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News & Features » November 2017 » “Throwing Snowballs at Penguins” by Caroline Bock

“Throwing Snowballs at Penguins” by Caroline Bock

In October 2017 we published An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, a rare literary science fiction set in a future universe so gorgeously described and perfectly self-contained—and yet so harrowing and cruel—that its only parallel universe is our own. Solomon’s novel has inspired this speculative fiction series. We’ve been through the past, and we haven’t really learned from it. The present? We’re too busy attempting to survive it. So we’re asking you to provide us a glimpse of what comes next. Illustrate the essential choices we must make in the present that will lead us to your brilliant utopian future. Or, if you cannot anticipate utopia, provide us instead with your cautionary tale. Show us where we will fall if we—when we—fail to alter our course. Fri-SciFi stories are published on Fridays because we expect we’ll need the weekend to contemplate your vision.

This week, PTSD treatment goes awry . . .

Throwing Snowballs at Penguins
by Caroline Bock

1.8 million Deaths. Chinese Nationals Arrested for Illegal Production and Distribution of Fentanyl in Nebraska. Borders of West Virginia Closed. The Department of Defense Teams with Big Tech to Fight the Opioid Wars.

Delwood Carson, Private, grunt, know-nothing, but not in the political context, I wasn’t stupid, I know the crisis my lieutenant is talking about all too well, and I said, “Yes, sir. Research volunteer, sir. ”

My mother OD’d on heroin laced with fentanyl in the bathroom of the 7-Eleven. I had been waiting for her, sucking down a ninety-nine cent electric blue raspberry slurpee, breathing in the hot dogs. All I was wishing for was a hot dog when she was done. Six years after her death, I turned eighteen and joined the army.

This summer, June of 2028, I volunteered for medical research instead of facing a fifth deployment. Virtual reality had been used since 2015 for PTSD treatment, in particular, a game where you threw snowballs at penguins. I guess they didn’t want you shooting zombies or storm troopers after you’ve been over in Afghanistan or Iraq or Niger. No headset and hand controls, my lieutenant had warned me, and I was okay with it all as long as I wasn’t shooting real bullets at real people.

By August, I am at the base in western Maryland, top security clean labs near Camp David—I had been hoping for a trip out to Silicon Valley, but the fires were still raging, or to New York City, but the cholera epidemic wasn’t under control yet. As I’m filling out informed consent forms, the corporal behind the desk is looking at me with her baby-browns.

“This is how it starts,” I say to her.

“What?” she asks. I slide the tablet back to her, having signed without reading anything. She smells like curry, like she has a momma who makes her lunch, and packs it in Tupperware containers for her. She double checks that Delwood Carson is signed in all the right places.

“Baby, can I find you after?”

“I’ll be here,” she says, all soft and spicy.


The doctor’s head is shaved clean, his nose long like a fox. I am stripped down on an examination table. “Once the galvanic band latches to the ulnar vein . . .” the doctor says, continuing on about neurons, synapses, plasticity, and dopamine, but I’m thinking of those big brown eyes.

A BotAssist runs the lab computers. A dozen cameras follow us so higher ups can view the procedure from their safe rooms.  Magnetic imaging drone scans are trained on me.

The doctor displays the thin band to the cameras. “The phos-digital signal is embedded here. Phos is Greek for light; the digital, a feat of binary beauty thanks to our tech partners. The light and zeroes and ones travel the bloodstream. Painless. Actually, better than painless, and I can attest to this: Immersive. Soothing. Non-addictive. Even better: able to break the addiction cycle by alighting the brain’s receptors. This, my compatriots, is the controlled subconscious experience or CSE.”

Goosebumps prick up my arm. It’s damn cold in your skivvies in this lab.

“Chilly, Private?”

“No, sir,” I lie. I want to get on with this.

He slips the band up my arm. I flex my muscles. If brown-eyes is watching I want her to see that I am ripped. The doctor even looks a little impressed. “Relax,” he says.            

The band pinches through my skin.

“First there will be darkness, formless and empty.”

I count down: three, two.

“And then light.”

My eyes go dark, my body jerks. 

“We are fine-tuning the experiences with our tech partners,” says the doctor. “Some will draw on movie or game modalities; however, our first CSEs will focus on human sexuality. We’ll monitor via our MRI drone-scans what CSE Private Carson chooses.”

All of me goes hard, and I mean all, and I have the strong desire to secure my private parts.  

“Normally, the subject would be in control of the phos-digital signal, able to connect or disconnect at will. Let’s check vitals. ”

I can’t feel my dick.

“Heart rate.”

I can’t feel my fucking dick.

“Blood pressure.”

I’m screaming in the dark.

“Disconnect,” shouts the doctor.

“Destroying,” repeats the BotAssist.

“Disconnect now!”

I can’t feel cold or warmth. Light bounces at me on sheets of white ice, light against a crystal blue sky. Penguins waddle in front of me. I throw snowballs.


CAROLINE BOCK wrote “Throwing Snowballs At Penguins” as the origin story/prologue to her just completed speculative fiction novel, REMEMBER THE FUTURE, set in 2099, about the power of addiction, the power of power, and the greater power of love. She is thrilled for this story to appear here alongside her other Akashic Books web series stories: “Shelley and Harvey,” “Counting Backwards,” and “Little Bear’s Apgar Score.”


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Fri-SciFi series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines.

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a conceivable, not a fantastical, future. No dragons, please.
—With your byline, include the date or era OR galaxy or ship or planetary system in which your story takes place. Or both. But not neither.
—To be perfectly frank, we prefer dystopias. But feel free to surprise us.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words, and must be previously unpublished.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Fri-SciFi are typically posted 1–3 months after the notification date, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Nov 3, 2017

Category: Original Fiction, Fri-SciFi, Original Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,