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.

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.

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.

Killing Bennie

Space became a lot more dangerous since the automation revolution. Crews watched every system. Checked everything for fatal flaws.

They survived — as long as no one made any mistakes.

Paul Carlson fantasized about killing his bunk mate, Bennie Dutton. Not out of malice. Everyone’s survival might depend on whether or not he killed Bennie.

The only question? How to do it and make it look like an accident!

🚀

Paul Carlson lay flat on his bunk trying to decide the best way to shove Bennie Dutton out an airlock. He’d bunked with guys who snored before, both on the station and back dirtside, but nobody came close to the noise that Bennie made. It sounded like a wet fart crossed with a death rattle amplified a thousand times by some freak resonance with the ventilation system. It felt like the whole habitation can vibrated with the sound, hard enough that Paul imagined that the tether might just break from the strain. Would Bennie even wake up before they suffocated? Or would that sound be the last thing Paul heard when he took his final breath?

“Bennie!”

Bennie’s only response was another loud ripping noise.

Paul rubbed his eyes. Back home if Cheri snored, not that she was ever as bad as Bennie, he could get up and sleep on the bean bag in his study. He’d done that more than once rather than wake her up. Here on the Communications Station 10 he didn’t have that option. Each CS was laid out the same with a transfer hub for docking and undocking ships surrounded by four modules tethered to the hub, the whole thing rotating. One hub for the operators routing ground-based telephone calls, a recreation can, the mechanical and life-support can and the habitation can. Two men per can working and living on a rotation during their hundred and twenty days on station. None of the other cans had much room for extra bodies, although in an emergency they could in theory cram four people into a can. Of course, if anything happened to the mec can it wouldn’t matter. And he couldn’t call the transfer car anyway without alerting control.

No, he was stuck with Bennie’s snoring for another hour before they were scheduled to move on to the mec can. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off, six at each can, with no days off for good behavior. If it wasn’t for the pay, he wouldn’t have let them strap him into a capsule on top of a rocket and send him up here in the first place. But he’d done two other rotations already, and it always seemed like Cheri had already spent it all by the time he made it back dirtside. With all of the restoration work available dirtside he’d think she might actually get out and find herself a job, but that never seemed to occur to her even with all of the Restoration propaganda about how there was a job for everyone since the Automation Revolution fifty years ago.

Bennie’s snores sawed and sawed at Paul’s patience. He tried listening to some music but even at full volume the tape player couldn’t compete with Bennie’s snoring and the music was painfully loud.

Paul prided himself on being a reasonable guy. People said that about him. Reasonable, even-keeled, reliable Paul. But he couldn’t take it anymore. He swung his legs out of the bunk and rolled out of his small cubby. He moved too quickly and got a little dizzy with his feet moving faster than his head but he ignored it and reached up into Bennie’s cubby. He shook Bennie’s shoulder.

“Bennie!”

Bennie snorted and rolled over to face the back wall where he stuck had stuck up his pin-ups. Every goddamn night Bennie took them out of his locker and stuck them to the wall. Claimed he couldn’t sleep without them.

Couldn’t jack-off without them. At least he did that quietly. In any case, once he lay on his side facing his fantasy harem Bennie’s snores diminished to only snuffly breathing. Paul could live with that. He sank back down onto his bunk. No sooner did he lay back and pull up his silver thermal blanket than he heard Bennie roll over and the snores rose up like a power tool.

Paul lashed out, hitting the underside of Bennie’s bunk with his fist. It hurt and didn’t make any difference to Bennie, who kept right on snoring. Paul shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw spots. He’d kill Bennie. Going back to figuring out how to space Bennie, that could solve a lot of problems. And Bennie was a bit of an asshole anyway. He liked to listen in on the phone conversations, completely against regulations. Paul could even report him, but it didn’t matter, he was stuck until the end of this rotation. Swapping partners was also against regulations, not that any of the other guys would even consider it. Of course killing Bennie would create new problems for him too. He’d have to handle twice as much work on his shifts, but he could probably manage that. Twice he’d won the switching competition, which was why he kept getting asked back. The other guys might not like working on station with a killer, but they couldn’t do much about it unless they wanted to space him too. Otherwise, they’d have to wait for the switchover flight with the new crew.

But up until the ship came he’d have each can to himself for his shift.

And what if they didn’t even know that he had killed Bennie? If it looked like an accident or suicide, what then? After all, no one would suspect that even-keeled, reliable Paul might kill his shift mate.

A shiver spread through his limbs. He might even get away with it. The alarm sounded, the clanging mechanical bell sounding like God was beating on the outside of the can with a hammer. Loud enough that it woke Bennie who gave one last snort, swung his hairy legs down from the top bunk and jumped down to the floor. He landed and, with his bare hairy ass right at Paul’s head height, let out an obnoxiously loud and long fart. The smell was like spoiled stewed cabbage. Bennie chuckled.

“Man, you’d better wake up,” he said.

Yes, Paul decided, holding his breath as he climbed out of his bunk. Killing Bennie made perfect sense. But he didn’t want to rush into anything. He’d plan it out, and find the perfect time, the perfect method. He climbed out of his bunk every inch of him reasonable Paul, with a bit of a smile on his face.

Bennie turned around, his bulk filling the narrow space between the kitchen and their bunks, scratching at his armpit. “What’re you smiling at? You liked the smell of that?”

“Like roses,” Paul said agreeably. The perfect murder.

Morning had a routine and an order to it. Paul shuffled down the very short aisle and ducked into the toilet closet. He slid the door shut so that Bennie could get past to the shower. One didn’t so much sit and perch on the toilet seat. At least that was the design, Paul checked the seat carefully in case Bennie had gotten up in the night. Just in case. Bennie had a nasty habit of opening the door and letting go from a distance, which usually meant stepping or sitting in a mess. It looked clean enough at the moment. Paul took care of business, cleaning up with the chemical wipes that made the closet smell like a litter box and evacuated the whole business. One more shooting star in the sky. Then it was back out to the kitchen to grab his designated breakfast tray which he’d eat on his bunk then shower while Bennie ate. Together they’d go on to the mec can and take over for Nick and Shaun who’d move on to the ops can, taking over for Reggie and Carl who’d get time in the rec can while Kurt and Andy came back to the hab to grab some more sleep.

Paul peeled back the lid on his tray revealing pasty white muffins, a round of eggs only tinged with yellow and a gray sausage patty. He stacked the eggs and sausage between the muffins and bit into the cold mass. At least the peppery sausage had flavor. While Paul ate Bennie came out of the shower and went straight into the toilet. From the sounds of explosive decompression coming from inside Paul might have thought the toilet had decided to stage a revolution of its own and was ejecting Bennie just like one of the compressed waste capsules it expelled. Bennie’s donkey-like laughter ruined that illusion, but it did give Paul something to consider. Was there any way to turn the toilet into the means of Bennie’s execution? None that he could think of without seriously tampering with the mechanism. Back in the days of automation he could probably have punched up some commands and caused all of the various valves and hatches to open at the same time, decompressing the inside of the toilet. But now it was all mechanical. Open one, and the others closed. Without some serious work he couldn’t rig it and when could he do the work with Bennie always a few feet away?

Bennie came out scratching his hairy belly with one hand, his ass with the other, while Paul vainly hoped that his shift mate might actually clean his hands. But no, Bennie reached into the dispenser for his breakfast tray without once considering the need to grab a chemical wipe. Paul also hadn’t heard the toilet function.

“Bennie, did you flush the toilet?”

Bennie snorted and climbed up in his bunk, an act which forced Paul to turn and face the wall until Bennie was on the bunk above. “No man, sorry. I forgot. Mind getting it when you hit the shower?”

“How hard is it to flush the toilet? You can’t turn a simple crank now? Or use a wipe for that matter?”

“When did you become my mum?” Bennie snorted. “Besides, I thought we’d leave a present for Curly and Pansy.”

“Don’t call them that.”

“Why?” Bennie said, his voice muffled by food.

Paul took a breath and let it go. He ate the last bite of his muffin, glad to be done, and climbed out of his bunk. The tray went into the trash compactor, and he took the few steps to the shower. If he didn’t do something about the toilet Bennie really would leave a present for Kurt and Andy. It wasn’t right. He opened the toilet door. The odor that came out was foul—he’d been in farm yards that smelled better. Drops of urine glistened on the toilet seat and inside was a nasty wet mess. Paul fought not to gag as he reached in and pulled out a chemical wipe from the dispenser. And another, and one more for good luck.

“Aw man, you could’ve left it,” Bennie complained.

Paul ignored him. This mess didn’t look healthy. Maybe he didn’t need to kill Bennie at all, maybe there was something wrong with him, eating at his gut and he’d just drop dead soon enough. Paul wiped down the seat, tossed two of the wipes into the toilet and used the last to wipe off the crank handle even though it was unlikely Bennie had touched that part. He tossed the last wipe in and spun the crank. The mechanism rotated over, taking the mess away while other parts scraped, cleaned and polished the plate. The crank clunked to a stop when the evacuation process completed. Paul shut the toilet. He shucked off his dirty uniform and stuffed it into the recycler, then went eagerly into the narrow shower.

There he hit the button and jets of lukewarm water shot out of several nozzles for twenty seconds to wet him from head to foot. Paul missed soaking in a long hot shower like back home. Right now he could really use a long scalding hot soak. He dispensed the soap and scrubbed all over. Then he hit the button again and scrubbed away the soap before the water stopped. Then he punched the button that turned on the driers. Hot hair blew out at him from several directions. Paul closed his eyes and imagined having both shower allocations after Bennie met his unfortunate end.

The air ended, and Paul went back out to find Bennie in the aisle squeezing into his uniform. Paul couldn’t get to the dispenser to get his own uniform. He crossed his arms and waited. Bennie managed to tear the elbow on his left sleeve.

“Gosh, would you look at that! These cheap cellulose uniforms are rubbish.”

“We’ve got to get going, mind if I get something to wear?”

Bennie looked over at him and laughed. “No, man. Sorry.” He backed up and leaned against the forward airlock door. He waved his arm at the dispenser. “Be my guest.”

Paul walked over to the dispenser. He pulled the door down and took out the pressed and folded uniform. Too bad he couldn’t make the airlock door pop open. He pictured Bennie falling back inside, caught by surprise. Paul stepped into the uniform imagining the look on Bennie’s face when he pulled the door shut and sealed him inside. The uniform was big on Paul, one of those one-size fits all designs that only fit a small percentage of the population well.

The alarm sounded again, clanging with headache-inducing vigor, to announce the shift transfer. Motors kicked on and hummed as the transfer car was brought over from the mec can. At the same time the other cars would ride the cable strung between cans so that each shift moved at the same time from one can to the next. Although the process was technically automated, it didn’t violate the strictures because the whole process was largely mechanical and required human participation to work. Bennie turned around as the can rang from the transfer car docking. Docking caused the airlock release to trigger, and the inner door slid open. Paul followed Bennie into the small space, barely big enough for the two of them. Being closer to the door than Bennie he was the one that shoved the lever down to shut the inner door and release the outer door. If he really wanted to kill Bennie by using the airlock, he’d have to figure out a way to trigger that mechanism from inside the can, after releasing the lockout on the inner door.

The inner door finally shut and the outer door opened along with the transfer car door. A blast of cold air flowed from the transfer car into the can. The transfer cars lacked life-support, really nothing more than a portable airlock that moved between the widely-spaced cans. Bennie went ahead into the transfer car, still fiddling with the tear in his sleeve. Paul followed him and then shoved the lever down in the transfer car. That closed the airlock and car doors and triggered their departure. The electric motor hummed and the car moved forward along the cable. Paul didn’t like thinking about how tenuous their connection was to the station at this point. One steel cable and an electric pulley kept them from being flung off into space. What if he sabotaged the cable and somehow got Bennie in the transfer car alone? If he made it look like a micrometeorite had impacted the cable, then Bennie’s death might look like a tragic accident and his survival a fortunate twist of fate.

