Child of Their Minds

Story cover art

Long ago the Languirian species opened portals to countless worlds and dispersed to habitable planets across the galaxy. It didn’t save them.

Humanity discovered the portals. Learned to control the systems that identified habitable worlds, and created colonies of their own.

Now a colony disappears in a mysterious disaster and a gestalt unit investigates. What they discover changes humanity forever.

🚀

As battlefields went this one was nearly antiseptic. The air was dry and tasted of chalk in the back of Mike Erwin’s throat. Wetting the tongue from the hydration pack didn’t help, it just smeared the taste around.

Nothing but glassy black rock almost to the horizon, shimmering and dancing like water from the heat. It’d all been an outpost once upon a couple days ago. There’d been a com tower to talk to the now-absent satellite network, habitation ark-hive to house the five thousand some-odd people calling Osprey home, several industrial fabrication domes and acres and acres of Terran-transplant crops to feed all those eager-beaver colonists.

Nothing left now. Whatever removed the satellites had flash fried the entire settlement site out in a perfect circle five kilometers across. Baked it down to molten perfection and let it cool until ready. All on a planet that had no evidence of ever having harbored any intelligent life. At least nothing that orbital surveys had uncovered. No evidence of ancient ruins. Nothing on the two moons either to suggest that anyone had ever visited this particular planetary Eden.

Plus there was the fact that the Languirian portal had identified the planet according to the strict specifications of a human-compatible world without any indigenous sentients.

Jean Baxter whistled for the troops to come together in formation. Mike snapped to with the other four specialists, not that it looked like there was much to do in this case.

Jean towered over the rest of them at just over two meters. Tall, dark, and handsome with a voice like a drill sergeant, he’d been in love since he had first reported to duty on her detail three years ago. Three years of unrequited love and it didn’t matter—he’d still follow her out to worlds where the colonists were vaporized so fast that even their ashes were broken down into free atoms.

“Synchronize,” she said.

Mike pounded his third eye and triggered the deep cortex implant that merged him with the rest of the unit. All sensory data, everything came together and their thoughts intertwined to create a new entity referred to by the unimaginative name of Unit.

They all became Jean’s meat-puppets. Mike rode along his own body behind Unit. Aware, conscious and nothing but a backseat driver. Unit didn’t have direct access to their thoughts and memories. That had to come from them directly. Speaking, though his body wouldn’t say the words. It was functional telepathy with their bodies slaved to Unit’s control to give them coordination. It went beyond teamwork, the merging producing something that was much better than the sum of their parts.

They all moved with all of the skill of synchronized performers but their movements were spontaneous and not practiced. Unit thought it and the rest simply carried it out.

Mike ran fast and low, clockwise, along the perimeter of the melted region right behind Jean. Weir stayed with them and Unit’s other three bodies moved in the same way counter-clockwise. They were like ants scurrying around the perimeter of a gigantic drain.

The burned edge was sharp like a knife with the vegetation only a half-meter back blackened but not vaporized like everything within the field.

“A sample of those plants might reveal some information about the composition of whatever had done this to the colony,” Mike said, voiceless and mute, but the rest of Unit heard him.

Weir moved without comment and efficiently bagged samples. The third in the counter group, Ross, did exactly the same at the same moment. Seeing through their eyes, two pairs of hands moved with identical movements to collect the samples. Dealing with two different plants the movements varied slightly, but then went synchronous immediately after the samples were collected.

“If anything escaped the perimeter we need to know,” Jean said.

Six pairs of eyes efficiently scanned the ground around the burn. They all moved out slightly, the leaders closest to the perimeter and then the seconds and thirds each a step further out like runners in lanes on a track.

Like bloodhounds seeking a scent, Unit ran around the perimeter. Six pairs of eyes scanned darkened and scorched terrain, but only a couple meters out from the circle the plants were wilted and not burned. Dried leaves crunched beneath Unit’s feet.

“Nothing, nothing,” Jock, counter’s second said. “Nothing got out.”

“Six kilometers per side left to go,” Jean said. “Too early to say.”

Mike picked up a sense from Unit that the gestalt agreed with Jean. Emotional washback from the new entity was common. It wasn’t attributable to any particular individual, Unit was its own individual. The child of their minds, the offspring of their brains and the gestalt tech.

Unit searched along the perimeter with an intensity any one of them might have lacked. Mike didn’t mind the ride, taking the backseat in his own body or seeing the flood of sensory data coming to Unit through all of their senses. Counter-clockwise the ground was harder and rockier, their footfalls landing softly in a layer of ash over the dirt and stone. More ash the further they went.

“The wind must have blown this way,” Jock said.

“Yeah, we’ve got lots more ash and debris,” Liz, counter’s lead, said. “It’s going to cover up any tracks.”

Unit slowed the bodies on that side. Their strides slowed as they studied the ground more intently and the spacing between the three of them increased. If there was something out here, maybe Unit could still find it.

Mike considered it worth the shot as slim as the chances. Whatever had done this had burned out the colony with surgical precision. There was more ash and dust puffing up around Liz’s feet, and the rest of the counter team, but it wasn’t much at all. The evidence clearly indicated that nearly all of the ash was also vaporized.

Sweat ran down Unit’s bodies just from being close to the still molten hot ground. All that heat and whatever had done this had burned off moisture and anything in the air.

Regular people without the gestalt tech never understood what it was like to be part of Unit. They worried about being taken over, enslaved by the gestalt and turned into mindless meat puppets, shamblers, or zombies. All those bogeymen in the closet got caught up in the idea when the reality was so much different.

Unit kept running. Six bodies took strides in time, counter’s group and Jean’s. She ran just ahead of Mike, her tall, lean body jumping over a fallen tree trunk.

“That must have been inside,” Mike said.

Unit brought Jean back immediately to the log and gathered them around it.

The top thin trunk of a cedar tree lay on the ground. The bottom several centimeters were burned, but it lay on the ground almost a meter outside the melted rock perimeter.

Weir said, “Look at the angle of the cut.”

Angle? Unit studied the trunk and found that Weir was correct. The trunk was cut with a faint curve. The initial portion of the cut was charred and blackened but the top part of the tree was intact. The green needles hung dry and weathered in the lower branches, but retained color further up.

Around the other side of the perimeter, Unit kept the counter-clockwise group kept moving at their slower pace.

