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.


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

Child of Their Minds

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Synchronize,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must have been inside,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it mean?” Jean said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

A wave of disagreement came from Unit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.

“We’re on our way,” Jean said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not my fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name? I am Unit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He jerked away back toward Jean.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”

Unit wasn’t listening.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike said, “Shoot him!”

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

Mike said, “Desync.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re what happened to the colony?”

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

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

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

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

“Hold it there,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.

🚀

4,133  WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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


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

Space Lot

Darren and his friends loved playing in the bio-dome. Almost like being outside.

Down below the station the planet promised endless open spaces if humans and Nivelaxians figured out a way to share. It didn’t make sense. Kl’ct didn’t understand it either.

When an unexpected attack threatens the station Darren and the others find themselves trapped in the bio-dome with older kids, no way out, and no time.

🚀

The whole station shuddered like the rabbits back in the biolabs. Darren noticed but Kl’ct twisted around one of the bio-dome trees and hissed from his perch on the branch above. Lex grabbed onto Mike’s left wing and pulled.

Mike yelled and swung at Lex’s arm. “Let go!”

“What was that?” Darren said.

Kl’ct curled around the branch even higher, pushing his iridescent face through the leaves to peer down at the rest of them. “Chase?”

Mike pulled free from Lex but the left wing was out of alignment in the harness. He twisted, trying to see the shimmery feathers. “If you broke this I’m going to break your arm!”

“You’re not,” Lex said.

“Stop!” Darren said. “Listen!”

“Chase,” Kl’ct said.

There was a loud whistling noise. The station shook again. A loud siren sounded through the dome. They all noticed that. Kl’ct’s antenna rose and spread as he reared up from the branch.

“Alert. Alert.”

“We hear it,” Darren said.

Augmented warnings popped up from the corners of his eyes. Depressurization, destabilization, compartmentalization procedures in force, whatever those meant.

“Shit,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”

Darren said, “Call home.”

An augmented warning popped up in front of him. Systems error. Please try again.

He did and it still didn’t work. The other guys were doing the same thing, trying to call out without any luck.

“Come on, call home!” Lex’s voice rose.

Mike hit the releases on his wing harness and swung the broad wings free. “I’m going to fix this and then get out of here.”

Kl’ct’s beads rattled as he spiraled down out of the tree to the ground. “Disconnected. Disaster.”

Darren waved away his own error messages. They dissolved in a drift of smoke and were gone. He reached out and tapped Lex’s arm.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Lex nodded. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go.”

“Wait!” Mike said. He had realigned his wing and was pulling on the harness. “I’m coming too!”

Lex was already running. He wasn’t waiting. The red lights flashed and reflected on his bouncing blond hair.

Mike finished strapping on his wings and activated them. Responding directly to his thoughts — the wings were an expensive gift from his Earth-bound father — Mike launched himself into the air.

Darren started running after the others. Mike flew faster than any of them could run.

The whistling noise started fading. Darren looked around, noticed shadows moving on the ground and looked up. Hundreds of fist-sized repair drots swarmed over the face of the dome spraying sealant over holes punched through a section of the dome.

“Look!” He jabbed a finger up at the drots.

Kl’ct and Lex stopped to look up.

Kl’ct’s external display flashed on his face. “Structural failures!”

“We’ve been hit,” Lex said. “Meteorite impact?”

Mike swooped down and circled over their heads. “The hatches are sealed!”

“What?” Three voices asked at once.

Darren clenched his fists and looked toward the exit hatches, but the plants were in the way. He couldn’t see the way out. The biodome had two primary exits at each end, it was a like a swollen bead on the string of the station’s main body. It was one of four similar domes spaced around the station, each designed for different sorts of environmental conditions. This one was a temperate forest environment, although it contained species from a half-dozen different worlds. They’d learned about all of them in their lessons.

“I’m gonna check it out,” Mike said. He flapped off over the tops of a Broken Pearl tree. The canopy of broad leaves formed a complicated pattern of pearlescent leaves around the central trunk.

“We should go help,” Darren said.

Up above it looked like the drots had a handle on sealing the holes. At least for the moment it didn’t look like they were going to depressurize.

Darren took off running again, this time getting in front. Lex’s feet slapped the path behind him. Kl’ct’s pointed prods sounded like someone drumming their fingers against the path to make a sort of galloping sound.

They rounded the planter that held the Broken Pearl tree among the thicker undergrowth and could finally see the closed hatches ahead. Both the inner and outer hatches were shut, with red lights tracing the edges.

Mike had landed, his wings folded down his back as he tried the hatch controls. It kept throwing up a red warning message each time he tried before Darren got there.

Mike looked down at him. “It’s not working. The hatches won’t open!”

Lex and Kl’ct arrived. Kl’ct lifted his upper body from the ground and swayed back and forth.

“Trapped. No way out?”

“We can try the other side of the dome,” Lex said.

Darren shook his head. “It’s probably closed.”

“But we don’t know that,” Lex said. “What if it’s not?”

“I could go check it,” Mike said. “I can get there faster than anyone.”

Kl’ct’s probs tapped on the controls and a second later the display showed a schematic of the station complete with read highlighted sections.

“Areas damaged,” Kl’ct said. “Hatches reported closed, sealing off sections.”

Darren joined him and flicked through the reports. It was true. There was damage to the station in sections on both sides of this dome. They’d taken the worst of the impact.

“Still unidentified?” Lex said, peering over Darren’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“They don’t know what hit us,” Darren said.

“Not meteorites?” Lex said.

Darren stepped back from the panel. “It doesn’t say.”

Which was very frustrating. Wouldn’t it say if there had been a meteorite impact?

Mike’s wings spread and folded back up. “So I shouldn’t go?”

Darren shook his head. “Stay here. We shouldn’t get separated, and we’re already at this hatch. Someone will come.”

Just then there were voices. Lex and Mike rushed to the hatch doors.

“We’re in here!”

Mike pounded on the glass.

“Stop it,” Darren said. “Stop!”

Both of the guys turned around. Darren pointed off into the dome. “The voices came from out there. Someone else is in here.”

Sure enough, two big kids came around the corner. They were both a lot taller, almost as big as adults, and human. One of the guys had wavy black hair and was holding a broken drot in his hands, the legs dangling around his fingers. The other kid was a red-head, with hair a deep rusty red-brown and a spray of freckles across his pale skin.

The guy with the drot sneered when he saw them. “Shit, we’re stuck in here with a bunch of squirts!”

The red-head nudged the guy and pointed at Kl’ct. “But look, there’s a Milliroach with them.”

Kl’ct hissed softly and scuttled backward around Lex.

“I’ll bet it’s a spy,” the one holding the drot said. “Sent here to scout out the station before the attack.”

“Attack?” Lex said.

“Yeah, squirt. Me and McQueen here saw ‘em. Milliroach ships fired on the station. Looks like the war finally started, alright.”

War. Darren’s stomach shrank. Dad had talked about the chance that there was going to be a war. The disagreement with the Nivelaxians — Milliroach was a bad word — over the colony planet below was all his parents talked about some days. It didn’t make much sense. It was a whole planet! There should have been room for everyone, but the Nivelaxians were there first and weren’t looking for neighbors on the surface.

“We ought to take him prisoner,” McQueen said. “Right, Rod?”

The other kid, apparently Rod, nodded. “I think so. We could be heroes when we get out of here.”

“Not a spy,” Kl’ct said. “Exchange student.”

“Right.” Rod laughed. “Like anyone believed that! You wanted to spy on us.”

McQueen said. “Want to tie him up or something?”

Darren stepped forward. “He’s not a spy. He takes lessons with us. Just leave him alone.”

Rod stepped up and loomed over Darren. “You telling me what to do, squirt?”

Darren squeezed his hands into fists. There were four of them, even if they were smaller. “Yes. You can’t do anything to Kl’ct, he’s not —”

There was a blur and something smacked Darren’s face. It was loud and hurt! He staggered and his whole face smarted. Tears stung his eyes.

Rod had hit him!

Darren wiped the tears away just as Rod stepped closer and gave him a two-handed shove. Darren flew back like a leaf caught in wind.

McQueen was laughing, his voice high-pitched and gasping.

“That’s what I can do, squirt,” Rod said. He pointed at each of them in turn. “Don’t the rest of you think about trying anything unless you want more of the same.”

Darren picked himself up. Lex and Mike stood together in front of Kl’ct. It wasn’t fair, and Darren couldn’t let it go. It didn’t matter what happened, he wasn’t about to let Rod pick on anyone else.

“You’re pretty tough,” Darren said.

Rod looked at him. “What did you say?”

“You’re tough.” Darren walked in front of the others. “Big guy, you can pick on someone half your size. Makes you pretty tough, I guess.”

McQueen’s eyes bulged and he covered his giggles with one hand.

Darren gestured at McQueen. “Even your buddy thinks that’s pretty funny.”

Rod turned and when he saw McQueen trying not to laugh he glared. That made McQueen lose it. The kid started laughing great big belly busters.

Rod shoved McQueen’s shoulders. “Cut it out! It’s not funny!”

“Yes it is,” Darren said. “It’s hilarious.”

Rod pointed a finger at Darren. “You’d better stop.”

McQueen laughed harder.

Rod chucked the broken drot at McQueen. It hit McQueen in the chest, then fell with a dull clank to the floor.

“Ow!” McQueen rubbed the spot. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” Rod said. “Now help me get this Milliroach.”

McQueen kicked the broken drot aside. “Come on kids, don’t give him any excuses.”

Darren stayed where he was and tried not to shake. He lifted his arms and made two fists. “I’m not letting you do anything to Kl’ct. He doesn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

“It was them!” Rod said. “We saw the ship!”

“You saw them?” Lex stepped up. “What sort of ship did you see? Can you describe it?”

“It wasn’t human,” Rod said. “We know that. No one has ships like that one.”

Mike spoke up. “How do you know it wasn’t some other species?”

“It looked like a giant bug,” McQueen said. “Some sort of beetle.”

Kl’ct’s body rose up, rocking back onto his rear prods. “Ships not like a beetle.”

Rod sneered and tried to step around Darren. “Like we’d believe you.”

Darren moved in front of the big kid. “He’s telling the truth!”

“Their ships look like spheres,” Lex said. “We studied them in class. They’re like giant balls.”

Which wasn’t telling the bigger kids that the reason they studied it was because of the report that Kl’ct did in front of the class when he joined their lesson group.

Rod said, “So what other aliens could it be? It’s the Milliroaches that don’t want to share the planet.”

“I don’t know,” Darren said. “But it wasn’t them. And even if it was, it’s not up to you. Help will come, they’ll know what to do.”

“What if the dome depressurizes?” Lex asked.

Rod shoved a hand back through his wavy hair. “The drots are sealing the domes. It’s fine, kid.”

He was actually right. It wasn’t easy to see from here, but it looked like the drots were crawling down the face of the dome. There was a dull, darker spot where they had applied the patch.

Mike picked up the broken drot that Rod had thrown at McQueen. It’s legs dangled limply around his hand. “What happened to this one?”

“It fell,” McQueen said. “Lots its grip up there and fell all the way down. We saw it, give it over.”

Mike threw it back at McQueen. The bigger boy simply reached out and caught it. McQueen laughed, tossed the drot into the air and caught it again.

Rod tapped his arm. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“The other side of the dome,” Rod’s tone suggested that McQueen’s question was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. “While these squirts are sitting around here waiting for this hatch to open, we’re going to see if the other way out is open.”

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said.

“Yeah?” Rod said, sneering. “Like I’m going to listen to a Milliroach. We’ll go check it out on our own.”

Rod was already walking away. McQueen hesitated for a moment, tossed the drot up, caught it and then he started whistling as he followed Rod away.

Darren finally relaxed and turned back to face his friends.

“That was insane,” he said.

“Do you think they’ll get out?” Lex said.

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said. “No leaving.”

Now that the immediate danger was past Darren felt his excited rise. “Did you hear what they said, though? About the ships? Not human or Nivelaxian — that means there’s some other alien species here.”

The science lessons said that it was unlikely for two civilizations to be spreading around the same portion of the galaxy at the same time. Most went extinct before gaining the ability to travel between solar systems. There’d been plenty of ruins found on alien worlds in the past hundred or so years.

“Great,” Lex said. “And they took a shot at us because they’re the big kids?”

“I could fly up and see what those guys are doing,” Mike said.

“They probably wouldn’t like it if they saw you,” Darren said. “We should stick together.”

“They can’t do anything if I’m flying above them.”

“Throw rocks?” Kl’ct said.

Mike’s wings flexed and folded. “Maybe, but they probably couldn’t hit me.”

“How long do you think it’ll take before someone comes for us?” Lex said. “I’m getting hungry.”

It was almost lunch time. That introduced a new wrinkle to the whole experience. What were they supposed to do about food? Most of the edible plants grown on the station were in the hydroponics bay. The bio-domes were parks, places for people to get out even under the black sky.

“It probably won’t take too much longer,” Darren said. “Let’s check the panel.”

He went over to the panel beside the hatch. Kl’ct reared up beside him but kept his prods to himself. Darren swiped through the screens but it was only displaying the same information as before. The areas on both sides of the bio-dome showed sealed sections and damage. Portions of the station had been vented by the damage but the interior seals were holding.

“Nothing new,” Kl’ct said, dropping back down to the ground.

“He’s right,” Darren added.

Lex made a frustrated noise. “I can’t connect! How’s that even possible?”

Darren activated his augmentation layer and right away was alerted that the only viable connections were his friends — and the two older kids that had gone off. Nothing outside the dome.

He waved away the interface. “I guess we just wait.”

“Other ways out?” Kl’ct said.

“I don’t think so,” Lex said. “Unless you can override the security on the hatch.”

“Is that even safe?” Mike said. “If sections are depressurized, doesn’t that mean we couldn’t breathe? We might vent the whole dome.”

Darren remembered something on the schematics as he was viewing the damage to the station. He pulled that back up and found what he was looking for.

“There,” he said, spreading his fingers to zoom in on the area. “What about the supply shaft?”

“What’s that?” Kl’ct said.

It was a radial arm that ran from the hub out to the bio-dome. The passage was small on the schematics, but it had to have room for all of the air, water and power supplies to the bio-dome. But there should also be room for them. It was used for maintenance after all.

“Supply shaft straight out to the hub ring,” Darren said. “If we can get in, we can get all the way to the hub ring. There’s no damage reported there, only out here.”

“Let’s do it,” Mike said. “Better than sitting around here.”

Lex nodded. “Sure okay.”

“Sure okay,” Kl’ct said.

The fact that they all agreed surprised Darren but there wasn’t anything else to do except go check it out.

As they set out along the paths Lex and Mike hurried to the front. He let them. Maybe they wouldn’t have any luck opening the supply shaft, but he felt better about it than sitting and doing nothing. Seeing the damaged sections on the panel, all he could picture was his parents caught in one of the depressurized section. Logically, there wasn’t any reason for his parents to be in those areas — they were both supervisors that worked in parts of the hub. No reason for them to be out in the main ring at this time.

Except sometimes they had to for their jobs, but the station was a big place. What were the chances?

It didn’t matter. He’d be happier when they were all safe in the hub and there were grown-ups around to tell them what was going on. Plus, even though the drots had patched the damage to the dome he didn’t quite trust the patch. What if it failed? Or the ships came back. The hub would be safer.

It wasn’t easy to find the supply shaft hatch. The path was almost covered by long trailing ferns. Kl’ct spotted it, but then he was ambling along on his prods much lower than the rest of them.

“Here, here!”

Darren pushed through first, followed by the other guys. Past the ferns the path opened up into a firm path with an almost rubberized feel to it, even though it was designed to look like gravel. At the end, not that far, was the dome wall and a plain metallic hatch with a bright red and yellow bar across the middle.

EMERGENCY ACCESS ONLY. NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS.

“I think this counts as an emergency,” Darren said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Open it.”

“Is it going to sound an alarm?”

“Likely result,” Kl’ct said.

Darren grabbed the big red lever in the hatch. There were arrows showing that the lever needed to be lifted and rotated around to face the other way, counter-clockwise. He wrapped both hands around it and pulled.

It didn’t move.

“Come on,” Lex said. “What’s wrong?”

“It won’t move,” Darren said.

Mike shoved Lex out of the way. “Let me try.”

Darren and Lex got out of his way, but the wings still hit Darren’s arm. Mike liked to act like he was a big guy, but he really wasn’t. Darren crossed his arms and waited.

Mike strained to move the handle with both hands and it refused to budge.

“Give up?” Lex said. “Maybe Kl’ct should try?”

“Unnecessary,” Kl’ct said.

“No,” Mike said. He glanced back. “Stand back.”