The transfer car completed the transit to the mec can without Paul figuring out a way to stage the accident. The car hit the dock hard, making the inside ring like a bell. Right then Bennie started laughing.

“Why’re you laughing?” Paul asked. Then he smelled that rancid, sour smell and knew. “Come on man!”

Bennie laughed harder as he lifted the lever to open the doors. Paul followed him into the mec can’s rear airlock. Inside Bennie checked the light above the door. Green, the mec can was clear. Bennie pulled the lever, and the inner door slid out of the way. They went on through.

The mec can hummed with the sound of the machinery working. A pulse ran through the deck plating from the circulation pumps. The mec can had even less room to move in than the hab, with more space given over to the power and life-support systems. The mec provided all of the air circulation and the power storage from the mag lines that radiated out from the hub, pulling power from the planet’s magnet field as the station rotated. Bennie went straight to the farthest workstation forward and dropped into the chair. He spun it around.

That gave Paul an idea, maybe a simple idea. Loosen the bolts that held the chair post to the deck and the next time Bennie did that he’d topple over. But honestly, falling from the chair probably wouldn’t be enough to kill Bennie.

Paul picked up the work log board. Nick and Shaun had left a note that the air filters needed scrubbing again. Readings had to be taken from the various systems and noted in the log. Otherwise, it looked like systems were still operating efficiently. The station had been designed with simplicity and minimal maintenance in mind, but without automation they had to check and measure everything themselves.

“Readings or filters?” Paul looked up from the board. Bennie was excavating his nose. “Bennie?”

Bennie flicked his finger. “I’ll check readings.”

 

🚀

Six hours with Bennie in the mec room gave Paul more opportunities to consider ways to carry out his homicidal designs. Electrocution looked like the most likely possibility, given the real risk of it when checking on the batteries. Bennie, for all of his disgusting personal habits, actually managed to do the job safely. But a snag in the gloves, if it went unnoticed, could result in a bad shock. Maybe enough to kill, if the contact was sustained. Given the cramped quarters, a person could, in theory, get stuck between the battery drawers and the wall while being electrocuted. But chances were that Bennie’d notice any damage and slap on more electrical tape to patch them up, or if the damage was too obvious, he might just recycle those gloves and take another pair out of supplies.

While scrubbing clean yet another filter Paul considered another possibility. Some sort of sabotage to the air system, leading to Bennie’s suffocation. Poetic, but damaging the air system would likely kill everyone else on the station too unless they got into suits fast enough.

 

🚀

From the mec can, Paul followed Bennie into the ops can, the whole reason for the station to exist. For the next six hours he didn’t have much time to consider killing Bennie while routing international telephone calls from one trunk to another. Still, the idea floated around the corners of his mind, but there wasn’t even much of anything in the room to use as a weapon except maybe electrical wiring. Paul saw Bennie snake a hand down the front of his uniform, scratch vigorously and then he reached up and continued switching calls. Garroting Bennie with wire pulled out of the switchboard wouldn’t look like an accident at all, but if people knew what it was like to live with Bennie they might understand.

At least the calls kept him busy. He dreaded the next stop on their rotation.

 

🚀

The rec can, like the others lacked much space. A small library of paperback books, a selection of magazines, a radio, and a television. They received a dozen different channels on the television, all restoration-approved, of course. The drawers held decks of cards, chips, and a selection of board games. It also contained two bunks just like the hab can. Bennie went for his dinner tray first, turned on the television, and retreated to the upper bunk to eat while he watched the television.

By this time of the day all Paul wanted to do was sleep. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Bennie cracked up at something on television. Paul’s head started to throb. He imagined yanking Bennie out of his bunk, shoving him back to the airlock and what? He still hadn’t figured out a way to override the lockout. The airlock wouldn’t open unless a transfer car docked and triggered the release. He could call a transfer call, but that would get sent in the telemetry back to control, and they’d be on the radio in minutes demanding an answer. And he couldn’t very well space Bennie if there was a transfer car docked anyway.

Even-keeled Paul didn’t actually pull Bennie out of his bunk. He let the day-dream go and went to the toilet instead to take advantage of the opportunity to use the facilities before Bennie. After he had finished, he picked up his own tray, turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes today, and went to the bottom bunk. The noise from the television pounded at his head, and every time Bennie laughed it set his teeth on edge.

“Could you turn that down? Bennie?”

“I’d have to get up then.”

Paul pulled the tab to heat his tray, put it down and got up himself. He turned the volume down on the television, showing some old war movie.

“Come on,” Bennie complained. “That’s too low.”

“I’ve got a headache,” Paul said. “That noise is making it worse.”

“Why don’t you put on a helmet or something?”

Paul ignored him and returned to his bunk. If Bennie really cared, he could get up and change the volume himself. Paul picked up his tray. Now the bottom felt hot. It’d be another ten minutes before the food was somewhat warm. It’d never get truly hot, but it was better than eating it as a cold congealed mass. He held it in his lap while he waited and closed his eyes. Sleep tugged at him, beckoning for him to let go, forget about eating and just sleep. A loud explosion from the television got an even louder laugh from Bennie. Paul opened his eyes.

Food poisoning, that was something he hadn’t considered. There might be some chemical in the mec can supplies that could poison Bennie. But again, it had the same problem as more direct ways of killing. They’d discover that Bennie had been poisoned. The first thing they’d do would be to look at Bennie’s shift-mate, the one person that was locked in a can with him.

Paul peeled off the fork stuck to the lid of his tray, then slid the lid off and dug into the meal. The turkey didn’t taste like much, and the potatoes didn’t taste much different, but there was plenty of pepper in the gravy covering everything. Dill flavored the small helping of carrots. As anticipated, the tray had warmed the food, but he wouldn’t call it hot. By the time he finished eating, he couldn’t hardly keep his eyes open. He got up and put the tray in the recycler and then crawled back into the bunk. He pulled the blankets up, closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep.

Bennie laughed, and it sounded like one of his farts. Wet, and long, with much gasping and moaning.

Paul closed his eyes tighter and tried not to pay attention. If he could only get some sleep then maybe he wouldn’t have to kill Bennie. They could go on doing their jobs, and nobody had to die. As tired as he was the noise Bennie was making was making it hard to sleep. Bennie had told him to get a helmet. He had a point there. It was hard to hear anything except your own breath in those things. Of course, he couldn’t do the helmet by itself unless he wanted to suffocate himself, and he wasn’t that tired yet. If he ever did a rotation again, he was going to bring some sort of ear plugs in his personal space allotment. But the helmet? If he suited up, he could wear the helmet and maybe get some sleep.

He lay for a few minutes on the bunk, but the television and Bennie’s noises proved too much. Why not try it? He rolled out of the bunk and went forward to the locker beside the airlock.

“What’re you doing?” Bennie asked.

Paul opened the locker and took out the first suit. Another one-size fits all garment. He stripped off his uniform. Bennie started laughing.

“You’re not putting on a suit!”

“Obviously I am.” Paul stepped into the first leg and pulled it up. The material stretched and squeezed his foot and calf. The space activity suit provided mechanical pressure to keep fluids from pooling, while it retained mobility. Putting it on, that was the hard part. Paul worked up one leg then switched and did the other. It felt like putting on a pair of pants four sizes too small. He always thought he wouldn’t get into it, but somehow the material expanded just enough while keeping up the pressure. If he could just wear the helmet he would, but with the gap around the neck it probably wouldn’t keep out the noise as well. Bennie went back to watching the television rather than watching Paul get into the suit.

By the time he finished, Paul was even more tired. He grabbed the helmet and snapped it into the ring, then took out the tanks. Four hours and then an alarm would sound. It sounded like a good deal to him. He snapped the hoses in place, and cold air hissed into the helmet. His ears popped, and he tasted a sort of metallic flavor, but then he was breathing normally. Even better the sounds of the television and Bennie had muted to only a dull sound in the background, lost in the general background noise of the can. Paul walked back to the bunk. He saw Bennie laughing but didn’t hear most of the sound.

Lying down in the suit was a challenge. It was somewhat flexible, but he couldn’t bend far. Even so, he managed. He lay back in the bunk, tanks beside him and closed his eyes listening to the soft hiss of the air coming in and out of his tanks.

In minutes he fell asleep.

 

🚀

A loud clanging alarm woke Paul. He tried to sit, a challenge in the suit and braced himself on his elbows. The alarm wasn’t coming from the suit. That was outside, in the can, the sound muffled by his helmet. Paul checked the time. Two hours since he went to sleep. His eyes felt like sandpaper, and he reached up to rub them, but his gloved hands hit the helmet. He started to reach for the catch on the helmet but stopped.

Why was an alarm ringing? It wasn’t shift change.

“Bennie?”

He didn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear anything over that alarm. Paul rolled out of the bunk.

Bennie lay slumped in the upper bunk at an uncomfortable angle. Paul left him there and moved forward to the airlock where an alarm light flashed. It was the carbon dioxide build-up alert. He opened the panel and plugged into the station communications system.

“General, this is the rec can. We’ve got a carbon dioxide alarm here and an unconscious crewman. Respond.”

No one came back.

Paul unplugged and opened the suit locker. He grabbed the other helmet and tanks. He took those over to Bennie’s bunk. He shoved the helmet over Bennie’s head and plugged in the lines to the tank, then twisted the valve open. Bennie kept breathing.

Moving as fast as he could he went to the forward airlock and called the transfer car. Control had to know by now that there was a problem with the life support system. Paul went back to Bennie and shook him.

“Bennie! Wake up!”

Bennie’s eyes fluttered. He blinked and looked at Paul. “What?”

“Get up. Now.”

“Why?” Bennie scowled and licked his lips. He reached up to his head, and his hand hit the helmet. “What?”

“Carbon dioxide alarm. I need you to go rear while I move forward. We need to get helmets on the other guys and meet at the mec can to figure out the problem.” The can rang as the transfer car docked. “You got it?”

Bennie blinked again, but he nodded and swung his legs off the bunk. Paul didn’t wait to see if Bennie actually got down. He went to the airlock and opened the lever to let him pass through to the transfer car. At least the rest of the systems were working.

Back in the hab can Paul found Nick and Shaun on their bunks, both still had a pulse, but Shaun didn’t respond as Paul forced a helmet on his head. Without a full suit, they wouldn’t get the entire benefit, but he didn’t think he could get their limp bodies into suits. At least he had fresh air blowing past their faces. Beyond that, he couldn’t do much until they got the systems work. Once he had them situated, he called the next transfer car. Hopefully, Bennie had gone on back to the ops can.

When he got to the mec can, Bennie hadn’t arrived yet. Reggie was stretched out on the floor near the suit closet as if he had realized the problem and collapsed before he could get there. Carl was slumped over at his workstation. Paul retrieved helmets and air tanks, first getting Reggie’s on and then Carl’s. Then he looked at the system. The filters all showed red. Paul cursed and went to the first access rack. He flipped the toggles and pulled the first filter free. Even through the helmet, he heard the sound of air whistling past. A scrap of a uniform flew around and into the gap opened by pulling the filter.

They’d been holed!

Paul slapped the filter back into place and went to the supply closet. Just then he heard a transfer car slam into the airlock dock. Paul pulled open the closet and grabbed the patching kits. He’d just shut the closet when Bennie came through with Kurt behind him. Both of them just in helmets with tanks hanging by the straps over their shoulders.

“Take these,” Paul said, passing the kits to Bennie. He opened the supply closet again and took out two more that he clipped to his suit’s utility belt. “I’m going out to inspect the outside. We’ve been holed, somewhere in the filtration system. You’ll need to pull the racks and look for the holes. I’ll inspect the unit from outside.”

Bennie shuffled past Paul, and then Kurt, with his curly brown hair pressing against the inside of the helmet. Paul made it into the airlock and shoved over the switch. Then he went into the transfer car and shoved the switch over to close the lock. The transfer car started to move, but he opened a panel and pressed down the braking lever. The car stopped. The next part was tricky, but they’d all practiced it in simulations for just this sort of emergency.