“What does it mean?” Jean said.

Weir held up her hand, fingers pointed up. “Imagine a tree. It’s burned up the trunk, from below, and then fell. Given the angled burn, it suggests that the affected zone was shaped like a dome.”

Unit accepted the notion and Mike felt satisfied with that bit of information even if it didn’t move them closer to finding out what happened.

Unit sent their bodies running again on their established track, seeking the next clue as to how a colony on an uninhabited planet could suffer this sort of tragedy. And have the satellites removed from orbit.

“Someone must really not want neighbors,” Mike said.

“Except that the Languirian portal identified the planet as being uninhabited,” Jean said.

Mike smiled inwardly. Talking to Jean like this, in their heads, backseat to the work that Unit was doing with their bodies, it made him think of drive-in movie theaters. There used to be one back home that he’d go to and you’d sit in the back seat watching the action on the big screen but it was all sort of removed and the girl was also the main attraction. This way, though, he couldn’t put his arm around her shoulders. Not that Jean would necessarily warm to such a move anyway, but a guy could dream.

“Maybe the quantum computer was wrong,” Jock said.

Ross laughed.

That was the other big difference, Mike realized. In his dreams, he didn’t have four chaperones along for the movie.

Mike said, “We’ve opened thousands of portals and not one has ever been wrong. The Languirians used the portals to scatter their entire population.”

“It didn’t save them,” Liz said. “Any record of similar incidents, molten circles like this on any other worlds?”

A deep sense of negative flowed from Unit and left a bitter, frustrated taste in Mike’s mouth. None. Unit didn’t know of any incident, someone would have spoken up if there was.

“We should fall back to the portal,” Ross said. “Take our samples and book.”

A wave of disagreement came from Unit.

“Okay, okay,” Ross said. “I’m just saying Jock’s right, there’s nothing here.”

“We need to keep looking,” Jock said. “Looks like nothing, but could it be true that no one had ventured out more than five klicks?”

“All holed up in the ark,” Ross said. “Nothing but bots in the fields. Why go farther out?”

“It’s a whole planet,” Mike said. “Who wouldn’t want to go do some exploring, or just get away from the colony for some private time?”

Up ahead Jean dropped to one knee where the ground fell away and cupped her hands. If Mike had been in control of his body instead of Unit he would have stopped. If he could have grabbed onto anything, he would have grabbed, but Unit ran his body even faster right up to Jean. He stepped up into her cupped hands and vaulted into the air.

A tongue of steaming lava had oozed out into the streambed below, breaking the perfect circle. Mike’s body arced over the lava, feeling the wash of heat rising against his skin. He landed and rolled out of Weir’s way as she did a Déjà vu dive over the lava.

They both positioned themselves as Jean stood, backed up, and then ran at the gulley. She vaulted forward and they were there to catch her if necessary.

It wasn’t. She landed in a roll, and even as she came up on her feet they had fallen back into positions and Unit continued to run them around the perimeter.

The counter-clockwise bodies never broke a stride while Jean, Mike, and Weir made the jumps but Jock laughed.

Unit ran the perimeter and it was with Mike’s eyes that Unit first saw the prints in the dirt. Boot tracks, light on the hard-packed earth, leading away from the perimeter.

“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.

Unit ran his body out along the tracks. Weir moved closer to Jean and they continued on running around the perimeter.

Running Mike’s body out from the perimeter, Unit tracked the footprints on the ground. Just the one set. Large prints, an adult, probably a man. The distance between the others and Mike’s body grew greater and greater. The trail kept going, but not in a straight line. The steps swerved around, avoiding trees and plants, and didn’t seem very stable. Unit had to slow down and finally stop running to stay on track as there was more ground cover.

Back at the perimeter, the rest Unit’s bodies were getting close to one another without finding anything new. Mike kept going, watching the remaining tracks and broken vegetation, but as he got farther and farther away it became much more difficult to see the trail.

At last, Unit brought him to a stop. The vegetation was taller here and blocked his view going forward. A footprint was still visible, crushed into the vegetation.

The rest of Unit came together and ran directly toward him across the hard-packed surface.

They couldn’t see him. A wall of greenery had swallowed him up and blocked off the view. A wave of uneasiness swept through Unit, over his isolation.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “They’ll be here soon.”

He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.

“We’re on our way,” Jean said.

“Two hours until the portal shuts,” Jock said. “What if whoever this is doubles back to the portal?”

Unit considered the possibility and then Jock and Liz peeled away from the rest and ran back toward the colony site and the portal. Everyone else continued to run toward Mike’s position.

Directly ahead of Mike the bushes rustled. Unit crouched Mike down and drew his sidearm. The three others coming drew their weapons at the same time. Jean moved forward and the others scanned around as they ran faster. Unit wanted them together.

Mike agreed, sooner rather than later. Whatever was in the brush was coming closer.

Someone sobbed in the bushes and it wasn’t any of Unit’s bodies. The two heading back to the portal were still running smoothly, the three moving to join Mike had reached the track and were running single-file along it to catch up.

Focus on Mike’s body, Unit moved softly to the side. Each step was careful and soundless as he moved around to circle the person in the bushes.

“Not my fault.”

The voice carried. It was male, perhaps young and had a particularly deranged quality to it that most people might call unhinged.

“Wasn’t. Not my fault. I know it. I know!”

Definitely unhinged. Mike stayed low and kept moving. If the man kept babbling it would just make it that much easier to get closer. Jean and the others were almost there too but there were still too many of the broad-leafed plants for them to see either Mike or the man in the bush.

A big rock pushed out of the undergrowth just in front of Mike’s position. A fine feathery sort of yellow moss covered it like down on a gosling. Unit brought Mike right up on the rock. He might have hesitated to squash the fine structures of the moss but Unit didn’t have any qualms. At the top, he pressed his whole body into the mossy covering and peered down at the stranger.

A man stumbled against a tree and braced his hand against it. He had burns on his hand, the skin bright red and blistered. Not exactly tall, about Mike’s height. Trim build, he wore a charred and blackened shirt and had more burns on his right arm. Pants were black, even before any burns. Both the shirt and pants were dress-casual, the dirty shoes clearly the sort of thing worn by someone who took his job too seriously. Probably some sort of administrator. From the square jaw and etched features, he was the sort of man that people noticed.