“What are you doing?” Darren said.

Mike’s wings spread out on either side. He wrapped his hands around the handle, crouched and then jumped into the air. His wings swept down and he swung up and crashed into the hatch.

He yelled and fell down, landing on hands and knees.

He climbed up onto his feet and his wings folded back into place. “It’s busted. We’re stuck.”

“Larger humans help?” Kl’ct said.

They all looked at him and Darren saw that they all had the same opinion of Kl’ct’s idea. Ask the older boys for help? Darren didn’t want to see them again, but it might be the only way to get out.

“No way,” Lex said. “You saw what he did to Darren.”

“Right,” Mike said. “We’ll wait until a rescue team gets to us.”

Darren said, “No. Let’s ask them.”

“Really?” Lex said.

Darren took a deep breath and it didn’t feel right. Thin. He hadn’t noticed before, but the air seemed thinner. And there was a faint whistling noise.

“Yes,” he said. “I think the drots’ patch isn’t holding. We need to get out of here into a sealed section.”

“I can check it out,” Mike said.

He stepped away and spread his wings.

“Be careful,” Kl’ct said. “Thinner air, harder to fly.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll be careful. Thanks.”

Darren started up the path. “We’ll go on foot. You can help us find them.”

“Right!” Mike said.

Mike jumped into the air and his wings swept down. Leaves blew around them as he flapped up into the air over the ferns and bushes. Soon he was nearly out of sight over the trees.

Darren ran up the path with Lex and Kl’ct running with him. He turned left and headed down the path in the direction of the other side of the dome because that’s where the older boys said they were going.

None of the paths in the bio-dome went straight. They twisted and went up and down the small hills in the bio-dome. Across a wood footbridge over the stream. It was almost fun except Darren realized that he was breathing heavier than normal.

Mike swooped back over them. “Turn at the next split — they’re heading back.”

Darren shouted, “Okay.”

Up ahead the path split beneath a big tree that curved and made almost a tunnel of branches. It was a favorite spot of theirs because it was easy to climb the tree. Mike dropped down and landed on the thick branches.

“They’re just up ahead.”

Darren ran on through the branches tunnel and coming up the next rise. He sucked air and bent over, hands on his knees. The big kids were just up ahead at the top of the next rise. As Lex and Kl’ct caught up, and Mike hoped down onto the trail, McQueen saw them. He tapped Rod’s arm.

Rod turned around. “What are you doing?”

Darren straightened and ran down the hill towards the bigger boys. They stayed where they were until he got there.

“The air’s leaking,” Darren said, breathing hard.

The guys caught up.

“The drots fixed it,” McQueen said.

Darren shook his head. “It didn’t hold. Listen, you can hear the whistling.”

Everyone was quiet and the whistling was like a distant tea kettle. Rod’s eyes widened.

“We have to get one of those hatches open,” he said. He looked down at them. “You’ll have to keep up.”

He was already turning and Darren grabbed his arm. “Wait.”

Rod scowled and yanked his arm away. “We can’t wait unless you squirts want to be sucking vacuum.”

“There’s another hatch, to the access shaft,” Darren said. “We couldn’t lift the lever, but maybe you can.”

“Okay,” Rod said. “Where?”

“You’re not listening to them, are you?” McQueen said.

“Why not?” Rod looked down at Darren. “He seems tougher and smarter than you.”

Darren pointed back down the path. “This way.”

They all ran, even Mike. He tried to take off but didn’t get much lift from his wings. Darren took the lead with the bigger boys behind him, and the rest of the group following. The air was getting thinner. His lungs were burning by the time they got to the access hatchway.

Rod immediately grabbed the lever and tried to move it. It moved a little, but then he stopped and looked at McQueen.

“Don’t be dumb, help me!”

McQueen crowded in beside Rod and put his hands beneath the end. Rod grabbed it from the top. With McQueen pushing and Rod pulling the lever moved up. As they forced it vertical they switched their grips and pulled it the rest of the way down.

Rod pushed on the hatch and it didn’t move.

Darren went to the panel and looked at the readout. “There’s more pressure on the other side — it’s pushing the hatch shut!”

“Everyone!” Rod said.

He planted his back against the hatch. McQueen did the same thing. The rest of the kids crowed around them and Kl’ct went between the big kid’s legs to reach the hatch.

Darren was pressed against Lex, both of their hands on the hatch. “Push!”

They all pushed. At first Darren didn’t think it was going to work. He was heaving lungfuls of thin air but they weren’t making progress. Then a breeze blew in his face. He realized after a second that it was air escaping around the hatch into the dome.

“Keep pushing!”

A centimeter at a time they pushed the hatch inward into the access tunnel. The breeze became a wind blowing in their faces but it was at least easier to breathe. Soon they had the hatch shoved wide open and kept pushing until it was fully open. Even then the wind threatened to shove it close.

“Get out of the way on three,” Rod said.

“One. Two. Three!”

Darren darted into the tunnel. Lex was with him. Kl’ct scurried past on his prods. Mike stumbled as McQueen shoved him forward. Rod was still on the door, legs planted to try and hold the hatch but he was sliding. Then he rolled away from the hatch into the shaft.

The hatch slammed shut with a loud bang and the wind stopped. Rod slowly picked himself up. Darren walked over and held out his hand. Rod hesitated for a moment and then shook it.

“You’re a weird kid, but sorry about smacking you around.”

Darren noticed the pinched look in Rod’s face. The older boy really was sorry. It suddenly occurred to Darren that Rod had been reacting out of fear from the attack.

“It’s Kl’ct that deserves the apology,” Darren said. “He didn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

Kl’ct lifted his front section up from the floor. “We would never attack you, physical confrontation, very distasteful.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Rod said.

He brushed past them. The access shaft curved sharply just ahead and there was a ladder leading up. The whole station rotated to simulate gravity. To get up to the hub they were going to have to climb up the access shaft.

“Come on,” Rod called. “We shouldn’t stay here.”

Mike flexed his wings but the tips quickly hit the sides of the narrow shaft. “Too bad. If this was bigger I could fly up.”

Rod was disappearing up the ladder, with McQueen behind him.

Darren motioned to the others. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

He waited until all the others had gone first and then followed. It was hard to climb the ladder at first. The shaft was narrow, surrounded by pipes and wiring that extended through the access shaft. The further they climbed the easier it became until they were all making good time. Kl’ct looked like he was running along tracks instead of climbing.

When the hatch smoothly opened at the far end, they climbed out and were quickly surrounded by excited and relieved adults.

The crowd parted and Darren’s parents came through the crowd. Darren threw himself into his dad’s arms and hugged him tight.

“We were so scared!” His mother said. “We didn’t know where you were, but we knew the bio-dome was failing.”

Darren pulled back. “Who attacked the station?”

“We don’t know,” his father said. “But between the Nivelaxians ships and our own, we’ve driven them away. We’re safe now.”

For now. But the aliens could come back. Darren squirmed down from his father’s grasp.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Darren said. “I’m fine.”

This time. But what about the next time? If the aliens came back, he needed to be better prepared. Rod had hit him and knocked him down, but he was nothing but a scared bully. That didn’t mean there weren’t bigger threats out there in the dark. For the first time he realized that he could have died and shivered.

He had to be better. Plan better. Know more about what to do and be ready to deal with whatever happened. He couldn’t grow up faster, but he also couldn’t wait. It was a big universe after all.

He had to be ready for it.

🚀

4,690 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 67th weekly short story release, written a couple years ago in May 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

The Time That Remains

Oversight: a process of linking one person’s thoughts to another through the use of quantum filaments.

Dr. Riley Mathews, oversight on the Archon, needs information on the enemy. They lack crucial details about the enemy’s biology and technology.

Sergeant Joby Harrison knows the score. His team, this mission, with Oversight in his head, might get intelligence to change this war.

How much can they do in the time that remains?

For readers who enjoy stories of honor and sacrifice.

🚀

He couldn’t smell the burning flesh from the images splashed across the screens of the command ship Archon. Dr. Riley Mathews, civilian oversight aboard, clasped his hands tightly behind his back as he studied the screens.

Around him, the activity of the deck continued unabated, a constant stream of chatter. Of men and women busy with the thousands of details necessary for this operation pushing into the enemy territory. Bugs, the soldiers called them.

In wars on Earth it was necessary to de-humanize the enemy. Out here, the enemy wasn’t human to begin with, but the lack of precision in the name irritated him all the same.

Whatever the enemy was, they weren’t bugs.

The Archon was the lead ship in the remaining battalion, running dark and cold on minimal power, no external lights, even few lights on the decks. They were trying to remain unnoticed and hidden. Internal gravity down thirty percent. Even the environmental systems were minimal, which left the deck humid, the air sticky, and smelling of unwashed bodies crammed into close quarters. A metallic, nickel taste clung to the back of Riley’s tongue.

The images on the screen showed the planet’s surface, just before dawn. The planet didn’t have a name, just a catalog number. The burned-out troop transports were dark shapes against a darker sky filled with smoke. Some of the shapes had to be bodies, but the shadows hid the details. Including any useful details, if some of those bodies belonged to the enemy.

Colonel Banning Haynes came up from behind to stand by Riley’s elbow. A seasoned veteran on Earth, the dim blue light from the screens cast deep shadows into the Colonel’s face, and beneath his eyes. His fatigue mirrored that of the crew, and the soldiers racked in the barracks in the belly of the ship.

“Doctor? I’ve got a minute now. Make the best of it.”

His rehearsed speech went out the window. “You’ve got to embed me, Colonel. The oversight rules —”

“Got nothing to do with this operation,” Haynes said. He pointed at the screens. “You’ve got your pics, fucking study those. Off my deck.”

“Images like these won’t give us what we need to win this war.” Riley pressed his hands together, and breathed in to remain calm. “Oversight will. You need me to see this first-hand.”

Haynes stepped closer. Smelling of sweat and faded deodorant. “If I could stick you in a landing pod and kick your ass planetside to get a first-hand view, believe me, I would. But I can’t. I’m stuck with you on my ship.”

“Oversight was designed to get me —”

“You think those men and women deserve to have you poking around in their heads? You distract them down there and you jeopardize the mission. I fucking won’t do it!”

Haynes was turning away. Riley unfolded the printout. “Colonel.”

Haynes stopped. Looked back, the shadows hiding his eyes. The work on the deck continued unabated, flowing around them as if they didn’t exist. Haynes tore the printout from Riley’s hand. He came back to the screens and held it up, tilting it to catch the light.

When he finished his arm dropped to his side. Shadows danced on his jaw as the muscles there clenched and unclenched. Riley crossed his arms and waited. Haynes hated him. Fine. Wanted to take his head off, probably. Fine. The orders were clear. But would Haynes follow those orders?

“It looks like the brass agrees with you,” Haynes said. “Get below. Get prepped. You’re getting your oversight after all.”

Haynes stomped off, bellowing orders. He thrust the sheet at a Major. “Take Dr. Mathews down to Oversight! Raise Sergeant Harrison! Fifth unit!”

Okay. That was more like it. Riley followed the Major off the Deck. They plunged into the narrow corridors, turning sideways to pass crew running to stations. Lights flashed and brightened overhead. Suddenly Riley felt as if someone had dropped fifty pounds on his shoulders, and he braced himself against the wall, as ship gravity returned to normal. His heart pounded, and the nickel taste in his mouth was stronger. It hit him suddenly. This was real. They were finally doing it. The orders came in, and just like that everyone was moving.

🚀

Oversight was one of those ideas dreamed up by eggheads back home who thought that they knew better than everyone. You never know what they’re going to come up with next, but ninety-nine point nine fucking nine nine times they don’t have a clue how that shit was going to work in the field.

At least the call had finally come in. They weren’t pulling out yet. The dice roll had come up, and they lost. Orders were to go on a bug hunt. Oversight wanted a close-up and personal look at the bugs. Okay, if that’s what it took.

This planet’s weak, orangey sun was just coming up over that snow-capped mountain range in the distance. The whole jagged chain of peaks, they looked like the Olympics back home, so much like them that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to come across Highway 101 and tourists driving north to Forks. The trees here were different though. Squat, wilty-looking things, with flat, round leaves, green at least, that curled around the edges. It wasn’t proper wood at all, but spongy and brittle. When Private Kempler had tried to burn a branch, it had just bubbled and let off a whiskey fart sort of stink.

The Fifth unit had been in the grind already. Yesterday cost them good people as they fought a running battle through all that damn sponge wood, all to get to this clearing to wait for an evac that clearly wasn’t coming now.

Sometimes you just didn’t get what you wanted, like the year when Santa Claus didn’t bring the bike, but that was okay, that was just fine, because you knew that Dad was out of work and really was the only Santa Claus that mattered.

Just like today. Somewhere, among all of the planets in the Reach, it was probably Christmas. And it was your fucking job to make sure that all of the boys and girls out there got to enjoy their presents.

“Pack it up!” People always jump when you use your loud voice. You’re one of the quiet ones, except when you want to be heard. “I want you ready to move in ten!”

You see the disbelief on a few faces. Private Vaughn looks back at you with this little smile on his face, like he’s waiting for the good news that the evac is coming. You can just see him realize that’s not what you meant as that smile oozes away.

“Sarge?” That’s Charlie Meyers. “Is that you?”

Turning around, he’s standing there, cradling his MEG-47. He’s got red dust covering his boots and uniform. It was on all of them, and all the gear.

“What is it Meyers?” You snap out the question.

He stands straighter. “Charge on the truck is at seventy percent. I patched that hydraulics leak. She’s ready to roll.”

He’s talking about the truck buried under hacked off sponge wood branches, on the side of the clearing. Standard armored transport, but useless against the bugs’ weapons. Whatever energy they used in those guns, it cut right through the trucks yesterday. This one was left behind in the advance, because of the leak. There’s no point taking it.

“We’re going out on foot,” you say.

Everyone is up and moving now. You think, Is it going to be worth it, Oversight? Is there anyone else left?

It’s a weird sensation, like talking to yourself, except it isn’t really talking to yourself. There’s actually someone else there.

I need to get a close up look. And samples. Biological. Technology. We need samples. And no, your unit is the only one left. Yes, it’s worth it. What’s your name?

Samples. That means packing the scanners and the rest of that gear. Your name? Sergeant Joby Harrison, and you don’t have time to play twenty-questions right now.

“Reed!”

Arrio Reed, Private First Class, leaves off pulling gear from the truck and runs over. He’s got dark shadows under his eyes. Small, but tough. “Yes, sir?”

“Pack the scanners. Oversight needs to get samples.”

“Yes, sir!” Reed runs back to the truck, and disappears into the back.

“On foot?” Charlie says.

“That’s right, Meyers. You saw what happened to the other trucks.”

Corporal Ciera Leon runs into the clearing. She’s been out checking the perimeter, making sure that the drones didn’t miss anything. “Still clear, sir. No sign of activity.”

“Good. Pull ’em and pack ’em. I don’t want any of those drones giving away our position.”

Ciera flips back the cover on her wrist tablet. Her fingers move across the controls, and from all sides of the clearing appear a dozen black tri-lobed drones. Each one is the size of a tea saucer. Mobile reconnaissance units, designed to operate quietly and serve as an early warning system. They fly in formation to their storage tube beside the truck and drop inside, one after another.

She’s a good soldier. Mostly they are, even Whitfield, as useless as he was in a fight, can carry heavy loads.

Reed is pulling the scanning gear out of the truck. Whitfield stands nearby picking his nose.

“Whitfield!”

Whitfield’s hand drops, starts to rise in a salute, and ends up flapping there like it can’t decide what it wants to do.

You point to the packs Reed is unloading. “Pack those up. You’re carrying them.”

“Yes, sir.” Whitfield runs over to Reed.

The rest of the unit moves with a purpose. Weapons are checked and reloaded. Viviane Kempler pulls a supply crate from the truck and pops the lid. It’s full of ration packs. You go over there.

“Kempler, what are you doing?”

She looks up. Pretty girl, with big doe eyes, but tough. She doesn’t give up. She’s holding one of the ration packs in her hand. “Sarge?”

You shake your head. “There’s not going to be time for that, Kempler. You want to pack those kilos into a fight? Or are you planning a picnic with the bugs?”

🚀

Riley Mathews blinked at the bright lights over the oversight chair. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes. The light on the planet was so much dimmer than the ship. He’d known that, it was in the reports, but seeing it himself, you got used to it.

Who broke the connection? He pushed up against the chair’s padded armrests, and there was Colonel Haynes standing in front of the chair.

“What’s going on, Mathews?”

At Riley’s side, one of the techs, a woman wearing a lab coat over her fatigues, held the oversight crown. Four disks on a curved cross-shape, dull matte black.

