Evan joined the portal program to explore new worlds untouched by human hands. Exciting. Frustrating. The portal stayed open not quite four hours and each time it opened to a new world somewhere in the universe.

Stranded alone on an alien planet, Evan realizes he may never see another human face again.

His only hope of rescue—whether or not his friend Sarah can decipher the alien portal technology.

🚀

Evan ran. His lungs burned. Dozens of species of unidentified plants brushed past him, sliding off his slick skin-tight suit. His breath echoed in the helmet. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trickled down toward the sealed neck collar.

He was late.

The portal only stayed open not quite four hours. The floating count-down timer on his heads-up said that he had five minutes left. The seconds spun in a blur.

“Where are you?” Sarah’s concerned voice came over the radio.

Evan pumped his arms harder. His calves and shins ached. Too much low-gravity work lately. “Almost there.”

He tried to keep it sounding light and easy, but that was hard to do when he couldn’t breathe.

“Less than four minutes left,” Sarah said. Her voice scaled up in pitch. “I don’t see you.”

“Must be trees, in the way.” Evan crashed through more greenery and a bunch of feathered bird-like critters with four iridescent wings exploded into the air and flew off making a clack-clack sound.

He’d already abandoned the sample collection pack. The sensors. His cases. Everything was left back there, scattered along his trail.

He couldn’t ask her to hold the portal. The science didn’t work that way. They’d figured out how to open the portals. Learned that they were uni-directional so it was possible to go through and come back. That much was clear.

No one had found a way to extend the period of time that the portal stayed open. It wasn’t a question of power. One of the physicists described it as elasticity. The portal somehow stretched the universe out of shape to make the connection, but when the time was up it would snap back into place.

Two minutes.

The ground tumbled away from him into a beautiful ravine with a stream that tumbled through the valley over rocks and fallen trees. He’d crossed on a fallen log. The portal was up at the top of the next hill.

Light flashed from a suit. That was Sarah, holding position on this side of the portal.

“Go through,” Evan said.

“You’re across the stream!”

Outside the boundaries established by the mission. He had broken protocol and gone farther out.

“Go,” Evan panted.

One minute.

“No,” Sarah said.

“I’ll get there,” Evan said.

He sprinted down the slope. It was a reckless, head-long flight. He jumped over granite boulders that thrust out of the hillside. Small rocks scattered before him. The stream was right there, and the sun-bleached log he had crossed.

He wasn’t going to make it.

Sliding on the rocks, Evan reached the tree and jumped onto the trunk.

Twenty seconds.

It wasn’t enough. Not to get across and up the hill and through the portal. He didn’t stop.

“Go! Sarah! Go!”

“Evan.” She moved and winked out of sight.

Evan slipped on the trunk and fell. He hit the trunk hard and scrambled for a grip and just managed to get his gloved fingers into a fissure in the trunk.

The count-down on his helmet flashed zeroes. Time up.

🚀

Evan stumbled into the remains of the base camp. Most of the camp was gone, but a small pile of odd food items sat where the portal had stood. An apple, a package of powder sugar donuts, a plastic jar of mixed nuts, a six-pack of small root beer cans—those were Dr. Andrews’ —and two plastic bottles of water.

A yellow post-it fluttered on one of the bottles of water.

“We’ll find you,” the note said. It was Sarah’s hand-writing.

The food was an obvious last-ditch attempt to scrounge up what the team could throw through the portal. It broke a dozen different protocols. They wore isolation suits and did everything possible to avoid bringing anything through unnecessarily. And went through decontamination each way. It was touching that they’d risked so much to give him a few things.

Especially when it was his fault that he was in this mess to begin with.

It’d be different if they could just reinitialize the portal and bring him back.

Each time the uni-di portal was triggered it opened to a different world. All habitable, but not the same world. Atmospheric, gravitational measurements confirmed that the first few times they had managed to initiate the portal. It wasn’t opening to other places on the same world, but entirely different worlds, different planets scattered across the universe.

In a couple instances they had managed to get a fix on the location of the planet because it was nighttime when the portal opened and they were able to identify key stars and figure out the planet’s position.

On other occasions they couldn’t even say if the portal was open in the same galaxy.

It had taken time to convince the Terran Exploration Council to approved the mission parameters that allowed teams to cross through the portals to gather more detailed knowledge and samples from the visited worlds. Each mission provided an enormous amount of data, making the scientists happy, but had yet to show anything substantial that would convince TEC to keep funding the program.