Paul opened another panel and pulled out a safety line on a spool along with a hand crank reel. Then he took out what looked like a small black gun with a round disc on the front. That was the magnetic anchor he’d use to rig a line between the transfer car and the can. He attached the safety line. Then he clipped on and positioned himself in front of the transfer car door. It took two releases, one on each side to open the door when not docked. He pulled the first, then the second. The atmosphere in the car blew past him, but the safety line kept him anchored. After the atmosphere had vented, he took aim with the gun and shot the magnetic clamp at the can. It hit the can more or less where he wanted to go and stuck.

The mec can hung above him, looking much larger from this angle, a big blocky cylinder with square components sticking out into space. A dark groove on one side was the opening that the airlock door slid through when opened. From the top of the can rose a thin looking tower of struts around the tether and the lines that pumped air and power back through the hub to the other stations. The hub wasn’t so far away that he couldn’t see it, but in the bright sunlight it hurt his eyes. He focused on the mec can and stepped off. The station was rotating, and the line sagged as he hung beneath it. One mistake and the station would throw him off into space. The clamp held. Paul activated the small motor in the reel and held on as it dragged him across the gap.

Paul came in fast and caught a handhold beside the airlock.

His radio sputtered. “Paul, this is Bennie, how’s it going out there?”

“I’m on the can, making my way around to the air filtration systems now.”

“We’ve patched one hole, but we can’t reach the other. It’s up on the top, and we just can’t get to it. Looks like something went right through the unit.”

Paul crawled along the skin using inset handholds on the surface, just like climbing a wall. “I’m working my way there.”

The unit was a big block sticking out of the can. He saw the hole that Bennie had patched, it looked like a small pimple in the skin. He pulled himself up the end of the can to the top. There he could actually stand up and walk. It didn’t take long to reach the top side. Paul found a small crater at the top of the unit with air fogging out into space. He crouched and pulled out the patch kit. He took out the small plate and the tube of instant sealing compound. He worked carefully, squeezing out a rope of material around the outer edge of the plate and then a second ring inside the first. He pressed the plate into place over the hole and activated the charge unit. One quick zap like a Taser and the sealing compound bonded the plate with the can. It’d take a torch to cut it free now.

“How does it look in there?”

“Pressure is increasing,” Kurt said.

“We’ve swapped out the damaged filters,” Bennie added. “I think we’re good for you to come on back. Carbon dioxide levels are falling across the station.”

 

🚀

By the time they contacted control and explained everything three more hours had passed. Paul glossed over how he’d managed to get into the suit in time to help with the emergency. Control offered them all bonuses for handling the emergency. Paul didn’t care about that, he just wanted to get some sleep, and for once even Bennie couldn’t keep him up. His last thought before sleep overtook him was that he should be grateful that Bennie snored or he wouldn’t have been in his suit when the emergency hit and they all probably would have died.

And on their next rotation to the mec can Paul used the damaged air scrubbers to fashion himself a pair of ear muffs. It didn’t block out Bennie’s snoring completely, but it at least muffled it enough so that he gave up his plans of killing Bennie.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 75th short story release, written in January 2011. 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 releasing these on my blog. 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. Next up is my story, Chew, Chew.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. 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 Placer Crime.

Better the Boy

New pups mean trouble. Bones found himself pushed aside when the Masters brought home their new pup. The Boy. Unable to walk or do much. It didn’t last.

Now the Boy takes Bones’ place in the Masters’ bed. He walks. Grabs. Pinches. Bones watches the Boy carefully.

Whatever else the Boy might be, he is part of the family, a small Master — and Bones protects the Masters.

🚀

Bones heaved a sigh and dropped down on the blankets beside the bed. He put his muzzle down on his paws and sighed again. The stump of his tail twitched slowly and ebbed. The Masters had said, No! Go lie down! But he wanted up on the bed with them, beneath the heavy blankets, out of the cold. Instead the Boy was sleeping between the Masters. Bones’ ears pricked up to the sound of the Man rolling onto his side. Bones groaned over his stiff legs as he stood up and shook. Sometimes when the Man was on his side he allowed Bones up on the bed beside his legs. Bones shoved his nose beneath the edge of the blankets. It smelled of the Masters’ sweat and beneath that the milky smell of the Boy.

A hand pushed his head back. “No! Go lie down!”

Bones drew his head back. He licked his lips and walked out of the room into the dark hallway. A plastic gate stretched across the hallway at the end by the stairs, blocking his way downstairs, so he couldn’t get on the couch. Bones turned the other way and walked down to the bathroom. He inhaled and smelled dust and a faint rich fishy smell. Two eyes looked at him from atop the toilet and a low growl filled the air. The Cat. Bones stopped in the doorway and licked his lips again. He didn’t dare check the box with the Cat crouched on the toilet. Cautiously Bones went into the bathroom, only far enough to reach the metal bowl of water on the floor. He kept his ears alert for any sound from the Cat as he lowered his head. He lapped at cold water.

A blue light flashed through the window. Bones lifted his head and saw the Cat turn and do the same. Bones watched the window. The light came again, a bright flash of blue light. The Cat turned and jumped quietly off the toilet. He hugged the ground as he scurried past Bones and down to the Boy’s room. Bones backed slowly into the hallway, watching the window.

The blue light flashed again. He heard something this time. His ears pricked up and he heard a low humming noise. Not a car noise or a rain noise. Bones whined in his throat. He turned and padded down to Masters’ bedroom and went inside. The light flashed again, around the edges of the curtains blocking the window. Bones went to the edge of the bed and shoved his nose beneath the blankets again, shoving his nose right up against the Man’s bare leg.

“No! Bones, lie down!”

Outside the blue light flashed again.

Bones whined and poked his nose back beneath the blankets. A hand roughly shoved him back.

“No, Bones!”

The humming noise sounded closer and louder. Bones sat down and watched the window carefully. On the bed he heard the Man’s breathing slow and soon he started snoring again. The Boy made a sniffling noise and sat up in the bed. Bones could see him sitting between the Masters, facing the window.

The blue light flashed again and the Boy giggled, his voice high and painful to hear. Bones whined. The Boy’s head turned quickly and his tiny eyes looked right at Bones.

Bones stopped whining. He didn’t dare move. He waited for the Man to shove the Boy and tell him to lie down but the Man didn’t move. The Woman was snoring too. The blue light flashed again, and the Boy giggled more. This time he moved, crawling down the bed between the Masters. Bones stood up and considered his escape options. When the Masters first brought their new pup home the Boy couldn’t do much of anything. But now he had mastered running around on two legs and grabbing things with his hands, including pinching ears.

The Boy reached the edge of the bed and swung his legs down to the floor. He ran around the bed right at Bones as the light flashed again. Bones turned and ran out into the hallway. He stopped and looked back as the Boy came into the hallway. The Boy went straight to the gate and reached for the latch. Bones tensed. Surely the Boy couldn’t —

The latch popped free. With a grunt the Boy shoved the gate and it swung open above the stairs. Bones took a couple hesitant steps closer. He looked into the bedroom but the Masters didn’t wake. The Boy didn’t hesitate. He went to the top of the stairs and looked down, wobbling a bit. Bones worried that the Boy might fall, he did that often. But the Boy sat down and scooted forward until he dropped down to the next step. He giggled again.

Outside the blue light flashed again and still the noise continued. It wasn’t loud but Bones felt it through his feet all the same. The Boy kept moving, one step at a time, until Bones had to go to the top of the stairs to keep him in sight. Bones looked back at the bedroom, whining but the Masters didn’t wake up.

Bones barked.

“Bones be quiet!” the Man shouted. “Bad dog!”

Bones cringed. His tail stub tucked up tight against his body. Meanwhile the Boy had made it all the way down the stairs and was running away. Bones whined. If anything happened to the Boy, the Man and the Woman might blame him. Bones hurried down the stairs after the Boy.

Downstairs the blue light flashed even brighter through the kitchen windows. The Boy clapped his hands together and laughed. He turned and looked at Bones.

“Bone!” The Boy said happily.

Bones watched him warily. There was no telling with the Boy what he would do.

Then the Boy turned away from Bones and ran out of the kitchen into the dining area. Bones followed. If the Boy wanted food off the floor there wasn’t any. Bones had checked before they all went upstairs. But the Boy didn’t look for food. He went over to the door and pushed the flap on the dog door. Bones whimpered. The Masters had told the Boy not to touch the dog door but the Boy didn’t stop. He got down on his hands and knees, and then crawled through the dog door! The blue light flashed as the door flapped back and forth.

Bones ran over to the door, his nails clicking on the wood floor. He got to the dog door and pushed his head through. The Boy was standing up again on the porch. Moonlight lit the smooth grass, flower beds and the raised garden beds where Bones wasn’t allowed to dig. And past all of that, where the hill rose up to the fruit trees a dark shape hung in the sky right above the trees. Bones smelled something on the wind, a spicy sort of smell that made his nose itch.

The blue light flashed and lit the whole orchard and yard for a moment. Long enough for Bones to see small shapes moving around the orchard. More little masters! He whined even as the Boy clapped his hands and walked to the edge of the porch.

The Boy pointed. “Light! Boon!”

Bones pushed through the flap and stepped out onto the porch. He shivered. They shouldn’t be outside at night. He was being a bad dog, but he couldn’t let the Boy go by himself. He barked softly at the Boy.

The Boy looked at him. “Bone!”

Then the Boy sat down on the top porch step and scooted off. It only took a moment for him to reach the bottom step and then he got up and ran off across the lawn. Bones followed, keeping up easily, but he felt sick inside. Halfway across the lawn the blue light flashed again and Bones saw new little masters gathering together ahead of them, just beneath the fruit trees. The Boy fell forward when he stepped off the lawn but he picked himself back up and kept going. Bones stayed beside him.

The blue light flashed on again and stayed on this time. The Boy stopped and the new little masters were just ahead. Bones whined deep in his chest. The new little masters were taller than the Boy. They had bigger heads that lacked fur. Large black eyes shaped like the Cat’s eyes looked at the Boy and at Bones. One of the new little masters made noises like a bird and held out a hand with four long fingers to the Boy.

Bones jumped forward, barred his teeth and growled. His fur stood up and then he sneezed. He growled more and barked. The new little masters shrank back. Bones took a step forward, still growling and showing them his teeth. He barked again and again. The Boy started crying and Bones felt sick inside. He didn’t know what to do, but these new little masters were too much. They had to go! He charged forward, barking.

That did it! The new little masters turned and ran away up the hill. The blue light flashed brighter from the thing humming and hovering above. Two of the new little masters vanished with the light.

Bones heard the door back at the house bang open.

The Man shouted. “Liam!”

The Woman shouted something too.

Bones kept up his barking at the fleeing little masters. The light flashed quickly and each time two more vanished. Bones heard the Man reach the Boy as the last of the new little masters vanished. The humming increased and the object in the sky flew away faster than a crow, going straight up until it disappeared from view. He heard the Woman reach the Man and the Boy

“Bones!” the Man cried.

Bones cringed. But then the masters and the Boy were all around him, petting him and praising him. “Good dog!”

Bones’ tail stump waggled as fast as it could move. Bones licked hands and faces that pressed close. He wanted it to go on forever but eventually they drew back again and headed back to the house. Bones followed, running around them all the way. When they got back inside his people got out food, poured milk and sat around the table talking in excited voices. The Man gave Bones a big milk bone. He flopped happily beneath the table and chewed on the unexpected treat.

Eventually the milk bone was gone and his people sounded tired. The Man yawned and then they all got up, the Boy already asleep in the Woman’s arms. They all went upstairs to the bedroom and the Man latched the gate again. Bones wearily walked over to the blankets piled on the floor but the Man lifted the covers on the bed.

“Come on, Bones.”

