Candle’s Bridge

Dr. Ray Candle created a bridge to the unknown. Deep in the C&B Building in Seattle Washington a historical event takes place with no fanfare and few witnesses as Dr. Candle prepares to embark on a daring experiment.

 

As a kid Dr. Candle created bridges out of old cedar logs to span streams. Now he creates a one-way bridge and becomes the first person to step through.

A story of exploration and bravery, and the triumph of will.

🚀

When I say I walked out onto the bridge what does that tell you? If I capitalize it, and it should be capitalized, something this important, does it tell you anything more? No. Bridge or bridge, it makes no difference at all.

For me the word ‘bridge’ brings up associations of rough bridges Stan, my brother, and I built over the streams on our parent’s property in eastern Washington, north of Spokane but not so far east as to be in Idaho, out in the sticks when we were kids. Those bridges were all mushroomy cedar logs thrown down across the stream, the long strips of bark peeled and twisted into crude ropes that we used to lash them together. The cedar smell mixed with decay and stagnant water and gassy, slippery mud.

The Bridge, the capitalized one, is nothing like those bridges from my childhood at all. The smell of this bridge is sharp metallic, purified and crackling ozone. But like my childhood bridges, I did build this one.

It exists not in the outdoors under fresh air and the quiet drooping limbs of the older cedars but inside the C&B building in the heart of Seattle, not so far from Homer M. Hadley memorial bridge, the longest floating bridge in the world built to carry the mad rush of daily traffic. My Bridge is nothing like the Homer M. Hadley bridge. There are no traffic lanes, just one platform wide enough for my expanding waistline. We’ve painted the platform with a band of yellow and black caution stripes as if anyone working here needed to be cautioned.

In a way this Bridge, beneath the cold, bright LED lights, is a suspension bridge because there are spider-steel strands, each the width of a human hair, stretching out from the platform to the distant dark walls.

With each step I expected the Bridge to sway, to vibrate, for the strands to hum, but it was steady and quiet. The hiss and hum of the air filling my isolation suit was louder than I’d like. I had a coppery, medicinal taste in my mouth from the decontamination. We’d sent machines across the Bridge, and now a man would need to cross.

If my brother was still alive, he’d be the first to volunteer. He was always a leap-without-looking kind of guy.

My Bridge ends at a place I can’t see. Literally, it can’t be seen. It doesn’t reflect any light. Photos hitting the field keep going and don’t come back, which violates all sorts of laws, but there it is.

I intend to come back.

That’s the plan anyway. If I didn’t sign the checks that employed everyone in the building I wouldn’t even be standing out on the Bridge alone with the LED lights cutting off at the edge of the field. A quantum edge, sharper than any knife imaginable.

Dark doesn’t make it clear what I saw when I looked at the field. Blindness was a better way to think of it. When I looked at the field I was blind, except on the far edges of my peripheral vision where my eyes managed to catch the gleam of the lights on the stands holding the platform. That faint sense of the room around me was a ring of light around the blindness at the center of my vision.

No light came from the field. Not a single stray photon. Nothing that went in came back. So looking that way created a void where the eye got nothing back. Look at the edge of shadows and there’s backscattered light like faded memories. Nothing like that here. Looking into the field was like looking into blindness, except I could look away and see again.

My Bridge is one-way. Unlike the reversible lanes on the Homer M. Hadley bridge it only goes the one way. It’s like time or my life. It cares nothing for regrets, for the broken and discarded lives I left along my path to billions of dollars and an international global business specializing in the latest breakthroughs in quantum computing.

I licked my chemical-tasting teeth and drew a deep breath of sterilized, dry air.

“Dr. Candle? Are you okay?”

The voice on my overlay was young, male and nervous, just like I was the first time I asked a girl out on a date. Peter Hundley is one of my bright young team in the C & B Special Projects division. My division. The whole reason that I even built C & B from the ground up. I wanted to do cool things, and figured out at an early age that making boatloads of money let me do what I wanted.

“Fine. I’m fine. Savoring the moment.”

“We have other volunteers,” Peter said for the hundredth time. Probably thinking I was having doubts. “You don’t have to do this yourself.”

Like I was going to give someone else the opportunity. Why build the Bridge only to let someone else cross it first?

I wanted to be the first to cross. I did. And the first to return. It wasn’t like I had any family left, not even my brother. This was my chance to do something daring, and as world-changing as the first man walking on the Moon.

I said that the Bridge was one-way and that’s true. Matter and energy can’t come back across the field which is the real Bridge, the platform is just the means to reach the field. Matter and energy, two sides of the coin, can’t come back across but information can.

The machines we sent included some that were quantum entangled with machines here, allowing them to send back key data points on survivability of the environment where they arrived. Atmospheric pressure, temperature, gravity and the like were all relayed as simple data points, yes/no for human survivability.

We got green lights across the board. Whatever was on the other side of the Bridge, the environment for the current field settings was hospitable to human life.

We’ve opened the Bridge many other times with different field settings and sent machines through. Sometimes we got a few green lights, other times none.

“Sir, the generators are overheating.”

It was time to go. The Bridge could only remain open for a few minutes at a time, given the massive power drain.

I thought I should say something important, but what was there to say? I wanted to peek behind the curtain.

“Keep a candle burning,” I said, enjoying the word play on my name.

I stepped into the field.

I fell.

I had a split second of fear before my feet hit the ground and I stumbled, dropping to one knee. Bright light replaced blindness with painful intensity that blazed through the front of my isolation suit. It brought with it heat that quickly was going to make the suit unbearable.

Ground, solid ground crunched beneath my foot and knee, like sand or gravel. A roaring, rhythmic sound could only be the noise of waves as if beside an ocean. I pushed myself up, took a step and my foot hit something hard, with a metallic clunk and I tripped. I banged my shin as I fell, the pain sharp and immediate. Right as I caught myself a shadow passed overhead and I caught a glimpse of long, wicked claws, chipped and stained yellow, reaching out for me and missing my head — apparently because I had fallen.

I rolled onto my side and shielded my eyes as I watched the enormous winged creature flap back up into the sky. A bird? Whatever it was, it was a beast with a gigantic wingspan, dark against the bright sky. As big as it was, I didn’t think it could possibly have carried me off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t dive again. Something that big might easily attack something on the ground.

My eyes were adjusting to the harsh light. My breath rasped in the hot confines of the suit and I felt as if I were suffocating. Wherever I had found myself, it wasn’t currently the most pleasant place in the universe.

Far above me the monstrous bird-thing flapped higher, using the blinding sun to its advantage. Sneaky bastard.

I looked for shelter. I was on a slopped grassy bluff covered with some sort of wispy sea grass that lay in limp clumps on sand. Scattered around me were the machines that we had sent over the Bridge like a bunch of discarded children’s blocks. Some really were block-shaped, metal though, not wood. Others were round. They’d been designed to survive in environments as diverse as the deep sea and outer space. Some were so tough they could be thrown into a volcanic eruption and survive.