It didn’t make sense that the portal couldn’t be controlled. With so many potential planets in the universe, it wasn’t random that the portal opened only to worlds that were human-habitable.

The Languirians had built the portal, but they were extinct now. If they had used starships, no evidence was found. And if such an advanced civilization could die out, it raised questions about how long humans could hold out. There was even the question that maybe the Languirians had run into something, been exposed to something, through the portal which led to their extinction.

Evan sat down on the loose, dry soil beside the pile of food. He’d have to breach his suit to enjoy any of it. Another protocol violation, but what did it matter now? The chance that the portal would simply randomly open again on this world was billions to one. If the portal mechanism even could reopen on this world. They didn’t know if it ever repeated itself. In over a thousand portal openings it hadn’t repeated a world yet. There were dozens of worlds in the beginning that they barely even saw, much to their dismay when they realized that they might never reestablish a connection with those worlds.

Which was sort of ridiculous considering the sheer number of worlds in the universe. If they opened a portal at every single opportunity they would still never run out of worlds to explore.

Which was another reason for the TEC to talk about closing down the program, or at least dialing it back. The program had already gathered enough to keep scientists busy for years, where was the urgency in opening more portals?

The third, and potentially more damaging reason was that all of the worlds discovered so far were uninhabited by any technologically advanced species. Or even Stone Age species. The worlds had varied in conditions at the connection site, but all were within the normal range of tolerances that humans had experienced on Earth. Everything from arctic to desert climates. High altitudes, to one which had opened on a beautiful, pristine beach where purple-hued trees waved gentle fronds and the water was perfect.

That would have been a better world to get stranded on. At least initially.

Evan surveyed his surroundings. This world wasn’t bad. Or at least this part of the world, obviously on a whole planet there would be lots of different environments. This particular part didn’t seem too different than certain parts of the Pacific Northwest, the drier parts of Oregon and Washington. Dry, loose soil, granite outcrops but enough trees and ground cover to provide some greenery. And the plants were mostly green here too. The trees were trees, even if the branches opened up like flower petals around the central core. Apparently as they grew, more and more green petal-like leaves opened around the branch. The older ones eventually turned brown and flaked free, leaving rings around the branches.

He’d seen some signs of animals, like the things that flew off as he was running back. There was a chance that some of the plants and animals would be edible. He eyed the stash of food. He could ration that, but it wouldn’t last more than a few days. After that he was going to be stuck with native sources of food.

Not only that, but air. He eyed the readouts on his helmet. Air was down to ten percent. The compact tanks on his back weren’t designed for much more than four hours, since the portals didn’t stay open any longer.

The food stash obviously hadn’t been decontaminated before being thrown through, so that bridge was already crossed. Any bacteria and other Earth-side organisms that had hitched a ride were stranded here with him.

He reached for the suit releases. What were the chances that Sarah would find him? Pretty much non-existent. Since the uni-di portals always went to a random new world, without repetition, then they could open portals every four hours until the sun became a red giant without any luck finding him.

Still, he hesitated again to unfasten the seal. Once he did, there’d be no going back. He would be exposed to everything on this world. If there were allergens or toxins in the environment, he might be dead in a moment. Or a week.

No matter what, he would be out of air in a few minutes. He couldn’t keep the suit sealed.

His heart beat faster as he unfastened the helmet seal and oddly, he started to get an erection. It was ridiculous. He wasn’t in that sort of a mood at all, but his body was pumping hormones into his system.

The seals popped. The readouts flashed the disconnection and shut down the oxygen transfer. He pulled the helmet off.

Crisp, cool mountain air with a sort of herb-like sage sort of smell greeted his first breath. He inhaled deeply and let it out.

The air seemed fine. He wasn’t coughing. It wasn’t hard to breathe.

At least he wasn’t going to drop dead immediately.

🚀

Evan clipped the helmet to his suit after taking out the retinal headset, and picked up the food stash, dropping it into the helmet to carry, all except the root beer cans which didn’t fit. For now he’d have to carry the cans.

He had dropped his sample cases and tools in his flight back to the portal. The first thing to do was retrieve those for his own use. If he was going to be here for a while, then those would be useful things to have around.

As he prepared to leave he stopped and looked back at the scuffed ground showing all of their footsteps around the spot where the portal had been. There was a clear ovoid there without footprints. At the moment that marked the spot where the portal had been, but he couldn’t count on that with wind and rain.

