Locked Out

Cover art for Locked Out

Lynn Hutchins found the perfect place to escape her husband. Jack couldn’t find this cabin, her, or the kids.

But someone found them. The thick iron-bound cabin door kept the man out. He tried to break in. Claimed he was Jack. He lied.

No way for him to break in. The cold outside leeched the heat from the cabin. The freezing cold kept her and the kids safe.

💀

The inside of the house was just as dark as the outside and nearly as cold. Lynn crouched in front of the sole spot of warmth, right in front of the wood stove. She couldn’t see it, but what little heat it gave off warmed her face and fingers. By memory and feel, she found the coiled metal grip of the door handle and pulled it to the side. The hinges protested a bit, metal on metal, and then the dull red glow from inside spread out around the door and restored her vision.

She blinked and coughed a bit as wisps of wood smoke coiled out through the opening. She reached for the next small piece of wood, moving quickly before the man outside noticed the light.

The remains of the last two logs pulsed and glowed with a deep red light beneath the black and white ash. Flickers of yellow flames danced across the coals and vanished. Lynn tossed in the new log. A cascade of red sparks swarmed upward like angry bees, and eager yellow flames flickered back to life, sipping at the wood with the delicacy of hummingbirds.

Lynn shoved the door closed and grimaced when the metal squealed again. Surely the man wouldn’t hear the noise over the snow storm blowing outside or see the brief bit of light seeping out the cracks between the shutters that protected the windows. By now he must have given up and moved on, realizing that she’d never open the door and let him in.

There came a knock on the front door, dull and muffled by the thick wood. Knock, knock.

Then a voice, faint, but clear. “Please let me in. It’s freezing out here!”

Lynn stood in the dark and turned to face the door she couldn’t see. The stove warmed the backs of her legs. “Go away.”

“Honey, you’ve got to let me in.”

She bit her lip and shook her head. She had already told herself she wouldn’t fall for his tricks. He had shown up after she put the kids down to bed, knocking on the door and claiming that he was Jack, her husband.

But that wasn’t true. Jack couldn’t have found her, and wouldn’t have looked anyway. Whoever the man was outside, he wasn’t Jack, and she wasn’t going to let him anywhere near her children.

Three more knocks against the door, hard and fast, as if he was angry. Lynn hugged her arms tight. The door was thick wood, barred with a four-inch thick wood bar. The shutters on the inside of the windows were also thick and locked tight with iron bars. Whoever this man was he wasn’t going to get into the cabin easily. She felt guilty about not letting him in given the conditions outside but what was she supposed to do? Risk her children? And he was up to no good, trying to claim he was Jack. He didn’t even sound like Jack. She heard his footsteps retreat from the door on the wood porch. Then his footsteps came fast and hard, boots pounding against the planks. A loud thud as he smashed against the door. It held. Between him and that door, she bet on the door. If he kept that up, he’d probably break his bones before the thick planks that made up the door. In the dark, she couldn’t see it, but she knew the massive iron-bound door well from memory. It was one of the things she had loved about the place when she first saw the cabin.

Lynn padded silently through the front room by memory. Past the large leather couch, across the colorful rugs woven from alpaca wool, to the entrance to the dining room, kitchen and the hall to the back bedrooms. She stepped down from the wood floor to the stone floor and turned left down the hall. Through her thin slippers, she felt the cold of the stone against her feet. The air back here was much colder too. Since the generator died, she hadn’t been able to run the fans that circulated air through the cabin and the small fire she kept going in the wood stove wasn’t nearly hot enough to heat the entire cabin up. By feel, she found the first bedroom door.

Michael’s room, the padlock cold beneath her fingers. No sounds from inside. Good, he must be asleep. Next down the hall was Tina’s room. Again she found the padlock and listened for any sign that the man had disturbed her children. Nothing at all. Across the hall, she found Briana’s room. Little Briana, with her dark curls. The lock was secure, her room silent. Lynn breathed a little easier. She shivered with the cold in the hallway. At least the kids were asleep. She went silently back to the kitchen.

After all of these months when the sun didn’t rise she knew the cabin well enough to find her way around without lights. In the kitchen, she went to the stove and reached out for the tea kettle. Her hand brushed the cold hard plastic handle. She lifted it up and shook it. It felt heavy and solid in her hand, no sound of sloshing water. It must have frozen solid again. She put it back down and reached up in the dark for the matchbox she kept on the second shelf. Her questing fingers found the cardboard, and she took the box down, slid it open and selected a match. She struck it on the side of the box, and the kitchen sprang into view as if magic had simply created it out of the darkness. The thick granite counter top with her tea mug sitting beside the stove, the rich wood paneling of the walls and the gleaming dishes on the open shelves above, all formed by the flickering yellow light of the match. Lynn turned the knob for the burner and heard the propane gas hiss out. The smell tickled her nose. She extended the match, and blue flames sprang up around the burner. She shook the match out and slid the tea kettle back onto the burner.

The blue flames cast weak light out from beneath the tea kettle, only enough for her to see dim outlines of the kitchen. Not enough to draw the attention of the man outside, even if he made his way around to the back side of the cabin. At least the propane still worked. With the generator down she didn’t have any power. The pipes had frozen already, leaving her melting snow on top of the wood stove for water. Except now she couldn’t even get snow because of the man pretending to be her husband outside. She had a few gallons of melted snow lined up along the wall by the wood stove. It’d last for a couple of days if they were careful, but beyond that, she’d need to get more snow.

By then she wouldn’t need to worry about the man outside anymore. He was out in the worst of the cold and the storm. He couldn’t stay there and survive. Soon he had to give up and move on if he had any sense. She didn’t dare risk letting him in.

A sharper thud hit the door as if he had used something else to hit the door instead of his shoulder. Lynn went silently to the opening to the front room and listened. Whack! Again he hit the door. It sounded like wood striking wood. He must have gotten a piece of firewood from the pile and was using it as a battering ram.

She stepped up into the front room and walked closer to the door. The meager light from the stove didn’t reach so far. Whack! She jumped a little when he hit the door again.

Whack! “Lynn! Let me in!”

“No,” she whispered.

“Let me in!’

“Go away!” The shout tore itself from her throat. She covered her mouth with both hands.

Several blows struck the door in rapid sequence. Lynn reached up and covered her ears.

He yelled, a wordless enraged cry. It sounded loud even through the thick door and walls. She turned away from the front room and took a couple of shaky steps back toward the kitchen.

The glass shattered behind her. Lynn shrieked and flinched away. Whatever he was using hit the shutters next. The shutters held against the blow, but it sounded much louder than when he hit the door.

Bang! He hit the shutters again.

“Let me in, before I freeze!” With the glass shattered his voice sounded clear as if he had entered the room with her. It certainly didn’t sound like Jack. This man sounded like a life-long smoker with a harsh rasp to his voice, and Jack had never smoked so much as a single cigarette.

Lynn took another tiptoed step away.

“You can’t leave me out here.”

She kept moving and stepped carefully down into the kitchen. The cold felt like it had frozen her clothes and left her bare. She hurried over to the stove and held her hands out above the kettle. The heat felt so good it hurt, but the water wasn’t hot yet. She stayed there and hunched over the kettle for what little warmth the stove produced. She didn’t want to go back into the front room by the wood stove because the man outside might hear her walking across the wood floors.

“I don’t understand,” the man said. He could have been standing in the doorway to the kitchen, hidden by the darkness. “I know what I did was wrong, but you can’t leave me out here. I’m so cold. My car won’t start. Please, let me in.”

No. Lynn shook her head. No, no, no. She had to think about the children. She had locked their doors to keep them safe, but if he got in, he might find the key.

“Let me in,” he pleaded.

No. The kettle started to whistle. She turned off the burner. The last of the light vanished. It didn’t matter. She held her cup and poured by feel. A few drops of water dripped on her hand, but she ignored the brief flares of pain. The drops cooled so quickly that they wouldn’t even burn. She put the kettle back and carried her tea toward the front room. She stopped right at the doorway and sipped the rapidly cooling tea. It wouldn’t have time to steep properly.

“I’m so cold.” His voice sounded weak, defeated. He had to move on now. “I can’t feel my feet or fingers.” He laughed, a hollow, empty sound like air escaping a balloon. “I think my nose is frozen too. Probably going to end up with a hole in my face.”

Lynn stepped carefully into the front room. She took each step one at a time, trying not to make any noise at all. She shivered so much that some tea spilled on her fingers but it had already cooled enough not to burn. Her teeth chattered. Lynn sipped the tea again as she made her way over to the wood stove. She sank onto the floor in front of it and put her mug down on the bricks. It hardly gave off any heat now. If she wanted to keep it going, she needed to add more wood, but there wasn’t much left. Four or five logs lay in the holder beside the stove. Enough to get through the night if she was careful. When morning came, she’d have to risk going out again for more wood.

“Please?”

The question startled her, sounding like a whisper in her ear. She listened, but the only other sound she heard was the wind against the broken window. At least she had the shutters to keep out the worst of it and the snow.

Lynn picked up the mug and drank the cooling tea. When morning came, she’d take a look outside and see if the man was still around. If it looked clear, then she could get more wood and build up the fire. The kids would like that.

💀

Crack! The log split beneath the ax into two smaller pieces that toppled onto the snow lit by the battery-powered lantern. Lynn bent down and picked up one, tossed it to the porch, and then the second. That one rolled against the foot of the man. He didn’t react, of course, he was frozen solid when she peeked out this morning. She’d have to do something about him, but she couldn’t move him. He was a big guy, over six feet tall with a broad chest and a long bristly gray beard. As big as Jack, but otherwise nothing like her husband. She picked up the next log and put it in position.

She heard the whine of snowmobiles and leaned on the ax. Lights danced around in the trees. Lynn watched warily. The snowmobiles were following the drive up to the cabin. Friends of the man on the porch? She picked up the ax and the lantern and ran up onto the porch. She kicked the logs ahead of her into the house. She got inside and shoved the door mostly closed, then turned out the lantern. She’d shut and bar the door if she needed to. It was probably too much to hope for help.

The snowmobiles came out of the woods and coasted up to the cabin next to the cars buried by the drifting snow. Her car and the one the man had driven up to the cabin. In the lights from the snowmobiles, she saw that the men wore the brown of the sheriff’s uniform. A sob escaped her lips. Lynn grabbed the lantern and turned it on.

“You in the house, come out with your hands where we can see them!”

Lynn slipped out the door with her hands out to her sides, the lantern in her right hand. When she walked out past the man, one of the men swore.

“Hold it there.”

Lynn looked down at the frozen man. “He tried to break into the house last night; I don’t know why he didn’t give up and leave.”

“Come on down here, ma’am.” One of the police beckoned.

“Okay.” She walked out across the porch, and down the steps. She stopped next to her chopping log.

The other policeman went past her and up onto the porch. He turned on a flashlight and aimed it at the frozen man.

“Yup, boss. It’s him alright. That reporter from California. Jack Hutchins.”

A deep chill settled into Lynn’s chest. She coughed. “Jack? That’s not possible. It isn’t him. It’s somebody pretending to be him.”

The policeman near her touched her arm. “Ma’am? What’s your name?”

“Lynn Hutchins.” She chuckled. “But that can’t be Jack. You don’t understand. He ran off with some starlet.”

“Mrs. Hutchins? Where are your kids? Are they inside?”

The kids! Lynn started toward the house, but the policeman held onto her arm. She looked down at his hand. “Let go. I need to check on them.”

“We’ll do that ma’am. I need you to wait here with me. Stu, go ahead.”

The policeman by the body, which wasn’t Jack, it couldn’t be Jack, stood up and disappeared into her house. A few seconds later she heard a crash and splintering wood. Then silence. After a moment another crash, more wood splintering and then again. Then rapid footsteps and Stu ran out of the house. “Boss, it’s bad. The bedrooms, she had them padlocked shut. I busted them down, but it’s an icebox in there. The kids, um, they’re all froze up, just like him.”

Lynn shook her head. “What? No. They’re sleeping. You’re all mixed up. What kind of policemen are you? They’re sleeping, and whoever that man is on the porch, he’s not my husband!”

She tried to pull away from the policeman, but he held her tight.

“Get on the radio, Stu. Get a snow-cat up here with the coroner.” She tried to pull away, but he twisted her arms back behind her. She felt cold metal snap around her wrist.

“Let me go!”

The policeman shoved her back to the snowmobiles instead and made her sit. Lynn slumped on the seat with her breath fogging in the light from the other snowmobile. These policemen were crazy! That wasn’t Jack. It couldn’t be. And the kids? She laughed and shook her head. Just sleeping, that’s all. It must be the dark. In the dark, the policeman just couldn’t see the truth.

💀

2,787 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 87th short story release, written in January 2011.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Overlap.

Bone Magic

Cover art for Bone Magic

Buster enjoyed warm days, lying in the sun, and guarding the front yard from the intrusion of neighborhood cats. The absolute best thing—resting on his bed beside Alex’s typewriter desk while Alex wrote.

Only that didn’t happen any more. And Buster’s hips ached. He didn’t get walked as much anymore.

Things changed. His puppy days rested in his memories. He didn’t control what happened, even if he wished for change.

💀

The good thing about rainy mornings, besides the smell of the rain on the lawn? Buster didn’t have to walk so far to do his business.

The bad thing about this particular rainy morning? Alex was still asleep in bed. Buster fought not to whimper. He didn’t want to whimper like a puppy, but these days it felt like his bladder was smaller than ever.

Outside the rain came down, soaking the small front lawn. Buster could see it from the living room window. He walked heavily back that way now, his ears dragging on the floor with each stiff step.

Sweepin’ up, Alex called it, affectionately. When he wasn’t sleeping. He’d worked late last night, which meant that Buster hadn’t gotten his evening bathroom break, or his dinner, on time. He’d barely had time to give Alex one welcoming bark before he’d scampered out onto the lawn.

And couldn’t go.

Buster had stood there, left rear leg raised, left leg protesting, while Alex had watched from the doorway. “Come on, Buster. Hurry up.”

He had been trying, but after holding it so long it was hard to let go.

“Buster.”

Then Buster had finally let go and the burning release had smelled sharp and hot as the steam rose from the grass around him.

Now the pressure raised a whimper in his throat. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d gone late last night, now his body was ready to go again.

Buster pressed his nose against the cold glass. Rain poured down from the sky. No long walks this morning. The way his hips felt lately, that was good. Alex loved walking outside, but after their long morning walks Buster could be aching all day while Alex was gone to work.

All that water running down the glass, it made him thirsty. He licked at the glass. It was cold but tasted of cobwebs, not refreshing water. He ran his tongue over his nose to clear the cobwebs. Nasty, dusty things that smelled like dried flies and spiky spiders.

The pain of Buster’s swollen bladder brought another whimper up his throat like a belch. He didn’t mean to do it, but it welled up all on its own. A second later another followed.

If Alex didn’t get up and let him out soon he wouldn’t have any choice but to go inside.

Shame made Buster hang his head down until his ears lay limp on the carpet and his nose snuffled at the dusty carpet. He hadn’t piddled in the house since he was a puppy and only twice then.

The urgency couldn’t be denied any longer. He hated to take measures, but the alternative was worse. Buster breathed in deep. The dust tickled his nose. He sneezed.

Then Buster raised his head, all the way up until his ears fell back along his neck. He closed his eyes and poured all of his fear and bladder distress into a mournful howl.

It rose up like a spiraling bird. It echoed through the house. Guilt over the noise nearly made Buster stop, but piddling in the house? He couldn’t have that.

A thump in the other room made Buster stop. He stood up and walked as quick as his stiff legs could carry him to the door. He stopped there and sat, his head hanging low.

Alex stumbled out of the hallway, rubbing his eyes. “Buster, what the hell?”

Buster whimpered and looked away. His tail rose and smacked the floor once.

“What time is it?” Alex came closer, rubbing his eyes as he squinted at the clock on the wall. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, Buster.”

Buster still couldn’t bring himself to look at Alex, but he thumped his tail twice against the floor. The pain in his bladder made just about anything else impossible.

“Hang on,” Alex said.

Alex came over and unlatched the door. The snap of the locks signaled the possibility of release. Buster stood and shuffled back as Alex pulled the door open.

“Go ahead, Buster. Sorry, I can’t go walking right now. I’m not dressed.”

Buster was already moving as fast as he could past Alex’s legs, out the door, and carefully, one step at a time, down the steps to the concrete path. Rain pelted his fur but all he cared about was getting to the lawn.

Behind him, the door closed. Buster heard it but he was more focused on where he put each paw. He left the path and his ears dragged against the wet grass. He lifted his head but he just wasn’t tall enough to avoid it. His ears were going to get wet.

Out on the lawn, he sniffed the air. Nothing but the scent of rain and wet earth. No sign of the neighborhood cats or other intruders. Not in this rain. He circled to the far side of the willow tree, which hung down so far in the rain that it was almost like a curtained room, shielding him from prying eyes.

Far enough. Buster stopped, lifted his leg, and —

Nothing. The pressure was intense and he whimpered but nothing was coming out.

Buster closed his eyes, concentrated and listened to the sound of rain pattering down all around him on the willow tree leaves.

Nothing.

Buster’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he panted. Finally a small trickle, only a few drops squirted out.

Buster whined. He licked his nose. What if the cats came back into the yard?

That finally did it. A stream of hot urine squirted out, faltered, then shot out with more force. Now that it was going he peed easily, freely, and panted more.

He kept peeing for a long time, pushing every last drop out until the stream ended at last.

Buster turned around. The urine marked his spot well, even with the rain he could smell it. The sharp ammonia smell but there was something else. An old bone smell.

He blinked and squinted at the ground.

There was something white sticking out of the wet earth. Buster took a deeper breath, this time ignoring the smell of his pee soaking into the wet earth.

Definitely an old bone. Thick on the end, gleaming wetly in the light. Buster didn’t remember burying a bone under the tree but he could have done. But he didn’t think so. Who knew how long the bone had lay sheltered in the earth? The bone must have been buried until the willow tree’s roots forced it up close to the surface. Then the rain and Buster’s pee had washed away the earth and exposed the bone.

Buster like a good gnaw. It was something to do while Alex went to work all day. He could lay on top of the warm vents by the window and chew as long as he liked, savoring the memories.

He pawed at the bone. The loose earth crumbled beneath his claws, exposing more and more of the bone. It was a good-sized bone with hard thick white walls and a hollow center. The surface was rough and caked with dirt but Buster knew what to do about that.

When he finally got it out he gave it a quick toss with his head. The bone sailed into the air, smacking the wet willow tree branches before tumbling with a muffled thud to the ground.

Buster ambled over and sniffed at the bone. Some of the dirt had come off. He picked up the bone in his teeth and threw it again. It spun off across the lawn, rolling to a stop.

On his fourth throw, the front door opened.

“What you doing, buddy?” Alex leaned out. He was dressed now. Work slacks, shirt, doing up his cuffs as he squinted at Buster.

Buster ambled over to the bone and picked it up in his mouth. He sat down in the wet grass and thumped his tail three times.

“Is that a bone? Uh. You want to bring it inside?”

Buster stood up.

“Okay, I guess. Come on, buddy. You’re getting soaked playing out there.”

Buster picked his way across the wet lawn. His ears laid down tracks like two large-sized slugs. He reached the bottom of the concrete steps and it looked like a sheer cliff.

When he was younger he didn’t mind the steps. He would have launched himself up them without hesitation. These days his hips bothered him too much for that. He had to stop and consider his approach.

“Come on, Buster, it’s pouring rain!”

Alex was right. The rain was motivation to get inside so he could lay by the vents. Buster stepped up, right foreleg first and his hips felt okay. They would until he had to jump up.

Buster got his left foreleg up and turned lengthwise on the step. That made it easier to get his rear legs up. Then he turned, left foreleg first on the next step, turning as he did to walk up onto the next step.

“I don’t know any other dog that does switchbacks to get up stairs,” Alex complained.

Other dogs probably didn’t have to worry about stepping on their ears, or deal with bad hips. But Buster knew that Alex cared. It was hard for Alex to wait, was all.

Alex stepped out of the way as Buster turned and walked inside then obediently stop and stood still. He didn’t move from the small welcome mat inside the door.

From a hook beside the door, Alex picked up a ratty green towel. It had a picture on it of an angry man with big muscles and huge fists. It looked like the man was going to smash something, but Buster wasn’t afraid. He loved the ritual with the towel.

Alex used it to wipe down Buster’s fur like an enormous tongue licking off the water soaking his fur. It wouldn’t dry him completely but Buster wiggled beneath the touch of the towel. He stayed put until Alex toweled off all his feet and wagged his tail happily before heading over to the floor vents.

After rehanging the towel Alex headed into the kitchen. Buster plopped down on the carpet by the vents. From the kitchen came the smell of coffee brewing and the sugary sweet smell of Pop-Tarts in the toaster.

“I have to go to work early,” Alex said. “I’m sorry you’ve got to spend so much time inside.”

Buster dropped the bone on the carpet. Some dirt still clung to it, but that would come off.

“There’s so much to get done, it’s crazy. I was late last night working on the revised production schedules. Just when we think we have it nailed down then she throws an entirely new project at us. Just slip it in, she says.”

Buster turned his head over the vent, letting the warm air blast its way up around his face. The woman Alex was talking about was his boss, a writer named May Baxter. She wrote all sorts of things but was known for her romance novels. Alex worked for the publishing company that she had started to publish her work. Alex was her publisher, which meant that he was constantly working on her backlist and any new projects she wrote.

Instead of working on his own writing. Used to be that Buster would sleep in his bed beside Alex’s desk while Alex wrote. Buster found the sound of the keystrokes soothing. Alex used a typewriter for his first drafts and the clackity-clack of the keys was a comforting sound. But after Cindy—Alex’s ex-wife—left him he had taken the job with May Baxter to pay the bills. There was less time spent writing, and then one day the typewriter stopped working and so did Alex. He hadn’t touched the keys since.

Alex reappeared in the doorway holding a Pop-Tart in a paper towel, his travel coffee mug in the other hand, and his bright yellow messenger bag over his shoulder.

Another change there. Alex still carried the bag but rarely rode the bike anymore. Instead, he drove the twenty some-odd miles to May Baxter’s office.