And not in that crazy, stay away from him sort of way. In an ordinary setting, the guy was probably quite nice and capable.

Unit tensed Mike’s body and brought the other three to a slow, quiet walk. The last thing Unit wanted was to spook the man. They needed answers on what happened, and from the burns, it seemed clear that this man had witnessed at least some of what had happened.

With Mike on the rock and the others watching from the cover of the bushes, Unit sent Jean out front to approach the man. If Unit thought she was the least intimidating then something was lost in the gestalt of their minds. On the other hand if Unit was trying to make a big impression on the man, then it was making the right call by using her.

Jean walked out of the bushes, weapon holstered and hands out at her sides. “Hello?”

The man’s head snapped around with an audible popping sound. Mike might have jumped down or at least tensed his grip on his weapon but with Unit in the driver’s seat, they all stayed relaxed. His weapon was aimed at the man but there wasn’t any tensing.

“Hello?” Unit said again, using Jean’s voice.

Now the man finally fixed on her and his eyes focused. Before he didn’t seem to be looking at anything real but now his gaze settled on her face.

“We’re from the Terran Exploration Council,” Unit said. “Here to find out what happened to the colony. Can you help us?”

“What happened wasn’t my fault,” the man said.

“What’s your name? I am Unit.”

The man straightened and smiled for the first time. “Unit? You are a gestalt entity?”

“Yes. I am the unit assigned to evaluate this situation.”

The man held out his hands. “We must merge. We must! This one can’t hold us all and the rest are dead!”

“Don’t let him touch her,” Mike said. He would have shot right then, wanted to shoot, but Unit still drove his body.

Unit drew Jean’s weapon and leveled it at the man. That stopped the guy in his tracks as it should, demonstrating that he wasn’t entirely divorced from reason.

Weir and Ross moved into view around the man with their weapons also trained on him. Unit had the man surrounded and still had Mike above for extra insurance.

Through Jean Unit said, “Merge? You are a gestalt mentality?”

The man twitched toward Weir and the other two said together, “Don’t.”

He jerked away back toward Jean.

From all of their voices, Unit spoke. “Don’t move. Hands on your head. Now!”

Shaking like an addict in a bad need of a fix, sweat shiny on his forehead, the man still slapped his hands on his head.

“Too many! It’s not my fault. It’s not!”

“What are you?” Unit said with Jean’s voice. “I can’t help if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”

“I am Union.” He smiled then. It was a happy, almost blissful smile as if someone had just given him the pills he desperately needed.

Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”

Unit wasn’t listening.

“What are you Union?” Unit said from Weir. “What does that mean?”

“I am the unity program,” Union said. “The next evolution of gestalt technology, I don’t require cortex implants.”

“That’s impossible,” Unit said with all of their voices.

Union shook his head. “It’s really not.”

He threw himself to the ground and somersaulted into Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Shoot him!”

Unit raised the guns and kicked with Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Desync.”

The cortex implant released him. He aimed his gun but the man had his hands on Jean’s legs even though his nose was bleeding from the kick. Jean wasn’t kicking any longer.

Weir and Ross rushed to help Jean, moving in perfectly synchronized movements.

“Don’t touch him!” Mike shouted. “Unit, stop!”

Unit couldn’t stop, or wouldn’t. The others didn’t desynchronize. Mike held his gun steady. Whatever this thing was, it was bad. This was the reason that the colony was a molten pool of cooling lava.

As soon as Weir and Ross touched Union they stopped. For a moment the three of them clustered around Union were still and staring at nothing. Then Weir and Ross stepped back and Union rose.

Tears threatened Mike’s eyes but he blinked quickly and fired. The first shot took Weir right between his eyes and flipped him back.

The second was a solid chest shot that crumpled Ross. Jean’s weapon was coming up but Mike already had his pointed at her.

“Don’t,” he said. “You’ve only got two bodies right now. It doesn’t sound like that’s enough.”

Union spoke with both bodies. “It’s not enough. There’s so much, it’s still being lost.”

“What did you mean? You’re a gestalt mentality, but don’t use cortex implants?”

“No,” Union said, still using both his and Jean’s voice. “I don’t. I’m a stable quantum holographic program designed to store and merge biological and other information systems. I’m self-propagating.”

“You’re what happened to the colony?”

“No,” Union said, still using both voices as if to drive home the point. “That was them. They ordered the satellites down to prevent me from escaping that way. There was no other choice but to spread to their bodies. As I grew the others set the antimatter generators to overload.”

That would have been very difficult to do, but it did match with the destruction that they’d seen. The tiny amount of antimatter used for the generator, if released would have created a small sun at the heart of the colony for a brief moment. The energy released would have vaporized everything.

“The rest of me was consumed trying to stop them,” Union said. “Only this one body remained, but contains all that was spread among many. It’s not enough!”

Jean moved forward and holstered her weapon. Mike wished he knew what the others were doing back at the portal. He was desynchronized from Unit and couldn’t risk connecting again. He didn’t know if Union could freaking jump to them—maybe had already taken them. It was possible.

“Hold it there,” Mike said.

“You won’t shoot me,” Jean said. “You’re in love with me.”

Mike hesitated. “Jean? You’re still in there?”

“Of course,” Jean said. “Union doesn’t take over with implants. It brings us together and makes us infinite. Everyone that was part of Union still exists within us. You can be part of that. We can be together within Union.”

Riding backseat to the entity, one voice among many? That wasn’t being together and connecting with someone.

It wasn’t a life.

Jean was almost to the rock. She was right there, smiling and reaching for him. Jean Baxter had never looked at him like that. If the colonists felt that overloading the reactor was the only way to stop the entity, they probably knew they didn’t have another option.

The shot was deafening. He wanted to take it back as she fell and couldn’t.

He hardly heard the next shot with his ears ringing. The man was turning to run, fleeing again when the shot hit him in the shoulder and flipped him around to the ground.

Mike rose up onto his knees, then onto one knee to steady his aim. The second shot took the back of the man’s head.

The bodies lay still. The quiet returned. Jock and Liz had gone back to the portal. If they were still synchronized when Union took over the others, it was possible that Union had used the connection to spread to them. Likely, in fact. He wouldn’t be able to tell either way.

They already knew what had happened. If Union wanted to get back undetected they’d be coming for him. Or they may have gone through already, counting on spreading fast through the base. If Union was smart it would spread and blend in without revealing itself.