He took a few minutes and gathered loose stones and branches and outlined the spot. It was a temporary marker, but enough for now.

Walking back down the hill, heavy helmet swinging against his leg, root beers in hand, Evan felt sort of light and floaty. Not like he was going to pass out, or there was something wrong with the air, but he was cut off from the rest of humanity on a world somewhere in the universe. Most likely a planet far out of reach of even the fastest starship. Slow FTL, or S-FTL, that was the term given to the displacement drives. As fast as they seemed, when it still took a year to get Alpha Centauri, faster than light but it was still a long time. The trip to the Languirians’s home world had taken slightly more than five years. Even if Sarah figured out what star this planet orbited, it was likely far out of reach.

Which meant that he was more alone than pretty much any human in history. The only person on this whole planet, unless he did in fact have company.

That had been the reason that he had risked going outside the established perimeter line.

A flash of light in the distance, like something reflective dancing in the sun, had caught his attention. It could have been water or even some sort of shiny leaf except it had moved.

Foolishly he had thought that he could find the source, and still have time to get back. The perimeter was only down the hill from the portal. Two hundred meters out from the portal in each direction was the perimeter rule. That’s how far they were allowed to go in order to collect samples, do studies, and everything else. Anything outside the perimeter was off-limits.

The reflection had been like a will-o’-the-wisp, drawing him away from the others to his doom.

Evan reached the bottom of the slope and looked back up the hill, just to make sure the portal hadn’t somehow reappeared.

It wasn’t there. Some sort of insect buzzed past his head, and then circled him. Evan watched it warily. A sting or a bite from something here could also be deadly. He just didn’t know.

Down below the stream gurgled over the rocks and broken logs. It looked clean and refreshing, but who knew what lived in the water? Soon he wouldn’t have a choice, he’d have to drink the water. There were some filters and screens in his collection kit. Once he found the kit he could work out something to filter the water.

Boiling it would be good, if he could figure out how.

He started out across the fallen tree trunk over the stream. When he had gone after the reflection he knew what he was doing was unsafe, but the idea that maybe there was someone out there, another intelligence on this world, had proven too tempting to resist.

Evan held the root beers close and made it easily across the log. On the other side he pushed through bushes and started climbing.

The uni-di portal just didn’t make sense. Why were all the worlds habitable? And empty? Why hadn’t the Languirians colonized these worlds? Or why weren’t they finding other civilizations? After the discovery at Languiria of an extinct civilization, lots of people had talked about the extinction and the possibility that the same thing could happen back on Earth.

Life was obviously plentiful in the universe. The real question being raised was that our sort of life was much more rare. In all the worlds checked so far the teams hadn’t come back with any artifacts. All unspoiled worlds and TEC didn’t see the value because they couldn’t get back to any of them — despite exploration being their charter.

🚀

It took Evan thirty minutes to back-track his path and recover the equipment he had dropped. The forest wasn’t quiet. He heard hoots, whistles and other noises from hidden creatures as he picked up each piece of equipment where he had dropped them in his haste to get back.

The last was one of his small storage containers. It had held a plum-like fruit that looked good to eat—which he thought might have some commercial possibilities—but was smashed apart and the fruit was gone.

He stood there looking down at the smashed container in shock. The ground was soft, and the container was pretty sturdy bio-plastic. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would just break when he had dropped it. But it was smashed open and the fruit was gone except juicy stains on pieces of the container.

Something had broken the container to get the fruit. That implied something large enough and strong enough to do it.

He gathered up the pieces anyway, and stashed them in his larger pack. It seemed wrong to leave the pieces littering the landscape.

The trees towered above him here. The conical leaves fanning out from the branches overlapped enough to create a translucent canopy above that filtered the sunlight. The air smelled wetter, with a hint of composting vegetation. Those branches, when it rained the water must gather in each conical section until it overflowed and spilled into the next and the next. After a big rain storm that was probably a lot of water held by the trees. Did they absorb it through the branches?

Evan looked around, but he couldn’t see anything catching the light. Whatever had caused that reflection earlier, it had moved on.

Maybe he was lucky he hadn’t found it. Given the smashed container, it could have been dangerous.

If he was going to be here for the rest of his life, he would have to explore further, but right now he didn’t want to go far from where the portal had been. It was illogical, clinging to the idea that somehow Sarah would solve the problem, but he wasn’t ready to abandon that hope yet.

