 762]

“What could possibly go” series

“Sterile flies” (a short story)

The AI simulation was showing an interesting result. The sim allowed Jax to study effects over generations.

“Perhaps the ‘fruit flies’ experiment will corroborate the forecast. Do ‘rat’ trials make sense? Will the tipping point occur in my lifetime?”

Trade or supply ships were rare this far out. Sometimes decades. By then the stock might be gone. The colony might be gone.

There were no guarantees when resettling an abandoned planet. But for many there simply was no choice. Like on Old Earth, for have-nots crowded into industrial zones from which most had fled. They were left with aging infrastructure, uncertain water & air. Typically in the shadow of chemical factories. A palette of shades of gray.

Screening by the survey ships certified some things before the Sovereign put the planet up for auction. The colony’s tech permitted testing for obvious toxins like lead. But abandoned planets were “as is” offerings for those fleeing conflict worlds. For highliners their passage was just a way to extract revenue deadheading between lucrative routes. And the Priory was a reliable supplier of pilgrims.

So, the original settlers had survey maps marking wastelands and highlighting hazardous areas. With signs that read: DANGER ZONE. AT YOUR OWN RISK.

But, as the old saying goes, there’s no reward without risk.

Jax pondered, “Try raising a new generation without hope, without aspirations for something better.”

And the Priory had its own aspirations.

Some threats had been engineered out of existence. Genetically. Pesky insects neutered, literally. Even some modest carnivores (vestiges of a once grand food chain on a garden planet). What was left was considered manageable, tamed to benefit the settlers.

“And ignorance allowed the Council to ignore other consequences,” Jax quipped.

The refugees had survived into another generation. And another. On this scrapheap of a planet.

The planet’s orbit around the class K star, rotation, inclination, rad levels, and gravity differed significantly from Old Earth’s and most settlers’ home worlds. Changes materialized with each generation. More than just altered circadian rhythms. Life went faster, narrowing the lifespans of their pets (heritage lines of Old Earth’s cats and dogs) and themselves.

Jax worked within the limits set by the Priory. But the Priory had a problem. The kids. Traditions were changing. Birth ceremonies, coming of age celebrations, and other rites of passage. Even something as basic as names.

Jax personally struggled with these changes. The sex of a baby remained unknown until birth. And names had become more and more gender neutral. Puberty came earlier. Gender tropes withered. Yet, family units thrived, and that satisfied the Priory. To its credit, they didn’t see any conspiracy in all this, and tolerated the sexual “superposition” of family members – the gender uncertainty akin to Old Earth’s story of Schrödinger’s cat as both “dead & alive” until observed.

Tech was another matter. Some survived over the generations. Like the AI. The Priory ruled out others. So, the biosciences declined and bioengineering tech became defunct.

What Jax was seeing in the sim’s and experiments, however, posed a threat to everyone. If the sex ratio kept trending lower …

Recently, emboldened by events, Jax hacked the Priory’s archive. Their Codex included information on genetic engineering, cloning, etc. – all forbidden topics which might hold hope for survival.

But the Codex offered scant insight on sociology and gender roles. Jax’s teen students were examples. Coeducational sleepovers in the wastelands were popular. Unchaperoned (well, aside from a security monitor). Thought to bolster sexual experimentation and bonding, the Priory should have been worried there was none. Bonding, yes (with lots of storytelling from archives). But no sex.

So, while Jax suspected a genetic mutation or endocrine disruptor – perhaps from a global trace toxin, any “solution” faced both tech and cultural hurdles. The mystic symmetry of the Codex had to break somehow. Otherwise, their planet would be unpopulated once more.

Jax sighed, “I want to do what’s right, but what is the path forward?”

Dusk. Time to leave the Institute facility. Time for the pod.

Jax looked into the distance at forbidden towers, flint-like spears on the horizon.

October 2019 © John P. Healy

Thanks to

• The idea > “The warming climate is making baby sea turtles almost all girls” by Danielle Paquette (October 21, 2019).

Dear Science: Why can’t we just get rid of all the mosquitoes?” by Rachel Feltman and Sarah Kaplan (August 1, 2016) [searching for “sterile mosquitoes” on the site will find additional articles].

• Jenny


Articles like these (below), searching on Google for “pod homes.”

NPR > “Can’t Find An Affordable Home? Try Living In A Pod” by Anna Scott (October 21, 2018). > The Conker: Your happy place [spherical pod].


Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War

Update 2020

See also this article regarding use of the sterile insect technique:

• > “First release of genetically engineered moth could herald new era of crop protection” by Frontiers (January 29, 2020)

This new strain of diamondback moth, developed by Oxitec Ltd, is modified to control pest diamondback moth in a targeted manner.