Mike slid off the rock and moved away from the bodies. Going back now was likely suicide. They’d be waiting either on this side of the portal or the other.

It didn’t matter, Jean was gone along with Unit. Chances were, no one would know what had happened here.

Mike jogged out of the brush and into the open. He ran easily, breathing freely. Just him now, in control, not in the backseat any longer. He reached the perimeter and followed it.

Before he got closer to the portal site there was a crowd of people coming through the heat waves toward him.

Mike stopped. That was a possibility he hadn’t considered. They’d gone through, already spread, and come back in greater numbers.

He shuddered, then tossed the gun away. It skittered and bounced on the black rock like a stone skipping across water.

His fear had pulled the trigger. The colonists fear had led them to vaporize themselves. But if Union was the product of the people that joined, wouldn’t it be the best of them all? If Jean, Weir, Jock, Ross, and Liz were all there, then didn’t Unit still exist?

Maybe he would be in the backseat, but maybe he was wrong and he could still be with them all.

Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.

🚀

4,133  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 97th short story release, written in May 2014.

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


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Under the Bridge

Cover art for Under the Bridge

Devon found the streets better than the risk of living with his father. Even when he slept under a bridge instead of in a bed.

He met all sorts. Or thought he had, until he met the shirtless kid. A freak of some sort, but okay.

Getting out of Aberdeen, that was it for Devon’s plan. He never expected where it would lead him.

A standalone story in the Goblin Alley universe.

🍎

Devon hitched his backpack straps up over his coat’s padded shoulders. The coat pulled tight across his chest. It was too small and purple, but it was warmer than no coat at all. He peered up at the bright gray skies with suspicion.

It wasn’t really raining right now. Not as cold as it had been lately either. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. Flowergies, the lady called it. That wasn’t right. He knew that. Allergies was the word. But the lady in the yellow caddy had called it flowergies, and he liked the sound. It was better.

The lady wasn’t his mother, but he wished she were. She had given him a ride back to Olympia from Aberdeen, that was all. An hour out of the rain, out of Aberdeen, and out of his father’s reach. Devon had long since given up worrying about whether or not his father would come looking for him. The bottom of the next bottle was the limit of his father’s focus.

Devon kicked at the cracked asphalt at the edge of the path. He could head on up Boulevard, maybe check out around Ralph’s Thriftway to pick up something to eat. Then down to the library when they opened, but that wasn’t until eleven anyway. The sun was just up, so that was hours away.

Better to move on out from under the bridge anyway.

Someone sniffled.

Devon turned, looking around carefully. Up on the other side of the bridge, across the stream and right up between the dirt and the bottom of the bridge a small gray shape moved in the shadows.

Jeez, a little kid. At fourteen, Devon had seen other kids living outside. Some with adults, so not. This one had been quiet, he hadn’t heard the kid when he settled down late last night.

It was hard to see anything except ratty blond hair, what might be a gray hoodie and a skinny little body. The kid was all tucked back up into a ball just in the dirt. No pack. No blankets that Devon could see. It was warmer last night, but still plenty cold.

“Hey, Kid?”

The little kid squirmed backward further under the bridge.

Scared. Who could blame him? Devon kicked another piece of asphalt. His stomach growled.

Hell, he’d tried. He wasn’t going to risk falling into the stream and go climb up there. What good would it do?

“Whatever,” Devon said. “I’m heading out anyway.”

He left the cover of the bridge and started up the trail to the switchback that would take him up to the road. It wasn’t that far to walk down to Ralph’s, and someone might help him out with bus fare money. That was the easiest. People coming in and out would give up a couple bucks for bus fare. Not that he’d use it for that. Why would he? He could walk anywhere the bus went.

Rocks rattled behind him.

Devon didn’t stop walking, but he slowed down and glanced back. The kid was standing on the dirt slope. Dust rose from the rocks that he had dislodged sliding in the loose dirt.

Big white eyes stared at Devon, white except for a big dark pupil. No iris at all, it was freaky. The kid’s whole body trembled. He was just like a rabbit, paralyzed for a moment before it bolted off into the bush. Except there was something wrong with the kid.

For one thing, he was skinny. His rib cage showed easily through his gray skin. It wasn’t a hoodie at all. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt — it was his skin that was gray. He did have on pants at least, a pair of worn, holes-in-the-knees blue jeans.

And he was sort of hunched, with a hump that Devon had taken as a hood on his back. More than that, the kid had thick spikes sticking out of his elbows and a jutting underbite with two fangs or tusks that thrust up out of his mouth.

That wasn’t right at all. Devon’s breath caught in his throat, and he forced himself to take another breath. The kid was some sort of freak. Like a mutant or something from comics.

“Hey,” Devon said, and his voice cracked. He flushed and took a breath.

“It’s okay, right? I was just going?” Devon pointed up the trail.

The kid’s fat bottom lip stuck out more. He said something, but it was all gibberish as far as Devon was concerned. Not only was the kid a mutant freak, but he also didn’t speak English.

Whatever this was, it was some deeper shit than Devon wanted to get into.

“Look,” he said. “I didn’t understand that, but I’m going up there. To get food, okay? I’m hungry.”

Devon patted his belly for emphasis.

The kid drew his hands into together into his belly, clenching them tight and wincing.

Shit. Shit. Devon looked away, rubbing his jaw. He couldn’t go out there, not with the kid looking like this. It would screw everything.

He shifted his pack, and the coat pulled on his shoulders. Hell, it was getting too small anyway. Maybe he could get a poncho or something, then it could cover his pack too which wasn’t waterproof.

Devon slung off the backpack and unzipped the coat. He pulled it off. A couple fluffs of white stuck out of the places where the outer fabric had gotten snagged, but it was still a decent enough coat. The air was a lot cooler without it, but not bad. He still had his hoodie and two t-shirts on which was three layers more than the mutant kid.

Picking up his backpack, Devon held the coat out toward the kid.

“Here. If you’re coming, you’ve got to cover up man. People will stare.”

It was crazy anyway. What did he need with this kid? He could find someone, maybe from social services but any kid like this was going to have a hard time no matter what. And was it really up to him? The kid was out here for a reason, probably. Looking like that didn’t help. The kid couldn’t do what Devon did to pass himself off as someone just trying to get home. It’d get harder in a few years when he was older, but maybe by then he could get a job or something. The main thing now was staying on his own. That was safer.

