This Dark, Fermi-Damned Universe

The Endurance left the solar system for a five-year (ship time) mission to explore other solar systems and seek life. Years of searching within the Sol system had turned up lifeless worlds and moons.

Ruled by Senior Captain Rockwell, a bloated gasbag that never left the ship and didn’t allow any dissent or other attachments except to the mission, the crew carried out their mission.

One empty world after another.

All ruled lifeless. And the mission continued.

🚀

Senior Captain Rockwell floated at the center of the bridge like a big lemon-scented puffball. Each day it seemed like his arms and legs receded centimeter by centimeter into his rotund body. His neck was gone, but his expansive jowls had spread out over what used to be his shoulders and prevented his head from disappearing into the mass. His gold and black uniform squeezed him tighter than a candy wrapper; he’d need a new uniform soon.

His enhanced eyes glittered with activity and malice.

I floated before him in a position of abasement, arms tucked and clasped behind my back, knees bent as if kneeling.

I always wondered about the old shows depicting life in space that showed people walking about ships as if they were buildings deep within a gravity well. Did they not understand what any school child can comprehend? If the ship exerted gravity equal to that of a planetary surface on the people on the ship, it would also exert the same gravity on all the planets within a solar system. Such a ship traveling through a system would disrupt orbits, collect a train of smaller bodies and generally unleash havoc throughout the system.

Much the same could be said about Rockwell. His motes held him stationary at the center of the bridge with the cold blue lights dull on his hairless scalp. He wasn’t a giant lemony marshmallow of joy to the crew. He was Nibiru or Nemesis or whatever cataclysmic planetary body was supposed to sow chaos and destruction.

Five long years on this insane mission to explore space, figure out why the hell we were alone in this dark Fermi-damned universe, all for worlds no one wanted to set foot on, hadn’t improved Rockwell or conditions on the Endurance. Had the masterminds behind this mission known what would happen when they named the ship? They did pick Rockwell after all.

My own motes held me in position with tiny puffs of air like someone with a case of chronic, quiet farts.

Rockwell sometimes kept crew in this position for hours without speaking, without changing his glittering inhuman gaze. If he decided to space me, I wouldn’t be the first or the last.

I couldn’t — didn’t dare — look away from his puffed and doughy face. Like two gravitationally-locked bodies we both floated motionlessly and silently except for the soft fart-like puffs of our motes.

Without my visor, my face was naked to the cold lemon-scented air.

With a voice like a rumbling belch, Rockwell finally spoke. “You found nothing?”

I heard the edge in his flatulent voice. Did he know? Did he suspect? I had to assume that he didn’t know and trust that my own conditioning was equal to the task of fooling his inhuman gaze.

“There was no indication of anything living on the surface.” Truthful enough, though it lacked the precision that Rockwell’s question demanded. Still, I hadn’t claimed that we found nothing.

Would he realize the evasion? If I looked away, he’d pick up on it in an instant. A flick of my eye and it was the end.

🚀

The away team had set down on the class M planet designated P122M just after local dawn, a bloated reddish sun sluggishly crawling into the dusty sky. The class M designation sounded friendlier than the reality, deriving not from the fictional designation that still came to mind, but from the Hooper Planetary Scale that used Sol’s own planetary system as the ruler by which other solar systems were judged and found lacking.

Dry, rusted sand and rock stretched out ahead to a broken horizon of knife-edged mountains sawing at the sky. A world obviously driven by geological processes. Absent any shred of life, not so different than Mars, the benchmark for the class M designation. The Endurance mission was only the latest effort born from the frustration of decades of fruitless exploration and sacrifice, lives dashed against unfeeling Mars, in the quest to discover the presence of life on that red planet. Without even landing it was obvious from every measurement the Endurance produced that P122M was a clear lifeless Mars analog. Predominately nitrogen atmosphere. More geologically active, with a slightly thicker atmosphere and atmospheric signs that at least one volcano had erupted fairly recently. Fresh flows on a shield volcano, the lesser cousin of Olympus Mons, gave further evidence that this world wasn’t quite so mummified and desiccated as Mars.

Not the most habitable, though our suits made it comfortable enough.

I wouldn’t have bothered landing at all except for the order from that bloated gasball Rockwell. Entirely zero-gee adapted, he couldn’t have handled the gravity well if he wanted. The senior captain was ship-bound for life, and that’s the way he wanted it. For Rockwell, this was a holy mission — to go down in the annals of forgotten history as the man responsible for the discovery of life on another world.

We failed on Mars despite all of the painstaking work to reconstruct the history and evolution of that world. Bitter from that defeat we turned to the other worlds of the Sol system, convinced in our misguided belief that life must exist elsewhere.

Europa and Enceladus held salty sterile oceans beneath their frozen and twisted masks.

Daring the scorching hell of Venus, we dug into the history of Earth’s twin layer by molten layer without uncovering any evidence of a kinder, gentler past harboring life.

The gas giant clouds gave us nothing except chemically interesting atmospheres lacking in even the simplest organism sailing in super hurricane winds.

Comets mined from the Kuiper belt gave no evidence of carrying the seeds of life to other worlds.

Still, the devout persisted and launched the Endurance out to the stars, even as humanity spread slowly to the less hospital worlds of the solar system.

A chime on my private channel, a spark that resolved into a tiny image of Lutz projected by my visor. I acknowledged the contact with an eye-flick. “Yes?”

“Standard package deployment?” Her words didn’t convey the disgust in her tone. By the book, verging on insubordination, the hint of a sneer twitching on the corner of her lip.

Not directed at me. That was all for Rockwell up on the Endurance. A dangerous flirtation. The senior captain didn’t tolerate insubordination. Warning her would only trigger a response from Rockwell. Ignore her, pretend that the tone didn’t exist and he might not respond. Discipline her myself, and her chances improved.

“I don’t want any half measures,” I snapped. “This world is geologically active with an intact magnetosphere. I want everything deployed yesterday! Full expanded package deployment. Let’s see what we have!”

Lutz wasn’t a fool. Her expression smoothed out. “Yes, sir!”

“Oversee each step and report back when deployment is complete.”

The view of more dry sand and rock disgusted me. A century ago a world like this would have excited the imagination of everyone on the Endurance. A Mars-analog, true, but just that much more hospitable to life to reignite those ancient dreams of Martians. I understood Lutz’s tone. Whatever excitement any of the crew might have had about landing on a new world at the onset of the mission had evaporated just as readily as any water on the surface of P12M.

Home called to the crew.

As far as the crew knew, as unlikely as it sounded, the Earth was the only place in the universe harboring life. The specks of life scattered among the outposts and stations across the solar system hardly counted. None were entirely self-sufficient. Earth still mattered to every known living thing in the universe — with the possible exception of Senior Captain Gasbag.

I kicked at a sand-blasted ochre colored rock half embedded in the sand. My boot hit hard, the impact traveling up my leg. The rock canted up a couple inches. Sand trickled into the vacated space.

Earth and home called to the crew. Our five-year mission was coming to a close. The first ship to leave the solar system and explore   was overdue to reach home. Would have already been there if the Senior Captain hadn’t plotted such a convoluted route back to include as many systems as possible. Five years of ship time was a long time to be away and out of communication. It was easier for me than some, I didn’t have anyone back home waiting for me. No family still alive, except for a brother that I hadn’t spoken to in over five years before I left, not since his drinking had caused our parent’s deaths. I doubt that Jim even knew that I was gone.

Or maybe he had seen it on the news, hoisted a beer and said, “Good riddance!”

Buckys tumbled past, leaving hexagonal prints in the sand, the red dust quickly staining their white sides. Dozens of the spherical droids scattered out from the lander. They’d roll, bounce and quickly fan out as they scattered to collect information like bees flying out after nectar. Tiny hexagonal sections would pop open so that tools could sample the ground, air and take measurements. If the terrain was too tough to navigate rolling in their shells, then they’d sprout spidery legs and scramble over everything. Reach a chasm or other impassable barrier, and they’d unfurl kite-like wings and take to the air to surmount whatever got in their way. Same thing if they got stuck.

With a Bucky to my left and another bouncing away to my right I turned and walked away from the lander, following the middle path between them.

I hadn’t gone very far before I heard sand and rock crunching behind me. My visor pulled up a proximity alert, showing me a rearview of Lutz following me up the gentle rise. I stopped, didn’t turn around.

“Lutz, report.”

“Expanded package deployment completed,” Lutz said. “Felicia and Neil are monitoring from the lander. Permission to accompany the captain?”

Captain. There was the joke. Alt shift captain. The lesser moon to Rockwell’s gas giant. We orbited each other, tidally locked, unable to escape. Not until we got home. I had no idea what Rockwell planned to do when we got home. He lived for the mission. Most likely he would ask that they send the Endurance out again. The stardrive system had opened up the empty universe to us. On those old shows, they always made it seem like the journey between the stars was instantaneous. They’d take longer setting up the orbit around a new world than it took to get there, or so it seemed. The thing they never dealt with was the emptiness and the long waiting between stars. The time spent with a small group of people cloistered in a fragile vessel further from the one oasis known in the vast desert of lifelessness.

A pop of static and my visor showed the connection to the Endurance lost. I had been walking lost in thought, and now I stopped, actually looking around. I had climbed over a small ridge which now lay between me and the lander, which in turn relayed the signals to the ship. The only active connection was to Lutz.

“Captain, I’ve lost my connection to the lander.”

What an odd feeling, to be disconnected. Free, for the moment, from the never-blinking attention of the Endurance.

“Confirmed,” I said. “Terrain blocking the signal. It happens on away missions.”

Like tiny pockets of freedom trapped in time. If I took another step, my visor might pick up the signal again. I didn’t take the step.

The ground ahead tumbled away in a broken slope, sand-scoured slabs of weathered rock that showed signs of ancient running water. At one time — like we saw on Mars — the planet had been wetter.

“Should we turn back?” Lutz lifted a hand, turning it palm up, indicating indecision.

Smart, a cautious gesture. Disconnected, that didn’t mean that our visors or suits had ceased recording. I made a half-turn to look over at her.

Lutz was at least ten years younger than me, whatever that meant. Relationships were dangerous things on the Endurance that could be used against anyone crazy enough to give into their feelings. Those left on the crew had learned to survive and keep such thoughts to themselves.

I liked the constellation of freckles across her almost colorless skin. A natural paleness accented by the lack of exposure to sunshine such as that which caused my visor to filter what streamed through my helmet. Her red hair lay hidden beneath her skull cap. Her visor had gone transparent, unveiling hazel green eyes that gazed back at me, questioning, wary.

“Not yet,” I said.

Movement in the distance, a flash of dulled white against the reddish sand. A Bucky crawling up on spidery legs out of a crevice where it had fallen. The Bucky reached the surface, tucked legs back inside its shell, and rolled on. My visor connection flickered live, then off, live again and finally off when the Bucky rolled down another incline and disappeared from view. For the moments it was exposed it had automatically relayed our signal.

“We can’t stay long.” I reached out and placed my gloved hand on Lutz’s hand.

Despite the thick material between us, an electric thrill ran up my arm from the contact. I didn’t remember the last time I had touched anyone in any sort of intimate manner. The fact that she didn’t pull away made the connection all the richer.

“We’ll need a complete surface evaluation,” I said, still holding her hand. “Nine individual site studies. With all of that exploration, there are bound to be other times that we are out of contact.”

“Does the Captain want recommendations on avoiding these communication blackouts?”

I shook my head, unwilling to trust my voice.

My visor’s connection flickered back on. A new channel opened.

“Captain? This is the Lander. Are you there?” Neil, back at the Lander.

I stepped away from Lutz, releasing her hand. The signal strengthened. I turned, shuffling in a tight circle until I spied the Bucky behind us, perched on the ridge. My mouth was dry.

“Yes. The terrain interrupted communications. Report.”

“Radial perimeter reached. No evidence of biological activity detected.”

Neil’s voice was emotionless. No disappointment, and why would there be after all of the worlds we had seen?

“Recall the Buckys. We’ll return and proceed to the next site.”

“Understood.”

The connection vanished from my visor. On the ridge, the Bucky rolled down and away leaving me alone with Lutz again.

Sand crunched beneath her boots as she came closer, her visor opaque again. “How many more worlds do we have to visit before we go home?”

“We do our duty.” I looked down the slope at the broken slabs of rock showing clear sedimentation layers. Evidence that water had once held sway on this desiccated world. “We investigate.”

I walked away from Lutz. Sand and rock clattered away from my boots as I clumped down the slope. This wasn’t a small, low-gee world. Lutz trailed alongside like my shadow.

“Lutz, do you know why we send away teams?”

“Yes, sir. Human perspective provides unique insights and pattern recognition capabilities.”

“True. Mostly, though, it’s our imagination. That’s what sent the Endurance out here despite our lack of success finding life elsewhere within the solar system. In all of those trillions of stars and galaxies, how could it possibly be true that we are alone?”

Loneliness and fear of extinction drove us into space. Damned us to serve under Rockwell’s pitiless gaze.

I reached the slabs that I had seen from above. The fractures and weathering had exposed the edges of the layers to view, with sand drifting against the rough edges. I skirted around the layers, working my way down the slippery sand and rock into the gully below.

“What are we doing, Captain?”

“Final checks,” I said. Strictly for the record. The Bucky survey was considered complete. The array of instruments on the soccer balls was impressive. They scanned, tasted, analyzed, took core samples, measure atmospheric gases, took temperature and humidity readings. Each carried an array of complex instrumentation. By moving out in radial lines from the lander, they scanned overlapping zones until the distance between them increased to the point that coverage was individual. On Earth — back when we left — trials in even hostile environments showed substantial evidence of life. For the record, we checked multiple sites before filing our conclusions.

I unlimbered a small rock hammer from my suit and leaned forward to tap on the fragile sedimentary layers. Pieces broke away with each strike. I freed a palm-sized piece, pulled it free and turned it over in my hand. Nothing but blank rock. I pitched it to the sand.

“I think we’ve done our duty,” Lutz said.

I had already given her enough ammunition to have Rockwell space me when we went back, but I didn’t believe that she would use it. She was concerned that I was jeopardizing our safety. I was, but only for a moment or two longer.

I had continued to tap out another layer, deeper, brushing away the sand and prying the palm-sized piece of rock free. I turned it over and saw a symmetrical pattern on the underside of the rock.

“Nothing here,” I said.

I slipped the rock into a pocket as I stowed the hammer.

“Let’s head back.”

We climbed the hill side-by-side, my gloved hand brushed hers on more than one occasion. When my visor flickered as we connected to the lander, I took a step away.

🚀

A fluttery sigh escaped Senior Captain Rockwell’s lips like satisfaction. The chill in the air raised the hairs on my arms as my motes puffed softly to maintain my position of supplication before him.

“Very well then,” he said. “Record P122M as lifeless and go off-shift until alt shift starts.”

I bowed my head. I lowered my visor into place and then turned, twisting and flying away on my motes as agile a smaller fish escaping a larger predator.

🚀

The chime on my door surprised me, and for a moment I thought it would be security coming to escort me to an airlock. I reached for the smooth panel at the back of my quarters and hesitated. If it was security why would they ring the chime and alert me? They would simply come in. A glance activated the external cabin feed. Lutz floated outside on her motes. She glanced uncertainly up and down the corridors, her eyes hidden behind her visor.

Dangerous. Dangerous. Letting her in gave Rockwell the advantage and every second not letting her in risked her more.

I gestured, and the door slid open. Lutz jetted inside, and the door slid silently shut behind her. Suddenly the cabin felt smaller, almost claustrophobic with two of us in the room breathing the air. Lutz’s hair was pulled back tight over her head. She clasped her hands together, wringing her fingers. Her visor turned transparent, allowing me to see her eyes.

“It’s okay,” I said. I switched my own visor to transparency as I met her gaze. “Rockwell can’t monitor us here.”

Her eyes widened, and her mouth opened, speechless.

I kicked off and drifted closer as if gravitationally drawn to her. It felt something like that. She reached out automatically, and we clasped forearms. My momentum spun us slowly around. As we revolved, she turned her head, looking past my shoulder at the back of the cabin and the panel that I had removed from the wall.

I turned my head, looking at the collection and the new piece at the center. I had arranged the pieces in concentric circles. Tiny bits of rock, some no larger than a fingernail. Others, like the new piece at the center of the design, as big as my palm. The pattern of the fern leaf was clear, visible and dark against the lighter rock. The ceiling lights illuminated the display, making the array of fossils clearly visible. Her fingers tightened on my forearms.

“I don’t understand.” Her voice came out an awed whisper.

“We scratched, cored, sampled, measured, and scanned and still missed things. Not every time, but often enough.”

Her throat moved. She sagged, only her motes keeping her in place. If we weren’t weightless she might have fallen. “Why not tell —”

I didn’t need to answer. She knew what Rockwell would have done if there was any encouragement to this mad quest. Finding an extinct world was worse than finding barren worlds.

She looked back at me. “Will we go home?”

I didn’t give her the truth. “Soon.”

🚀

Lutz left after another moment of silence between us and left a void in the cabin. I twisted, motes firing small puffs of air to propel me over to the fossil display. I picked up the wall panel and lifted it up to conceal them once again. My eyes fixed on the centerpiece. My visor selected the piece, highlighted the fossil and pulled up the data I had already accessed.

Polystichum munitum, or western sword fern. We grew up in an area with lots of such ferns. With a glance, I accessed the planetary reports again. The ring around the planet confused things. Obviously, some sort of impact event had broken up the large moon that had once orbited the planet. The event had proven catastrophic for the planet. The entire surface must have been scoured.

Our bloated gasball of a Senior Captain had to know. He strictly controlled our course. None of the crew knew anything about P122M except the data released. Gravity and the solar spectrum didn’t lie. If I looked, I knew I would find more proof, but the fossil was enough. Alone out of the collection it was familiar. The other shapes and textures in the rock were unidentified. Bits and pieces of other evolutionary trees long gone.

The universe is an explosion still happening. Life is nothing but a brief moment of combustion. When we say the spark of life, we’re literal, and it is just as fleeting. Against the universe each of those sparks flares and dies in an instant. Some bright, some dim, all fleeting, across the entire universe.

This spark had burned bright, spitting out smaller sparks. One had drifted on relativistic currents, returning to its starting point. Rockwell wouldn’t let us stop now. As long as it was possible, he would keep the Endurance going, searching for another spark, a bit of tinder, a chance to burn.

I put the panel back into place.

🚀

3,787 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 104th short story release, written in September 2015.

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, Clarke Directive Violation.


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

Endless Worlds of Sorrow

Captain Nessa Doyle ran an efficient salvage operation. Small crew, big cargo holds. Runs out to fallen worlds where wolfling species failed to make it past the extinction threshold, that sort of thing.

This trip, financed by her clone sister, promised a high risk, high reward mission. Along with her sister and an alien A.I., the Cold Well carried a cyborg Enhancer, and a member of the Moreau Society with DNA from different species.

Their mission? Salvage tech from the final battle between the Galactics and the Neridians, the advanced human-like wolfling species that the Galactics had wiped out.

Risky. Dangerous. And Nessa didn’t know who to trust.

🚀

Dwarf planets — you gotta hate ’em. Plutoids make up the most common planets in the galaxy. They’re like grains of sand on the stellar beach. Small, insignificant worlds, hardly more than giant snowballs left drifting around the stars that give them birth or cast free to wander the darkness between the stars. Planets that would never amount to anything. Nessa wasn’t going to be like one of those frozen little worlds. She had bigger things in store for her.