None of that did me any good as the gigantic bird started its next attack run. It dove out of the sun, a dark speck in the blinding sky.

I spun in place. Uphill or down? Given my size, downhill was preferable. I ran down the sandy slope, each step digging furrows in the treacherous sand, waddling like a crazed penguin toward a gentle ocean that extended to the horizon, the waves and water a sort of purplish hue.

I ran in the rasping, stiff, sweltering isolation suit toward the small waves rolling in. I looked up and back, just as the bird was nearly upon me.

I threw myself to ground, hitting with bruising force on the sand.

The predatory bird-thing was committed and couldn’t change course fast enough. Thick claws slammed into the sand only a meter in front of me. Wide wings smacked the sand, and flapped, sending up clouds of the stuff. It was a scaly-looking monster with a reddish stripe on the back of its tumorous head. The look in its eyes was one of sheer madness, of a beast driven to the brink. By hunger? Rage?

I grabbed the first thing that came to my hand, a sort of spiral shell sticking out of the sand and yanked it free. A nest of thin, red, wormy tentacles thrashed about beneath the shell.

The bird lunched around, screaming from a thick, hooked beak. Mucus dripped from its mouth.

I threw the shell at the bird-thing.

My aim was good for once. Not professional baseball good, but good enough for this. The shelled creature struck the bird in the side of the head and immediately those red tentacles thrust into the tumorous neck of the creature.

Again the bird screamed, but this time the rage was overridden by obvious pain. It thrashed and rolled in the sand, sending up great clouds of the stuff. Then it collapsed and as the sand settled I saw that two more of the tentacled shell creatures had attached themselves to the bird. One lower on its neck, the other on the thick breast. The tentacles pulsed and swelled as if they were sucking away at the bird.

I scrambled to my feet — watching my step carefully because these things were potential landmines. Now that I knew what I was looking for I saw them scattered throughout the sand. Most were burrowed down far enough to hide, just waiting to pierce the unwary with their shells before latching on with their deadly tentacles. A wrong step could risk puncturing the isolation suit and my flesh.

Not exactly the sort of destination I had hoped to find on the other side of the Bridge. Not that I’d known what to expect, that was the point. This was a habitable world, that didn’t make it safe!

Making my way carefully back up the slope, watching each step, I returned to where our machines waited. There was more of the thin grass, limp and sprawling on the sand here. The grasses spread out like blood vessels across the hill and the vampire shell creatures didn’t seem to like this firmer ground. I reached the machines a minute later and sat down on one of the cubes.

Sweat ran down my face, salty and reminding me to drink. I sucked on the water tube that supplied fairly cool water from the bladder on my back. The isolation suit appeared undamaged as I checked it over just in case one of those things had managed to poke me when I fell.

Everything checked out. I was sore, hot, scratchy and aching all over. It’s true, the bigger they are the harder they fall and I’m not a small man. I loom over people, physically and mentally, intimidating those around me.

Not here. The things here just seem to want to see if I’ll be a suitable lunch.

I activated my overlay and interfaced with the machines scattered around me. This was the difficult part of the whole experiment. As we suspected, the Bridge opened to another world. Or another time? An  alternate universe? It would take time to answer those questions. There would have to be measurements and tests done to confirm any answer. Even in our universe, with billions of galaxies each full of billions of stars and countless habitable worlds, there was no telling where the Bridge had ended up taking me.

The bigger question right now was whether or not I was going to make it back.

Two of the machines — planning for redundancy — were designed to measure the Bridge field from this end, locking down the coordinates back to Earth. It had to be done from this side as the information was too complex to be sent back and the field could only be measured from this side. If it worked then the other machines had everything I needed to construct a new Bridge back to Earth.

The question was, had it worked?

My overlay interfaced successfully with the machines. Linkage approved, Bridge field coordinates showed recorded by both machines.

Except that each machine had recorded a different set of coordinates.

Both checked out on internal checks but my overlay confirmed that the Bridge field coordinates weren’t the same.

I didn’t have a clue how that could have happened. Both should have recorded the same thing. At least that was what I expected, but we had never been able to measure a field from the receiving end before now. Was it a fault of one of the machines? It had to be, but how could I tell? Both set of coordinates passed the verification program that I had designed, appearing as valid coordinates.

I activated diagnostics on both machines. While I waited I kept an uneasy eye on the sky and had a chance to take in this new world I had discovered.

World. That’s another word like ‘bridge,’ it doesn’t really tell you anything.

This place was bright sun and white sand beaches, with an ocean tinted purple, almost as if someone had dumped food coloring into the waters. Most likely that was from some sort of microorganism in the water, if I had to guess. I hadn’t specialized in biology in order to make my money.

It was hot, but as my overlay icons informed me from the sensors in the machine, the temperature was only at 37 degrees Celsius, with 50.5% humidity. Pretty comfortable temperatures if you were running around on the beach with nothing but good SPF sunscreen and a pair of swim trunks. Not so good cocooned inside the isolation suit. Its cooling systems struggled to keep me from baking like a potato.

And the clock was ticking down. I was supposed to assemble the equipment and open a new Bridge back home.

It was impossible to draw too many conclusions about this planet from my tiny perspective. I had machines measuring the air composition, wind patterns, motion of the sun and clouds, air pressure, gravity and everything else that my people could think to pack into the devices. All those wonderful details that made the place unique and special.

Just not the sort of place where you wanted to go for a barefoot stroll on the beach.

I never associated the beach with heat before now. When I was kid my parents sometimes took us over to the Washington coast for the day. It wasn’t so far to drive, heading out highway 12 through Aberdeen, and out to Westport in most cases. We went out to the beach to cool off on hot days. The breeze was usually cool coming off the ocean, sometimes it was even overcast, and my brother and I would spend the day building castles and moats, complete with drawbridges of driftwood.

I’ve been to Hawaii, to warm beaches and warm oceans with water as clear as glass, but still when I think of beaches I pictured cooling off.

Not this place. Planets aren’t the same all over, just look at the difference between the Washington and Hawaiian beaches, so I’m sure there are nicer spots than this deadly beach, baking in my isolation suit. That’s just not where I ended up.

My overlay threw up a status report over the deceptively peaceful beach, where the bird’s body had attracted more of the shelled vampires, dragging themselves out of the sand to latch onto the bird.

The  diagnostics were detailed as they scrolled over the unpleasant scene, but the bottom-line was that both machines checked out.

If there was a fault in either machine, I couldn’t see it here from the internal self-diagnostics. I’d have to get them back to the lab on Earth and hook them up to equipment there. We’d tested them extensively, measuring the field coordinates from our side of the bridge and the results were always consistent with the settings used to open the Bridge field. I’d ordered two sent through simply for the extra redundancy, since not having the coordinates back would sort of suck. As sturdy as the machines were, we couldn’t rule out something damaging them.

