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The Epicaricacians

Thomas J. Keller is a native New Yorker (Brooklyn), has lived elsewhere in the U.S. and currently resides in Connecticut. He has worked as a house painter, on the Brooklyn docks, and trailer trucks. After college, he worked on Madison Avenue and, for most of his career, in the corporate world. He has had several short stories published, been included in two anthologies, and co-authored a novel, Ilium.

Hannah Kleinmann took another long draught of her Paulaner, put the stein down on the beer garden table, stifled a small burp, and grabbed a doughy pretzel from the basket. The Munich sun highlighted the short, stocky, dark-haired woman with tightly cropped hair and a face lined with fatigue. Her table companion watched her intently. Fifty meters away the bells tolled in the Marienplatz. Even at the end of the twenty-second century very little had changed in Munich.
"Ja, Herr Schuster, I am glad we are back..." She chewed the pretzel while her companion sipped his Pilsner. Otto Schuster was the German representative to the European Space Agency.
"So," she continued, "we were lost and tired and afraid, I admit it. Dongon was a strange world in many ways; Earth-like, one could say. Our brief was to be sure there was no indigenous life. On all the nearby worlds there were legends, you see, of a strange and devious race from Dongon called the Epicaricacians.
"We thought the Epicaricacians were people of myth." She sipped her beer. "it turned out they were not. It took us six weeks before we literally stumbled on the rubble of their principal settlement, Clyster, hidden in a triangle of mountains. If you were to look for it you would see only an assortment of walls grown over by vegetal matter and prickly, poisonous weeds.
"What did they look like?" Schuster thumbed his recorder.
"Scaly, ugly beings with tentacles and eye stalks but in another way much like us. Too much, perhaps...." She trailed off and signaled for another beer.
"Yes, go on...." Schuster drummed his fingers on the table.
"It must have been a fantastic place; the technologies, what remained of them, were beyond our ability to understand and were too damaged--Clyster is reduced to rubble now. But Clyster was the only vestige of their presence on Dongon and had been empty for millennia. A month later, we found murals buried under boulders that revealed the story of the rise and fall of the Epicaricacians. With the help of the races on the nearby planets who'd provided the original legends, our group was able to begin deciphering their culture."
"What did you learn from the murals?"
"We discovered that the Epicaricacians had traveled to the nearby worlds, but their pleasures were more uncomplicated."
"Uncomplicated? Simpler?" Schuster shook his head.
She nodded.
"But why, Frau Kleinmann, did the Epicaricacians disappear?"
"It had to do with their pleasures, Herr Schuster. You see, the Epicaricacians were a race whose greatest joy was reveling in others' misfortunes. It was a trait that, as they gained spaceflight, caused them to wreak havoc on their neighbors and then exult at the results. They fought not to win, but to gloat."
"What happened to them, then?"
"As best we can tell, Herr Schuster, when there were no more worlds to subjugate, they turned on each other. The final mural we decoded read, "I laughed last and best.'" She nodded to the waiter.
The waiter, setting down the beer, stumbled. The liquid splayed across her blouse and lap.
Schuster giggled.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 8th, 2021
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