The nickel taste in the back of Riley’s throat was worse. He grabbed the squeeze bottle of water and squirted it into his mouth. He swished the warm, metallic water and swallowed.

“It’s working perfectly,” he said. “I was there, with Sergeant Harrison. They’re getting ready to leave the clearing and advance on the enemy position.”

Sir. Riley bit back the word that came to his lips. Personality ghosting, from the connection. It would fade.

“Let them do their jobs,” Haynes said. “Just tell them what you need. Don’t micromanage how they do it.”

“Sergeant Harrison and his people seem very capable,” Riley said. “I’ll stay out of their way as much as possible.”

Haynes nodded. “We’re at battle readiness. If these things pick up our position, how fast can you send your reports?”

“Fast,” Riley said. “I’m transcribing while I’m connected.”

“Good. Carry on.”

Yes, sir. Riley settled back into the chair. The cushions hissed as they adjusted. He dropped his fingers back onto the key scallops in the armrests and nodded to the technician. She placed the oversight crown on his head. It moved, gripping his skull. The pressure grew as the quantum fibers established sub-atomic connections.

🚀

Back in training they ran formations in all sorts of environments. High gravity, low gravity, in full environmental suits and packs through poisonous atmospheres, under high atmospheric pressures and low. There’d been one moon once, a Titan sort of place, which had a temperature -345 degrees C, and an atmospheric pressure four times sea level on Earth. It was so dark, the only lights came from your lamps. You couldn’t tell if the shadow ahead was a dip, or a crevasse into a bottomless ice pit until you got right on it.

Compared to that experience, this is a cake walk. A dusty, floured cake walk through the red dust covering the ground. It flies up with each step in puffs that settle quickly but it gets everywhere. The whole unit is covered in it. It has a baby powder feel, but smells more like dried seaweed. There’s no avoiding it as it covers the ground pretty much everywhere. It’s even up on the wilty leaves of the sponge wood trees.

Spores.

You have no idea what that means, except that obviously oversight is back. The crown made a tone earlier, signaling the disconnection.

The dust, it’s spores from the trees. They cast it off the leaves and it blows around. Sort of like pollen.

Does anyone know what these spores do to you when you’re breathing it in all the time?

No. But no one reported any allergic reactions. It probably just gets expelled by the body. Maybe some runny noses.

Hell. And maybe a few weeks out you start growing sponge wood in your lungs or some shit like that.

That seems unlikely.

Maybe, but the point is, you don’t know. No one does, not even Oversight. This is where the enemy set up base, so that’s what matters. Some of the survey drones had taken pics of sunny tropical beaches and crystal clear water, but apparently the bugs didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Instead they set up here.

Which is a good question. Why did they choose this site for their base?

The valley isn’t far ahead now. Two kilometers. You lead the squad around to approach it from the east, rather than retrace the path you followed when you pulled out. There’s a lot of underbrush between the trees, but its brittle. It breaks just brushing against it. You don’t even need a machete to make a path. On the downside, it leaves a fucking obvious trail. You keep everyone in a single-file line. If the bugs send out patrols and find the trail they’ll know something passed through, but probably not how many. Especially since the spore dust does a good job of filling in your footprints as you pass.

As you approach the ridge, you signal to the unit to spread out and take up positions behind the sponge wood trees. They won’t stop shit in a fight but they provide some concealment if the bugs have patrols up on the ridge. Which they damn well should. They don’t act stupid enough to leave their flank unguarded.

Reed’s a good one to send up first. He’s small, fast on his feet, and has sharp eyes. You point to him, and signal for him to advance.

He nods, rolls around the tree and heads up the slope.

You watch from cover. The rest of the unit is spread out behind and to either side of your position. All in your line of sight.

Reed moves from tree to tree. He’s quick and careful. He’s nearly to the top of the ridge when a sizzling blue-orange flash cuts right through the sponge wood tree where he was standing a half second before.

He rolls, not hit yet, letting gravity pull him down the slope through the dust. Rapid fire shots rip apart the trees. It sounds electric, like a giant bug-zapper frying bugs but its shooting at your man. Trunks topple over and kick up huge clouds of spore dust.

You move around the tree, signaling to Vaughn and Kempler.

The MEG-47 kicks against your shoulder as you open fire on the spot where the bug zappers came from.

Vaughn and Kempler are shooting too, the air fills with the answering thunderclaps of the MEG’s shots.

Your heart hammers.

Shit. Shit.

Reed’s on his feet. The spore dust cloud covers him as he heads up the ridge.

You move, zigzagging across the ridge. Bug zapper blasts rip apart the tree behind you. Vaughn and Kempler move too but Kempler loses the coin toss. The bug zapper that hits her punches right through her chest. She’s lifted off her feet, folding in half in the air, as the shot tears through armor and the flesh beneath. A red spray joins the spore dust.

She hits hard, going head over heels, boneless on the ground, ripped nearly in half.

Fuck! Get out of there!

You run up the ridge instead. Oversight freaking out doesn’t matter. What matters is the mission. Your people. That bug up there will answer a ton of questions. That’s the job.

Reed throws himself down on the ridge, braces his elbows and opens up with his MEG.

You run up hill, legs burning, trying to gain ground while the bug is distracted. As long as the bug holds the higher ground, it has the advantage.

Vaughn is on your left, still moving up. Meyers and Leon are on your right, holding positions with Whitfield. Without the scanners Whitfield carries, you’ve only got your eyeballs. If you go down, the others know to get to the Oversight crown and take over.

Bug zapper blasts pound the ground closer and closer to Reed. He stays in position, hammering back shots with the MEG. If he sees something to shoot at, you can’t see it yet.

The bug zapper suddenly switches and rains down on Vaughn’s position.

Among the kicked up spore dust and the falling trees you can’t see him anymore.

Then you spot him, dodging behind a granite boulder. His right leg is wet and dark. He’s bleeding. He’s been hit.

You motion for him to stay put.

He shakes his head. Indicates with gestures that he plans to move on up around the rock.

You give him the go-ahead.

You catch Leon’s attention, point to yourself and the hill, then her. She gets it. If you don’t make it, she’s in charge.

You sprint at the hill. Reed continues shooting from his position. Spore dust chokes you.

You cough. Keep running. Raise the MEG and shoot in the direction Reed is shooting.

Vaughn’s out of sight but you hear the thunderclaps of his MEG firing.

More bug zapper shots sizzle the air but nothing comes your way. Or at Reed. You beckon to him and he scrambles up and moves to the far side of the ridge.

Neither you or Reed are shooting. There’s so much spore dust in the air that you can’t see shit. You try not to cough, try not to think that this is the moment when you’re going to have an allergic reaction to the spore dust. Snot runs down your throat and chokes you.

You spit out the snot, the spores and keep moving forward.

A dark shape forms behind the spore dust. You hold up a fist and Reed drifts behind the broken stump of a sponge wood tree.

No one’s shooting now.

You fast walk forward, MEG ready.

It’s a bunker. The dark, reddish concrete is pitted and cratered with impacts. A low wall surrounds the bunker. Behind that is a dome, with a long slit mid-way up, a little higher than you’d put it, but the floor inside might be higher.

Nothing shoots.

Are they dead?

It’s possible. Vaughn was moving up on their position.

You motion to Reed. He takes one side, you the other.

You circle around the bunker and find the entrance on the back side, facing the valley. It’s just an opening, no door or hatch.

Vaughn is there, sitting against the low wall, his MEG across his lap. For a second it looks like he’s just taking a break, a nap maybe. Only for a second. Reed joins you, sees Vaughn but never lowers his weapon.

He moves forward through the gap in the low wall and you cover him.

Reed presses up against the wall beside the opening in the bunker, and then rolls in, moving low.

“Clear.”

His voice cuts through the ringing in your ears. You move back from the entrance. Meyers appears through the dust, beside one of the remaining sponge wood trees and holds his fire.

You beckon for them to move up, and then go to the bunker to see what answers are there.

The bugs are there, two of them, on the floor of the cramped space. They’re both covered in hard black shells. There’s a bigger one with multiple limbs, one is ripped off and lying on its own on the floor. A smaller one is crumpled against the far side of the bunker, with a fist-sized hole punched in the front of its armor. That one is rounded, and only has four limbs, but there are a bunch of bristly things sticking out of the top like antenna.

That’s tech. Armor, antenna. They aren’t insects.

Maybe not, but it won’t take long before reinforcements swarm up out of the valley below.

“What do we do, sir?” Reed says.

“Take position at those slits. You see anything coming up the ridge, take it out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Other than the bodies, the bunker doesn’t contain much. A few crates and cases. Reed drags one over to the center of the wall and climbs on it to aim his MEG out the slit. The crate doesn’t blow up, so it’s probably okay. You wait for Oversight to tell you what to look at first.

Let’s get that armor off them. We’ll learn what we can about their gear, but their biology might be more important.

Leon, Whitfield and Meyers reach the bunker opening.

“Shit, Sarge,” Meyers says. “What now? Those buggers are coming.”

“Then get on that other wall,” Leon says. “Help Reed.”

Charlie grins and hoists his MEG. “Yes, ma’am.”

He picks his way across the bodies, spitting on the smaller one. He doesn’t need a crate to reach the slit.

You move to the bigger alien and motion Leon over.

“Oversight wants us to get the armor off and see what’s underneath. Help Whitfield get that gear unloaded.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Look sharp. Charlie, Arrio, you’ve got to keep them off us so we can get this done. So far we have zero useful intelligence on the bugs this mission. Kadyn, as soon as Ciera  gets the scanners unloaded, you get on that third quadrant and help provide cover. This bunker is our gold mine and we’re going to keep it. You’ve got that?”

You used their first names. Why?

Because they all know what this means. They understand the mission. They don’t get to unplug and be back on the Archon.

You grab the big alien’s limb on the floor and pick it up. Heavy. Really heavy, like its weighed down. Very little blood leaks from the stump. What does come out is as red as Kempler’s or Vaughn’s blood.

You look back up at the men at the windows. Corporal Ciera Leon is nearly done unloading the packs Whitfield carried. They saw what happened to Teo Vaughn, who has a little girl back home and a wife. Viviane Kempler, the pretty girl was a brave and ambitious career-focused soldier. Each one of them was putting their lives on the line for this mission. Even Kayden Whitfield, who might not be the best shot, he didn’t hesitate to come into this fight carrying that gear.

Sorry.

You don’t need an apology. You need to get the job done. You turn the arm in your hands. The armor is hard but there’s almost a bit of give to it. The limb is as long as your leg, and it’s got two joints, two elbows along the length. The hand at the end is covered over the back with a two-piece protective guard. Under that are six fingers, four long fingers and two thumbs, one on each side.

Leon finishes getting the gear out and claps Whitfield on the shoulder. “Sharp eyes.”

You study the armor on the arm and don’t see any obvious catches or releases. It looks like a one piece formed skin-tight around the arm. You wait for Oversight to make a suggestion.

Put it aside for now. Pick up the weapon, let’s look at that first.

That makes sense to you. You hand the arm over to Leon. “Get tissue and blood samples from the end. Run them through the scanner and transmit to the Archon. Let’s give them as much data as we can.”

Yes, good. Sorry. I should have —

You don’t think it’s worth wasting time on apologies. Right now you want to focus on the work. You pick up the weapon.

Like the arm, its heavy and big. It takes two hands to lift. The weapon matches the armor. Black, with long smooth lines. Two grips, spaced wider apart than those on the MEG-47, but not so far apart that you can’t reach.

You keep it pointed away from the men watching the ridge even though there’s no physical trigger mechanism visible. The grips look solid, with no moving parts. But there is a barrel on the thing. The shape, the barrel, it all suggests that it shoots some sort of bullet even though what came out looks more like energy blasts.

Plasma.

You see what Oversight is getting at. The weapons shoot some sort of projectile with a plasma core. Extremely lethal weapons, much more effective than any you’ve seen.

The projectile must have some sort of magnetic bottle containing the plasma. The power source in the weapon must be impressive. But it also suggests ways we can shield against their weapons.

Too bad there isn’t a way to get weapons back to the Archon for study. You pass it over to Leon, who has already taken the samples from the arm.

“Get what scans you can. We think it’s a plasma-based weapon. If we can penetrate the casing and image the interior, that’s great, but don’t do anything that destabilizes the power source.”

Reed starts firing his MEG. The sound reverberates through the bunker. It’s deafening.

You resist the urge to get up, but you stop to check your MEG. It’s ready to go. You sling it back over your shoulder.

The enemy is coming. You think, Okay Oversight, what do we do with the time that remains?

For a moment you feel alone in your head, but the crown didn’t indicate a disconnection. The others fire their weapons. Leon carefully moves the scanner along the enemy weapon.

There’s no way for you to get out, is there?

That was decided back before you ordered your people out of the clearing. Dwelling on that is wasting time. What’s next?

Helmet. If there are external catches, maybe they’re there.

You agree. It makes sense. The constant MEG fire is answered by bug zapper blasts that shake the bunker. Spore dust fills the air as the impacts shake it from every surface.

Leon continues her scans.

You move to the head of the big alien, at least it has a recognizable head shape at the top. You run your fingers along the sides of the armor covering the neck and discover two indentations. You press and something gives way.

A faint blue glow illuminates a line that traces up the sides and along the front of the helmet. Carefully, you pull the front of the helmet down and free. The light comes from the helmet piece. Complex displays fill the inside, a heads-up display that fed the alien information.

There is a face in the helmet. Not human. Not even any mod-sapiens you recognize. A mouth ringed with small toothy mouth parts bisects the face. Three black eyes run in crescents on each side of the mouth. The center eye on each side is larger, nearly the size of golf balls, and streaked with deeper blues and purples. A four-lobed pupil sits in the center of the eye staring up at you.

Nothing moves. Whatever the enemy is, it is dead.

Leon leans close and lifts her scanner, imaging the alien in detail down to its pores.

You look up just as one of the plasma blasts makes it through the slit and takes off Whitfield’s head in an flare of gore. His body crashes into you.

You roll, trying to shove his bulk off, and from your position on the floor see the two tall aliens jumping over the short wall outside.

You yell a warning.

Leon drops the scanner and lunges for her weapon. The first plasma bolts pass over her head and hit Reed, then Meyers as he turns.

Corporal Leon screams in defiance as she fires her MEG out the door at the aliens. They dive to the side.

You shove Whitfield’s body off and grab your MEG.

“I’ve got this!” Leon shouts. “Scan other one!”

You want to help her, but you grab the scanner and crawl across the bunker to the other alien body. The walls shake from the plasma shots outside.

Leon reaches back with her boot and drags the alien weapon within her reach.

The smaller alien is covered in antennas like Oversight said. Four limbs, different joints, but the same tech covering it. There isn’t an obvious head, but it does narrow at one end.

Leon fires her MEG out the opening of the bunker, simply keeping them back for the moment.

You find two depressions on the alien’s armor and press them. Just as before, a seam opens and the front piece comes free. You lift the scanner even before you see what is inside.

Wrinkled skin, folds on folds, fills the armor. The folds get smaller on the face of the creature, surrounding a blunted snout and wide flaring nostrils. A trickle of blood runs from one nostril. Green striped eyes, with black slit pupils stare blankly out into the bunker. You don’t recognize the alien, but it also doesn’t look like it is related to the bigger alien.

They may not be related biologically. Two species, unrelated, sharing a technology. We may be dealing with another interplanetary culture, like the Reach.

In all the years of the Reach has grown, slowly expanding and absorbing more worlds previously outside the Reach, we haven’t found any other civilizations with FTL drives. Even the advanced worlds contacted were limited to their own solar systems.

Until now. We already knew they had FTL, but this doesn’t look like a case of —

Leon throws the enemy weapon out of the bunker. You turn away, shielding your eyes.

The MEG thunderclap hits your ears.

The world heaves beneath you. Heat, searing hot burns your exposed skin. You’re picked up and thrown against something hard. Bones crack.

The world shakes again and again as if the whole planet has decided to split apart. Smoke burns your lungs and eyes. Sweat pours down over burned skin and stings like ribbons of fire.

Sergeant?

Oversight is still there. You cough out blood and ash and realize that you don’t know Oversight’s name. Before you didn’t want to know, didn’t want to think about Oversight sitting safe on the Archon.

Sergeant. I’m Riley Mathews. What has happened?

You know. Corporal Leon detonated the power source on the enemy weapon.

You don’t hear anything except ringing in your head. You drag yourself up and rub away tears and dirt. Your MEG is half buried in rubble. You pull it free.

The top of the bunker, at the level of the slits, is gone. Torn away. Smoke fills the air, but sunlight tries to penetrate it from above.