The most likely explanation was that some high-energy particle from that bright sun had struck the equipment just right to throw off the coordinate calculations without triggering a fault. We were talking about quantum calculations, it was possible that a small change could lead to a problem.

I stood up and went to wipe the sweat from my face. I didn’t realize what I was doing until my glove hit my faceplate.

I was baking. The isolation suit was just about intolerable. I had to open the new Bridge. Once I did that I could cross, but I’d be crossing blind. It was a coin toss what was on the other side. Assuming one of the machines had detected the right coordinates to return me home and they weren’t both wrong.

If I got back we’d change the protocol. Have the machines automatically detect the field and send back a yes/no indication if they were in agreement. If both agreed, then we’d know that we had good coordinates for the return Bridge.

If I got back.

If I wanted to go back.

I turned and looked out away from the ocean, putting it at my back. This was a big world, the horizon was far away, the gravity .13 gees higher than back on Earth. It would have mountains and rivers. Glaciers and lakes. Maybe even forests. The ground rose away from the ocean in a series of undulating hills, the limp grassy vines sprawled across the sand gave way to taller, woodier plants. Not trees, but bushes, that gave the hills a varied and lumpy look, done in shades of green and red-brown hues, with the occasional lighter green or yellow plants. Much further away purple mountains rose up against the sky with rounded, old shoulders like sleeping giants.

Distant dark spots in the sky suggested other large avians looking for prey.

Was this a new frontier? Were there natives out there, other intelligences?

The urge to pull off the isolation suit — stronger because it was so uncomfortably hot — and go exploring was compelling.

Yet I’ve always been a methodical man. When my brother and I built bridges, I planned them out, drawing plans in my notebooks for each one. I’ve always approached things that way. Building C&B, taking care of our parent’s estate for my brother even as he let his life disintegrate in a flood of alcohol and reckless behavior. The same thing led him to lose control of his motorcycle on a sunny summer day riding around the corners of highway 101 down the coast. He always wanted to see what was across the bridges, what was around the corner, or down the next road.

I was the successful one. He was the daring one.

I could go off traipsing across this world. There were emergency supplies with the machines, but then I’d be taking a page from his book.

I’d built the Bridge and I crossed it first. That was daring enough. Now I’d be the first person to open the Bridge back and the whole world would change.

I turned my back from the distant mountains and focused on the machines. My hands waved as if I was conducting to an invisible orchestra as I expanded my overlay and opened up the control menus for the machines scattered like children’s toys around me.

Cubes and spheres, pyramids and octahedrons split at their seams and opened up like a bunch of mechanical flowers. On treads, wheels and legs, the machines unfolded themselves, connected together, performing a complex origami dance to build a new Bridge.

While they worked, I stood and sweated and kept a wary eye on the skies.

When the machines finished, this Bridge stood on stout metal legs built from the exterior cube casings. A ramp rose up from the sand, the grating made of many diamond shapes that had expanded as the machines pulled the panel wide. It rose up and leveled off like a Bridge to nowhere. I didn’t have a clean room here, but if the coordinates worked then this end of the Bridge platform should line up with the suspension platform in the clean room.

No fall this time.

I was an hour past the estimated connection time when the machines finished and the sun had moved across the sky toward the ocean. The glare was blinding, just glancing that way set my eyes watering.  My overlay flashed warnings about the isolation suit’s systems. Soon it would fail and I would have to leave the suit.

No more time. I wished I’d brought a coin to toss, to help me pick which set of coordinates to use, but I was just going to have to pick.

I activated the Bridge field using the first set of coordinates.

A circle of blindness appeared in the air at the end of the platform. Standing back like this, it was easy to take it all in, that absolute blackness that didn’t let any light through from the other side — or anything else. Nothing but a quantum field. Walk through that and everything was instantly shifted to a new location in the universe, preserving momentum and everything else. At least I thought it was the same universe, that solved the pesky problem with conserving stuff in this universe.

The remote power generators didn’t have much time. I couldn’t throw the environmental sensors through and find out what was on the other side because those were entangled to report back to the C&B building in Seattle. Either they’d show up in the clean room or they’d be somewhere else if the coordinates didn’t go back home. Wherever they ended up it wouldn’t help me.

And I wouldn’t have the equipment on the other end to build a new Bridge if this one sent me somewhere else — assuming that I survived.

My overlay was flashing a warning about the power. I ran, lumbered might be more accurate, but I’ll say ran, up the ramp of the new Bridge platform. It trembled beneath my steps.

My breath rasped in the confines of the isolation suit. With my eyes fixed on the Bridge field I was charging as blindly as a bull in a China shop.

I went through.

And ran out onto the platform in the clean room. The bright LED lights were dim compared to the sun back on the world I had left.

“Dr. Candle!” Peter said. “Are you okay?”

I unfastened the catches on my isolation suit, and tore open the seals. I pulled the hood off my soaked head and drank in lungfuls of the cool, sterilized air. It was a risk if I’d brought anything through on the suit, but I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Dr. Candle?”

The metallic and ozone smell of the clean room was comforting. I breathed and as I caught my breath I started to laugh.

I’d done it.

I coughed, cleared my throat, and said. “I’m fine, start going over the data.”

With a wave I activated my overlay transfer, sending all of the data collected into the system. Including finding out where that other set of coordinates went, if anywhere. I was going to be in quarantine until we were sure that I hadn’t brought anything back but that wasn’t going to stop me from planning the next phase of Bridge building.

I went out and came back.

I’d built the ultimate Bridge, the one that would take us to strange new worlds and all of that stuff that Stan and I had dreamed about when we were kids.

I couldn’t wait to see what we would find.

🚀

4,257 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 59th weekly short story release, written in June 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Stay Extended.

Garden of Evan

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

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

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

🚀

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

He was late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two minutes.

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

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

“Go through,” Evan said.

“You’re across the stream!”

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

“Go,” Evan panted.

One minute.

“No,” Sarah said.

“I’ll get there,” Evan said.

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

He wasn’t going to make it.

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

Twenty seconds.

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

“Go! Sarah! Go!”

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

Now he just had to get it out of range.

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

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

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

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

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

And tasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WELCOME TO THE GARDEN OF EVAN.

PLEASE REMOVE SHOES.

HAVE IDENTIFICATION READY FOR IMMIGRATION CONTROL.

RING BELL FOR SERVICE.

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

“Me. Me. Me. Me,” the scalies said.

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

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

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

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

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

He went on about his rounds.

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

“Hey Lupe,” Evan said to the furball.

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Evan,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are all of the books?”

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

“Journals. Records, observations of everything.”

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

“Back?”

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

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

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

“So what took you so long?”

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

“They scattered, to other worlds?”

“You figured that out?”