Moving straight back, it didn’t take long to return to the portal site. As soon as he came out of the trees and started down the hill toward the log over the stream he looked up the next hill and for a split second he imagined that the portal was back, that Sarah was there. They’d had a scare but it was going to be okay.

Except the spot was empty, except for the stones that he had placed around the spot.

He climbed back up and sat down on a larger sun-warmed rock near the portal site. He had his gear with him, and he took out one of the root beers. Back home he mostly drank water, but he could use the sugar right now. And he used to really enjoy a good root beer.

Popping the top of the bio-plastic can, he took a long drink, grimacing at the carbonated sweetness. Then that old familiar taste flooded through his synapses and it was the best thing he had tasted in a long time. He took another sip, savoring it before he swallowed.

He was going to miss that taste before long. Only a few cans and then it was going to be all gone.

Evan put the can aside and rummaged in his pack until he came up with the broken container. The sharp pieces might work as simple cutting tools until he made something better. Dark juice from the fruit stained one of the pieces with syrupy purple lines. He twisted his glove free and exposed his hand to the air.

That was much better. He flexed his fingers and then touched the side of his pinky against the juice. He pulled his finger back and looked at the purple smear. His finger wasn’t burning or going numb. It didn’t appear to have any reaction at all.

He picked up the piece and wiped a small smear across the back of his hand. He’d leave that, and see if there was any reaction. If not after a while, then he could try a tiny taste test. Assuming that didn’t kill him, if it tasted edible, then he’d have to go find some more of the fruits.

This planet might be an untouched world, maybe even a paradise by some standards, but he was going to have to think long-term to stay alive here.

🚀

The spine bushes trembled, reacting to Evan’s presence, ready to snap their quills in his direction. He eased back and lifted his long walking stick. He wanted the bleeding scaly rabbit at the base of the spine bushes. Get too close and the bushes flicked sharp quills. Most of the time they took out small flitters or hoppers, but he had chased the scaly up to the bushes, letting them do the work of killing the animal.

Now he just had to get it out of range.

He flipped the stick around and extended it out with the loop at the top hanging down. The bushes trembled again. He kept going.

With a crack like a branch breaking, one of the spine bushes whipped a branch and sent several quills flying. One hit the stick and stuck. The others missed and sailed uselessly into the dirt. This whole area was full of spent quills and the tiny bones of the bushes’ victims.

He settled the loop over the scaly’s quill-studded head and dragged the carcass back. Two more branches uselessly flicked quills but most of the branches stayed still. It took time for each branch to recover.

When he got the scaly rabbit completely free, he crouched and plucked out the quills. He’d discovered through careful experimentation that the toxin used in the quills was rendered inert fairly quickly, and cooking destroyed it.

He stashed the quills in a small container and lifted the scaly animal by it’s big hind legs. It wasn’t really a rabbit, of course, but it fulfilled a similar niche here on the Garden of Evan. So what else was he going to call it? A smerp? It’s body was covered with soft earth-tone scales that helped it blend into the rocky, dry hillsides where they made their burrows. Despite the scales, it was warm-blooded.

And tasty.

The scaly rabbits, along with other small game captured in traps, and various fruits and plants he had found edible, made up his diet. The food sent through the portal was gone, except for two root beers.

After the first day alone on the planet, he had decided that he would drink one root beer at the start of each month. The planet had three small moons that he had observed, but he was keeping track of the passing time with a make-shift bark calendar that he marked with a mixture of plum juice and ash. The weeping plums—named that because they sweated juice through pores in their skin—were sticky and sweet. The first few times he ate them he got the runs, but then apparently his gut had adjusted to the alien fruit.

Climbing back up to the ridge line to follow it back to the camp, the scaly rabbit in hand, Evan considered his situation. It was almost May, by his calendar. He had decided that his first day on the planet was January 1st. His measurements of the sun’s movements suggested that the planet did have an axial tilt, which could mean that colder months were ahead. He just didn’t have any way to know at this point how long the year would last, or how long the seasons would be. It still seemed to be getting warmer each day.

Days in the Garden of Evan were twenty-six hours and change long. He’d established that early on before the batteries in his suit systems had expired. He still had the suit intact back at camp. Now he wore shorts and a shirt made from the scaly rabbit skin, which made surprisingly good leather. It was comfortable, soft, and retained the ability to shed water from the scaled side.