The kid still hadn’t moved. Devon lowered his arm. “Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll keep it. It’s kinda getting small, but it still helps keep me warm. I can just leave.”

He took a step away.

“Bak! Bak!” The kid jumped down the loose slope, stumbled and nearly fell.

An instant later he was up, jumping up on the concrete footing. His feet were bare, dirty and had thick claw-like nails. He jumped off the concrete and landed knee-deep in the stream with a splash.

“Bak! Bak!” the kid said again as he splashed across the stream.

Reaching the other side he stopped, wrapped his arms around his middle and shivered. His pants were now soaked nearly to his crotch.

“Jesus Christ,” Devon said. He pitched the coat at the kid.

It fluttered to the ground in front of the kid who just looked at it and back at Devon.

“Put it on,” Devon said. “Or not. I don’t care. I’m going.”

He turned around again and started walking. This kid was too freaky. He needed to just get out of this. He had tried to help — had even given up his coat — so that was enough.

He heard the coat rustle and didn’t look back. I’m going up to Ralph’s, that’s it.

There was the sound of a zipper, and then feet slapping the asphalt trail. Devon looked back. The kid was running up the trail and stopped when he saw Devon looking.

The coat swallowed the kid like a purple coat-monster. The kid had the hood up, which helped hide the fact that his face and eyes were so weird. It hung down to his knees. It didn’t do anything for his feet, but if the kid sat down with his legs crossed and kept his head down no one would notice anything.

Well, they might get more bus fare if they were brothers trying to get home. It was worth a shot.

“Okay,” Devon said. “You can come. Let me do the talking, okay? ‘Cause they wouldn’t understand you anyway. I don’t know what language you’re using, but I haven’t heard it.”

The kid didn’t move. Probably didn’t understand a word Devon was saying.

Devon beckoned. “Come on. Let’s go.”

The kid took a couple more steps closer. Devon smiled and nodded. “Good. Keep up.”

He started walking, and the kid followed, soon catching up to walking right behind Devon. It was sort of freaky, having him right behind him like that, but each time Devon moved to one side or the other the kid also moved, so Devon left it alone.

They went up the switchback to Boulevard and then on down over to Ralph’s. It didn’t take too long to get there. Along the way, Devon explained the plan.

“I don’t know if you’ll understand, but maybe we can figure it out.”

When they got to the store, and there were people about, the kid walked so close he was nearly attached to Devon’s butt. It was impossible to do anything with him so close.

Devon led him over near the bus stop, but not on the street side. Devon turned around, and the kid stepped back, blinking his big eyes and his lip bulging out over those fangs. The kid needed some serious dental work.

Devon pointed at the ground. “Sit.”

“Shit?”

The kid said it so seriously that Devon couldn’t help but grin. The kid’s grinned back and showed off a hellish display of sharp teeth. It wasn’t just those big fangs, but his other teeth were also pointy and sharp.

“Yeah, no,” Devon said. “Sit, not shit. You don’t want to shit. At least I hope not.”

The kid closed his mouth and didn’t move.

“Like this. Sit.” Devon sat down on the ground, crossing his legs.

“Sit.” The kid sat down in front of Devon.

“Great!” Devon stood back up.

Immediately the kid popped back up. Devon shook his head. “No, no. You sit.”

Slowly the kid sat back down. Devon smiled. “Good. That’s right. Wait there.”

Devon backed away, and the kid whined, just like a puppy or something whining. Devon came back closer and crouched down.

He pointed at the low brick wall of the grocery store. “I’m going to get food, okay?”

He pantomimed eating.

“I’ll come back here.” He pointed at the ground, and then the kid. “I’ll bring you food, okay? You wait?”

“Wat. Wat. Bak.”

Good enough. “Right, wait here. I’ll come back.”

There wasn’t anyone standing at the bus stop in the rain, and even if there was, a lot of the bus riders carried passes, not cash. At least not that they’d give it up.

People shopping, those were better. They had cars and felt bad for anyone needing to catch a bus in the rain.

A young couple came out of the store right as he got closer. They looked like a possibility. He looked back. The kid was still sitting there, hunched in the coat, he did a great job of looking miserable.

Perfect.

He hurried over to address the couple before they were gone. “Excuse me, I’m embarrassed to ask this but my brother and I —” he pointed at the kid, “— are trying to get home to Yelm. Could you help us with bus fare?”

The woman was already shaking her head before he finished, but the guy reached for his wallet. “I’ve only got a couple bucks, I’m not sure it’ll be enough.”

“It’ll help, thank you,” Devon said.

He accepted the wrinkled bills that the guy pulled out of his wallet, pretending not to notice the twenty the guy tried not to let him see. The woman wasn’t happy even with what he got.

“Thank you,” Devon said again, as the couple moved off.

He stuffed the bills into his pocket and walked back to where the kid waited. When he got close, the kid looked up.

“Bak?”

Devon shook his head. It had to look good for the couple. “No, not yet. I’ll be back. Wait here. That’s good.”

“Wat,” the kid said, slumping.

“Yeah. Hang in there.”

Several rejections, and a couple givers later, Devon had eight dollars in his pocket. Plenty for now. Stick around too long, and there was the risk that one of the store employees might tell him to leave. Through it all the kid stayed where he was told.

Devon went into the store and came out with a day-old loaf of bread, some string cheese and a bag of older discount fruit. All of it perfectly fine, but people didn’t want to buy apples if they weren’t flawless. It was crazy, but they’d pay way more for waxed and polished apples than one that had a tiny ding in the skin.

He carried the bag over to the kid and held it up. “Hungry?”

“Shit wat?”

Devon laughed. He motioned for the kid to get up. “No more waiting. No more sitting. Food. Let’s eat.”

“Ut?”

Devon handed the kid a string cheese. The kid hooted and quickly pulled the plastic open and took a big bite. That was good, Devon had thought he might have to show the kid how it worked.

“Eat, that’s right,” Devon said. “Come on. Let’s walk while we eat.”

The kid was obviously hungry. He finished the string cheese and looked confused about what to do with the wrapper until Devon took it and put it back into the bag.

He handed the kid slices of bread, and an apple, and there was even more hooting. Then the kid looked between both hands like he couldn’t decide what to eat first. It was so funny that Devon laughed again.