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

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

“Have you found any of those worlds?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you establishing new colonies?”

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

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

“I have a request,” he said.

“What is it?”

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

“You have to come back,” she said.

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

“Evan, you can’t stay here alone.”

“Lupe,” Lupe said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine,” Evan said.

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

🚀

6,671 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Proposal.

Astrasphere

A whole world existed outside the Towers of Stone and Metal. A world filled with salvagers, goblinmen, elves and ruins left by the Progenitors.

Clifton Walther loved his parents’ bookstore but wanted more than life as a bookseller in the safety behind the wall around the Towers. Apprenticing with his eccentric uncle gave him a chance at a different future.

Except his uncle had strange Andromen working for him — building something that rivaled the Towers themselves.

Readers who enjoy a blend of fantasy and science fiction will enjoy this new Towers story, set in the world introduced in “Death in Hathaway Tower.”

The cart driver reined in the huge, dirty oxen and pointed off into the distance. Farm buildings rose out of the grasslands. Their long shadows stretched out across the grass. Most striking was the odd spherical structure that rose up behind the house and barns. It was as tall as the Towers of Stone and Metal, which Clifton had left behind when his parents had banished him out here to live on the frontier with Uncle Floyd.

“There’s the place,” the driver said. He was an older man, stubble gone gray and what was left of his hair hidden under a floppy, sweat-stained hat.

“That’s the Walther ranch?”

One of the oxen out front farted and the hot grassy stink of it blew in Clifton’s face.

“Yep. That’s the place.”

Most of the buildings were what you’d expect, he’d seen plenty like them in the past three days on the train to get to Grassport. A house, visible off to the right, white, with columns marching along the front. Bright solar panels on the roof faced south. A small army of wind generators surrounded the ranch, more than he’d seen anywhere else. The blades spun lazily, flashing in the sun. Other than those structures, there were barns and silos, surrounded by fields of grain. The narrow dirt road intersecting the main road cut through the fields and ran out to the buildings.

But that other structure, it towered over everything else, even dwarfing the wind generators. It was a ball made up of dark triangles, or at least part of a ball, because the structure on one side was open and revealed the struts and frames within. It looked big enough that all the rest of the farm buildings could have been put inside. Three immense struts rose up around the structure, holding the ball in place. It was incredible, ridiculous, and what was the point?

“What is that?” Clifton pointed at the spherical structure.

The ox-cart driver shrugged. “Don’t know, old Walther doesn’t share. Started building it five years ago.”

“Wait. He’s building it? It wasn’t something left behind, like the Towers?”

“Nope. Took a bunch of land when he started working on it. Pete Welch farms all the land on the ranch, rents it out from your uncle for a split of the earnings, wasn’t too happy about that.”

The driver squinted at him. “You don’t know either? I thought being his nephew, you might.”

Clifton shook his head. “I haven’t seen him since I was little. We lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal.”

“Tower folk, huh?”

Again Clifton shook his head. “Not us, we didn’t live in the Towers. My family, we have a bookstore within the wall. We — that is my parents — live in the apartment above.”

It was the wealthy families in charge that lived in the Towers. The Hathaways and Watersmiths, all that lot with their servants and old tech squirreled away. Everyone else lived within the city contained by the wall.

The driver nodded at the ranch. “Well, maybe he’ll tell you what crazy thing he’s building. He won’t tell anyone else.”

“I can’t imagine what he’s doing,” Clifton said. Nothing in his uncle’s letters asking his parents to send him had mentioned this. Or clearly said what the reason was for sending Clifton out, except for an apprenticeship.

You don’t want to run the store, Dad had said. This gives you another option. Then you can decide.

It was better than being sent out to work with the salvagers, but a farm? He had imagined that he would end up mucking out stalls and dealing with pigs, that sort of thing. The gigantic sphere behind the farm, that changed things. What was Uncle Walther doing?

“This’ll be where you get down,” the driver said.

Clifton looked at the long dirt road cutting through the fields to the farm. It was at least a kilometer long. “Aren’t you going to take me up to the farm?”

“Naw. The oxen don’t like the metal men. Don’t want to spook ‘em. Leave your bags here, if you like. Your uncle can send someone down to get ‘em for you.”

Clifton had a heavy trunk, and a satchel in the back of the wagon. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all that he had brought with him. He wasn’t about to leave it out here by the side of the road where anyone coming along could take it. Including the driver, after Clifton had gone.

“I’ll take them with me.”

The driver shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Clifton turned and climbed over the seat into the back of the wagon. He picked up the satchel, brushed off straw stuck to the fabric and put it on top of the trunk. He jumped off the back to the ground and grabbed the rope handles on the trunk and gave it a pull. It scraped and slid along the rough boards, heavier than he remembered. He got it off the back of the wagon and eased it to the ground.

The driver touched his hat and clucked to the oxen. The big beasts grunted and plodded forward. The wagon made a big circle around the intersection, tipping when it rolled partly into the ditch, and then came back around to face toward Grassport. Clifton picked up the satchel, the end of the trunk, and dragged it on up the dirt road leading to the farm.

 

2

 

When Clifton reached the shadow cast by the first wind generator he stopped and dropped the heavy trunk. The thin shadow provided only weak shade from the sun. The taste of the red dust clung to his tongue, mingling with the salty sweat that dripped from his face. He dragged a handkerchief from his vest pocket and mopped the sweat from his face. It left red streaks on the cloth, like blood. He grimaced, folded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket.

Far above the blades of the wind generator turned in a slow circle. It was amazing that they moved at all. The breeze barely stirred the tall heads of the wheat in the fields on either side of the road. The ditches beside the road were dry. The sun wasn’t even yet overhead, and it was already hot.

This was where his parents had sent him? The middle of nowhere, with an uncle he didn’t know? Life as a bookseller might have seemed dull, but it wasn’t worse than this. Maybe that was the whole point in sending him out here? Maybe they thought that if he got a look at a different life, he’d recognize what he had at the store.

If that was the plan it wasn’t going to work.

It wasn’t that he hated the store, far from it. He loved the books. He enjoyed sitting in his comfortable chair reading. It was just that the thought of that being his whole entire life, it terrified him. Was that all there was to life? Spending most of his days in a small bookstore with his parents, taking over the business when they got older. Getting married himself, having children so that one of them could grow up and do the same thing?

Clifton shook his head and picked up the rope handle on the trunk. The rough rope had already given his hand blisters. Probably not the last blisters, if he was going to be expected to work on the farm. No matter what, this was temporary. He was out beyond the wall now. Eventually he would discover other opportunities and he would pursue them. His life would have more meaning than selling books or farming.

He stepped out of the weak shade and tugged the trunk along the road.