Their circulation pumps began a harsh clanga-clanga-clang that echoed through the Cold Wells narrow corridors. The air was thick with the smells of humanity and dry so that it left her lips dried and cracking. The low humidity helped fight back the mold that otherwise threatened to coat the inner surfaces of the Cold Wells panels.

Captain Nessa Doyle banged a fist against the nearest panel. It did nothing to disrupt the noise of the pumps. “Spencer! Spencer!”

Spencer Hahn, her engineer, answered from up on the forward deck, his voice exasperated. “What is it?”

Nessa strode forward. Her steps bounced in the .6 gee artificial gravity, ship boots making no noise. Artificial gravity thanks to Galactic tech, just like the Space-Time Coordinate drive. The two things on the ship that she could be confident would continue to function. The rest was cobbled together from parts built by a half a dozen different races, painfully melded together around the core of Galactic technology. It was almost a metaphor for the entire galaxy.

She reached the forward hatch and pulled herself up the ladder steps onto the deck. The cramped bubble perched on the nose of the Cold Well like a blister. She liked the view. Except right now part of the view was ruined by Spencer’s hairy legs sticking out of his shorts beneath a console on the left side of the deck. Matching panels arced around the other side of the deck and her chair sat at the center.

She walked around her chair and dropped into the seat, throwing a leg up over the arm. She shifted and adjusted her holster so it didn’t dig into her side. Experience had taught her to carry the Lottier 65 at all times. It was non-lethal but effective. She liked that about the weapon. She was short, with spiky red hair, and fine pixie features. Not someone that looked particularly intimidating, whether she was dealing with humans or aliens. Except maybe to the Pluffs, but they rarely bought salvage.

“The pumps are clanging again. I thought you’d fixed that?”

From beneath the console, Spencer said, “I did. Patch must of broke. I can’t deal with that right now.”

“What are you working on?” In the background, she still heard the pumps clanging away like they wanted to escape from the ship.

“Air filtration systems on the fritz. Unless you want to become a methane breather, I need to get that fixed first.”

“And if the pumps shut down, what will we breathe then?”

Spencer made cursing noises beneath the console. Then the clanging of the pumps died and stopped. Silence descended like relief from a chronic headache. Nessa swung her leg down off the arm of her chair and leaned forward.

“What did you do?”

“Shut them off. We’ve plenty of air left. Just don’t close the hatches. I’ll work on it once I get the filtration system up and running.”

Nessa sighed. How was she supposed to complete this mission with the ship trying to fall apart around them? “Do you need a hand?”

“What I need is to be left alone. If I needed help I would ask for it.”

Nessa refused to react to Spencer’s tone. They were all independent salvagers, and she hadn’t picked her crew based on their charming skills or winning personalities. They all were searching for their golden ticket to a brighter future, although it did get a little messier than that.

“All right, then we’ll continue our sweep. Just try to keep us alive.”

Nessa got up from the chair and headed back into the ship. With Spencer working on the deck it made sense that everybody else had vacated it. The habitation sections of the Cold Well weren’t all that large. The bulk of the ship was the train of cargo containers clustered around the main body of the ship like grapes. The core held the Space-Time Coordinate drive and the artificial gravity systems. With Spencer on the deck that probably meant everyone else was down in the barn. Nessa headed rearward through the corridors past the mess hall, crew racks, and the secure core sections that housed the Galactic technology drive and gravity systems.

Nestled up against the core section was the barn, where they housed their probes and intersystem craft as well as suits, supplies, tools and printing systems. The air in the barn was cold and smelled of ozone. As she’d expected, the rest of the crew was there, clustered around the holographic displays at the barn’s primary workstation. It appeared as if a whole section of the wall was gone, open to space, with the icy world hanging in front of the group.

Nessa’s current crew was an odd mix, and yet there they stood talking amongst themselves as she walked across the large space of the barn, her footsteps making little sound.

Rachel, historian and librarian, was an Enhancer. Her cybernetic implant piercings glittered in the reflected light. She wore dark blue shorts and a matching halter top, nothing that would interfere with her piercings. Her interest in this mission was the Neridians — the remarkably humanlike alien species that the Galactics had wiped out when humans were still swinging swords. When humans first entered the Galactic scene, a new wolfling race from the Rim, it caused considerable alarm due to their resemblance to the Neridians. Rachel wanted to understand why the Glittering Throng would wipe them out, committing a species-level genocide that wasn’t explained. It was Rachel’s driving passion. She didn’t care about Galactic tech, she wanted to know the reasons why the Galactics had seen it necessary to go to war with the Rim species. Every indication was that the Galactic species were far more intelligent than the younger species, which made their decision more perplexing.

Standing on Rachel’s left was the closest thing they had to an expert on the known species around the galaxy. Marlene was part of something called the Moreau Society, a fringe group that used Galactic technology to incorporate DNA of other species into her own. It was a disturbing, dangerous technology outlawed on many worlds. Marlene turned from the display and her large eyes caught the light and flashed, an inhuman glow. Most of her alterations were beneath the surface. The tapetum lucidum was the visible exception. Her tan shipsuit didn’t fit her well. She’d rolled up the legs, but the waist looked stretched and tight. She lifted a hand.

Nessa returned the gesture as she continued walking. Marlene was sweet, but Nessa didn’t understand her and the other Moreaus. Like the STC drive or artificial gravity, humanity hadn’t figured out Galactic tech. It didn’t seem to follow the rules. The Moreau Pod was the same. It could take a person apart at a cellular level and incorporate the DNA of other species when it put you back together again — but only if you knew what you were doing. Mistakes happened and the lucky ones died. The unlucky survived as Dumpties that could never be put back together again. Initially, people had thought that the Moreau Pod was some sort of immortality machine, that it could take a person apart and make them young again, but that hadn’t been the case. It was specifically designed to incorporate the DNA of one species into another. Other theorists suggested that the Moreau Pod was a method of bootstrapping a species, that it could explain why members of the Glittering Throng were so much more intelligent than the Rim species. It wasn’t through natural evolution, they argued, but by improving themselves with each generation. It could be likened to A.I. improving themselves in each generation.

Speaking of A.I.s, the third member of the group held the attention of the others and wasn’t a natural born human. She looked tall, athletic and blonde, almost unnaturally attractive, wearing a standard tan shipsuit, but on her, it actually looked good. And she was completely inhuman. She was the product of an alien A.I. and was simply called Emissary. She’d been sent to interact with and observe, trading on her near-Galactic level intelligence. Emissary had provided the capability to unlock the keys that let them to this icy little Plutoid in the middle of nowhere.

As Nessa neared the group she focused on the fourth member of her crew, the only other natural human in the barn, and the one person that Nessa understood the least. Her sister and second in command. A stranger that Nessa had only met three months ago, Tina looked like Nessa’s younger twin. The same petite build and fine features, although Tina wore her hair long, straight and blond. She wasn’t wearing a shipsuit, preferring tailored pants and a sleeveless top. Sister was the best term, though clone was more accurate.

Years ago when Nessa’s father had left her and her mother, he had taken cellular samples with him and had cloned his daughter on another world, raising her as Tina. Tina was Nessa’s middle name. It was creepy and weird and Nessa was trying very hard not to blame Tina for their father’s actions.

Without Tina, none of them would be here. It was Tina that had inherited their father’s fortune, and she had financed the mission. They each had their reasons for being here, even if here was an unremarkable icy world.

“What have you got for me?”

Marlene frowned. “Are we still going to have air to breathe? Some of us need to breathe.”

Marlene glanced over at Emissary at that last. Emissary smiled. She was always smiling. “I may not need to breathe, that doesn’t mean that I wish to see you stop.”

Though Nessa didn’t think that Emissary meant it, her tones suggested otherwise. The A.I. hadn’t gotten human mannerisms quite right yet. Close, but those subtle differences were enough to set off a creepy vibe.

“Spencer is working on it right now. I’m sure he’s as motivated as anyone to keep breathing. What do we have on why we are here?”

The group turned back to the holographic Plutoid floating where the wall would’ve been. The exterior projection was enhanced, they were still more than a thousand kilometers from the body and using the drive to hold a relative position. It could’ve been a Jovian moon if there’d been a solar system nearby. There wasn’t. Nothing but the cratered gray body on the screen, one of the countless dwarf planets and planets that drifted through interstellar space. They tended to form in the outer reaches of the solar systems, in the Kuiper belts and Oort clouds around the stars. Close encounters with other systems tended to fling them away from their orbits. Some collided with other planets or were captured by larger planets to become moons. Others, like this one, drifted unnoticed in the deep dark between the stars. Finding it — if it was in fact what they had been looking for — was an incredible achievement. On first glance, it didn’t look as if it had been worth the trouble.

Emissary spoke. “This planetary body does conform to all the specifications indicated in the data from the records.”

“And with all of the dwarf planets in the galaxy, don’t you think there are others that would also match the information we have in those records?”

Emissary smiled. “There is a fifty-five percent probability that this in the planetary body we seek.”

Tina clapped her hands together, grinning. “Come on! Don’t be so negative, sis! You realize how difficult it is to get even that level of precision? The fact that we found this one so quickly, with such high precision makes me very optimistic.”

There it was. Tina’s perpetual optimism and her bubbly outgoing personality. Supposedly they shared the same DNA without any alteration, but if Tina was like looking at a mirror, it was a fun house mirror.

Nessa walked around the planet hologram, studying the surface. Although they had programs scanning and mapping the surface looking for any anomalies — plus Emissary studying the surface — she still wanted unaltered human eyes on the object. There was always the possibility that they might see something that programs overlooked. Humans had a knack for finding meaning in random chaos. Or maybe she was showing her own bit of optimism.

“This is supposed to be where the last Neridian Empire force was wiped out by the Galactics?”

Rachel gestured, rings flashing on her fingers as she manipulated the hologram with her implants. She tossed out a new hologram. It hung, floating above the surface of the planet, the text that had started all of this. A written account, translated again and again, documenting the final extermination of the Neridians. It described in some detail what had happened, but it left out as much as it revealed.

It contained the dry details of the end of a genocide. Numeric figures revealed that the final fifty thousand Neridians had died in the battle, cornered and wiped out by the Glittering Throng ships. For species that were supposedly more intelligent than anything else in the galaxy, it was a dramatic and perplexing show of force. How was it, with their superior intelligence, that they hadn’t been able to reach a better solution than wiping out the Neridians?

Highlights appeared across the text and connected out with bright lines to figures around the planet. Rachel started explaining how well the data matched up, but Nessa was only partially listening.

Were the craters and surface deformations across the landscape due to the battle? Large sections were smoother, newer terrain that suggested the possibility of a subsurface ocean.

She kept coming back to the fact that the brightest minds in the galaxy, inhuman intelligences that she couldn’t even begin to comprehend, had decided that extinction was the only answer for the Neridians. Disturbing. Frightening.

More so when she considered how human-like the Neridians appeared. It wasn’t only that they were bipeds with two legs, two arms and a head with forward-facing eyes. That description could fit a dinosaur as easily as a person. What fragmentary records humans had uncovered about Neridians showed an attractive humanoid race. If you had dressed them in modern human fashions they wouldn’t have looked that out of place on any world with humans. True, their ears ferned out alongside bare scalps, they had markings that varied from individual to individual that might look like tattoos but were genetic coloration. Knees and other joints worked differently but that wasn’t obvious. What was obvious were their fine features and expressive eyes. They had muscular builds and stood two meters tall. Both the women and men, generally speaking, would have been considered attractive — if exotic — by humans. None of the other bipedal Rim species resembled humans so closely.

Nessa interrupted Rachel’s review of the data. “Have we picked up any indication that there are artifacts left from the battle?”

That was the crux of the whole mission. Find the site of the last great battle between the Galactics and Neridians and see if there was anything of value left to salvage.

Emissary answered. “Proximity scans have picked up several anomalies, which may or may not be related to the battle.”

Rachel gestured and the holographic planet spun in response. She spread her hands and the view jumped forward above the planet as if they were plunging to their deaths. It was difficult to resist the urge to grab something.

“Here,” Rachel said, stopping the display. “I’ll adjust the spectrum.”

A bright spot appeared on the surface. It was in a wide, flat-bottomed crater. It wasn’t round. Lines radiated out from the blob-shape and faded with distance.

Tina appeared at Nessa’s side and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. “This is so exciting! There’s really something here!”

“We don’t know what it is,” Marlene said.

“She’s right,” Rachel said. “The anomaly is fractionally warmer than the surface. There must be some source of heat beneath the ice. It may help explain why the surface is mostly smooth in this region. It is consistent with other dwarf planets.”

Emissary shook her blond curls. “Actually it isn’t. Other planets with subsurface oceans are typically found in planetary orbits where tidal stresses and latent radiation in the core helps maintain liquid water. This body is adrift in space and the heat source is highly localized. An artificial source is more likely.”

It didn’t feel right. It took Nessa a moment of staring at the hologram and the display before she realized the problem. “At the scale, we’re talking about, that warm area is around fifty kilometers across at the thickest portions, not counting those radiating areas. What sort of artificial source would heat that much area?”

“Who knows?” Tina clapped her hands together. “We have to go down there and find out!”

The thought of going down there was flat-out crazy. Not until they had a much better idea of what they were facing. She looked at her sister. How was it that they had the same DNA?

“That’s not all,” Rachel said.

The view shifted and the planet shrank. The focus moved away from the planet and focused on a section of empty space. For a moment nothing seemed to happen and then a faint gleaming line appeared in space. An edge of some sort of dark body in space over the planet. A straight line in space couldn’t be natural.

Nessa walked closer and still couldn’t make out any details. It was almost like a mirage that shimmered in and out of view. It barely caught the starlight at all.

“What is it?”

“We don’t know,” Rachel said. “That faint line is all we’ve been able to resolve at this distance. I think it’s probably a heat-sink using waste heat to maintain a position above the surface of the planet. Just a guess.”

Emissary sneered. “Guessing is inefficient. We have detailed measurements on the second anomaly. Speculation won’t produce more data.”

“A satellite?” Nessa said. “A wreck? Something left behind from the battle? A warning buoy? Is it transmitting?”

“It could be dangerous,” Marlene said. “If it is something left over from the war it might be a mine in space or something.”

Emissary rolled her eyes.

“Maybe,” Nessa said. She walked around the display. “We steer clear of it. No probes. Nothing active. Back us off. I want to be able to put the planet between us and that thing if we need to.”

Tina grabbed her arm. “We came here to find what was left behind, not run from it!”

Nessa pulled away. There wasn’t anything familiar in her sister’s face. Tina’s thought process was that of a stranger.

“I was with an expedition once on Ratan 450.”

“That’s a fallen world,” Marlene said.

Nessa nodded. “Right. Typical Rim species, one that didn’t make it past the extinction threshold. Magnificent ruins. Our expedition leader was wealthy and inexperienced. He wanted to rush in. Only a few of us made it out. We don’t get greedy. We don’t rush in. And maybe we live through this.”

🚀

The day passed. Spencer fixed the environmental systems and they kept breathing. The work continued, filling their systems with information on the dwarf planet. The warm region on the surface was measured and analyzed until Emissary and Rachel had identified a network of caverns and tunnels beneath the surface.

Nessa was on the main deck when the news broke. The image on the front display was replaced with a view of the barn. Emissary and Rachel stood in front of an enlarged holographic view of the surface.

“It’s inhabited?” Nessa said.

Tina, at a station on Nessa’s right, swiveled her chair around to face forward.

“Yes,” Emissary said. “Our analysis indicates a network of caverns and connecting passages. The inhabited volume warms the surrounding material.”

Rachel gestured at the hologram and it rotated, turning to show a side view cut-away of the tunnels and caverns. There were dozens of levels, passages, and chambers. The whole thing stretched over fifty kilometers and half that distance deep. The dense network looked like an inverted cityscape.

“How many people could live in that space?”

Rachel pulled a section into a higher resolution view. At this size, the passages had clean straight edges and smooth curves. The chambers varied in size but were largely cylindrical and perpendicular to the passages.

“Difficult to say, since we don’t know who they are or anything about them. If they were human, depending on the population density, there could be a hundred and fifty thousand at least in that amount of space, allowing for food production and industrial needs.”

A hundred and fifty thousand living beneath the frozen ice of the planet’s surface in a tiny pocket of warmth. Not humans, aliens. How many options were there?

“They could be survivors,” Tina said. “Maybe the Neridians didn’t all die, and some of the took refuge on the planet?”

Spencer spoke up from the other side of the deck. “Doubtful. Would the Glittering Throng have overlooked something like that?”

Beside him, at the next station, Marlene shook her head. “Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they left a few behind rather than drive the entire species into extinction. This might be a sort of preserve.”

A terrifying thought, if it was true. What would the Galactics do if they realized someone was poking around? Maybe that object in space was some sort of monitor. She leaned forward in her seat. “Is there any indication that they are aware of us?”

“No,” Emissary answered from the barn. “Most likely they are dying.”

Nessa sat up straighter. “What?”

Behind Emissary the holographic display slid and focused on the edge of the warm area. Enlarged, it was clear that the network continued for quite some distance beyond the warmer tunnels and chambers. Ice blue lines ran out along those tunnels and chambers, highlighting them against the dark ice. The view pulled back and the tracing continued until there was a vast network around the warm area which was less than a quarter of the entire area.

“As the display indicates,” Emissary said, fingers interlaced, “the abandoned sections occupy much more space than the core that remains warm. It is suggestive that their numbers have dwindled.”

Tina said, “We don’t know that. Maybe it’s room for them to expand.”

“Unlikely.” Emissary smiled. “I believe it is more likely that the species expanded when resources, particularly power, were abundant and that the population has fallen along with resources. We’ve already detected fluctuations in the heat output. In any case, speculation won’t answer our questions and yet you continue to speculate.”

“You’ve played your part in that,” Nessa said. “And speculation isn’t pointless — it’s imagination that propels us. There wouldn’t be any salvage mission without it.”

The idea that the population was dying had certainly captured her imagination. It wasn’t what they had come here to find. They had imagined recovering something of either Neridian or Galactic technology in the debris of an epic battle. Or even artifacts of historical interest. No one had imagined survivors out here.

“Suggestions?” Nessa asked.

“We need to go down there,” Tina said immediately.

That was a terrifying thought. They didn’t have much in the way of weapons. A couple Lottier 65s loaded with paralytics for known species and shock darts for non-organics. Nessa touched the one she carried. There was no telling if either would be effective on whatever was down there.

Marlene gestured and a new display appeared on a secondary screen. “This looks like an access point. The resolution at this distance is poor, but it could be a hatch.”

Or a crater. The image showed a depressed circular area over one of the dim tunnels. It looked like the tunnel led up to the depression. The edges were sharp, or at least it looked that way. On closer inspection, it might appear quite different.

Spencer snorted. “You’re all mad if you want to go down there. You don’t know anything about what might be in those tunnels. If that is a hatch, it doesn’t look like the tunnel is even heated any longer. You’d have to get through that to reach them. You’d be going in blind. That’s a good way to die.”

“And if we do nothing and they die?” Tina said. “We have to do something!”

Nessa turned and looked at her sister-clone. “What do you think we should do? Give them our ship? It’s not going to hold very many.”

“Not the ship, but we could bring a representative aboard, someone that could go back with us and plead the case for assistance.”

On the screen, Emissary nodded. “It would be possible to rig a remote relay, send it to the surface, and move off a prudent distance before attempting to contact the habitat.”