Bones didn’t need to be asked again. He crawled up on the bed against the Man’s legs and closed his eyes.

🚀

1,873 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 68th weekly short story release, written in November 2011. 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 Better the Boy.

Hidden Nests

Lilly wanted undemanding companionship and found it with her two chickens—Patti and Wendy. They provide the best eggs and entertainment watching them running around the yard.

When Patti disappears in the woods she suspects the local cats in her disappearance and sets out to discover the truth.

She never imagined the story appearing on the front page of the Deschutes Valley News!

A story for fans of cozy mysteries and free-range chickens.

🔍

Chicken Cracks Case, the headline read across the front page of the Deschutes Valley News. Lilly liked that one the best, it even had a good picture of Patti, and decided then and there in the line at the Foodmart that she would find a frame and put it up on the wall in the front room. The girl at the register hardly looked old enough to run a register with her black braids forming loops around her ears.

Lilly put the paper down on the little table thing with that machine people used for credit cards. She’d even seen people use those cards to pay  for something like a newspaper, ridiculous.  “How much is that, dear?”

“Fifty cents, ma’am.”

Ma’am. When had that happened? Lilly clucked her tongue softly and pulled out the small beaded change purse she had made down at the classes they held at the library. The black and clear beads sparkled, but it was the small red beads on the comb of the chicken that really caught the light.

“That’s pretty,” the girl said. “Where’d you get it?”

“I made it.” Lilly stroked the front of the purse. “That’s my girl, that’s Patti.”

“You named your chicken patty?” The girl smiled. “Really?”

“Why? I like the name, it was my dear aunt’s name.”

The smile vanished as quick as a snake into a hole. “Oh, sorry.”

Lilly waved a hand, then snapped the purse open. “Don’t worry about it dear.” She dug out two quarters, a Delaware and a Texas, and held them out. She nodded at the paper. “That’s my Patti too.”

The girl took the coins and looked at the paper. Her smile flickered back to life. “Oh, I saw that. It must have been so scary! How did it happen?”

Lilly looked around. No one in line, it wouldn’t take long to tell anyway. “Well, the reporter didn’t get the whole story, you know. This is what happened.

🔍

Patti’s a barred rock hen, or a Plymouth hen, but she’s called barred rock on account of her black and white feathers. I have a little place just out of town, past the railroad tracks. It isn’t much, only a couple bedrooms but since I live by myself that’s one more bedroom than I need. But sometimes my son comes for a visit and brings my grandson, so it’s nice to have then. My house sits on a little more than an acre of land but all along one side and the back it is wooded and overgrown. I pay a kid to mow the rest of it.

I don’t do much with all that space. I’ve never had a green thumb. I thought about getting a pet but I can’t stand dogs with their running around and jumping and barking all the time. Plus you know what dogs will get into, disgusting animals. Cats aren’t much better and the way they look at you, sometimes I feel like they’re imagining that they are lions and are curious how we might taste. So I decided that a chicken or two would be about perfect. They’re pretty easy to take care of and unlike dogs or cats they’d actually do something useful and provide eggs. Those so-called free range eggs you’ve got here go for almost four dollars a dozen! I can’t afford that much and they aren’t much better than the cheap eggs that have almost no color to them at all.

Over at Mike’s Feed and Seed I picked out two little barred rock chicks. Nothing but little balls of mostly black fluff back then. I named them Patti and Wendy, from Peter Pan. The feed store sold me everything I needed to raise them up, even a coop with a little fenced in yard.

Right off the bat I could tell them apart. For one thing Patti was always the smartest. She jumped on top of the feeder first, she came when I called her first and pretty soon it was clear that she was the boss. Wendy, poor thing, is about as bright as an earthworm.

We got along fine, three hens living on my little place. The girls grew up and started laying me the nicest eggs you’ve seen. The coop has a little door at the back where I can get the eggs out and most mornings that’s my breakfast. You can’t get fresher eggs than eggs fried up in a skillet the very morning that the chicken laid them!

But all this trouble started a few weeks back. I let the girls roam my property during the day, but they always come back to the coop at night and they always lay their eggs in the nest box, usually before I let them out. Then all of a sudden there was only one egg in the nest box and I noticed that Patti had run off somewhere.

Of course I thought right away that she must have gone into the woods, usually the girls did go into the woods during the day. Cooler there, I suppose. I wouldn’t have worried except she didn’t come running when I went out the back door. Most of the time if I went out the back door they come and then I throw them some scratch corn. They tear up the grass some but I don’t worry much about that.

When Patti didn’t come I went looking for her. Wendy, poor dear, was in the coop’s fenced yard but she hadn’t found her way out the little door yet. That first day I found Patti under their favorite apple tree right at the edge of the woods. She’d made herself a little nest there beneath the tree in the grass. Chickens can get broody, so I took her egg and carried her back to the coop. I kept them both locked up for two days so that she’d give up on the idea of making a nest in the woods.

At first that seemed to work fine but two days later she disappeared into the woods again.

I looked but Patti wasn’t back under the apple tree and she didn’t come when I called. I did see the big ginger tom cat from Mr. Aiken’s house next door. He slinked off quick when he saw me coming until he got over the fence. I never liked that cat, always strutting around like he owned the block. Mr. Aiken walks like that sometimes too, thinks he’s something important working at the bank. I don’t know about him, but that tom cat probably fathered most of the unwanted kittens in the neighborhood. I’d suggested before to Mr. Aiken that he get the tom fixed and the way he looked at me, you’d think that I’d suggested he get his own parts snipped!

I worried that maybe the tom had gone after my Patti, and when she didn’t come back that night I was scared he’d killed her.  The next morning I put on my yard boots and went out to look for her. Poor Wendy was fussing in the coop, I could tell she was worried too, especially being all alone.

I went up the hill first past my fruit trees. It isn’t much of an orchard, mostly apple with a few pear and cherry trees thrown in bit I usually get a few pies out of it all. There’s a path back up there into the woods and I few times I’d seen the girls go up that far from the house.

I called out, here chick, chick, but she didn’t come. I didn’t hear a peep out of her. The only thing I did hear was a soft meow and the slinky black and white female from the house on the other side of the woods came strolling out of the trees as if she owned the whole place. She had that self-satisfied look that cats get when they think they’re being especially clever. She sat right down there and started licking her paws clean. I couldn’t see if there was any blood on them, but it made me terribly worried. I tried getting into the woods but those blackberry vines grow all over there and I couldn’t get through. The whole time that cat watched me as if mocking me. I became convinced that she had killed Patti. So convinced, I’m ashamed to say, that I picked up a stone and threw it at her.

Of course I didn’t hit her, my aim isn’t that good. It didn’t even scare her. She sat and watched the rock fly past and then several seconds later she picked herself up and strolled off through the blackberry brambles as if she didn’t have any care in the world!

I was of a half-a-mind to go around the front to my neighbor’s yard but the people that live over there, they never seemed like the friendly types. Some nights I’d heard them scream at one another, the husband and his wife. He’s a whip thin guy with sunken eyes. Every morning he’s out running past my house down the street, wears shorts no matter what the temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else. The first few times that I saw him go past when I was outside I called out a friendly hello. You know what? He never even so much as looked at me, just grunted and kept going. His wife was such a frail looking thing, all pale skin and even skinnier than her husband. She liked to wear lots of jewelry, but you could tell it wasn’t anything special. Anything bright must have caught her eyes the way bright things attract crows.

It was the fact that they weren’t all that friendly that stopped me from going around that day. After I couldn’t get through the berry brambles I decided to wait and see if Patti’d come back on her own that night.

Even when it got dark she didn’t come back. I was just about convinced that one of those cats had gotten her. I could tell Wendy was worried to, in her own dim way. That night it rained and then I felt really bad, because if she wasn’t dead that meant she was sitting out there in the rain somewhere. She might have gotten up in a tree and gotten some shelter, but I couldn’t hardly sleep for all my worrying.

The next day I got up early and drove into town. I bought myself a pair of pruning shears, the little ones, over at the feed and seed. I also got myself a pair of gardening gloves. Then I went straight home and went up the hill to those berry brambles. I had my cell phone with me in case I fell or twisted an ankle, the shears and I dressed in sweats that I didn’t mind getting dirty. I snipped and snipped those berry canes out of my way. They were good gloves I had gotten at the store, for twelve ninety-nine they had better be, and I didn’t get stuck at all but sometimes the thorns did catch on my sleeves. After I got past the canes to the trees it was a little easier. I snipped little branches and was able to get back into the woods for the first time.

There was a path of sorts but it was dark back under there and rain still dripped from the branches above. Now and then small branches or brambles blocked my way and each time I snipped and shoved them out of the way. I called for Patti but she didn’t answer. Pretty soon the path started down the hill. It went around two boulders almost as large as me and a big cedar tree that leaned over them. I almost didn’t even see it but as I went past the shape of the eggs caught my eye.

Patti! Except she wasn’t there. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the low-hanging boughs of that tree, breathing that rich cedar smell and a sort of musty smell beneath that. Right between the rocks, beneath the tree was a small nest and three eggs. I recognized the eggs, those definitely came from Patti. There were even a few of her feathers in her nest.

But not my girl. That convinced me that the cat must have gotten her and left nothing but a couple feathers. I picked up her eggs and slipped them into the pouch on the sweat shirt I was wearing.  I was about to leave when I looked up and there, deeper between the rocks beneath that tree I saw a human skull looking back at me!

That gave me a fright! I almost screamed it scared me so much. I think in situations like that you discover what you’re made of and I looked at that poor unfortunate woman’s skull. One side was all bashed in and the critters hadn’t left but a few scraps of meat on her bones. Her head had fallen forward but I could just see beneath the leaves and needles heaped on her a bit of a necklace catching what little light there was. I didn’t touch it, I know better than that, but it made me think. It looked like something the neighbor’s wife might fancy and I hadn’t seen her in a good while. Him, I saw every day, out running. But I usually saw her coming or going in that little Nissan she drove.

Well, just thinking that was enough for me to crawl out of there very carefully. When I got out I took out my cell phones and called the police.

“This is Mrs. Burges, I’d like to report a murder, please,” I told the dispatcher.

“Ma’am, are you in danger?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I told him. “Not unless my neighbor finds out I found his wife.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m in the woods behind my house. I was looking for my chicken but I’ve found a body instead. I did find a nest near the body, and I’m sorry, I took the eggs before I saw the body. It looks like it has been covered up but I could see the skull and it is all bashed in. There’s a necklace like she wore. That’s how I recognized her.”

“Can you give me your full name and address?” he asked.

So I gave him all of my information and told them what I knew, that I hadn’t seen my neighbor’s wife in some time and that she liked cheap jewelry. I only had to see those delicate cheek bones and I knew it had to be her body. The police dispatcher told me he’d have units out right away to my property.

“Well, you should send them to my neighbor’s property too, or how else are you going to arrest him?”

“The officers will take care of everything when they get there Mrs. Burges. You should go home and wait for them,” he said.

I agreed. I was sure that the cat I’d seen was just as murderous as its owner. It must have killed Patti and ate her. At least he didn’t eat his wife. And I planned on going home. I didn’t want to get any more mixed up in that business than I already was, but as I started back I heard a chicken squawk.

I recognized Patti’s squawk right off, plus Wendy was back home safe in her coop and this was much closer. I picked my way on down the path and realized that this part of the path was much easier to walk. The branches didn’t block it. At one point I stepped to the side to avoid stepping in a muddy section and saw a well-formed sneaker print in the fresh mud. I felt a shiver run through my limbs. It had to have been made that morning, because the rain last night would have ruined the print!

I hurried on and in a short distance I reached my fence only to find a gap had been snipped through the wire. On the other side was my neighbor’s property and the woods soon gave way to clear ground. I stepped through and went right to the edge of the woods, hiding behind a clump of hazelnuts. You know what I saw?

Him! My neighbor, the runner, carrying Patti upside back toward his house! He’d killed his wife and now he was going to kill Patti too!

Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen.

I marched right out there after him but he was fast. Must come from all that running. I lost sight of him when I had to detour around an old rusted heap on his property. When I made it around that I saw him down the hill, behind his house with Patti dangling upside down. Worse than that he pulled out a knife!

I yelled at him. “Hey! That’s my chicken!”

He jumped but he didn’t drop Patti or the knife. He scowled at me. “I found it on my property. I don’t see a collar on it.”

“Who puts a collar on a chicken? Point is, that’s my chicken,” I told him and marched right down there into his yard.

Now, that might not seem real smart but I couldn’t let him kill Patti and I didn’t think he’d go and do something stupid like killing me over a chicken. I stuck out my hand.

“Now hand her over!”

He looked at Patti and then looked at me and then he shook his head. “Even if she was your chicken you shouldn’t let her go on other people’s property. Seems to me that you forfeited any right to her when she came over here. And you’re trespassing.”

“She only came over here because you cut my fence,” I said. I knew right then that wasn’t the right thing to say. He hadn’t put it together where I’d come from until I said that.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed that knife at me!

I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. My heart beat so fast that I thought it’d burst. But I was also plenty mad.

“How dare you! How dare you point a knife at me! You’re nothing but a chicken thief and a bully!”

Things might have gone really bad right then but my cell phone rang. He lowered the knife when I took out my phone. He couldn’t know who was calling, but it made him rethink what he was doing I expect.

“Mrs. Burges, this is the police dispatch. I wanted to let you know that the police are nearly to your house.”

“Don’t come to my house,” I said. I looked at my neighbor. “I’m at the neighbor’s house, that’s 423, and he’s threatening me with a knife.”

“Hey!” He shoved the knife in his belt. “Don’t say that!”

“Please hurry,” I told the police. I covered the phone with my free hand. “That’s the police, I’d recommend you hand over my chicken now.”

“You called the police over a chicken?” he asked.

I didn’t answer, I just held out my hand, and when he gave me Patti back I cradled her in my arm. Poor dear, her beak was wide open as she panted. She must have been so terrified to be hanging upside down and threatened with a knife.

“Tell them I gave you your chicken back,” he said.

It was about right then that the police cars pulled up in front of his house. I didn’t answer him. I just walked around his house out into the front. The dispatcher was still on the phone. “I see them now, they just pulled up.”

“Are you still in danger?”

My neighbor had followed me into the front, he had a sullen look on his face but he wasn’t threatening anyone with the police right there. “I don’t think so, no. Thank you.”

He spread his hands out when the police came through the gate with their guns drawn. “Hey, I gave her back her fucking chicken!”

I looked back then and smiled at him. “Oh, I didn’t call them about my chicken. I called them about your dead wife up the hill on my property.”

I think they call that expression dumbstruck.

 

🔍

Lilly shrugged. “There wasn’t much to say after that, the paper got the other details correct. It looks like he killed his wife after she threatened to leave him. He didn’t want her body on his property, but he wanted it close by. I think he figured no one would find her there and he was probably right, I wouldn’t have found her if it hadn’t been for Patti.”

There were other people in line now but they all had smiles. Lilly picked up her paper and held it up so that everyone could see her chicken that had led her to the body. Maybe not on purpose, but without her his wife wouldn’t have been found at all.

The girl at the register shook her head. “That’s amazing.”

“Of course since then Patti won’t go near the woods,” Lilly said. “I think getting grabbed by a murderer scared her too much. But she’s laying her eggs again.”

Lilly looked at the picture again on her way out. Yep, before she went home she was going to go over to Target. They’d have some affordable picture frames there and then the front page of the paper was going right up on the wall.

🔍

3,619 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 58th weekly short story release, written in February 2011. 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 Candle’s Bridge.

The Wind of Rushing Trees

EEQ-14, the 14th Earth-Equivalent planet surveyed lay outside the ship out of Kyle’s reach since his parents didn’t let him out.

Regulations. Rules. Worry that he might get hurt by the planet’s unusual plants.

Only what more could they do? He was already trapped inside.

A story for anyone who longs for an adventure.

🚀

Kyle watched the golden sunset through a porthole pitted with the years of micrometeorite impacts. The glass, called glass even though it wasn’t really but because that’s what people called it, gave the scene outside a fuzzy, dreamy quality. Complicated growths rose up from the surface of the planet outside. Trees. That’s what people called them, though they weren’t. At least the trees he’d read about, the ones from Earth, those didn’t walk on thick gnarled legs that would take a chain of a dozen adults to reach around.

These trees walked.

From the safety of the Earthseed’s living quarters Kyle watched the trees walking outside, taller even than the huge vessel that had brought his parents to this planet. To EEQ-14, the fourteenth Earth-Equivalent planet found by some survey done back in the solar system he’d never seen. Here, on this planet, trees hundreds of feet tall walked toward a golden sunset.

No one tree looked just like any of the others. He could see one close now to the window. The bark of the trunk-legs looked rough and dark like the scab he’d gotten on his knee after falling down while running on the track around the habitation deck. As the trunks rose they melded together into a fantastically massive solid trunk bigger than the survey shuttles that hung in the Earthseed’s hangar deck. Thick branches stuck out at all angles from the trunk, writhing and lashing about, always moving as if propelled by a strong breeze. The end of each branch was covered in broad round gray-green leaves. The tree leaned forward, branches blowing back and snapping forward whip-like as it strode after the setting sun. Old leaves twirled and spun off in its wake.

Hundreds of trees, thousands of trees, a whole parade of trees, chased the sunset in a sort of mad stampede. Kyle worried about the Earthseed. If those trees collided with the ship even the defensive shields wouldn’t hold. He pictured those massive limbs, those scabby trunk-legs, ripping through the skin of the ship, casting the crew down, crushing them beneath the branching “feet” at the bottom of each trunk.

“Clive,” he asked the ship. “Is the ship in any danger from the trees?”

The ship answered, calm tones soothing. “I don’t believe so. This island was monitored by remote probes for the three weeks we stayed in orbit. None of the trees crossed the river to the island.”

“Can you give me audio? I want to hear what it sounds like out there.”

“Of course, Kyle.”

A loud rushing sound filled the room like a gale. It roared and pulsed through the room. He heard branches creaking, snapping, the creak and groans of wood tortured and twisted. The din filled the room. He pressed his hands against his ears.

“Turn it down!”

“My apologies,” Clive said. “That was the decibel level outside.”

The sound dropped. Still loud, but not so loud that Kyle felt the need to cover his ears. He pressed his face against the warm glass, looking through the many layers as the trees rushed by. He heard the water rushing over the rocks below the island where the Earthseed perched. Another tree came into view, easily twice as massive than those in front of it. Two lesser trees scattered from its path. One of the smaller trees, still at least a hundred feet tall, slipped at teetered on rocks along the river’s edge. Branches whipped and snapped as it fought to keep its balance. He heard the cracking booms of its limbs and trunks. Then the giant was past and the smaller tree regained its footing.

EEQ-14’s sun sank lower. Only the tops of the trees still glowed with that golden light. Above them the blue sky, laced with bits and pieces of clouds scattered across the sky, dimmed.

“Okay, restore the sound to the outside level.”

“As you wish.”

The sound rushed as if he had been dropped into a storm. It battered at his ears but Kyle didn’t cover them. He stood, bracing himself against the window. If he focused he could hear the river, or the sounds of the smaller tree stomping away through the rocks, kicking some in sharp cracks like gunfire. But the din didn’t sound quite as loud as it had been only a minute earlier.

While he watched the trees started to slow and the sound of wind dropped. He heard the river clearly.

Behind him the door hissed open.

“Kyle! What is that racket?”

Kyle turned around as his mother rushed into the room. Claire Mainter, biologist and well-liked on the crew. Petite, dressed in her tight blue uniform, her blond hair pulled back into a pony tail. Kyle had once heard Assistant Director Pete Collins refer to her as a pixie. When he had told her that she had grinned and laughed, but Dad hadn’t looked happy about it. When he had asked what it meant she said that it meant that she reminded Mr. Collins of people from fantasy stories, but if that was the case then he didn’t know why it bothered Dad.

“Clive,” Claire snapped. “Turn that off.”

The sound cut off immediately. “My apologies, Dr. Mainter.”

“What were you doing?” Kyle’s mother asked again.

“I wanted to hear what it sounded like outside.”

A smile crossed her face and was gone like a flash of sunshine. “It sounds like a storm, doesn’t it?”

Kyle nodded enthusiastically.

“The thing is they only move when there’s been good weather. It’s like they have to build up their reserves and then they make a run for it all at once. Unless there are other trees in their way and then they just wait, like at the start of a race when you’re in the back and can’t start running for several minutes, not until the people in front of you are going.”

Kyle hadn’t ever been in a race. He hadn’t been anywhere expect on the Earthseed. First in space, and then here on EEQ-14. Running wasn’t allowed in the ship corridors. But he didn’t point that out to his mother.

“I think we’ll see a few more stampedes like this one before the season ends.”

“They don’t move when it gets colder?” He knew the answer, Calvin had showed him the survey videos done.

But knowing the answer and hearing it from his mother were two different things. He so rarely saw her these days. It was always survey this, survey that. The trees rushing to get nowhere gave him a rare chance to have her home. Even now, though, he saw her eyes starting to drift to the door that led into her small office. If she went in there she wouldn’t come out again, not for hours and hours.

“Why do they do it?” he asked, trying to keep her talking. “Why do the trees move like that? They don’t do that back on Earth, do they?”

She shook her head, blond ponytail bouncing. “No. Trees on Earth stay rooted in one spot. They do move, growing to get the best light, but that happens slower than we can see most of the time. The trees here evolved this unique survival mechanism. Basically if there’s space on one side and trees on the other they build up energy and then dash away, as far away as they have energy to travel, before putting down more roots. That creates a gap that then the next trees rush to fill and so on until some trees aren’t ready or it gets too cold.”

Kyle’s forehead wrinkled. “Wouldn’t they all just stop, I mean like even out so no one is too close to anyone else?”

His mother reached out and pulled him close into a hug. She crouched down beaming at him. “You’re so smart! It does seem like that’d happen, wouldn’t it? There’s more going on here than just access to light, though. Soil properties, terrain barriers, and injuries or death of trees. Sometimes they end up clustered together and then the cluster runs apart only to encounter others, and well, it’s a very chaotic system.”

“It sounds cool,” Kyle said enthusiastically. “Couldn’t we go out and see them closer?”

“Sorry honey, it’s dangerous. Once we understand the details more of what’s going on, and find a way that’s safe for the trees to keep them out, then maybe we’ll be able to claim a section of land for our settlement. For now we’ve got to stay in the ship.”

She stood up and touched his shoulder. “In fact I’ve got lots of work to do. Are you okay playing by yourself for a while longer? If I could just work for an hour then I’ll make dinner. Deal?”

Kyle kicked at the featureless floor. “Sure.”

“Thanks honey. I’ll see you at dinner. If your father gets back in before then maybe he’ll join us.”

Fat chance of that happening. Kyle forced a smile on to his face. “I’m fine. Go ahead.”

With a final wave his mother disappeared through the door into her office. She wouldn’t come out in only an hour, despite what she said. Time always got away from her and if he tried reminding her she’d just say that she couldn’t stop yet. He’d find something else to do and if it got too late he’d fix dinner for himself. Chances were he’d go to bed without seeing either of his parents again tonight.

🚀

Life on the Earthseed hadn’t changed much with landing on EEQ-14. Kyle had his studies and his parents had their work. They all stayed busy all the time, except for brief moments like earlier with his Mom when their paths crossed. As Kyle sat at the slide out table eating his reheated meal of roast beef and roasted vegetables, he looked out the window at the trees still rushing on even as the sun had nearly set.