You drag yourself out of the rubble. Chunks of concrete tumble away. It takes some digging to find Corporal Leon. She’s unconscious, but alive when you check for a pulse. The left half of her face is a melted ruin. Her breath wheezes through cracked lips.

There’s nothing you can do for her right now. You stagger to your feet and move to the broken opening, holding your MEG ready.

The ridge is a blackened ruin. A crater shows where the weapon detonated. You manage to take a few more steps, out to the low wall, which survived and sit down.

The fire had burned down into the valley. Craters dot the landscape around the bunker. A chain-reaction? One weapon exploding, setting off the others?

More than that. The initial explosion ignited the spore dust. That created a flash fire.

Far below, the enemy pours out of the buildings of their base. Flyers rise into the air. The reprieve is temporary. It won’t take long before they get here.

You stand up and head back into the ruined bunker.

What are you doing?

Every second counts, Mathews. What do you want to look at next?

🚀

Riley gasped for air, sucking it in as if he couldn’t breathe. His chest rose and fell. He shuddered and a sob escaped. He buried his face in his hands. The technician holding the crown stepped away from the oversight chair.

“Doctor?”

Riley’s head snapped up. He slid off the chair. His legs threatened to buckle but he caught himself and stood straight.

“Colonel.”

“They’ve found our position. We’re falling back. Did we get what we needed?”

“Yes, sir. Between the scans from the planet, and what I’ve transcribed, I believe so. It’ll take some time to process all of the data, but we’ve learned a great deal about the enemy.”

Colonel Haynes nodded. “Another multi-system alliance? Different species, that’s what you found?”

“Yes, sir. And details about their weapons and armor technology. We can develop counters.”

“Good. We paid a high price for it.”

“Yes, sir.” Riley didn’t care anymore. Personality ghosting or not. It felt right.

“Sergeant Harrison.” His throat constricted. Tears stung his eyes. He forced himself to go on. “Corporal Leon, all of them. They knew what they were being asked to do. They never hesitated. They never stopped. Harrison, even at the end, when they were coming, he kept working.”

“He did his duty. That’s what we do, doctor.”

“Yes, sir.”

Colonel Haynes turned to leave. Riley hadn’t moved yet. The Colonel stopped and looked back.

“So did you, Mathews.”

The Colonel left and Riley took a deep breath, then turned to the technician.

“I need to bring up all of the data we collected. We need to get it organized and sent ahead. We need to know everything that we’ve learned.”

“Right away,” she said.

Riley moved away from the chair. There was so much work still to be done, but they’d learned more than he dared hope for, thanks to the Fifth Unit.

He wasn’t going to waste a second putting that information to use.

He owed them that much, and more.

🚀

5,887 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 62nd weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Between school and being sick, I was delayed posting this story. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Garden of Evan

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

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

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

🚀

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

He was late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two minutes.

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

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

“Go through,” Evan said.

“You’re across the stream!”

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

“Go,” Evan panted.

One minute.

“No,” Sarah said.

“I’ll get there,” Evan said.

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

He wasn’t going to make it.

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

Twenty seconds.

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

“Go! Sarah! Go!”

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

Now he just had to get it out of range.

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

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

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

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

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

And tasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WELCOME TO THE GARDEN OF EVAN.

PLEASE REMOVE SHOES.

HAVE IDENTIFICATION READY FOR IMMIGRATION CONTROL.

RING BELL FOR SERVICE.

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

“Me. Me. Me. Me,” the scalies said.

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

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

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

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

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

He went on about his rounds.

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

“Hey Lupe,” Evan said to the furball.

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Evan,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are all of the books?”

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

“Journals. Records, observations of everything.”

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

“Back?”

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

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

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

“So what took you so long?”

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

“They scattered, to other worlds?”

“You figured that out?”

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

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

“Have you found any of those worlds?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you establishing new colonies?”

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

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

“I have a request,” he said.

“What is it?”

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

“You have to come back,” she said.

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

“Evan, you can’t stay here alone.”

“Lupe,” Lupe said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine,” Evan said.

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

🚀

6,671 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Bouncing Baby Boy

Gary Poland Jr., first child born on the Moon and already in the history books. His dad nicknamed him Micro-Gee.

Raising a child on the Moon brought new challenges. Micro-Gee walked, ran and climbed early. Armstrong base lacked day care facilities.

Sometimes parenting in an extreme environment means making some creative decisions.

For readers who enjoy a light science fiction father-son story.

🚀

On Earth Gary Poland Junior would have weighed six pounds eleven ounces but on the Moon he weighed in less than a pound. He pinked up right away as the multi-armed Obgyn-bot cleaned and measured him. Then two long white arms lowered the baby down into Gary Poland’s waiting hands. The baby hardly weighed his hands down. He worried about dropping him.

“Your son’s Apgar scores are very positive,” the Obgyn-bot said.

Gary Poland Senior looked into that wrinkled face and smiled. “I’m going to call you Micro-Gee.”

Micro-Gee looked up at Gary’s ruddy face and screamed out his first cry.

Gary beamed. “Boy has a good set of lungs!”

On the bed Gary’s wife Claire managed a weak smile. “Our oxy bill is going to go up.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Gary promised. He gently laid Micro-Gee on her breast. “You’ll see.”

🚀

What Armstrong lacked in space it also lacked in character or comfort. Being a family of three allocated Gary, Claire and Micro-Gee a dome-shaped chamber eighteen feet in diameter. Two hundred and sixty-four square feet of lunar concrete floors, with matching walls and ceiling. Still, Gary thought it was much better than their previous habitat which had just been a partitioned section of a lava tube containing a bed that rotated into a desk surface during the day and a small wash basin. This space actually felt like it could become a home.

Gary and Claire stood in the center of the dome―Claire cradling Micro-Gee in her arms―and marveled at the sense of space. Claire laughed. “This is really going to cut into our budget.”

Gary beamed. “We’ve moved up in the world. You’ll see.” He bent and looked down at Micro-Gee’s sleeping face. “And we owe it all to him. I wouldn’t have applied for my promotion if you hadn’t gotten pregnant.”

“I thought they were going to ship us back Earthside.”

“More expensive than letting us stay here. They’ve got too much invested in us for that.”

“But what about my job? It’s not like there’s a daycare around here.”

Gary slipped an arm around Claire’s waist. “We’ve got all this space now! I’m sure we can set up a corner for you to work in. Plus, when he gets older, it’ll be easier. There’s probably going to be other kids. Maybe we can work out something with other parents. The colony is going to grow. Micro-Gee is just the first.”

“Maybe,” Claire said dubiously. “There isn’t really a corner in here. It’s round.”

Gary laughed. “It’ll be fine.”

🚀

Gary heard screaming before he even reached the hatch. He picked up his pace. He took a deep breath and palmed the hatch plate to open the door. The sound that came out cut right through his skull. He winced, put on a smile and stepped through before the door closed. Their chamber smelled faintly of pee these days. Claire sat on a red and black blanket on the floor with Micro-Gee trying to twist out from under her hands. His tiny face scrunched up and another ear-splitting scream came out of his tiny mouth. Claire looked up at Gary. Her blond hair hung limp around her colorless face. Even her blue eyes looked paler than usual. The only color in her face came from the dark circles under her eyes.

“Can you help me with this?” Claire glanced down at the diaper.

Gary set his bag down beside the hatch. “Of course.”

He joined her on the carpet. “Should I change or hold him?”

“Just change him. I’ve already got him. He shouldn’t be moving around this early!”

“That’s on Earth. We’re going to be redefining the developmental milestones for here. He never had any problem lifting his head. He’s probably going to be up running around earlier than a child on Earth just because it’s easier here.”

“But he’s rolling himself around the room! I tried using the pillows to fence him in but then I’m afraid he’s going to roll onto one and suffocate himself.”

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on him.” Gary bent down, grinning at his son. “Isn’t that right Micro-Gee?”

🚀

By six months of age Micro-Gee could run, jump and climb. Abilities that on Earth would have taken him twice as long to develop came to him easily in the lower gravity on the Moon. It also meant greater challenges for Gary and Claire.

“I have to go to this meeting,” Claire said one Tuesday morning. “It’s the L-5 conference. We’ve been planning it for the past eight months!”

“I realize that.” Gary kept an eye on Micro-Gee’s progress climbing up the netting attached to the walls of their room. A room that felt much smaller these days. The netting helped as it gave Micro-Gee far more room to explore. But he still couldn’t get over the image of his son hanging from the netting overhead. “It isn’t my fault that the last solar flare knocked out three of the telescopes in the array. We need those telescopes online before daylight comes or it’ll delay dozens of research projects.”

“Du du!” Micro-Gee shouted.

Both parents looked up with alarm. Micro-Gee hung overhead.

“Du du. Du du. Du du.”

“You shouldn’t have let him watch that movie. A baby his age!”

Gary shrugged guiltily. “I didn’t think he’d actually pay attention.”

Screeching, Micro-Gee released his grip on the overhead netting and plunged towards his father. Gary caught the boy neatly which caused Micro-Gee to erupt in laughter. A second later he squirmed and grunted to get down. No doubt to climb up and do it again.

“I’m going,” Claire said. “I’m sorry about the telescopes but I have to go.”

She picked up her bag and looked at Micro-Gee climbing up the netting again. “You guys have fun.”

Then Claire was gone leaving Micro-Gee with Gary who looked up at his son climbing upside down now on the netting. He didn’t have any problem wrapping his fat little toes around the netting to help hold on either.

“Be careful,” Gary said. “You don’t want to fall.”

Micro-Gee giggled and let go. Gary lunged to catch him but couldn’t get there in time. Micro-Gee landed on his padded bottom and immediately bounced up on his feet and ran unsteadily back towards the wall.

Gary caught his balance and straightened up. “What am I going to do about the telescopes?”

First he tried calling the Dean of his department. The message indicated that the Dean had gone off to the L-5 conference, the same one that Claire was attending. Peter couldn’t because he was still on medical leave. Manami couldn’t get away from her work analyzing and processing the batches of data gathered for distribution Earthside. It really looked like he was the only one that was trained to do the repairs necessary and if he didn’t it would cost the entire colonial operation.

“Du du!”

“I’m not going to catch you,” Gary warned. He looked up at his son. “I’m trying to call someone.”

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee let go of the netting.

Despite what he had said Gary dropped the phone and caught his son. Micro-Gee cracked up at that and wanted down again. Gary scooped up the phone before Micro-Gee could grab it.

“What am I going to do with you?” Gary asked.

🚀

The rescue ball was a sphere big enough for an adult if they stayed in a seated position. Flexible, durable with projected holographic displays and a built-in air recycling system and equipped with a powerful transmitter, the rescue ball was designed to be used in pressurization loss emergencies when there wasn’t time to put on a spacesuit. A person simply pushed head first into the ball which automatically sealed itself.

Micro-Gee loved the rescue ball. Gary felt pretty bad about putting his son in the ball until he saw how much fun Micro-Gee had rolling the ball around the telescope installation. Gary kept a small video feed running in the lower left quadrant of his helmet tuned to the feed from inside the ball. From the inside the ball looked almost transparent with a geodesic lattice and a few heads-up displays monitoring status. Micro-Gee rolled around the Lunar regolith in the spotlights from the rover. Gary kept talking to him so Micro-Gee wouldn’t get scared while he worked on the telescope.

“Hey, buddy. I just need to pull this fried board and swap in the new one. Won’t take a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”

Since Micro-Gee mostly seemed to be rolling the rescue ball in circles that didn’t seem to be a problem. Gary studied the access hatch. No removable screws here that could be lost. Just big easily gripped red knobs that disengaged to provide access to the panel. He spun the first two and glanced down at Micro-Gee. His son sat in the center of the ball clapping his hands. Something he did when he was pleased with what he had done.

“That’s right, very good baby.” He spun the remaining two knobs. The panel came free and swung open.

Inside a green flip release allowed access to the primary circuit board. Micro-Gee cracked up laughing. Gary glanced up. The ball rolled past the telescope, bounced over a small rock and Micro-Gee cracked up again. The sound of his laughter brought a smile to Gary’s lips. He pulled the circuit board and slipped it into the slot in the replacement case. Then he took the new board out and slid it into place. Micro-Gee laughed again. Higher pitched.

Gary glanced at the display. Micro-Gee looked happy and all the readings showed green. Gary shoved the latch into place to secure the board and took out his diagnostic tablet.

“Du du.”

Gary glanced at the screen. Micro-Gee tottered in the ball. He spread his arms.

The tablet interfaced with the telescope. Gary triggered the diagnostic routines to check the circuit board.

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee laughed and on the display seemed to pitch forward.

Gary jerked his head up looking for the ball but he didn’t see it anywhere. On the screen Micro-Gee lay against the side of the ball laughing. What was he doing? Gary accessed the rescue ball systems and expanded the sensor data. He switched to an external view.

Blackness.

Nothing but black outside the ball.

“Micro-Gee!” Gary left the telescope and bounded over towards where he’d last seen the ball. He still couldn’t see it anywhere but out of the range of the headlights the surface was dimly lit. He triggered the tracking systems. The ball’s position showed up but what it showed made no sense. According to the readout the ball should be within two meters but he didn’t see anything. All sharp-edged shadows and small rocks. Tracks from previous visits crisscrossing the area. Nothing that looked like the rescue ball and he should be able to see the exterior lights.

Micro-Gee stopped laughing. On the screens Gary could see him standing up, pushing against the ball but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“Hang on, buddy. I’ll be right there.”

He walked forward carefully, afraid of what he would find but he thought he already knew. Sure enough, as he closed on the position indicated he saw what at first looked like another shadow on the other side of a boulder but the shadow was round and too large to come from the boulder. Micro-Gee had found a hole and must have rolled right into it.

A hole meant a lava tube, which meant that this area could be unstable. The last thing he needed was to fall into a tube himself and get hurt. He checked the rescue ball systems. Everything green. Micro-Gee had given up trying to move the ball and sat in the center of the ball picking at his toes.

“That’s it,” Gary encouraged him. “Play with your little piggies. I’ve got to get a few things from the rover.”

Gary bounce-walked back over to the rover and grabbed a long probe from the tool rack at the back. At the front he opened the releases on the winch and pulled out the cable. He clipped it to his suit. Then he turned around and headed back to Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee was beginning to get frustrated. He stood up again and beat his fat fists against the side of the rescue ball but whatever it’d fallen into it was wedged.

“It’s okay, Micro-Gee. Dada’s going to get you out of there.” Gary reached the edge of the hole without breaking through the ceiling. He activated his wrist-lights and pointed them down the shaft. It curved down and about three meters down he could see the rescue ball. Dirt covered the top, blocking out the exterior lights. That must have come from the sides when Micro-Gee broke through. The trouble was that the shaft didn’t look very wide. Gary couldn’t be sure that he could fit down there and he needed to get down in order to attach the winch cable. His other option was to go back to the rover again and send a distress signal. But a rescue could take time. The rescue ball was designed to keep an adult alive for several hours and should be able to last even longer with Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee started crying. He beat his fists against the sides.

He couldn’t make his son wait. Not without at least trying first. If he could get him out easily then it’d be done. “And we won’t tell Mama, right Micro-Gee? Hang on, buddy. I’m going to come down there and get you out.”

Gary held onto the probe in case he needed it to dislodge any debris and sat down on the edge of the hole. Narrow, but he might make it. And if he didn’t the winch could pull him out. This was exactly the sort of thing that they were trained not to do. He felt sick. On the screens Micro-Gee screamed some more and pounded on the side of the ball. And fell forward.

Shit, he must have dislodged the ball. Micro-Gee laughed and crawled forward. The tracker showed the ball moving away.

“Micro-Gee! Wait!”

Gary slid into the hole. He just fit. His suit scraped on the sides. He kept telling himself that it was reinforced. It wouldn’t tear easily. In moments it widened out and he reached the spot where Micro-Gee had been stuck but no longer. Debris had caught the ball but now it had moved away. Gary was able to bend over and crawled after the ball. A short distance later he could stand up.

He was in a big lava tube. Easily the same size as the colony tube but it ended a short distance ahead in a flat wall. Someone had to know this was here, didn’t they? He saw the rescue ball about a meter away rolling towards the wall. Gary bounced after it and caught up. He put a hand out and stopped Micro-Gee. He sent a visual image into the ball.

“Hey there buddy, just Dada. How about we go back to the rover, okay?”

Micro-Gee tried to grab him but his arms passed through the image. He blinked in confusion.

“Don’t worry about it.” Gary grabbed the recessed handles and picked up the ball. As he turned with it his light flashed across the wall. It gave back a metallic gleam.