That wouldn’t eliminate all of the risks, but it was a step in the right direction. Nessa understood what the rest were feeling. The potential plight of whoever was down there weighed on her mind too. If they didn’t do anything about the inhabitants, if they simply left this dwarf planet drifting alone in the darkness, chances were that no one would ever come across it again. If the people down there did need help, then the Cold Well was most likely the only hope. That was assuming, of course, that the people down there didn’t have any way of leaving themselves. Or that no one else knew where they were. There was still that object in orbit. For all they knew this could be some sort of installation or outpost and the people down there wouldn’t appreciate the intrusion. It was a whole lot of unknowns, but they weren’t going to get any answers unless they took some risks.

“Very well,” she said. “Except I want two probe relays and we remove ourselves two jumps away.”

Spencer nodded. “Happily.”

Nessa looked at her sister. “Okay? We’re still taking a chance contacting them, but we protect ourselves and the ship.”

“Okay.” Tina turned back to her station. “As long as we’re not abandoning them.”

🚀

Preparations to launch the probes that would serve as relays didn’t take long. Emissary and Rachel configured both probes and deployed the first one unpowered. It tumbled out of the barn quiet and dark. It wouldn’t become active until they jumped away.

So far none of the Rim species had figured out how the Space-Time Coordinate drive worked. The Galactics only provided a vague explanation that the drive altered the coordinates of the ship in space. It had been a humbling experience for humanity to realize that a lot of Galactic technology didn’t fit with established human theories of how the universe operated. As accurate as the models appeared, they were still approximations that failed to unify or explain how the universe worked at all scales. Some believed that humans and other Rim species simply weren’t intelligent enough to understand how the universe worked. Nessa didn’t believe that. She didn’t doubt that the Galactics were smarter, but she also thought that humanity would catch up. The chilling question was, what if that was what happened with the Neridians? Had they been too smart for their own good?

“Jump completed,” Spencer said, as the planet disappeared from view. “We’re a hundred A.U. from the dwarf planet.”

“Launch the second probe,” Nessa said.

Down in the barn Emissary and Rachel guided the probe into position on the rail. Emissary sealed it in the launch tube while Rachel activated the sequencing.

“We have a connection to the first probe,” Rachel said. “Launching. Probe away.”

Nessa glanced at Spencer. “Take us another 100 A.U. away, pick your heading.”

“Sure thing.” Spencer entered the commands and the view shifted again.

“How’s the connection?”

“The connection is stable,” Emissary said. “Displaying the feed from the first probe.”

The view on deck changed again. The dwarf planet reappeared. The probe lacked a STC drive but it did have a gravity drive, the same sort that was used in everything from flitters to spacecraft for local travel. The display showed that the probe was on target and headed straight toward the circular formation that they’d taken for a hatch. The probe descended quickly and the closer it got the formation looked more artificial. It was a structure built within a crater. Watching the images it was hard not to feel like it was them descending to the planet. Nessa forced her grip on the arm of the chair to relax.

“1000 meters,” Spencer said.

It looked a lot closer than that, or the hatch was larger than she had thought.

“500 meters.”

The hatch — if that’s what it was — didn’t fit within the view any longer. The probe continued straight down to the center. The material was dark, matte, but not black. It was probably made out of local materials.

“100 meters.”

Lines were now visible on the surface dividing the circle into triangles, and each of those wedges was covered in what looked like diamond-shaped scales of a smooth dark material that drank in the light.

Nessa pointed. “Ideas about the scales? Could those be some kind of solar array?”

Rachel answered. “They could be. Some of our colonies have similar arrays. Out here they wouldn’t be very effective. You would need to be in orbit around a star for those to gather any useful solar energy.”

“With our tech,” Spencer said. “Who knows about this? Maybe they can drink starlight? Might also be radiating fins to dump waste heat.”

Marlene turned in her chair. “Maybe this was designed as a generation ship? It may have been a colony on the outskirts of a solar system at one time. Maybe they decided to leave.”

“Such an action would be ill advised,” Emissary said. “If they were using solar radiation to power the colony, they would be giving that up by venturing further from their star.”

“That single area couldn’t possibly power an entire colony,” Rachel said.

Tina turned in her chair. “I think it’s brave.”

“Ten meters. Coming in for landing.”

The probe floated down towards the center of the artifact. The probe had targeted a circular region at the center where the triangles came together that was devoid of the scales.

Nessa glanced at Spencer. “Can we get another view?”

He grunted and tapped commands into the console. Two additional windows opened on either side of the main view. The left had side showed the horizon out away from the probe. From the angled view it was clear that the scales were angled as if to catch the light of the distant stars. Light wasn’t reflected from the scales except right at the bright edges that made them visible. The centers were dark and featureless, drinking in the starlight. The right-hand view showed the same sort of thing except there were hills visible on the distant horizon, low slumps of material.

The probe descended right down in among the scales in that bare spot. The view steadied and the images on each side showed the scales rising up from the surface around the probe. They all angled back toward the bare patch and the undersides were as dark as the topsides. The probe sat in a well of inky blackness.

“We’re down,” Spencer said, unnecessarily. “All systems showing green.”

For the next few moments, no one did anything except watch the displayed views. Nessa rubbed her fingers along the smooth material of her chair. Nothing had reacted to the probe’s arrival yet. No movement. No lights. Nothing blasted the probe. She had to remind herself that it was just a feed relayed through probes, that it wasn’t the Cold Well’s crew sitting on the surface.

Nessa broke the silence. “Let’s say hello and see if anyone answers.”

Marlene entered commands into her station. “Sending standard greetings, Galactic translator is tied in.”

More Galactic tech. Sometimes she wondered if the Cooperative had the right idea with their focus on human-engineered tech. They used systems they could understand — with the exception of the STC drives that made interstellar travel possible. Word was that they had run into trouble further out along the Rim towards the edge of the galaxy.

“No response yet,” Marlene said.

Everyone waited and gradually the minutes passed and the tension on the deck ebbed, replaced with boredom. Whoever was living in the dwarf planet, it didn’t seem like they were answering calls.

Nessa rose from her chair. “Notify me if anything changes.”

She turned to Tina. “If I could have a word with you?”

Tina’s expression tightened, but she nodded and left her station. Nessa led the way down off the deck. Other than the crew cabins there weren’t a lot of private areas on the ship. She headed to the galley. With everyone else occupied it’d be empty. Tina followed without asking why they were leaving the deck.

The galley wasn’t much to speak of, just another cylindrical room with a table at the center and enough seats for the entire crew. Appliances were all built into the walls and Nessa took a moment to dispense a coffee bottle. The insulated metal bottle was cool to the touch, in contrast to the scalding hot coffee inside. It was strong, the way she liked, dark with a rich flavor. It was one of the better things that the automated galley produced. As she turned around, Tina was standing with her arms crossed just inside the doorway.

Nessa gestured at the serving wall. “Get yourself something, if you want?”

Tina shook her head. “I don’t drink coffee.”

One really had to wonder what had happened in the cloning process. “Okay then. Can you tell me why you’re so eager to jeopardize our lives?”

Tina gaped at her. Her mouth shut and she shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about wanting to rush into unsafe situations. I’m talking about putting your curiosity before the welfare of the crew. It also puts me in a difficult situation as captain having to override you all the time. I would appreciate a little more solidarity.”

Tina’s eyes narrowed. “Just because I’m a clone doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with you. We’re not the same person. And don’t forget who financed this expedition.”

“I haven’t forgotten that father’s money financed this trip. And I don’t expect you to agree with me on every single point. I do expect you to put the crew first. Rushing down there could have proven extremely dangerous. Contact situations have been known to go very wrong, very fast. If these people picked this location in order to stay away from anybody else they might not be happy to see us here.”

“Or they could be very happy to see us because they need our help in order to survive.”

“Could be.” Nessa nodded and sipped her coffee. “The point is, we don’t know and we need to proceed with caution, thinking of our crew first. If and when we determine that the inhabitants aren’t a threat we need to follow procedures for making closer contact. Even then I may choose to do it through a proxy rather than going ourselves. Before you blurt out a suggestion that would put us all at risk, I would appreciate it if you would think about the crew and make their safety your first consideration.”

“It’s not like I want anything to happen to anyone,” Tina said.

“I believe that’s true. Let’s work together to make sure that the crew knows that we value their safety. Okay?”

That gained her a grudging nod. Nessa didn’t expect her sister to be happy about being corrected, but she hoped that Tina would take the point to heart.

“Was there anything else, Captain?”

There was a touch of something in Tina’s tone, the way she said captain. It wasn’t worth confronting right now. She’d gotten what she wanted and their budding relationship already had enough strain.

“No thank you. Are you sure you don’t want to grab a snack? We could just talk. It may be a while before we get any response.”

Tina’s posture relaxed slightly. She stopped hugging her chest and shook her head. “Thanks, another time. I want to go back over the records of the final battle. I want to check if there was any mention of inhabitants on the planet that was described. It’s possible that this is the right location, or it could be some other planet.”

“Sounds like a good idea, let me know if you find anything.”

“I will.” Tina disappeared back into the corridor and was gone.

Nessa leaned her elbows on the table, her hands cupped around the coffee bottle. Across the galaxy, scattered across the Rim were billions of planets. Many of those were in the Goldilocks zones around their primary star, secondary binary stars or even as moons around gas giants and other bodies. The potential range of habitable worlds was unknown even now. And across the Rim wolfling species rose and fell when they hit the extinction threshold. Some of the extinct species had made it out from their world and established permanent habitation within their system — without ever crossing interstellar space or making contact with any of the other Rim species or Galactics. A few — like humanity — ventured out beyond their solar system and came to the attention of the Glittering Throng. It was a test of sorts and those who had passed generally benefitted from gifts bestowed by the Galactics, such as the gravity and STC drives, power sources and the Galactic translator. Gifts or more trials, the jury was still out. Some theorized that there were other extinction thresholds to cross. Humanity had already jumped into a war with another Rim species, the Nosferans. The Nosferans had teetered on the brink of extinction after the war. It hadn’t worked so well for them.

They hadn’t come out here expecting to find anybody that might need their help. It’d been a long shot, the idea that they might discover the remains of Galactic or Neridian technology from the final battle. If this didn’t pan out there were other Rim worlds covered in the remains of species that hadn’t survived past the extinction threshold. Many of those worlds would have plenty for them to salvage. She sipped her coffee. It might be worth prioritizing potential worlds now. She wasn’t getting the feeling that this dwarf planet was going to pay off. Whatever was down there, it had the feel of a tomb that was best left undisturbed.

🚀

Contact came three hours later. Nessa was on the deck reading survey reports of possible claims. This latest report was typical. Bare facts regarding the primary star, the system and the dead world that had been locked in a warming trend caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The feedback loop had wiped out those that created it and now the planet was beginning to recover. The surveyor included dramatic images of buildings rising up, covered in vegetation. The ruins were a chilling reminder of how close humanity had come to a similar fate.

Spencer raised the alert from the engineering station on deck. “Something’s happening at the hatch.”

It was just the two of them on the deck. After all the waiting, Nessa had assigned the others shifts to monitor the probe for any reaction to the surface while it gathered what data it could.

“Show me.”

Multiple windows spilled open on the forward view. The center image was the one that Nessa focused on. Faint twists of vapor rose from the surface of the hatch.

“Thermal gradient is increasing.” Spencer gestured and a new window took the forefront. In infrared, the hatch had begun to glow compared to the darker material of the surface, just visible along the far rim, and the cold scales rising around the probe.

“If they’re warming it, they might be getting ready to open the hatch. Hop the probe over to the edge.”

Nessa opened a channel to the rest of the ship. “All hands on deck. We have activity on the planet.”

Tina reached the deck almost immediately. She must have already been on her way. She slid into her station at Nessa’s right. “Have we picked up any signals?”

“No, nothing.” Nessa flipped through the camera views of the probe still sitting on the hatch. “Spencer?”

“Working on it.” Spencer was busy with the probe command controls.

She had to let him work. The sequence had to be done right to avoid any miscalculation that could damage the probe, the hatch itself or the scales.

“Initiating.”

On the screen, the probe drifted up above the hatch and the surrounding scales. It floated sideways over the scales and before long reached the edge. The probe began its descent and reached out for the surface with silver legs just visible in the bottom camera. Jointed feet dug into the icy surface to anchor it in the light gravity.

“Contact established,” Spencer said. “Surface stable.”

As yet the hatch looked unchanged in the visible light spectrum. Seen from the edge the array of scales spread out around the circular area. All of the scales looked to be at the same height as if the surface was flat. In the infrared view, the surface was visibly warmer.

“They’re powering up,” Tina said.

Nessa looked over at her clone sister. “You got here fast.”

“I was coming up anyway, I was listening.”

“I thought I said to get some rest.”

Spencer cleared his throat. Nessa looked over at him and he pointed to the screen.

“We’ve got other things to worry about just now.”

Marlene, Rachel, and Emissary all came onto the deck right then. Marlene and Rachel took seats at the other consoles while Emissary remained standing next to Nessa’s chair. Other than giving them a nod of acknowledgment, Nessa’s attention was on the screen. Spence was right. Things were happening. The scales were moving. In a smooth motion like a ripple on a pond, the scales folded back into the hatch. No sooner had the scales folded down flat than the triangular wedges they’d noticed earlier began to rise. Hinged at the far rim, the whole thing was opening up like a flower spreading petals to the sky.

“Are those going to block the view?” She looked to Spencer.

He shook his head. “The probe is between two of the wedges. They shouldn’t be a problem.”

The scaled wedges continued opening. Nessa expected light to shine from the opening but there was nothing in the visible light spectrum. The infrared view showed a fountain of light rising out of the hatch. That had to heat escaping along with some gases. Not the most energy-efficient opening, which might explain why it was powered down when they had first arrived. The inhabitants probably closed off the sections that they didn’t need and maintained them at minimal levels.

Emissary laughed. The sound made grated on Nessa’s nerves. She saw Marlene jump in her seat.

“Look at all that waste heat! A very inefficient design,” Emissary said, smiling at them as if they should get the joke.

No one offered any commentary. Attention went back to watch the screen as the wedges continued to open even more. They were nearly vertical now so that the view was framed by two tall triangular patches of darkness. The wedges hadn’t stopped. They moved past 90 degrees and started to descend to the surface. Nessa looked back at Spencer.

“Will we have clearance if that goes all the way to the surface?”

“We might have to back it off a bit. The probe’s automatic avoidance routine should take care of that fine.”

“I’d prefer if you did it now.” Nessa looked back at the screen. The wedges continued to descend towards the surface. The probe perched at the edge of the hatch between the two wedges. If the sides came down much more they might clip the probe. “Now.”

The view jerked as the probe scuttled backward away from the descending wedges. Moments later the wedges pressed down into the surface around the hatch.

The view steadied. “We’re clear now.”

Next to Tina, Rachel said, “I still don’t see anything inside.”

She was right. There was nothing to see in either the visible light or infrared views, although in infrared it was possible to see the distance wall of a shaft descending into the surface.

“Are we analyzing the gasses escaping?” Nessa looked at Marlene.

“Yes.” Marlene gestured and a new window opened at the bottom of the screen. “Mostly nitrogen. A few trace gases.”

Rachel said, “In mothballed Enhancer colonies we leave it pressurized with a nitrogen-only atmosphere for storage.”

“We’ve got more movement.” Spencer’s voice was tense.

A black head rose into view at the center of the open hatch. Soon shoulders came into view. It was someone in a featureless black spacesuit. It didn’t reflect any light from the stars above, not even a glimmer. Even in the infrared view, he was more an absence of anything. A void in the darkness. Against the heat escaping he was a shadow given life.

Nessa leaned forward studying the figure. “Look at that. No leakage. Not heat, no reflections, as if the suit drinks in the light. He could be a black hole.”

“Strange.” Emissary cocked her head. “Unexpected.”

Tina said, “Why? What’s strange?”

The whole thing screamed strange. And danger. A cold chill crawled down Nessa’s spine. They weren’t on the planet but it felt as if the featureless figure was somehow staring straight at her. All it could see was the probe. They were the width of a solar system away.

The platform carrying the figure reached the top of the shaft and stopped just beneath the level of the panels now lying open on the frozen surface. The shadow figure was humanoid — so humanoid it could’ve been a human figure standing there. Was this person human? Had they stumbled onto a human base?

“That suit must be combat gear.” Rachel gestured and the window with the probe’s visible light view expanded. “It doesn’t register in visible light at all. It’s an invisibility suit.”

Side-by-side with the infrared window it was obvious. In the visible light window, there wasn’t anything on the platform. The dark shadow in the infrared view moved with an odd gait. It took a couple bounding steps before Nessa realized what was odd about the gait. The knees bent backward. Just like the Neridians.

She turned to Spencer. “Spencer! Trigger the probe to launch!”

“What?”

The figure was running fast now, nearing the side of the hatch. Each bounding step carried it like seven league boots across the wide open hatch. In moments it would reach the probe.

“Now!”

Tina grabbed Nessa’s chair. “What are you doing?”

“Initiating probe launch.” Spencer’s fingers flew across the console.

Emissary moved in a blur of speed, shoving Tina aside as she ran across the deck. Her hand struck out, watching Spencer across the jaw with an audible crack. He tumbled from the chair to the deck, boneless and limp.

Rachel was on her feet in an instant, hand flying at Emissary’s neck.

Nessa looked from Rachel and Emissary to the figure on the screen. Emissary had acted to stop the probe from leaving. Why? So that whoever was down there could reach the probe. Why?

Rachel and Emissary traded blows and blocks. Rachel’s Enhancer augmentations allowed her to stand toe-to-toe with the non-organic A.I. but Rachel was forced to give ground. The fight moved back away from Spencer toward the front view screens. Marlene abandoned her station and hurried to help Tina up from the deck.

There was only one thing that the figure on the surface could be — a surviving Neridian. An entire colony of survivors. Had to be. Somehow someone had escaped the Galactic’s notice in the final battle. Or the Galactics had pulled the last punch and left a few survivors on this frozen dwarf planet. They must have burrowed into the ice, developed a colony and survived all this time. Thousands of years trapped in a dark world between the stars.

The probe was their communications link with the ship. Emissary was somehow connected with the Neridians. She was that one that had helped calculate the location of the dwarf planet. Was she a leftover relic? Had she been hiding in plain sight, seeking answers about her creators?

There wasn’t any time right now to figure out those answers. The Neridian had nearly reached the probe. With the probe, the Neridian could gain access to communications with the Cold Well. There was no telling what Emissary had done but it had to be stopped.

Rachel and Emissary grappled and collided against the deck wall. Nessa accessed her command sequences. She brought up the probe’s controls. On the screen the figure was right on top of the probe, filling the view with that darkness. There wasn’t time for anything else. She couldn’t let the Neridian access the probe. She triggered both probes to auto-destruct and fuse their cores. The views from the probe vanished the instant the connection was terminated.

Emissary shoved Rachel and the Enhancer flew back and collided with Tina. They both tumbled to the floor. Nessa had a sense of Emissary coming straight for her.

She rolled out of her chair. She heard a loud smack behind her and as she came up Emissary was turning and Rachel was falling again.

Nessa drew her Lottier 65 and fired. The shock darts caught Emissary in the throat. She stiffened, eyes widening and then she collapsed. Nessa kept a wary eye on her. With an organic target, the Lottier fired nano-paralyzers coded for 150 Rim species. The shock darts were designed to take down a non-organic, with varying results. Technically the Lottiers were classified as non-lethal weapons but the effects varied and a dart in the wrong spot could prove fatal. Hopefully not in this case. She wanted answers.

Her crew was recovering. Rachel and Tina helped each other up while Marlene went to check on a groaning Spencer. Nessa kept her aim on Emissary. She wasn’t moving but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t reboot in a moment.