A whole group rushed into view, jockeying about for position. A tall thin tree with many whip-like branches was gaining ground on the others, widening its lead. Then it suddenly slowed. A few more faltering steps and it stopped in its tracks. Kyle put a piece of zucchini in his mouth and chewed, enjoying the slightly rubbery garlic and oil flavor of the zucchini while watching the show outside. The other trees caught up almost immediately but one big tree with gnarled dark brown bark failed to change course fast enough.

It smashed into the thinner tree! Branches whipped out grappling with each other as both trees tottered. Kyle rose from his seat and pressed his face to the window. The other trees in the crowd managed to change course, parting to pass around the two struggling trees. The trees that had collided rocked back and forth, smashing at one another in an effort to get disentangled.

“Let me hear it, Calvin, but keep the volume down so we don’t bother my mother.”

“Of course,” Calvin answered.

With the volume low it sounded like a distant wind blowing in the trees, but wasn’t overpowering like it had been before. It was still enough that Kyle could hear the snapping cracks of the branches as the two trees fought.

It looked like a fight now. They pummeled each other and staggered around, some branches always locked together. The other trees had already gone past and were in fact slowing but these two trees seemed determined to fight over that spot.

The fight didn’t last long. The thinner, maybe younger, tree that had stopped first ripped itself free of the other’s grip, leaving behind branches in the process. It ran away on two massive trunks. The bigger victor settled down in the vacated spot. Thick tendrils at the bottom of its trunk sank into the earth. The branches shook and broken bits, including those torn from the other tree, rained down on the ground beneath it. The sun had nearly set when its branches drooped down and hung still at last.

The other trees had also stopped. The wind of the rushing trees died down and the forest was silent. A large gap remained around the victorious tree, while the loser had moved as close to others as it could.

“Okay, thank you Calvin, that’s enough.”

“As you wish.”

Kyle rocked back in his seat. The trees had finally stopped moving. Shouldn’t it be safe to go out among them? He knew that some of the biologists did that, went out at night to collect specimens. He’d get in trouble if he was caught, not just from his parents but for breaking ship regulations.

But it might be worth it, too. A chance to get out of the ship and explore? What could they do except confine him again, just like now?

🚀

Thinking about sneaking out of the Earthseed and doing it were two very different things. Kyle finished up his meal, put the dishes and utensils in the recycler and then headed back to his room to get his stuff.

His pod, for one, so that he could record and document what he saw. The emergency flashlight from his room because it was getting dark. He wanted some sort of bag and settled on grabbing one of his spare shirts. He knotted the sleeves together and tied off the bottom of the shirt, leaving the neck open. It gave him a basic bag. He tossed the pod and flashlight into it, then slung rolled the whole thing up into a bundle which he tucked under his arm. Carrying it like a bag might draw attention, the bundle shouldn’t get much notice.

As big as the Earthseed was, it didn’t take very long to get where Kyle wanted to go. All he had to do was walk down the corridor to the nearest transit car, get in and use his palm authentication to give the car his destination. The forward, main airlock. The car took him to the hub lobby just off the main airlock bay.

It was very busy. Kyle had only ever been here once before, with his father for a class assignment to see where most of the activity in and out of the ship happened. There were other ports of entry, but the primary one was at the Earthseed’s fattest point, mid-section, part of the wider bulge that wrapped around the ship. Everything connected up to it, all of the vehicles and shuttles, and maintenance droids. As the car came to a stop Kyle had his face pressed to the car’s bubble top, just trying to take it all in.

The hub lobby ceiling was far above. Actually, ceiling was all relative since the Earthseed maintained an internal gravity field. The dock his car stopped at was only one of dozens strung like beads along a string that curved up, away and overhead at least 50 meters above. Transit cars buzzed in and out constantly, docking only long enough to pick people up or let them get out, and the string he was in was only one of a dozen other tracks suspended above the main floor.

The canopy top slid silently back and warm air that smelled of machines and people flooded the car’s interior. But beneath that familiar smell was something else, richer and organic. The smell of the air outside?

“Please disembark,” Calvin’s voice said. “In order to facilitate the timeliness of the transit system, please disembark.”

Kyle grabbed his bundle and scrambled out of the car onto the platform. He glanced up at the cars and docks overhead, the swallowed when his stomach wanted to do somersaults. He focused on the dock beneath his feet but the scuffed deck plating showing the wear of so many feet did little to comfort him.

“Thank you,” Calvin’s voice said again.

“You’re welcome,” Kyle said automatically, even though he knew that Calvin wasn’t really focused on him at the moment. That voice was nothing more than a subordinate program running simultaneously along with thousands upon thousands of others at the moment. The ship’s artificial intelligence wasn’t really paying attention to him. At least Kyle hoped that Calvin wasn’t paying attention. But if Calvin was, he wasn’t questioning what Kyle was doing down at the main docks.

Kyle hurried on, just in case Calvin had some program watching to see if anyone lingered on the transit docks. He took the ramp down to the main concourse and headed toward the main airlock.

Calling it the main airlock made it sound like there was only one, when in fact there was a whole complex of airlocks. Big ones designed for vehicle use that could accommodate entire convoys, as well as all sorts of specialized airlocks for different equipment. He didn’t really know all the details, but he had learned that the smaller maintenance locks were individually keyed while the bigger ones allowed entire groups through. He didn’t really have a plan except to get close and see what happened. If anyone asked, he could always claim he came down to find his Dad and see when he would be home.

Like the transit car docks, the lock doors followed the curve of the ship up around but the lower locks were all lined with red indicators. Kyle knew what that meant. Those pointed down with respect to the planetary gravity field. If you opened those doors you’d fall. They’d talked about that during his field trip. Kyle kept walking until he got to the green lit locks. The whole time it looked like he was walking down a slope, but felt perfectly flat thanks to the Earthseed’s artificial gravity.

People were busy all around. Researcher types in their light blue uniforms like his mother, and the engineering types wearing uniforms marked in light green. There were loaders and lifts moving crates around, people shouting, talking and hurrying around. Kyle hugged his stuff close and tried not to look lost or afraid. That’d attract attention. He walked straight ahead as if he knew where he was going. If he had to he’d walk clear all the way around the ship rather than look lost, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Then, just up ahead, Kyle saw an open airlock and a crowd of people moving in and out. It looked like they were bringing in crates from outside. Samples, most likely, maybe specimens from the island and the river. That’s as far as people went. Kyle clutched his bundle tighter and kept going.

His heart hammered and his mouth felt dry. As he got closer he could see over the heads of the people in the lock. Both doors were open. Exobiology had already judged EEQ-14 within habitable parameters as far as pathogens were concerned. It didn’t make it safe, but safe enough. He’d heard that enough from his mother.

Kyle squared his shoulders and walked straight toward the lock. If everyone kept thinking that he belonged there then he’d get away with it, just slip out in the confusion.

And he’d almost made it too when a hand grabbed his shoulder.

Kyle jumped and twisted around. A pretty woman, younger than his mother maybe, but wearing the green of the engineering crew stood behind him. She had a soft round face with big dark eyes and matching dark hair. Her lips looked very red when she smiled. She bent at the waist and pressed her hands together.

“Very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Her voice sounded soft, like a breeze just rustling the trees. “I’m Megan. Are you lost?”

Kyle shook his head. “No. I’m not.”

Megan’s smile widened. “I think you’re a little young to be on this work detail. What’s your name?”

“Kyle.” Kyle made himself laugh even though he felt like he was going to puke. He had to think of something to say, but his mind had gone into complete melt-down. He couldn’t think of anything.

“What’s that?” Megan nodded at the bundle he held.

The bundle! That was it. “Stuff for my Dad.” Kyle turned and looked at the people at the lock. A man turned and glanced in their direction. Kyle waved his hand vigorously. The man waved back. Kyle looked back at Megan and grinned. “Okay?”

Her smooth forehead wrinkled and then she nodded. “Okay. But don’t hang around, alright? I know it’s interesting, but the locks aren’t really a place for a kid. You don’t want to get run over by a loader or anything.”

“I’ll go straight home after,” Kyle promised. After he had a chance to see the outside for himself.

Megan touched his shoulder, then stepped back. She gave him a small wave. “Go on, then, Kyle.”

Not believing his good luck, Kyle turned around and walked quickly toward the open lock. The man that he’d seen was busy loading sample crates onto a trolley. Kyle walked straight toward him, but when Kyle got there he slipped past the man and kept walking.

All around him the lock rang with the noise of the activity. People rushed around him but no one really paid him any attention, they were all so busy with what they were doing. Before Kyle knew it he stood right at the top of the ramp with the world right there, right down in front of him.

It smelled real. Not like the men and machines smell of the Earthseed. It smelled like dirt and plants and water and he could hear the sound of the river rushing past even though he couldn’t see it. This low he couldn’t see much of anything except dirt and rocks, and the springy sorts of blue-green plants that grew everywhere. Bushes covered the hillside on his right, crawlers that moved too, but not like they trees. The bushes rolled, slowly, from place to place as they jockeyed for the best position.

“Hey, kid!”

Kyle didn’t even look to see who had called out. He bolted down the ramp. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, his lungs sucking in the outside air. He felt like he could fly down the ram. More shouts behind but he didn’t look back, he didn’t hesitate. He hit the ground running and turned right, running in the shadow of the ship toward the far side of the valley. He wanted to get high enough up to see the trees, maybe down the other side as far as the river. It didn’t matter.

🚀

Fifteen minutes later Kyle crouched by some rocks down at the river’s edge. Lights danced along the ridge. Search parties. He couldn’t believe he had managed to stay away from them so long. Once he had gotten up among the crawling bushes he had dropped down and scrambled up the hillside. The crawlers shivered as he passed but were too slow to really react.

On the horizon the sun dropped completely out of sight. Kyle was surprised it didn’t immediately get dark, like when you switched off a light. Sure, everything wasn’t as bright, but he could see well enough to make his way even without using his light. Well enough to make it all the way down here to the river.

It looked narrow at this point and dark. The sound of it rushing past reminded him of the wind of the rushing trees, a constant powerful white noise behind him. He made his way upstream, away from the search parties with the lights. Soon they’d send out fly cams with all sorts of tech to find him. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten this far, but he couldn’t very well get in more trouble now so he figured he might as well keep going.

Kyle was moving from boulder to boulder, trying to keep the big rocks between him and the search parties with something wet and hard lashed around his thigh. It squeezed hard and yanked him off the rocks!

Before he could yell he plunged into the river. Kyle splashed his arms, dropping his stuff in the process. Whatever had him hung on like a clamp, pulling him under. He couldn’t see anything in the dark water. It was cold and took his breath away. His chest burned. Real fear seared along his nerves. He wished he had never run out!

Kyle reached down and felt what grabbed him. It felt rough but pieces rubbed off when he grabbed it. Kyle tried getting his hand beneath what held him and the instant he did he felt something else in his head.

Darkness. Fatigue. Panic.

Kyle recognized the feelings, but they weren’t his. His chest burned. He needed air!

Abruptly whatever held him thrust him up, rushing through the water. His face burst out of the river into the air. He gasped and breathed in hungry gulps.

Light. Light!

Searchers, shining their lights on the ridge line, looking for him.

Kyle got an impression of many limbs, of the thing holding him. A tree! A tree submerged in the water, washed up on the shore of the island. Disorientated. Confused. A tree didn’t have eyes. They sensed the light, the warmth of the sun. It grabbed him trying to pull itself out of the river.

He reached down and grabbed the branch still holding his leg with both hands. He pictured it loosening, letting go.

Confusion. Hesitation.

Please, Kyle thought. Let go!

The branch uncurled. Kyle held on and floated with his head out of the water. In his mind he pictured the tree pushing down with branches on the river bottom side, lifting itself up out of the water.

Fatigue. Weakness.

Kyle concentrated. Try! Push!

The tree shuddered beneath him and then he felt it move. The surge of water rushed around him, almost tearing him free. Kyle wrapped his legs around the branch and held on. Two smaller branches on that side of the tree steadied him. With the sound of wood groaning, the tree broke the surface of the water. Kyle hung on as the tree rose higher and higher, carrying him with it. It crawled up until it regained its footing. He sensed how tired and weak the tree felt but now that it had gotten out of the river it seemed in a hurry.