What? Gary walked closer and set Micro-Gee’s ball down. Micro-Gee laughed and rolled towards the wall. Gary stayed beside his son and widened his wrist light. The wall was metal. And down towards the right side where rubble piled up alongside the wall he saw a hexagonal opening. And lying in front of the opening a splayed form in a dusty red suit. Except that the shape was all wrong. Micro-Gee rolled right towards the body.

A body? Gary stopped the ball. He activated all of his cameras and turned the light onto the body. It was a body. His throat felt dry. A body in a space suit but the legs were long and bent oddly. Same with the arms. The helmet was a wide, flattened oval shape at one end but the light didn’t reveal what was inside. Whatever it was the suit didn’t look human.

“Micro-Gee, what did you find?” Gary wondered.

🚀

Micro-Gee became an instant celebrity. The baby that fell down a hole and discovered an ancient spacecraft. Teams of researchers descended on the Moon to study the craft and its occupants. Whether Gary was a fit parent or not also became a frequent discussion. Gary defended his actions, arguing that nothing he’d done jeopardized Micro-Gee’s safety. It just went to show that life on the Moon was going to be like life anywhere, with its own hazards and you just dealt with it the best you could.

Micro-Gee’s only words on the subject? “Du du!”

🚀

2,832 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 53rd weekly short story release, written in July 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

It Takes a Crèche

Jeffery Finney brought his daughter Alice to the beautiful world of Cardinal to start a new life on a peaceful planet safe from the troubles of the Reach.

His work as a botanist involved studying native vegetation — which begged the question why the Reach’s ambassador wanted to meet him.

An impossible choice for Jeffery and his daughter Alice jeopardizes their entire future on Cardinal.

A short story for science fiction readers eager to explore alien worlds and new cultures.

 

As worlds went, and assignments, it didn’t get  better than the planet Cardinal. Jeffrey Finney stood at the window of the fourth floor conference room, in the new Reach embassy, wondering why he’d been summoned. He’d been called off his botanical studies without any explanation.

Cardinal was the second planet from the local G-type sun. It had minimal axial tilt, a temperate climate, and three major, four minor, continents sporting a full diversity of life. It also had four sentient, amphibious species, all sharing a common ancestor, who also shared a peaceful existence among their various geo-political alliances.

That made it unique in the worlds discovered so far by the Reach exploratory teams. And a good place to give his daughter, Alice, a fresh start. Safer even than some of the Reach worlds. He took the posting as a sort of foreign exchange program, one that would get her away from some of the bad influences she’d been messing with back home.

Outside, sunlight sparkled on the shallow waterways surrounding the pearly buildings, their rooftops vibrant gardens. Natives crowded the waterways with their tiny conchs. Those weren’t primitive crafts. The natives made them with advanced composites, smart A.I.-based navigation, and electric jet drives. They rivaled anything made in the Reach.

Large red wood doors at the end of the conference room swung open, admitting a woman and one of the natives.

The woman, Jeffrey recognized. Serena Thompson, the current Reach ambassador. She had a reputation as a smart negotiator, ambitious, and held her doctorate in xeno-political science. She was a standard base-gene human, no mods, but had a record of supporting mod-sapiens and cyber-sapiens rights. She wore a cerulean toga-like native wrap, diamond ear-rings and a diamond necklace. All very traditional in the native culture.

She was also several bosses removed from him in the hierarchy on Cardinal. He couldn’t think of any reason she would need to talk to him. His work was mostly involved collecting genetic samples from local plants and working with the native botanists.

She crossed the conference room and extended her hand. “Dr. Finney, thank you for coming on such short notice.”

Her grip was strong, dry and brief. She turned away and gestured to the native standing in the doorway.

“Allow me to introduce Rrr’kulp Pok, director of the local crèche.”

Pok was one of the Southern sentients, local to this continent. Biped, with backward jointed knees from a human perspective, webbed feet and hands, six digits on each. The bright orange cheeks indicated he was male, as did his robin’s egg blue skin elsewhere. Women of his species had a duller coloration. His neck wattles hung in folds. Like the ambassador, he wore a toga, but his was striped, yellow and black. His diamonds were on a modest gold necklace, with only a few small gems. He brought a peaty aroma, with a hint of ammonia, to the room. It was a faint smell, familiar from working with the natives. Actually Pok smelled pretty good. Some of the scientists in the field started smelling more and more like a litter box the longer they went without getting in the water.

Fist-sized moist eyes gazed at Jeffrey with a look of great sadness, emphasized by the down-turned mouth. Whether or not Pok was sad, Jeffrey had no idea. After three months on Cardinal, he still couldn’t get the natives’ expressions figured out.

“Nice to meet you,” Jeffrey said.

Pok’s neck wattles thrummed, then he said, “This is a joyous day.”

Not sad then. Jeffrey waited for more of an explanation.

Pok’s webbed hands slapped together. “Ambassador Thompson tells me you will arrange the transfer date with our crèche.”

“What?” Jeffrey looked at the ambassador for an explanation.

“Director,” she said. “I explained that we must speak to Dr. Finney first since he is the young woman’s father.”

Young woman? Alice? “What’s wrong with Alice?”

The ambassador touched his arm. “Let’s sit down, and talk about this.”

He wasn’t moving. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Pok thrummed, and said, “We need to arrange the transfer of the offspring to the crèche for maturation and assignment.”

“Maturation?” Jeffrey rubbed his head. “Alice is already grown. She’s not a little kid, she’s seventeen.”

“The Director isn’t talking about Alice,” the ambassador said. “He means Alice’s child. Your grandchild. Alice is pregnant, just over three months, apparently.”

What? That didn’t make any — Rafael. Jeffrey closed his eyes for a second. Cocky, dimpled chin, blue-eyed, cyber-sapiens Rafael had been dating Alice before Jeffrey took this assignment. He knew Alice, he didn’t have any illusions, but he had trusted that she was smart and took precautions.

“Dr. Finney?”

He opened his eyes. “Why am I hearing this from you?”

He shifted his gaze to the sad-eyed Pok. “And why is he involved? How is this their business?”

“Birthing is the business of the crèche,” Pok said.

The ambassador place her hand on Jeffrey’s right arm again, just above his elbow. “Fertilized eggs are cared for in the crèche. When the young hatch they are looked after in the crèche pools until their lungs fully develop and they can leave the pools. Then they are assigned to prospective parents.”

“So? Alice’s child isn’t going to live in some pool. That doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

Pok thrummed, but the ambassador moved to stand closer to Jeffrey, in between him and Pok. She looked up at Jeffrey. Her eyes were worried, but it was the salty hint of sweat that caught his attention.

This was serious. She was nervous.

“Jeffrey, this is a lot. I know. It’s complicated.”

Her mouth was tight. He got the message. She wanted him to play along. Whatever this was, it had involved her for a reason.

He put his hand on her left arm, mirroring her touch. He looked over her head at Pok.

“Director,” he said. “May I have a moment alone with the ambassador?”

Pok thrummed and blinked his eyes. “I am very busy.”

Serena turned without moving away from Jeffrey, which left him smelling her hair, a faint, sweet honey scent.

“I appreciate that, Director,” she said. “Thank you for coming, we appreciate your attention. We will contact you soon.”

Pok’s neck bulged and he blew out the air with a flatulent sound. “Very well.”

He turned and left the conference room, his feet making slapping noises on the floor. When the door shut, Serena stepped away and turned around.

“Thank you.”

She was the ambassador again. That moment, whatever it was, had passed. Jeffrey rubbed his jaw.

“Tell me what I’m missing here. Are we really talking about giving them my grandchild?”

“We’re in a precarious position right now. We have one embassy on one continent, in one alliance. There are four sentient species on this world, they’ve got many, many different cultures and no wars. There’s not a single armed conflict right now anywhere on this world.”

“So? I thought they were natural pacifists.”

“No, it’s more complicated than that. We’re still figuring it out. One thing we do know, the crèches are part of the whole picture. Prospective parents apply for parental rights to the crèche system. It’s different in different alliances, but it is a global, inter-connected system.”

“And?”

She stepped back closer to him, and said, “Children are often assigned across alliances, even across species. It’s a foundational pillar of their peace. Would you go to war with people raising your children?”

 

2

 

Home on Cardinal was a small bamboo cabin on stilts, up on the drier hills above the city, in the reservation set aside for Reach personnel. The smell of chocolate chip cookies filled the cabin. Jeffrey took the last tray out of the oven and placed it on a rack. He’d been baking since he got home, to have something to do until Alice returned from her classes.

He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation. Not about this. It hurt that she hadn’t confided in him yet, that he had to hear about it the way he did. Regulations required birth control in all adults on a non-Reach world, to avoid potential complications.

Like this one.

It was just the timing of the thing. Alice couldn’t have known yet that she had conceived when they left, but that must have been when it happened. She’d been very angry, threatened to run away with Rafael, but at the last minute she had agreed to come. She had seemed heart-broken, and he had assumed that she and Rafael had broken up. She’d never told him exactly what happened, but he thought the fresh start would do them both good.

“Dad? Are those cookies I smell?”

“Fresh out of the oven.”

She came into the kitchen. His beautiful little girl wasn’t little anymore. Taller than him by several inches, she had her mother’s height and green eyes. But she wasn’t the awkward young woman anymore. She’d come into her own. She wore a long green summer dress today as she came into the room.

He looked, but he couldn’t see that she was showing yet.

Alice stopped and put her hands on her belly. He looked up and found tears welling up in her eyes.

“You know,” she whispered.

Tears stung his own eyes, but he blinked them back. He picked up a plate of cookies. “Have a cookie, sweetie. I’m not mad.”

She made a hiccup sound, and covered her mouth. One tear escaped and ran down her cheek.

Jeffrey walked over and wrapped his free arm around her, drawing her close. She flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. Her body shook.

He rubbed her back, just as he’d done when her mother had left. “Hey, hey. It’ll be okay.”

It hadn’t ever been entirely okay, but they’d both survived and moved on. Sometimes he blamed Elise for the problems Alice had, but mostly he blamed himself. He was the parent that was around, after all. Elise had wanted a different life, so she went after it. That was all.

Alice calmed down, sniffled and finally lifted her head.

They sat down at the table. The plate of cookies was between them. Alice picked up one and nibbled at the edge.

Jeffrey picked up one and took a bite so he wouldn’t have to say anything yet. Hot melted chocolate threatened to scald his tongue.

Alice put down the cookie. “How’d you find out?”

It didn’t take her long to get to that. Jeffrey swallowed.

“I was called to the embassy today. Ambassador Thompson told me.”

“What?”

“That’s what I said. She got involved because the natives, their crèche system, they assign children all over to different parents.”

“They also lay eggs,” Alice said. “It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s not. But they still expect that our children will enter the crèche system to get assigned to native parents.”

Alice jumped up, knocking her chair back and over. Her arms folded protectively over her belly. “I’m not giving my child to those frogs!”

“Alice!” He snapped without thinking, shocked that she would use that word.

She backed away from the table, shaking her head. Her face was flushed.

He stood and held out his hand. “Sorry. I didn’t say we were going to give them your baby. Alice, please.”

He picked up her chair and backed up. “Let’s sit down. We need to talk about this, what it means.”

She shook her head. “No. What’s there to talk about? I’m keeping my baby. That’s it. Discussion over.”

She walked out.

Jeffrey resisted the urge to go after her. When she got like this, she needed time to cool down. He needed time too, but he couldn’t just sit on his hands waiting. He needed to do something.

 

3

 

Jeffrey went back to the embassy. Earlier Serena, the ambassador, had agreed that he needed a chance to talk to Alice. Nothing was decided, she had said, but they had both had agreed that he was the person to tell Alice what was going on.

He wasn’t so sure now. It hadn’t gone well. He knew that Alice was impulsive and had a temper, but in this case he couldn’t even blame her because what they were talking about was so insane to start with.

The embassy staff showed him through the marble halls to the ambassador’s penthouse suite on the fifth floor, and a private sitting room done in bamboo panels. Wall hangings, native woven art, decorated the walls. The common thread between all of them was the depiction of sunrises, but the styles varied, as did the vegetation and locations. Some were beaches, others wetlands, rivers and waterfalls. If he had to guess from the plants picture, these were samples from each continent.

A minute later Serena — the ambassador, he had to keep that in mind — came into the room. Her eyes searched his face, and she bit her lip.

“It didn’t go well?”

“Not really. How could it? It’d be hard enough just finding out without all of this going on.”

She gestured to one of the overstuffed couches in the room. It looked like a good couch for a nap, but with the white fabric you wouldn’t want to drink anything that could stain it. He sat down, and it was comfy. He leaned back and groaned as he rubbed his eyes.

The couch moved a bit.

She had sat down, tucking up her legs, arm on the back of the couch to face him.

“Rrr’kulp Pok has already filed notices with the local alliance, citing unwillingness to cooperate on our part.”

Jeffrey sat up. He clenched his hands. “What does he want? To rip the fetus out of her? She’s not due for six more months!”

“I know,” she said. “We’re delaying. We sent them data on human reproduction. They are familiar with mammalian-types of native animal species that have live births. It’s one of the things about us that makes them uneasy.”

“Why? That makes no sense.”

“It does to them. Historically, many of those species are described as egg-stealers, species that consumed their eggs. Like the trunk wolf.”

He’d seen pictures in briefings of what to watch out for when he was out collecting plant samples. The trunk wolf was a long-legged, bipedal, stripped animal with a flexible trunk. Superficially like an elephant’s trunk, except it was actually the animal’s mouth, and the inside was ringed with teeth. Various sub-species stalked the rivers and swamps using the trunk to feed on small animals and vegetation. Or eggs. Sometimes packs would go after larger prey and their trunks would burrow in to suck out the juicy organs. To Pok’s people, it probably was a terrifying creature, like a real-life vampire.

“Fine,” he said, “so we make them uneasy. That’s too bad. We have to stop delaying and tell them the truth. They can’t have my grandchild. It’s that simple.”

“If we do that, they may insist we leave. Everything we’ve worked for, gone. And potential membership in the Reach, lost.”

Jeffrey shrugged. “Oh well. Then maybe we should leave. If we’re going to work with these people, they can’t insist that we give them our children.”

“And they don’t see how we can work with them and not exchange children. It’s not a one-way arrangement. Reach citizens could apply to raise their children as well.”

“You’re not going to get many takers there.”

She sighed. “There’s also the legal issue.”

“Legal issue?”

“When we came here, we agreed to respect and obey their laws,” she said. “Reach law requires us to respect local laws wherever we go outside of the Reach. Each world, each country or alliance, or whatever geopolitical structure exists, has its own sovereign rights.”

Jeffrey stood up. “We also have our rights. We don’t forfeit those in the process. You have to protect your people first.”

She stood and stepped closer, reaching out. Jeffrey stepped back. She let her hand drop.

“We’re working on that. I’m trying to find a way to save our mission here, and protect Alice, her grandchild, and you.”

It had to infuriate her. A seventeen-year-old girl had thrown a major wrench in Serena Thompson’s career plans. If they all got kicked off Cardinal, if she lost a whole world, that had to be a major career derailment.

But it was his daughter, and his grandchild. That was his priority.

“You’re going to have to make a choice,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like they’re going to let you have everything you want.”

Her shoulders dropped. “I will keep trying. You can help too.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant, but she seemed sincere. “How?”

“Convince Alice to meet with Rrr’kulp Pok. I’ll be there too, and you. If we can make him understand the connection, the bond we have with our children, that might help.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

She spread her hands. “I’m trying Jeffrey. I’ve seen your files. I know about your ex-wife, the troubles Alice had. You saw Cardinal as a fresh start, didn’t you? That’s what I want it to be. These are good people, smart people, with a lot to offer the Reach. We need people like them. Help me. I don’t want to give up.”

It was easy to see why she had her job. “I’ll try. If Alice agrees, we’ll give it a shot.”

 

4

 

Jeffrey headed back home after leaving the embassy. He tried calling Alice on the way, but she didn’t answer. He left a message.

“Alice, come home, please. I’m on my way there now. I spoke to the ambassador again. I don’t think they’ll try anything, but I’d feel safer if I knew where you are.”

He only felt slightly guilty for implying that the natives would do something. He had a hard time imagining them arresting Alice, but if she was worried about it then she might come home anyway.

When he got home Alice was sitting in the egg-shaped hammock chair hanging in the corner of the room. A plate decorated with cookie crumbs sat on the stand beside the chair. She had the same sulky look she’d had as a little girl, when she’d gotten in trouble for doing something that she wanted to do.

He shut the door gently and took a seat across the room on the couch. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the one in the embassy. The cushions dropped too far, making a V-shape beneath him.

“Are you okay?” he said, breaking the silence.