His bare toes dug into the loose soil, gripping and feeling his way across the now familiar trail. He was looking forward to getting back to camp and cooking dinner. His stomach growled.

A short time later he came out of the trees on the ridge above camp. The log structure was small, but sturdy, sitting atop a foundation of rocks and clay he had brought up from the stream. The two rooms included the main area where he lived, and a small room off to one side enclosing the portal location. He had built that room with benches around the portal site, and had notices posted on the walls to welcome anyone that came through.

WELCOME TO THE GARDEN OF EVAN.

PLEASE REMOVE SHOES.

HAVE IDENTIFICATION READY FOR IMMIGRATION CONTROL.

RING BELL FOR SERVICE.

There was a bell, made from parts from his oxygen tanks. Banging the rock ringer against the tanks created a delightfully loud noise that would shatter the peace and quiet — but would alert him. He couldn’t stay at the cabin all the time.

Not that anyone was coming back for him. The portal, for whatever reason, didn’t work that way. On the one hand his preparations were a waste of time, but on the other he couldn’t shake the tiniest bit of hope that Sarah could figure it out and discover a way to reopen the portal.

Evan stopped outside the cabin at the butcher table. Everything was as he’d left it, all of his tools in place. He laid the plump scaly out on the plank and picked up his favorite knife, made from a sharpened shard of the broken supply container. Time to make dinner.

🚀

It was time to make dinner but the howling wind and snow outside didn’t show any sign of letting up. Evan closed the shutter he had opened a crack. Snow clung to his beard and eyebrows.

More dried scaly for dinner. There wasn’t any way for him to get out and hunt in these conditions.

Summer in the Garden of Evan had lasted nearly a year Earth Time, and there was still barely enough time for him to get ready for winter. Now six months into winter, he wasn’t sure that he actually had gotten ready. He didn’t know how long things had been warm before he came through the portal. The winter might go on much longer than the warm months he had experienced if the seasons weren’t equal. He couldn’t even use the sun dial since it was buried under more than a meter of snow and the clouds rarely broke up.

Still, it wasn’t desperation time yet. He had stored as much food as he could manage, drying it and storing it in the clay jars that he had on shelves around the main room and the portal room.

It was a lot more cramped in the portal room now. The signs were there, but nearly covered by all the hides he had hung on the walls. Scalies, furballs—a sort of climbing hairy pig that he blamed for breaking his storage container on that first day, and bags of clack-clack feathers, the flying critters with four wings. Not quite birds, but they seemed to fill a lot of the same rolls.

Evan opened a jar of scaly jerky, pulled out a fat piece and went back to his chair by the fire. He pulled up his blanket, made from furball hides covered in clack-clack feathers and then another layer of hides. The small fireplace kept the cabin above freezing despite the extremely cold conditions outside.

He snuggled beneath the blanket and chewed on the salty jerky, seasoned with an herb he called good spice. So far it was the only useful herb-like plant he had found. Plus it had some sort of relaxant in it, some compound or another that made him feel better about his situation.

Gazing into the fire, Evan remembered campfires with his dad and mom back on Earth. They didn’t go camping often, not with all the animals they had at home to look after, but there were some trips they had taken. He appreciated a good campfire.

Funny to think of it being the only controlled fire on the whole world. Over a year in the Garden of Evan and there wasn’t anyone else in his corner of this world. He never had found what caused the reflection that had led him out past the perimeter, though he suspected it was just a glimpse of a clack-clack’s wing catching the sunlight.

He wondered what had happened when he didn’t make it back. Did TEC close down the  portal program? Sarah probably pushed back to spend more time studying the portal system, to try to find controls.

Evan had plenty of time to think about the portal. There wasn’t anything on the destination end. No equipment, no artifacts whatsoever. Which suggested that the portal was controlled entirely from the Languirians’ home world. What was more interesting was where it was located.

The building containing the portal was a long complex, with branching wings and many chambers. It apparently contained the equivalent of research labs, testing chambers, lecture halls and individual rooms that could have been offices. It might have been a big corporate sort of structure, or maybe a university or other governmental facility. It was located right in the heart of an urban area, which suggested more of a business or educational structure.

One idea was that the portal was an experiment. The exploration teams had figured out how to switch it on, that much was simple enough, but there weren’t clear controls. No one had managed to translate the Languirians’s language or languages when he left, so there was much that they hadn’t figured out.