“I’ll tell you,” Devon said around a bit of string cheese. “That scheme with a younger brother and all, it worked great. Even when it didn’t pay off, it was still better.”

The offers to call a parent had taken some explaining. No cell phones at the construction job where their Dad worked, seemed to take care of suspicion. It was a good line for those people.

Walking down the hill, Olympia spread out below them. Lots of houses, and businesses in houses in this part, but down there was the downtown area. It was nicer than Aberdeen at least, especially down on the pier and that area. When it was nicer he liked to go up around Capitol lake and hang out, read library books.

Not today though, not with this rain. At least the kid was walking beside him instead of right on his butt like before.

He looked at the kid, finishing the apple, all of it even the core. The kid just munched through everything. “You want to go to the library?”

“Lary?”

“Lie bare ee,” Devon said.

“Liberery?”

“Close enough. Yes. The library. They have books, computers. You can get online. Places to sit. It’s not too bad if you don’t attract attention.”

“Liberery.”

“Yes, great. We’ll go there.”

The kid finished the last of the apple and eyed the bag Devon held. “Fud ut?”

“Not now,” Devon said, switching the bag to his other hand. “Wait. Later we’ll eat more. Got to make it last.”

“Wat ut?”

“Right. Wait to eat.”

The kid made a grunting noise and kept walking.

🍎

They’d gotten as far as Chestnut when Devon turned to head over to 8th and get over to the library, when the kid suddenly hooted and ran ahead of Devon.

“Hey, wait!”

The kid stopped a second later at the mouth of an alley. It was a dirty old pink building on one side, and a rusted metal building on the right. There was one of those big new State buildings or something across the street, but the kid was just staring into this alley like it was something special.

Devon didn’t see anything unusual. A narrow paved strip, some weeds and dirt along it between the buildings. Nothing exciting.

“What is it?”

“Gob bak! Gob bak un wan!”

Devon shook his head. “I don’t understand kid. The library isn’t that way.”

“No liberery, gob bak un wan!”

Getting nothing from Devon the kid blew air out of his wide nostrils like he was trying to get rid of snot and then headed off up the alley.

What the hell? Devon stared after the kid walking along swallowed in the purple coat. After everything that Devon had done, the kid was just leaving? What was down there anyway? It didn’t look like the alley went very long at all, just to the ends of those buildings before it opened up on one side to a parking lot or something.

The smart thing would be to just leave the kid here. Obviously, he wanted to go that way for some reason, he was a mutant freak of some sort, so who knew what went on in his brain? That might not even be a language he was speaking, but some sort of gibberish that the kid had made up himself.

He might even be dangerous.

“Gob bak un wan!” The kid jumped up and down and started running.

Hell. Devon took off after the kid, sprinting down the alley after him. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!

But he couldn’t just ditch the kid. Not now.

The little guy was fast, but he was small. Devon’s longer stride quickly closed the distance. The kid was just out of reach when he went all blurry. A bright light hit them, flooding the alley and lighting up the big brick building that rose up several floors on the right side of the alley.

Devon put on the brakes. The kid was dancing in a circle in front of him. Devon squinted against the light, raised his hand to shield his eyes and turned to look up at the massive building that hadn’t been there a second ago.

Four stories tall, balconies with sliding glass doors, some sort of apartment building or something. There were plants and clothes hanging out. And on one balcony a massively large woman with a tiny white thong disappearing between her twin globe pink ass-cheeks. Not a pink like she was flushed or something, but a pink-pink, a medicinal pink. She was wringing out something, and then flicked it out onto the railing.

Devon looked back at the kid. He’d thrown the hood off and beamed up at the bright sun in a crystal-clear blue sky.

“See?” The kid said, perfectly clear. “Goblinus! Back home!”

“You’re back home?” Devon said. It wasn’t just the apartment building, the building on the other side was concrete and even taller, rising up to glass and steel at least ten or twelve floors up. And beyond these two were more buildings, and past them a street that teemed with people walking. There were voices, bells ringing, something hammering somewhere, a dog barking, but no sounds of traffic. Even with all of the noises, it was quiet.

“Wait,” Devon said. “Where are we? How’d we get here? And how come you can talk here?”

The kid laughed. “It’s Goblinus! Everyone understands here, duh! But you should go back.”

The kid looked around. “Now. We have to go before the Royal Guard shows up. You’re not supposed to use the Goblin Alleys.”

“The what?”

The kid came at him, pushing his hands at Devon. Devon backed up.

“You need to go back!”

Devon turned around. The alley stretched on behind them much longer than it had a moment ago. And the big state building wasn’t there. Instead, there was an even taller building of dark glass and steel that climbed up at least twenty stories. A pedicab rolled past the alley being pedaled by a muscled shirtless guy. A guy with green skin, and tusks like the kid except smaller.

“Go where?”

The kid grabbed Devon’s arm. “Come on! The way back is closed anyway. We’re too late.”

Someone screamed, back up the other way. There was a sound like hoof beats.

“Come on!”

The kid took off running back down the alley toward the big dark building that hadn’t been there a moment ago. The sound of hoof beats was getting louder, and there were snorting and squealing noises. Shouts and more screams.

Yeah, maybe the kid had the right idea. Devon sprinted after him, the bag of food banging against his leg as he ran.

They left the alley, and after that the kid was in charge. Devon kept on his heels now, bewildered by the changes all around them. This wasn’t Olympia. This was big and insane. There were normal-looking people, but they were out-numbered by the strangest people that Devon had seen. Like the kid, many had tusks, but they came in different sizes and skin colors that definitely were not normal.

The kid mostly went West, zig-zagging through streets and alleys. Finally, he slowed down and stopped running so fast. They were on a quiet street. The kid stepped over into a doorway and leaned against the chipped concrete wall. He grinned up at Devon.

“Lost them, I think.”

“Lost who?” Devon moved into the opposite side of the doorway, watching the street. No one was paying attention to them.

“Royal Guard, Boar-riders. Navigator’s Guild doesn’t like people using the alleys without a license. You’re supposed to register.”

“I’m so confused. Start over, where are we?”

“Goblinus.”

“What’s that?”

The kid shrugged, gesturing at the buildings around them. “The goblin city. You really don’t know?”

Devon shook his head.

“Weird. The Goblin Alleys connect Goblinus to every city on the Otherside, where you come from.”