Hunger! Fatigue! Sleep!

The tree staggered up onto the rocky beach. Search lights on the ridge turned and pointed down. Bright lights fell across the tree and Kyle, almost blinding him.

Light!

With big cracking steps the tree stomped across the beach, grinding rocks with loud crashing noises. Shouts went up on the ridge. Kyle squinted through the lights, seeing people running down the side of the hill. The tree kept going until it passed the last of the rocks. When it reached the ground it stopped moving. Thick tendrils or roots around its legs burrowed themselves into the ground, anchoring it.

Sleep!

The tree’s limbs drooped. Kyle slid down the thick branch that he was on, sliding down until he could drop safely to the ground.

Then the search parties reached him, gathered around him, shouting questions. Two pushed to the front. His parents! Kyle staggered when his mother grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.

🚀

Kyle expected to get in trouble, but he didn’t expect to have to face the ship’s Board and Director. He’d never even been up onto the Earthseed’s Command deck. Now he walked between his parents down a huge hallway light with soft warm lights and shockingly bright green Earth plants growing out of pockets in the walls. After spending so much time looking out at the gray-green of EEQ-14’s plants he hadn’t remembered what really green plants looked like.

His mother touched his shoulder. “It’s okay, Kyle. They want to hear what you have to say, that’s all.”

Kyle looked at the floor and nodded. Getting yanked into the river by the tree was one thing, but this? He rubbed his hands on his pants and somehow kept walking.

At the end of the corridor was a smoky glass door that slid silently to the left out of their way when they approached. A tall thin man, almost no hair on his head and what was there was white, stood just inside. He wore the bright blue uniform of command. And his deeply lined face was split by a broad smile. He reached out to Kyle.

“There you are, lad! Come in! Come in! We’re eager to hear what you have to say!”

Kyle couldn’t do anything except blink at the man. Not just any man, that was the Director, waiting here for him at the door! Director Reynolds.

“Sir. Sir.” Kyle heard his mother and father say.

Director Reynolds nodded. “Thank you so much, quite the brave lad you’ve got.” The Director winked. “If a bit disobedient!”

“Sorry, sir,” Kyle whispered.

The Director wave his hand and made a dismissive noise. “At least you weren’t hurt! We have protocol for a reason, young man. To protect people from harm. But don’t worry about that, you’ve got time to learn all about it. You’re the first person to communicate with the trees and we want to hear it from you, first hand, what it was like! You may have just found the key to let us truly settle this planet. We’re very excited.”

The Director’s hand fell on Kyle’s shoulder and guided him on into the chamber. It was big with a large U-shaped table surrounded by people. And they all were watching him walk in, but their faces looked happy.

Kyle felt some of the tension loosen in his chest. Another person walked across the room, but it wasn’t really a person at all, but a silver-skinned, willowy android with large blue eyes. The soft-metal face formed a smile.

“Welcome to the Ship’s meeting,” Calvin said. “I apologize if my inattention allowed you to come to any harm.”

“He’s fine,” Director Reynolds said, scowling. “Are we ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Calvin said smoothly.

Director Reynolds patted Kyle’s shoulder and gave him a little nudge. “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a brave young man, Kyle Mainter, he’s going to tell us about his adventure.”

Kyle swallowed nervously, took a breath and looked around at all the faces watching him. It felt good. It felt right. Everything was going to be alright after all. He wasn’t in trouble, they just wanted to know what happened. What it was like to talk to the tree. He smiled. He couldn’t wait to tell them, and maybe, just maybe, he’d get to go out and climb in the trees again!

🚀
5,117 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 44th weekly short story release, written in August 2011. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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 Manifesting Destiny.

The Caretaker

The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.

Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.

He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.

Warning: Graphic content.

 

They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.

The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.

Continue reading “The Caretaker”

The Thing in the Snow

Living at the end of a dead end road with nothing but pine trees and snow, Ray tended his chores, feeding the horses even in below zero temperatures.

Only tonight something up in the woods made a noise unlike any he knew..

Braving the night, Ray discovers more questions than answers in this dark science fiction story.

1

Raymond, Ray to his buddies, Anderson walked out of the trailer that December night in 1984 a normal thirteen year old. Brickland, in the northeastern reaches of Washington state, normally saw plenty of snow and cold, but the winter of ’84 was the sort of winter that people would talk about for years to come. No sooner would one day set a record snow fall or a record low temperature — or both — than a new record would be set a day or two later.

Record cold temperatures or not, the horses needed feeding and it fell to Ray to do it that night. It was his turn, lucky him, so he bundled up and braced himself as he opened the door and stepped outside.

His slight frame was hidden in the depths of a puffy green winter coat, hood up around his thin face. The first breath of air outside came like twin ice picks rammed up his nose, sharp and unforgiving. In the pool of light from the open door he saw the rough-hewn boards of the porch, made from half-split logs, caked in ice and frozen mud, but beyond that only dark shapes of snow shrouded pine trees in the darkness.

“Close that door! You’ll let all the heat out!” That was Ray’s mother, huddled inside beside the wood stove.

Obediently, he pulled the door closed, which plunged him into darkness. It wouldn’t be so bad once his eyes adjusted, but right now he couldn’t hardly see anything. He dug into his pockets for his gloves and pulled them on by feel. Next he pulled his flashlight out of his pocket, but didn’t turn it on just yet.

He went down the porch, his boots clumping on the ice-crusted boards, and down to the snow-packed path at the bottom. It made a rubbery sort of noise beneath his boots. So cold now that you couldn’t pack it into a snow ball or anything. It wouldn’t stick together. Even though the sun hadn’t been down long Ray wagered that the temperature was already down below zero. Quite a way below but he didn’t turn on the light to check the thermometer hanging on the post at the bottom of the steps.

Rays eyes started to adjust as he clomped along the path they’d made through the snow. Now that his eyes were adjusting there was just enough light from the moon filtering through the clouds for him to see the path. Of course he had good night vision. He liked playing a game of it and see how far he could go without needing the flashlight. If the moon wasn’t nearly full there wouldn’t be enough light getting through the clouds. He’d been out on other nights when he couldn’t see his hands in front of his face.

On either side the snow rose up nearly to his waist and it was snowing right now, a fine white powder drifting constantly down from the sky. Each flake that hit his cheeks a tiny spark of cold. He caught one on his tongue and it tasted like a pinprick.

The trees around the path stood like dark conical structures in the darks, their branches weighed down by snow. The fine light snow falling made a hissing sound, but otherwise the night was quiet except for the rubbery crunching sound of his footsteps.

Ray was almost to the clearing where the barn was when a new noise rose in the night. He stopped in his tracks to listen. The noise pulsed and throbbed through the night, rising up in intensity.

Womm, womm, womm.

He’d never heard anything quite like it. A machine, obviously, but from where? It didn’t sound like any generator or engine he knew and besides there wasn’t anything nearby. But the sound continued, coming from somewhere ahead.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray thought about turning around and going back. But he wasn’t a chicken, and didn’t want anyone saying that. His older brother, Pete, would tease him about it for weeks. Ray’s ears burned just thinking about the taunting he’d have to endure if Pete thought he came running back because he was afraid of the dark and a snowmobile engine.

Womm, womm, womm.

Except that wasn’t a snowmobile engine, he knew what they sounded like. This noise was unlike anything that he had heard. It might be best to go back, even at the risk of Pete’s teasing. But the horses still needed feeding. Whatever the noise was it sounded farther away than the clearing. He could go that far at least and feed the horses. If he did that then he wouldn’t need to say anything about the noise. He could go back and pretend that everything was fine. The noise wasn’t loud enough to reach all the way back to the house.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray flicked on the flashlight. If he was going to do this, he wanted a light on at least. The bright flashlight made the night seem darker. He couldn’t see much of anything outside of the beam of light. The falling snow sparkled in the beam.

Womm, womm, womm.

Squaring his shoulders, the flashlight lighting up the path in front of him, Ray picked up his pace and hurried down the trail to the clearing. He passed the small well shed and came out into the clearing. The barn stood dark and tall ahead. The metal roof white with new snow that hadn’t slid off yet.

Here the noise sounded louder. Ray stopped in the middle of the clearing and aimed his flashlight up, across the snow to the trees on the other side on the hill. From the clearing the hill rose up, all forested and difficult to access. No one lived up there. It was nothing but private property all the way up to the state lands and then state forest on up over the hill and down the other side until Deer Lake.

But something was up there, making that noise. Ray shook his head. It didn’t make any kind of sense. Nothing was going to get up there. The only road came across their property and they had a gate across it. Plus, once you got to the hill it was too steep, rutted and covered in several feet of snow. A snow mobile could make it up the road, maybe, but no trucks, and that machine noise didn’t sound anything like the whine of a snow mobile engine, or a truck engine. And no one had gone up the road anyway. He couldn’t think of another way that anything could be up there in the woods.

Ray shivered, but not from the cold. The noise scared him. He didn’t like admitting it, not even to himself, but there shouldn’t be anything up there and he had never heard anything like that noise.

Best feed the horses, and hightail it back inside. Just keep quiet about it.

As Ray lowered the flashlight, the white circle sliding down across the trees onto the unbroken snow of the clearing, he saw something red. His heart beat faster and the flashlight shook. He steadied it and found the thing he had seen.

There, within the dim white circle of light from his flashlight a red circle lay gleaming on the snow.

Womm, womm, womm.

Ray bit his lip. “What the hell?”

How could there be something lying out there on the snow? It didn’t even have any snow on it and it’d been snowing all evening!

Ray looked at the barn. He still needed to feed the horses. Under the throbbing noise up in the woods he could hear them shuffling and snorting in the dark of the barn. They were probably spooked by the noise, but had seen his light.

Whatever that red circle was it didn’t do anything. It just was there, on the undisturbed snow at the base of the hill.

He had to check it out. He was spooked, alright, but he couldn’t ignore that there was a strange noise in the woods, and now this strange thing just lying out there on the snow. Ray left the path and immediately plunged up past his knees in the snow. Just forcing another step through all the snow was a chore but he did. One step and the next, more wading through the snow than walking. After a couple minutes he was sweating beneath his thermals.

Struggling through the snow it was impossible to keep the flashlight on the red circle but every so often he paused to catch his breath and found the circle with his light. It didn’t move, but the snow also didn’t stick to it. And the noise in the woods above continued.

It took several minutes before Ray reached the red circle and what he saw just made the whole thing feel even stranger. About two feet across, the material was a perfect circle, but the edges were cut into a fringe of small strips, about two inches long, all the way around the circle. It looked very thin lying on the snow. The red color was the color of a bright fresh red rose, shocking against the white snow all around. Snowflakes that hit the surface didn’t stick. He couldn’t see what exactly was happening to them, they just went away but the surface wasn’t covered in water drops either, so it didn’t look like the snowflakes were melting.

Ray hadn’t ever seen anything like it. No feed bags, no packing material, no packaging that he was familiar with looked like this thing. If he had to guess, just looking at it, he’d have called the material plastic. Some kind of plastic anyway, but what was it? There wasn’t any obvious purpose to it. Seeing it up close only added to the strangeness of the situation. Ray couldn’t decide what was stranger between this thing, and the constant thrumming noise up in the woods.

How had it gotten here? If it was plastic it could have blown into the clearing except there wasn’t any wind. The snow drifted about as it fell, but wasn’t blowing. The thing lay on top of the fresh snow so it had to have shown up recently. Like tonight, probably in the last few minutes.

Ray shivered at a sudden thought. What if it had only shown up when he came into the clearing? He turned and aimed the light up at the snow-cone trees, only a short distance away up the hill. What if someone had put this here, seeing him come into the clearing? But why? It looked harmless enough. A marker? A lure? Something else?