A short distance on a splash of green caught his eye, off in the fields. He stopped and shaded his eyes with his free hand. Waves of heat rose above the dry grass, but through them he saw a girl standing out in the field. She was looking up at the farm buildings ahead, or at the giant sphere behind them. It was hard to see her in the wavering light, but she was pale, with red hair. The green came from a long cape she wore. Then she turned away and was gone from sight.

Clifton searched the surrounding grass and didn’t see her. How could she have vanished like that? Had she fallen down? Maybe she was hurt?

Or an elf.

What were the chances of that? Why would an elf be here looking at Uncle Floyd’s farm?

A high whining noise, and thudding sounds, pulled his attention from the field.

Two man-like shapes were marching down the road. But both were impossibly thin and spindly. Men made of metal rods and cylinders, painted white. The sunlight flashed off them as they walked. Each walked with a tumbling, side-to-side wobble. Metal three-toed feet pounded the dusty road. The red dust coated their legs and feet like dusty socks. Both had arms that were bundles of rods which pistoned back and forth with each step. They didn’t have heads to speak of, nothing but a cluster of rods in different lengths that pointed straight up, except for two on the outside which bent ninety degrees, and swung back and forth like dowsing rods as they got closer.

Andromen. Actual working Andromen! They were supposed to be gone, nothing but stories told by salvagers about broken Andromen found in buried ruins. No one really believed the stories that the Andromen used to work for the Progenitors. They didn’t have any gears or cables when opened up. No circuits. Nothing but gray dust packed inside. The pieces didn’t even stay together. There wasn’t anything to connect them.

According to the salvagers there must be something else that held them together. Maybe magnetism or some other force. Up until now, though, he had always believed it was just stories. Or even that the salvagers manufactured the rods and the Andromen themselves, to pass them off as Progenitor-tech for the rich and deluded. There were probably Andromen wired together on display up in the Towers.

Whining and stomping through the dust, the two Andromen facing him were very real. Clifton dropped the trunk and stepped back, ready to run.

The two machine men came even closer. They were scratched, dented in places. Some sort of black material connected the rods together and capped their fingers. The ends of the two bent rods on top sparkled as they moved back and forth. Eyes? Could these things see him? Understand, even?

Clifton dropped his satchel and held up his hands. “I’m Clifton Walther! I’m here to see my uncle.”

If they understood him at all, they didn’t give any sign. They kept coming closer and he took another step back. It didn’t look like they could run very fast. He could probably get away if he had to.

The Andromen reached his abandoned trunk and each reached down to grab a rope handle. Lifting it between them, their eye-rods swung around to face the other way, their ‘knees’ and ‘elbows’ bent the other direction and just like that they were facing away.

Off they went, wobbling side-to-side, the trunk swaying between them up the road toward the house.

Clifton hesitated, then picked up his satchel and followed.

 

3

 

Up close the house was even weirder than he had imagined back at the road. It was big. Four stories tall, with large white columns along the front. A broad green lawn surrounded the house and there were trimmed hedges and bushes. The two Andromen carrying his trunk went right up around a fountain that was all metal cubes piled and stacked on top of one another, glittering with water in the sun. He saw another of the Andromen off trimming a bush alongside the house with a big pair of shears.

The columns along the front of the house were covered in fabric. There wasn’t much to them at all, not really. In a couple places the fabric had torn, revealing a metal framework beneath. It was nothing but canvas, but painted to look as if it was carved stone, that covered the framework.

Solar panels covered the roof, which wasn’t that odd, but many of the windows looked like they had been replaced with some sort of solar collectors. Beneath the framing there was a sort of black box covering every other window. Solar heaters? But why? A house like this had to have fireplaces.

It was an odd place, obviously, and not at all what he had expected. The Andromen, and he hadn’t gotten over the fact that there were working Andromen, carried the trunk right up to the door. Both of them raised their free hands and knocked.

Another Androman opened the door. For a moment none of them moved, then the two with the trunk proceeded to carry it on inside. Clifton hurried across the porch and followed them in.

Passing the Androman on the door was the closest he’d gotten to the metal men. It was a good half-meter taller than him. The top rods rotated and watched him as he walked inside.

He was in a large foyer. Red dust rained down from the Andromen and his trunk to the marble floor. Small piles of the dust lay drifted along the walls. Overhead, cobwebs hung from a chandelier. The only light came from the windows around the door which gave the whole place a dingy, unused look, as if he had walked into an abandoned house.

“Clifton!”

The cry came from an older man standing up on the balcony above. Obviously not abandoned then. The man was dressed in a faded and patched blue suit. He was skinny, with a messy head of brown hair sprinkled with white, and gaunt cheeks. Even so, Clifton recognized his uncle. He looked a lot like Clifton’s father, if he hadn’t eaten in a month.

Uncle Floyd pointed at the Andromen carrying the trunk. “Yes, yes! Bring that on up to his room, then get back to your other duties.”

With apparent obedience, the two Andromen went to the large staircase and started up with Clifton’s trunk. At the same time Uncle Floyd hurried down. He moved with a jerky sort of motion, almost as clumsily as the Andromen himself. He came down and grabbed Clifton’s shoulders with both hands.

“Boy! You are grown into a man already! The last time I saw you, you could barely catch a ball!”

“You brought me one,” Clifton said. “A baseball from the salvagers.”

“Yes!” Uncle Floyd grinned. “Too bad we couldn’t get some real mitts to go with it! But those winter gloves worked well enough.”

The Androman on the door closed it, and then went off down the corridor from the foyer. Clifton watched it go and then looked back at his uncle.

“You have Andromen! Real, working Andromen! How is that possible?”

Uncle Floyd grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t concern yourself with that right now, Nephew. You’ve had a long trip. Why don’t we get you settled in your rooms? You can rest and we’ll talk more at dinner, yes?”

It had been a very long day. Clifton was bursting with questions, but his uncle had a point.

“Okay. That does sound good.”

“Splendid!” Uncle Floyd sprang back to the staircase. “This way! Come along!”

Clifton hoisted his satchel and followed.

 

4

 

The sunset over the fields of grass was as red as the dust on the road. It stretched across the darkening sky outside his windows as if someone had kicked all the dust up into the air. Straight out this window, out in the fields, a wind generator turned in slow turns.

He had a whole suite of rooms. A sitting room, with a small library of books, bedroom and a private bath. The whole thing smelled musty. There had been sheets over the furniture but the Andromen that had delivered his trunk had pulled off the sheets and taken them away. All the dust disturbed hung in the air. He had thrown open the windows, those not covered with solar heaters, in the bedroom and sitting room in an attempt to air it out.

The views out the other side of the house had to be more interesting. The spherical building was on the other side of the house. Uncle Floyd had asked him to stay in his rooms, saying that most of the house was closed off and some of the rooms had weak floor boards. Maybe it was true, or maybe it was just an excuse to keep him in his room.

Clifton leaned on the window sill, leaning out the open window in hopes of cooler air, but if anything the air coming in from outside was hotter. Even though the blades of the wind generator were turning, it hardly felt as if any of the air was moving through the suite.