“I’m fine,” she said. “No one tried anything.”

“You heard my message.”

“Why’d you go back and talk to her? Did you tell her they could have my baby?”

Jeffrey shook his head. “No one is taking your baby. I’m not letting anything happen to you or my grandchild.”

She blinked and wiped at her eyes.

“So why then?”

“That’s how we solve problems. We talk things through. And I told her that we weren’t giving up the child to anyone.”

Alice kicked her legs, making the chair swing. “Why don’t we just leave? We can catch the next transport, and go somewhere else. If we’re not here then there won’t be a problem.”

“What about art school? I thought you were enjoying it.”

“I am, it’s great. I have this friend — but none of that matters, right? I have to do what’s right for my baby. I’m not going to leave my child.”

He knew what she wasn’t saying. Not like Elise had done. In so many ways she was like her mother, but not that way.

He shook his head. “We can’t go. We can’t afford it, for one thing. I can bid for a different assignment, but there’s no telling when something will open up. Or where. Most of the worlds outside the Reach aren’t like Cardinal. And I don’t think leaving is going to solve the problems here.”

“I can’t do anything about that,” she said.

“Actually, you might be able to help.”

“How?”

“The ambassador wants us to sit down with Rrr’kulp Pok, he’s the local crèche director. She thinks it might help if we can make him understand the bond humans have with their children.”

“I don’t want to talk to him.”

“I know,” he said.

She sighed. “But if it helps them understand that I’m not giving up my baby, I’ll talk.”

Jeffrey got up and crossed the room. Alice stood up and came into his arms. Taller or not, she was his little girl and he was proud of her.

 

5

 

For the third time in the same day, Jeffrey found himself back in the embassy. Serena had set up the meeting back in the conference room where he’d first met her. He sat on one side with Alice, their backs to the window, facing the door.

Serena was at the end of the table. She had greeted Alice with a hug when they came in. Alice was chewing on a strand of hair when the door opened and Rrr’kulp Pok walked in.

Jeffrey stood, and Serena. Alice spit out her hair and stood too, smoothing down her summer dress.

Pok tugged at his toga and thrummed deep in his throat.

“I am Rrr’kulp Pok, Crèche Director,” he announced. “This day has had much muddy water. Thank you for helping clear it.”

That sounded polite. Jeffrey nodded.

“Uh, okay. You’re welcome,” Alice said.

“Director,” Serena said, gesturing to a chair across the table. “Please be seated. Can we get you anything?”

Pok sat down. “No, thank you.”

They all sat down.

Serena folded her hands on the table. “Director, we do want clear waters for all people. I trust you received the files we provided?”

“Yes,” he said. He thrummed a moment and went on. “Very informative.”

He turned his big liquid eyes to Alice. “You carry your crèche inside, so you are also a director.”

Was that a joke? It was impossible to tell from Pok’s expression. Jeffrey took Alice’s hand.

Alice leaned forward. “I suppose, but it’s more than that. My child is part of me.”

Pok’s throat made a flapping noise. Laughter? Or did the thought make him sick?

“Indeed,” Pok said. “We understand now, that even after birth, the human offspring remains undeveloped. Breathing, but unable to ambulate or vocalize. Assignment will require much study.”

Alice shook her head. “We’re not assigning my child anywhere. I’m keeping my baby.”

Pok’s wide mouth dropped open and nothing came out.

Serena said, “The material we provided spoke of the familial bonds between parent and child. You can see that here, Dr. Finney is Alice’s biological father. There is a strong paternal bond, even though Alice has reached adulthood.”

The director’s big eyes blinked at them both. Finally his mouth closed and he thrummed quietly for a moment before speaking.

“We also experience familial bonds with our children,” he said. “Does this not happen with you, if the biological parents are not present? Who raises those offspring?”

“We do have adoptive parents,” Serena said. “And yes, they do bond with their children.”

“Then you must understand that no harm would come to the child. We have rigorous standards for prospective parents, to ensure children receive every opportunity.”

That sounded good, for their children. Jeffrey jumped in. “We believe our children are best served by staying with their parents while growing up, whenever that possible.”

Pok’s webbed hands tapped on the table. “And what if the parents are not prepared for raising a child? If they lack the resources, due to youth or circumstances?”

“I can take care of my child,” Alice said. “I’m not stupid. I can work.”

Pok thrummed rapidly. “I intend no insult to you, Alice Finney, but surely you want the best for the child?”

“The best thing for my child is to be with me.” Alice stood up. “You’ll have to accept that, because you’re not taking my baby!”

Jeffrey stood up as well. “Maybe we’d better go.”

Serena stood and held out a hand. “Wait. Please. These sort of issues come up when different species interact. That doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground for cooperation.”

Pok slowly stood as well. He touched his diamond necklace. “Cooperation comes through trust. If you fail to extend trust with your young, why should we trust you on lesser matters?”

“We can say the same,” Serena said. “If you won’t trust us on our biological differences, why would we trust you on other matters?”

Pok sucked in his neck and it flared out twice, making hard knocking noises. Without a word, he turned to leave.

“Wait!” Alice said.

Pok stopped. He turned. His wattles shook. Jeffrey wasn’t sure what the natives looked like when angry, but he thought this might be it.

Alice was squeezing Jeffrey’s hand, but now she let go and moved around the table. “I have a question for you.”

“Yes,” Pok said.

“What do you get out of this?”

Pok’s wattles shook and flared up. He seemed unable to speak, then finally thrummed and said, “Clear your meaning.”

Alice crossed her arms. “I get what everyone’s been saying. It even makes sense. I see how it works for your people. But you lay your eggs, or fertilize them, and leave. It’s great that you care for your children, but you don’t carry them inside you for nine months. We’re different species, but we’re not all that different. What does Rrr’kulp Pok, Crèche Director get out of making a big deal out of this? You’re not the only crèche director, we just ended up here, in your jurisdiction. So what do you, Rrr’kulp Pok, get out of this?”

Jeffrey covered his mouth to hide the smile. He didn’t know if Pok has trouble reading human expressions or not. Alice certainly had her mother’s boldness and temper, but the question was a good one.

Serena leaned forward on the table. “Director?”

Pok’s wattles shook. He made a coughing noise deep in his throat. Finally he said, looking at Alice, “I mean you no ill, Alice Finney. Placing the first child between our peoples, that is a great honor, a great responsibility.”

“One for the history books?” Alice said.

Pok thrummed. “Yes, perhaps, a note.”

“I get that,” Alice said. “What if I had another option?”

“I am listening,” Pok said.

They were all listening. Jeffrey wondered what she had in mind.

Alice glanced at him and smiled. For an instant it was the smile of a five-year-old Alice, after reading aloud for the first time. And at ten when she played her solo violin recital. Or when she was fourteen, the first time that smile reappeared after Elise left, when she won the local artists competition and announced that she wanted to study art professionally.

“I have this friend,” she was saying. “She’s in my classes, a Southern native, and an amazing artist. She’s also got a child, so she’s on your list of approved parents. She’s got a second level on her home, and she’s offered to let me rent it. If I moved in there we’d be house-mates, we could raise our kids together, and you could say that you’d placed me and my child in a local home.”

Jeffrey didn’t breathe. It was a bold idea, even if it felt like the floor dropping out from under him to think of Alice moving out.

But that was going to happen, sooner or later. Serena met his eyes and her eyebrow raised slightly, asking him silently.

He nodded.

“That sounds like a perfect solution,” Serena said. “We would all gain a better understanding of each other, with these two parents raising their children together.”

Pok thrummed. His wattles rose, fell. “Yes, I believe that could work. We would need to file a variance, but those are details we can work out.”

Alice clapped her hands. “Great! I’m sure Trill will agree.”

She spun around and came back to Jeffrey. “Sorry, Dad. I’d talked to Trill, you’d like her, but I didn’t want to leave you.”

Serena had moved around the table and was speaking to Pok. Jeffrey took Alice’s hands.

“It’s fine, sweetie,” he said. “I always knew you’d move out eventually, that’s normal. It’s not the same thing as your mother leaving.”

“We don’t have to do it right away,” she said. “I’ve got six months, right? It could be after the baby is born.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he said.

Pok turned to face them across the table. “I must leave, now that our waters forward are clear. My department will begin the work required.”

“Thank you again, Director,” Serena said.

“Thank you for understanding,” Alice said.

Pok’s wattles shook, and he walked out, feet slapping the floor.

When he was gone, Serena came around the table. She hugged Alice, and rubbed her arms.

“Thank you, Alice,” she said. “Are you sure art is your calling? You’d do well in the diplomatic corp.”

Alice laughed. “I think I’ll stick to art, see how that communicates to other people.”

Serena turned to Jeffrey and touched his arm again. “Thank you, too.”

Alice squeezed Jeffrey’s hand and stepped back. “Dad, I know it’s crazy, with everything going on, but I’ve got an assignment due to finish. I’ve got to split. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Yes,” he said.

She waved, and an instant later the door swung shut behind her.

He stepped over to the windows and looked out at the sun setting on all the pearly buildings with their rooftop gardens. Serena joined him, and her arm brushed his. He looked down at her, his heart suddenly beating fast, took a breath and let it out.

“I guess if the kids are getting along, there’s hope for our future here?”

“I think so,” she said. “You know, when I came here I saw it as a stepping stone to other postings. But this is a beautiful world, fascinating people. I don’t really want to go anywhere else.”

The hi-tech conchs below zipped through the waterways.

“So you think you want to settle down here?” he said.

“I do.”

He smiled, and turned away from the window. She looked up at him. He had to agree. As assignments went, this was just about perfect.

5,074 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 26th weekly short story release, written in October 2013, at a workshop in Lincoln City with a great group of professional writers. I introduced a world and universe in this story that I’d like to explore more in future work. I had fun with it and hope others will enjoy it too.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction / fantasy story, Astrasphere.

Eris Revealed

Eris circles the sun three times further out than Pluto. More massive than Pluto, it triggered a redefinition of planets and is named after the goddess of strife and discord.

Elisa Burges discovers that Eris lives up to its name when a saboteur nearly costs Elisa her life. She survives and coordinates a daring mission to capture a comet to give the colonists the one thing they desperately need — water!

If anything goes wrong it could jeopardize all their lives out on the very edge of the solar system.

1

No one expected much from Eris. It was to be one more colony among all the others scattered throughout the solar system by the Diaspora Group. A seed, yes, but every seed had the potential to grow into something much more.

And what a seed! Elisa stood on the observation deck of the Sun tower, clenching the rails with sweat-slicked palms, and gazed out at what they had built. Xena radiated out around the Sun tower, with sweeping avenues and parks and buildings of pale stone, streaked with red. Primordial stone formed over billions of years of slow pressure after Eris came together in the distant cloud out beyond Neptune. Stone mined by robotic miners to construct the tall, sweeping and classical structures that made up the colony. It looked like the work of hundreds of years, and yet was completed in less than two. Those buildings down below would stand forever, even if the dome trapping the air she breathed didn’t last.

She licked her lips, tasting salt from her sweat. At the observation deck the artificial sun blazed above her, providing light to supplement the dim and distant sun. The Sun tower extended down, from the dome, to the artificial sun’s core and then on down another hundred meters to the observation deck.

Patrick moved to the rail beside her. He was younger than her thirty years, five years younger. Thin and athletic, and a brilliant designer. He had not only led the project to building the Sun tower, but he was the one that insisted that they include the observation deck. His face was all sharp angles and planes, almost as geometric as the geodesic dome that covered Xena. Sweat glistened on his forehead.

“It’s too hot to stay up here long, we’re wasting water. Are we still doing this?”

“You’re sure it’s safe?”

“I’ve done it dozens of times.” He smacked her pack.

She tightened her grip. Her heart almost failed to beat. “Don’t do that!”

He stepped back, raising his hands. “No one’s going to shove you off. You’re fine.”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes but then she did feel like falling and she quickly opened her eyes again.

Sky-diving above Xena was a popular sport. She’d never done it. Patrick started it all, that was his motivation for building the observation deck at all. He wanted a platform high enough to jump off. As high as they were, it didn’t really look high enough. Except that Eris massed a lot less than Earth, gravity was less, so they had plenty of space no matter how it looked.

Assuming the equipment worked. If the chute failed then she’d end up just as dead here as she would have on Earth.

 

She sucked in the hot, dry air. She licked the salt from her lips again. Patrick was right. They were wasting water, a rare enough commodity on Eris.

“Okay. I’m going to do it.”

“Just like we practiced,” Patrick said. “I’ll be following you all the way down and our glasses will keep us in touch. I’ll know what’s going on.”

Elisa nodded. A cool calmness filled her up. Just like she’d felt stepping onto the transport that had left Earth’s orbit to bring them out to Eris, one of the first launched by the Diaspora Group. They’d blown all expectations by launching their first colonial missions to the farthest depths of the solar system. To Eris and Pluto, Huamea and Makemake. All choreographed so that the inner system colonies launched later were coming online within months of the outer system and the gas giants.

She’d experienced the same sense of calm then, a surrender to the forces that had brought her to that point.

Elisa stepped off the tower.

The wind grappled with her, threatening to spin her and toss her about. She spread her arms and legs for stability but turned in place as if the world below her was rotating around her belly button. A chime sounded in her ear and she realized she had heard it before. A blinking dot caught her attention in the corner of her vision.

She focused on it, and the dot expanded into Patrick’s avatar.

“Open your chute!” He was yelling, the cartoon version of him showing a wide, black mouth full of stars, with planets for his teeth.

The cartoon Patrick’s mouth continued to expand until it was all she saw, just a massive cartoon mouth full of stars and planets. The planets swept past her and the darkness enveloped her.

All sense of falling vanished. Elisa hung suspended in the midst of the star-filled expanse. The Milky Way stretched across the heavens was a brilliant river of stars, blinding in its intensity, like nothing on Earth. It was beautiful and endless.

2

Elisa woke, her heart pounding. Her fingers dug into the blankets of the bed. She clenched her teeth to hold back the screams, and twisted the thin fabric in her fists until her fingers ached.

This was her room. In her apartment. In the heart of Xena, the Eyrie. She recited the facts silently. Her room. Her apartment. The Eyrie. She wasn’t falling. The nightmare was a familiar one, the uninvited specter that had haunted her sleep since the accident six months ago. It varied slightly, but it always started the same. Up on the observation deck with Patrick before the jump. He hadn’t yelled for her to open her chute. She had called him in a panic when her chute failed to open. Sabotage, but they hadn’t caught the person responsible. Patrick had tried to save her, and he mostly succeeded, at the cost of his own life.

Elisa closed her eyes tight against the tears. She’d cried buckets on this parched planet, every drop was precious. She wasn’t going to dishonor Patrick’s memory by shedding more tears. The comet was coming and she needed to be on her best game for the capture. She tossed aside the blanket. There was no point trying to sleep after the nightmare. She might as well get busy.

After a three-minute shower — which really wasn’t long enough to consider it a shower — Elisa dressed in a clean white Diaspora-issue workall and walked, thanks to the exoskeleton that gave her mobility, to her living room. It used to be that she enjoyed the feel of the cool stone beneath her bare feet. Now her feet were enclosed by the exoskeleton’s flexible, sandal-like feet and she couldn’t feel them anyway. The light framework wrapped around her leg, clamping down on key points. Thanks to the low gravity, the exoskeleton didn’t need a lot of weight, just strength and some flexibility. The contact on her spine, above the break, picked up the signals that would have gone to her leg and relayed back feedback to her spine so that she felt what the exoskeleton felt and was able to simply walk without having to think about it. It was based on the same technology as the androids Diaspora was building throughout the system. It was both the same, and very, very different than what she had before the accident. Enough that she sometimes went whole hours without thinking about the exoskeleton.

Elisa pushed aside thinking about the exoskeleton and activated her holographic display in the center of the room. An animation showing Eris’ icy red-hued surface appeared floating in the center of the room. Eris’ moon, Dysnomia, floated at a distance from the planet. A red line traced an orbit around Eris before shooting off into the far wall of her apartment.

That line was the comet’s planned orbit. A solar sail manufactured at Mercury, boosted out by the beamed power stations Mercury had put in orbit around the sun, was currently towing the comet into position to be captured by Eris as a second moon. Unlike rocky and dry Dysnomia, the comet AS48792-2c, Oasis, was pretty much water ice, with impurities. A dirty snowball that would supply them with much needed water and primordial organics.

Elisa pulled up the telemetry from the sail and double-checked the data. The smallest variation in the numbers could mean that the comet would shoot past Eris and slingshot out into the depths of space. Or go hurtling into the inner system to who knew what outcome. Or, even more of worst-case scenario, the comet could impact Eris and endanger the lives of everyone living in Xena.