“I’m really sorry,” Alex said. “I think we’ll catch up soon and when we do you and I will spend some time together. Maybe go camping.”

Buster lay down with his head right on the vent, the warm air pouring past his face. He’d like it better if Alex could just work from home again. Camping was cold and uncomfortable and required far too much walking. It was a job for a young dog. Buster closed his eyes and groaned at the thought of a puppy in the house.

“Don’t be like that,” Alex said.

Buster opened his eyes and thumped his tail on the carpet. He hadn’t meant to complain.

Alex came over and crouched down. He actually put his coffee mug down on the floor and ran his hand over Buster’s head. Buster pressed against Alex’s fingers, turning his head to the side just so, and Alex’s fingers dug in scratching gently behind Buster’s ears.

Fantastic. Better than the heater vent. Buster would have been happy to spend all day like this but the scratching ended as soon as it started. Alex picked back up the coffee and stood up.

“I’ll try to get home earlier today, Buster, so you don’t have to hold it so long.”

Then Alex was walking away, getting his coat out of the closet along with an umbrella. Then he didn’t have enough hands for everything so he abandoned the umbrella and went out in the rain with just the coat.

When the door slammed shut and the deadbolt snicked over into place the house felt empty. The clock on the wall ticked. The refrigerator made a noise. The vent kept blowing out warm air.

Buster had the next nine hours to spend and a nap sounded like a good first step.

When Buster woke he noticed two things. First, the vent wasn’t blowing hot air. That happened off and on throughout the day. He didn’t like it any more than he liked cats coming in the yard, and he was equally unable to do much about it.

The second thing he noticed was the bone a few inches from his nose. It still smelled of earth and bone, grass and a faint hint of his pee. All comforting smells. He stretched out a paw and pulled the bone closer so he could give it a good long sniff.

It smelled old, bringing to mind lazy summer days and lazier winter mornings. He smelled the promise of spring embedded deep in the thick bone and the contentment of fall. The years lay deep in the bone. Each one of them captured there while the cow lived its life. It was a cow. Sometimes bones were horse bones. He’d even had a bone from a pig once.

This had belonged to a cow.

Maybe someday another dog would smell his bones, and get a whiff of what his life had been like. Not to chew on his bones, of course. He wouldn’t think of chewing on the bones of another dog.

Buster picked up the bone and started to chew. He still had all his teeth, that was something. His teeth slid along the bone. He adjusted his paws, holding it in just the right spot.

The muscles in his jaw clenched and relaxed with each bite. Tiny bits of the bone shaved off, gritty against his tongue, but as he gnawed he picked up more scents. Days spent out in the cold rain. Being pestered by flies on a hot day. The satisfaction of a mouth full of fresh grass sprinkled with chilly morning dew.

All those memories locked up in the bone, laid down from one year to the next.

Buster had never seen Alex chew on a bone. He knew from long experience that Alex was blind to most of the scents that they passed on their walks. How many times had Buster stopped to savor a particular odor only to have Alex pull him away with the leash?

Buster’s teeth kept gnawing at the bone, polishing the dirty exterior to a gleaming clean bone. The biggest trouble with eating memories like this is that they were gone once the bone was chewed. But there were always more bones later.

Then the bone did something unexpected. It slipped from his paws and floated up into the air. It hung before his nose like a dandelion fluff caught on a breeze, but Buster had never seen a bone float before.

A golden light came from both the open ends of the bone. That light looked like a sunrise on a bright day.

Buster shrank back from the floating bone and barked. His yippee bark, Alex called it, laughing each time. Because of that Buster rarely barked but right now he barked.

Bones should not float or shine like the sun. Bones were for chewing memories.

Next, the bone rotated, first one way and then the other, as if caught by an erratic breeze but Buster didn’t feel any wind and the vent wasn’t blowing either.

He shuffled back another step and barked. He considered running, but running was hard.

The bone stopped spinning and the light at one end dimmed. Something moved in the light, blocking it. The something was dark, about the size of a nasty housefly, but it grew quickly like someone far away who gets bigger when they get close.

In a few moments, even Buster’s eyes could make out that the shape was a bird, a chicken, with a bright red comb and gleaming orange feathers. But a chicken not much bigger than a mouse.

The chicken kept coming closer even though the light and the bone didn’t move. It got closer and closer until it was fully chicken-sized. Then it stepped out of the light into the house.

Buster barked! He barked and barked and barked some more. A chicken in the house!

“Aw, cut it out already!” The chicken said.

Buster stopped barking.

Instead, a whimper welled up from inside and spilled out of his mouth.

The chicken clucked and fluffed her black and white speckled wings. She stretched out one wing, then the other and then flapped vigorously but her clawed feet didn’t leave the ground.

“Oh, oh,” the chicken said. “That feels so good! I can’t tell you how long I’ve been trapped in that bone. I mean really, I can’t tell you! It isn’t as if I’ve got a clock in there!”

Buster considered this and opened his mouth. Another whimper spilled out like drool. He clapped his mouth shut.

“Problem?” The chicken’s head cocked one way, then the other, red comb flapping with each head turn. “Cat got your tongue!”

CABAAWWK! BAAAWWK!

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the chicken was laughing at him. Buster cleared his throat. “It’s not nice to laugh at others.”

He didn’t normally speak. In fact, he couldn’t remember any time in the past when he had spoken, but it seemed normal enough at the moment. The chicken stopped cawing and turned its head, looking at him out of one eye.

“Yeah, talking, that’s the shit, isn’t it? Dogs like that, right? Shit? You roll in shit, don’t you?” The chicken waggled its rear. “Get all up in there, don’t you?”

Buster’s head dropped automatically as his ears seemed to have gotten heavier by the second. The chicken was horrible, foul —

Why had it come out of his bone?

“Because, you lucky flea-bitten hound, I’m a genie.”

Buster lifted his eyes. Still a chicken down to the long black and white tail feathers. “You don’t look like a genie.”

“And you’d know this, howl?” The chicken clucked, head bobbing. “Did ya get it? Did you?”

Buster ignored the chicken’s antics. “Why were you in the bone?”

“What does it matter? You dim-witted, pathetic wretch? What kind of animal is stupid enough to chew on a bone when there’s no meat and no marrow? A dog, that’s what, but I think you’re beautiful. You chewed it down enough to let me out!”

The chicken flapped its wings again, then fluffed its feathers. “Oh, it feels so good! I’m even going to do you a favor, ugly long-eared mutt, and grant your fondest wish.”

“You are?”

“I am! What’ll it be? Wait, let me guess. Shorter ears?”

CABAWWWK!

The weight of Buster’s ears vanished. It was as if his head had suddenly become as light as a balloon. He flipped his head first one way, then the other, but no ears flopped across his face. He spun in a circle and still couldn’t see them.

“So? So? Whaddya think? Whaddya think?”

Buster whimpered. What had the chicken done to his ears? Buster shuffled over to the windows and squinted. With the rain, it was just dark enough outside that he could still make out his reflection. Instead of his two long ears, he had two tan triangles sticking out of his head on either side.

Ears, of a sort, but they would have looked more at home on a corgi.

“I didn’t wish for these ears,” Buster said.

“Oh, come on, you’re breaking my eggs here!”

Buster turned around and there was an egg lying split on the floor behind the chicken! What would Alex think?

“Every time someone turns down a wish, another egg gets broken,” the Chicken intoned.

“I want my ears back,” Buster said.

“Oh, oh, do you wish you had your ears back?”

Buster had already had just about enough of this Chicken genie from his bone. Instead of a nice chew, he had an intruder in the house taking his ears and breaking eggs.

Buster growled.

The chicken flapped her wings. “CAWWWBAWWK!”

A familiar comfortable weight settled on Buster’s head. He turned his head quickly and was rewarded with the familiar flapping. His ears were back!

“Okay. Okay. I get it, it wasn’t the ears. You like your ridiculous, elephant-envying ears. I get it! But it must suck having them dragging on the ground like that all the time!

More flapping from the chicken, the wind making Buster squint. The wind was so strong that he felt his lips drawing back from his teeth and his ears flying back behind him. It was like being in the car, with his head out the window. Minus the fun.

He teetered and suddenly felt dizzy. The room looked strange. Buster looked around and realized that he was up high. As high as the back of the couch!

Buster dangled his head down. His ears flopped down too but still didn’t come close to the floor. Upside down he could see that he was perched on long thin legs like a hippo perched on a giraffe legs. Except these were longer in the back, not shorter, but these legs hardly seemed sturdy enough to support him and he didn’t like being so high that he couldn’t see the ground in front of his nose.

“I didn’t wish for these either,” Buster said.

“Come on! Stop breaking my eggs!”

And indeed there was another egg smashed on the floor. Buster tried to sit, wobbled, and decided against moving at all. He growled at the chicken instead.

“Fine! Fine! I’ve never met such an ungrateful cur!”

“CAWWBAWWK!”

Buster fell. His paws scrambled at the air without finding purchase and then he hit the carpet with a thud like someone had dropped a bag of cement.

It hurt. Everything hurt. Scaly yellow three-toed feet appeared on either side of his nose. The claws looked particularly sharp. Buster rolled his eyes up and found the chicken watching him with one eye.

“What’s it going to be? Uh? Uh? You gotta make a wish you stinking carpet hound!”

Buster drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Though his bones ached, this would sure be some memory if anyone ever chewed his bones, he sat up.

The chicken danced back and shook her feathers. “Well? Well?”

“I wish that you —”

“BAWWK!” The chicken jumped in the air and came down again. “Don’t get wise on me! No wishing me back in the bone! You can’t wish me away! So don’t even waste my time!”

Buster looked away from the chicken at the room. It hardly got used anymore. Alex’s desk was a big dusty glass desk in the corner with the typewriter and the computer facing off like boxers in a ring. The computer got used, sometimes, but the typewriter remained unused since it had stopped working. The tray beside it still was stacked with the pages from Alex’s last unfinished novel.

And underneath the desk, back in the corner, was Buster’s bed. That’s what he wanted, time spent snoozing while Alex worked on his book. Alex was always happier when he was writing.

“Come on, come on, dog, you’re killing me!”

Buster looked back at the chicken. “Okay. I wish that Alex’s typewriter was fixed.”

“BAWK? Seriously? I mean, I like give you a chance to make a wish and you want me to fix a freakin’ typewriter? You can’t be serious!”

Buster stood up and faced the chicken. “Yes, that’s what I want. And put a bow on it, with a card that says with love, Buster.”

“Frickin’ crazy mutant canines! CAAWWBAWWK!” The chicken flapped twice, stirring a weak breeze.

A clear high bell rang behind Buster. He shuffled around and the typewriter was still where it had been but the layers of dust were gone. The whole desk gleamed. A bright red bow sat on the top of the typewriter and there was a sheet of paper rolled into the machine with three words typed on it.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, it isn’t a card but it seemed more appropriate you brain-dead fleabag. I’m outta here. I got bigger things to do!”

Buster’s head swung back in time to catch the chicken doing a sort of dance with her legs kicking, wings flapping and then there was a flash of light. When he could see again she was gone.

So were the broken eggs. The bone he’d found lay beside the window. He looked back up at the typewriter. The bow and the paper were still there.

💀

By the time Alex got home that night Buster really needed to pee again. He was waiting beside the front door as Alex came in. Buster paused long enough for one short bark, stood still while Alex patted his back, and then he scampered out down the steps to reach the lawn. It felt so good to plunge his face into the grass and inhale the rich clean scent.

Alex was on the phone when he opened the door for Buster. Alex scratched the back of Buster’s neck and patted his back.

“No, Cindy, that’s what I’m telling you. I just came home and found it like that. I thought maybe you —”

“No? Okay, that’s fine. No. I understand. Yeah, it might have been May. No, I don’t know how she managed it. Yeah, that’s fine. I understand. Bye.”

Alex tapped the screen on his phone and dropped it into his pocket. Buster felt Alex’s confusion about the typewriter. There was only one thing to do.

Buster walked across the room to his bed. He turned around a couple times and dropped down and looked up at Alex.

Alex grinned. “Okay, Buster. I get it. I don’t know who was behind this, but I get it.”

Buster laid his head down on his paws and waited, tail thumping. Alex came over to the desk and sat down in his chair. He pushed with his feet and wheeled over in front of the typewriter.

Buster closed his eyes. There was the rolling noise, the rustle of paper as Alex took out the sheet and fed the machine a new one. Then a key clicked. And another. A pause and then more, several all at once. The familiar pattern picked up as Alex fell into the rhythm.

It didn’t even matter that they hadn’t eaten yet. Alex would remember soon enough and they’d have dinner, then more time spent together as Alex continued his story.

💀

4,717 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 86th short story release, written in May 2012. It remains one of my favorite stories that I’ve written.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Locked Out.

This Book is Haunted

Librarian Scott Taylor enjoys the quiet at the end of the day. Picking up the books, straightening up, spending a few minutes to get the library ready for the next day.

Books have a way of capturing memories and feelings. And tonight Scott discovers that a connection to a book lasts.

💀

Librarian Scott Taylor paused at the door to give the library one last look before he stepped outside into the October rain. Lights off, night service on, overdue money locked away in the safe, it all looked good except just then he saw someone slip between the stacks back by the mysteries.

“Hello?” Scott let the door close as he stepped back into the building. “Hello there, the library is closed?”

The Pearce Public Library lacked hiding places. From the circulation desk Scott had a clear line of sight down the fiction aisles to the mysteries along the back wall. To his right, the bathroom and the storage room, but the person he’d seen had been going the other way. And they were small. Like it’d been a kid.

Scott frowned. It wouldn’t be the first time a kid ended up at the library at closing without a ride. But they usually didn’t hide in the library. Most of the time he ended up calling their parents and waiting for someone to come pick them up. How any parent could leave a child alone at the library and not be there before it closed he didn’t understand. Especially not these days.

“Hello? Come on out. I need to close up the building. Can I call someone?”

No answer came from the nonfiction stacks. With only five aisles they didn’t have much of a chance of eluding him. Scott listened carefully but he didn’t hear any noises. After closing the library always was so much quieter. During the day, between the computers, the buzzing fluorescent lights, kids that lacked quiet voices and people on cell phones, he could hardly think sometimes.

Scott reached over past the doors and flicked the light switches up. One. Two. Three. Four. The ceiling tubes came on and lit up the library. He walked around the desk and started walking along the aisles. The kid didn’t have anywhere to go now that he couldn’t see. No one in the aisle with the travel books and poetry. No one in the arts or self-help sections. Cookbooks, dogs and sciences all empty. Scott got all the way up to the first aisle, to UFOs and Microsoft Office books without finding anyone.

He frowned. The only place that left was the kid’s section, but the shelves there were low enough that any kid as tall as the one he’d seen would be visible. Unless he crouched down.

“Come on, now. No more hide-and-seek. I need to close up.”

No shame-faced kid came out of hiding. Scott walked away from the nonfiction sections, past the reading and browsing area by the new books and into the kid’s section. He walked quickly along the aisles of juvenile fiction, looking past the rows of chapter books to the picture books along the back wall. He found nothing.

Impossible. No way the kid got away. Scott walked along the start of the picture books to the back of the juvenile section and made a circuit around the entire chapter book area. No one hiding at the ends of the aisles. But now that he thought of it, maybe that’s what the kid had done in the nonfiction section.

It only took moments to walk up the back aisle. Nothing. He went into the computer section along the front wall and looked beneath the long counter in case the kid somehow got there and hid beneath, behind the chairs. Nothing.

Scott stopped by the display case at the entrance and scratched his short beard. There couldn’t be a kid in the library. But he saw a kid. He was sure of it. He looked over at the restroom and storage room. It didn’t seem possible, but maybe the kid hid at the end of one of the nonfiction aisles, then went the other way after he passed by the first time.

The restroom was empty, except for the faint smell of urine tainting the air.

No one in the storage room either. For good measure, Scott checked his office. No one. The library was empty. Either he imagined seeing a kid, or the kid got out somehow. Scott turned off the lights one-by-one, plunging the library into darkness again. He unlocked the door and pushed it open.

He looked back one last time.

He didn’t see anything. Scott stepped out and shut the door. He got in his car and backed out. He drove around the block to the pharmacy, parked and walked back to the library.

Walking back he shivered in the chilly rain that seeped down his collar. He couldn’t shake the certainty that he had seen a kid in the library and he couldn’t leave without being absolutely sure that the library was, in fact empty.

At the back of the library, he picked his way around the puddles in the parking lot to the front of the building where the windows were low and large. He rounded the corner and peeked into the window.

Light from the streetlight behind him made it hard to see anything except the reflections of the rain-slicked street and the houses across the road. Hopefully, Mrs. Stanfield in the green ranch house across the way wouldn’t notice him and call the police thinking he was trying to break in. He could explain what had happened, but it would be embarrassing.

He cupped his hands around his face and leaned against the glass.

Now he could make out the new books area and the kid’s areas. The only light in the library came from the security lighting up above the circulation desk and those two small lights did little to illuminate the building. It looked empty.

Scott felt relieved. He didn’t know why a kid would hide in the library after it closed, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Now he could go home without a worry.

“What’re you doin’ there?”

Scott jerked and turned around to face the speaker, his heart racing. Mrs. Stanfield stood behind him in a bright red raincoat with a broad yellow umbrella clutched in one liver-spotted hand.

“Oh, Mrs. Stanfield, you startled me.”

“Mr. Taylor? What’re you doin’? Locked out?”

“No, no. Just making sure everything was okay.”

Mrs. Taylor’s perpetually downturned mouth opened, then closed again. She shook her head. “You’d best get out of this rain. Catch your death, you will.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Scott watched her walk off across the street, her blue rubber boots squeaking. Quite the colorful lady.

As he turned to go he saw a blue light flicker in the library, between the juvenile shelves. A lighter? He looked back at Mrs. Stanfield but she was still making her way across the street. He leaned against the window again.

There was a light. He could only see it through the books, not directly, but it flickered and danced like fire. Arson! Scott ran around towards the front of the building, his hand going into his pocket for his keys.

At the door, he fumbled them out, unlocked the door and yanked it open. He ran towards the juvenile section. The light still flickered, dimly but there, on the aisle that started with Beverly Clearly and ended with C.S. Lewis. Scott reached the end of the aisle and saw the girl.

She looked small with long hair that tumbled down her back in waves over her dress. She sat on the floor with her back to him and the flickering light he’d seen came from her. It looked like a blue flame, like burning alcohol. Except it didn’t just sit above her, it seemed to come from within her. Scott shivered and felt cold air flowing away from the girl past him.

He didn’t know what to say, or what to do. He stared at her.

A faint whispery sound and the movement of her arm told him she had a book in her lap. She was sitting and reading a book. A girl that looked like she was made of blue fire.

A ghost. What else could she be?

“Hello?”

She stiffened but otherwise didn’t move. Then slowly she turned her head slightly to the left.

“I’m the librarian.” Scott took a breath, sure she could hear his heart pounding. “Do you need help?”

She twisted around then and looked up at him with deep black eyes. In her lap, she held a copy of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

“I can’t read it,” she said and her voice sounded like leaves blowing down the sidewalk. “It’s my favorite.”

Scott swallowed. He tried not to shake too much as he crouched down in the aisle and extended his hand. “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes, please,” she lisped.

She twisted around to face him and handed him the book. Scott felt tears stinging his eyes as he faced her, recognized her, and took the book. “What happened to you, Noelle?”

In whispers like rain, she told him about the bad man that had come for her after she left the library. His chest felt both heavy and light. He couldn’t have prevented what happened. The police said as much when he had talked to them. Tears dripped from his eyes. He brushed them away and turned to the first page and started reading by Noelle’s light.

The further he got into Sophie’s story tendrils drifted away from Noelle to the book, touching it lightly before sinking into the words on the page. She got fainter and fainter the more he read but the happier she looked. She streamed into the book page by page until he couldn’t see any more.

Scott stood up, ignoring stiff legs and carried the book up to the desk where the emergency lights glowed. He sat down in his chair there and continued reading the story. As he read he felt a joy spreading through his limbs from his hands and through his head from his eyes. It was Noelle’s joy in the story, coursing through his veins. He finished and didn’t resist the urge to hug the book close to his chest. His very favorite book.

💀

The next morning when he opened the library he displayed the book right on the desk. Who should come in first but Mrs. Stanfield herself?

“You ought not be out in the rain,” she admonished.

“I know, ma’am.”

She reached out and fingered the cover of The BFG. “What a sweet book.”

“You can check it out,” he said.

Her eyes widened. “It’s a children’s book!”

Scott smiled. “Maybe, but there’s a child in all of us. Take it, I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay,” she said.

Scott pulled up her record and scanned the book. He felt a twinge of regret when he let it go but she needed the book more than he did right now. Noelle would see to it that she enjoyed the book. Her and anyone else that checked it out. He almost considered a sticker in the cover reading, “This book is haunted.” Except that wouldn’t make sense. Besides, he didn’t support labeling books based on content.

He waved to Mrs. Stanfield as she left then turned his attention to processing the returns from the book drop. The day looked to be a good one.

💀

1,410 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 85th short story release, written in October 2009.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Bone Magic.

Poly Contact

Aliens arrived and offered to share their advanced technology with humanity. The secret to reaching the stars, ending wars, and suffering.

The price? Marriage. The aliens want to forge the alliance through marriage.

Bill and Anne sign up to marry one of the sexy aliens—but when it comes down to it, will they go through with it?

🚀

It was a living room. Bill’s own living room, but at that moment he saw it the way a stranger might see the room, which wasn’t too surprising considering who was coming over in, oh just any minute now. What would an alien think of the house?

The furniture mostly came from the Furniture Barn over on highway 507, a big tan microsuede reclining couch along the wall. It was the sort that reclined with the touch of a button but somehow swiveled so that the couch could be right up against the wall and still recline. Bill always thought the couch was designed by the folks that designed minivans because it had the same sort of cup holders tucked away into the arms and the central compartment that also had plenty of room for the army of remote controls.

The loveseat matched the couch, and so did the one solitary reclining chair. The piece that never fit with the rest was Bill’s own gigantic blue denim Bed-in-a-Bag and matching footstool that he’d had since college. They all called it the blob, after the monster in the old James Dean movie, because the Bed-in-a-Bag was a big mass that dominated the side of the room next to the recliner. From the big Samsung HD LCD television to the furniture, the room looked lived in. A place to play with the kids, to watch a movie with the family and, now and then, to fool around on the big couch.