One of the horses down in the barn whinnied and he nearly jumped out of his boots. He chuckled when he realized it was only the horse. He still needed to feed them. This strange plastic circle, the noise still going on up in the woods, those were mysteries he didn’t have answers for and should probably ignore. He could walk away, feed the horses, and go back to the house.

Except.

Ray shook his head. If he did that wouldn’t he always wonder about this night? He couldn’t leave it, not and just walk away. Whatever this was he wanted to understand, at least enough so that he could go back and prove to Pete and everyone else about what he’d seen. Starting with this thing in the snow.

Carefully he reached out and used the flashlight to probe the edge of the circle. The material moved like plastic, bunching slightly, but seemed inert. Nothing bad happened. Ray transferred the light to his left hand and then reached out with his right. He very carefully pinched one of the little strips on the fringe around the disc. When nothing happened he lifted the circle up.

It weighed nothing. It did nothing, just hung limp from the strip he help between his thumb and finger.

Ray turned the thing around but it just hung limp over his glove. It didn’t do anything. It felt thicker and heavier than it looked, but still seemed like some sort of thick plastic sort of material. The snow falling on his glove stuck around but none of the snow could touch the red circle. That wouldn’t happen if it was just made from plastic.

Womm, womm, womm.

A horse whinnied again at the barn. He couldn’t stay out all night. If he took too long his mother would start worrying. And when his dad finally got home from work in the early hours of the morning there’d be trouble to pay. If he was going to do anything he needed to do it soon.

If he needed any evidence at all of what was going on out here tonight, he was holding it in his hand. He wasn’t sure about bringing it back to the house. He could shove it down into the snow and come back for it in the morning, once it was light. Ray bent down and stopped. He straightened back up. What if it disappeared? He couldn’t explain how it got here, what if he left it outside and it went away? He couldn’t take that chance. He stuffed it in his pocket instead. As big as it was it folded up alright. He got it into his pocket and snapped the flap on the pocket closed.

Womm, womm, womm.

The noise up in the woods worried Ray. Something was definitely up there, he had no idea what, but someone had what sounded like a big machine running up in the snowy woods at night.

He couldn’t go check it out. On foot it’d take forever to get very far through all that unbroken snow. Besides, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to go up there in the dark to find out. He had the red circle in his pocket. That was enough. The horses needed feeding, it was below zero and he was freezing. Time to get back inside.

Retracing his steps wasn’t much easier than breaking the trail through the snow in the first place, but Ray managed to get back to the shoveled path leading to the barn. The odd noise up in the woods continued without pause as he hurried on up to the barn and slipped inside through the side door.

The barn smelled of manure and hay and horses, a rich warm smell. It made Ray feel safer. Plus it was warm in the barn, at least compared to outside thanks to the heat lamps hanging above the stalls. The lamps gave off a red light that made everything look reddish, but it didn’t bother his eyes like the bright flashlight reflecting on the snow. Even the sound of whatever it was up in the woods was muted in the barn. As Ray went about his chores, filling the horses feeders with fresh hay, checking to make sure that their water troughs were full and clean, he talked to the horses as he worked. He patted their soft noses when they pressed close to the stall doors, probably seeking reassurance that everything was alright.

“Shhh,” he said. “It’s fine. Probably just somebody up cutting wood illegally. Most likely they’ve got a generator going, or a log splitter or something.”

Except, Ray told himself, the noise didn’t really sound like a log splitter, did it? He ignored that thought and finished up with the horses as quickly as possible.

When Ray left the barn, stepping back out into the biting cold, the night felt darker than ever. He turned on the flashlight and blinked in the bright light when it hit the snow. Not only darker, but snowing harder than ever. He couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. A slight wind had also come up so the snow moved through the beam of light at an angle. The noise of whatever it was continued up the hill in the dark, but more muffled now.

He hurried back to the house, clomping through the fresh snow on the path that had already turned his old tracks fuzzy. By the time he got back to the trailer he couldn’t hear the noise at all, but it kept playing in his head like when a stuck song.

Ray stomped his feet on the porch steps to knock off what snow and manure he might have tracked back to the house, then opened the door and stepped inside. It felt like he had stepped into an oven. Hot, dry air hit his face, making it hurt after the intense cold outside. His mother looked up from her recliner near the wood stove, facing the TV on its stand against the wall. She was in her early forties, but her craggy face and uncombed hair with its gray streaks made her look even older. Sometimes he thought she was permanently attached to her chair since that’s where he mostly saw her. Her dark eyes narrowed when she saw him standing by the door.

“Took you long enough, thought you might have gotten all hypo-whatever, frostbit or something, froze your ass off.”

Ray pushed back his hood, then shut the flashlight off and put it down by the coat rack next to the door. He started peeling off his gloves, but didn’t respond to his mother. Doing so wouldn’t help anything. He kept waiting for her to say something about what was in his pocket, but of course she didn’t. The TV had already recaptured her attention, even though it was only the news playing.

A giggle threatened to escape from Ray’s lips. He turned and blew into his cold hands instead. Boy, did he have news. Whatever that thing was he found, not to mention the noise outside? Not that he was going to tell his mother about it, she wouldn’t understand. He peeled off his boots and left them by the coat rack, but kept his coat on. He was padding across the room, heading back to the bedroom he shared with Pete, when his mother spoke up again.

“Why’re you still wearing your coat?”

“Haven’t warmed up yet,” Ray said, without stopping.

“I don’t want to find that coat wet on the floor!” His mother called after him. “You put it away right!”

“Okay!”

Ray made it down the hallway paneled in fake wood, past the pictures hanging on the walls full of him and Pete with plastered on fake smiles. He hated the pictures, it always felt like their eyes were watching him. Especially right now, sweltering in his coat, knowing that the red thing from the snow was in his pocket.

When he reached his room he opened the door slowly. Pete didn’t like being surprised so Ray called out. “Hey.”

“What, chump?”

That was Pete, lying on the bottom bunk of their bunk beds, knees up and a comic book open across his legs. Action Comics and Batman were Pete’s favorites and he never let Ray touch them. Of course Ray had taken a look at them Pete was out.

“Nothing.” Ray hurried across the room and jumped up on the ladder, tensing in case Pete tried to hit his feet.

Ray made it up onto his bunk unscathed. Quickly, before he melted any more, he stripped off his coat. Up on the shelf above his bed he had a mason jar for coins. He pulled off his socks, then took down the jar and unscrewed the top. He poured the coins out into his sock.

“What are you doing up there?” Pete asked.

“Nothing.” Ray dropped the sock back onto the shelf. He held the jar, ready to hide it if Pete got up.

“Well keep it down,” Pete said. “I’m trying to read.”

“Sure Pete.”

Ray unfastened the snaps on his coat pocket, wincing with each, but Pete didn’t say anything else. The red thing from the snow was still there in his pocket. Ray reached for it, planning to pull it out, but then hesitated before he touched it. He still didn’t know what this thing was. What if it turned out to be toxic or something?

The bed beneath him squeaked as if Pete might be getting up. Ray grabbed the red thing. The piece of material he pinched felt like slick oily plastic, thick to the touch, but it didn’t hurt or anything. He yanked it out of his coat pocket and stuffed it into the mason jar. At first he thought it might not fit but he crammed it down until it filled the jar and only a few of the fringe pieces were sticking up. He grabbed the lid, put it on and spun it closed. The bottom bunk squeaked more, really sounding like Pete was getting up.

Ray stuck the jar up on the shelf next to the sock full of coins. He grabbed his coat and tossed it to the end of the bed so that it landed over the bed post and hung down.

Pete stood up beside the bunk bed. He glared at Ray. “What the hell are you doing? Are you jacking off up there?”

Ray, who only had a vague idea of what jacking off even was shook his head. “Naw, Pete, just getting ready for bed.”

“You should do that, so I can get some peace. And don’t be snoring tonight or I swear I’m going to pound on your throat while you’re sleeping.”

Ray shook his head quickly. “I won’t.”

Still glaring, Pete sank back down to his own bunk. Ray relaxed slightly. Sharing a room and bunk beds with Pete was like trying to sleep over the troll that lived beneath the bridge. Not a good deal. He looked up at the jar on the shelf. Whatever that thing was, he had it in the jar now. It wasn’t going anywhere until he could figure out just what it was. He finished undressing quickly, throwing his pants off the end of the bed, then slipped under the covers and lay down. He just had to wait for his chance, when Pete wasn’t around, and then maybe he could figure it out. Sleep weighed down his eyelids. Ray fought for a few minutes before giving in.

A noise woke Ray, a sort of metallic clatter. He sat up blinked in the dark and rubbed his eyes. It felt late, like middle of the night sort of late. He could see a bit from the night light in the hallway. In the bunk underneath him Pete snored. Whatever had made the noised hadn’t woken up his brother.

So what had made that noise? It wasn’t early enough in the morning for his dad to get home.

Ray sat holding his blankets and listened. He looked around, trying to see anything in the dim light. Then he saw something.

On his shelf. The jar. His heart hammered faster. The jar where he had put the red thing from the snow! The lid was off, and even without much light he could see that the jar was empty.

The thing was gone!

Ray jerked away, pulling his blankets free of the mattress in one jerk. He threw them away onto the floor.

The thing didn’t fall out. He didn’t see it on his bed. Slowly, carefully, he leaned over the bed upside down and looked at Pete. For a second he imagined that he was going to see the red thing stretched tight over Pete’s face like some hideous mask, the small strips around the sides digging into the back of Pete’s head.

But Pete was fine. There wasn’t anything there. Pete was asleep, snoring with his head on his pillow.

Ray pushed himself up, using the ladder as leverage, and saw something move in the hallway. He only saw it for a second but the image burned itself into his mind.

A being stood in their hallway, lit by the night light, its gray skin flat and dull. Big, big dark eyes looked straight at Ray, saw him, and for an instant he forgot to breathe. The being had a narrow mouth, but he could’ve sworn it snarled at him in that moment before it was gone. Had he seen something red in its hand? Ray thought he had.

Whatever the being was, it didn’t make any noise. It was there one moment and gone the next. Ray’s heart beat so fast that he thought it had to wake Pete up. Several minutes passed and he didn’t dare move. He listened with every bit of his attention, and heard nothing. The house felt so quiet that he thought he could have heard something, anything, but nothing happened.

Eventually he couldn’t take it anymore. Even though he kept shivering, Ray climbed quietly down the ladder. He wanted to wake Pete up, tell him what he’d seen, but Pete wouldn’t believe him and would probably hit him for his trouble.

Instead Ray tiptoed past his blankets to the doorway. He stopped there and peeked out, listening carefully, ready to jerk back but the hallway was empty. He tiptoed on out to the main room. Nothing except his mom, sound asleep on the fold-out bed. Whatever he had seen, it was gone!

Ray hurried back to his bedroom. He scooped up the blankets, throwing them onto his bed, and bounded up the ladder. When he got to the top he dove beneath the blankets and hid his head. He didn’t think there was any chance that he would sleep, but he did.

When Ray woke the next morning he remembered the events of the night before but he had a hard time believing it was real. A red thing in the snow? The being in the hallway last night? That sound up the hill where there couldn’t have been anything? It all sounded impossible and he didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.

Only his coins were in his sock. And the lid was off the jar, balanced against the wall on the shelf as if it had rolled there, and the jar was empty. That made him think that what happened last night was real but he could hardly point to the jar and say that was evidence of whatever had happened.

Ray had nothing. Nothing, except he believed it had happened. He poured his coins back into the jar. So he couldn’t prove it. Not yet at least, but maybe someday. Maybe when he was older, maybe he could find the being he had seen in the hallway. If he did he’d ask them what they were doing up the hill at night, and what the red thing in the snow was, and like a zillion other questions.

But that was all for later. Ray screwed on the lid of the jar and put it back on the shelf.

4,996 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 37th weekly short story release, written in September 2011. It was one of the more autobiographical stories that I’d written. I’ll let you figure out which parts.

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases 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. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story Eetees.