It was her job to make sure that didn’t happen.

Today she was going to give the order to disconnect the solar sail. Once the comet went Newtonian, they’d have to trust the math and the dance of gravity.

Right now the numbers looked right. She activated the simulation. The hologram came to life, zooming up the red line until the comet appeared at the center of the room. It was a small potato-shaped world of craters, ice and rock, only 3 kilometers long on the longest side. A lightly-packed snowball from the earliest days of the solar system. Scientifically, it was a fascinating body to study but there were millions of comets out there in a cloud around the sun. It was a vast well of resources that spread out so far that some comets had probably been traded back and forth between other solar systems.

The comet flew down the red line. Eris came into view and the animation adjusted the scale until the comet was only fist-sized, flying above Eris’ wrinkled surface. It looped around Eris and settled right into a stable orbit around the dwarf planet. A new moon, one that would solve their water problems.

Elisa dismissed the hologram with a wave of her hand. Simulations were fine, but the real test was coming when the comet arrived.

That, and the arrival of the dignitaries. Another test, one that she didn’t need right now.

3

The meeting was scheduled for nine, local time, and Elisa was late. She walked quickly across the square to the Admin building, a four-story long stone building with Grecian columns. All of the architecture in the colony buildings borrowed inspiration from classical Grecian orders.

As she passed the columns Kim Lee caught up to her. Kim was petite, with straight dark hair and delicate features. Unlike many, she didn’t wear the plain Diaspora workalls. Instead she wore a textured gray skirt that ended just above her knees, a black blazer and a shimmery red blouse. Her hair was held back by a bamboo clip. On her feet she wore a pair of stylish black heels. Apparently she had used most of her personal weight allotment on the trip out for her wardrobe.

“The initiators are online, Ms. Burges,” Kim said quickly. “The android bodies have checked out and are ready to receive our guests. The latest data on the capture of AS48792-2c shows that it is right on track.”

“Thank you,” Elisa said. “Good morning.”

“I prepared several talking points, if you want to review them?”

Kim was thorough, and did a fantastic job of looking after her. Elisa shook her head. “No thank you. I don’t plan to talk much. I’ll let our guests do that.”

“This is an important day for Xena, and Diaspora. People will watch the recordings.”

“That’s fine,” Elisa said. “Let’s not put them to sleep with speeches.”

The doors, fairly convincing wood replicas, swung open as they approached. They walked side-by-side through into the big central lobby. Holographic images around the sides of the room showed moments from their short history. The launch from Earth. An image of the brave colonists in their transport on the way to Eris, two years into the journey. A man named Benton Carter, with a bushy red beard and dark, haunted eyes looked at the viewer. He was actually looking at the photographer, Jim Greenway. Other images showed the temporary colony in inflatable habitats, the discovery of the first water ice vein that had saved them, and the construction of the Xena dome and first buildings. The holograms changed over time, each showing a sequence of images around the central theme. It was a compelling display.

Jim Greenway was going to be here today, Elisa realized. Of course he’d want to capture images of today’s events.

For an instant she envied Kim her style and wardrobe, but she shook it off. Her people knew her for who she really was, she didn’t need anything more. She was proud to wear the white Diaspora workall. That was enough.

The meeting hall was full. Elisa and Kim had taken the outside stairs down to the floor, and then opened the door to walk out onto the stage. It was time. There wasn’t any chance to stop and prepare.

Tiers of seats rose up above her. Excited voices filled the chamber, but people quieted as she walked out onto the stage. It was a sea of faces rising above her. Most of the population had turned out for this event, one of the more exciting things that had happened recently in Xena. The lights from the ceiling were bright in Elisa’s eyes. Her tongue was dry in her mouth. She swallowed and tried moistening her mouth but her throat stayed dry.

Kim handed her a water bottle.

Elisa flashed her a quick smile. Kim always thought of everything. Elisa took a quick sip from the bottle, just enough to moisten her throat as she walked to the center of the stage.

Arrayed behind her, along the back of the stage, were four blue-gray android bodies like statues. They stood lifeless and inanimate, but that was going to change soon. Kim moved off across the stage and took up a position just off stage where she could control the displays. Everything was in place.

Elisa spread her arms, palms facing her gathered people. Her throat tightened just seeing them all come out. She knew each and everyone one of them, recognized their faces. Even Benton Carter, sitting up near the back in the top row, his lean, clean-shaven face so unlike the image in the lobby. Greenway was at the far left side of the hall, standing in the aisle. His spy-eyes buzzed above the crowd. He caught her looking at him and smiled a bright flash of straight teeth and winked.

“Good morning,” she said, letting her gaze travel back across the crowd. She smiled. “What a good morning! Today we change our world again. How many people get to say that?”

The crowd cheered and clapped. She raised her hands slightly and the quieted back down.

“It is a good morning. I’m looking forward to the chance to take a real, long, hot shower. Or soak in a tub. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

More cheering and clapping. She waited for it to quiet down.

“It would. Today we’re going to catch us a comet full of life-giving resources. It’ll be far more important than being able to take a bath or a shower. Water is life. We came out to Eris knowing that methane ices covered the surface. We knew we’d find mineral resources, carbon, and nitrogen. All of the things that we needed to build ourselves a new future on this world. Except water. That, we weren’t sure about. We gambled that we’d find water when we got here. Water is so common in the system, how could there not be water? And we were right, there was, but boy is it hard to get. We have to squeeze it out of the rock. Where people on Earth mined gold, we mine rock hard water ice in order to stay alive.”

They knew all of that already. Elisa took a breath and smiled.

“It’s a good morning because we change that today. This comet will become a new moon, supplying us with the water we so desperately need.”

She moved across the stage and turned slightly so that she could see the android bodies. She gestured at them.

“And it’s also a good morning because we have invited guests to join us for this historic moment. Thanks to our new initiators, we can now establish instantaneous connections with any other world in the solar system.”

That was Kim’s cue. The first android in the line shimmered. The outline changed, becoming slimmer, feminine and a hologram swirled around the body, transforming it into a young woman. Young, only twenty-eight, she wore tight brown paints, a loose green tank top that showed off her tanned, muscular arms, and her signature hand-made red snood hat over her dark curly hair. She was one of the most recognizable women in the solar system. Carys Rex, the adventurer that had ridden the first sky bike around Venus, circumnavigating the planet.

Carys walked forward onto the stage, waving at the crowd. They erupted in cheers and rose to their feet clapping and cheering. She laughed and pressed her hands to her mouth.

Elisa raised her hands and the crowd settled back down. Carys looked at her, eyes wide and still laughing.

“Wow,” Carys said. “I didn’t expect that welcome!”

“Good morning,” Elisa said, extending her hand. “Welcome to Xena. I’m Elisa Burges.”

Carys took her hand and they shook. Carys’ hand felt real and warm. The android body filled out to match the holographic overlay. It was a completely convincing illusion.

Elisa released Carys’ hand. Carys raised her hands and arms.

“I haven’t ever done a jaunt before, it’s hard to believe that I’m not actually here.”

“I haven’t tried it either,” Elisa said. “I’ve heard that, though.”

Carys laughed. “It’s weird. I know my body is back on Aphrodite in a sensory chamber, but I couldn’t tell that from this. It really feels like I’m here.”

“In every important sense, you are,” Elisa said. “And we’re thrilled to have you join us. We’ve got some more guests joining us.”

The next android shimmered and changed before their eyes, becoming tall and lean. Short blond hair and a strong face. Larunda Stark, chief geologist from Mercury smiled at the gathered crowd as she came forward and lifted her arm. Polite applause from the crowd greeted her.

Elisa shook her hand, looking up at the woman that had helped open up the solar system. It was Mercury’s solar sails and beamed power plants that had transformed the system.

“Good morning,” Elisa said. “Welcome to Xena.”

“It’s good to be here.” Larunda looked over at Carys. “Carys Rex, I recognize you from your shows.”

The two women shook.

“You’re one of my heroes,” Carys said. “The work you did is making today possible.”

“It took a lot more people than me to make it happen,” Larunda said.

The remaining androids were changing before them, taking on human shapes as the holographic overlays formed. Clara Ransom, who had discovered the first evidence of alien visitations on Titan, was average height with mouse-brown hair and big brown eyes. She looked around intelligently, smiling a wide toothy smile as she saw the crowd gathered. She also wore a Diaspora workall, green in her case.

“Welcome to Xena,” Elisa said. There wasn’t time for more as the final holographic overlay took over the last android.

Terra Blackstone, glamorous, beautiful as always, had appeared on the stage and the crowd went wild. They surged to their feet cheering and clapping. It was thunderous. Clara laughed and moved closer to the other three guests, their heads coming together as they exchanged greetings.

All of the audience’s attention was on Terra. Her long legs were covered in a shimmery blue-green fabric that clung to her hips. She wore a short white jacket over the dress. Around her neck were her signature asteroid diamonds, the famous necklace made from diamonds mined from the first asteroid that the Diaspora Group had captured. More diamonds glittered from her earrings. Her dark hair was pinned up. She managed to look both elegant and relaxed at the same time, helped by the fact that her feet were bare, painted toenails peeking from beneath the dress.

Elisa took a breath and forced herself to move. Terra Blackstone was a force, no doubt. Without her will and determination none of them would be where they were today. Elisa walked forward on the stage.

Terra turned, and smiled warmly while extending her hand. Elisa took the offered hand and shook. Terra’s grip was warm, firm and familiar. It was hard to believe that she was shaking an android’s hand, even one driven by Terra.

“Welcome,” Elisa said.

“It’s good to see you again! You’re doing okay?”

The accident. Elisa was suddenly very aware of the exoskeleton, even though she couldn’t feel it pressing against her legs she knew it was there.

“I’m fine.”

Terra waved to the audience and slowly they started sitting again.

Elisa leaned closer and noticed that she didn’t smell Terra. It wasn’t the absence of perfume, Terra didn’t usually wear perfume, but just the normal human scent of another person was missing. Because she was only here via the jaunt in an android body. It was disconcerting. Elisa pushed the thought aside.

“They’re excited to see you,” she said.

“I’m excited to be here.”

Terra took a step forward on the stage, motioning with her hands.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice amplified through the hall’s audio systems. “Thank you. I appreciate it, I do, but I’m going to turn things over to your own administrator, Elisa Burges.”

The audience quieted down. Elisa glanced over at Kim, who gave her a quick thumbs up. They were ready. Confident, Elisa faced her people.

“Thank you, Terra. Thank you, all of you. Today we have the fortunate of having four guests who have taken time out of their busy schedules to jaunt here to witness this historic moment in our history.”

Elisa gestured to Terra. “You know the chief architect of the colonization of the solar system, the head of the Diaspora Group, Terra Blackstone.”

More cheers and clapping. Elisa moved on.

“Also with us today, we have Clara Ransom, all the way from Titan where she’s investigating the map left behind by extraterrestrial visitors to our system.”

When the cheers ebbed, Elisa pointed to Larunda Stark. “Larunda Stark, chief geologist at the heart of the solar system on Mercury. As close to the sun as we get, jaunting out here to the farthest reaches of the Diaspora Group!”

“For now,” Terra interjected.

More laughter and cheers. Elisa laughed too and when people finished cheering she touched Carys’ shoulder. “And Carys Rex, one of the most adventurous, dynamic women in the solar system! We’ve all seen her amazing adventures circumnavigating Venus on her sky-bike.”

Carys waved and the crowd went wild again. The four guests stood side-by-side waving to the crowd. The crowd cheered and Jim’s spy-eyes flew above them all, zipping around the room to film from many different angles. Carys pointed at the spy-eyes and laughed.

“I didn’t bring mine with me!”

Kim made a small gesture with her finger. Elisa caught it, even if no one else did. She moved to the front of the stage and lifted her hands, motioning for the crowd to settle down. The mission was on a clock and she had to get them back on track. Gradually the noise ebbed and people sat back down.

“We’re grateful to have such distinguished guests join us here on Eris for such a historic occasion,” Elisa said. “And in the reception after this, you’ll have a chance to meet them personally. We are on a timetable, however, and it’s important that we don’t mess this up.”

That pulled some nervous laughter from the crowd. They all knew what was at stake.

A holographic Eris appeared above and behind them. That part of the stage darkened, as if a window had opened up to the space above, letting them look back down on themselves. That was essentially the case. Satellites in orbit around Eris provided real-time data to the system.

The dwarf planet shrank rapidly as if they were zooming away through space until it was replaced with a bright green dot. A golden dot hung in space and a dotted red line traced the projected path of the comet.

“Oasis, or it’s less romantic name, AS48792-2c, is on target.” The view zoomed in on the golden dot.

Soon the dot resolved into two shapes. One was a massive golden solar sail, only microns thick, extending out into space behind the comet. It was tethered to the comet by a fine net, and powered by a powerful microwave beam projected from the power stations in the inner solar system. There was a whole network of stations in orbit around the sun, powering the rapid transit of the solar sail network Diaspora had created.

“Given our instantaneous communications network, we can pull off the sort of coordination that wouldn’t have been possible before. We are tracking the comet’s progress, and at the precise moment we will instruct the beamed power station to shut down the microwaves. When the last of the microwaves reaches the sail, and it registers the contact has ended, the sail will blow its connection to the comet.”

Elisa paused and looked up at the comet floating above them. Her guests were also looking at the comet.

“Oasis will bring new life to Eris, water to our desert. The timing is critical. If the beam doesn’t end at precisely the right moment then the comet could slow too much and potentially impact the surface, endangering Xena. Alternatively, if the beam disconnected too early, the comet would continue moving too fast and slingshot right past Eris. We have to hit it just right to put Oasis into a stable orbit around Eris. A new moon, providing us easy access to its resources.”

Terra Blackstone stepped forward beside Elisa. “Although we’ve captured smaller asteroids before, we haven’t ever attempted to change the orbit of a body this large. It is this sort of brave, bold venture that I imagined when the Diaspora Group first came together. From the beginning our critics have told us what we could do, what we could accomplish and we’ve consistently proven them wrong!”

The crowd cheered and clapped again. Elisa laughed and motioned for quiet again. They settled down as Kim walked out with the tablet.

“Would you like the honor?” Elisa asked Terra.

Terra shook her head and touched Elisa’s arm. “I wouldn’t dream of it. This is your show. I wouldn’t dream of stealing it from you.”

Her show. Elisa accepted the tablet from Kim, thanking her. The numbers were counting down. Above her, the comet and the solar sail continued to hang, apparently still but that was an illusion because the camera systems were keeping pace with the comet.

On the screen the numbers were counting down. Above that, a red light indicating the microwaves were still being transmitted. Only twenty seconds to go. The tablet was symbolic, anyway. They weren’t trusting the timing of a human pressing a button for this, the computers would automatically send the signal to the beamed power station, cutting off the beam. Confirmation from the power station would come back on the instantaneous network, but it would take the last microwaves over nine hours to reach the sail before it disconnected.

The time was almost up. A duplicate of the tablet screen, enlarged for the audience, floated in the holographic display next to Oasis. Elisa’s finger hovered over the button. The crowd was quiet, as if everyone was holding their breath.

The numbers hit zero and flashed. Elisa’s finger stabbed down and hit the button.

The red light on the tablet and the holographic display didn’t go out. She looked up, alarmed, at Kim.

Kim was busy, talking quickly to someone.

Terra frowned and the other guests moved closer. Murmurs spread through the crowd.

Elisa pushed the button again. Nothing. Her heart raced. It was just like the jump, when her chute wouldn’t open. The glasses’ activation command had failed. She had pulled the cord and nothing, it wouldn’t open. The emergency cord also failed.

She pushed the button again. The light flashed green. She looked at Oasis, but nothing had changed yet there, of course. The sail wouldn’t disconnect for over nine hours still. What was the impact of those few seconds? How long had it been?

Elisa lowered the tablet, holding it in her hands while she looked up at the crowd. “We have confirmation that the power station has discontinued the beam. It’ll be over nine hours before we have confirmation that the sail has disengaged with Oasis. Thank you for coming, we’ll be analyzing the data on that delay and will let you know what we learn. If you’ll all go on to the gallery, we’ll start the reception.”

People started rising to their feet. Kim crossed the stage to Elisa elbow.

“We need to go to Central,” she said.

From Elisa’s other side, Terra said, “We’ll take care of the reception. Do what you need to do.”

“Do you know where — ”

Terra grinned. “I know. Go.”

Terra walked across the stage, followed by Carys and Clara. Larunda stayed behind, and come over to Elisa. At the edge of the stage Terra’s amplified voice boomed out over the milling audience.

“Come on, people, let’s go to the reception!”