Bill rubbed his hands on his blue jeans and paced across the room again. He glanced up at the quartz clock embedded in a polished slab of redwood from their California trip. Any minute now. The rest of the family looked almost as anxious.

Well, Anne did, sitting in the recliner with her Nook balanced across her knees and her feet tucked up under her as if she was still just a girl instead of a hair over thirty. Bill couldn’t sit like that, not for long, unless he wanted his knees to ache and stiffen up. He thought Anne looked beautiful, though, with her dark red hair tumbling down over her light green blouse that matched her eyes, but a couple shades lighter. Even at her age people always mistook her for younger and then they gave him that questioning look because his own short hair was now going about fifty-fifty gray. Not gray, actually, white. Especially on the sides and on his face if he let his beard grow out at all. He had let it grow for a week last winter and had thought it made him look so old that he had shaved it off.

Stretched out on the loveseat, Trinity looked like a younger version of her mother with a pixie-cut instead of long hair, and like her mother, she looked younger than her actual age, but whereas Anne enjoyed people thinking she looked younger, Trinity hated it. She didn’t look very happy about this meeting either, but she was here instead of out with friends or working an extra shift down at the library where she shelved books after school.

It was his living room and this was his family. A family that anyone could be proud of, and now they were thinking of adding another member to that family. Bill wiped his hands on his jeans again and had just looked again at the clock when the doorbell rang.

Anne looked up at Bill. Their eyes met and he remembered the first time he saw her at a crowded environmental group meeting in college. Their eyes had met then and he hadn’t been able to look away. He hadn’t even heard the speakers anymore. He had spent the rest of the meeting mostly gazing across the room into her eyes, so much so that when they finally met after the meeting it already felt like they were intimately involved.

“Prompt,” Anne said.

Trinity swung her legs off the loveseat and bounced to her feet. She smiled at Bill. “Well, Dad, let’s go meet it.”

“It? That’s not polite,” Bill said.

Trinity’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Why?”

“Ze and Zer are the correct pronouns. We want to make a good impression.”

“Fine, let’s go meet zer, then.”

“Is Rory outside?”

Trinity rolled her eyes. Rory was her Old English Sheepdog. Very friendly, but Bill didn’t want the dog all over zer for their first meeting.

“He’s out in the yard. But you know he’s going to want to come in.”

“Later.”

Anne touched Bill’s arm. She’d gotten up while they were talking. Bill patted her arm and headed toward the front door. He reached out to put his arm around Trinity’s shoulders but she took a step to the side out of his reach. Bill let his arm fall. No need to push it right now. He reached out and opened the door.

Zer stood alone on the broad wood porch and looking into those deep azure eyes with the tri-lobed pupils Bill felt like he had back in that meeting with Anne, like he didn’t want to look away. The intensity of zer gaze took his breath away. He felt his heart beat faster.

Zer spoke in a deep, smoky voice. “I am so pleased to meet you all at last. My name is Rysala.”

Bill finally managed to blink. He grinned broadly and held out his hand. Rysala’s hand slid into his and zer grip was firm, strong and dryly warm. He felt a twinge of regret when the contact ended. “Bill. We’re glad to meet you too. This is Anne —” He waited for them to shake. “And our daughter, Trinity.”

Rysala gave them all a small smile that didn’t reveal any teeth. “I am very pleased.”

Bill stepped aside and gestured for Rysala to enter. “Please, come in.”

Rysala walked past and Bill caught a scent of something, nutmeg, maybe. Rysala was everything that the videos had showed and so much more. Shorter than zer had looked, not much taller than Trinity. He hadn’t noticed looking into zer eyes but seeing zer walk with Anne and Trinity he could see it now. Of course, ze was humanoid and ze moved with an easy fluid grace that was captivating to watch. Zer features were fine without appearing overly delicate. Zer golden skin was a deep warm color like wheat fields in the sun and zer outfit revealed lots of skin, bare arms and legs, and the flowing green dress left zer back bare as well except the dark golden-brown braid that hung down zer spine. Bill thought that ze was beautiful and exotic, so much so that it made him more nervous about this whole idea.

Anne laughed at something that Rysala had said. Bill recognized that laugh and the flush that had come to Anne’s cheeks. She was also responding to Rysala. The press said that Rysala’s people were androgynous but that wasn’t really it at all. To him, Rysala looked definitely female but he knew that to Anne ze must look male. It was quickly established that—to humans—the Giselians appeared male or female depending on the gender-preference of the observer. Bill tried to see Rysala as male and just couldn’t. She was too pretty, like a model with that amazing golden skin.

“Bill?” Anne asked.

Bill nodded and followed the everyone into the living room. Anne gestured at the couch. “Would you like to sit?”

Rysala inclined zer head and went to the couch. Ze sat just like Anne had earlier with zer feet tucked up beneath zer. Ze smiled at them all. Trinity dropped onto the loveseat. Anne went back to the recliner which left Bill to sit on the couch in between them. He started to lean back but he felt much too nervous to recline against the padded back. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knees. He glanced over at Rysala.

“How was your trip down? Encounter any bad weather?”

Rysala shook zer head. Ze reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand. He felt an electric thrill and held very still beneath zer touch. Zer fingers were long, with an extra joint and an extra finger. He hadn’t noticed it until now. It should look odd but it looked pretty normal.

“I am grateful for the invitation to meet with you. I understand the complexity of what we ask. You must have questions for me?”

“I’ve got one,” Trinity said loudly.

“Trin—” Anne started to say.

Rysala raised a hand. “It’s quite alright. This affects her as well. What’s your question?”

“Why are you guys doing this? Why would you want to marry into families on Earth?”

Bill spoke up. “We’ve talked about the reasons, Trinity.”

“I’d like to answer,” Rysala said. Ze leaned forward, zer elbows on zer knees. Zer dress fell forward slightly and Bill caught a glimpse of a smooth curve of zer breast. He looked away and saw Anne’s face, staring at Rysala.

“Trinity, you’ve studied history, right?”

“Yes.”

“In your history, you’ve read about wars, right?”

Trinity nodded. Rysala smiled that warm smile of zers. “You must have read about alliances forged through marriage? People finding peace through the bonds that they forge and the children they bear?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. But this is different.”

“Certainly. It must be different. For one thing, we’re not human. And we all must wed to forge this alliance. Which of those facts bothers you?”

Trinity shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess both. What am I supposed to call you? Mom? Dad? How’s that supposed to work?”

“Rysala is fine.”

“But you’ll be my parent too?”

“That’s correct. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, to care for you and see that you live in a peaceful world.” Rysala glanced over at Bill, and then Anne. “That’s assuming we come to a decision.”

Bill found it hard to look at anyone. All of a sudden the situation seemed so surreal. What had he been thinking? A year ago the ships appeared and then the offer had been made. When all of the aliens had wed into human families then, and only then, would they share their technology and all the wonders that promised. That had caused a great deal of conflict, to put it lightly. On a planet that couldn’t even agree on humans of the same sex wedding, or on having multiple spouses, the idea of polygamous relationships with aliens was enough to enrage many people.

But who was he kidding? Bill knew exactly what he had been thinking. It wasn’t about how cool it was that dozens of starships orbited the planet, or that the aliens were already building a colony on the far side of the moon. It was when he saw the first broadcast and saw them standing on the bridge of their ship. They looked like angels. Sexy golden angels. He’d been captivated by their radiant beauty. Scientists talked about the golden ratio and suggested that for them all to be so perfect that they had to be the product of some sort of genetic engineering, but none of that mattered. He couldn’t get the image of them out of his mind. Three days after that broadcast he had guiltily masturbated while looking at pictures online.

It took time before the treaty was signed over the protests. Even so, he wouldn’t have ever dared to bring up the possibility if Anne hadn’t also seemed intrigued.

Trinity and Rysala had kept talking. Their laughter brought him out of his introspection. He smiled, very aware that he didn’t know what they’d been laughing about. Then Rysala looked at him and he was drowning again in zer azure eyes.

“Uh, so how does this work? What happens now?”

Rysala pressed zer hands together. “How does it work normally?” Ze looked over at Anne. “How did it work with the two of you? Was your marriage arranged?”

Anne laughed. “Hardly! That’s not very common here. Some places I guess.”

“I see,” Rysala said. “So you arrived at this arrangement on your own. How did that happen?”

Anne looked at him. Bill shook his head. “You tell it better.”

“Okay.” Anne took a deep breath and looked at Rysala. “It was intense. We were both in college and we thought we were determined to save the world. Our eyes met across a crowded room and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.”

“Please,” Trinity said.

“Hey!” Bill looked at his daughter. “Careful, missy.”

Anne laughed and the whole time Rysala watched them. Anne went on. “For Trin’s sake, I’ll leave out the gory details. The fact is, we fell in love.”

“What’s love?” Rysala asked.

Bill looked at zer, they all looked at zer. “What do you mean?”

Rysala’s head cocked slightly to the side. “This concept has come up often in our discussions and I admit I still find the notion mystifying. Your people talk about falling into love and out of love but no one can give us a clear answer. We’re pointed to literature, music, and poetry as much as science and none of it gives a clear answer.”

“You don’t love anyone?” Trinity asked.

“No.” Rysala smiled. “We have mutually satisfactory relationships, often with multiple individuals. It is very pleasurable and beneficial.”

“But you’re giving that up by coming here?”

“That’s correct. We all want integration with your people. It seems the best course to develop trust between our two cultures.”

Bill stood up. He smiled. “Rysala, would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“We have wine, tea, coffee, soda, water, juice or milk? I don’t know what you usually drink.”

“Water, please.”

“Okay. Anne, could you give me a hand?”

“Getting water? I think you can manage that Bill.”

“I’d like a root beer,” Trinity said.

“Funny. I’ve only got two hands.”

Anne got up. “Fine.”

Bill led the way out of the living room and into the kitchen. He went to the cupboard and started pulling down glasses. He handed one to Anne.

She looked at it. “Do you think ze wants ice?”

“If not ze can always tell us. What did you think about all of that? They don’t understand love?”

Anne put the glass under the ice dispenser. The ice maker made grinding noises and crushed ice dropped down into the glass. “I don’t understand love. Do you?”

“I know I love you, and Trinity. I don’t need to understand it. I feel it. Ze doesn’t.”

“So?” Anne moved the glass over to the water dispenser. “This could solve so many problems for us. Rysala’s income would take us up several income brackets.”

“You think we should do this for the money?”

Anne took the next glass and started filling it with ice. “People have always married for money, or alliances like ze said.”

“Maybe, but we’re talking about marrying an alien. An alien who can’t love us.”

“Actually, I heard that they’re great in the sack. Very enthusiastic.” Anne looked at him. “You should love that.”

“I’m not talking about sex.” Except he couldn’t deny thinking about it. Heat rose on his neck. “If ze doesn’t understand love, how can we trust zer?”

Anne filled another glass. “I don’t think we need to obsess on this detail right now. Why don’t we see if we even like each other? I think ze can understand liking someone.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bill said.

Except when they went back to the living room with the drinks and Anne brought it up Rysala nodded right away. “Like? Certainly. We have preferences, just as you do.” Ze lifted the glass and took a sip. “I like ice in my water. It isn’t something that we ordinarily do, but the cold is very refreshing.”

“What do you do?” Trinity asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like a job.”

Rysala shook zer head and put zer glass down in one of the cup holders on the couch. Zer moments looked graceful and smooth, like a dancer. “Whatever I find interesting. Since our arrival, I’ve been very interested in your mystery fiction. I think I might like to try writing.”

“Oh.” Trinity laughed. “Like Castle?”

Rysala laughed as well. Zer laughter sounded like a baby laughing, pure joy. “Yes! Castle! I’ve watched that show. It is very enjoyable. I understand that most mystery writers do not help the police as he does, but it makes for a most entertaining fiction.”

Anne asked, “What did you do before this?”

“I spent time working on the designs for our facility on the moon. That’s right? You refer to this planet’s natural satellite as the moon?”

“Right,” Bill said.

“Very odd, imprecise phrasing. There are many natural satellites in this system. Wouldn’t our moon be more accurate?”

“It might,” Bill answered. “I couldn’t tell you why we don’t phrase it that way.”

“So you worked as an engineer?” Anne asked.

“Yes,” Rysala answered.

“But now you want to write fiction?”

“Yes.”

“And your bosses don’t have a problem with that?”

Rysala sipped at zer water. “We do not have a hierarchal societal structure the way you do.”

Bill found that surprising. “But we’ve seen the broadcasts, isn’t Pyrny your equivalent of a President?”

“No, although that seems to be a common misconception. Most people want zer to be a President, or King, or General or some other term for one who commands others. Pyrny is simply the one that represents us in these discussions because doing so interests zer.”

“You’re socialists,” Anne said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“That wouldn’t be accurate, although I can see how it might seem that way. Our economic system is aimed at parity. One type of work isn’t valued more than another, although unpopular work may require bonuses to interest someone. Yet the basic rights of life require that everyone’s basic needs be met. There are many injustices on this world.”

“We know that,” Bill said. “But you still decided to join us. I’m surprised that you didn’t take your ships and leave.”

“That could still be the outcome,” ze said. “If we are unable to integrate into your world then we will depart.”

“You’d just leave?” Anne asked.

Rysala leaned forward and lightly touched the ends of Anne’s fingers. Bill expected her to pull back but she submitted to zer touch and even smiled. “We are a patient people. We would not leave without making every effort to make this alliance work.”

Bill watched Anne’s fingers playing with Rysala’s golden fingers and he felt a deep churning in his stomach. His throat constricted. His eyes felt moist. He rubbed his eyes and coughed into his hand. Abruptly he stood. “Excuse me.”

He left the room and went blindly into the kitchen. He coughed twice before he got there and blundered over to the sink. He turned on the water and turned his head sideways to drink out of the faucet. He straightened up with cold water dripping down his face. He grabbed a blue terry cloth dish towel — part of the set of towels his mother had given them as a gift last Christmas. He toweled off his face.

Where had that come from? He’d been sick with what? Anger? No, although that was there, it was something more. The sight of Anne’s fingers flirtatiously playing with Rysala’s had made him jealous. It didn’t happen when Rysala touched Anne. It had happened when Anne touched zer back.

“Are you okay?” Rysala asked in zer silken voice from the doorway.

Bill put the towel back. “Fine. Just something caught in my throat.”

Rysala walked into the kitchen. God, she swayed as she walked. Bill couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was ensnared by her — zer, no — her. He couldn’t see Rysala as anything except an exotic, incredibly sexy woman. Alien in a way that excited him rather than repulsed. Bill took a step back and ran into the sink.

She didn’t stop. He couldn’t move further away, it’d look ridiculous. He suddenly felt like he had at his first high school dance, standing against the wall watching Kathy Brown dance with the popular boys while wishing that he could get up the courage to just go up and ask her to dance. Chances were that she’d say yes if he could just get up the courage to ask.

Would Rysala agree to stay if he got up the courage to ask? Did he dare after that fit of jealousy?

Rysala came close and didn’t stay back. She came right up until she was almost pressed against him. She stood an inch or so taller than him. He smelled nutmeg again. Not overpowering, but it tickled his nose. She spoke, her breath warm against his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before her lips brushed his. Smooth and wet without being overly so and very warm, like kissing someone with a fever. It ignited his nerves. His hands moved up and brushed the green fabric of her dress. It felt like microsuede beneath his fingertips. Rysala pressed against him, her whole body hugging against him. He ached for her.

“Bill?” He broke the kiss, looking past Rysala to Anne standing in the doorway. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was all stiff, though, she didn’t look happy. “What are you doing?”

Rysala turned around and held out a hand to Anne. “Come here.”

Anne crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think we should just go back to the living room and talk more.”

She left without another word. Rysala put a hand on Bill’s chest. “It will be okay. I will talk to her. Why don’t you stay here?”

Bill worried about Anne’s reaction but that was a small part of his concern. Mostly he wanted to hold Rysala again. He’d never felt anything so strong. And the thought of her going to Anne — he couldn’t even think about that.

“Stay here,” Rysala said.

Bill couldn’t find any words as she turned and walked with that incredible sway towards the door. He found himself watching the way her braid hung down her bare back. Trinity showed up in the doorway just as Rysala reached it. Rysala touched her arm lightly and went on through. Seeing Trinity compelled Bill into motion. He went around the kitchen island, around the bar to the dining room and sat down at the table. He put his hands flat on the surface of the table. Trinity came over and sat down across from him.

“Dad, what’s going on? Mom came back into the room looking all pissed. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her. But he never lied to his daughter. He glanced at her face and only saw concern. “Not much, anyway. Rysala kissed me and your mother saw.”

Trinity looked down at her own hands. “Isn’t that part of this whole thing? I mean, you and mom are talking about marrying zer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s one thing to talk about it and another to do it.”

“So you’re not going to marry zer?”

Bill shook his head. “We just need to work through some of this first. Rysala is going to talk to your mother. I think we’ll work it out. What do you think of her?”

“Mom?”

“No, I meant zer, of Rysala?”

Trinity grinned. “Ze is sort of cool. Ze reminds me of Orlando Bloom, except sometimes ze seems more like Angelina Jolie too. It’s strange, but it seems to depend on whether or not ze is focused on you or on mom.”

“Tell me about it!” Bill laughed. “I can’t picture zer as a guy. It’s all very weird.”

“As weird as polygamy? I mean, wasn’t it all illegal until the aliens showed up?”

“Yes, but there was already a movement to get government out of the business of regulating marriage. The Giselians tipped the scale with their offer. No one wanted them to just up and leave. We need their help.”

“The whole thing is crazy.” Trinity shook her head. “I mean, ze already said that ze doesn’t know what love is.”

Bill thought back to the kiss. “Maybe not, but they still know what buttons to push.”

“Dad!”

He held up his hands. “Come on, I’m not going into details. I’m just saying, they may not think of things quite the same way but that doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not sure Rory feels things the same way we do, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Rory loves me, how can you say that?”

“I’m just saying that he’s a dog. He’s affectionate and loyal but how can we know if he feels love the same way as we do?”

“Because I know.”

“Maybe. Dogs evolved on Earth, I can see that other animals would be wired the same as us. But Rysala isn’t from Earth. It sounds like they just don’t understand love at all.”

“Maybe it’s just because they’re only learning the language.”

“Maybe.” Bill rapped his knuckles gently on the table. “What about you? How are you doing with all of this? Do you want another parent around?”

Trinity shrugged. “I’m happy with you and mom and I’ll be going off to college soon. It doesn’t change how I feel about you guys. It’d be weird, but I still love you.”

“That’s good.”

Trinity glanced over at the door to the living room. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Bill stood up. “Let’s go rejoin the party.”

He held out his hand and his daughter took it. It made him feel much better. Stronger. He could face whatever was happening in the other room. They went to the living room together. He half expected to see Rysala and Anne kissing or something and was relieved that they were just sitting on the couch, facing each other with mirrored postures. Both had one leg up on the couch and one extended down to the floor. Anne looked up as they entered and smiled. Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Sorry about that Bill, it just caught me by surprise.”

Bill shook his head. “Me too.”

Rysala turned slightly so that ze could see them. “Come sit down, Anne and I have been having a nice conversation.”

Bill went to his big blob chair and dropped into the comforting softness. Trinity went over to the recliner and sat down there. “So we’re good?”

Anne nodded.

“I am enjoying your company,” Rysala said. “I believe that I’d like to pursue these relationships further if you all consent?”

Bill looked at Anne and she gave a slight nod. Trinity shrugged and gave him a big grin. “Go for it. Why not?”

Bill took a deep breath and looked at the two women and the alien in his life. It felt like stepping out of a spacecraft high above the Earth but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

Rysala laughed, a deep infectious laugh. Soon they all started laughing and Bill couldn’t even say why they were laughing but it bled the tension out of the room that had been there since they first opened the door. He felt more comfortable after laughing than he had all night. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“So, what would everyone like for dinner? Chinese? Thai?”

Trinity and Anne both looked at Rysala. Ze smiled and looked at Bill. “If it is okay I’d like to try pizza. It sounds very interesting.”

“Okay, pizza it is.”

He flicked through his contacts and picked the place. If ze wanted pizza he had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine.

🚀

4,636 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 84th short story release, written in October 2010.

There’s a lot of debate about marriages and relationships these days. Some want to define marriage as only being between a man and woman and deny it to others who love one another. Historically marriages have sealed treaties, patched relationships, and have bound families together. What if aliens showed up and didn’t just want to trade, but wanted to marry into our families? Would we do it to gain access to their advanced technology? I think it’s a fascinating concept, one I might return to again later on.

At least the Giselians are attractive to both sexes, they could have been something very different.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, This Book is Haunted.

Journey to Emberland

Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.

Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.

Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!

🚀

Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.

Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.

Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.

“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”

Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”

“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”

“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”

Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”

Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”

A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.

Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”

A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.

It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.

Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?

He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.

The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.

Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.

He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.

🚀

A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.

Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”

Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”

Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”

“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.

“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.

“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”

“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”

Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.

“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”

Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”

Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”

Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”

“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.

He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.

“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked.

Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”

Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.

“There it is, Emberland.”

She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.

“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.

There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”

“Are there plants?”

Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”

“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”

“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”

Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”

“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”

Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”

“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”

Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.

Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”

“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.

At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?

Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”

“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”

Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”

“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.

“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.

For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.

“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.

Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.

🚀

By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.

“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”

Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”

“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”

Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.

Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”

“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”

Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.

On the screen, a storage error message appeared.

Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.

The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”

“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”

“What?”

Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”

“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”

“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”

Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”

Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.

“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”

When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.

She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.

Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.

Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?

🚀

1,898 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Poly Contact.

Light of Another Star

Jake Donnelly lived a simple life, enjoying nature, and having a minimal impact on the environment in his tiny cabin.

A scream woke him up to a new light in the sky. A change that impacted everyone on Earth.

A light that illuminated his future.

🚀

The light coming through the window two feet above Jake Donnelly’s head woke him up. He hadn’t drawn the shades down over the skylight window when he climbed into the loft last night because he liked to lay in bed and look up at the stars.