The Cornell study was led by Professor Anthony Shelton in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University’s AgriTech in New York and has been published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

Oxitec’s self-limiting diamondback moth is modified to control its pest counterparts in the field. After release of males of this strain, they find and mate with pest females, but the self-limiting gene passed to offspring prevents female caterpillars from surviving. With sustained releases, the pest population is suppressed in a targeted, ecologically sustainable way. After releases stop, the self-limiting insects decline and disappear from the environment within a few generations.

Update 2021

• Scientific American > “Reproductive Problems in Both Men and Women Are Rising at an Alarming Rate” by Shanna H. Swan, Stacey Colino (March 16, 2021) – A likely culprit is hormone-disrupting chemicals.

So, we continue to wonder: Where is the outrage on this issue? The annual 1 percent decline in reproductive health is faster than the rate of global warming (thankfully!) — and yet people are up in arms about global warming (and rightly so) but not about these reproductive health effects.

• Science Daily > “New technology designed to genetically control disease-spreading mosquitoes” by University of California – San Diego (September 10, 2021) – CRISPR-based system developed to safely restrain mosquito vectors via sterilization.

The precision-guided sterile insect technique alters genes linked to male fertility and female flight in Aedes aegypti, the species responsible for spreading diseases including dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika.

The system is self-limiting and is not predicted to persist or spread in the environment, two important safety features that should enable acceptance for this technology.

“The curse of the digital cat” (a really short Halloween story)

Sue was feeling wonderful. No worries, no stress. And no nagging. She was wearing just what she wanted, pushing some limits. A dazzling scene all around. Her friends and other teens were dancing the night away. An endless stream of selfies and likes … the place was like a dream.

The club had everything. Places to just hang and chat, dance, swim, and nooks with great food and treats. Even a haunted “house” area, as part of a grand Halloween party. Scary pumpkins, skulls, spider webs and animated spiders. Even some robotic black cats with bright orange eyes creeping around.

Sue liked the robotic creatures added to the venue. Someone was good with tech. She’d been active in West High’s robotics lab. She’d learned to program the bots and was into battle royale competitions.

One of the robo cats strayed by her left leg and peered up at her. It spoke a line like from Alice in Wonderland: “Heed your time!”

She instinctively blurted out, “You can talk! What do you mean?”

The cat sat and spoke, “Why, of course. The message is on your hand, the enchantment.” The cat screeched and vanished.

Sue was briefly disoriented. Then she looked at her hand. Then the other one. That was it! She recalled her arrival. At check-in, an amazing vampire tagged each of them with some type of hologram on the top of their left hands. She looked closer. She read “TOUCH AND GO” in all caps Helvetica font inside a gargoyle-like icon. She touched the image and some writing appeared. But it looked like a cryptic foreign language.


In a blur she was dancing … so free. Costumed characters whirled in the increasingly eerie light. But something was amiss. The cacophony of voices was dimmer. Her BFF Ali drifted by and whispered, “Talk with you tomorrow.”

Sue’s vision glitched. Then she thought she saw a white rabbit holding an old school watch (like her great grandfather’s) scamper by. It was panting out loud, “It’s too late. You’re late!”

“Wait!” she cried out. “What do you mean?”

The rabbit (probably another robo creature) blurted out, “It’s too late, too late, as the enchantment told in elegant cursive bold, all are welcome til midnight to revel and roll but those who remain will zombie-like become as the clock tolls.”

The room seemed to shimmer around her. And like in the opening of old Twilight Zone TV shows (or the courthouse tower in the movie Back to the Future), large clocks raced through the air. Time. The time? What was the time?

Sue screamed as bony fingers touched her. Shadows closed in.

Her scream trailed off as she jerked upright. In her bed, in her home. A safe familiar. Her smartphone was noisy. An alert. But not her usual one. A piercing werewolf howl and a witch’s cackle. Then “Happy Halloween!” The time on her lock screen read 12:00 (am) in large digital numbers.

“Oh, the time! The enchantment. Just a dream about the party later today …” she mused. Yet, sleep returned slowly.

October 2019 © John P. Healy

Thanks to

• The idea > Articles like these (below), searching on Google for “kids can’t read cursive writing.”

Kids Can’t Read Grandma’s Recipe Because It’s In Cursive” by Laurie Levy, Contributor (01/22/2015 | Updated Dec 06, 2017).

That Awkward Moment When You Can’t Read Your Boss’s Cursive Handwriting” (August 19, 2017).

And these articles (below), searching on Google for “kids can’t read analog clocks.”

Some students don’t know how to read analog clocks. Is it the end of an era?” by Brett Molina, USA TODAY (Published May 4, 2018 | Updated May 4, 2018).

Jimmy Kimmel asked young people to read an analog clock, and it didn’t go so well” by Scott Stump (May 29, 2019).

• Jenny

“Orange rats” (a very short story)

Tak took another bite. The solar wok-fried meat was tasty.

The rats really weren’t all orange. Of course, they really weren’t rats either. At least not like Old Earth ones. But the name stuck through generations of husbandry. The original stock had meant survival for the colonists. Without them this planet would have remained another failed attempt, an austere place with sequestered flora and some insects.