“Secure her,” she said to Rachel and Tina. “Make sure she won’t get loose if she wakes up.”

🚀

The STC drive carried the Cold Well far from the dwarf planet drifting in the dark. Nessa didn’t dare take the ship back anywhere close to the planet. She sat in her chair on the deck, elbows on her knees, going over it all in her head.

It looked like Emissary had orchestrated the whole thing. She had made the connections necessary to bring Nessa together with her clone-sister who was able to bankroll the mission by leaking the information to Tina that she had a sister who ran a salvage ship. They both had questions about the death of their father, whether or not Emissary had a roll in that as well. Emissary had also deciphered the information from the known accounts and discovered the probable location of the final battle. Emissary wasn’t talking yet, hadn’t recovered to answer questions.

Had Emissary known about the survivors? If so, how? What was she? A Neridian artifact hiding in plain sight? She had claimed to be a representative from an alien A.I., designed to learn from and interact with humans. Were her creators Neridians, or some other species interested in Neridians? What was the artifact that was in orbit around the dwarf planet? Had the Galactics purposefully left survivors on the planet?

Nessa sighed. There were so many more questions. And what was she supposed to do with all of this? She pulled up an ancillary screen and the footage from the probe right before the destruction. The alien bounding across the surface almost looked human. Almost. Too long. Knees didn’t bend right. The featureless dark suit, invisible in visible light, that drank in starlight. It was nothing but a living shadow coming toward the probe.

The auto-destruct would have triggered an implosion that fused the probe’s systems into a lump. A safety system to prevent the Galactic technology it contained from falling into unwanted hands. It was doubtful that the Neridians could extract anything useful from it.

Only one Neridian had come out of the hatch. Given the size of the habitable area beneath the ice, there had to be a considerably larger population.

The Galactics had rejected the Neridians’ appeal to join the Glittering Throng. The Rim species was determined to be too dangerous, according to some accounts. She’d heard rumors that spoke of “endless worlds of sorrow” wherever the Neridians set foot. History was written by the victors and everyone seemed to agree that the Neridians were war-like and dangerous.

She couldn’t be sure that what they had seen, that this black shape in the recording was, in fact, a Neridian. Maybe so. If she let anyone know about the world others would seek it out. The Galactics would learn of it, of course, and then what? Would they return to finish the job?

“Captain?” Spencer, his voice sounding stuffy from the packing in his broken nose, joined her on deck. “Emissary fused herself.”

Nessa rose and turned. Spencer hung near the entrance. His eyes were dark, hidden by bruises and shadows. The non-organic had hit him hard enough to kill if the angle had been different. Marlene had reported that he was very lucky.

A swell of relief rose in Nessa’s chest but she didn’t let it show on her face. “What happened?”

“I was checking on her, with Rachel, like you ordered. She didn’t respond. We took precautions and checked her out. Bricked. She must have had some sort of personal auto-destruct. Fused everything down.”

“Eject her.”

Spencer’s eyes widened against the swelling. “What?”

It was simpler. Cleaner. “We can’t risk questions. We give her a burial in space, same as we’d do with any of us.”

“Non-organics don’t suicide.”

Nessa shrugged. “This one did. She was malfunctioning — just look at the fact that she attacked the crew and had to be subdued.”

“Okay.” Spencer crossed his arms. His rumpled shipsuit had bloodstains on the front. “Anything else?”

“Work with Rachel and do an audit and clean reboot of all of our systems. I want to restore us back to our departure state — and make sure that was clean too. I don’t want to take a chance that Emissary left us any nasty presents.”

“We’ll lose the data we gathered unless I archive it.”

“Use hard media, give it to me. Don’t make copies. I’ll hang onto it.”

“Yes, Captain.” Spencer turned and headed back below deck.

Nessa settled back into her chair. She dismissed her screens. It was all precautions. The trouble with non-organics — they could make copies of themselves. Emissary could have dozens, hundreds or more copies out there. Ones that didn’t look anything like the one they had on the ship. Bodies didn’t matter, it was the A.I. inside that counted.

If they were looking for the Neridians then Nessa had to keep that information safe. She needed to make the right connections and figure out how they could handle this. Or maybe just turn it all over to the Galactics. For now, it was insurance that her crew would make it home safe.

If anywhere was safe in a universe with the Neridians out there, waiting in the dark.

🚀

8,197 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 103rd short story release, written in April 2015. This story takes place in the Moreau Society 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, This Dark, Fermi-Damned Universe.


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

The Deschutes Sasquatch

C. Auguste Dupin didn’t like the idea of spending the day tramping around the woods instead of sleeping in the sun.

Except his human, Poeville librarian Penny Copper, wanted a picnic by the falls with her boyfriend, detective David Clemm. If Dupin wanted sardine crackers, chicken, he needed to go with them.

Not the best way to get lunch. Especially when sasquatch might lurk in the woods.

🔍

In all his years in Poeville, C. Auguste Dupin preferred the warm sunny places to sleep, like the hill beneath the Reed Moore Library, to the dark woods that climbed the hills around the town.

He yowled his protest again to this excursion, which so far amounted to walking up mossy-smelling trails beneath trees that dripped cold water on his fur. What happened to the picnic? What happened to the treats?

Ahead, his human, librarian Penny Copper, touched the arm of detective David Clemm.

“A second, David. Dupin doesn’t sound happy.”

At last, someone was paying attention! Dupin stopped and sat down, taking advantage of the moment to chew away some of the sweet sap that stuck pine needles to his paws.

“I told you he wouldn’t like it,” David said.

For once Dupin agreed with the human. As humans went, David wasn’t entirely disagreeable, and Penny liked him. He did have the unfortunate mannerisms of a raven, looking quickly around him, his long black coat floating around him as he moved. Despite that, he had a rational mind and listened to Penny.

She came closer, crouching on the trail. Her new boots smelled of leather oil and rubber. Not at all like the sleek shoes she usually wore. Today she wore blue jeans over her long legs and a fuzzy flannel shirt, with the sleeves rolled partway up. Again, not at all the sort of thing she usually wore, although somewhat appropriate for day hikes.

Her long fingers scratched through Dupin’s fur around his neck. The purr, entirely unbidden, welled up from his chest.

Dupin pressed against her fingers and reached a paw up to her messenger bag, where she’d hidden away the treats.

She laughed, like a clear mountain stream. “You devil! You just want a snack!”

Of course! As if he was going to climb through the woods without proper nourishment!

She held up a finger. “One now. You can have more when we stop for lunch.”

One? Hardly —

Penny pulled the plastic sandwich bag from the messenger bag she wore over her shoulder. A rich oily scent escaped. Sardine crackers, a gift from Penny’s Auntie Dido. Quite possibly one of the best foods on Earth, and Dupin regularly frequented the restaurants and cafes along Poeville’s main avenue.

She took one of the golden triangles from the bag and held it up, between thumb and forefinger. Thumbs, the key to the advantages humans held.

Dupin meowed. He pawed the air in front of her hand, claws carefully retracted.

“Here you go, then, since you asked nicely.”

Penny put the cracker down in the dirt and pine needles.

Dupin blinked. Was she seriously expecting him to eat from…

It smelled so delicious. Oily fish, mingling with the garlic, and other seasonings. His mouth opened, inhaling, drawing the delicious scent up along the top of his mouth. He crouched, taking in more.

“Is he going to take all day?” David asked.

“He likes to savor them,” Penny said. Her hand ran down the fur on his back.

Dupin ignored it. He closed his eyes. Dirt or not, pine needles or not, he wasn’t leaving the cracker there for the ants and other crawling things.

He bit into it, the light cracker crunching delightfully between his teeth. Perfection. Exquisite. The flavor intensified the odors released, and yet two bites later, the cracker was gone.

A pine needle stuck in his mouth. He pawed it from his face. Then he rose, butting his head against Penny’s knee. He meowed.

“No more, not right now,” she said.

The plastic bag disappeared back into Penny’s messenger bag and she stood. She tapped her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

She walked on up the trail to where David waited. Dupin rose and trotted after.

“Don’t you worry that he’ll run off?” David asked.

“No.” Penny laughed. “Dupin won’t leave me.”

He might if there wasn’t the promise of more crackers and more food. The scent of chicken escaped from the basket David carried.

“It isn’t much farther, in any case,” David said. “Another quarter mile or so to the falls.”

A quarter mile? Dupin growled softly and padded after the humans. Maybe he should have stayed home back in town. At least there he could have picked up treats from the cafes, followed by a nap on the benches near the library.

The trail continued, seeming without end, twisting and climbing through the forest. Tall cedars and Douglas firs rose above them, some of immense girth. Ferns clogged the spaces between, spores tickling Dupin’s nose. Passing a clump of blackberry vines, he heard rustling beneath the thorny vines hanging thick with dark berries and paused.

Penny stopped, plucking a thick berry from the bush. She popped it in her mouth. “Oh, these are good. We should pick some for lunch.”

David came back with the basket. He opened the lid and brought out a shiny blue enamelware mug. “Here, we can use these.”

While the humans picked berries and chatted, Dupin turned his attention to necessary cleaning. All sorts of things were sticking in his fur. Dirt, dust and pine needles stuck to him along with stray seeds.

Whatever had rustled beneath the vines was gone. Not that he was of a mind to chase it anyway.

A voice called out, from up the trail. “Help!”

David rose quickly, setting down the mug he had half-filled with berries. “Did you hear that?”

Penny sat down her berries too, dark purple juice staining her lips. “Yes.”

“Help! Help me!”

David turned to Penny. “Stay here.”

Good idea. Dupin crouched, watching the trail, ready to bolt if it became necessary.

Before David had gone more than a few steps up the trail a man came running around the turn up ahead. He was pale, thin and shorter than David, wearing a blue hoody, jeans, and sneakers. His eyes were wide, white with dark pupils. He sort of looked like a panic-stricken dog.

Dupin crouched lower, a growl crawling from his throat.

David held out a hand. “Hey! What’s wrong?”

“God!” Sobbed the man, skidding to a stop. He half turned and pointed up the trail. “You have to help me! It took her!”

Then Penny was moving forward. For a human, she was ordinarily pretty smart, but Dupin didn’t think this was a good idea. Not at all.

The man gestured frantically back up the trail. “Please! Help us! It took her!”

“I’m a police officer.” David held out his hand, the other still close to the gun he carried. “I’ll help, I need to know what happened?”

“Mary, my fiancé, it took her off into the woods! We have to go!”

Penny reached David’s side. “What took Mary?”

“It’s a, a, what do you call it?” The man pressed his hands to his face and groaned. “A sasquatch! That’s it, you know, Bigfoot? It took her!”

Dupin blinked. He’d grown up in the library, following Penny to work every day. He’d spent plenty of time looking at the books as humans read them, sitting on the tables, and backs of the chairs.

Sasquatch, 001.944 by the Dewey decimal system. Although there were plenty of humans that didn’t agree with that classification, Dupin had never any reason to think there was any reality to the stories.

He licked at his paws, dealing with the absolutely impossible task of keeping them clean. What this really meant was that no one was going to be focusing on feeding him. Not until he helped them figure out what had happened.

Dupin rose and trotted forward, catching up to Penny. She was right about that, at least. He wasn’t going to leave her.

“A sasquatch?” David exchanged a look with Penny.

“I know,” the man groaned. He dropped his hands. “You think I’m crazy. I get it. We still have to save her!”

“What’s your name?” Penny asked.

“Albert, Al. Payne.” The man took a step back. “We can’t just stand here!”

“Okay, okay.” David pulled his phone from his pocket. His face darkened in a scowl. “I don’t have a signal. Penny?”

She was already checking her phone. “No, I don’t.”

Dupin breathed in deep. The man’s sneakers were muddy, even though the path was dry. They smelled of marsh muck and algae. He’d been somewhere wet, the Deschutes river wasn’t far through the woods. The sound of it carried through the woods.

“Penny, head back to the car and see if you get a signal there. If not, drive out until you do. Call the station, get us some more help up here. I’ll go with Al and look for Mary.”

Penny shook her head. “Let’s go see where it happened first, otherwise no one will know where to look.”

“Yes,” Al said. “Come on. I’ll show you!”

He spun and started back up the trail at a run. David scowled, but ran after him.

Penny looked down. “Dupin, stay.”

Then she was running too.

Stay? Alone in the woods, where a sasquatch had reportedly attacked a human?

Dupin chased after them.

🔍

The spot wasn’t far ahead, up around a bend, and then down into a wetter area where a tiny trickle of a stream ran through the cut down to the river.

“Mary! Mary!” Al yelled into the woods, cupping his hands around his mouth.

Dupin slowed. David and Penny spread out around Al, looking at the scene. Ferns had been trampled. Mud was oozing into footprints along the stream.

Al dropped his hands. He pointed at the mud. “See! You can see the tracks!”

Dupin followed David and Penny to the edge of the path, where the stream passed through a culvert and then entered a marshy area overgrown with plants. The tracks in the mud were filling slowly with muddy water. The smell was the same as Al’s shoes, full of decay and algae.

Near the path were several smaller tracks, parallel and then joining a larger set of tracks. Much larger, easily twice as large.

Penny had her phone out. Taking pictures. David rose and grabbed Al’s arm. The smaller man jerked away.

“We have to find her!”

“What happened, Al?” David asked, his voice calm. “The more information we have, the better equipped we’ll be to find her.”

“God, I can’t believe this is happening!” Al pressed his hands over his mouth for a second, then dropped them, taking a deep breath. “Fine. We were walking. Just a day hike, you know? Mary said it’d be fun. And it was okay until that thing came out of there!”

Al pointed at the thick bushes choking the wet area off the trail.

“A sasquatch?” Penny asked.

“There was a god-awful stink. I thought there was a skunk around or something and was telling Mary we should go back when it charged out of the bushes. It was huge and hairy, taller than you.” Al looked at David. “It grabbed her and took off back that way. I tried to follow, but the mud, it sucked at my feet. I almost lost my shoes getting back to the trail.”

Dupin crouched at the edge of the path. There was a stink, clinging to the bushes near the edge of the path. He sneezed. It could be a skunk, he’d encountered them a few times when they came into town, looking for food.

Yet a sasquatch? The woods extended back from here, connecting back to larger wilderness areas all the way to the national forests. Dupin sat back and licked his fur. In between licks, he studied the scene.

Something had crushed the ferns around the path. Spores in the air tickled his nose. Branches had been broken on the bushes, and reeds lay crushed into the muck.

“Okay,” David said. “Penny, go back until you can get a call out. Al and I will stay here, and keep an eye out.”

“We have to look for her!”

David touched Al’s arm. “If we go out there and get lost, then we’ve made things three times harder for the teams. We’ll get people out here. We’ll search for her.”

Al moved to the edge of the trail, cupping his mouth again. “Mary!”

Penny moved closer to David. Dupin paused in his cleaning. Going back made sense.

“Be careful,” Penny said. “I’ll come back as soon as I get through.”

She leaned close and pressed her lips briefly to David’s.

Then Penny turned and headed up the trail, tapping her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

Back down the trail again? At least they were heading back in the direction of the picnic basket, and away from the Sasquatch, if it existed at all.

Maybe Penny would remember to feed him when they got to the car.

🔍

The trip back down the trail went surprisingly quick. Dupin’s hair was on end the whole way, watching the woods around them.

Was it possible that a sasquatch was out there? Did it eat cats? Surely, if it took a whole human it wouldn’t want a cat, but what if there were more than one?

Or he was being a skittish kitten about the whole thing? The far more reasonable explanation was that Albert Payne was responsible for the woman’s disappearance, and was telling the sasquatch story to misdirect them all.

If Penny was concerned about the possibility of a sasquatch, she didn’t show it. Her long stride ate up the ground, stopping only to pick up the picnic basket when she reached it. Fortunately, it remained unmolested by whatever lurked in the woods.

As she walked, she kept checking her phone, searching for the elusive signal that would let her call for help.

When the trail head came into view, Dupin raced forward to Penny’s bright red VW Beetle. Penny reached the car a moment later.

She made an exasperated noise, almost like his own growls. “Still no signal!”

She turned back to face the trail.

Dupin reached up, pawing at the car door. He meowed to get her attention.

Penny looked down at him, her pretty face lined with worry. “I don’t want to leave David up there alone, but I don’t see any other choice. We have to get help.”

Exactly. Dupin pawed at the door again.

“Okay. We’ll head back to town until we get a signal. Then I’ll stop and call.”

Gravel crunched beneath Penny’s boots as she walked around to the driver’s side. The car beeped, and she opened the door. Dupin jumped up into the seat.

“Move over, Dupin,” Penny said.

He jumped into the passenger seat, turning in a circle to face her.

She tilted her seat forward and put the picnic basket, and her messenger bag into the back seat. Then she shoved her seat down and got in, slamming the door.

Dupin inhaled deeply. In the closed confines, away from the woods, the smell of fried chicken was even more enticing. He turned and jumped into the back as Penny started the engine.

The messenger bag was shut, but not strapped. He nosed at the flap.

Penny turned around, her arm reaching across to the passenger seat. She glanced down. “Stay out of the food, Dupin.”

Stay out of the food? It was torture! And why let it go to waste? Not for the first time, he wished that he had the ability to converse with humans. It’d be so much easier.

Denied the food, he did the sensible thing, the only thing to do under the circumstances. He turned in the seat, between the basket and the bag, and settled down. He closed his eyes and inhaled the rich, spicy aromas and drifted off.

🔍

The rumble of the tires on the road slowed and stopped. Awareness returned and Dupin opened his eyes thin slits without moving.

The car had stopped. The sky out the window was mostly clear, broken only by a few fluffy clouds. Penny was on the phone, her voice urgent.

“That’s right. I’m heading back there now. No, I won’t wait. Detective Clemm is alone with that man, who is mostly likely the one responsible for her disappearance.”

A low purr rolled through Dupin’s chest. There was a reason he followed Penny. She displayed the best traits of both humans and cats. The story of a sasquatch wasn’t going to sit well with her either.

Her head nodded. “That’s right. Hurry.”

She hung up and twisted around, looking in the back. Dupin opened his eyes wider, so she’d know he was awake. And not getting into the food, even though his stomach felt as if there was a bottomless pit beneath him.

“I got through,” she said. “We’re going to head back. Hopefully, David is fine.”

The detective could take care of himself, even if he did need their help from time to time to solve a case.

Today looked like one of those days. Dupin yawned wide, showing his teeth. Penny wasn’t even looking, she had the Beetle in gear and was turning it around in the street, heading back to the trail.

Dupin closed his eyes. If he was going to tromp around through the forest again, without food, he was going to need to rest.

🔍

This time Dupin didn’t sleep deeply, only dozing, listening to the sound of the car. He recognized the speed bumps as they turned into the drive for the park. The rattle of gravel, as Penny swung into the parking area.

Although he hadn’t moved a muscle, he was poised and ready the instant Penny opened the door. He darted out, slipping behind her seat, and jumped down onto the gravel drive.

“Dupin! I wanted you to wait in the car this time.”

He looked up at her. Really? Why do you think I jumped out so fast?

He walked away a few steps and looked back. Penny sighed, and lifted her seat, ducking inside for a second before she came out with her messenger bag.

She slung that over her shoulder, then popped the hatchback and shut her door. She went around to the back and came out with the blue and white first aid kit she carried. She opened the messenger bag and stuffed the kit inside.

“Okay, then Dupin. You’re going to have to keep up.”

He turned in a circle, then started for the trail. Behind him, Penny chuckled.