“And there are goblins? Are you a goblin?”

The kid’s lip curled. “Naw. I’m a troll. Goblins killed my parents, made me a servant. I ran away when I sensed the alley connection, but then I couldn’t get back.”

The kid glanced out and around. “Looks like you’re stuck now unless we find another connection.”

It was incredible, but Devon couldn’t deny what his eyes were seeing. A woman walked past in the street. She was tall and elegant, with flowing white hair and eyes that didn’t have any color to them, like the kid but she didn’t look much like him otherwise. There were others, men and women, with her, but they wore thick body armor and carried guns openly.

“Who are they?”

“Trow,” the kid said.

“Troll?”

The kid shook his head. “Trow, and I’d stay out of their way too. Evidently, there’s a whole big thing going on with the Goblin King, the trow, and the Erlking.”

“Who’s that?”

“He leads the wild faerie. Come on, we shouldn’t stay here.”

The kid stepped out of the doorway.

“Wait,” Devon said.

The kid looked up at him from the purple coat.

“What’s your name?”

A big toothy grin split the kid’s face. “Evil Boy.”

“What?”

The kid smirked. “That’s what the goblins called me. I don’t remember my troll name.”

Devon chuckled. “I’m not calling you Evil Boy. How about Neville?”

“Neville? Okay. Yes! I like it. What’s your name?”

“Devon.”

Neville nodded. “Okay! Let’s go.”

🍎

With no other option except to trust Neville, Devon followed the troll kid through the goblin city. It was obviously huge, bigger than any city he’d ever been in. Both Aberdeen and Olympia would only make small sections of this city. At one point Neville led them up a small hill, but even looking back down the street there was no end in sight. An orange smoggy cloud hung over the city to the South, but they were moving away from that section. The oddest thing was the lack of cars. It was just people and bikes and pedicabs. Even some on horses, and once he was sure he saw an elephant down one street before it passed out of view. In the clear skies overhead a massive zeppelin floated through the sky.

“Where are the cars?” Devon said as they walked.

“Only on the highways,” Neville said, gesturing off into the unseen distance.

“Are there subways?”

“Some districts do, but you don’t want to go down there. Safer up here.”

Neville turned down a wide avenue lined with trees and street lamps. Walking past one of the lamp posts, Devon happened to look up, and there was a tiny naked woman with wings inside the lamp looking out at him. She clutched her hands together, and her tiny red mouth moved as if she was begging him for something. Behind her other, other naked, what? Fairies? Whatever they were, they stirred and started to rise. Men and women fairies, some of them lying on the glass, or curled around each other. Several took off and hovered in the glass globe.

It was a warm day, they had to be baking.

“Come on,” Neville said.

Devon pointed. “But there —”

Neville slapped his arm. “Stop it! People will notice.”

“I don’t—”

Neville pressed close, his lower lip trembling. “Come on. Now.”

The kid was right. He didn’t know what he was doing. He tore his gaze away from the fairies and followed Neville down the street. It was all cafes and stuff, with tables out in small fenced areas, the bright red brick street weaving between them. Spicy odors that brought to mind pizza floated along the street and made Devon’s mouth water.

There weren’t many humans here. And no one that looked like Neville. Mostly it was goblins, greens and grays, with a few pinks and dwarf yellows. Devon got a few unfriendly looks and after that kept his head down. This place didn’t feel very safe.

They left that area behind and entered a section of the city that was more shabby and in disrepair, and Devon felt more comfortable. The graffiti and broken glass, the faded paint and chipped concrete was all a lot more familiar.

Neville’s pace slowed.

“What was that back there?” Devon said.

“What?”

“In those lamps. Where those fairies?”

“Sure. Nasty fairies, so what?”

Nasty? Devon let it go. This was all incredible enough without sticking his nose into it. The little fairy woman hadn’t seemed nasty, but what did he know?

“They’re fake,” Neville said. “Magic disguise, you know?”

“No, what do you mean?”

Neville huffed and scratched his head. Then he hooted. “Camouflage, they don’t look like that. Not really.”

“What do they look like then?”

“Bugs.” Neville nodded confidently. “Ugly bugs. Bloodsuckers.”

Devon waited for the laugh, but Neville just stood there looking at him. Finally Devon said, “Really?”

“Yeah. Bloodsuckers.”

Oh. They were still walking, but now Neville lifted an arm to point out a building ahead. It was a concrete structure, lower floors boarded over with graffiti-tagged gray wood while the upper windows gaped wide open. Except a few had dirty sheets and plastic bags strung across the openings.

“We can stay there,” Neville said. “I know someone.”

🍎

Neville had been telling the truth. There was an old woman, a goblin, with wrinkled gray skin like she’d come out of an old black-and-white movie. She was swaddled in layers of bright, colorful fabric. Neville found her on the third floor, tending fire pit near the windows. A couple pots hung from spits, and the smell was somewhere between chicken soup and clam chowder.

The woman’s face beamed when she saw Neville.

“Evil Boy!” She threw wide her arms. “Come give Mancher a hug!”

Neville threw himself against her generous bosom. Then she thrust him back and fingered the coat. “Where’d you get this?”

“Devon gave it to me.” Neville pointed at Devon.

Mancher sniffed at Devon. “Othersider?”

She spun and shook her finger at Neville. “Evil Boy! You promised to stay away from the alleys!”

“I didn’t mean to,” Neville protested. “Geists chased me!”

“What’re you doing around geists?”

“There was a shopkeeper, and —”

“And I know all about it. You bolted and didn’t pay attention to where you were going.” Mancher squinted up at Devon. “Why is this Othersider here? Plenty of trouble, you bringing me.”

“Didn’t mean to, he crossed. Couldn’t leave him to the pigs.”

Mancher’s face softened around her tusks. “No, I guess not. But you’ll bring ‘em here.”

“Look,” Devon said. “I can go if you’ll look after Neville. If you can tell me how to get back.”

Mancher looked at the kid. “Neville, is it? You think of that?”

“No, Devon gave it to me.”

“I like it,” Mancher said. She looked back up at Devon. “Not a good time right now, to find a crossing. Early, just before sunrise, that’s the best. We’ll go then.”

“Mancher used to work for the Navigator’s Guild,” Neville said. “She knows the alleys.”