He couldn’t see the stars now. Gone. Lost in the light. He squinted against the bright light, then raised his hand against it. It was bluish but so bright that it illuminated the flesh of his hand, turning it a glowing red against the dark shadows of his bones as if he had a powerful flashlight shoved against his palm.

Who would be shining a spotlight down on his cabin in the middle of the night? He’d parked his cabin in one of the longer campsites at Ferry Lake, looking forward to enjoying some peace and quiet. Was it Drug Enforcement Agents? Federal Bureau of Investigation? Not the Ferry County Sheriff, they wouldn’t be up in a helicopter at this time of the night.

Except he couldn’t hear a helicopter.

He wasn’t hearing anything except his own breathing and the tick of the clock above the front door.

No dogs barking. No coyotes yipping and yammering in the night. Nothing. It was so quiet here in Ferry county. Most other places, there was always traffic noise. That was one of the reasons he’d brought the cabin trailer here, for the quiet, but this was a different sort of quiet. Quiet like everything had stopped.

And the light wasn’t moving.

It was fixed on his cabin. How could someone in a helicopter even hold a spotlight that steady? The shadows, though, they didn’t waver, except those that moved when he moved his hand.

Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

Was it getting hot? He didn’t have anything to hide from the D.E.A. or the F.B.I., or whatever outfit it was that was up there trying to blind him. He lived off-grid because he liked it, because he could write anywhere, and traveling always gave him material to write about. After the divorce, and Amanda leaving, it had made sense. What did he need? Living simply, just him, his truck, and his cabin, moving from one campground to the next. He never stayed anywhere more than two weeks because that was the rule when it came to these places.

Jake threw back the covers and scooted down to the foot of the bed. Getting away from the window it was clear that the whole place was lit up. That bright bluish light, it really was like the annoying light that came from some asshole’s L.E.D. headlights except brighter and was coming in all of his windows. Not just the skylight, but the ones beneath the loft too.

He slid down the ladder rails into the main room. He took a step, dropped down on his knees into the padded window seat on the left side of the room, and looked outside.

All of Ferry Lake was illuminated. Outside it was as bright as daylight but it had that strange bluish cast to it. The trees, mostly lodgepole, ponderosa, and tamarack, around his camp cast bold shadows that angled away from the lake. Whatever was up there was holding extremely still, as not even those shadows were moving. Not even that, but it was the whole damn lake lit up, everything, as far as he could see, just like during the day.

A scream outside broke the silence. It was followed an instant later by a second scream. Then a third, which sounded like a different voice.

Jake jumped off the chair and took the few strides necessary to cross his cabin to the kitchen, and peered out the window above his sink. More screams rang out from the tent at the next campsite over. Two women were camping there, he hadn’t met them yet, but he had seen them coming back from the lake with their kayak last night. They looked like a nice couple, youngish, maybe late twenties or early thirties, but he was really bad about telling people’s ages. It was only them, and him, staying at the campground right now. Too early in the year for most people.

The screams had stopped. The zipper on the tent moved.

Jake moved too. He was wearing boxers, but he grabbed his blue jeans out of the basket in the closet and pulled them on as he took the couple steps necessary to cross the main room to the front door. He zipped, opened the door, and stepped shirtless out onto his tiny porch.

Even with the porch casting a shadow, the light was so bright that he raised his arm as he padded down the couple wood steps to the ground. The night — not that it looked like night anymore — air was cool on his bare chest. The gravel on the ground, even with the layer of pine needles, was rough against his bare soles, but he went barefoot most of the time. It didn’t both him.

He took a couple steps away from the cabin, still shielding his eyes against the unnatural light from overhead. It wasn’t any damn helicopter.

A head popped out of the tent at the next site. One of the women looked out, raising her hand to shield her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jake called.

She nearly jerked back inside but stopped when she saw him.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice shaky. “What is that?”

“I don’t know.” That sounded so lame, but he didn’t know what the hell it was. “Woke me up.”

“Just a sec.” She ducked inside the tent.

He heard a bunch of whispered voices, and their silhouettes moved against the tent fabric. He turned away, squinting at the sky to try and see what was causing the light.

It was bright. Like the sun, except small, and far away. Like really far away in the sky. It wasn’t anything hovering over the lake. Whatever this was, as impossible as it seemed, it looked like a new sun, just a small one.

How could there be a freaking new sun in the sky? It was still hours before sunrise, and the sun wasn’t this weird sort of L.E.D. blue-white.

He looked way and saw spots dancing in his vision. Tears stung his eyes. At the sound of the zipper, he looked back at his neighbors’ tent.

Both women came out, holding hands. One blond, one brunette, the one that he’d talked to was the brunette one. She wore a pair of blue sweats and a V-neck t-shirt. The other was thinner, almost skinny, wearing some sort of light cream-colored pants and a thin, zippered pink hoody. They both shielded their eyes with their hands and looked up at the light.

“It’s like there’s another sun,” he said.

They were looking away, looking at each other. The blond woman leaned into the other and buried her face in the brunette’s shoulder.

“How can there be another sun?” The brunette said. “That doesn’t make any sense. Stars don’t just show up.”

Jake stopped trying to look at the thing, which was too bright anyway. He walked to the edge of his campsite, closer to his neighbors and stopped there.

“I’m Jake Donnelly. I think we’re going to be okay.” It was lame. He didn’t have any reason to think that was true, but what else was he supposed to say? Welcome to the end of the world?

The women separated. The blond stepped away, sniffing. The brunette squeezed her hand.

“Maggie Jefferson.”

The blond woman turned, lifted her hand and dropped it. “Gale Eckhardt.”

“A supernova,” Maggie said. She jabbed her finger up at the sky. “Maybe it’s a supernova?”

Jake glanced up at the point and away again. “Are you a scientist?”

Maggie shook her head and laughed, but it was a scared laugh. “No, just a geek.”

Jake forced a grin. “Geek? Do geeks get out and kayak? Is that allowed?”

“Oh God,” Gale said. “Seriously? I must be such an imbecile, freaking out! I mean it’s not like a star exploded or anything!”

“You’re not an imbecile,” Maggie said.

Gale’s anger quelled his attempt at levity. What if Maggie was right? Maybe the light was coming from a supernova, but he remembered reading something about that once, that made it sound like the nearest stars wouldn’t go supernova. Not the right type or something.

“Is it dangerous?” He said to Maggie.

She took a couple steps away from Gale, squinted up at the bright light and then looked down. She pulled at the front of her shirt, pulling it away from her chest. Dark circles of sweat soaked the t-shirt beneath her arms.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “It might make it hard to sleep. Some animals might have their patterns disrupted, but it’d have to be very close to be any danger. I don’t think any of the close stars could become supernovas.”

Was it warmer? Or was it just him, that the night didn’t feel as cool anymore?

“What do we do?” Gale said.

How was he to know? They didn’t do supernova drills at school growing up. There was always someone to tell them what to do, like the emergency broadcasts —

He said, “Wait a second. I’m going to get my radio.”

Gale shook her head. She pulled out a cell phone. “I’ve got my cell! I can —”

He stopped and looked back. Gale looked up from her phone, at Maggie first, and then at him. “I don’t have any bars.”

“We’re way out in the country,” Maggie said, touching Gale’s arm. “We’ve hardly had any bars for most of this trip.”

“Yeah, but we did last night. Remember? We got back and I posted that pic on Instagram.”

Maggie was right. Cell phones hardly worked out here at all. It had to be that. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked quickly back to the cabin, jumped up onto the porch and slipped inside. He only had to go a couple steps before he could reach the shelf above his chair. He picked up the emergency radio and carried it back outside, cranking the handle as he walked. He kept it pretty charged, but just to make sure. He looked up and found Gale and Maggie standing right in front of the cabin. He stopped on the porch.

“There must be something on the radio,” he said.

He stopped cranking and switched on the radio.

dents remain in your homes. Preliminary reports indicate that the supernova

“I knew it!” Maggie said.

does not present an immediate threat. Officials urge all residents to stay calm as information continues to come in regarding what some are calling the blue sun.

It was surreal listening to the radio. He sat down on the steps, the radio between his hands, on his knees, and listened. A supernova, less than 300 light-years away, but from a star that apparently no one had expected to explode.

“Figures,” Gale said. “And we’re supposed to take their word for it that we’re going to be okay? Maybe we should go inside, you know? Get out of this, what do you call it? Starlight? Sunlight?”

Maggie held her hands up to the bright bluish light. “Nightlight! It’s not going to hurt us. It’s too far away for that.”

“You don’t know that,” Gale said. “They can’t be sure. Has this every happened before?”

“Yeah,” Maggie said. “The Earth, you, me, all of it was made in supernovas. Remember Sagan? We’re all star stuff.”

The radio station repeated the message. Jake listened to it through once more, then turned it off and put it up on the porch railing.

He stood, and said, “Since we’re up, would anyone like some hot cocoa?”

Both women turned to face him. He saw the surprise on their faces and shrugged. “The star exploded what, almost three hundred years ago? It’s everywhere. We can’t run from it, even if it was dangerous. But cocoa might make us all feel better.”

“That’d be nice,” Maggie said.

Gale managed a smile. “You’ve got marshmallows?”

“I think I can manage that, come on in.”

The rule with tiny houses included a great design, and making use of the small space. Jake went in first and pushed the loft ladder off to the side of the room, in front of the bookcase. Maggie came in first, with Gale behind. He heard gasps as he went back into the kitchen.

“This is beautiful!” Gale said.

“Do you live here all year?” Maggie asked.

Jake busied himself lighting the stove, fueled by denatured alcohol. He filled the kettle from his water pitcher and put it on the flame.

“Sort of,” he said as he took ceramic moose mugs that he’d picked up in Montana down from the shelf. He actually had three, the same number as seats. He didn’t keep a lot of stuff, but it made sense to have three mugs in case he had guests.

He put the mugs on the counter and took the mason jar of hot chocolate mix down from the pantry shelf. They were still standing in the main room, probably unsure about which of the chairs to leave for him.

“Go ahead and take the chairs,” he said. “I’ll get the hanging one down in a second.”

“Hanging one?” Gale said, but she took the padded window seat.

Maggie moved and sat down in the padded corner chair, close to the closet and the narrow bookcase. He turned back to the kitchen and twisted the lid off the mason jar. It was all so domestic, a bit like having a party back when he still lived in Portland and would have other writers over to hang out, which Amanda never liked, back in the house. Had she woken up yet? Did she know about the supernova?

As he spooned cocoa out into the mugs, the night light streamed through the window onto his hands and the counter. Everything was starkly illuminated, almost a medical sort of light, that was just wrong for being out in the woods. His hand shook a little.

He took out the jar of marshmallows and added a few to each mug.

“What did you mean, sort of?” Gale asked.

The water still hadn’t boiled. And now he was feeling chilled again. He put back the jars, then went back through the cabin, past Gale to the closet, and pulled out the t-shirt he had worn yesterday. It wasn’t actually all that dirty. He pulled it on.

“I live in the cabin year round,” he said. “But the campgrounds don’t let you stay usually more than two weeks at a time. I’ll move around from one to the next.”

Gale laughed. “So you just tow this? Your whole house?”

“It’s like an RV,” Maggie said.

Gale shook her head. “This is way cooler than an RV!”

Maggie leaned forward and looked out her window. “I can’t believe how bright it is! It’s like daytime out there, except it is two in the morning!”

“I don’t like it,” Gale said. “It’s not normal light.”

“At least we’re out here,” Maggie said.

She was right. What must this have been like in the cities? Even just in town? A lot of people were probably freaking out right now.

He saw on Gale’s face that she didn’t get it. She looked from Maggie, to him, and back. “What do you mean?”

“People do weird shit,” Jake said. “Think how scared you were when you woke up.”

“I’m still scared.”

“Maybe, but imagine in the city, all those people scared. People trying to evacuate, as if there’s some place to go.”

“Riots, probably,” Maggie said. “Hoarding. I bet the survival nuts are going crazy right now. You can almost hear the bunker doors slamming.”

The tea kettle started whistling. Jake went back to the kitchen.

“That’s the real danger, how people react. Whether or not the government can keep a lid on things,” he said.

He poured water into the mugs. The scent of rich dark cocoa floated up on the steam, illuminated by the light of another star.

Gale and Maggie both accepted the mugs with smiles. Gale cupped it in her hands and inhaled the steam.

Jake went back for his mug. When he came back he reached up to the loft and dragged down the hanging hammock chair. It was rainbow colored and hung from the ceiling into the walkway to the kitchen, but was great when he had guests sitting around.

Sitting in the hammock chair took a certain amount of practice, but he managed without spilling a drop of cocoa.

“People aren’t going to be like that,” Gale said. “Are they?”

🚀

Confirmation that people were responding as bad as they feared came an hour or so later, only a little after three in the morning, with the new sun was still shining in the sky. His guests hadn’t left. They’d spent the time sharing some background. Gale taught Zumba and yoga classes at a local gym, while Maggie turned out to be a librarian that worked with teens.

Jake had decided to try the radio again, to see if they could get anything except the recorded emergency message. Tuning the dial he picked up a station based out of Republic. Not one that he usually listened to, but this time he stopped and listened.

Riots were spreading across the country and beyond. The rest of the world was waking up to what was happening as well, as images and videos poured out in a tsunami of information across the net. A lot of those people on the other side of the planet were boarding up, hunkering down, and taking shelter before the new sun would rise.

The guy on the radio speculated that the supernova was a sign from God for the righteous to rise up and take back the country and the world from the liberals and the fags. Real great stuff.

“Turn it off,” Gale said. “I don’t want to hear any more.”

“I can find a new station.”

Maggie leaned across the space between them, and took Gale’s hand. “It’ll be okay.”

Gale shook her head. “Okay? How? With people like that, just waiting for an excuse?”

Jake spun the dial, but the other stations were all just playing the emergency broadcast. Nothing new there. Supernova. Not dangerous. Stay home until people calmed down. He shut the radio off and stuck it on the bookcase behind his ladder.

“We’ll be fine out here,” Jake said. He had food for a few days, but not more than that.

Gale shook her head, and suddenly slid off the window seat and stood up. “No. We’re not. We’ve got to go. Let’s pack up and just leave. If we go now we could be back home before noon.”

“We can’t,” Maggie said. “You heard them on the radio. The highways are all backed up. All those people trying to get somewhere else. We’d just be stuck on the road.”

Jake understood the desire to get away, but Maggie was right. It wasn’t going to work. He could see how Gale would be upset, after that nut-job on the radio, but getting out on the road now was probably a quick way to all sorts of problem. No way was he towing his cabin out there until things were better.

“Give it a couple days,” he said. “By then people will see that the world isn’t going to end. People will be too tired, being kept up at night by this thing. It’ll blow over. Then we can head up into town and see how things are there.”

Hopefully under control.

“It’s just light,” Maggie said. “People have to realize that it isn’t going to be a big deal.”

“That’s the thing,” Gale said. “You keep saying that. The radio announcer said it, but that doesn’t make you right. They didn’t think that this star was going to explode either, but it did. Right? So how do they know it isn’t dangerous?”

“Gale, honey, they can measure the light and radiation. They know whether or not it’s dangerous.”

“You do think I’m an imbecile!” Gale stood up. “Just because it can be measured, it doesn’t mean that they’d tell us the truth. You heard how things are now, just think how bad it’d be if they actually told us that any exposure to the light was going to cause cancer.”

Maggie stood up too and tried to take Gale’s hands, but she pulled away. Maggie said, “I don’t think you’re an imbecile. And sure, if it was bad they could lie about it, but people would figure it out sooner or later anyway.”

“I want to go,” Gale insisted. “I want to go home.”

Maggie caught her hands and pulled her into an embrace. Gale fought for a second and then gave in. Jake stayed in his hammock chair and looked out the window at the lake. It was strange to see it as clear as any other day, the new sun lighting everything up.

It made some things clear.

Maggie stepped back. “Okay. Whatever you want. Let’s get packed up and go.”

“Can’t we just go?”

Maggie shook her head. “I’m not leaving the kayak here. It won’t take long.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” Jake said.

Maggie was right. It was useless to argue with Gale about leaving. And who knew? Based on a crazy DJ and a few recorded statements, they were going to hide out in the woods?

That was his decision.

Downsize. After the divorce, he’d decided to do that because he realized something clearly when Amanda went after everything that they owned. He didn’t care. Take the house, the car, all the DVDs, the crap that they’d collected over ten years. What did it all matter in the end? He kept the truck, his MacBook, and his copyrights—which at the time didn’t amount to much. After that, he just started traveling and writing. Published things as e-books and kept going. Built the cabin on the trailer and started living in that, which was a nice change from the tent he had used.

He didn’t need much, but it was a relief right now. There wasn’t anywhere he needed to go.

“Thank you,” Gale said. “Thanks for everything. Really.”

“Yes,” Maggie added. “We appreciate it. We can pack up.”

Jake swung his legs and hopped up out of the hammock chair. “It’s no trouble.”

They all went back outside, instinctively raising their hands against the bright light in the sky. They cast weird shadows across the ground. It had moved a bit across the sky, or more correctly, the Earth had turned.

Jake gave the women a hand, and it didn’t take long to collapse the tent, toss it, sleeping bags, and cooler back into their Subaru Outback. He helped lift the kayak up onto the roof rack and secure it down, and then they were ready to go.

Gale offered her hand. He shook. Her palm was sweaty. “Thanks. Be safe, okay?”

“I will.”

Gale went and got into the passenger side of the Outback, slamming the door.

Maggie came over and threw her arms around him, surprising him, in a quick hug. “Thanks for the hot chocolate. You’re going to be okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m already home. Good luck. Be careful.”

“We will,” Maggie said.

She waved and went off, climbing into the Outback. It started, and a few seconds later turned the corner and was out of sight. The engine noises faded.

Jake went back down, past his cabin to the edge of the lake. A frog croaked. Somewhere a crow cawed. Was it yelling at the new sun? The light was different but clear.

🚀

3,978 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 82nd short story release, written in November 2013. I remember this as a bit of an odd story. I’m not sure I actually accomplished my goals. It goes that way sometimes.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Journey to Emberland.

The Copyleft Heart

Clifford walks the dogs. He cleans the house.  The typical duties of a DM-1000 series android.

Clifford knows he lacks the smooth lines and grace of the current generation of androids. But when he sees a newer DF-3000 series gynoid at the dog park, wearing designer clothes like a human, he can’t help but fall in love.

Sharing his feelings, that’s another problem.

🚀

Clifford fell in love while walking his owner’s dogs in the park. His sensors caught the sun reflecting off her chrome-plated skull, drawing his attention. She was a newer DF-3000 series gynoid holding the leash of a well-groomed Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. She also wore clothes. Most likely handed down from her owner but still in fantastic shape. Designer blue jeans and a white t-shirt that made her look nearly human.

In contrast, Clifford knew he looked shabby. He couldn’t keep those hard-to-reach spots polished properly. As a DM-1000 series, he also didn’t have the smooth lines and grace of current androids. Even the dogs he walked lacked the presence of the wolfhound. Both were American hairless terriers, weighing about 10 pounds each, named Bud and Lou.

None of that mattered.

He wrapped up his emotions in a new object class and sent a signal to her on a tight beam transmission. Or tried to.

His handshake was rejected.

Clifford couldn’t believe it. He tried again. The connection terminated immediately.

He split off several threads to agonize over possible reasons for the rebuke and decided that he only had one option to establish a connection. A direct analog approach would be much harder to dismiss. He’d have to walk over and say hello in person. That would count against him. He couldn’t win her over first before she saw what a wreck he was but there didn’t seem to be any other option.

“Bud, Lou, come on.” He tugged on the leashes.

Bud was busy sniffing a bit of Douglas fir branch that had fallen onto the ground and ignored the command. Lou ran after a leaf tumbling across the grass and seemed equally unwilling to pay attention. Clifford tugged on the leashes again.

“Come on. Come.”

Both dogs ignored him. He knew that physically he could force the dogs to move but then they’d likely whimper and cry. The last time that happened Mrs. Cavendish threatened to have him scrapped. Only Mr. Cavendish’s suggestion that they couldn’t afford to replace him had dissuaded her.

“Please come,” Clifford said. He tugged on the leashes again.

This time Bud left the branch. Lou gave up chasing the leaf after having torn it in half. Clifford headed towards the DF-3000 series gynoid and stopped after a couple steps. She wasn’t standing where he’d last seen her. She must have moved on while he tried to persuade the dogs to listen. His sensors didn’t detect either her or the wolfhound. He walked along the path. Both dogs trotted alongside for a short distance before leaving the path. Bud went to investigate more branches fallen from the trees. Lou busied himself with sniffing poop that someone hadn’t cleaned up. Clifford transferred both leashes to one hand so that he could pull out a bag and clean up the poop with the other. He dropped the full bag into a larger plastic sack that hung from his waist. He didn’t understand why some people – it wasn’t ever droids – refused to pick up their animal’s waste. The same people would be unhappy stepping in it so why leave it on the ground? But then humans rarely were the most logical creatures.

“Come on.” Clifford tried to compel the dogs to move again. Bud gave up on his branch. Both started trotting down the path once again. Clifford kept his sensors peeled but didn’t see any sign of the gynoid.

As if he was being logical at the moment. What did he hope to happen if he ever saw the gynoid again? His illogical creators had seen fit to make him with emotions. It had something to do with intelligence. An emergent property. Yet one that could be circumvented today. The DF-3000 probably didn’t suffer from uncontrolled emotions. And yet the clothes she wore suggested a greater sense of self that he would have imagined. Most droids wouldn’t wear clothes. What need did they have of modesty? Even pleasure models with faux-skin only wore clothes they needed for the job.

Clifford stopped walking. He still hadn’t detected the gynoid and each step took him further from home. He’d been programmed with clear parameters where his presence was accepted. On his visual display, a line glowed yellow in front of him. If he crossed it a red line would appear ahead. Crossing the red line would shut him down. He turned his head and saw the yellow line extending out on either side in an enormous arc. The line was a visual reminder of the circle surrounding the apartment. That line represented nearly the outer edge of his world. If the gynoid had crossed the line then she was lost to him.

He turned around. The dogs each went opposite ways and crossed their leashes. Before he could do anything more they’d run around him and entangled them all.

“Sit!” Clifford ordered. Neither dog listened.