“I’ve never known another cat that likes walks as much as you!”

Walks meant more treats. Even if it did mean following a trail into sasquatch-infested woods. Sooner or later, he’d get Penny to give him more of the sardine crackers she carried. Not to mention the chicken back in the car.

The faster they found the missing woman, the faster he’d get fed.

When they reached the spot in the trail by the stream, there was no sign of either David or Al. The muddy prints were hardly anything more than oval mud puddles now.

“David?” Penny cupped her hands to her mouth. “David! Where are you?”

Dupin sniffed at the ground, picking up traces of Al’s mucky shoes and David’s oiled hiking boots. The scent trail went on up the trail, not into the muck.

He meowed and trotted on up the trail.

“Dupin! Don’t you run off too!”

He heard Penny’s fast steps behind him, and before he could dart aside, her hands slipped beneath his belly and hoisted him into the air. He fought the urge to grab on, and instead, let his body go limp and boneless.

“Dupin!” Penny fought to keep her grip, and pulled him up against her chest. She cradled him close, with her arm beneath his body.

“I’m not having you run off too,” she said.

Penny bent at the waist, studying the ground. “I can’t tell if those tracks are old or new…”

She moved back, looking up and down the trail at the tracks. Dupin lay limp in her arms, waiting. The dry dirt and pine needles didn’t show much of an imprint, but Al’s tracks showed bits of mud.

Penny straightened. “Let’s go up the trail a little way. They may have heard something.”

The trail went up, turned left and dropped down again around a flaking outcrop of stone. A cedar grew on top of it, roots twisting and climbing down the rocks like a nest of snakes. The trail ahead continued generally down slope, heading for the river on the other side of the next ridge.

It was empty. A crow cawed from a treetop nearby and took off flying. Penny looked up too, following the bird. Crows were scavengers, maybe it had seen something from up among the tree tops?

Penny bent and put Dupin down on the ground. “Come on. You can walk, just don’t run off.”

Walk? Why had she assumed he wanted to walk? Being carried was just fine.

She didn’t wait. She started off down the trail at a brisk walk. Dupin blinked, then rose and ran after her. He meowed.

Penny looked back, shaking her head. “You could have stayed in the car. We’ve got to find David.”

He caught up and streaked past her, then slowed and meowed again. Penny neatly side-stepped around him and kept going. Dupin flicked his tail.

This was a bad idea. The farther they went from the crime scene, the less likely they were to be found when the police finally showed up.

That didn’t stop her. She kept going, calling out David’s name now and then. Or maybe just letting the Sasquatch know where they were.

The trail dropped down into a valley until it reached a small wood bridge crossing the stream. Then it turned and rose sharply, switch-backing up the slope to a ridge line, and over that before descending again toward the river.

The roar of the river was louder now and the air smelled wetter. Dupin trotted on after Penny.

“David!” Penny paused listening, then called again. “David!”

A crow cawed again from somewhere among the trees. The river rumbled on. No other voices came out of the woods. It was as if the two men had been swallowed up by the forest.

Dupin’s hair rose. Maybe there was a sasquatch, one that wasn’t opposed to attacking humans. Unlikely, maybe, but their absence put him on alert. He slowed down, ears listening for the slightest sound.

Penny started moving fast again, down the trail, each footfall loud as she charged down the hill.

He raced after her. After all, it wasn’t only the sasquatch he had to worry about. What other predators might be in the woods? He’d seen books on bears, whether or not they’d go after a cat wasn’t clear. Coyotes would, but hopefully, Penny’s yelling would drive off most of the predators.

After a couple switchbacks, Dupin saw the river below, jumping in white rapids down over rocks. It was much more vigorous here than the slow-moving river that passed through town, attracting people to the water in hot weather. Odd creatures.

“David? David!”

Nothing no answer.

Penny slowed her pace and finally stopped. The river continued beneath them, and the trees dripped with water. Dark cedar boughs bent low to the ground and leaned out over the river. The air was cool and damp.

Dupin pressed close to Penny, rubbing against her legs. He meowed, eyeing her messenger bag.

She ignored him, hands on her hips, turning in place as she studied the forest. “Maybe we should go back? Wait for the police?”

He meowed his agreement. She looked down and smiled a small, worried smiled, her forehead creasing.

“I don’t know where they’ve gone. David knew better to run off into the woods with that man. For all we know, he did something to her, and now has David.”

Dupin bumped against her legs again. Her reasoning was sound, although she’d also run off from the crime scene. Going back made sense. Eating more crackers, even more sense.

He turned around her legs and went a few steps back up the trail. Penny lingered, looking down toward the river. Dupin stopped and meowed.

“Just a second, Dupin. I thought I saw something.”

Of course, she did. Dupin meowed again to no effect. Penny was off, heading down the trail to the river.

He ran to catch up, slipping off the trail through the underbrush to cut across the switchback. Wet ferns dragged across his back. It was going to take forever to get clean when they were done.

It didn’t take long before Penny reached the bridge across the river. This wasn’t a rickety wood bridge across a foot-wide stream. The bridge was made of thick metal girders, with a concrete deck and pine needles drifting along the sides. A few weeds grew out of the V shapes where the girders came together.

The whole thing vibrated from the river below. Spray drifted across the bridge, leaving the concrete damp.

Dupin stopped at the edge of the bridge. He didn’t have any interest in going out on it. Penny didn’t hesitate.

She stopped halfway out, clutching the side of the railing. “David!”

This time it wasn’t a call, but a scream that set Dupin’s hair on edge. He growled, still not sure what she was screaming about. She was moving, running his way, back off the bridge.

Dupin scurried out of the way and looked downstream.

A man lay face-down beside the river, his black coat dragging in the water. David. The other man was there, Al, but he was running away downstream, splashing and stumbling along the river.

And there was a third person. A woman, naked and pale lying on the rocks next to David.

Penny was picking her way down the steep slope beneath the bridge, following a rough path that led down to the narrow, rocky beach.

It wasn’t safe. He followed her to the top of the trail and balked. He meowed.

Penny looked up, her eyes wide and wet. She held out a palm toward him. “Stay! Stay there!”

Turning away, she scrambled down the last few feet, splashed through a small pool, and ran to David’s side.

Dupin sat down. He didn’t really want to go down there anyway, that close to the raging river? What if he somehow fell in? Aside from the getting wet, he’d get washed downstream.

Al was gone from view, around the bend in the river. Now, if he fell in, it might not be so bad, since apparently he’d had a hand in whatever happened to the woman and to David.

Dupin licked at his foreleg, cleaning away the dust and pine needles stuck to his fur. Every few licks he looked up to see what Penny was doing.

She reached David. Dupin paused long enough to see David stir and push himself up. So he was alive? That was good, at least for Penny. Dupin went back to cleaning.

The other police would arrive soon, and then they’d take over all of this. He switched paws. After this, the picnic was most likely canceled, which meant going home. Then, maybe Penny would remember to feed him and after that he could spend the afternoon sleeping on the window seat.

David got to his feet and stopped Penny from going to the woman. He shook his head. Their voices floated up, indistinct against the roar of the river. At one point Penny pointed downstream, obviously indicating which way the culprit had gone. David started that way, and she grabbed him, holding him back.

A few more words and David looked up the path, his eyes locking on Dupin. Blood ran down from his dark hair. Dupin looked away, focusing on cleaning his paws again, starting to groom his face as well.

🔍

When the other police came stomping up the trail, Dupin slipped beneath the ferns along the river bank and watched from his hiding place.

Penny and David were still down the steep slope, watching the body of the woman. She had to be dead, and David had refused to leave her. Probably concerned that scavengers would get her. A crow cawed from the branches above the river, one of three or four that fluttered from tree to tree above.

The police came in great numbers, wearing uniforms and not, along with rescue personnel in bright vests. Everyone became very excited when David and Penny called out.

Ropes were thrown down, and the two of them helped out of the river gorge. Two emergency medical techs immediately went to work on both, covering them in blankets, checking David’s head wound.

“I’m fine,” Penny said. “I didn’t fall or anything.”

While the EMTs worked, police officers listened to Penny and David’s statements.

“The suspect is Albert Payne, late twenties,” David said, wincing as the EMTs worked on his head. He went on to finish describing Al to the policeman taking notes, and several others listening.

“He ran off downstream,” David concluded a minute later. “We need to find him and bring him in.”

“We’re on that now,” the other policeman said. “We’ve got people out there to intercept him. Did he assault you?”

“I don’t remember,” David repeated. “Like I said, we followed the trail through the woods, until we came back to the trail. When we got to the bridge, we saw the body. The last thing I remember was climbing down the bank. The suspect was behind me, but I might have slipped, I don’t know.”

“Take it easy,” the EMT said. “You’ve at least got a mild concussion. You really should have that looked at in the hospital.”

“I’m fine,” David insisted. “I was first on the scene. I want to finish this.”

It was easy to see why Penny liked the detective. Hearing louder voices, Dupin turned his head to see what was going on.

A group of people from the coroner’s office approached the edge of the drop-off, and the steep path down the bank. Dupin shrank back further under the fern. Unfortunately, the movement caught the eye of the man in front.

He was a big man, with white hair and a face more wrinkled than a Shar Pei. He was wearing a dark blue rain jacket with the word CORONER across the front, hanging open to accommodate his ample belly. He tapped the shoulder of the younger man with him.

“There’s a cat here!”

Penny pushed through the crowd of police and other personnel on the bridge. “He’s with me.”

The man looked at her, grinning. “You brought your cat to a crime scene?”

“We weren’t planning on finding a crime scene,” Penny said. “The plan was a picnic.”

Dupin rose and stretched his legs out, sinking them into the loose ground while he yawned.

“He’s a big one,” the man said. “My late wife used to keep cats.”

“His name is C. Auguste Dupin,” Penny said. “He’s very smart.”

Dupin settled back. Obviously, he wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting dragged into all of this.

“That’s a great name for a cat,” the man said. He offered his hand. “Ethan George, coroner.”

Penny shook the man’s hand, smiling. “Penny Copper, librarian.”

Ethan laughed. “Pleasure to meet you. Maybe you’ll give me luck getting down this bank!”

Dupin closed his eyes as they laughed.

Then Ethan was calling to the officers milling around, to hold ropes and help him get down the bank without breaking his neck. A jovial fellow, but ill-equipped for climbing up and down steep paths strewn with loose rock. As the big man descended, Dupin rose and wandered over near the edge, sitting next to Penny’s legs, to watch.

David came over to stand beside Penny on the other side. “You’re free to go, they’ll ask if you need to update your statements later.”

Penny was looking past the coroner making his laborious descent, to the body beside the river. “That poor girl. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t believe that a sasquatch carried her off, if that’s what you mean?” David said.

“No, but why would he make up such a story?”

“He’s trying to create reasonable doubt. Next, he’ll say that he didn’t actually see what it was, maybe it could have been a bear.”

“I haven’t heard of bears dragging off a grown woman,” Penny said.

“Maybe not, but he’ll play the grieving victim and claim we’re trying to blame him. If he sows enough doubt with the jury, who knows?”

Dupin listened to the conversation with interest. Penny enjoyed watching shows on television that dealt with these sorts of situations. They were much more enjoyable in a warm house, with a belly full of food than sitting out in the dank forest.

Around them, the police and other humans were briskly getting on with the search for the fugitive, while down below the coroner and his assistants dealt with the body. Dupin watched them move around, carefully noting evidence found. All of it would later feed into the case.

Fascinating on television. Less interesting under these conditions. He bumped against Penny’s leg and meowed.

She said, “I think Dupin is telling us he’d rather go home. Poor kitty hasn’t had his lunch.”

She touched David’s arm. “And you took a blow to the head, you probably shouldn’t be out here either.”

He touched her side. “You should go. This isn’t exactly a place for a civilian or a cat. I’m fine. Really. Unless I start having concussions —”

Penny swatted at him the way Dupin batted at his cat toys.

“Hey! No hitting the injured man.”

Penny stopped. Obviously some sort of human courtship ritual. Dupin closed his eyes rather than watch more.

“We can stay,” Penny said. “Right Dupin?”

Of course. Because it was so much fun starving in the wilderness with either a sasquatch or a potential murderer running around loose in the woods.

Down by the river, Ethan directed the others to load the body into a slick black bag.

Hands touched Dupin’s sides. He started and relaxed as he smelled Penny’s familiar clean scent. She scooped him up, tucking him up in one arm. With the other, she reached around into her messenger back and he perked up.

Penny brought her fist out of the bag and her long fingers unfurled, revealing two sardine crackers on her palm! She held her hand flat in front of his head.

“Since you’ve been so well-behaved,” she said.

Dupin inhaled the rich odor and carefully picked one of the crackers up from her palm. It crunched very satisfactorily between his teeth, the rich fishy taste flooding his mouth. Crumbs fell on her palm. He licked them up, his tongue rasping across her salty smooth skin. Bare skin, one of the odder things about humans.

The second cracker disappeared as quickly as the first. When he was done, Penny stroked his head.

“What do we do now?”

David pointed down the slope where the coroners were beginning to hoist the body up from the river. “I want to find out a preliminary cause of death, look at anything else they found. Hopefully, someone will catch up with Al Payne before he gets far.”

“He can’t get too far going down the river, it’s too rugged.”

“He might fall in and drown,” David said.

If no one was going to leave until they caught the man responsible, then it only made sense to help them. Dupin squirmed in Penny’s arms and she responded by setting him gently on the ground.

He shook himself, then sat and started cleaning his paws again, while he considered the facts in the case.

The woman, Mary, was dead, cause yet to be determined even though it looked more and more like murder.

Her fiancé, Al Payne, claimed that a sasquatch had carried her off. When David discovered the body, Mr. Payne had either assaulted the detective, or not. In any case, he had run off when Penny arrived.

Fleeing didn’t necessarily imply guilt. Dupin knew better. Sometimes fleeing was entirely appropriate.

The quickest way to verify Mr. Payne’s story, then, was to determine if there was something, or someone, else out in the woods beside those present. Either other potential witnesses, or assailants. With big feet or not.

Dupin stopped cleaning and stood. The coroner, Ethan George was huffing and puffing, as several police officers and rescue personnel heaved on the ropes to help him up the trail. He reached the top with a red face and sweat dripping down his brow.

David extended his hand, and helped the coroner up the last step.

“Thank you, I don’t want to do that every day!” Ethan squinted up at the bandage on David’s head. “You’re the one that found her? You were down there too?”

“I was,” David said. “Any thoughts about it? Do you know what killed her?”

Ethan grunted. “I think the broken neck may have had something to do with it.”

Dupin looked over at the steep drop.

“A fall?”

Ethan’s shoulders shrugged in slow big rolls. “Hard to say until I get a better look. She’d been in the water and her clothes were gone. She might have drowned and the break came later.”

Ethan’s shuffled his feet closer to the detective. “Is it true, what they’re saying? The man with her claimed Bigfoot did it?”

“We don’t need to spread that right now,” David said.

Ethan waved a hand. “I’m not telling anyone! I just don’t believe it. Bigfoot is a gentle creature. I ever tell you about the one I saw when I was younger?”

David shook his head and patted Ethan’s arm. “No, and first chance I get, I want to hear it. Right now we need to get after this suspect.”

“Of course, of course. Stop by later and maybe I’ll have more about the cause of death for you.”

“Thank you.”

As David turned back to Penny, and the coroner huffed and walked off escorting the body, Dupin slipped away through the remaining personnel. A lot had left, off to search downstream for the suspect.

No one was going upstream. Yet, if the body went into the water upstream and washed up down here, there might be more evidence. And the falls were upstream, that’s where Penny and David had planned on having their picnic.

He walked to the end of the bridge and sat down, looking back through the crowd at Penny. She was still talking to David. Then she looked down, checked the other side and turned. Now she realized Dupin had left her side.

As soon as her eyes met his, Dupin rose and walked on up the path.

If she caught him, she might carry him back to the car, so Dupin moved at a fast trot on up the trail. All of his keen senses alert to the sounds in the woods. The chatter of the people on the bridge fell away. A finch flitted away through the undergrowth. He tensed, then moved on.

No time to chase birds right now.

So far everything had carried him farther from lunch. Sooner or later the police would catch up with Al Payne. Maybe he was guilty, maybe not.

Penny’s footsteps sounded loud on the path behind him. There was another pair too. He glanced back, and as expected, both Penny and David were following at a fast walk.

“Dupin! Come here!”

He almost did. His stride slowed and then he darted up the slope, slipping beneath the damp ferns off the trail, up to the next switchback. It was steeper going straight up, but shorter.

“Dupin!”

At the trail, he looked back again. Penny and David were running now, with difficulty, up the slope, around the switchback. Running uphill was harder on them. He hurried on up the trail.

David said something, the words indistinct. Dupin ignored them and continued up. It made sense that Al Payne and his fiancé would have gone to the falls. Maybe she fell there. Her clothes might be there.

He cut across the next switchback, slipping under and around a cedar tree growing out of the decaying trunk of an older tree. An orange, sour-smelling, salamander slipped away through the decaying bark beneath the trunk.

It didn’t take long to get upstream to the falls. Dupin pushed out of the underbrush onto the last bit of trail. His fur was wet, with pine needles and other debris stuck to it. He was a mess.

And there was something bright green on the edge of the trail, near the bridge.

Dupin kept an eye out for any sasquatch lurking nearby and walked slowly near the bridge. The roar of the water beneath drowned out other noises. There was a flat area off to the side of path, clear of undergrowth, with three picnic tables. A log fence ran along the drop off to the river beneath.

The bridge itself was built of big riveted girders and a concrete deck slick with spray from the falls. It was right near the bridge, on the right side of the trail, where the green whatever it was, was hung up on the bushes just past another log fence.

A woman’s dress, Dupin saw when he got closer. Torn, caught on the branches past the fence.

“Dupin!”

He looked back. Penny, breathing hard, was coming up the trail with David behind.

“Why’d you run off?” Penny asked, approaching slowly. She held her hand out, holding a sardine cracker.

That was more like it. He licked his lips and meowed, but didn’t move closer.

Penny came forward several steps, and that’s when David said, “What’s that?”

Finally! Dupin rose and walked to Penny while David went over to the dress.

David didn’t touch it, looking at it, and then calling to the other police on a walkie-talkie he must have borrowed.

Dupin didn’t care about that. He’d found the clue, and he wanted his reward. Penny crouched and held out the cracker.

He sniffed deeply. Delicious. Wonderful! There was a reason that Penny’s Auntie Dido was one of his favorite humans, and it wasn’t her yippy dog Patches.

With her other hand, Penny scratched his head. “Good kitty! Is it her dress, David?”

“Looks like. They’ll send a team up to get photos, and pick it up.” David came back and stood above them.

Dupin ignored the detective as he bit into the cracker.

It was gone too soon, leaving only the lingering taste. He licked his lips and moved away from Penny, studying the area. The dress was there.

“I guess he wanted his picnic by the falls,” David said.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Penny said.

Dupin ignored them both, listening carefully. It was hard to hear anything over the roar of the falls, but he focused on the bridge and the woods beyond. Something made his whiskers tingle. It wasn’t only the vibration of the falls.

It felt like someone watching him.

His whiskers drew back. He slipped away from Penny and David, and moved quickly to the end of the left side of the bridge and crouched beside the thick steel girder.

The fury of the waterfalls below vibrated up through the concrete into his paws.

“What’s he doing now?” David asked.

Small rocks crunched as the humans came closer.

“I don’t know,” Penny said. “He’s been acting spooky since all this started.”