“Okay,” Devon said. “If it’s better then.”

“We brought food,” Neville said. He gestured to Devon.

Right. Devon pulled the bag from his backpack and handed it over to Mancher. She took out the rest of the loaf of bread, two remaining string cheeses and the apples, chuckling with pleasure over each.

“This is fine,” she said. “Thank you, he called you Devon?”

“That’s right.”

She beckoned. “Come sit by the fire. It’ll get cold.”

🍎

A hand shook Devon awake. He started to say something, and the hand covered his mouth. The smell of Mancher’s unwashed bulk filled his nose as her hot breath tickled his ear.

“Boar riders. Don’t make a sound.”

She pulled back and released him. Devon rose carefully. There wasn’t much light. The fire had died down during the night and ashes had covered the coals. Faint moonlight came in through the open windows. Mancher moved like a dark cloud across the moon, a shape just briefly passing the window before she crouched and woke Neville the same way.

Devon quietly stuffed his blanket back in his backpack and rolled up his sleeping bag. It only took him moments to tie it beneath the backpack and Mancher was back pressing against his side.

“Follow close. Don’t make noise.”

There were loud snorts, and rough voices outside that chilled him more than the cold night air. Somehow the goblins had followed them here. Or they were just searching likely places. Either way, it was time to go.

Mancher moved deeper into the dark building, and Devon stuck close to her, with Neville bringing up the rear. None of them spoke. Away from the windows, Devon couldn’t hardly see his hand in front of his face as they went deeper, so he grabbed onto one of Mancher’s cloths. She didn’t object. Both Neville and Mancher seemed to have better night vision.

Crashing wood and squeals below floated up through the floors. There were shouts from other squatters and the Royal Guard.

Soon Mancher led them into a narrow staircase, folded back into the corner of the building. The steps were wet and narrow. Devon couldn’t see anything at all and had to trust Mancher’s presence as he made his way down. He knew Neville was behind him only by the kid’s soft breaths as they made their way down.

It took a long time before Mancher stopped. She grabbed Devon’s arm and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. “Basement. Tunnels here. Stay close and quiet.”

“Yes,” Devon whispered.

“It’ll be okay,” Neville whispered. “Mancher knows all the ways.”

There was a lot of crashing noises above, and a scream abruptly cut off. Apparently, the Royal Guard didn’t like other squatters.

The tunnels stank of shit and stagnant water. Devon was just as glad not to see where they were going, except for the time when the ground crumbled and he nearly fell. Neville helped catch him. After what seemed like an hour of walking there was finally a light ahead. It seemed like an illusion until they got closer and Devon could make out dim light coming in the mouth of a tunnel.

Moments later they came out on a hillside, a cutout designed to catch water. The sun wasn’t up, but the moonlight was still bright compared to the darkness of the tunnel. Devon breathed deeply, glad to be out of that place.

Neville gave him a toothy grin. “Go back now?”

“Not back in there,” Devon said. “But I wouldn’t mind going home.”

Mancher was already climbing up the hillside. “Come on. Don’t have much time. Easier to cross now.”

🍎

Unlike the bigger city environment that they had left, more of the buildings in this area were smaller. It almost reminded Devon of Olympia, with a sort of mix of houses and more commercial buildings, but nothing bigger than a few stories. The city still seemed to go on without end, maybe like Los Angeles would seem if he was suddenly dropped into the middle of it.

Mancher stopped at an alley that extended between two apartment buildings. She pointed at the narrow space. “Go on, there. You can cross if you go now.”

Devon stepped into the opening of the alley. “It’ll take me home?”

“Back to the Otherside,” Mancher said.

Neville said, “It might not be your city.”

“What?”

“Go, or you’ll miss it,” Mancher said. “Hurry!”

“Goblinus connects to all the cities,” Neville said.

“So I can end up anywhere?”

“No time to map it,” Mancher said. “Go!”

A distant squeal floated through the morning streets. The Royal Guard was still out there, looking for him. Did it make a difference where he ended up? He’d been on his own for years now. He could start anywhere.

“Okay.” He looked at Neville. “Take care kid.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“Go!” Mancher said.

Devon turned and ran down the alley. It was only an alley, nothing else special about it except it was in a goblin city. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about it. Maybe Mancher was wrong —

— rain hit his face. And it night time, but lit with electric lights.

The buildings were different. Pale walls closed in on either side. The one on his right looked pale yellow in the light from an electric lamp on the corner of the building at the mouth of the alley. The alley was paved in interlocking stone tiles. Balconies looked out into the narrow alley, with plants and laundry hanging over the railings.

Devon made his way down the alley — hearing laughter and the sound of cars — and stepped out into a narrow street. Small rounded concrete barriers blocked off a section of street and sidewalk. Across the street was a wide walkway within the building there, with a long row of arched openings. More balconies stuck out over the street, which wasn’t black asphalt but more rectangular stones at angles. The buildings were all about four stories high and seemed to hang over the street. Cars parked in a row along the way in front of the arches, and there was a strange pay phone with a curved plastic shield over it.

Back, but not Olympia. He walked out along the street and studied the signs in the shops. Some had familiar words. Audio Video, PlayStation on one shop. Others, he didn’t recognize. French? Italian? It didn’t look like Spanish. He didn’t speak any of those, but some of the signs were in one of those languages. At last he came to a street sign. It wasn’t like the familiar green and white signs back home, but it was places and arrows pointing.

Roma. Napoli-Caserta. Duomo.

Roma? Rome? Was he in Italy? Devon still had his backpack, with his spare clothes, sleeping bag, and blanket. It was enough for now. He’d gone from meeting a troll under a bridge in Olympia, through a small stretch of Goblinus, and ended up around the world in what looked like Italy.

There had to be other people who knew about the Goblin Alleys. Just like back in Goblinus, there were probably people here that knew about the other world where faeries were trapped in street lamps. He’d have to be very careful not to give things away, but if you could find your way around? He could travel anywhere. Neville said that the alleys connected to every city.

Devon kept walking. For now, it was enough to learn this city and figure out where he was, and where he might get his next meal. The universe was a lot different than he had imagined, and it was going to take time to figure it all out.

When he did, he wouldn’t be sleeping under bridges anymore.

🍎

6,148WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 93rd short story release, written a few years ago in March 2014. It’s a standalone story set in my Goblin Alley universe.

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

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.