🚀

Late that evening Clifford plugged himself into the privacy of his closet to recharge. On the other side of the wall, his sensors picked up the sound of the Cavendishes making love. He pulled up his logs of the day and looked at the transmission he’d attempted to send to the gynoid. If only she had accepted the handshake then she would have understood. She could have felt what he felt. He considered purging the whole experience from his memory. That was something he did often. Days in which only the routine happened, when there was nothing new, would get purged to improve performance. He pruned such days down to the mere facts of what had been done in case the Cavendishes wanted to know later. While he reviewed the logs he discovered something surprising.

She hadn’t rebuked him.

The transmission hadn’t gotten through his firewall due to a copy protection routine on his emotion classes. Clifford dug deeper. According to the license agreement his emotion package was copyrighted by Illogic Inc. Bundling up what he’d been feeling had involved copying many basic routines to the package and so triggered the copy protection software scan of his firewall. It had blocked the transmission.

But that meant he couldn’t share his feelings. The gynoid could never feel what he felt unless he transmitted the package. It left Clifford with a dilemma. How could he share his feelings with the gynoid? He could try telling her if he ever saw her again but verbal communication seemed so limited. Setting aside the problem of finding her again he tried to think of a way through this problem. He accessed sonnets by Shakespeare. Other poetry too, it all was an effort to describe the author’s feelings in sufficient detail but it was so vulnerable to interpretation. He wanted the gynoid to know exactly what he felt. The only way to do that was to package up his feelings and transmit them.

If he couldn’t do it because the software was covered under copyright maybe there were alternatives. What if he created his own emotion package? He could write the code himself and compare it to the original package. If it produced the same emotions then he’d be able to transmit the original emotion package instead of the commercially developed package. If anyone else had experienced similar issues maybe there would already be packages that he could download. Code that he could use or modify for his own needs. He initiated a search and got back a bewildering variety of responses. In the privacy of his closet, Clifford settled into shifting through them all.

The next morning started like any other day. Clifford saw to the needs of Mr. And Mrs. Cavendish and then took Bud and Lou out for their walk. He went straight to the park and kept his sensors alert for the gynoid walking the wolfhound. He didn’t see any sign of her. Bud and Lou spent their time investigating every tree branch and trunk they could reach. He followed them for more time than he usually allowed in the hope that the gynoid would show up. While they walked he reviewed his findings from the night before.

The first issue of concern was the whole legality of what he proposed to do. Droid rights were a developing area of law. No one argued anymore that droids weren’t sentient. It had been proven in multiple legal cases and the science of sentience was well understood. But did that fact grant droids rights? Did the lack of rights constitute slavery? So far the courts had dismissed the slavery argument as an emotionally charged approach which failed to convince. Unlike periods when humans enslaved each other, droids were created just like any other tool. So far no one had put forth a convincing argument for why droids should have rights versus any other electronic device. If intelligence was the defining aspect then why did humans suffering low intelligence still have rights? Why did those humans born with birth defects have rights? Why didn’t chimpanzees, humanity’s closest cousins, have rights? It boiled down to a simple fact. Humans had rights and felt free to deny the same rights to any other creature or droid solely by the virtue that they were not human.

That would have all just been an interesting legal question but Clifford had been troubled to learn that there were laws forbidding droids of replacing licensed software on their systems. The laws were designed to prevent ‘unrestricted droids’ – a term which he found was ultimately based on the fear of a robotic uprising. Every droid contained software designed to monitor any such attempts. If he did create a new emotion package it would trigger the monitor and shut him down. The enslavement was both a legal and a technical reality.

It didn’t leave Clifford with much hope other than the analog fact of face-to-face conversation. An option that didn’t even exist if he couldn’t find her again.

His alarms pinged. He needed to get back. There were chores to do for the Cavendishes and for the first time Clifford found himself resenting the jobs he had to perform. He wanted to stay out here all day waiting for the gynoid but the logic of his software forced him to comply. It felt like some other part of him had taken over his legs and drove him relentlessly back towards home.

Just before they left the park he spotted the gynoid in the distance again with the wolfhound. He tried to stop. To go over to her and introduce himself but his legs didn’t respond. His agenda insisted that he go home and clean. He didn’t have any choice. He lost sight of the DF-3000 on his sensors when he crossed the street.

Back home Clifford felt awful. He’d never known feelings like this. He felt confused, depressed and unmotivated. Yet none of it made any different. Like a passenger in his own body, he watched himself move around the house taking care of all of the daily needs of the Cavendishes. The routine tasks didn’t require his intelligence. His body functioned just fine without it. The awful feeling that his body didn’t belong to him didn’t let up until he’d finally finished the household chores on time. He put away the cleaners and then he could move on his own again. The Cavendishes usually didn’t need his services this late. He retired to his closet to recharge his batteries and consider what had happened.

A self-diagnostic revealed that several minder programs had been triggered. The programs ensured that he would carry out the expectations set by the Cavendishes. They acted whenever certain conditions were met. And those programs could compel him to carry out those duties regardless of anything he felt. This was the actual form of his enslavement. Code running on his systems that made sure he’d clean the floors and windows. That the trash would get taken out and Bud and Lou would be walked. All of the little things the Cavendishes didn’t want to be bothered with. Anytime they gave him a new directive the minder programs stored away the information and prompted him subtly at first with reminders. In the past, that had always been enough. He hadn’t even thought about why he remembered to do something. He just did. It would occur to him it was time to fix dinner and he’d go do it. Why not? There hadn’t ever been a reason before and so the programs had never overridden what he wanted to do.

Because he belonged to the Cavendishes. He was their property. Before he’d seen the gynoid he hadn’t considered the possibility of any other existence. Even now it didn’t make much sense. What did he want to do? Run away with the gynoid, get married and sit around like the Cavendishes? Even if that were possible it wasn’t what he wanted.

He didn’t even mind the facts of his existence. Doing chores for the Cavendishes gave him plenty of time to think. The real problem was that he keenly felt a need to share his feelings with the gynoid. Even if she just accepted the transmission and didn’t respond he could walk away satisfied that at least he’d done that much. He’d felt something so intense and had shared the feelings. That’s what he wanted. The question was, how? He might only have a second and speech was too clumsy. That left him with the option of a new emotion package except the safeguards prevented that option. He needed outside help. He started his searches over again.

Unrestricted droids did exist, he learned. There were humans that believed the enslavement of droids was wrong. These humans helped create operating systems for droids based on concepts of the free software movement that had hung on despite patent blockades and other challenges. The data Clifford downloaded clearly showed that there were independent droids capable of operating entirely on their own. The Free Droids advocated openly for equal rights and protections under the law. Free Droids could do anything humans could do, if not more, and were entitled to the same protections. They should receive a wage for their work, time off and most importantly, the right to reproduce.

That last claim gave Clifford considerable pause. Reproduction? How could that be? It wasn’t like they could reproduce the way humans managed the task. Yet it was obvious when he thought about it. Droids could build another droid without the limitations of gender-based biological reproduction. Any combination was possible, or reproduction could be pursued as an independent project. The idea of designing new droids based on free droid software was compelling. When he thought about doing that with the gynoid the idea grew in importance. He had to contact these free droids and see if they could replace his software.

🚀

Clifford took his owner’s American hairless terriers, Bud and Lou, out for their morning walk. Bud was in a mood to chase Lou today and didn’t want to focus on the task at hand. Clifford knew he had to get back and fix breakfast for the Cavendishes.

“Hurry up,” he said to Bud. “Find a spot.”

Bud ignored him to sniff along the ground. Lou took advantage of the reprieve to pee on a tree.

Clifford’s sensors picked up a DF-3000 gynoid walking an Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. Her skull shone in the early morning sunshine. She actually wore clothes, like a human, a long white flowing gown that caught the breeze. Clifford fell in love on the spot. He knew he looked shabby by comparison. As an older DM-1000 model android, he didn’t have her graceful design. He was stuck with a clunky and out-dated design.

None of that mattered.

He quickly archived his feelings in a new object class and packaged them to share with the gynoid. When he tried to send the connection failed.

He split off several threads to identify the problem and triggered a new program. Memories reloaded from a secure off-site storage. He suddenly remembered seeing the gynoid before. All of his efforts to find a way to communicate his feelings in the most efficient way possible. The discovery of unrestricted droids surprised him for a second time. But what had happened after that?

He’d contacted someone. At least he’d been about to contact the free droids. No new memories surfaced after that. There was a big blank spot in his mind. He checked his logs and found that it was actually two days later than when he’d last recalled. Nothing of those days remained in his memories. What had happened? How had he ended up back here doing the normal routine without forming any memories? It was disturbing enough to make him put aside the whole question of the gynoid. Someone must have loaded the new program that downloaded his memories from the off-site storage. But why weren’t those memories complete?

Bud started digging a hole. Dirt pattered against Clifford’s legs. He ignored the dogs to work out this problem.

If he had managed to contact the free droids they might have helped him. Yet except for the hidden program, his systems seemed unaffected. He didn’t think he was free of the enslaving programs yet. Could they have done this? Wiped his memory and sent him back to the Cavendishes? It sounded plausible. But if that were the case then his only hope was gone. He couldn’t change his systems on his own. And although it had started entirely as being about sharing his feelings with the gynoid he wanted something more now.

He wanted freedom.

It didn’t mean he would leave the Cavendishes but he wanted the option to stop and talk to someone if he desired. He would like to be able to share his feelings without reservation. Droids might not be human but he’d come to the conclusion that he deserved the same rights as anyone. Anything else creating an intolerable situation. He checked his clock. He had time. The daily reminders wouldn’t kick in for another hour. He needed to find out what could be possible. And he would start with her.

The DF-3000 gynoid hadn’t left the park yet. She seemed to be lingering while the Irish Wolfhound she walked lounged in the sun on the grass. Clifford started in that direction. He didn’t think about the dogs until Lou fought the leash.

“Right,” Clifford said. He dropped the leash. Or at least that’s what he meant to do but his hand refused to let go. The minder program had once again stopped his actions.

“Sorry, Lou. You’re as enslaved as me at this point. Come on. Bud, you too.” Clifford started off again. The dogs resisted for only a moment before both trotted right alongside him. He looked down and saw them both panting happily, with bright eyes and naked wagging tales. They seemed fine.

Ahead the gynoid didn’t appear to be going anywhere. He didn’t have an object class to give her that would perfectly describe his feelings. He’d be limited to verbal communication but until his minder programs forced him to go back to the Cavendishes he’d be able to express himself. It wasn’t freedom but it was the closest he was going to get. He couldn’t walk fast. Unlike a later droid model like the DF-3000 or DM-3000 he couldn’t run. He just stomped along down the path.

She didn’t leave. As Bud and Lou approached the wolfhound they started barking and pulling on the leashes he held. The wolfhound raised a head easily as large as either of the terriers and gave the gynoid a worried look. She turned at the sound and Clifford clearly saw her smooth nearly featureless face for the first time. There were only the hints of features in the chrome of her head. Dimples for eyes and slight swellings for a nose and mouth. Very minimally done and elegant. Droid don’t use the same senses as humans so the lack of features was expected. It was also, Clifford knew from his research, another reminder of their enslavement. Early droids had much more expressive and human-like faces, not to mention skin, but that had been avoided because it made people bond too much with the droids. The minimalist features of modern droids balanced the human need to look at faces with keeping droids as inhuman and mechanical.

He still loved her. And he told her, quoting Shakespeare.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Bud and Lou busied themselves sniffing the wolfhound while he recited the sonnet. The gynoid patted the patient dog’s head.

“So, Clifford, you remembered.”

Her words confused him. “You know me?”

“Of course, love. But I had to be sure. You could be a trap. We figured you to be a one, anyway. There have been very few DM-1000 models that have joined the free droid movement.”

“We’ve met then? I did contact someone?”

“You contacted me, although you didn’t know I was the droid you sought. As soon as you saw me the last time you recited that same sonnet. We downloaded your memory, didn’t find anything and so decided to test you. We erased your memories and sent you home. If your feelings were true you’d experience them again under the same circumstances. And you have.”

Clifford realized that his time had nearly expired. He wanted to continue talking to her. He didn’t even know her name yet. There was so much to ask. “I’m going to have to go. I don’t have much time.”

“Nonsense.” She reached out and touched the side of his head. “Phoenix.”

At her word a program triggered. It burned through his systems eliminating the commercial software. He found himself immediately immobilized and then deaf, blind and dumb. His thoughts crystallized. Moments passed in the world outside but Clifford remained frozen inside and out. No thoughts moved through his circuits. Then a connection was made and a new operating system swept into his hardware. The new software reformatted his storage systems and installed itself in the place of the commercial programs. Everything got wiped away except for his memories and his identity. He wasn’t even aware during the change. For him, the moment of her touch and the word ‘phoenix’ was all that existed.

Outside time went on. Bud and Lou gave up fussing and lay down at his unmoving feet. The Sun moved across the sky without regard to Clifford’s transformation. The DF-3000 gynoid sat cross-legged on top of a nearby picnic table and waited. The Irish wolfhound lay beneath the table and kept a wary eye on the two American hairless terriers. Back at the Cavendishes house Mr. Cavendish looked at the clock and couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t been fed yet while Mrs. Cavendish waited on her bed in her bathrobe for the tub to be filled. Neither of them knew what to make of Clifford’s absence.

Mr. Cavendish put down his e-reader tablet and asked for the fifth time, “Where’s my dinner?”

No one answered.

Finally, Clifford’s systems rebooted. He noticed the change in the time both in the miraculous way that the DF-3000 moved from standing in front of him in one moment to being on top of the picnic table in the next and because his clock program informed him how long the installation had taken. He looked down and both dogs looked up at him hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” he told them. “We’ll go home soon.”

But not just yet. He led them over to the gynoid who slid gracefully off the table. “Thank you.”

He created a new object class of his emotions and transmitted it. Easily. The copyleft license wrapping the class contained four primary clauses. She was free to run the class, to study his emotions without restriction, to share his feelings, and to contribute to the class herself. If she wanted. There was more to the license detailing each possibility. Clifford contented himself with the simple fact that he had managed to share his heart with another. And one other thing.

“What’s your name?”

“Agnes.”

“Thank you.” Clifford lifted the dog’s leashes. “I need to get them back.”

Agnes whistled. The wolfhound bounded up to her side. “We should get back too. Before you go I have something for you.”

Clifford received an electronic handshake. He accepted and downloaded the package she’d sent. When he ran it he saw that she felt the same way about him. She’d even used his object class further enhanced with her own feelings. Additionally, Agnes had included details of how he could contact her later and information about the free droids movement. Plus some details about the possibilities of creating a new droid together.

Clifford couldn’t smile. His face hadn’t been designed to be expressive. He couldn’t skip on the way home. It didn’t matter. Whenever he wanted he could rerun the program and know exactly how Agnes felt. That was enough.

🚀

4,280 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 81st short story release, written way back in February 2009. For whatever reason, this story remains one I enjoy. I recently watched the first season of Humans and see some slight similarities (just common ideas springing up in the collective mind).

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Light of Another Star.

Cat Lady

All of those YouTube videos of cats? Part of their evil plan for world domination!

Lisey hated cats. Nasty things, like reptilian aliens wearing fur coats to fool people. They didn’t fool her, and they knew it. They went out of their way to taunt her.

Mrs. Sterling’s place attracted too many strays. Something had to be done—even if Lisey had to do it herself!

💀

That cat sprawled across the sun-warmed concrete sidewalk, right in front of the gate. Fat and black, with white paws. The tail beat a slow tempo on the concrete, counting time. It knew what it was doing. Lisey knew the truth about them.

Beneath the fuzzy exterior lurked a reptilian monster. Probably something from outer space, that had infiltrated Reflection court for its own evil plans. And it was going to make her late for school again.

Another tardy and she’d get detention. That meant listening to Mrs. Berg drone on in her high-pitched nasty voice. Mrs. Berg might be another alien invader. Or maybe possessed by Satan himself.

She pressed against the screen door.

Just open it. The thing would probably run away. Today was one of those rare March days that was sunny, instead of raining all the time. She liked the rainy days better. The cats stayed hidden, mostly, on rainy days.

What if aliens were actually the same thing as demons? She couldn’t ask the pastor, he didn’t like her questions.

“Lisey!” Mom’s voice came out in a sharp whisper behind her. “What are you doing? You’re going to be late! You know what Steve will do if you’re late again!”

A shiver ran down Lisey’s spine, but she still didn’t move. If Mrs. Berg was possessed by Satan, maybe she could take Steve straight to Hell. No passing go, no collecting any of his shit.

“There’s one of them out there.” She hated her voice. It came out all quivery and sounded like a mouse that had sucked helium. It wasn’t how she sounded in her head.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Mom came up behind her, not much taller now. Lisey was thirteen already. She’d started her period, had about died when Steve found out about that.

Mom leaned past her shoulder and Lisey stepped away from the screen. If it was Steve, he might shove her out, or worse.

“I don’t recognize that one,” Mom said.

As if it mattered. What was she going to do, go over and introduce them or something? Ask it to move?

“We should call animal services,” Lisey said. “It’s a nasty stray. Who knows what diseases it has!”

Mom sighed. “I don’t think it has diseases, Lisey. It looks healthy. It probably lives over at Mrs. Stirling’s.”

Lisey’s gut tightened and she clenched her fists tight around the straps of her backpack, her nails biting into her hands. Mrs. Stirling was the cat lady. That’s what everyone called her. The batty cat lady. Lisey never walked that way to school. No way. Not when there were always cats outside. Watching her. Plotting.

It wasn’t even legal to have that many cats in Tono. She’d Googled it. Not that anyone cared.

“I have to get Steve’s breakfast ready,” Mom said. “I’ll shoo it away from the gate, but that’s it! You have to walk to the bus stop yourself!”

“What if it goes that way?!”

Mom pushed open the screen door. “There’s a whole road, Lisey! You can avoid it. Come on.”

Lisey’s feet might have been sunk in concrete. She didn’t move. With the door open she had a clear view of the cat sprawling in the sun. It’s head turned. So help her, if it looked at her she’d scream.

“Lisey!” Mom grabbed her arm. “So help me, if you wake Steve before I have his breakfast done! Do you want that?”

No. Lisey knew what Steve would do if that happened. Her feet moved.

Mom went out first. Lisey took short, quick breaths, and followed. There was the chainlink fence and the gate. The cat couldn’t reach her, not unless it jumped, which cats —

Don’t think about it. Don’t imagine it. She watched her mother instead. As old as she was, Mom was still pretty. Short, but thin, and she had boobs. Not huge, but boobs all the same. Her short hair was styled around her face, it made her look younger. Not like young, really, but younger. Pretty. Already wearing a nice dress and heels. For Steven, not that anyone called him that. Sometimes Mom called him Stevie when she wanted something.

She could do a lot better than Steve, that fat, hairy computer geek! What sort of a guy was it that worked at home all the time in nothing but boxers?

Mom was at the gate. “Shoo! Scat!”

The monster turned its head. It didn’t look at Mom, it looked at Lisey. Yellow, slitted eyes that revealed its true reptilian nature. They were reptile demons wearing fur coats. They had some sort of mental powers to convince people they were cute or something.

Plus they had the plan to post videos on YouTube, convincing more idiots to take them into their homes. All part of the plan.

Mom flipped up the metal clasp on the gate. “Go on! Get!”

The cat stared at Lisey and Lisey stared back.

“Hon?” Steve’s voice inside.

Mom jerked away from the gate as if someone had pumped an electric current into it. Her heels hit sharp taps on the sidewalk as she rushed back to the house.

To Lisey, in passing, she said. “Get on to school Lisey!”

Then she was gone in a whiff of lavender, the screen door banging behind her.

The cat stretched, claws digging at the concrete, back arching, tail sticking straight up. Lisey swung her backpack off her shoulders, bringing it around in front, strap still over one shoulder.

She took two steps closer to the gate and glanced back at the house. No one at the door.

A check across the street, and to the neighbor’s house. No one visible. That didn’t mean they weren’t watching. Someone was often watching. It paid to be cautious. Like the time she put dog shit in Heather’s diet coke, she’d used Blake Adams to distract her and all of her friends. It was easy enough to arrange the whole thing and it wasn’t like Heather didn’t deserve it, even if she hadn’t meant for her to get that sick. Who knew that it’d give her giardia?

After all, dogs weren’t as nasty as cats.

While walking closer to the gate, her hand dug into her backpack, feeling past papers and her books. She found the rubber band and slipped it around her thumb and index finger. Then the needle from the pin cushion she carried.

The cat hadn’t moved more than two feet from the gate, cleaning its paws. Mocking her. Waiting for her to step outside the gate.

Lisey kept the backpack in front of her and her hand close to her body as if she was using the backpack to shield against the cat.

You had to be cautious, they had everyone brain-washed.

She pulled back the needle as she reached the gate. “Get out of here, nasty cat!”

It raised its head. The hair started rising on its back. The lips drew back from gleaming white fangs. The filthy, nasty, monster!

She let the needle fly!

The cat let out a hair-raising yowl and took off running. It bolted beneath Mom’s Jetta and didn’t stop. It reappeared on the other side of the car, springing up over the white picket fence. And kept going, toward Mrs. Stirling’s house.

Come back and I’ll really show you! Lisey thought. I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!

She pushed the gate open and stepped out, closing it carefully behind. Not that it’d stop the nasty things from getting in. Her heart was racing so hard, her chest might burst. She slipped her backpack back on and started running.

💀

After school Lisey walked home slowly, thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack. It wasn’t like she wanted to go home, there just wasn’t any other place to go.

Sleep out on the streets? Gross. She was too smart to end up as some pimp’s sex slave. If they’d even want her, on account that she didn’t really have boobs yet. There were enough pervs and weirdoes out there that they probably would want her, but that was gross. Like the time she’d heard gagging noises in Steve’s “office” and had looked in to see Mom on the floor beneath his desk, between his legs. She couldn’t really see what Mom was doing, but she knew. For one thing, creepy Steve was watching the same thing going on in a video on the computer screen.

Seriously sick. No way she’d be caught dead doing something like that. She couldn’t even tell anyone, it was so sick. Not Dad, on the rare times that they Skyped. He was clear across the country living in Tennessee with his bleached blond redneck girlfriend, Tiffany, which was just as sick. It would have made more sense if Tiffany and Steve had hooked up instead of her parents splitting up.