He gazed up at the binary suns. Closed his eyes. Old voices told the tale …

Colonization of a new planet used a recipe. Locate a viable planet, land a survey team. If certified, add the planet as a destination for the Sovereign, who put it up for corporate bidding. Once awarded, the highliner found a mix of pilgrims willing to pay for the way to the “promised” land. Everyone wins.

Tak’s ancestors has been lucky. At least at first. None of the known risks transpired. Transport tech worked okay. Landing was uneventful. The camps went up on schedule. But it was later that everyone realized the recipe had failed long before arrival.

The survey missions had devolved to “customer service” for the transport guilds. There were limited budgets and incentives to log and fill quotas. In this case the survey team had landed during a “sweet” cycle for the planet. And even then only rated 3 stars on its listing. And somethings require long term studies to surface. Some externalities might be missed.

So, contrary to expectations, the first colonists found a landscape of scrub and no surface water. Supplies were stretched to over a year. Some water had been discovered in caves. There were layers of fungus. And lots of insects, some like beetles, with colorful markings. Food engineering worked the fungus into plant-based products. And entomophagy offered hope for a balanced diet.

But people got sick. Some faster than others. Biologists got busy. The food chain became clearer. Insects fed on the fungus. Some even appeared to “farm” the stuff. And only old remains were discovered of larger predators. Somehow the food chain had pancaked.

As people started to die, chemists further analyzed the fungus, and biologists sequenced the genomes of the flora and insects. They found a toxin in everything, even traces in the dust. The insects had an immunity. The toxin was stored in their bodies.

The colonists used lab rats to find a solution. Many died. But eventually the remaining scientists identified the key gene mutations that provided immunity. And the gene-spliced rats turned orange. Well, not actually all orange.

Human trials started. Things looked good for awhile, but not everyone adapted. In many cases another side effect of the “cure” came to dominate, namely, neurological seizures and psychosis. Sort of a classic zombie apocalypse.

The orange rats survived. His ancestors survived. Low tech survived.

Tak’s reverie faded. Not much to do out here on his walkabout anyway. He enjoyed these celebrations although others in his village did not. For some no memories would be better than the bad memories of a failed planetfall. The zones of weathered tech and the moving specks of light at night from defunct orbiting machines were enough reminders of that fall from grace, that broken vision of wagon trains to other worlds.

He looked at his reflection in the wide shiny blade of a machete. Long dark hair fell on his orange back with dark Rorschach-like markings. “Cool,” he thought. “Just like the beetles – don’t eat me.”

Tak stored his gear. He hefted his pack and bow over his shoulder, and started hiking back toward the village.

October 2019 © John P. Healy

Thanks to

• The idea > article on “Monarch” fruit flies: “Scientists recreate in flies the mutations that let monarch butterfly eat toxic milkweed with impunity” by University of California – Berkeley (October 2, 2019)

• Bowman Dieter

• Tak


• Amazon’s Forward science-fiction short story collection

• Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky

Themes to expand the story in book form

• H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

• Dystopian movies like Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

Jack XXX, Kuiper belt Ranger

“At its fullest extent (but excluding the scattered disc), including its outlying regions, the Kuiper belt stretches from roughly 30 to 55 AU. The Kuiper belt is home to three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake.”

There were no judges, no courts, no police stations. Why would any lawman want to go there?

Abandoned Planet

With homages to “Forbidden Planet” movie, opening scene in “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie, some original Star Trek TV episodes, … And incorporation of latest NASA announcement on 2-22-2017 re discovery of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system 40 light years away.

Deep space …

Chatter from inside an exploration starship …

Planet moves into viewscreen …

View of planet zooms in as landing craft approaches …

Radio chatter re source of single planetary energy signature spotted …

First person POV as approach a structure built into the side of a mountain …

Entry into structure finds a large area with diagrams and flat surfaces …

Further exploration discovers that informational holograms can be activated with palm / DNA sample …

After awhile, devices offered for cerebral scan or connection, and interaction to offer natural language interface …

“Tablets” displayed with mathematical section (diagrams) and character (word sentence) lists …

Eventually, mathematical presentations permit decoding lists, which are discovered to be an overview of the planet’s history and cultural tenets.

Question posed by story: What would you want to see on these tablets? Math / physics formulations? “Code of Hammurabi” or “10 Commandments?” Or “Poetic Naturalism” considerations?  Or …?

Cf. How Dead Aliens Could Help Save Humanity – It might take a dramatic extinction example to put us on the right path.

Those who don’t learn the lessons of an extinct alien civilization’s fall may be doomed to repeat it.


• > “The Milky Way is probably full of dead civilizations” by Rafi Letzter (Jan 2, 2021) – An astrobiological statistical estimation using an empirical galactic simulation model.