A dark shape moved on top of the wind generator. Clifton froze, his breath catching in his throat. The shape was a person! Small, moving carefully on top of the metal structure. He’d taken the dark shape to be part of the generator housing, but it was someone wearing a dark outfit and a cape of some sort that billowed around them.

The person turned, and the sun’s fading rays caught her pale skin and red hair. It was the girl! The one that he’d seen in the field earlier. But what was she doing up on top of the generator?

She crouched there at the top of the wind generator. It seemed she was staring straight at him. Clifton almost moved back from the window, but he was transfixed by the sight of the girl on top of the machine. She had to be an elf. No ordinary girl would have climbed up to the top of the structure. It had to be at least 40 meters tall. The top of the machine itself was small, barely bigger than the girl.

The blades spun past her in big lazy circles. Without warning she rose and leaped forward into the air! Clifton’s breath caught in his throat, expecting first that the blades would hit her, and second, that she would plummet to the ground.

Neither of those things happened. She had timed her leap perfectly and passed unscathed through the turning blades. As soon as she was through she spread her arms and legs. The green cape she wore was attached at multiple points to her arms and legs. It spread out between to create a wing shape. Instead of falling straight down she glided through the air, getting closer every second.

With a jolt Clifton realized that she was focused on him. Or at least on his window! He backed away, transfixed by the flying girl. The flight from the tower to his window took only seconds, but it seemed like each one was an eternity, stretching on as he watched her intent face.

Right before she reached the window her legs dropped. She slowed, but not enough to stop. She tucked her arms and came right through the open window! She rolled in a ball, and her bare feet landed hard on the wood.

She stopped. Then she straightened up, and was short, no taller than his shoulder. She dropped her arms down to her sides where her hands rested on the hilts of long knives that she wore.

She was an elf, no doubt about that!

Her green eyes were fixed steadily on his.

“You will take me to the sphere,” she said. “Raising no alarm.”

She wore a green outfit beneath the cape. It covered her from neck to ankles. The cape’s straps passed through loops on the fabric of her outfit. Her red hair was braided, including bits of bone and wood within the braid. Her skin was like milk. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

“Just a second,” he said. He held up his hands. “I just got here. You saw me. I don’t know anything about that building! Who are you?”

“My name is Willowsong.” She stayed where she was by the window. “I’ve been watching the farm. Floyd Walther lives here. He came back with two of the Andromen, and now has more than a dozen. I need to know if what he is building violates the treaty.”

The treaty, that was the old agreement between the different people, humans, elves, and trolls. Only the goblinmen weren’t part of the convention and they didn’t have the technology to threaten it anyway. The treaty ensured that all the different people preserved the environment and didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Progenitors.

It was unthinkable that Uncle Floyd was doing anything to violate the treaty. Clifton shook his head. “I’m sure he’s not.”

Her head tilted and her eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

“Clifton Walther, his nephew.”

“Nephew?”

“Yes. My parents sent me here, to apprentice.”

“Clifton Walther. Where did you come from?”

“Until recently I lived within the wall around the Towers of Stone and Metal. My parents own a bookshop there.”

“Why did they send you here?”

He dared a step closer to the impossible girl. He had never imagined that he would have a chance to meet an elf! They so seldom involved themselves in human affairs. It was said that a man or woman, seeing an elf, could become elf-struck and never be happy loving any normal human again.

Looking at her, he could believe it. Her eyebrows rose and her flushed, realizing that he was staring and hadn’t answered her question.

“They thought it would be a good experience for me, to see life outside the wall. I think they thought some time on a farm would teach me to appreciate what I had.”

A heavy clanking noise came from outside. Clifton turned to the door just as it burst open and two Andromen marched in, Uncle Floyd right behind them. His face was dark, furrowed and his dark eyes swept the room.

Clifton turned around but the room was empty. Willowsong was gone.

“Who were you talking to?” Uncle Floyd demanded.

Clifton looked at his uncle. The two Andromen stood over him on either side. “No one. Just myself, apologies Uncle, if I disturbed you.”

“Why is that window open?” Uncle Floyd thumped the arm of one of the Andromen. “Close it, immediately.”

The Androman crossed the room with its rolling gait and pulled the window closed, and fastened the latch.

“It was the dust,” Clifton said. “After they took away the drop-cloths, there was a lot of dust in the air. I wanted to air the rooms out.”

Uncle Floyd gestured back at the bedroom. “Go close the others.”

The Androman clanked off. Uncle Floyd looked back at Clifton. “You must keep the windows closed. Opening them up lets in the hot air from outside — and more dust than you’ll remove by having them open. We do our best to keep the heat and dust out by keeping the house closed.”

“Yes, Uncle. But wouldn’t it be helpful to open them up at night, to get the cooler night air?”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “I have a geothermal cooling system that runs beneath the lawn outside, through the columns at the front of the house. It draws out the hot hair from the attic, pulls it down through coils in the cool earth, and returns the air to the basement. Air filters do what they can for the dust, but the house must remain closed for the system to work.”

Finally Uncle Floyd managed a small smile. “I must apologize for being so brusque. I’m not used to having anyone around to talk to.”

He nodded at the two Andromen who had returned from closing windows. “These aren’t much for conversation. What say you to dinner? I think it is about ready now.”

“Of course. Thank you. I’ll remember about the windows.”

“Good lad.” Uncle Floyd clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “I’m starved! Let’s go eat!”

Uncle headed out of the room and Clifton didn’t have any choice but follow. The two Andromen brought up the rear.

 

5

 

Dinner took place in a long, dark dining hall lit by glowing globes. The light came from fish contained in the globes, each fish tiny and giving off a greenish-yellow sort of glow that wasn’t quite candlelight. Each of the globes sat on thick iron bases above the table and contained at least a half-dozen of the fish. Uncle Floyd caught him looking at the fish.

“I found those on an expedition. A sort of cave fish. I wasn’t sure they would thrive in captivity, but they’re prolific little breeders as long as they have room. Once they’re about six to eight fish in a bowl, they just stop breeding. Each one seems to live a year or two at the most. They’re cannibals, but only after one has died naturally. Efficient little buggers.”

The table was already laid out with a meal and two place settings. A roasted chicken sat in a dish surrounded by potatoes and carrots. A basket held long garlic bread sticks and there was a bottle of white wine breathing on the side. Plus bowls of salad and tall, narrow glasses full of water.

Uncle Floyd sat down and picked up a serving spoon, scooping up potatoes and carrots. He used a knife to carve off a section of the chicken’s breast, then twisted off one of the drumsticks. He added a thick breadstick to his plate and settled back down. He stabbed a fork into the salad.

“Go on, Nephew. Dig in. We won’t waste time on formalities here, just the two of us.”