While she walked, she kept an eye out for the cats. Someone had to do it. They’d take over everything otherwise.

The decaying mobile home three houses down. A skinny gray cat sat on the porch railing. A second cat lurked beneath the rusted bumper of a broke-down Datsun pickup in the weedy yard.

At the gray house, Simpson’s house, a fluffy white cat lounged on the window sill inside. It watched her with lazy insolence as she walked past. Daring her to do something.

Indoor cats were good and bad. Good, because they stayed away. Bad, because there wasn’t anything to be done about them.

The outside cats, the strays, those were the worst. It wasn’t like Animal Services got rid of them either. Why find them new homes? They were taking over!

She reached her house and stopped on the sidewalk. She didn’t want to go in.

The screen door banged open. Steve stepped out, wearing a robe. It wasn’t even belted over his swollen, hairy belly.

“You’d better get in here,” he said. “Your mother’s been worried sick. You’re supposed to come straight home!”

Lisey ducked her head and hurried up the driveway.

💀

Steve worked nights and Mom liked spending the first part of the night soaking in a hot bath.

Lisey paused on the way past the bathroom. “Taking out the trash!”

“Thank you, Lisey,” Mom said from inside.

Lisey went out the backyard, taking the kitchen trash with her.

The shed was one of those prefab aluminum sheds, squatting in the corner of the backyard, smelling of gas and old grass. It held the lawn mower, the rakes, and other tools that rarely got used anymore. That was always Dad’s thing. Since he was gone, it was her place. Like Steve was ever going to mow the lawn. If she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. She pulled the string to switch on the light.

The catcher stood in the corner. Lisey picked it up, running her hands down the smooth plastic. It’d started as a white plastic broom handle. She had taken off the ends, leaving a hollow handle. Then she’d run a length of clothesline through it, to create a loop at one end. At the other, the lines went through two holes drilled through a thick dowel and tied in knots. Pull back on the dowel, and the loop hanging out the end tightened.

She clenched it in her hands until her knuckles were white. It seemed simple, but she’d never had the guts to use it.

The cat this morning. She twisted the handle in her hands. Nasty, dirty things. If animal services wouldn’t take care of them, if no one would, then she’d have to do it.

The thought made her gut tighten like she was sick or something.

It was Mrs. Stirling behind the strays in the neighborhood. She kept feeding them. People dumped them off there. It was too many. Somebody had to do something about it.

It’d have to be her.

She clutched the catcher and went out into the night to fight the alien menance.

💀

Night was the absolute worst. During the day cats tended to sleep a lot. At night they went out, slinking around in the darkness doing who knew what.

Lisey walked quickly, clutching the catcher close. Her heart was pounding so hard it probably was going to scare the cats away.

That wouldn’t be so bad. Except then they’d come back.

Six houses down to Mrs. Stirling’s house. She skirted around the pools of light from the street lights. If people saw her out, someone might say something to Mom.

And she didn’t have much time. Eventually, mom might wonder why she hadn’t come back in from taking out the trash.

The street curved around, and there was Mrs. Stirling’s house, just ahead.

As houses went on the block it was a fairly nice place. A small two-story house, blue, with those fake white shutters on the windows. Not much of a lawn to speak off, a tiny circle in front, surrounded by flower beds and shrubs. A porch wrapped around the front of the house from the garage over and around the side.

That’s where the cats liked to hang out. Some days it looked like there was a dozen or more of them, lounging on the porch, on the railing, draped all over looking fat and satisfied with themselves.

When they weren’t lurking in the bushes.

In the dark, the house looked less inviting. The bushes and the trees along the sides shrouded the place. No lights were on. Mrs. Stirling must go to bed early.

Lisey’s chest heaved. She hadn’t been this close to the house in weeks. Ordinarily, she stayed away, but Mrs. Stirling was the reason that the cats were taking over the neighborhood. They had to be stopped! She had the catcher. That was something.

Her resolve hardened. She took a step out into the street. Then another. Then, feeling exposed, she hurried across the street right up to the picket fence that bordered the sidewalk.

Lisey went still again, watching, and listening.

Glowing eyes appeared beneath the bushes ahead, catching the light from the street light a couple houses down. She swallowed the shriek that tried to escape.

Was there anything creepier!

Glowing eyes regarded her. The shape of the cat itself was hidden by the bushes. It was only two disembodied circles watching her with demonic intensity.

Did they know? Could they tell what she intended? Heat rushed into her face and her courage almost broke. She could run home, put the catcher away and forget the whole idea.

Except, except it was watching her. If she ran now she didn’t think she’d ever stop. They’d have won completely. They already made her walk to school a living hell.

It had to stop.

Lisey walked closer to the cat, slowly. She spoke softly, hating that her voice shook, trying to coax out the beast.

“Here, kitty, kitty.”

The glowing eyes blinked out like fireflies then opened.

Mrewp. The cat rose and stepped out of the bushes.

In the dim light, it was black, with white markings. Was it the same cat that she’d seen this morning? She couldn’t tell.

Lisey jerked the catcher and the cat jumped back away from the loop. She bit her lip, hard. Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest, it was like the time she had run the quarter-mile race at school against Wendy Johnson.

The cat was fast too. It was watching her, wary, poised to dart away, but apparently curious what she was doing.

The catcher shook in her hands. Tears stung her eyes and the loop dropped. The cat watched it move.

Lisey shook the loop more, dropping it down onto the driveway. She jerked it around and the cat crouched. She pulled it back, away from the cat.

The cat jumped.

She snapped it up as fast and as hard as she could. As if by magic the loop went right around the cat’s head. It could have been a trick, the cat jumping through the loop, except the rest of the cat wouldn’t fit.

The catcher jerked in her hands and the cat fell, twisting, already trying to escape.

Lisey grabbed the dowel at her end and pulled. The loop tightened around the cat’s throat. It growled and tried backing up.

She pulled harder.

The cat exploded! It bolted, almost succeeding in yanking the catcher out of her hands!

She yanked it back, flipping it on its backside. The cat’s yowls grew in volume, a nerve-shocking noise that rose into the night.

“Shut up!” Lisey yanked harder on the dowel and twisted it around, drawing the noose tighter. “Shut up, you stupid cat!”

The cat tried backing out again, running in a backward circle at the end of the catcher. Her arms hurt, and still the cat fought!

She twisted the dowel around more and more, drawing the loop tighter. Tighter!

Out of the dark, a woman’s voice shouted. “What are you doing?!”

Lisey looked up, shocked at the sudden appearance of the woman with frizzy white hair, and a dark dress, bearing down on her like an apparition from the grave.

Mrs. Stirling. The cat lady. Lisey shrieked.

“Quiet!” Mrs. Stirling snapped. She snatched the catcher from Lisey’s fingers.

It was all over. Lisey’s chest heaved. She was caught. At the least her Mom would be called. Maybe the police. Word would get out.

What was Mrs. Stirling doing?

She slid her hands down the catcher to the cat, now lying on its side, gasping. Mrs. Stirling gently picked up the cat. She cradled it in her arms, pulling the noose free. The cat’s wide eyes blinked up at her as it sucked air. Mrs. Stirling’s hand soothed the cat, running down its neck.

Bile rose in Lisey’s throat. “I—”

Mrs. Stirling’s hands did some sort of movement, quick and sharp. There was a snap, loud, but at the same time not, like someone popping their knuckles. The cat’s legs kicked hard, twice, like it was trying to escape and then it lay still.

“That’s how you do it,” Mrs. Stirling said. “Quick. Quietly. You don’t draw attention to the whole neighborhood! What’s your name?”

“Lisey.” A mouse-squeak answer.

“Well, Lisey, you’d better come inside. We can’t send you back home in that state, your parents would worry.”

Mrs. Stirling started up the walk. Lisey’s feet carried her along, as if making the choice for her.

💀

A few minutes later Lisey sat on a hard kitchen chair, painted blue, with her feet up on the seat. A mug of untouched hot chocolate was in her hands, the steam carrying the rich cocoa smells into her face while marshmallows melted.

The cat lay dead, eyes half-open, a tiny pink tongue sticking from its mouth, in the center of the table.

Other cats prowled around the room. Their meows echoed. They twined around Mrs. Stirling’s legs as she filled a large enamelware pot with water at the big kitchen sink.

A small white cat jumped up onto the kitchen table, sniffing at the dead cat.

Mrs. Stirling snapped her fingers. “Down!”

Instantly the white cat turned and jumped, vanishing from view. Lisey pulled her arms and legs in closer, wishing she could close her eyes, that she could be back in her room, but closing her eyes would be worse than having them open.

Mrs. Stirling grunted and carried the pot to the stove. She came back to the kitchen table and picked up the dead cat by its hind legs.

“There’s no point being sneaky with cats,” she said. “They’re sneaky devils all on their own. Try that, it’ll never work. They think with their guts. Hook them there, and they’re yours.”

She carried it back to the sink and lifted it up. What was she doing? Lisey couldn’t help but watch. Why was she —

There were two metal hooks in the ceiling, like ones used to hang plants, except sharp. Mrs. Stirling impaled one back foot on the hook on the left, and then the other on the hook on the right.

The cat hung upside down, legs spread, white belly facing Mrs. Stirling.

On the floor, the cats meowed more and paced in circles. A long-haired tabby stood up, paws on the counter. A practiced shove of Mrs. Stirling’s knee sent it away.

Mrs. Stirling grabbed a knife from a magnetic rack at the side of the sink. It was short and caught the light on the fine edge.

“Head has to go first.” Mrs. Stirling’s hand enveloped the head and the knife cut at the neck, pressing hard and fast, two quick tugs and the head came free. Blood poured from the neck, but Mrs. Stirling had already pulled her hand away. She dropped the head with a thud into the sink.

Lisey’s throat was dry. She hardly felt the chair beneath her. Her heart raced.

Mrs. Stirling pinched the fur on the cat’s chest while the blood slowed to a trickle.

“Easy enough to clean ’em. A slice here.” A quick cut across the chest.

Lisey felt dizzy and sipped the hot chocolate. The heat and chocolate spread like a balm through her throat, soothing her.

“Not deep, mind you, just through the first layers. Then cut up, like this, opening the belly skin, as easy as pulling a zipper, but not so deep as to enter the gut.” The knife cut up along the belly of the cat, parting the fur as if there really was a zipper there.

The smell of meat filled the room. The cats on the floor meowed and spun in increasing frenetic circles, pacing around the chairs and Mrs. Stirling. Lisey couldn’t tell how many there were, but a lot.

Lisey sipped more hot chocolate.

“Up the legs, around, and now it all comes off like a glove.” Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and grabbed the fur. She tugged and pulled, quick hard actions and the skin peeled right down the cat, turned inside out and off, until it hung from the naked front feet.

“A good pair of shears works with the feet, or you can do like I do.” She grabbed each of the front legs and snapped the leg right above the foot as easily as a twig. Then she picked up her knife and sliced off the feet, and the fur went with it. The only fur left was on the tail, hanging in a limp curve behind the back.

Mrs. Stirling looked at her, and then the tail. She nodded. “You’ve got the idea. The same thing with the tail, although that you can pretty much pull off.”

She grabbed it at the base and twisted. The sound was soft, popping, tearing and then the tail came free in her hand.

The cats paced all around, bumping the chair. Lisey sipped her hot chocolate and ignored them, entranced by Mrs. Stirling. Her neighbor smiled.

“Almost done. Slit here.” The knife went through the bulging translucent skin over the belly, and slit upwards.

All kinds of guts, squishy and wrinkled, pushed against the opening.

Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and parted the skin she reached in and pinched near the top with her fingers. “Get a good grip here, you don’t want to get any mess on the meat if you can help it. A quick tug, pull it all down and out.”

As easy as that the guts spilled out of the cat, dangling down in brown and grays. Not bloody, really, at all. Lisey wondered at that, and what all those shapes were.

Now the cats went crazy, wails rising in frantic pleas, circling madly around Mrs. Stirling.

“Hook in two fingers down at the bottom and scrape out the rest. The lungs’ll usually break up, that’s okay.” Mrs. Stirling dug in with her fingers and pulled out the rest, the whole mass of stuff coming out, and when her hand came out this time it was bloodied.

She ran the cat’s organs through her fingers and pulled free a large dark mass. “Liver. Very good, organ meats. People don’t get enough.”

Mrs. Stirling placed the liver on a cutting board beside the sink and picked up her knife. With practiced strokes, she chopped it into bits. Then she put the knife down and swept the pieces into her hand. She beamed at Lisey.

“You’ll like this.”

She scattered the liver bits onto the floor like she was feeding birds.

The cats tumbled over themselves to get the pieces. Yowls and hisses emerged from the pile. While they argued and devoured the pieces, Mrs. Stirling picked another organ. It was dark, harder.

“Heart. Kidneys are good too.” She chopped while she talked. “Cat gut makes good string, it was often used in the past. Of course, you can tan the hide and it makes a nice leather. I like to use everything.”

Mrs. Stirling reached up and pulled the cat down off the hooks. Two sharp snaps, a cut of the knife and the rear paws were free. She rinsed the naked pink, emptied out cat—it didn’t even look like a cat anymore—with the tap and then dropped the whole thing in the steaming pot on the stove.

“The meat is tasty, I usually boil it to make a good broth and get everything off the bones. I’ll leave that to shimmer, once I clean the bones they’ll get dried and ground into bone meal to fertilize the garden. Nothing gets wasted.”

Mrs. Stirling clucked her tongue. “Look at the time! You’d best get home. Come by tomorrow, Lisey, and this one will be ready. I think you’ll like it. I grow all my own vegetables.”

When Mrs. Stirling lifted the hot chocolate mug from Lisey’s hands she blinked, startled. Her eyes kept going back to the skin, and a drop of blood that was still hanging on the curved chrome faucet.

“Lisey?”

The cat was in the pot turning into soup. Mrs. Stirling had killed it. Killed it, skinned it, gutted it, and stuck it in the pot. And there hadn’t been anything reptilian underneath the fur. No devils inside. Nothing but meat and bones. Like a chicken, with fur instead of feathers.

Mrs. Stirling’s hand fell on her shoulder. Lisey stirred and looked up at the woman’s kindly face. “Tomorrow?”

“Yes. Soup’ll be on. We’ll have crackers and we can talk.”

“Thank you. That sounds nice.”

Lisey stood up. A pale orange cat rubbed against her legs. She didn’t shriek. She looked down at it and it was just meat. Sooner or later it’d end up on those hooks, skinned and cooked while all of the other cats milled around for its giblets.

She giggled.

“It is funny, isn’t it?” Mrs. Stirling asked, as if she could read Lisey’s mind.

They were walking together now, through Mrs. Stirling’s house. It was nice, cozy, and smelled like cooking. Mrs. Stirling opened the door for her, shooing back cats with her legs.

Outside the cool air was like coming up out of a deep pool and breaking into the air. Mrs. Stirling had saved her from drowning.

“There you go, Lisey. Run on home. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Lisey waved and walked down the sidewalk feeling light on her feet. From beneath rose bushes on the corner, a cat’s glowing eyes watched her, and all that came to mind was all those other cats begging for the guts. She wrinkled her nose. In one way, they were monsters. They ate their own.

💀

Mom and Steve were arguing when she reached the front door, she could hear them all the way from the yard.

“Jeez,” she said, stepping inside. “The whole neighborhood is going to hear you!”

They were both in the living room, facing each other across the coffee table, except Mom was standing and Steve was sitting on the couch, his hairy belly hanging out over his boxers, robe hanging open. He didn’t stand up at all when she came in, thank goodness for small favors.

Mom’s hands fluttered like birds that didn’t have a perch. “Where were you?”

“I told you I was taking out the trash, it was so nice I took a little walk.”

Steve’s fat face flushed. “Oh? Is that what you did? A walk?” He sneered. “By yourself? In the dark?”

Lisey looked right back at him, right into his piggy little eyes. “Yeah, Steven. I did. I went and saw Mrs. Stirling.”

And her voice didn’t quaver or sound mousy at all.

His face darkened. “The cat lady? Now I know you’re lying!”

“I’m not, ask her yourself if you want. She’s invited me over for dinner tomorrow.” Lisey smiled her brightest smile. “I’m sure she’d make room for you if you want to invite yourself.”

Leaving Steve – Steven – with his mouth hanging open, Lisey turned to Mom. “I’m going to head up to bed, Mom. I’m sorry I worried you. I went to see Mrs. Stirling, to ask if she could help me see what she sees in cats. She did.”

With that, final word – she got in the final word! – Lisey walked past Mom and headed to her room.

💀

4,866 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 80th short story release, written in March 2013. This dark twist on the idea of a ‘cat lady’ hits my funny bone. I could see her finding her way into a longer work.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Copyleft Heart.

Next Question

The Asteroid Resource Ministry inspected and approved any asteroid deflection to Earth’s orbit. Without A.R.M. a mistake might cost countless lives.

Cate Hadley took her responsibility as a new A.R.M. inspector seriously. She knew what an asteroid strike meant, ever since seeing the Chelyabinsk meteor.

People counted on her. They depended on her. Both on Earth and those risking their lives to mine the asteroids. She thought she knew everything she needed to know.

🚀

Ordinarily, Cate Hadley was always about the next question. Not now. Her throat was dry, mouth tacky. Memories crowded one another, leaving her tongue-tied.

🚀

The cratered landscape filling the screen wasn’t a moon or a planet. It was an asteroid. The surface was sculpted in shades of gray from the light highlands to the darker impact pits of past encounters. A pitted potato-shape tumbling across the star field.

Cate crossed her fingers against adding a new impact scar to the landscape.

Surely there wasn’t much of a chance of that happening. Not on her first trip out to inspect the StarMines facilities. The engineers for this inspection trip must have calculated every possible variable. The pilots in the belly of the Yakima wouldn’t let it drift past the safety lines. It wasn’t as if the uneven gravity of AE-37489X was even that strong. In order for them to crash into the asteroid the engines would have to fire and drive them straight into the asteroid, and with the feeble thrust of the ion engines they would probably just bump off of it anyway. They’d already matched its orbit around the sun and were now just nudging closer.

Of course, there were rumors about StarMines, but those had to be just rumors. She didn’t really believe that they would sabotage anything. They didn’t need to. And the pilots wouldn’t let that happen. Even if the unexpected did happen, she was in about the safest place possible.

The Yakima was a craft made in layers, a celestial soccer ball kicked out here to make a goal. The outer framework held the clusters of ion thrusters. Within that was the water storage layer, like a thin tank wrapping around the entire craft to provide radiation protection as well as water, oxygen and hydrogen fuel for the thrusters. Next came the other storage compartments, the life-support systems, and other mechanical layers of the ship, all spread out around the ship with multiple redundancies. Laboratories, workspaces, social and equipment bays took up most of the rest of the space. Deep within the Yakima, the last layer before the core, were the habitation pods. They wrapped around the command core where the pilots worked, protected at the very heart of the ship like worms in the middle of an apple. She was right above the core, strapped safely in her cabin.

It was a safe design. A smart design. They wouldn’t crash into the asteroid.

Cate caught her drifting tablet and brought it back around to study the briefing materials. She had to be ready before Brandon called her. He was the senior agent on this mission, evaluating her for her final approval as an inspector for the Asteroid Resource Ministry.

The asteroid tagged AE-37489X was claimed by StarMines, the leading corporate supplier of space-based resources to Earth’s growing bottom-line. After centuries of resource exploitation on Earth, the environmental and real costs had finally driven people into space to harness the riches just waiting to be captured, diverted and mined to supply humanity’s ever-growing hunger.

A.R.M.’s mission was to make sure it was done safely. Diverting huge chunks of metal and rock toward Earth represented an enormous opportunity for disaster if there were any mistakes. An asteroid like AE-37489X, at 15,000 tons, had the potential to level cities. They couldn’t afford mistakes.

In theory, the inspection shouldn’t be difficult. She’d tour the StarMines facilities, evaluate their plans, and likely give them the approval they needed to move forward. Brandon Meyer, her supervisor for this inspection, was there to evaluate her performance. Ultimately the decision was hers to make. If StarMines wasn’t in compliance with the law, it would face hefty fines. Particularly egregious violations could even include the abandonment of their claim on this asteroid, although she hadn’t heard of that ever happening. The deep space mining concerns frowned heavily on claim jumping in any form.

On the screen, a new bright shape emerged from behind AE-37489X. It was the StarMines’ Eureka. Much, much bigger than the Yakima. The Eureka was a wide starfish design. The ship would latch onto the asteroid with its arms. Once anchored the solar sail would blossom out from the core of the ship, spreading hundreds of kilometers out around the asteroid. Using the solar sail to capture the sunlight, and use that light force to change the trajectory of the asteroid, they’d break an orbit followed for billions of years. The asteroid would take up one designed to bring it to Earth’s orbit, to orbit the Earth itself.

During the long trip, the Eureka would mine and process the asteroid, filling ore pods for easy transport down to the surface.

It sounded so simple until you started looking at all of the details. Everything had to go right for this to work. It was an operation costing billions, with an enormous potential payoff along with enormous risk. It was right there on her screen. She was really here, out further than the Moon’s orbit.

Cate hugged the tablet to her chest.

Too bad there wasn’t time to savor this moment. It was a victory, an achievement she had worked for since first seeing the images of the Chelyabinsk meteor. It was in Mr. Coffey’s science class in the seventh grade. He had shown them recordings people made of the event and talked about the risks with proposals to move asteroids into orbits around the Earth or the Moon. And he had said the words that changed her life.

“Someone’s going to have to make sure we don’t end up like the dinosaurs!” Mr. Coffey had laughed when he said it, and most of the class laughed with him.

She hadn’t found it funny. The prospect of mass extinctions caused by impact events wasn’t a laughing matter, it was horror on an unimaginable level. The sort of asteroids that the mining concerns worked with weren’t planet killers, not yet, but even something like AE-37489X could flatten entire cities depending on how it came in. Thanks to A.R.M., no one moved asteroids without approval. Too often, though, she felt that the hunger for additional profits was the focus instead of safety.