That was another reason that TEC had talked about suspending the hastily assembled program. They were essentially throwing a light-switch on every time they opened a portal without understanding how it worked. They had a point, but after years of traveling by slow FTL, the appeal of stepping through the portal to another world was too great to ignore.

Evan chewed on the tough jerky as he got up to pour himself a cup of hot water from the kettle. It wasn’t coffee, but it was hot.

He returned to the chair and snuggled down beneath the blanket, cupping his hands around the crude clay mug he had made. Actually, not that bad, after several other attempts.

Eventually he was confident that the people back on Languiria would figure out how the portal worked and how to recreate it. In the process they were sure to learn how to control it. It’d mean the end to the starship program, and a major disruption to how people traveled anywhere. Massive changes to warfare and terrorism. The thought of the portal technology in the hands of somebody intent on causing harm was terrifying.

Evan sipped the hot water and listened to the wind howling outside. Oddly enough, in some ways he might be safer here in the Garden of Evan than anywhere else.

🚀

Evan checked the sun-dial and nodded to himself. He scratched at his beard and squinted at the logbook. He made a notation of the sun-dial position. There was still eight months of summer left before the weather started to cool for the long fall months. After spending over four Garden years, equivalent to around fourteen Earth years, he was accustomed to the flow of the seasons.

He’d stepped through the portal a relatively young man at thirty-two years old, and was now forty-six according to his accounting. He had moved from the rough calendar on bark, to his log books made from actual paper made from the funnel leaves of the trees. Dried, pulped and spread out in the sun it made a durable and soft paper. He bound by sewing it into books with scaly-leather covers.

Keeping the detailed records gave him something to occupy his mind. No other mind was going to study the Garden. And most likely no one would ever read the log books, but that was okay. He kept them mostly for himself and only a little bit for Sarah.

Evan moved on from the sun-dial and went over to the scalies’ pens. Domesticating the scalies and breeding them for traits he wanted was another activity that filled his time. Seeing him the scalies tumbled over themselves to stampede to the fence. They stopped and all sat up, stretching their fore legs up into the air in supplication.

“Me. Me. Me. Me,” the scalies said.

“Fine,” Evan said. “Let me count first.”

He ran through the head count, while the scalies continued to shout “me”. None missing. Everyone looked healthy. The first time he heard a scaly say “me” he had thought he imagined it, but now they all said it. Nothing else. They said it when they wanted food, when he picked up one of them, when they were hurt. It didn’t mean anything.

Just a noise that sounded like the word to his ears. Long before he came through the portal the scalies were hopping around saying, “Me, me, me.”

“Here you go, you self-centered scalies.” Evan tossed out a handful of bitter nuts into the pen.

Scalies scrambled over each other to grab the nuts. A few had actually managed to catch the nuts with their fore limbs and those hopped out, holding their treasures close to their chests. He threw in a couple more handfuls, plenty of nuts for everyone and watched carefully to make sure none of the scalies were without. Soon they had separated, each cracking and devouring the nuts.

He went on about his rounds.

“Lupe!” A furry shape launched itself from the roof of the cabin, and landed with a thud in the dirt outside.

“Hey Lupe,” Evan said to the furball.

Somewhere between a pig and a monkey, the hairy furballs were tough to hunt in the forest. It was easier to raise the scalies. He found Lupe as an infant on the ground three years ago, with a broken leg. The furball would have died but he brought it back to the cabin and took care of it with an eye toward raising it as a possible domestication experiment, or failing that, at least raise it for slaughter. Except that Lupe had turned out to be social and friendly, and they had bonded.

Now Lupe was just a companion who liked sunning on the cabin’s roof.

Lupe ran over to Evan and grabbed Evan’s leg with his three-fingered hands. “Lupe.”

Evan reached down and scratched the coarse hair between Lupe’s eyes. The furball closed his eyes and made a humming sort of sound.

Greeting complete, Lupe released Evan’s leg and followed along up to the cabin door. Evan threw open the door and had just a second to register the fact of another person standing there before Lupe snarled and launched himself forward.

🚀

“Lupe!” Evan lunged for the furball, trying to catch him before he hit the person in the cabin.

Lupe stopped at the doorsill and crouched, still snarling. Evan grabbed the furball and lifted him up. As soon as Lupe was up he settled down, clinging to Evan’s arms and trembled. Lupe, Evan realized, was terrified.

