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NOTE: Obviously, by giving as much detail as I can to help identify the story, this description will be spoilery. Since it is a short story, these details give the gist of the story.

I remember a science fiction short story about an astronaut who had an encounter (not given in much detail) with aliens and then subsequently returns to Earth. Most of the short story is about how he visits each of three women that he has known.

One of the three has finally managed to get free from a drug addiction that had enslaved her. But he exposes her to that very drug (pressed into her palm, I believe), sending her back into the addiction she had worked so long and hard to escape.

Another of the three women had finally managed to become pregnant after much difficulty. But then he injures her in a way such that the baby in her womb dies.

I don't recall the details of the third woman, but I'm fairly confident there were three.

In each of the three episodes, one gets the sense that the aliens may be doing this through him in order to experience the sense of pain or loss of the people involved.

Probably at the beginning (or else at the end), the author included a quotation about boys having fun by pulling the wings off of insects.

Ring any bells for anyone? Thanks in advance!

p.s. Possibly, this might be the quotation included in the story. But if it isn't, the actual quotation is something like this.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport”

King Lear, Act 4

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    How long ago did you read this story? Do you recall if you read it online, or a hardcopy publication? Dec 31, 2023 at 2:15
  • I'm not certain but I believe I read it in a book, likely a collection of science fiction short stories, though I don't know whether all the stories were by the same author. Possibly a mix of authors. It was long ago, so not a recent story. Maybe 40+ years. I believe it was written at least by the 1980s. Nevertheless, perhaps it was by a well known author or the collection is still well read.
    – Eric
    Dec 31, 2023 at 2:34

1 Answer 1

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Flies by Robert Silverberg. I read it in the Dangerous Visions anthology. It starts with the astronaut virtually dismantled by some unspecified accident, and he is reconstructed by the aliens:

Here is Cassiday: transfixed on a table. There wasn’t much left of him. A brain-box; a few ropes of nerves; a limb. The sudden implosion had taken care of the rest. There was enough, though. The golden ones didn’t need much to go by. They had found him in the wreckage of the drifting ship as it passed through their zone, back of Iapetus. He was alive. He could be repaired. The others on the ship were beyond hope.

It's pretty brutal story. The scene with the pregnant ex is:

A swift kick in the belly might do it. Too crude, too crude. Yet Cassiday had not come armed with abortifacients, a handy ergot pill, a quick-acting spasmic inducer. So he wrought his knee up sharply, deploring the crudity of it. Lureen sagged. He kicked her a second time. He remained completely tranquil as he did it, for it would be wrong to take joy in violence. A third kick seemed desirable. Then he released her.

The quote you remember is from the scene where Cassiday kills a pet that an ex loves:

He ignored the question. “Tell me the line from Shakespeare Mirabel. About the flies. The flies and wanton boys.”

Furrows sprouted in her pale brow. “It’s from Lear,” she said. “Wait. Yes. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’”

“That’s the one,” Cassiday said. His big hands knotted quickly about the blanket-like being from Ganymede. It turned a dull gray, and reedy fibres popped from its ruptured surface. Cassiday dropped it to the floor. The surge of horror and pain and loss that welled from Mirabel nearly stunned him, but he accepted it and transmitted it.

The aliens are curious about humans and they reconstructed Cassidy to be sensitive to human emotions and transmit them back to the aliens. However they did not intend for Cassidy to generate the emotions by harming others. After Cassiday attacks the pregnant woman they recall him and reconstruct him to transmit his own emotions instead. The story ends:

“What will you do to me?” Cassiday asked.

“Reverse the flow. You will no longer be sensitive to others. You will report to us on your own emotions. We will restore your conscience, Cassiday.”

He protested. It was useless. Within the glowing sphere of golden light they made their adjustments on him. They entered him and altered him and turned his perceptions inward, so that he might feed on his own misery like a vulture tearing at its entrails. That would be informative. Cassiday objected until he no longer had the power to object, and when his awareness returned it was too late to object.

“No,” he murmured. In the yellow gleam he saw the faces of Beryl and Mirabel and Lureen. “You shouldn’t have done this to me. You’re torturing me . . . like you would a fly...”

There was no response. They sent him away, back to Earth. They returned him to the travertine towers and the rumbling slidewalks, to the house of pleasure on 485th Street, to the islands of light that blazed in the sky, to the eleven billion people. They turned him loose to go among them, and suffer, and report on his sufferings. And a time would come when they would release him, but not yet.

Here is Cassiday:
nailed to his cross.

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    This is definitely the one. In my description I left out the details about his triple attack to kill the unborn child of his pregnant ex (as you say, "It's pretty brutal story."), but I had not forgotten those details. (Interestingly, 14 years earlier in 1953 Isaac Asimov also wrote a story called "Flies" for which Asimov's original working title had been "King Lear, IV, i, 36–37".) Thanks for taking the time to clear up this mystery.
    – Eric
    Dec 31, 2023 at 19:19
  • I never read the story but for some strange reason, when I saw the question (before you posted your answer) I immediately thought it sounded like something Silverberg might write. I don't know why, Agberg has written all sorts of stuff from Literary to Pulp to Porn.
    – user14111
    Jan 1 at 14:01

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