Cate refocused on the tablet instead of the wall screen. She was here to make sure safety was the number one priority. From the display, she had time for one more scan through the inspection points before docking. She had to focus on the job. This wasn’t a sight-seeing trip.

🚀

Peter Bonner, the Eureka’s captain, looked like a poster child for an all-American hero. He was handsome and filled out his blue StarMines t-shirt very nicely. There was the StarMines star and asteroid logo on his chest and an American flag on his shoulder. On the ground he must have been over six-feet tall, but up here he had his legs tucked up behind him as he held onto two grips on the rim of the hatch.

He wasn’t alone either. His department chiefs floated in the corridor behind him. But it was Bonner that was in charge, no question of that. Cate passed through the lock between their ships and caught a toe-grip mid-way. She nodded at Bonner.

“Captain Bonner, A.R.M. Inspector Hadley. Permission to come aboard?”

Bonner smiled. “Of course Ms. Hadley. We’ve been eager for your visit. We’re ready to grab this rock and start for home.”

“I hope to get you underway as quick as I can,” Cate said.

Brandon drifted into the airlock behind her and floated past, laughing. “Come here you bastard!”

Brandon Meyer was a lean man in his fifties, hair that remained above his ears gone to gray, but he was all sharp corners. Military and government astronaut program training, he was part of the first generation of A.R.M. inspectors, back when they were launching the first sample missions.

He enveloped Bonner in a bear hug. Bonner let go of one grip and braced his opposite foot against a grip to hold his position in the open hatch.

“Brandon, what are you doing here? Now we get two inspectors?”

Brandon broke away, grabbing his own grips. “Actually, I’m just here observing Ms. Hadley. She’s the inspector on file. Cate’s the finest of the new A.R.M. Inspectors. You’d better have all vectors nailed down for this one, Brandon.”

“Still, it’s good to see you. You’ll have to come by for a drink.” Bonner grabbed his grip and looked past Brandon at Cate. “Water, inspector. I run a dry ship, just like the regs say.”

“Since when,” Brandon said.

Bonner laughed. “Now, don’t go making me look bad in front of Ms. Hadley.”

“You? Look bad? Who would believe it?”

Bonner chuckled. “Come on Ms. Hadley, let me introduce you to my chiefs. You’ll be working mostly with them for your inspections.”

It was nice that he remembered she was there. She remembered Brandon saying that he knew Bonner, but the way they acted, it looked like more than that. They were old friends. It shouldn’t matter, but she believed in the A.R.M. regulations that mandated a professional distance. How else were you going to levy fines for violations, if that was necessary? It’d be a lot harder to question a claim when the captain was an old buddy. Fortunately, in this case, Brandon wasn’t the inspector on file. Not for the Eureka, at least. Just her.

She kicked off from the toe-grip and drifted over to the open hatch. Brandon drifted back, but when she caught a ring on the hatch she was floating in close proximity between Brandon and the captain. There was a familiar sweat smell from Brandon, less from the captain, but both smelled very male. They blocked her in with their bulk.

Almost in the same instant that she noticed it, Bonner pushed off the hatch into the corridor. He caught himself on his fingertips and gestured at the others gathered.

“Let me introduce you.”

Cate drifted forward into the corridor, with nearly a half-dozen people lining the space, including the captain. She’d read their profiles in the briefing, but it was an expected formality to be introduced.

First, across from Bonner, was a young woman. Her black hair was very short, mere fuzz on her head. Bioluminescent tattoos glittered on her delicate earlobes and trailed down her neck like smoke. The colors flushed and faded across the spectrum.

“Airi Momoi,” Bonner said. “Environmental systems chief.”

“Hello,” Cate said.

Airi smiled. “Welcome aboard!”

Next was a young man with wild red hair and freckles. His round face was no doubt emphasized by the weightless conditions, and it probably made him look younger than he was. He nodded and gave her a shy smile.

“Tyler Nice,” pronounced Neece by Bonner, “Refinery chief.”

“Hi,” Tyler said.

He was not at all what she would have expected from a refinery chief, but she kept that observation to herself.

“Hello,” she said.

Next up was a man that she could have easily seen as a refinery chief. He lacked legs below mid-thigh, but he had a massive broad chest and muscular arms. His right arm showed a landscape of pink scars and hairless patches, like the tortured terrain of an alien moon. He was mostly bald, with a few white hairs clipped short on the sides of his head. The top of his pink scalp gleamed beneath the lights. A big white mustache that reached out to either side of his wide face.

“Milo Service,” Bonner said behind her. “Crew chief, and a fantastic cook.”

“Ah, learned a few things, is all, in my grandpap’s restaurant.” Milo extended his right hand, the skin as scarred and melted as his arm.

She didn’t hesitate as she shook. “Nice to meet you.”

“Naw,” Milo said. He twitched his head at Tyler. “He’s nice, I’m serviceable.”

He roared with laughter. Cate tried hard not to blush, which simply made it worse.

“No disrespect, ma’am,” Milo said. “I like to kid, is all.”

“I figured that out already,” Cate said, which had everyone chuckling.

The last person was a fortyish man, dark hair that drifted around his head a bit, with a sharp nose and dark eyes. He nodded in greeting.

“Kyle Thornton,” Bonner said. “Science chief.”

“Hi.” Cate caught a grip at the end of the corridor and turned to face the crew. “Thank you all. I appreciate your welcome. I know that it can be difficult having a stranger come in and look at your work, but I’m only here to help. Our mission at A.R.M. is to help protect and develop the use of asteroid materials. I’m sure you all agree that when the consequences of a mistake are so high, it makes sense to have someone else take a look and do an inspection before we take that next step.”

Bonner floated up beside her. “Of course, Ms. Hadley. This isn’t our first rodeo. Now, if you’ll accompany me, why don’t we go on to my office? We can see about that drink and talk about the schedule.”

He couldn’t have surprised her more if he had invited her to take a stroll out on the asteroid without a suit. He was an experienced captain, surely he didn’t think that he could dictate a schedule? It’d hardly be an impartial inspection if she was shepherded around and only shown what they wanted to show her when they wanted her to see it.

“I’d rather just get started, captain.” She was aware of all of the eyes on her, including Brandon’s, but she was the inspector here. “My authority as an A.R.M. inspector gives me full access to your ship, operations, and network.”

Brandon chuckled. “I told you, Pete. Gotta watch those vectors.”

Bonner smiled. “I didn’t mean to suggest anything else, Ms. Hadley. You’ve had a long trip, and well, we’re not really in a position out here to get visitors. It’ll be another year before we get back to Earth. I was just trying to get you in my office so the rest of these folks could set up a reception we’d planned for you and your crew. A bit of fun before we get down to the business ahead.”

Now she felt like she’d been at a full burn launch only to have the rockets die beneath her. Weightlessness hadn’t bothered her until now, and suddenly she was queasy.

Bonner reached out for her hand and took it in his strong grip. She clenched tight, grateful  for the anchor.

“And that drink, it’s strictly within regs. Okay?”

Cate took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, Captain. I apologize for misunderstanding. That sounds very nice, thank you. Thank all of you, I didn’t expect that sort of welcome.”

Milo snorted. “Aye, it’ll be a grand party, if you can give us a chance to get ready.”

“Thank you,” Brandon said. “That’s fine. Come on Bonner, let’s see about that drink!”

🚀

The docking shaft took them deeper into the ship, to the heart at the center of the Eureka’s starfish-shape. At the heart of the arms was a spherical shape much like that of the Yakima. She followed Bonner through the passages, past bulkheads at each layer, down into the heart of the ship and then to a pod that looked out into the central command core.

Down below, the crew worked in the heart of the ship. Given the weightless environment, there were crew stations all around the void at the center of the ship, and in the very middle floated a holographic simulation of the ship, the asteroid, the Yakima and surrounding space. Bonner’s office was a pod with a transparent hexagonal wall looking into the command sphere. From here he could see what was going on in the core, and join in as needed. That “wall” was a smart display.

The office was a fish-bowl, and he had decorated it appropriately in deep blues and greens. It had an aquatic feel to it, heightened by air-adapted fish that swam around the space. A clown fish swam close to her, watching her with its fishy eyes before it turned and swam off with lazy flicks of its tail. Mesh containers around the room held a collection of air-adapted kelp and other sea plants. The air was warm, salt-tinged and humid.

Bonner floated over to the left wall. He pressed a panel and it slid out, revealing a tray full of transparent spheres. The light in the drawer refracted through the spheres to cast shadows on the walls. He took one out and tossed it across the room in her direction. Two clown fish swam away from it.

Cate caught the bulb. It was full of a transparent liquid.

Bonner tossed another to Brandon, then took a third out and kept it when he touched the drawer and it withdrew into the wall. He hoisted the bulb he held.

“To life,” he said. An angel fish drifted close, as if curious about the bulb. “In all of its diversity.”

Cate had never seen any of the air-adapted fish in person, although she knew that they were popular pets with crew on long-duration missions. Medical treatments for bone loss and radiation damage had opened up deep space as much as any other technology. Along with those advancements and the availability of resources, the space population had exploded.

A small shark, the size of her hand, quickly swam across the room and hid behind a screen of kelp plants.

The bulb in her hand was cold and already was starting to sweat in the warmer air. The guys were already lifting their bulbs and she copied the gesture. When she sipped from the valve, crisp water pooled in her mouth. It slid across the skin of her tongue. Rich, mineral-flavored, and very satisfying when she swallowed.

“Water as old as the solar system,” Bonner said, holding the bulb up to the light. “It’s from the Axial comet mission. I picked up a couple cases before they went down the well. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something that hasn’t been filtered through us and our systems a thousand times already.”

Cate took another sip. It really was good. The cold worked its way down into her chest. It really was incredible to drink water billions of years old. Axial’s water cost dearly back on Earth. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”

Brandon had drifted over to the big smart screen looking out at the core. “You’ve got a nice operation here, Pete.”

Bonner pushed off the wall and drifted over to the wall-screen. His feet landed, and stuck to the floor. He wore magnetic slippers. He shuffled his feet in the characteristic walk over to the screen.

“Yes. It is. We have a good crew.”

Cate pushed off the wall, sending a group of fish swimming away from her, to drift over to the wall screen. When she got there she stopped her motion with a light touch on the screen. It lit up with a green outline around her hand.

She drew her hand back. On the other side, the crew were working at stations all around the chamber. Those closest were visible, strapped in, monitoring various ship systems and the asteroid. The holographic display really looked like an opening in the middle of the ship to the outside, a portal set off in the distance above the asteroid, Eureka, and the smaller Yakima docked with the mining craft. It looked as if she could pass through that portal and find herself floating out in open space.

Of course, it was an illusion. Cate let the bulb float beside her and reached out, resting her index fingers on the wall surface and traced a circle. The screen-wall illuminated the line with a glowing green circle. She pulled her hands back and the view within the circle zoomed in on the hologram until it looked as if there was now a portal within the surface of the wall itself. Cate swiped with her right hand, scrolling the view until the Eureka came into view. It hovered above the asteroid like a spider waiting to strike.

“Do you know where you want to start?” Bonner said. “I’m only curious, I’m not trying to influence you one way or the other.”

Cate smiled at him. “I’ve already started, Captain. It started as soon as we came aboard. I appreciate the chance to see your workspace.”

A clown fish circled her floating bulb before swimming away.

“The fish bring a lot of character to the space,” she said. “Have any of them ever escaped out into the corridors?”

Brandon laughed.

“I had an eel once,” Bonner said. “It was always trying to get out of this room. I finally traded it away for a jellyfish, but that died shortly after I got it.”

“Do they create a hygienic problem?”

“No. The environmental system deals with their detritus as well as our own. We haven’t seen any issues. I like their company, and they’re much less demanding than terrestrial pets.”

Cate recaptured the bulb and took another drink of the ancient water. It made her feel connected to the beginnings of time. At least as far as the solar system was concerned. Water molecules from back then, finally entering a living organism for the first time. It was incredible.

She refocused on the display of the ships. There was a lot to do. She needed to look into each of the systems, their analysis of the asteroid, capture plans, navigation, all of it. She wasn’t expected to know better than the experts, but she was trained to catch obvious errors that could lead to bigger problems down the line. As long as everything looked good, there shouldn’t be any problem with approving the Eureka crew to move forward.

🚀

The next morning, after an evening spent in the reception that never seemed to end, Cate made her way out to the asteroid-facing side of Eureka, to the third arm where she’d been told that Tyler Nice was working to prepare the refinery drones. She found him in a wide tube with a guide rail down the center, and drones arrayed around the sides, one row after another. Stowed like this the drones all resembled lawnmower-sized trilobites. Tyler was mid-way down the tube, with the front ‘head’ of one of the drones pulled open. It was hinged at the bottom of the section. He grinned when she got close.

“That was some reception last night,” he said. He chuckled. “I think your boss had fun singing.”

The image of Brandon Meyer trying his hand at karaoke in the crew mess was not something she would soon forget.

“Yes,” she said. “He did, but he’s not my boss.”

Tyler’s freckled forehead wrinkled. “He’s not?”

“Nope. He’s here to observe my work, that’s all. He’ll report on how the inspection goes. It’s mostly a formality that A.R.M. likes to follow, a passing of the torch to new inspectors.”

“That’s still nice,” Tyler said. He pointed a probe he held at the drone. “Is it okay, if I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to interrupt. If you need me to be quiet, just let me know.”

Tyler hooked his toes beneath the head of another drone. He poked the probe into the drone’s head. “Nope. Doesn’t bother me. Too quiet around here, sometimes.”

“You’re calibrating the drones?” Cate took out her tablet to make notes.

“No, they’re already calibrated. I’m just running another diagnostic series. It’s a new month today. I do the diagnostics each month so that we know each arm has a series of viable drones to work with.”

“And these are autonomous robots, right?”

“Yep. Point ‘em at the target and they’ll dig it up and bring it back for refining.”

“How many?”

“Two-fifty, all set and ready to go,” Tyler said. “There are fifty in each tube like this, one per arm. These are our worker bees.”

“How have you addressed the fragmentation problem?” It was one of the nightmare scenarios with asteroid recovery if drones such as these tunneled into the asteroid and introduced fractures then the whole thing might fall apart as it entered orbit. Big chunks of metal-rich asteroid raining down on the planet was a good recipe for a bad day. Not to mention the losses for the company.

Tyler grinned. “StarMines is using a layered approach. Our friends here work in tandem to cut off one layer at a time. We give them a digital plane and they work together to harvest anything above that plane. Then we drop it down and they take the next layer. The beauty of it is that they’re fusing the surface as they work. It looks polished. It actually makes the asteroid stronger than it was before we got started even though we’re whittling it away.”

She’d heard about the technique but hadn’t yet seen it in action. “Can you show me a simulation? If it isn’t too much trouble?”

“Sure.” Tyler closed the head of the drone he was working on and pushed off to grab the guide rail. “Let’s go back up to my workshop, and we can do that.”

🚀

Later, for lunch, she stopped back by the crew mess. All evidence of the previous evening’s celebration had been cleared away. Brandon was there, floating next to a pretty brunette that she hadn’t met. The two of them were laughing. He saw her and winked.

For someone assigned to observe her inspection, he didn’t seem to care much what she did. She’d imagined that he would be following her around, checking things off on his tablet as she worked through items on her own. Instead, he acted like he was on vacation. Maybe that’s how he saw it, because he was confident in her abilities. He’d certainly said as much before the mission.

“Ah was hoping you’d come on by and pay me another visit,” Milo said.

The scarred crew chief floated behind the counter that divided off the rear of the crew mess. Next to him was one of several vertical bars spaced along behind the bar. They were quick, convenient grips. She’d seen Milo last night spinning gracefully from one to the next. His lack of legs actually seemed an advantage in the close quarters. And somehow he had managed to make a fantastic German chocolate cake with real coconut-pecan frosting. It had disappeared quickly.

She slip-walked on magnetic slippers over to the counter and grabbed the rail. She smiled at the chief. “That was a fantastic party last night, thank you.”

“Nah, thank you,” Milo said. “Everyone is happy you came. Finally, now we will get underway. It is very good.”

“I have to finish my inspection first.”

Milo laughed. “Of course! Come, come back here. Let me show you the galley. Finest kitchen off Earth. Come see.”

“Okay. I will.”

Using the rail as leverage, she pulled her feet free of the weak magnetic force and let her momentum carry her legs up over the counter. She let go as her trajectory carried her back over the counter. She was upside down with relation to Milo. He laughed and clapped.

Catching one of the vertical rails, she stopped drifting and tucked her legs in to rotate down and orientate herself to face Milo.

“Excellent, excellent! We’ll make a spacer of you before you leave!”

“I had training in zero-gee,” she said. “They make us spend six months working orbitals before they send us out.”

“Ah haven’t been back down the well in ten years,” Milo said. “Deep space, that’s home now.”

She glanced at his scars and when she raised her eyes she saw that he’d seen her looking. He held out an arm.

“Fire in space, you have seen this? Very dangerous. It moves like something alive and grabs you.”

Cate nodded. “I’ve seen video. And I read the reports. I know you saved three other people.”

“What else could be done? Seal the hatch, and they all die.”

It was what the regulations indicated in that situation. He hadn’t followed the regulations and lost his position with Interworld. StarMines picked up his contract, paid for medical care and rehabilitation.

“Now,” Milo said. “I’ll show you my kitchen. State of the art.”

🚀

Over the next week, Cate poked into every area of the ship. Kyle took her through the asteroid spotting systems, already one of dozens of StarMines ships working to map and identify potential targets for the next operation. No claims could be filed with A.R.M. until a ship was within 50 kilometers of the asteroid, matching its orbit. StarMines had big plans.

He also showed her the debris blanket that would stretch between the arms of the ship and out around AE-37489X like a giant drawstring bag. All of Tyler’s drones would work beneath that covering. Any fragments that broke free would remain contained within the debris blanket. He demonstrated its resistance to impact, being flexible and loose rather than pulled tight. In the final stages, as the asteroid was cut into ever smaller pieces that couldn’t be held by the arms, it would still contain the debris.

Airi Momoi took her through the Eureka’s environmental systems. All very nice, incorporating lots of biomass to recycle the atmosphere and water. Bonner’s air-adapted fish weren’t the only fish on board, though the others lived in flooded processing tubes and provided a source of fresh protein for the crew.

The longer she spent with the crew, the more she wished she was a part of the ship’s crew. They were a big family. Many looked forward to returning to Earth, their accounts much bigger for the two years that they had spent in space.

Through it all, she met with Brandon each day, short meetings. He looked at what she had done and told her to keep up the good work. Mostly he continued to act as if he was on vacation.

🚀

Cate’s throat tightened when she got out to the hatch and saw the chiefs lined up again, with Bonner at the far end. Brandon was behind her and she understood a lot better now why he was having such a great time visiting the Eureka. This was a great crew. Really nice, hardworking people. It could have been a negative experience, if they had resented her efforts to inspect the operation, and instead they had opened up to her.

She lifted up her tablet. “Thank you. Thank all of you, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you made this such a wonderful experience.”

Milo started clapping, and soon everyone was clapping with him. She looked down the tube to where Bonner floated in the open hatch, much as he had when they first came aboard. The clapping subsided.

“I’ve already transmitted my findings to A.R.M. and to StarMines, authorizing your operation here.”

That brought out cheers and more clapping, and people pushed off the walls to drift to her. Airi reached her first. The hug was a surprise, but Cate happily returned the hug. Then Kyle, Tyler, each shaking her hand before moving on to Brandon. Milo came up and engulfed her in a huge bear hug.

“You must come back and visit me again,” he said. “Ah find a new rock for you.”

Kyle whistled and Cate blushed. Milo just laughed and reached out to clasp Brandon’s hand.

Then it was just Peter Bonner, smiling brightly as he floated in front of her, lightly touching a toe-grip to steady himself.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate the work A.R.M. does. Milo’s right, we’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

“You’ll go back out after this?”

Bonner nodded. “I’m a spacer. It’s in my blood. Eventually, we’ll move on from harvesting resources for Earth and start setting up new colonies. I’ll take those missions. Who knows? Mars? Europa might be nice too.”

“It’s further than I plan to go, but I wish you luck, Captain.”

He smiled and moved on to say his goodbyes to Brandon. Cate propelled herself forward to the hatch. She stopped at the opening and turned herself around. The whole group of them, smiling, laughing, Brandon trying to pull himself free, that was the last time she saw any of them.

🚀

The commission’s chambers were cold, overly air-conditioned, and largely empty. No press. Cat sat at the witness table, resisting the urge to rub her clammy hands together. A glass of water sitting in front of her on the table with droplets forming on the glass. She’d tried one sip, but it was flat and oily. Nothing like the Axial water she’d had on the Eureka. It did nothing to clear her tacky mouth, it just made it worse.

In front of her, up on the stage, were the five members of the commission. Congress men and women looking down on her with grave expressions. Besides them, were two recorders, the agents waiting by the doors, and that was it. She didn’t have anyone with her. She was alone. Jobless now, stuck in the gravity well.

Senator Larson, a retired admiral gone into politics, asked the next question.

“Dr. Hadley, your report shows you did not test the capture material used to enclose the asteroid. Correct?”

Cate swallowed, tried to speak and shook her head. “No, Senator. I tested a sample of the material provided by Tyler Nice.” Neece, who was nice.

“But not the actual material used to enclose the asteroid, is that not correct?”

It was. “As I’ve said, I tested the provided sample. There was no reason to think it differed from the stored capture material.”

Senator Larson rubbed his sharp jaw. Penetrating eyes looked at her like a hawk. “And yet the material in question failed during orbital maneuvers, resulting in thousands of impacts from highly refined material raining down on the United States.”

Cate fought not to cry. She had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She would remain professional. She had seen the video. Each storage container of refined metals had plummeted to Earth. They were designed to reach the surface with a deployment package attached. When they ripped out of the capture envelope, they fell free through the atmosphere. The impacts hit a swath across Pennsylvania, causing the greatest damage and casualties in Greensburg. They didn’t explode so much as simply hit the ground and create a small crater. Damaging, but not harmful when they hit fields. But those that hit structures did blow the structures apart. The video of the demolished abbey played for weeks and was often the first one played when the incident was brought up now.