The face looking out of the helmet was familiar. He’d last seen it all those years ago, calling for him to run faster. Sarah. She still had her trim body, covered in a sleek purple skin-tight suit. More lines around the eyes and mouth, but she looked great. If he hadn’t seen Lupe’s response he might have thought he was imagining her.

“Evan,” Sarah said.

“You actually made it,” Evan said. “I wasn’t sure that you would. Care to have dinner with me?”

It was the most he had said all at once in years, but he thought it came out fairly well.

Sarah smiled. “I’d love to, but —” she tapped her helmet “— protocol and all of that.”

“I’ve never been sick,” Evan said. “Not in all the years here. I don’t think the native bugs like me.”

“Some of the natives do,” Sarah said, looking at Lupe.

Lupe buried his head in the crook of Evan’s arm.

Sarah gestured back into the cabin. “I appreciated the welcome.”

The signs. He still had them up, a bit embarrassing now that someone had actually come through the portal. “I didn’t think anyone was really coming.”

“What are all of the books?”

After the first winter he had added shelves for holding his journals in the portal room. He figured that if anyone reopened the portal after he was gone, the journals should be there.

“Journals. Records, observations of everything.”

“That’s fantastic. We should start packing anything you want to bring back.”

“Back?”

Sarah smiled. “Yes. Through the portal, although the other end is on Earth now.”

“And you can open it any time you want?”

“Yes,” Sarah said. “It took a few years to figure out the Languirians’s language, their history and understand what happened to them.”

“So what took you so long?”

“There were obstacles,” Sarah said. “And we only had the stellar spectra to go on. The Languirians used a quantum computer programmed with habitable parameters, including the absence of other intelligences on the target worlds. Each time it connects it finds a new match.”

“They scattered, to other worlds?”

“You figured that out?”

Evan shrugged. “I had plenty of time to think.”

“Yes. Climate change and a pandemic were causing a massive die-off on their world. They set up thousands of portals, not just the one we found, and kept them running around the clock. Refugees would file through to a new world and each time it reconnected it was to a new world.”

“Have you found any of those worlds?”

“A few,” Sarah said. “Some of the colonists took the illness with them and died off. Others failed for different reasons. We haven’t found a surviving colony yet.”

Evan stroked Lupe’s back. He moved forward and Sarah stepped back and aside. He stepped into his cabin, seeing the small, neat single room as she might. Rustic hardly described it, but everything was neat. Clay dishware and cups. His table, the open shutters letting in light. He carried Lupe over to his chair and sat down with the furball on his lap. Lupe looked up, saw Sarah and ducked his head down again.

A watery shimmer danced on the walls of the adjoining room. The uni-di portal was open. Evan put down his current journal on the end table.

What was there to go back to? He had a good life here, work to do with his observation and notes. His breeding program with the scalies. What would happen to it all if he left now?

“Are you establishing new colonies?”

“We are,” Sarah said. She pressed her hands together. “But not here, Evan. We’re not scattering like the Languirians. We’re taking a measured approach and we’re not alone. We have made contact with three other sentient species. The TEC is now part of a cooperative effort, but everything is tightly controlled. I’ve managed to keep the search going, and we had approval to determine if you had survived, and to bring you back if you did. That’s it.”

He’d missed her. There were times he had wondered why he had never asked her out. He had the chance now, maybe, but only if he gave up the Garden of Evan.

“I have a request,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Scan my journals. Take them back, I’d like my observations about the Garden shared. I know it doesn’t have the global perspective, but it does cover a lot of detail about this location. Take that back, it might interest someone.”

“You have to come back,” she said.

Evan shook his head. “I’ve made a home here. This is where I belong. You can come visit, when you can get permission.”

“Evan, you can’t stay here alone.”

“Lupe,” Lupe said.

Evan patted him. “I’m not. It’s okay, Sarah. I don’t expect you to stay. I’m glad it worked out. Thank you for coming back for me. I just don’t belong back there anymore.”

“I can’t promise anyone will come back soon,” she said. “I’ll have to submit requests.”

“That’s fine.” Evan smiled. “I’m amazed you found me again with all those Edens out there in the universe. You’re welcome any time to come back here, Sarah. Maybe they’ll even let you take off the suit eventually.”

“They’re not all Edens,” Sarah said. “And we’re not the only ones with this technology. We can’t protect you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Evan said.

He would. He didn’t need to run any more. He was already home, it just took him this long to realize it.

🚀

6,671 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 55th weekly short story release, written in April 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Proposal.