Who wouldn’t, with a potential sasquatch attack? Dupin watched the forest across the bridge. Something had moved, he was sure of it.

Whatever was over there was watching them.

The sensible thing to do, the smart thing, was to turn and head down the trail. Get all the way back down, to where the cops waited, and then keep going until he got to the car.

Penny reached for him. He felt her hands brush his fur and he slipped forward, out onto the bridge.

“Dupin,” Penny said. “Don’t run off again!”

A branch cracked ahead in the woods. A dark shape moved behind a large stump. Dupin broke into a run. He raced across the bridge onto the trail on the other side.

There was another picnic area, this one on the right side of the trail, but the movement came from the left, up the slope. Dupin slowed, watching intently.

There. A brown furry shape rose and slipped behind another tree. It was big. Sasquatch? Dupin’s ears flicked back. He growled a warning at whatever was up the trail.

“There’s something up there,” David said as both he and Penny came up behind Dupin. “He sees something.”

Dupin growled another warning as the shape moved. Penny gasped.

A creak of leather, a snap, and Dupin looked up to see David holding a gun, pointed at whatever was up the slope.

“Come on out now! Hands in the air where I can see them!”

Would a sasquatch follow orders? This one moved, obviously trying to keep trees between it and David.

Dupin slipped away from the detective, and angled around up the trail. He left the trail and moved beneath the ferns.

“Dupin?” Penny called softly.

Dupin ignored her. Whatever it was, David didn’t have a clear shot, and it was trying to climb higher, using the brush and trees as cover. It was noisier now, crashing through brush.

“Stop right there!” David said.

Bigfoot wasn’t listening.

Running now, Dupin gained ground and got farther up slope from the beast. It’d all be worth it, if they could leave and go home!

He jumped up on a fallen tree trunk above where the sasquatch crawled through the bushes. It hadn’t seen him yet. The fur was dark brown and long. It scrambled ungainly at the slope, trying to climb higher, its head down.

It slipped and fell face first against the slope.

“Damn it!” The sasquatch said.

A sasquatch was unlikely. A sasquatch that swore in English? Very improbable. Dupin waited until it was almost upon him. Metal glinted through the fur along its back. A zipper?

This wasn’t a sasquatch, it was a man in a costume!

Dupin growled and hissed at the man.

“Oh hell!” The man stood, lost his balance and stumbled back, hairy costumed arms waving.

Dupin’s ears laid back and he growled again at the fanged, rubbery face.

“Freeze! Poeville police! Stop right now!” David’s voice carried clearly through the air.

The sasquatch’s shoulders slumped, but he raised his hands in the air.

David had moved up the trail. He was closer now, with a clear shot of the man. Dupin settled back, still watching the man carefully, but it looked like something the detective could handle.

“Take off the mask, slowly.”

The man did as he was told, revealing a disappointingly normal human face. His face was round, with reddish cheeks and blond hair. He tossed he mask to the ground. Tears filled his blue eyes.

“It was an accident, I swear!” He sniffled. “I loved Mary! We were just trying to scare away Al.”

“Slowly turn around,” David said. “What’s your name?”

The man turned to face David, arms still up. Dupin rose and walked along the tree trunk. Penny had come up the slope and stood behind David with her arms tightly crossed.

“John Harper. You have to believe me. It was all an accident! Al, he’s obsessive. He kept going on about how they were going to get married, and wouldn’t listen when Mary said she wasn’t ready to get married. She tried to break it off, and he wouldn’t listen.”

“So you decided to dress up like Bigfoot?” David asked.

John nodded. Dupin sneezed from fern spores and jumped off the tree trunk, picking his way among the bushes to rejoin Penny.

The suspect just kept talking.

“Yes. I mean, it was Mary’s idea. Al believes in that sort of thing. And UFOs, ghosts, whatever. It was a prank.” John moaned. “No one was supposed to get hurt! I was going to carry her off, scaring Al away. She thought the next time he might get the message.”

“So what happened?”

John lowered his arms.

“Hands up!” David snapped.

Penny bent and scooped Dupin up. He settled back in her arms, content for the moment, and watched.

John’s hands shot up. His voice shook and turned blubbery. “After I carried her off, Al ran away screaming. We came up the trail. We were playing around by the falls and she fell, that’s all. She was there, and then she wasn’t! I couldn’t believe it. I ran down the trail, I tried to find a way to get to her, but I could see she was dead already. And then I heard voices. Al’s and others.”

His voice broke for a second. He wiped his nose with a hairy hand. “I freaked out. I ran up here and hid. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have hurt her for anything. You have to believe me.”

“I’ve got to take you in,” David said. “You’ll have a chance to explain what happened. Okay?”

John’s bottom lip stuck out. He nodded, tears streaming down his face.

Humans made things complex. Dupin purred against Penny’s chest. At least now they could finally go home and eat!

🔍

Evening sunlight streamed through the window onto the window seat at home. Dupin lay stretched out full length, muscles sore from all the running and climbing, but his belly was comfortably full for now.

Penny’s phone rang.

He opened one eye, watching her pick it up. “Yes? Oh, they picked him up too? Did you hear back from the coroner? A fall, so Harper was telling the truth?”

She was quiet for a while.

Dupin closed his eye. Of course the man was telling the truth. The police would run around and confirm their stories, talk to friends and family.

In the end nothing would change the fact that the poor woman was dead. Some people would refuse to accept the facts of the case.

There’d probably even be those that still believed a sasquatch was out in the woods. Dupin stretched out sore legs, too tired to even clean his fur again. Who knew? Maybe there was. He wasn’t planning on any more picnics to find out.

🔍

8,386 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 102nd short story release, written in March 2013. This story takes place after the events of The Murders in the Reed Moore Library and my novel The Task of Auntie Dido.

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, Endless Worlds of Sorrow, a story set in the Moreau Society Universe.


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

Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes

Alex lived to take care of his daughter. Ever since his ex-wife left, Erica came first. He didn’t date. Worked and took care of Erica.

It was enough.

At least until Lisa rode her cargo bike up the hill. A gleaming metal figure sat motionless in the cargo bin. Maybe the future held more for him than he imagined.

🚀

It was July 7th, a Sunday evening, when Alex saw her for the first time. She was riding a front-load cargo bike up the hill, with something bright in the bike’s bin.

It was late and hot, and he had gone out onto the porch to sit on the porch swing. He used to do that with Anne back when they were first married and full of plans. Since Anne left, not so much, but Erica was finally asleep and he had thought that the cool air might help with his headache.

The sun still hadn’t set. Alex pressed his fingers against his temple. The vein throbbed beneath his thumb. The dry air stunk of the fireworks that the idiots one street over persisted in setting off, even as the temperature continued to hover in the mid-nineties. With all the parched lawns it was a miracle that they hadn’t already managed to burn down the neighborhood.

At forty-three, Alex Bell was thin and in relatively good shape. At least his doctor always acted thrilled when he came in for his annual physically. Dr. Steinberg almost waxed poetic about having someone in the office that was in decent shape with no allergies, no chronic health conditions, and no addictions. Not counting dark chocolate and a perfect cup of coffee. Both expensive habits, but common enough in Olympia.

His headache spiked like needles the back of his eyes. Stress, that’s all it was. He kicked against the porch rail, setting the swing rocking again. The water in his glass was still cold, though the ice had melted.

The stress came with being a single-parent barely able to scrape together the money for the bills each month. Before Anne got tired of living one month to the next and left him alone with Erica, it had almost seemed manageable. With two incomes, and two sets of hands and eyes to look after Erica, the world was a little less daunting. They couldn’t do anything about global warming or the wheat blight, but going gluten-free wasn’t that big of a deal.

A loud bang rolled across the neighborhood, loud enough to shake the windows. Erica had only just gone to sleep, so help him, if those fucking idiots woke her up—

He’d what? Go over there and beat the crap out of them?

No. He wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t have Erica to think about, he’d never do something like that. Violence didn’t solve anything. There’d been enough of that in the world already. He sipped his water and rocked the swing.

That was the moment when he saw the woman. Movement on the street drew his eye.

His house was on a quiet street on the east side of Olympia. Older homes, but a good neighborhood. The woman rode a red cargo bike, climbing the hill at the end of the street. She stood on the pedals, each push making one slow revolution. In front of her handlebars was a big bright blue cargo bin filled with something metallic. It caught the late sunlight and sent bright bolts stabbing into Alex’s eyes.

He squinted and turned away, shielding his eyes with his fingers. When she’d come a bit closer the glare had shifted and he could see her a bit. She looked young, at least from this distance. She was short and muscular.  Her blond hair was pulled back from a narrow, attractive face. She wore a dull green tank top, wet with sweat down the front where it clung to her chest.

Despite the obvious effort, and it had to be hard to ride that cargo bike up the steep hill, she was smiling. He couldn’t see any sign of an electric assist motor, but it was hard to see with the clutter on her bike. Well, not clutter, but stuff. It wasn’t only whatever metal thing she had in the bin, but there was a rack on the back of the bike covered with bulging bags. Another bag filled the triangle middle of the frame, and another was attached lengthwise across the front of her handlebars. Two big liter bottles of water caught the evening sun as they hung from the front of the bin.

All of that, and a smile. She was magnificent. She wore brown shorts almost the same color as her tanned, powerful legs. Legs that moved smoothly, with a hypnotic rhythm as she rode closer.

She picked up speed, having crested the hill, and continued on down the street. She was obviously going to pass his house. He hadn’t seen her before. He would have remembered.

Alex couldn’t take his eyes off her. She reached the Coldsmith’s next door and looked right at him, catching his eyes.

Her eyes were dark. Green, brown? It was too far for him to tell but she was lovely. Real, without any artifice. Her face was clean and radiant in the evening sun, which also lit up her golden hair like a halo around her head.

He hadn’t gone out, dated, not since Anne left. Between Erica and work, and his freelance design business, what time was there? His parents and friends kept asking if he was dating. They didn’t get it, that he was okay right now. Being between what had happened with Anne, and whatever the future held, that was okay.

The woman’s bike slowed as she rolled in front of his house. He was still looking at her, staring, really. Her smile widened and she lifted a hand.

Alex blinked and slowly lifted his hand in response. She stopped on the side of the street, where his weedy lawn ended in a courtesy garden of tomatoes, carrots, and radishes. The catchment spout on the drip barrel was yellowed with age.

“Hey there,” she called, smiling.

The cargo bike rolled to a stop and she kicked down a thick stand that braced the bike.

Alex’s breath caught in his throat. “Hi! Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”

Still smiling, she lightly bit the end of her index finger and studied him.

Alex stood up, rather than seem rude. Up close she had that indefinable something that made his heart hurt. As if in response, his head cleared.

A loud bang exploded in the air. She jerked around, her eyes widening. “What was that?”

Alex pointed down the street. “Neighbors the next street over, still setting off fireworks.”

She twisted on her seat. “It’s loud.”

“I know. I wish they’d stop.”

“Why?”

Why? “Because my daughter is asleep. I hope it doesn’t wake her up.”

The woman nodded, her smile widened. “We’ll ask them to stop.”

She stretched, kicked the kickstand up and shoved the bike. In the same motion, she rose up on the pedals and pushed. Her muscles rippled with the effort and the cargo bike wobbled only a bit as it started moving.

He was watching her, still trying to process what she had said, when he really looked at the blue cargo bin, and at what she was hauling.

A metal torso, sculpted in smooth lines, sat propped in the cargo bin. One arm lay along the side of the bin, a black rubberized hand gripping the side, and the other hung down into the bin. The head was masculine, with stylized lines and bright yellow glowing eyes that almost looked like they were watching him.

A dummy? Movie prop? Gag? She was pedaling harder, picking up speed and almost past his yard already.

“Wait!” Alex ran out onto the dry lawn, crisp stems cracking beneath his bare feet. “Just a sec!”

She didn’t stop, but she twisted around and looked back at him, and chuckled.

“What?”

He put on more speed. He left the lawn and ran across the cracked concrete driveway as he caught up.

“I’m Alex. Alex Bell.”

She smiled wider. Her eyes turned out to be hazel, and her ears were pierced, but she wasn’t wearing any earrings.

“I’m Lisa Rivers.” She pointed at the mechanical dummy. “That’s Clank.”

Then she pulled away and Alex hit the sharp gravel at the edge of the road. He stopped and watched her until she reached the bend in the street, then he walked back up to the house.

Maybe she said something to the neighbors about the fireworks, or maybe not, either way, he didn’t hear any more that night.

🚀

Alex was still thinking about Lisa Rivers the next day when he was at work. His work group was on the fourth floor of the state’s Natural Resources Building, a victim of the “collaborative environment” phase that stripped out any personal spaces in favor of an open floor plan and mobile stations. You only had to look at the dust to see how often people moved the adjustable workstations, or count the number of stools to see what people thought of working standing up.

He didn’t mind standing. At least some of the time. His work stand was near the big windows that stretched around the building and afforded him a view of Olympia. Right next to him was a work stand occupied by Tim McCleary, a fifty-something bald man with a big gut and a scowl cut into his forehead.  When Tim had heard the news that Anne was leaving Alex, Tim’s response was, “It took her this long? I thought she left last year.”

Today Tim was wearing his typical loose hemp shirt and pants, sort of a dirty cream color, and huaraches on his feet decorated with beads. He looked like he was on his way to a yoga class, except the only stretching Tim ever did was filling his gut while getting stoned.

Despite Tim’s less appealing characteristics, he was the closest thing to a friend that Alex had at work.

“I met a woman last night,” Alex ventured. He pictured Lisa’s strong legs pedaling the heavy bike along the street.

Tim grunted and didn’t look away from his tablet. “You bang her?”

“No! Really? That’s your response?”

Tim shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I meet people all the time. Just this morning I met a woman asking for money to ride the bus. I wasn’t going to mention it, but if we’re talking about meeting people, why the hell not?”

“When someone says they met someone, it usually means that they meant someone they were interested in.” And he was. That was a surprise on its own.

“Duh, that’s why I asked if you banged her. I don’t see why you’re making this complicated.” Tim turned. He had little eyes and squinted a lot. “So you didn’t bang her, but you wanted to bang her, is that it?”

“Never mind.” Alex turned back to his tablet, gritting his teeth.

Tim laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Tell me about her. Last I heard you didn’t think getting involved with someone would be good for Erica. This woman must have been something if you’re thinking about it.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it. I just keep thinking about her.”

“And?” Tim cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Was she?”

Alex’s tongue froze in his mouth. He couldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “You’re terrible.”

“I’m trying to get a mental image here.”

Alex remembered how her shirt had clung to her chest, wet with sweat. She was busty, especially given her height. Not that he’d say that to Tim. “She was fine, nice. And strong. She was riding a cargo bike up the hill, and passed my house.”

“A cargo bike?” Tim rolled his eyes. “Like with a box or something? What sort of junk was she hauling?”

“I don’t know, really. It was one of those bikes with a big box in front of the handlebars. Blue, in this case. And she had bags on the back and frame. She had this sort of robot mannequin thing in the cargo box.”

Clank, she had called it, he remembered. After she said that she’d talk to the guys setting off the fireworks.

Tom shook his head. “Man, she sounds like one of those Earth Nomads, those weird zero-carbon eco-nuts. You’d better stay away from her.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Come on. How many women do you know that would have been out there riding something like that, with a robot dummy? Would Anne have done that?”

Alex laughed. There was no way that Anne would have ridden a cargo bike. Her idea of being ecologically responsible was paying her carbon tax. That was always her problem, that even with both of them working, they didn’t make enough to have the lifestyle she wanted.

“Look, I know you haven’t been getting any since before Anne dumped you.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m telling you the way it is. You haven’t, not that I and others haven’t tried to set you up. I think it’s fantastic that you thought this weirdo chick was hot. So bang her. It’ll be good for you, and then move on.”

Alex flicked through the reports on his screen without studying them. “I don’t even know how to contact her. I probably won’t see her again.”

Tim shrugged. “No loss then. Pat yourself on the back, stroke off thinking about her, whatever floats your boat. If you’re noticing women, it’s a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re ready to start dating. We should go out sometime, pick up some dates. My sister can watch Erica for you.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Alex said. “Thanks anyway.”

“Whatever. Let me know when you change your mind. Now can we get back to work?”

“Sure,” Alex said.

Although when he flipped back to the beginning of the report, he  was still thinking about Lisa riding up the street on that cargo bike.

🚀

Alex had his head in the car, reaching into the back seat for Erica’s bag, when she yelled. They’d just gotten home after he had picked her up from day care.

“Daddy! Come look!” Her tone perfectly matched Anne’s impatient tone, except pitched higher.

He straightened up and pulled the bag out. It was light-weight and covered in pink ink splotches like someone had spilled ink all over the bag. It shimmered with embedded photovoltaic scales which powered whatever electronics were carried inside. In Erica’s case that was both a tablet and her phone. Anne had insisted that she have both when many kids got by with a plain school phone.

“What, honey?”

Erica was seven and beautiful. If he looked at her objectively, he’d still say the same thing. She had a modern sense of style already and in addition to her mother’s mannerisms, she had Anne’s bright red hair. Hair which was currently trapped beneath a bright green sun-hat. Erica was pointing toward the hill.

Sunlight splashed across metal as the red and blue cargo bike crawled up to the crest of the hill. Even in the glare Alex recognized Lisa’s silhouette. He shut the door, and walked around the car.

“That’s a cool bike, isn’t it?”

Erica rolled her eyes as she looked up at him from beneath the wide brim of her hat, but she was smiling. Her freckles were dark against her pale skin.

“Cool? How retro.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“It’s completely shiny,” Erica announced. “I want one.”

He had no idea what a bike like that went for, whatever it was it was more than he could afford right now.

“When I get my Moon buggy.” Which is what he always said when they couldn’t afford something.

Erica grinned. “They wouldn’t let you drive a Moon buggy.”

Alex put a hand to his heart, wincing in pretend agony. Lisa was getting closer, and Erica wasn’t showing any interest in going inside. As Lisa’s bike approached the Coldsmith’s, Erica skipped forward to the edge of their courtesy garden. She picked her way through the stone path beside the little library, and stopped at the edge of the street.

He followed Erica. What should he say?

The whole day at work he had kept picturing Lisa until he convinced himself that he had to be making up most of it. Seeing her again, it was clear he hadn’t made it up. She looked the same. She was even dressed the same.

But Clank had moved. The robot dummy now sat in the bin facing forward, with a hand on each side of the box. Lisa smiled and waved cheerfully.

Alex lifted a hand in greeting. Erica turned around, saw him wave and looked quickly back at Lisa. As fast as the sun dried up puddles, her smile faded. She crossed her arms and faced Lisa.

“Hi Alex,” Lisa called.

“Hi.”

Lisa brought her bike to a stop and kicked down the kickstand. She leaned forward on her handlebars, which caused her green shirt to gape and reveal even more of her ample cleavage.

“You know my Dad?” Erica asked flatly.

Alex put a hand on Erica’s shoulder. “This is my daughter, Erica. Erica, this is Lisa Rivers. We met yesterday when she rode past.”

Lisa straightened up, smiling. “Erica, nice to meet you. Did the fireworks bother you last night?”

“Fireworks?”

“The people the next street over were setting them off after you went to bed last night,” Alex said. “Lisa was going to ask them to give it a break.”

Lisa waved her hand. “They had almost finished anyway. Clank convinced them to listen.”

“Clank?” Erica asked.

Alex looked at the robotic dummy. Its head was staring straight down the road.

Lisa leaned forward and lightly stroked the robot’s metal cheek. “This is Clank.”

The metal head turned toward Lisa’s hand, pressing against her palm like a dog seeking attention.