Clifton followed his lead and served himself. “Who makes all of this?”

“My boys.” Uncle Floyd gestured with the drumstick at one of the Andromen standing by the door. “Clever things. The only working Andromen, precisely what I needed. Like the fish, I found them on an expedition. Two of them, barely functional. Much longer and they’d have been nothing but a collection of metal rods and dust, like the salvagers have found.”

Uncle Floyd paused to fork food into his mouth, and take a sip of wine.

Clifton tried the chicken. The bird was delicious, hot and dripping with seasoned juice. He bit off a piece of the breadstick and found it crisp on the outside, rich with butter and garlic, and soft on the inside. Hard to believe that such things as the Andromen could make food that tasted so good.

“My table improved with them cooking!”

“You have more than two now, don’t you?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Clever things, as I said. I fixed up the two enough to get them working and then they made the others. I had to buy up what parts I could from the salvagers, and they made the rest. Twenty-one of them work for me now. I couldn’t do the work I’m doing without them.”

Clifton didn’t want to bring up Willowsong’s visit. He had a feeling that Uncle Floyd wouldn’t be happy to learn about the elf poking around the farm.

“What work is that? The driver said that a Mr. Welch farms the land? And, well, I couldn’t miss the structure out behind the barns.”

Uncle Floyd’s thin face split into a wide grin. He put down his fork and folded his hands together over his plate. He looked like Clifton’s father did when he found a particularly rare book.

“That will take some explaining. The Astrasphere is a special project of mine, a sort of observatory, one that I couldn’t do without the Andromen. It would have just remained ideas on paper, speculations, but they’ve given me the opportunity to find out if it is possible.”

“But what is it for?” Clifton said. “A building so large? The only thing I’ve seen that rivals it are the Towers, and they were built by the Progenitors.”

Uncle Floyd leaned back in his chair. “Yes. And they built the Andromen. How do you think they built things like the Towers or the wall? Or the Chasms? They had the Andromen and other tools to do the work for them, machines to lift and cut, to dig deep and travel at great speeds.”

“What about the treaty?”

Uncle Floyd leaned toward Clifton. “The treaty? Why do you ask about that?”

Clifton shrugged. “It’s just that the Progenitors did a lot of things they probably shouldn’t. If the Andromen were a part of that, I don’t know, wouldn’t that worry someone?”

“The treaty only matters when you’re talking about composting sewage for a town, or the tradeoff of manufacturing solar panels versus damming a river.” Uncle Floyd leaned back. “The treaty doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from the Progenitors’ mistakes. We can do things better.”

Uncle Floyd speared a piece of chicken. He lifted it up and paused before taking the bite. “Don’t worry about it, Clifton. I’ve got plenty for you to learn, but you can’t expect to pick it all up on your first night.”

Clifton took a long drink of water. Uncle Floyd was probably right, but he also hadn’t answered the question. Whatever the big spherical building was, it wasn’t something that he wanted to talk about right now.

 

6

 

After spending the rest of the evening filling Uncle Floyd in on life back in the bookshop, Clifton finally was able to return to his suite. Uncle Floyd seemed lonely. Hardly surprising, all alone out here with the weird Andromen for company. It’d take time before Uncle Floyd trusted him.

Clifton dropped into one of the high-backed chairs in the sitting room. Should he have told Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? He didn’t want to believe that his uncle was doing anything that would violate the treaty. Maybe Willowsong had it wrong? Just because his uncle had brought back the Andromen didn’t mean he was going to do anything to damage the environment. The building on its own, didn’t seem dangerous. And Uncle Floyd had let it slip that the building was a sort of observatory. That didn’t sound like something that would violate the treaty. It’d probably be better if he just told people what he was doing, but Clifton got the feeling that wasn’t his uncle’s strongest talent. Maybe it was better to wait, gain his trust, and then broach the subject.

And when should he tell Uncle Floyd about Willowsong? If he wanted to gain his uncle’s trust, he should have already told him, but he hadn’t. He didn’t believe that Uncle Floyd would take the news well that the elves were looking into what he was doing.

Something thumped against the wall. Clifton rose from the chair and turned to the dark window. He didn’t see anything at first except his own ghostly reflection, dimly lit by the light beside the chair.

Then a flash of white appeared in the window. It was Willowsong! She was right outside, looking in.

He crossed quickly to the window and unfastened the catches. She moved back, somehow clinging to the face of the building beside the window. He swung the windows open and leaned out.

Willowsong hung by one hand, her bare toes pressed against the siding, a knife stuck in the face of the building. “Please let me in.”

Clifton moved back without question. She reached over to the windowsill with one foot, toes gripping the wood and then she pulled herself completely inside, yanking the knife out of the wall. She stepped lightly down to the floor with her green cape billowing out around her. He took another step back but didn’t turn away from her. He never wanted to look away.

She slid the knife back into a sheath at her side. When she spoke her voice was a soft whisper. “I need to see what your Uncle is building. Will you help me?”

“Yes.” His answer was automatic. As much as he wanted Uncle Floyd’s trust, there wasn’t anything that he would deny Willowsong. The realization rocked him, but it was unshakable. He would do anything for her, he was elf-struck.

“He hasn’t told you anything of it?”

Clifton shook his head. “Not yet, except he said it was the Astrasphere and called it an observatory. I don’t think he would do anything to violate the treaty.”

“I’ve been tasked to assess that myself. We should go now.”

“Okay,” he said. He closed the window, just in case anyone looked in.

Then Clifton went to the door and opened it just a crack. The hallway outside was empty and dark. The house was quiet. He didn’t hear any sounds of the Andromen or his uncle moving around. He pushed the door open further and beckoned to Willowsong. Together they went out and down the stairs.

It didn’t take long for them to move through the quiet house, to the rear of the house and a back door off the kitchen downstairs. It was bolted on the inside, but Clifton turned the bolts and unfastened it so they could get out.

Stepping outside into the warm night with Willowsong, he felt a thrill. This was what he had wanted outside the safe, comfortable life in the bookstore. An adventure. He looked at Willowsong, her features strong and beautiful as her eyes drank in the view ahead.

“We have to get closer,” she whispered. “Stay close.”

She moved off, following the shadows of the large oak trees that grew between the house and the strange spherical building. He followed her. At the oak she bounded up into the branches.

“Wait there,” she said.

Clifton was content to keep his feet on the ground, as he peered around the tree at what his uncle was building. Or what the Andromen were building.

Bright spotlights illuminated the entire structure, making it glow in the night. Three curved struts or buttresses rose up and clutched the spherical building. Not simple structures, but massive, constructed of metal beams and plates, they resembled a giant three-fingered hand clutching the ball. Round plates suggested knuckles.