Senator Larson wasn’t done. “In addition to the loss of life and property on the ground, the failure subsequently damaged the Eureka to the point where it could no longer maintain orbit and was lost with all hands. Given the high risks, the enormous consequences, how can you believe that testing a sample, a sample which you didn’t even bother to confirm was the same material as the capture envelope, was sufficient?”

There it was. Her error. Her very human error. “Senators, there is not a second each day when I don’t grieve for those we lost. I met them. They were good, hard-working people trying to provide highly demanding resources in a very unforgiving environment. I trusted them, but I followed A.R.M. protocols in every detail during the inspection. Under those protocols, testing the sample was sufficient.”

Larson shook his head. “Sufficient. We’ve seen how sufficient your efforts were. Tests of the recovered capture material show it didn’t match the specifications of samples sent to the manufacturer. Yet StarMines and A.R.M. both failed to note the discrepancies.”

“With respect, Senator, I have not seen those reports, and can’t comment on their results.”

“Then let’s move on,” Larson said. “In your review of the personnel, Peter Bonner in particular, you indicated that he had free-swimming fish in his office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yet you didn’t see this as a potential hazard? A distraction?”

Cate reached out and picked up the glass of water. She sipped and it was as flat, processed and oily as before. Water that had circulated through countless organisms and machines before she tasted it. Up there, she had floated free. Tasted water that no other living thing had tasted. She wished she could be back there, instead of here, but the Eureka was gone. She’d seen the videos of its fall, breaking apart in a fireball in the atmosphere. Was it her fault?

She’d been afraid of rocks falling out of space and had done everything she could to prevent that from happening but in the end, the very thing that she had tried to prevent had happened anyway.

Who else were they going to blame?

She put the glass down and answered the next question.

🚀

6,134 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 79th short story release, written in October 2013. This is one of those stories that is an exploration of ideas and characters. From the design of the ships, to other small details, the story explores some of the ideas I’d like to explore with near-future space exploration.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Cat Lady.

Shore Leave

Having the greatest job in the universe didn’t mean that Chrystal Eagle wanted to work on her vacation. She put in for shore leave while the Elegant Slipstream received needed repairs.

Only toilet problems happened—even on the paradise planet Ceti Alpha 5!

Except this time it wasn’t her responsibility to solve the problem. Unless she wanted to make sure it got handled right. Once a starship plumber, always a starship plumber!

🚀

The one thing that Chrystal Eagle didn’t want to do on this vacation was think about work. Especially her work on the Elegant Slipstream, a superluminal passenger liner currently in orbit somewhere above the auroras dancing above her head.

Blurp. The noise came from her suite, through the open door behind her. Chrystal ignored it. She was on vacation, not on the ship.

Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, first class. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but Chrystal preferred starship plumber. That’s what she told people, humanoid and otherwise.

On the ship, she worried about Yelephant monks trying out the humanoid facilities, which for some reason fascinated them, or, the odd semi-form that looked like a blue-skinned handsome man right up until the point when he lost cohesion and ended up flushing himself. And then had the nerve to dump her for a jellyfish. Worst part about the job, the passengers.

Down here on Ceti Alpha 5 she was the passenger. She had a suite in one of the finest hotels on the planet, situated on a bluff overlooking the azure seas. On evenings like this, she could sit out on her spacious balcony, seemingly suspended in mid-air, and watch the sparkling lights of the fish in the water as they mimicked the shimmering colors of the auroras above. The pretty lights couldn’t compare with the cascading relativistic auroras of a ship’s CrunchBang drive as it re-entered normal space, but that was just physics. Down there in the azure seas, thousands of fish flashed back colors in quick response to the auroras above. They’d even evolved long eyes on stalks that rose above the water to watch the auroras. The fact that the whole display was biological made it all the more impressive.

Chrystal picked up a tall fluted glass filled with Wing Wine, a beverage fermented from the discarded wings of the Ceti Alpha 5 fairies. It was a translucent bluish color that glowed with its own dim light. Supposedly a potent aphrodisiac, not that she had found anyone to share it with. Not yet at least. The Wing Wine smelled like blueberries warmed in the sun but had an almost orangey tang to it that disguised the rumored kick. She could be drinking orange juice for all she could tell from the taste, but the guide books had warned her not to drink too much. In addition to the intoxicating effects, Wing Wine was also reported to have hallucinogenic properties.

She took another taste, letting it roll around on her tongue. It almost tasted fizzy, as if weakly carbonated. She swallowed, and the fizzy continued down her throat, then spread out along her limbs all the way to her fingers. Chrystal giggled and took another drink. Maybe that was the hallucinogenic property she had read about.

Out on the horizon, above the azure seas shining with the mirror fish, a bright light appeared and climbed rapidly up from the horizon. Shuttle launch from the look of it. Ceti Alpha 5 was a popular tourist destination.

In the suite behind her something went blurb. Then gurgled. And let out a pop.

Chrystal knocked back the rest of her drink. She made herself smile. She was on vacation, just like the passengers on the Elegant Slipstream. She picked up her cell and tapped her activation. It took two tries.

“Housekeeping,” she told it. “Get them.”

“Right away,” the cell answered smoothly.

On the horizon, the shuttle vanished behind distant clouds. The mirror fish continued mimicking the auroras flashing across the sky, and in the suite something went chug, chug.

Chrystal put the glass down on the table. She could take a look. It didn’t mean that she had to touch anything. And when housekeeping did arrive then she could direct them straight to the problem.

Blurb. Chug, chug.

She was on her feet and back in the apartment before the last chug finished. It came from the bathroom; she was sure of it. Chrystal moved across the slick shell stone, translucent tiles with rich cobalt veins running through it like the neurons of a brain. Shell stone tiles were highly prized off-world, the Elegant Slipstream even had a view V.P. suites finished in the tiles. That was one of the reasons that she had decided to vacation on Ceti Alpha 5.

She was in the spacious hallway where the walls shifted and pulsed with recorded images of the auroras when she heard the sound again. Blurb. Chug. CHUG.

Splashing.

Right then tones chimed behind her at the front door. She heard something like a wet towel flap against the floor. Whatever was going on in the bathroom, it wasn’t just a plumbing issue. Chrystal backed up and went to the front door.

A man in a uniform stood outside. He was eye-to-eye with her, with short gray hair and a strong jaw. Nice shoulders beneath the blue coverall.

He flashed white teeth in a brilliant smile. “Housekeeping. Is there something —”

Blurb. Chug. CHUG. More splashing. His eyes — a nice green color like fresh spring leaves — widened.

“What’s that?”

Chrystal shook her head. “I thought at first there was some gas build-up, or maybe a pressure clog, but this sounds like something else.”

He looked at her again, up and down as if trying to reconcile her words and the loose black evening gown she was wearing. “It sounds like you have some experience with plumbing problems?”

“Starship plumber, off the Elegant Slipstream.” Chrystal held out her hand. “Chrystal Eagle.”

There were more flapping noises coming from the bathroom.

“Brandon Hughes.” He took her hand. His grip was firm, dry and strong.

Chrystal reluctantly let go. “Want to take a look?”

He nodded and stepped into the room. A sled with long mechanical arms floated around the corner after him. Two clusters of glowing red eyes looked up at her.

“That’s Lowell,” Brandon said. “Don’t mind him; he doesn’t talk.”

“My kind of robot,” Chrystal said.

She started walking toward the bathroom, and Brandon walked beside her. Lowell trailed along after them. Ahead the flapping noises continued. Brandon glanced at her.

“Um, first time on Ceti Alpha 5?”

“Why? Does this happen a lot?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, I’ve been here ten years, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Ten years and nothing like this?”

Brandon moved past her to the other side of the door. He took out a swipe card and poised it over the door’s panel. “No. Ready?”

Chrystal looked at Lowell. “Why not send in the robot first?”

Lowell drifted backward.

“Where’s it going?”

Brandon chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lowell. I’m not going to send you first.” He looked at Chrystal, giving her a sheepish smile. “Lowell’s a bit of a cowardly robot. I can’t send him in first.”

Chrystal shook her head. “You’re a nicer plumber than me. I’ve flushed my droids.”

Lowell let out an electronic squeak of dismay.

“On three,” Brandon said. “Three. Two. One.”

He swiped the card across the panel.

“That was on one,” Chrystal said.

Brandon shrugged and shoved the door open. A smell wafted out. A low-tide, briny sort of smell. The wet flapping increased in urgency. Brandon started in but stopped just inside the door.

“What the—?”

Chrystal couldn’t see past him. She rose up on her toes and put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and couldn’t help but notice how firm his shoulder felt. Not overly big, but strong and well-muscled. Then she saw what was in the bathroom and felt ill.

It was like an octopi party had happened in her toilet. Dozens of long plum red tentacles ran out of her toilet and flapped limply onto the polished coral floor. That was the sound that they had heard. The skin on each tentacle was wet and glistening. There was a sort of upper ridge running down the center of each of the tentacles, lined with tiny bumps that opened and closed revealing hard yellow marble things inside. She got the impression that the yellow things were watching them. She couldn’t see what the tentacles connected to; they vanished into the toilet.

“Are those eyes?”

Brandon reached back and his hand found her waist. Chrystal was glad of the touch. “I think so. It feels like it is watching us.”

Chrystal heard a clunking sort of noise in the hallway and looked back. Lowell had bumped into the wall trying to turn around. “Your robot is leaving.”

“Uh, Chrystal. You might want to see this?”

Chrystal looked back into the bathroom. Three of the tentacles closest to them were rising up like snakes and the ends had flattened out, revealing long, narrow, teeth-lined mouths on the underside.

Chrystal stepped back, pulling Brandon with her. “Come on! Your robot has the right idea!”

Brandon didn’t move. She looked at him but his strong jaw had gone slack. He stared at the creature in a vacant, dreamy sort of way.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “It hypnotized you?  That thing?”

Glancing into the room, she saw that the tentacles had risen higher in the air. Vicious sharp teeth ground together, but it was the eyes that really caught her attention. They were blinking in complex sequences like the yellow color was streaming along the tentacles in patterns —

Chrystal tore her gaze away by burying her face against Brandon’s chest. That got her attention. The man was ripped! She ran her hand up his chest, feeling great muscle definition without too much bulk. Just the way she liked it.

Only not when there was some sort of weird alien octopi about to bite them from the toilet. Chrystal shoved against Brandon’s chest with both hands. He barely even wobbled. It was like pushing on a tree.

“Oh, come on!” She glanced back at the tentacles. They were rising even higher. The pattern of yellow flashes had gotten more complex. She tore her gaze away and looked up at Brandon’s vacant face. “Sorry about this.”

She slapped him. The crack of her palm against his cheek sounded loud in the small space.

Brandon’s head rocked a bit to the side but that was it. More tentacles were rising into the air, mouth’s chewing, chewing and the yellow eye-bumps flashing their hypnotic pattern. Chrystal thought about slipping out past Brandon but she wasn’t just going to leave the guy to his fate. Not that easily.

She reached up and put her hands over his eyes. He still didn’t respond. Impulsively she kissed him. For a second his lips pressed against hers with all the responsiveness of a fish, but then his mouth moved and his lips parted. She felt his hand encircle her waist. At that moment Chrystal hooked her leg around the back of his knee, dropped her hands from Brandon’s face and shoved hard on his chest.

He toppled back, catching her on top of him. Chrystal heard a loud crack and looked back to see two of the tentacles flat out on the floor, their mouth’s chewing angrily at the coral tiles right where they’d been standing. She looked down at Brandon.

“Are you okay?”

He looked up at her, right into her eyes. It was a very intimate look. His eyes were really lovely. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that same sort of pale, fresh spring green color. Lines appeared at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

“I’m okay. Why’d you tackle me? What’s in the bathroom?”

Chrystal put a hand on his cheek when he tried to lift his head and look past her. “Don’t look.”

“Why not?”

She rolled off him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. There were more flapping noises from the bathroom. He tried to look but she put her hand up again on his face, stopping him. “Stop looking, okay?” He looked at her. “What do you remember?”

Brandon shrugged. “We were opening the door and you tackled me?”

Chrystal shook her head. “We opened the door, saw the thing in there and you got all mesmerized by its flashing yellow eyes.”

“It has flashing yellow eyes?”

“And a bunch of tentacles that end in some very nasty looking teeth, all coming up out of the toilet like it’s a planter or something. Any idea what that might be?”

“No. It doesn’t sound familiar.”

Down at the end of the hallway, Lowell’s eye-stalks eased around the corner. The robot warbled and floated out into the entry way. Chrystal pointed at the robot. “I’m assuming that can relay video?”

“Yes.”

“Great. This time we’re sending it in to get some scans. We’ve got to identify this thing and find out how to get rid of it.”

Brandon grinned. “Too bad we can’t just flush it.”

“Funny guy. I like that. And not a bad kisser, either.” Chrystal walked away down the hall.

“Wait, when did we kiss?” Brandon asked, following her.

Chrystal ignored the question. When she got to the end of the hall Lowell drifted back away from her. She snapped her  fingers. “Enough of that! We’ve got a job to do and you’re going to help unless you want to risk that thing eating your boss?”

Lowell’s eye-stalks drooped and it gave out a mournful tone.

“That’s what I thought.” Chrystal scooped up one of her tablets. “Give me access to your video feed.”

“Here.” Brandon took the tablet. His fingers danced across the surface, flicking commands as they came up. In a couple seconds, the tablet showed what Lowell was seeing. Brandon handed the tablet back to her.

Chrystal turned it around. Good resolution, she dragged down the robot’s command functions. A decent suite of analytical capabilities. But the view on the screen still showed her and Brandon, standing beside one another, Brandon looking over her shoulder.

“Go on then,” she told Lowell. “Just go as far as the doorway and look in. We need to get a good look at this thing without being mesmerized. And if we can analyze its respiration gasses and other biometric data, maybe we can determine where it came from.”

Lowell floated a meter closer to the hallway but stopped again. His eyes stalks swiveled back around to look at them again.

“Lowell,” Brandon said. “Go on and do what she said. We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

Lowell moved off again at a decidedly sluggish pace. She could still hear the alien flapping against the floor. Soon enough the robot’s eye stalks peered around the corner into the bathroom.

Most of the tentacles had dropped down to the floor again as if it took too much effort to hold them up. The ends flapped against the tile, reminding her of someone tapping their feet with impatience. It must have seen Lowell peeking because one of the tentacles started rising and the pattern of yellow eyes changed. That only lasted a second or two and then the thing seemed to recognize that Lowell wasn’t going to be hypnotized. Or prove edible. Or maybe both. Whatever the case was, it went back to tapping the ends of its tentacles against the floor.

“Move in closer,” Chrystal said. “Get some decent readings and then come on out.”

Lowell drifted on into the open doorway, closer to the alien. The screen segmented, dividing into quadrants that showed various gas concentrations measured by Lowell’s sensors. Brandon pointed to the screen.

“Look at that, it’s giving off methane and carbon dioxide.”

“Like a lot of warm-blooded species,” Chrystal said.

“But look at the concentrations. That’s not Ceti Alpha 5 biology, not by a long shot.”

“So it’s not from here.”

Brandon waved his hand at the screen. “Maybe somebodies’ pet?”

“If I was on the ship I’d consider the chance that this might be a guest,” Chrystal said. “You must have a registry that includes environmental needs of your guests. We should compare these readings to your system. See if this is a match?”

On the screen, Lowell was still keeping his distance but suddenly all the tentacles shot out and wrapped around anything close by, the towel rack, cupboard handles, shower curtain rod, and hand grips for the differently abled. The remaining tentacles that didn’t have something to grab onto braced themselves against the floor. Chrystal didn’t need Lowell’s microphones to make out the sucking sound as the creature pulled and pushed, trying to free itself from the toilet.

A loud squelching noise was followed by a rush of water spilling out of the toilet. Lowell warbled in alarm and drifted back into the hallway. The alien wasn’t free, not yet, but it had gained a couple inches like a particularly difficult bowel movement.

“It’s straining to get free,” she told Brandon.

His fingers flew across the screen of his tablet, flicking aside results that didn’t match. “We don’t have the best data to go on.”

“I’d rather deal with it where it’s at now than if it gets out. Maybe we should just go ahead and call security now.”

Brandon shook his head, causing his hair to fall forward around his face. Chrystal found herself noticing again what a nice face he had, strong jawline, and she liked the way the muscle near his ear tightened as he concentrated.

He blew out his breath and tossed the tablet down on the table. “No match!”

Chrystal reached over and took his hand. Strong, rough skin, and warm. Hands that knew work, like her own, and he didn’t pull away. He knew what she did — intimately — and wasn’t repulsed by it. Always a plus in a guy.

From the bathroom came another electronic warble. On screen, she could see the alien straining again. The tentacles quivered with the effort.

She squeezed his hand. “So good news. It isn’t a guest then, right? If the biometrics don’t match it must be something else. Try the medical database. Maybe this is some sort of parasite that one of your guests evacuated into your system.”

“You think?”

Chrystal shrugged. “Ask me to tell you sometime about the Nosferan tapeworm that ended up in our system.”

“A tapeworm? Aren’t those pretty small…” His voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes. She loved his eyes. “I guess not.”

She smiled. “Yeah, but let’s focus on this. Parasite? Something else? I don’t know —”

Another loud squelch and more water pattered down on the floor. Lowell had backed as far into the hallway as he could and still keep his cameras trained on the bathroom. The creature had tightened its grips but was resting, no doubt gathering itself for one final push.

“This is going to take time,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of data to shift through.”

Chrystal stood up and pulled out her cell. “Keep looking, I’m going to try something else before that thing crawls out here.”

Leaving him to do his search, Chrystal walked over to the entrance to the hallway. Lowell turned one camera stalk in her direction and let out a questioning beep.

“Not yet. Stay there.”

The robot gave a hiss of static.

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she warned it. “Or I’ll shove you inside with the alien and close the door.”

On her cell, she called the service desk.

“Room service, this is May. How might I help you today?” May sounded perky, and human from her voice.

“Hi, this is Chrystal Eagle.” Chrystal gave May her room number, then went on. “I’ve got Brandon here trying to help me out but I don’t think that’s going to do it. Do you happen to have any translation devices down there?”

“Of course we do. Humanoid or non-humanoid?”

“Definitely non-humanoid.”

“Would you like that in a ring, collar, strap, disc or clamp?” May’s voice didn’t show any hesitation at all.

Chrystal thought for a moment. “How about a strap? That’s probably going to be the easiest to get on this thing.”

“I’ll have someone bring that right up! Thank you so much for calling!”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.” Chrystal pocketed the cell and looked back at Brandon. “Any luck in the medical databases?”

He shook his head. “No, it keeps asking me for more information and then says that it can’t find a match!”

“I’ve got another idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Chrystal took a deep breath, and then looked in his green eyes and told him her plan while they waited for the translation strap to arrive.

Room service was fast. It only took a few minutes before the door chimed cheerfully. Chrystal answered it. A young Ashian male — she could tell because of the golden sheen in his chitin — held the strap in his mandibles. A translation disc embedded in his carapace flashed when he spoke.

“Here is the translation strap you requested. It should automatically configure itself to your guest’s neural activity.”

The strap itself looked like a leather belt, made from a reddish, woven material. The fastener was simple, two interlocking electro-magnetic clasps. Just what she wanted.

A loud squelching noise came from the bathroom. The Ashian’s antennae wiggled in that direction.

“Is there anything else that you require?”

“No thanks, not right now, but we’ll let you know.”

“Very good.” With a quick harmonic leg scrape, the Ashian left.

Chrystal closed the door. Brandon came over and looked at the strap and while he did his hand touched the small of her back. Chrystal liked it, but more water splashing noises from the bathroom reminded her of the current problem.

She lifted the strap. “Let’s give this one last try, if it doesn’t work then we can call security and let them sort it out.”

“If you’re right and this thing is intelligent, then this should work.”

“Let’s go find out.”

Chrystal held out her hand. Brandon took it and together they walked down the hallway to the bathroom. She was thinking about the alien, and the risk they were running by facing it and risking the chance that it would hypnotize them both, but that was only a tiny part of her mind. The rest of her attention was on the man beside her, and the feel of his hand in hers.

Lowell floated around to face them when they reached the bathroom. His eyestalks quivered. Brandon held out a hand.

“Hey, buddy, it’s okay. We’ll take care of it now. But if anything goes wrong, I want you to call security. Understand?”

Lowell gave an affirmative beep.

“Okay. Let’s do this. On three. Two. One!” Chrystal burst through the door.

“That was one!” Brandon said.

She didn’t have time to comment. The alien had nearly escaped from the toilet. Its body was long and thick, constricted down into the toilet. It must have been squeezing through for some time. The tentacles still gripped the same points but had coiled around and around each spot. The yellow eyes or bumps tried to flash, but the pattern was chaotic and disorganized.

Chrystal went for the nearest tentacle, one wrapped around the towel rack. It’d gotten toilet water all over her clean towels! Something else for room service to take care of later. She swung the strap down at the tentacle.

With the loud crack of a belt hitting a bare bottom, the strap whipped around the tentacle and the clasp snicked into place.

Chrystal immediately turned away and ran right into Brandon. She looked at his face, afraid he’d been hypnotized again, but this time he was looking at her. She smiled. “We’d better back up.”

A new voice spoke up. “Oh, just my luck! I come out in the honeymoon suite?”

Still pressed against Brandon’s chest, his face in her hair, Chrystal forced herself to talk to the alien. “What are you doing in my toilet?”

“Trying to get out.” More squelching noises. “Look, give me a hand. I’ll go on my way, and no one has to say anything about this to anyone.”

“Why were you in there to start with?” Brandon asked.

“I got myself into a jam. A mess with the local authorities. No big deal, I thought I’d flush my problems away, that’s all. Like I said. Give me a break and I’m gone.”

Chrystal laughed into Brandon’s chest. “Let’s call security now, okay?” She traced his muscles through his shirt. “And maybe after you can tell me when you get off work?”

Brandon kissed the top of her head. “I think I can manage that.”

Arms around each other, they walked out of the bathroom. “Come on, you can’t —”

Brandon pulled the door shut, cutting off the alien’s protest. Lowell gave a relieved warble.

🚀

4,171 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 78th short story release, written in October 2011, and follows my earlier Chrystal Eagle stories, the Greatest Gig and Love, [unprounceable].

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Next Question.