Erica shrieked. Alex pulled her back closer to him.

Lisa looked up, grinning. “Don’t be scared. Clank isn’t going to hurt you.”

Erica moved a small step away from Alex. “It’s a puppet?”

Clank shook its head.

Erica gasped. “It heard me!”

“Of course,” Lisa said. “Clank is an android.”

Clank lifted a hand and waved.

It was amusing. A good show. Obviously, Lisa had programmed the robot with some rudimentary functionality. The cart probably carried its batteries and electronics. She must do street shows. One of the many entertainers that moved around the city.

“That’s clever,” Alex said.

Erica laughed. She took another step forward. “What can it do?”

Clank turned his head away. He brought his arms in and crossed them, hunching away in the cargo bin.

Now that was impressive.

“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Clank turned his head slightly, yellow eyes dull.

“Really,” Erica insisted. “You’re completely shiny.”

Clank’s eyes lit up, growing brighter as he straightened up in the bin.

Clank bent forward, rummaging in the bottom of the bin. His movements disturbingly human-like and fluid. Despite his name, he didn’t clank or clatter. His movements were silent. Was it possible that there was actually someone inside the android? That this was nothing more than a costume?

Sunlight flashed off Clank as he straightened up. He was holding three bright chrome balls in his black hands. Lisa settled back on her seat, grinning, and crossed her arms. If she was doing anything to control the android, Alex couldn’t see it.

Clank tossed the spheres up into the air and began to juggle. The balls made a soft patter as they landed. The chrome spheres spun around and around, the pattern shifted, reversed and then one of the spheres bounced back and forth over the others.

He wasn’t done yet. Clank’s arms crossed and uncrossed, weaving a different pattern with the balls. Then two of the balls were in one hand and Clank moved his fingers, causing the balls to rotate around in his hand.

At last, he stopped, and dropped the balls into the bottom of the bin and bowed at the waist.

Erica clapped and laughed. When Clank straightened up his eyes were glowing brightly.

It was the first time that Alex had seen Erica laugh since Anne left. For a second she wasn’t a closed off young woman, but the bright and open girl that she had been until Anne left.

Alex wanted to say something, invite Lisa to have coffee, something, except Erica was right there. And the android. He still couldn’t shake the feeling of intelligence behind Clank’s glowing eyes. Was it real? Or someone in a costume. Both answers would be disturbing.

“Thank you,” Lisa said into the silence. “We appreciate it. We do shows down on the landing. You should come see some time.”

“Maybe we’ll get a chance to do that,” Alex said.

He tore his gaze away from Clank’s unyielding stare. Lisa was smiling.

Lisa looked away from him to Erica. “It was nice meeting you, Erica. We’ll see you around.”

Then Lisa shoved the cargo bike into motion, kicking up the stand, and Clank’s head swiveled around, looking forward.

Alex watched her muscular legs, shiny with a film of sweat, pumping on the pedals as the bike picked up speed.

“Uh, Dad?”

He blinked and looked down at Erica. She smirked.

“Staring won’t take a picture.”

She pushed past him and headed for the house before he could respond. Her shoulders were pinched inward and she walked fast. Pissed off. Because she caught him looking at Lisa?

Alex swung her bag in his hand and followed. He’d give her space. Let her bring it up if she wanted. If he did start dating again, it was going to impact her too. He had to consider that.

🚀

The next day, at lunch time, he slipped his tablet into his bag and said to Tim, “I’m heading out for lunch.”

Tim rocked back on his stool. “Whoa. You’re going out? What happened to brown bag lunch man?”

“Just thought I’d get out for a change. No big deal.” He wasn’t going to say it was so he could find Lisa on the landing and get a chance to really talk to her.

“Whatever,” Tim said.

Downstairs, Alex walked out of the building. Hot air washed over his body, engulfed him, and drove out the air-conditioned chill. There was a thirty-degree difference between inside and out. Heat shimmered on the roads and sidewalks, creating phantom mirages that evaporated as he got closer.

Even with the heat, there were people walking outside. Only a few at first, but as he moved closer to downtown there were more people. Most wore loose, light UV-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Sunglasses turned their eyes dark. He was dressed much the same, one of the many walking along the sidewalk. while cars and bikes sped along the roads. The crowd smelled of sunscreens and oils. The whole mass of humanity slowly frying beneath the hot sun.

Ten minutes after Alex left work he was down at the landing, walking along the crowded boardwalk along the harbor. The air was thick with salt and the rich odors of food vendors. Seagulls screamed and fought over scraps with crows. Street musicians filled the air with music.

With all of the hats and sunglasses, most of the crowd was faceless and anonymous, but Lisa wouldn’t be. The last times he had seen her she was dressed in shorts and a tank-top. One of those brave or foolish enough to show that much exposed skin. Between that, her big red and blue cargo bike, and Clank, she had to stand out.

Even so, he almost missed her. A crowd had gathered, watching her performance with Clank. It was sunlight sparking off Clank that caught his eye and drew him to the crowd gathered on the park’s dry lawn.

Alex made his way through the crowd. As he got to the front, he pulled off his shades.

Lisa and Clank were dancing. Not a waltz, but a fast, synchronized dance routine. Out of the cargo bin, Clank stood taller than Alex. The android was much taller than Lisa. The music came from a guitarist nearby. He was young, with long blond hair and what looked like a brown leather jacket. It couldn’t be, not in this heat, unless it had one of those internal cooling systems. He played a classic old rock song. Alex recognized the music, but couldn’t place it.

Watching Lisa move was mesmerizing. She threw herself about in wild, athletic movements, and each was mirrored by Clank. Despite his size, the android matched her step for step, but he didn’t copy her. In fact, they alternated who led and who followed. Back and forth they spun.

The crowd started clapping to the beat.

Lisa spun to Clank and he caught her hand, spun her around and then picked her up. He threw her up spinning into the air as easily as he had tossed the metal spheres yesterday.

Lisa came down and Clank caught her, lowering her gently to the ground as the guitarist ended the song. The crowd cheered and clapped as she spun away from Clank. They were still holding hands and bowed together. Then Lisa stepped away and pointed to the guitarist and clapped. The crowd joined in.

With the performance over, the crowd started to disperse, although quite a few people moved forward to toss money into the cargo bike’s bin, and the guitarist’s open case. Quite a few people wanted to talk to Lisa and gathered around Clank admiring him while he stood tall and aloof above the attention.

If there was someone inside that metal shell, he had to be roasting alive. Alex hung back from the crowd and watched. Lisa was polite and friendly to everyone, laughing openly with her admirers, but there was a reserve there. She held back from them just a bit and Clank stood solidly nearby like a tall metallic guardian. Once or twice he caught her looking past her fans at him. Their eyes would meet and there was that connection again between them.

Eventually, she broke free from her fans as they dispersed and she came over to where he stood. She grinned and looked up at him. She touched his arm.

“Hey Alex. You came by, what’d you think of the show?”

Her fingers played with his.

“It was fantastic. You were amazing. And Clank, incredible.”

The android was as still as a statue. Its gaze aimed at the boats out on the water.

Alex lowered his voice. “Is he really an android? I mean, there isn’t some guy roasting in that, is there?”

Lisa laughed. She leaned into his arm, smelling of sun-warmed coconut. “He’s real and has his own built-in AC.”

“Are you hungry?” Alex said. “Want to grab lunch?”

She gazed up at him. “I’d love to, really. But we’ve got more shows to do. Rain check?”

“If we wait for rain, that could be a while. If you’re coming by my place later, you could stop for dinner and something cold to drink.”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you came. I was hoping you would.”

Lisa released him and stepped back with a big smile on her face.

“Okay,” Alex said. He couldn’t help but match her smile.

He kept smiling the whole way back to work.

🚀

For the longest time, Alex had been going through the motions without really knowing what else to do. Go to work, take care of Erica. That was it. He was on the porch swing, kicking softly against the porch.

Erica dropped down into the seat beside him. She crossed her arms and pushed hard against the porch, rocking the swing back faster.

“Why is she coming here?” She kicked again.

“Because I like her,” Alex said. “I thought you did too.”

Erica shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“It’ll be nice to have company for dinner.”

“We never have company.” Another hard kick.

“Maybe we should.”

The swing rocked back and forth.

“Is the android coming too?”

He hadn’t really considered it. “I guess. Is that okay?”

“He was completely shiny,” Erica said. “You saw them dance?”

“Yes. They were good.”

“Would he dance with me?”

“I don’t know. We might find out. If we have them over. That’s the point, to get to know Lisa. You might like her.”

“She’s pretty.” Erica looked up at him. Her mouth quirked. “Weird, but pretty. I think she might like you more than Mom did.”

“You’re okay with that?”

“Sure.” Erica’s arm shot out. “Look! Here they come!”

She was right. Lisa’s bike crested the hill. As she got closer she waved and Alex lifted his hand in response. Clank raised his own hand and waved it back and forth too.

Erica laughed.

Alex put his arm around her as he stood and they walked out together to meet Lisa and Clank. They were moving forward again, into a completely shiny future.

🚀

4,830 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 101st short story release, written in July 2013.

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


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

Daily Thoughts 175: Supporting Libraries

Lately, I’ve focused on one of my library-related projects. It’s actually serving two purposes. On the one hand, I’m using the opportunity to improve my knowledge in skills in designing and creating a website using Dreamweaver. Though I’ve taken several classes that have dealt with websites, I haven’t made that much use of Dreamweaver. I’m enjoying that, using courses from Lynda.com for my guide. Tackling this project is helping me develop and improve skills that I plan to use in other projects.

Buy and Donate

I have a couple different ideas that I plan to implement with this project. The first is a “Buy and Donate” option. Initially, through the website. Later on, I’d add an app and browser extensions (all of which helps me with other projects). This will all be free, of course. I am considering using affiliate links to help with hosting costs.

The basic concept of “Buy and Donate” is that users who don’t want to wait for books and can afford to buy them will be able to order copies of a book and donate it to the library when they’re done reading. The added feature the site brings is in printing both a receipt to include in the book when it is donated to the library and a way to track donations for tax purposes.

Stacy buys the latest Patterson, reads it once over the weekend, and then drops it off at her local library with a slip explaining that it is a donation. The slip also has a link where the library can see data on how many books are provided via the program.

Data, Visualizations, Requests, Sharing

Users can view data and visualizations about their own donations, as well as print receipts—but libraries also benefit.

Anyone can select a library and view what items have been purchased for potential donation, items received by the library (if the library scans the donation slip with the book), and other visualizations of what the community has donated to the library like recently donated, most donated, etc. Librarians or users can post requests for their library, e.g., Joe wants copies of the Seal Team Seven series donated. The requests also make it possible for libraries to share amongst themselves, say if one has extra copies of a particular title and another has something else, they can offer those extra copies.

Timeline?

When will it be done? Never. That is, I’ll keep working on it but I imagine it will always be a process of iterating and improving!


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

Daily Thoughts 174: Tackling Overload

I have too much to do. I hear people say this frequently. Sometimes I’m the one saying it. Sometimes someone else says it. It comes up at work. There aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s another phrase uttered with some frequency. The phrase varies, while the sentiment remains. It has powered industries around time management, organization, mindfulness, and every other way to address the perceived scarcity of time.

It is a perception. It is also often shared and passed on from one person to the next. The President of your company wants improved results sooner rather than later. The view runs through the organization as each subsequent supervisor wants results so that they can meet their deadline. It happens in families. When are you going to get that sink fixed? We also do it ourselves by setting our own deadlines. If I’m going to retire at 55, then I need to hurry up and get more done.

Overload

All of this leads to a feeling of overload. We have too much to do. Work, family, and other interests compete for our time. Everything feels unfinished because we never catch up. I’m no exception. The demands on my time continue to multiply.

I don’t worry too much about it anymore. I used to feel much more of a rush. I needed to get everything done right now.

Now I focus on acceptance. I may have many things to do, things I want to do (even as simple as taking a nap), but it doesn’t really matter. I just need to accept what I can do each day and be kind to myself. I have six areas of self-focus that I try to tackle. I don’t get to each every day.

  • Walking. I usually do this one, taking a walk first thing to start my day.
  • Meditation. Likewise, I usually spend 15 minutes on this each day and find it useful.
  • Study. I try to learn something each day.
  • Write. Ideally, I write every day but don’t worry if I don’t.
  • Draw. Same as writing. It’s important, but I don’t do it every day.
  • Code. Third in my creative efforts.

Each day I note which of these I’ve done, trying to do as many as I can each day. If I don’t make it one day, then I try the next. It doesn’t encompass everything that I do. These are inwardly focused activities. And I do other things for entertainment or enjoyment. I’ve been watching House of Cards and 11.22.63 recently. I play games. I read a ton of books. Reading happens each day, but it isn’t on the list. It’s impossible to get through the day without reading something.

Ultimately, this short list helps me deal with overload by reminding me to spend some time for my own health and happiness. Anything more and it’d be too long. I also note my sleep, a few comments on the day, and my primary emotion each day. Instead of being overwhelmed, I recognize the successes I’ve had and accept that as a win.


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

Egg Hunt

Emmett struggled to live on Autumn, a vibrant planet done in oranges, golds, yellows, and browns.

Unfortunately humans faced severe challenges with surviving, having not adapted to the environment. The other humans survived in the artificial environment of the TerraSphere.

Engineers modified the native Skreeches, changing their eggs to produce enzymes that allowed humanity to digest local vegetation.

Without those eggs Emmett wouldn’t last. The eggs represented his best hope for survival.

🚀

Second Sun hung low above the golden hills to the South when Emmett pulled open the cabin door and walked out onto the dried sponge wood porch rubbing his eyes. It’d be another hour before First Sun rose but he couldn’t wait that long. The weasels hunted this hour. Wait any longer and there’d be no eggs at all and he fancied an omelet. Scrambled eggs. Hard-boiled. It didn’t matter. He’d eat them any way he could get them. Assuming he beat the weasels to the eggs. He didn’t even like the eggs, but without the eggs, he couldn’t digest most of what his crops produced. Without the eggs, he’d starve. And he’d be damned if he let the weasels get them first.

Of course, the weasels weren’t really weasels, not Terran weasels at least, but convergent evolution made them close enough to be called weasels. If weasels grew to twenty pounds and hunted in packs. Emmett lifted the rifle he held and checked it one more time. Loaded. Spare ammunition clip in his belt. Egg case strapped to his back. Water bladder beneath that. Good enough.

Emmett closed the cabin door and pulled the handle to slide the bar into place just in case any weasels came across the cabin. Curious creatures but not the brightest. He’d never seen a weasel that could push the handle up and slide it back to open the door. All the windows were already shuttered. The cabin should be secure while he was out. He walked on out down the steps. Dirt puffed up around his feet and he smelled that ginger scent that came from the microorganisms in the soil. He pulled up his mask and looked out as his land. Right around the cabin was his farmstead. Raised garden beds growing food crops. All oranges, yellows, and reds. Fall colors. Native Autumn plants. Nothing Terran grew on Autumn despite the best genetech attempts. Best they’d been able to do was modify the skreeches to produce eggs full of enzymes that helped humans digest Autumn foods.

He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and turned around to look down the lane that led up towards town. A person ran towards him. Small stature, baseball cap, and an orange hunting vest. Jolene. She’d actually made it. She waved at him. He waited, gun cradled over the crook of his arm.

Jolene came to a stop and bent over, breathing hard through her face mask. “Whew. You haven’t left yet!”

“Heading out now.”

She nodded and straightened up. Her mask covered her mouth and nose but did nothing to hide her smooth tanned skin or gray eyes. “Did you forget that you said I could come along?”

Emmett shook his head. “Nope, but it’s time. I couldn’t wait. If you’re coming, come on.”

He turned and headed out between his garden beds, heading towards the braided fence and the golden fields past his yard. It’d have been better to go without Jolene. But she was right. He did say that she could come along. As Terran biologists went she was better than some. Didn’t try to tell him what to do. He got to the braided fence and climbed over into the field. Snap beetles went off like firecrackers. Each crack of their shells sending them tumbling in small ballistic arcs through the spine grass. Pogo mice, alerted by the snap beetles, twittered as they dived for their burrows.

Jolene climbed over the fence behind him. The first time they’d gone out he’d expected her to say something about the noise and activity that their presence caused, but she hadn’t. She stuck close and didn’t say anything. He appreciated her silence. It helped him hear. Not that he heard anything over the noise but he listened to the pattern of the noise. One large animal moving through the spine grass caused a certain sort of ruckus. Two nearby animals moving caused a different pattern of sound. That’s what he wanted to hear. Anything like a weasel moving off through the spine grass or a skreech. He didn’t expect to find any so close but there were other things to be alert to.

His course took them through the spine grass fields towards the sponge wood groves to the west. He followed the same path he’d taken before to avoid breaking off more of the spines. Spine grass wasn’t really a grass. More of a mossy sort of ground cover that sent up spines that released spores. It took time for the spines to grow back. He kept to the same path to minimize the damage. Jolene stuck right behind him. Not too close, but she didn’t stray.

🚀

They kept going, out past the creek where he’d hung a braided bridge across the gully, all the way up to the sponge wood grove. According to biologists, the trees weren’t trees in the Terran sense, more of a mushroom, but not that either. The whole plant soaked up rainfall and stored it for the dry months when both suns were high in the sky. Dried out and sealed they made a light-weight strong lumber. Living, they looked like giant coral taken from the bottom of a Terran seabed. A two-dimension red-skinned fan that reached up towards the sky, flat edges facing skyward to maximize the area for rain collection.

The grove also happened to be a favored spot for the skreeches to build their communal nest. They’d pick a defensible spot. Something along the ridge with stone to help ward the nest against the weasels. Much of the ground cover in the grove consisted of puff gourds anchored in the trunks of the sponge wood and spreading out like a sickly yellow wedding gown around each tree. Each step sent clouds of spores into the air. Emmett checked his mask. The spores could cause all sorts of respiratory problems if inhaled. Just another one of the hazards in egg collecting. He reached a granite outcrop and stopped for a rest, pulling down his mask so that he could drink. Jolene dropped on a boulder next to him. When she pulled down her mask he saw she was as fine featured as he remembered. Somehow he’d been sure that it’d only been his imagination, but the evidence was clear. She was a beautiful woman. No question about that.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

Emmett shook his head. He pulled the hose around from his water bladder and took a long drink. The water was still cool in the bladder. It chilled his parched throat. He drank deeply.

“How come you live off-grid? Why not move into town?”

“And depend on hydroponics? Canned or frozen imports? We do that and we’ll never be part of this world. Our society is always going to be restricted, limited.”

“But the only way you have to live off-grid now are the eggs and the enzymes they contain. Doesn’t that limit growth?”

“I see it as a temporary adaptation.” Emmett looked out at the valley below. From this point, he could see the red slopes of the sponge wood grave, the golden spine grass fields beyond. The spark of reflected light in the distance came from his solar array. “Someday we’ll figure out how to adapt ourselves to this world. It’s only a matter of will. If there was enough interest it would have already happened.”

“But doesn’t that say it, there isn’t enough will? People still aren’t comfortable changing the human genome.”

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to live on this world, or probably any others. Like any organism, we have to adapt. The early work done with the skreeches answered some of the questions. We just have to follow it up.”

A sound like an over-stressed hull screamed through the morning air. Emmett snapped his water hose back into place. “Skreeches. Come on, the nest is going to be higher up.”