The building itself was made up of many triangles. Most of the surface was covered in dull matte black plates that had a dull sheen from the spotlights. One jagged section was incomplete, lit from the interior, it looked like a bright lightning bolt across the skin of the building. Through the glare the dark shapes of Andromen climbing over the building’s skeletal structure, using a crane to hoist another triangular section up while several Andromen worked together to position yet another into place. What little Clifton could see of the interior made it seem as if the structure was mostly empty space.

It was sufficiently far enough away that he couldn’t make out a lot of the details, except that there were brighter points where each of the triangles met the others.

A shadow passed over him and then Willowsong landed silently beside him.

Clifton turned to face her. She gazed up at him and he reached out instinctively, cupping the side of her face. His heart hammered in his chest. She placed her hand on his and held it for a moment, then stepped away.

He let his arm drop to his side. He tried to figure out what to say, but nothing came.

“I want to get closer,” she said. She pointed. “There.”

She was pointing at one of the barns. It was still some distance from the strange building, but it was much closer than the house. From the loft windows they would have a better view of the building.

“Okay,” he said.

The area between the trees and the barn was open. There was a chance that they’d be seen. It didn’t matter. He wanted to see for himself as much as Willowsong. But maybe there was a way for him to make it easier for her.

“I’ll distract them,” he said. He pointed at the open loft doors at this end of the barn. “Can you fly to there from the tree?”

“Yes. What will you do?”

“I’m his nephew,” Clifton said. “It won’t look suspicious unless they catch me sneaking around. I’ll be fine.”

She leaned close to him, and he smelled a clover smell. Her lips grazed his and she pulled back and smiled. Then she turned and bounded back up into the tree and was out of sight.

Clifton stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled out straight for the big structure. His heart pounded, more from the brief kiss than what was ahead, but the closer he got the more impressive it was. And confounding. What possible reason did his uncle have for creating such a structure? How was it an observatory?

As he passed the barn he called out. “Uncle Floyd? Are you out here? Uncle?”

Clanking and pounding noises from the work the Andromen were doing continued unabated. If any of the metal men were paying attention to his approach, he didn’t see it. He kept walking. Soon he stepped into the light that spilled from the building’s interior. It was an awesome sight. The massive building rose far above like one of the Towers, but it was so much bigger since it was a giant sphere. Through the jagged opening to the interior he could see cross struts stretching across the interior, and metal cabling, all of which surrounded yet another sphere at the heart of the structure. That one was much smaller, and had glass windows and lights inside.

Andromen climbed throughout the structure. Torches flared like bright stars where they welded components. Wires and hoses draped from sections. The bright points at the junctions of the triangles were clusters of nozzles five nozzles, one pointing straight out and the others at right angles to make a cross. There were dozens of these nozzle clusters at points evenly spaced across the sphere.

Clifton didn’t look back at the barn. Willowsong would keep herself hidden in any case. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Uncle Floyd! Hello? Uncle?”

An Androman lurched out of the shadows beneath the spherical building and clanked toward him with its rolling gait. Clifton stopped, held his ground and waved at the metal man.

“I’m looking for my uncle! Is he out here?” He looked up at the sphere towering above. “That’s sure something!”

The Androman kept coming and two more emerged from beneath the building and started his way. None of them said anything. He didn’t even know if they could talk. Surely they communicated somehow, and had followed Uncle Floyd’s instructions, but that didn’t mean they knew speech.

He refused to move as they drew closer. They wouldn’t hurt him, at least. Surely. Uncle Floyd wouldn’t allow that.

The first one raised its arms as it got closer, reaching out for him.

Now he was scared. Its dowsing rod eyes swung back and forth. The metal fingers spread wide. He refused to give ground. “I’m looking for my uncle! Where is Floyd Walther? I’m his nephew, Clifton.”

“Wait!” Uncle Floyd’s voice called out.

The Andromen halted in their tracks. Clifton looked, but didn’t see his uncle. A moment later Uncle Floyd came out of the shadows beneath the building and hurried across the dusty yard with his own ungainly gait.

When he reached the waiting Andromen he pointed back at the building. “Back to work. I’ll take care of this.”

The Andromen obediently turned and headed back toward the building. Uncle Floyd came forward until he stood in front of Clifton. His frown cast deep shadows across his face.

“What brings you out here? I thought you went to bed?”

“All the excitement of the day,” Clifton said. “I couldn’t sleep and came downstairs. The house was empty, and then I saw the lights out here and thought I would find you. Can I take a look around? It’s sure something.”

Uncle Floyd shook his head. “Not yet. It isn’t safe, not while there’s work going on. But soon, Clifton, I’ll show you everything.”

Clifton thought of Willowsong. She would want something. “How is it an observatory? If you close up the rest of it, how will it observe anything? And what are those nozzles?”

Uncle Floyd stepped closer. He reached out and put a hand on Clifton’s shoulder. “If you’re going to be my apprentice, there’s a lot for you to learn. Let’s go back to the house. I’ll get you a book.”

“A book?” Clifton asked. He had grown up in a bookstore, he loved to read.

“Yes. It’s about the Progenitors who went into space. I think you will find it fascinating.”

Clifton looked up past the strange building. The stars were bright and thick in the sky. “Space? They went up there?”

Uncle Floyd nodded. “Yes, but there is much you must learn before you understand. Come on. If you’re going to work with me, there’s much study to do.”

Clifton couldn’t think of any other excuse to stay outside, so he followed Uncle Floyd back to the house.

 

7

 

A rustle like the wind and Willowsong landed lightly on the open window frame. Clifton looked up from the book that Uncle Floyd had loaned him and then quickly set it aside and hurried to the window.

Willowsong stepped down into the room.

He took her hands and gazed down into her eyes, all brown and golden and green in the light from the lamp.

“Did you see enough?”

She shook her head. “I saw, but I don’t understand what it is that he is building.”

There was only one answer. Clifton drew her closer to the lamp and picked up the book. “I think he means to fly into space.”

“Space above?” Willowsong looked at the book, and back at him.

“I don’t think it will violate the treaty,” Clifton said quickly. “Even with what I’ve read, I think he is planning something different.”

“It isn’t up to me,” she said softly. “I must go back and report what I’ve seen.”

“You’ll come back, won’t you?” Clifton said, hoping that it didn’t sound as desperate as he felt.

Willowsong was silent for a moment. “If I can.”

She rose up on her toes and kissed him again. A brief touch that set his nerves alight.

Then she pulled away, turned and jumped from the window. Clifton rushed to the open window but she was gone. He thought he caught a glimpse of her, just for a moment in the air, but then nothing.

He closed the window and went back to the chair. For a long moment he stood holding the book and then he sat down, turning to his page.

He had wanted to get out of the bookstore, to have adventures. It hadn’t seemed like coming to a farm would be the adventure he sought, but clearly he was wrong.

This was exactly where he belonged.

7,205 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 27th weekly short story release, written in February 2014, set in the same world as Death in Hathaway Tower.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book 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 week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Strange Babies.