He pulled his mask up into place and climbed up past the boulders back onto the soft covering of the puff gourds. A swarm of sponge hoppers flung themselves from a nearby sponge wood trunk and floated downhill towards another target. Their brilliant blue wings caught the Second Sun’s light as they glided in formation. Jolene caught up with him and followed in his footsteps. He tried not to think about her without her mask. And her talk of going back to town. That wasn’t the way, he knew that. It didn’t mean that he couldn’t be tempted. Except there was a whole world waiting for them and they couldn’t ever claim that by living under domes in artificial Terran environments.

Another skreech call split the air. More answered it and together they sounded like a hull undergoing catastrophic failure. Depressurization. Metal tearing. Air hissing out in a whistling cry.

Emmett pushed back memories and kept climbing. He reached a sponge wood tree leaning out of the slope. He stopped and turned around to Jolene. “Wait here. I’m going up to see if I can spot the nest.”

“Okay.”

He pulled off his pack, setting the egg case and water bladder down at the base of the trunk. He turned and ran at the sponge wood trunk. It gave a little beneath his feet when he hit. He grabbed the sides of the wide surface and climbed up it. He had to hang beneath the first branch and swing his legs up around the branch, then climb up onto the surface. Bit by bit he made his way up as high as he dared. Limbs too small would tear beneath his weight. One of the hazards at the bottom of a gravity well but better than falling free up above. In the dark. Watching as your partner floated just out of reach. Falling in slow motion. Such a small gap. Sometimes the math didn’t work. A fingers-breath could be as fatal as a fall from this height. Just that much.

Better here. He didn’t have to worry about the air running out at least. The skreeches kept producing eggs. Enough to keep him going out here. Free to walk on his own two feet the same way humans had walked for millions of years. Long before they’d ever figured out how to fly.

From his pocket, he took out his binoculars. Flipped them open and slipped them on. Squinting or opening his eyes wider controlled the zoom. It didn’t take him long to find the skreeches. They’d gone back to the split. Higher up on the ridge, just down from the peak. The whole area’d been cleared after a lightning storm fire had burned off the ground cover and boiled the sponge wood, leaving the entire slope covered in hard chunks of blackened sponge wood. Smatterings of red showed where new sponge wood trees were growing up through the debris. There was still so much that he didn’t know about the lifecycle of the trees.

The skreeches had constructed the communal nest in the cleft of two big boulders on the ridge. Right there in the split. He saw their big yellow bodies moving across the debris field. One would run out from the nest, grab a chunk of hard sponge wood in its tiny front arms and then it’d run full tilt back up to the nest. It was like a relay team. While one set its contribution into place in the wall another was running out to grab a new piece. Still others carried back chunks of fresh sponge wood and handed it over to the stompers. It was the job of the stompers to stomp the water out of the sponge wood and mix it with dirt. Daubers gathered the mud and mortared the dried sponge wood into the wall. Squeezed sponge wood got kicked out onto the slope to dry in the light of the suns.

Looked like they’d made a lot of progress on the wall already. Behind the barrier a skreech rose up, yellow-throated neck turned towards the heavens. The scream that split the air signaled another egg laid. Did it hurt? Was that why they screamed? He had no idea.

He noticed movement below him to his left. He looked down, binoculars automatically refocusing on the nearby foreground objects. Jolene climbing up onto the sponge wood. But she’d gone out on an over-extended limb. Wide enough to look safe, but too long. Limbs like that broke off in storms. Or under the weight of biologists that didn’t know better.

Emmett tore off his binoculars. “Stop!”

“They are building a structure,” Jolene said. He saw she was wearing her own binoculars. “It’s amazing –”

“Jolene! Stop! Go back. That branch can’t support you!”

He looked back along its length. He found the pale pink line indicating a tear forming right where he expected. “Hurry up! It’s tearing!”

Emmett started back down the trunk. No way he could get there in time. He saw Jolene moving at least. She’d listened. The branch she’d climbed shook. She wobbled and nearly fell but then caught her balance and sat down on the limb. She scooted down the length. He dropped down onto a solid limb and swung around. Going faster than he’d ordinarily go.

The limb she’d climbed dipped and shook. Outer limbs started to tear from the stresses. He didn’t know if she’d make it. Then she slid past the rapidly growing tear and reached the main trunk. The limb tore with a wet gushing and arterial water sprayed up into the air. The branch fell, tearing itself apart as it crumbled to the ground. Water splashed out from the pieces and ran through the puff gourds. Jolene made it to the ground and Emmett climbed down moments later. Puff gourd dust kicked up by the pieces falling.

“Are you okay?”

Jolene nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d overloaded the branch. I hate that I broke it like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. The limbs grow too long and break off sooner or later from their weight. It’s just the way the sponge wood develops. I think it’s also a factor in the reproduction cycle. We should move up the slope, out of the spores and dust.”

“Okay.”

Emmett picked up his gear. Shouldered the egg case and moved out. Jolene kept up with him. It’d take another half-hour at least to get close enough to the skreeches to set the egg raid in motion. So far they’d been lucky with the timing. The nest wasn’t finished and the weasels hadn’t come yet. Once the skreeches finished fortifying the nest neither he or the weasels would be able to get at the eggs. They’d be secure. And he’d starve. Or have to give up his land. That wasn’t really an option.

The place he planned to strike from was downwind of the skreeches, partially sheltered by a couple smaller boulders. Skreeches used it in the past as an egg site but the more exposed position made it more difficult to defend. A knee-high broken wall of dried sponge wood and mud still stood between the boulders in a wide ring on the hillside. Skreeches dug out the floor into a bowl-shape, making it even deeper. A puddle of water filled most of the bowl but he still had enough dry land behind the wall to set up.

Jolene ran her fingers across the old wall. “Look at the craftsmanship, the way the pieces interlock. It’s fascinating.”

“Nothing that birds on Earth haven’t done.”

“But these aren’t birds, despite the feathers and eggs.”

“No, they’re more like feathered dinosaurs,” Emmett said.

Jolene shook her head. “We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are Terran organisms. We have to go all the way back to the beginning and really look at what we’re seeing here. Are these walls instinctual or learned? I understand that there have been markings cut into sponge wood pieces at some sites?”

Emmett stared at her. He’d been a fool. Let a pair of pretty eyes cloud his judgment. She was one of those. “The survey team ruled out intelligence in their study of the skreeches. That’s why they were given the go-ahead to work on the eggs.”

“That decision is being reevaluated.”

“Which is why you wanted to come out here with me? To gather information for this reevaluation?”

“Yes.” She said it quickly and looked away.

Emmett crawled up to the wall. He brought up his rifle and looked through the sights at the skreeches new dwelling. They’d gotten the wall up to waist height already. A head rose up above the wall from the center and another awful sound split the air. It couldn’t be long now. The weasels would be coming soon. He needed to get his eggs and get out of the area. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught in the middle of it all.

“Just don’t get in my way,” he said. He brought the rifle up and prepared to shoot.

Jolene’s hand fell on his arm. “Don’t.”

He looked at her hand. “What choice do I have?”

“Is it worth the chance? What if they are intelligent?”

Emmett shook his head.

“I’ve seen dried sponge wood boards with what looks like cuneiform writing. There is an organization to it.”

“They don’t keep anything. They don’t carry anything. The marks they make are nothing but nest decoration.”

“So you’ve seen it?”

Of course he had. He lived out here. He hunted their eggs. He probably knew more about the skreeches than anyone. Enough to know that no matter how clever they seemed they were nothing but big birds with toothy snouts instead of beaks. Weren’t they?

🚀

“If I don’t get those eggs I won’t be able to eat my crops. I’d have to go back to the Terrasphere or starve.”

She still had her hand on his arm. She squeezed gently. “Would it be so bad back in the Terrasphere? With your experience, you could greatly increase our understanding of life on this planet.”

Movement caught his eye. Shit. Too late. And they were too early. “Weasels.”

Emmett scrambled around Jolene and braced the rifle on the remains of the skreeches’ old wall. The weasels came running up the ridge. They were long and covered in slick brown feathers that changed to orange at the ends rather than fur. Four times the size of a Terran weasel. The pack charging up the hill had to number forty to fifty animals.

“Land piranhas.” He clicked off the safety. “When hunting they’ll fall on anything they come across, including us.”

Jolene crouched beside him. “If we got in the water, would it stop them?”

He shook his head. “They’re excellent swimmers.”

Every few seconds one of the charging weasels would stop, stand up and look ahead. Long faces filled with sharp razor-edged teeth. Emmett carried scars from a weasel attack on his leg and that had been a solitary animal. One weasel stood, looked right at him and a clear warbling whistle rang out. The entire pack changed direction like a school of fish and headed towards the old skreech nest.

“What do we do?”

“Fight.” Emmett brought up the rifle to his shoulder. Auto-tracking locked onto the closest weasel. He fired.

The bullet caught the weasel between the eyes. Flipped it back into the back. Shrill whistles like dozens of police whistles rang out from the pack. He’d gotten them angry now. No time to worry about that.

Fired. Another down. Again and again. The shots rang through the air and in answer the weasels whistled back angrily and kept coming on. Every shot hit. Every shot took out another weasel but they had the numbers.

“We have to retreat.” Emmett stood. Sighted on the next weasel and fired.

Jolene got up and moved back. Emmett worked his way backward, still shooting. Seeing them move the weasels sent out several more warbling whistles. The pack split like a river around a boulder and became two arms reaching around the ridge to sweep up everything in its path. He kept shooting but they had to stay out of those arms or the pack would fall on them in a second.

“We have to move up the ridge.”

“But that will take us up to the skreech nest.”

Emmett fired, brought down another weasel. “I know. Maybe the weasels will be more interested in them. If we can get past the skreeches we might get away.”

Fired. “Move!”

Jolene turned and ran up the slope towards the nest. Emmett lowered the rifle and followed. He stopped after a bit, turned and brought another weasel down. Two more. Ran. Stopped to bring more down. Turned to run again.

Up ahead the skreeches gathered about the nest and in the nest. They’d seen what was coming. Emmett turned. Fired. Another weasel tumbled through the puff gourd dust. A piece of dried sponge wood sailed past his ear. Jolene cried out.

He turned, ducked as another piece flew at his head. The skreeches were throwing the dried sponge wood. Another missile hit the ground near his feet. That was a rock! Much more effective than dried sponge wood. It’d hurt. Indeed Jolene rubbed her shoulder.

Emmett dropped to his knees facing downslope and fired. One. Two. Three little dead weasels. He rose and ran at the skreeches. He expected a rain of wood and rocks, but that was better than letting the weasels get closer. Instead, the skreeches held their fire. Jolene slowed. He caught up to her and they ran up to the nest together. He was sure that Jolene had never been so close to living adult skreeches. Up close they stood as tall as he did. Those nearest shuffled their clawed feet nervously but their attention was on the approaching weasels.

“They aren’t attacking us anymore,” Jolene whispered.

“Good for us.” Emmett grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the nest. “Get in.”

Skreeches made gulping noises deep in their throats when they got close to the nest but did nothing to stop them. Jolene walked through the one gap the skreeches had left in the wall. Emmett followed. Dark green eggs, each as large as his fist filled the bowl-shaped floor. A half-dozen fat, egg-laden skreeches crouched around the eggs and hissed at him.

“I’m not going for them right now,” he muttered. He turned back to the wall, braced the rifle.

Auto-lock. Fired. Weasel whistles grew more shrill. The pincers of the pack began closing in on the nest. Skreeches pelted the oncoming weasels with wood and stone. Their aim wasn’t great but given the pack’s close quarters many were hit and injured. He kept firing until his clip ran out. He ejected and reloaded.

Sheer numbers carried the pack right up to the nest even though they’d left a trail of dead and injured weasels behind. Probably twenty healthy weasels reached the nest. In close quarters the skreeches put their powerful legs to work. He watched one catch weasel leaping at the nest wall with one clawed foot. A quick clench of those powerful toes crushed the life from the weasel. Others simply kicked them, shattering their bones. Emmett had a harder time getting a lock in the crowded conditions but he fired when he got the chance.

A weasel made it over the wall until Jolene clubbed it with a piece of sponge wood.

Then a loud shrill whistle cut through the racket and the remaining weasels, no more than a dozen, turned and fled the nest area. Emmett lowered his gun. No need to kill more if they were leaving. He slowly stood and looked at the skreeches. They watched him warily. Did they remember his past raids? No way he could get to the eggs under these conditions. He didn’t even know if he wanted to any more.

“We’re going,” he said softly. He eased towards the gap in the nest wall. Jolene followed. The skreeches parted to let them leave.

He didn’t feel safer until they’d gotten some distance from the nest. Then he broke the silence. “I’m not going to be able to stay out here without those eggs.”

“We could use your help in the Terrasphere,” Jolene said. “After my report the skreeches status will be reevaluated. You could help us.”

Emmett nodded. “I’d like that. I don’t know if they’re intelligent or not, but I want to stick around until we can figure out a way for us to adapt to this planet.”

Jolene took his arm. “I’d like that too.”

He hoped that they’d make it work. There were so many unknowns. Could they adapt or not? Either way, he couldn’t wait to find out.

🚀

5,090 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 100th short story release, written in April 2010.

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, Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes.


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

Daily Thoughts 173: Tackling the e-Portfolio

It’s time for me to start developing my e-Portfolio for my MLIS course at SJSU.

The culminating experience for our MLIS program requires students to select, document, and assemble evidence of their competence in a series of skill areas the faculty have deemed essential for entry-level professional performance.

Since I’ve got to do this for the program anyway, I thought it might make sense to write about the experience. Share my path through working on the portfolio, decisions made, methods used, and all the other details that will crop up along the way.

SJSU requires students to keep privacy and confidentiality in mind when creating the e-portfolio. It needs to be kept private before graduation, and if made public after graduation then students “must remove the names of students, institutions, and employers and make sure they are not identifiable in your e-Portfolio.” – handbook

That’s okay. The main idea is more about how I go about creating the e-Portfolio.

Why now?

I could wait until the semester starts in August, but I want to work on it before then and have a structure in place. I plan to create the e-Portfolio initially as an offline web site, publishing it as a password-protected site once it is required for the semester. The book will cover the details on the website set up, a calendar and timeline of the process. At the end, once approved, I’ll release the public-facing version of the site along with the completed book.

I plan to release it under a CC BY-SA license. I’ll have print copies for sale and e-book copies for sale via retail platforms (you’re paying in that case for convenience and to support my work). Free copies will be available to download from the site.

I have attended a couple different webinars on the e-Portfolio process. I’ve spoken to fellow students nervous about it. The school does offer the handbook site with information, and advisors during the process. I still think that a book will be of interest, although that isn’t my main motivation.

I could also plan to do interviews, profiles, and case studies of fellow students. Perhaps. That adds complexity to the project. Maybe I’ll just keep it to my work.

Again, I’m not doing it because I expect to make money off the project. I’m doing it because it will help me focus on my process and reflect on the experience. I’ve put a lot of work into this degree. This sounds like an interesting project and it frankly makes the e-Portfolio itself more interesting by adding a dimension I would enjoy.


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Daily Thoughts 172: Small Steps Into the Future

Today I started taking a few small steps into the future. Not much. I started work on a new library-related website. I plan for it to start small and build it over time. It’s one piece, one project out of many projects. It’s fun.

Afternoon Notes

This was written during my afternoon break at work. A few short notes.

I’m sitting on my stool beside the Deschutes River. A large mallard glides upstream along the opposite shore. Here it is the sounds of bird calls. The gentle murmur of the river. And still the constant to and fro of car noises on the not so distant road. Cottonwood seeds drift in the air all around me and the river. I’ve set up my stool just past a pile of rocks above the river below, just off the main gravel trail. Up until now, my break has remained undisturbed by others, but just now I’ve heard voices downstream. I don’t know if they’re heading this way or not.

I wanted to get away from work. Away from the noise of the road out front. To some place a bit more peaceful. This qualifies. I don’t normally go anywhere on my breaks but today I decided to go ahead. Clouds as fluffy as the seeds float overhead, alternating shadow and sunlight.The air is warm without being hot.

My mood today has been a bit subdued. I blame my brain. The depression that lurks in the folds and twists of my gray matter. Most of the time I don’t feel it. I used to. Not often now. It helps to know that it is nothing more than my brain. It isn’t me.

I don’t have a connection here. I’m using Novlr offline to see how that works. If this entry gets lost, that’s fine. It isn’t anything that I need to keep.

I want to start reviewing stories to send out to markets. The stories I’ve written more recently. I want to work on my sites. On all sorts of things. Right now, however, I need to get back to work.


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Daily Thoughts 171: Intellectual Property Value

No ukulele practice today. Unless I practice later. It was raining this morning so I didn’t bother bringing it with me to work. It’s pretty nice now with fluffy cotton ball clouds against the painted blue backdrop of sky outside my window. Almost could be a realistic augmented reality projection.

Value of Intellectual Property

Intellectual property (IP) is valuable. Very valuable according to governments around the world.

The Intellectual Property and the U.S. Economy: 2016 Update reported that IP-intensive industries support “at least 45 million U.S. jobs and contribute more than $5 trillion dollars to, or 38.2 percent of, U.S. gross domestic product.” Copyright-intensive industries account for 5.6 million jobs (as opposed to trademark-intensive or patent-intensive jobs). Copyright-intensive jobs account for over 15 million jobs in the European Union. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Guide on Surveying the Economic Contribution of the Copyright Industries states “Copyright has taken center stage in public debates about access to information, and its relevance to daily life and to business operations has attracted the keen interest of most stakeholders in the creative economy.” (2015, p. 7). According to the WIPO the average contribution to national GDP averages 5.48 percent, and contribution to employment averaging 5.34 percent. – Ryan M. Williams, THE GLOBALIZATION OF COPYRIGHT: IMPACTS AND CHALLENGES

That figure, 38.2% of the GDP is an impressive figure and focuses on IP-intensive industries including those based on the patent, trademark, and copyright (the three methods of controlling IP) industries.

Many companies today seek unencumbered IPs that they can control. Simply having an IP adds to the company’s valuation whether they intend to do anything with the IP. It is an asset. The last thing that any company wants to do is give up an asset.

Back when copyright first was established, in the age of metal set type, printers controlled the system. Copyright shifted control from the printers guilds to the authors and established it as a right of authors to control the reproduction of their work.

A chief concern at the time was limiting the copyright to a reasonable time. The government rejected the call for a perpetual copyright and started out with a 14 year period, with the option of a single 14-year renewal. That expanded to 28 years with a 14-year renewal. The Constitution states the need to limit the period.

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

The establishment of the Berne Convention shifted the period to the author’s life plus 50 years and removed registration and manufacturing requirements. Not that the United States agreed, that took until 1988, because the US easily enjoyed protections under Berne while remaining free to pirate titles.

Since that time, US copyright law has extended the period to the author’s life plus 70 years. The Supreme Court decided that as long as the term isn’t unlimited it is ‘limited.’ This bit of sophistry conveniently ignores the public interest in works entering the public domain. But when the Mouse talks, people listen. The decision opens the door for a functionally unlimited copyright so long as Congress doesn’t call it ‘unlimited,’ ‘forever,’ or ‘perpetual’. Anything short of infinity is limited. Every couple decades Congress can pass a new extension retroactively adding another twenty years. Or fifty years. A hundred years. It makes no difference because you can still point to that so-called limit.

In the meantime, the public interest is overlooked. Works entering the public domain enriches our civilization. It fuels invention, creativity, and new discoveries. By allowing what is essentially a corporate chokehold on IP, the public is denied access to materials that should be freely available.

Intellectual property is valuable. And it’s about time that we address these issues and restore a truly limited copyright that addresses the public interest.


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