That got people moving, streaming up to the exits. Elisa saw Greenway hesitate and then followed their jaunt guests and the crowd out of the hall.

Larunda turned away from Terra. “I should come with you. It was Mercury’s systems that were involved too.”

Elisa nodded. “Let’s go.”

4

Central was the large domed building at the heart of Xena, on a rise above the orchard. It housed all of the administrative and technical offices of the colony. It was the brains of the whole operation. They went right in to the center of the building, to the hub right beneath the dome.

The center of the dome provided space for large-scale holographic displays. Individual workstations were on tiers rising up around the dome. It was already busy. People moved around the chamber talking. Holographic images of Eris and Oasis hung in the center of the dome. A flashing red orbit line showed the trajectory of the comet spiraling in around Eris and impacting —

Elisa’s breath caught in her throat. It couldn’t be right. That wasn’t possible.

Larunda said. “Does that show it impacting here?”

Xena. The line terminated at Xena. A precise, bullseye impact on the colony.

They had entered on the main floor but Elisa’s head spun as if she was falling. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath.

“Elisa!”

She opened her eyes. Greg Hathaway, her assistant director, strode across the floor. He was lean, with graying hair and deep-set eyes. His soft voice still managed to carry.

She had to get a grip. “What’s the situation?”

That sounded calmer than she felt. Her nerves settled. Take it one step at a time.

“The delay slowed Oasis precisely enough for it to hit the window, putting it into a decaying orbit that will bring it down within 50 kilometers of Xena.”

“How long?”

“A week,” he said. “The microwave beam will cut out in just over nine hours, but it’ll take three days before the comet enters the window. After that there isn’t much that we can do.”

Elisa absorbed the news. Three days wasn’t long, but it was a possibility. All they needed was a way to nudge its trajectory. “What about the mining craft? Are they ready to go?”

The mining ships were designed to go to orbit, meet up with the comet and allow mining of the resources.

“Yes,” Greg said. “We could launch, but they don’t have the power to match the comet’s current speed. And once it’s in that decaying orbit they don’t have the power to pull it to a stable orbit. We’ve already run those numbers.”

Kim said, “Do we know what caused the delay?”

Greg’s lips tightened. “A subroutine in the instantaneous communications network ran the command through a loop precisely long enough to cause the delay.”

Elisa absorbed what he was saying. “Sabotage? You’re saying that someone created this subroutine to cause this?”

“There’s no other explanation,” Greg said. “It was designed to slow down that specific command, nothing else.”

Larunda shook her head. “Just enough to make sure that Oasis hit the colony.”

“Earth?” Kim said.

Sabotage. Greg had called it sabotage and a chill settled in Elisa’s core. For a second her legs hurt. Phantom pain, but a real reminder.

“My accident was also sabotage,” she said.

All three of them were looking at her.

“First, an attempt was made to kill me. If it hadn’t been for Patrick, I would have died. Now someone has sabotaged the Oasis project to destroy the colony. It must be the same person.”

Larunda looked at Kim. “You think Earth is behind it?”

Kim shrugged. “They launched the Lincoln to try and take over Luna and Ceres.”

“It wasn’t everyone,” Greg said. “The United States took that action, and that administration left office in disgrace. Look at Jessica Reynolds, and the work she’s done with Mandy Adams. Or everything that Patricia Colby has done as the first jaunt ambassador, with the research going on into the alien beanstalks at Haumea. I don’t think Earth would jeopardize all of that by trying to destroy us.”

“I agree,” Larunda said. “The Diaspora Group is close to opening up more jaunt stations on Earth, so that we can have jaunt workers helping us in the colonies.”

Elisa looked up at the display above. “We can speculate all day. We need to catch the person behind this, Kim, I want you to lead the investigation into who might have sabotaged the network. Look for any other hidden subroutines while you’re at it. They may have planted other traps.”

“Of course.”

Elisa turned to Greg. “We need to begin evacuation procedures. Everyone that we can get off the surface and back up to the Farthest Shore.”

The Farthest Shore had carried them all to Eris, kept them safe for those long years in transit. When they arrived she kept the ship in orbit to serve as a station and orbital platform. There was a crew of four up there now.

“It’ll be difficult to get everyone off the planet in time,” Greg said. “Plus we’ll need supplies.”

“We’ll use the mining craft to ferry people up to the Farthest Shore,” she said. “We’ll pack them in. Use the ice crawlers to carry supplies and equipment away from the impact zone. We can create caches outside the impact zone. After Oasis hits, then we can return to the surface and start over.”

“Start over?” Greg’s voice was dismayed.

Elisa reached out and squeezed his arm. “Sometimes that’s our only choice. We have good people, and a week to pull this off. We can do it.”

Greg swallowed and nodded. “Okay. I’ll get on that.”

He turned and quickly walked away, calling out for people from the workstations. Soon he had a small group gathering around him. Elisa turned to Larunda.

The tall woman met her eyes. “You’re not alone Elisa. The whole solar system will be behind you. We’ll do everything we can.”

Elisa shook her head. “It’s a nice thought, but the distances make it impossible. Even with our fastest transports, no one is getting out here in less than two years. Not counting jaunting, of course, and we’ve only got the four working android hosts right now. We’re on our own.”

Larunda shook her head. “That’s not exactly true. We have transports throughout the system now. I can redirect one of the out-bound supply transports.”

Elisa shook her head. The supply transports carried essential supplies, and components that the colonies couldn’t manufacture yet. “That would only deprive another colony. We’re scheduled to receive a supply transport in a year anyway. I’m sure that when it arrives we’ll be happy to have it.”

There wasn’t any easy answer. She had time to evacuate her people. It’d be hard, they’d have to coordinate moving supplies out of the potential impact zone while also launching multiple launches of evacuees to the Farthest Shore. They couldn’t save the buildings. Only equipment, a fraction of the plants and animals, hopefully enough to start over, and the people. Unfortunately the impact would vaporize Oasis and most of the water it carried would be lost to space. Would they have time to rendezvous with the comet and mine any water before it spiraled in to destroy the colony? If they had the opportunity, they’d have to take it. Most of their hard-won water supplies were going to be lost along with the colony.

“Why would someone do this?” Larunda said. “What does it gain them?”

“I don’t care,” Elisa said. “I’m sure whoever it is had some sob story. Kim will figure it out and we’ll deal with it later. Right now I just want to make sure whoever it is doesn’t jeopardize our evacuation plans.”

“What can I do to help?”

Elisa activated a holographic display and accessed details on Oasis. Details on the comet’s mass, composition, everything that they had about it. “You’re a geologist. Help me figure out precisely what will happen when this hits Eris.”

5

They were still running simulations thirty minutes later when Terra, Carys and Clara joined them in the main chamber, followed by Jim Greenway and his spy-eyes. Elisa looked up from their latest iteration of the impact event, haunted by the repeated images of Xena’s destruction, and saw them coming. Jim hung back, watching and recording everything. Elisa considered asking him to leave but rejected the idea. This was a significant moment. Someone should document what was happening here.

Terra said, “The reception ended with the evacuation news. We’re here to do what we can to help. What do you need, Elisa?”

“I want a better answer,” Elisa said. “We’ve been calculating the impact event, trying to determine an impact zone and a safe distance beyond it. We need better data, and we just don’t have it. The impact will create a temporary atmosphere and the impacts of that are chaotic. It depends on how much methane is released, and how much more is released from the secondary effects.”

“An instant atmosphere?” Carys shook her head. “That’s not going to be pretty.”

“Depending on how much methane is released, it could reshape the entire surface,” Larunda said. “And as it cools and freezes out, it’ll cover the surface in new ice. Potentially, it looks like there’s nowhere on the surface we can cache supplies without them being affected by the impact event.”

Elisa turned to the simulations. Every minute that passed mattered, and yet she wasn’t seeing the way out. The impact might reshape the surface, or not. She gestured and pulled up the surface map around the colony. The impact zone was highlighted in an angry orange.

“The best we can do is get the supplies out here.” She touched a region outside of the impact zone. The surface was wrinkled like the skin of a cantaloupe.

“We cache the supplies here and hope for the best. There’s more rock in this region. It’s old terrain, and outside the main impact zone. Maybe it won’t be a worst-case scenario. Even if it is, we’ll tag the sleds with beacons. We might have to dig them out, but hopefully we’ll be able to find them.”

“What if you can’t get back right away?” Clara said.

Elisa said, “We have to come back. We won’t have enough supplies to stay in orbit long.”

“We’ve overcome long odds before,” Terra said. “We have colonies on thirteen worlds. I’m not giving up on Eris.”

“It’s too bad we can’t just stop the comet from hitting,” Carys said. “It’s frustrating knowing about it and not being able to do anything.”

“Without instant communications we wouldn’t even know yet,” Larunda said. “Back in the old days, if there’d been a problem at the beaming station we wouldn’t have known for over nine hours.”

“True,” Carys said.

Nine hours. Elisa looked back at the map. The power station had ceased beaming microwaves at the solar sail to slow down the comet. Those microwaves were still on track for the sail. The delay, as small as it was, meant that Oasis would be just enough slower on approach to hit that window resulting in the impact. It was a very precise result.

What if they could disengage the sail early? If they timed it right, they could erase the delay and disengage the sail when it should have disengaged.

“Larunda,” Elisa said. “Is there any way to disengage the sail early, and prevent all of this?”

Larunda shook her head. “We don’t have a way to communicate with it. It’s isn’t tied into the instant network.”

“We might want to consider that an upgrade,” Terra said. “Instantaneous communications with our sails and transports should be a priority.”

“That won’t help us now,” Elisa said.

“Could we send someone up there to manually cut the connections?” Carys asked. “I could go. With this android body, there wouldn’t be any risk.”

“You couldn’t function away from the initiator here,” Clara said.

“And there’s nothing here that we could launch and match the comet’s approach,” Larunda said. “It’s moving too fast.”

Launches. Elisa pressed her hands together, staring at the floating display. Greg had people prepping the new mining craft, and the old landing pods that they used to travel between the Farthest and the surface. Larunda was right, none of it could intercept the comet. But maybe they didn’t have to.

Elisa shrank the holographic display and opened up the layers deck. She flipped through until she found what she wanted and threw it out onto the display. A faint orange line appeared across space, passing the dot indicating Eris, all the way out to the golden dot indicating Oasis and the solar sail. She rose and walked closer, pointing at the display.

“What if we disrupted the microwave beam?”

The others gathered around.

Larunda said, “That beam is kilometers wide. How would you disrupt it?”

“I don’t know yet, but let’s say that we can interrupt the beam. If we do it at the right moment, wouldn’t that be the same as if it had been shut off at the right time?”

Terra nodded. “Yes. If we had another solar sail, we could use it to interrupt the beam.”

“We don’t have one,” Larunda said. “And there’s less than nine hours now to get there. There isn’t anything close.”

“Can we make a sail?” Clara asked.

“No,” Elisa said. “We don’t have the materials for that, and even if we did the printers wouldn’t work fast enough.”

Carys clapped her hands and laughed. “Oh, that’s beautiful!”

Jim’s spy-eyes drifted closer.

Everyone turned and looked was looking at Carys. She grinned.

“Look, you don’t need a sail. You just need something to interrupt the beam. What about water vapor? You fly out there and vent a big old cloud of water vapor in the way of the microwave beam. It’ll spread out and disrupt the microwave beam.”

“That might work,” Larunda said. “If the cloud was dense enough.”

“Our water reserves are limited,” Elisa said. “How much would we need?”

Carys shook her head. “As much as possible, right? If it isn’t thick enough it won’t disrupt the microwaves. But if it works, then the sail will disengage and the comet won’t slow enough to hit the window. You’ll have your oasis and plenty of water then.”

And if it failed they would have lost their water supplies. Elisa looked at the faces of her guests. All of them, even Terra, were looking to her. It was her call. Carys was right. Water would be the easiest way to disrupt the microwave beam. It wouldn’t last long, the cloud would continue spreading out and diffusing into space, but it didn’t need to last long.

“Okay. Let’s get started. I can use all of you to help get the details nailed down. We need to talk to Greg Hathaway, we’re going to need to launch quickly if we’re going to make it out there in time.”

6

Jim Greenway crossed his arms. His two spy-eyes hovered over his shoulders. One was painted white and the other red. Elisa got the reference, and another time it might have been funny but right now he was standing in her way.

“I’m sorry, Jim. There’s isn’t time for this right now.”

“You’re going out there to save the world, Elisa. I should be there to document it. Now that our guests have jaunted back to their own worlds, I’m all yours.”

“It might not work.”

He smiled. “You’ve come back from an accident that would have defeated most people. You led us to build this beautiful city. I’m confident that you’re going to save us.”

His faith was touching, and hopefully it was going to be rewarded. Greg had about had a fit when she had told him what she wanted to do. They were done loading the colony’s water reserves on the mining craft and landing pods. They were going to launch everything they had, including the Farthest Shore, out to intercept the beam. Each craft would vent the water supplies it carried into space. They’d modeled much better coverage that way, with the ships in an array, than trying to vent the water from a single point. It was also faster and would reach the required density to disrupt the microwaves quicker, before the cloud could dissipate.

“I’m also a trained pilot,” Jim said. “I’ve flown everything from a Cessna to the landing pods and, if you’ll remember, even the Farthest Shore. I’m a natural choice for this mission.”

“Fine.” She stepped around him and walked quickly. “Keep up.”

They took an electric cart out through the access tunnel to the launch complex two kilometers outside Xena’s dome. Greg met them at the other end, and looked surprised when he saw Jim getting out of the cart.

“He’s my pilot,” Elisa said. “He volunteered.”

“Fine.” Greg was already moving and they followed him at a quick pace. “We’ve got you in pod six. Everything is ready to go.”

They stopped outside the locker room.

“Get suited up, and into your pod. I’ll be in Control, somehow coordinating all of these launches.”

“We’ve got this, Greg,” she said.

He scowled up at Jim’s spy-eyes. “Okay. Good luck.”

She palmed the access panel to the locker room and hurried inside.

It smelled of cold, dry air and metal. Chatter from the others echoed around the room. Suit lockers lined the walls, with polished stone block benches in front of each. The other pilots and crews waved and called out greetings.

Elisa nodded in response to greetings and went to the suit lockers. The transparent fronts showed the suits hanging empty inside. Each was bright white, with colored shoulders and a stripe around the middle. They looked something like deep sea diving suits, except slimmer and segmented. Hard suits, adjustable to the wearer. FHUs, Freakin Heavy Units, according to some, although the lower gravity on Eris made them much easier to deal with.

Elisa’s suit was a bit different, since it incorporated the same functions as her exoskeleton into the suit. The blue shoulders were marked with the open white accessibility circle. She lifted her suit out of the locker and sat it down on the floor in front of the bench. It bent at the waist, with the helmet nearly touching its knees like someone doing stretches.

Jim took the spot next to her and unzipped his black workall. His body was lean, muscled, with thick wavy gray hair across his chest. He peeled the workall completely off, wearing only a pair of black boxers. He slid open the door of his suit locker and lifted the FHU out like it was an awkward dancing partner he was trying to spin around.

Elisa looked away and unzipped her own workall. She pulled it off her shoulders and sat down on the stone bench. The next part was always awkward, more so with others around but she didn’t have time to worry about that.

She accessed the exoskeleton controls in her glasses overlay and blinked them off. All the sensation from the exoskeleton ceased and the clamps automatically popped open. She used one hand to brace herself on the bench, and the other to pull the exoskeleton off.

“Do you need a hand getting suited up?” Jim said.

“No thanks,” she said. “I’m fine. I’ve done this before.”

Twice, since the accident. It was critical to her that she be able to suit up herself in case of an emergency.

She tugged her workalls down off her limp legs and put it aside.

Jim was already half in his suit, standing beside the bench with the lower part of the suit hanging down in front of him. It almost looked obscene. He caught her looking and grinned.

“Don’t you love these rear-entry suits?”

“They do make things interesting.”

“I’ll see you on the other side,” he said, and bent forward, shoving his arms into the slit in the back of the suit.

It looked disturbingly like the suit had decided to eat him up, until only his cute ass was sticking out of the suit. Then he straightened and the suit slid over his rear. The opening automatically snapped closed, sealing him inside. Indicators on his suit lit up and he waved his arms to adjust the fit.

Enough watching. She had to get into her own suit. It wouldn’t be quite as easy. She held onto the bench and reached out, pulling the suit right up against the stone. She lifted each leg in turn, shoving it into the opening of the suit and down into the suit legs. Using her glasses, she connected to the suit’s accessibility systems and pulled up the status readouts.

A yellow silhouette of the suit appeared near her left hand. Green lines on the legs showed how far she was into the suit. She tugged and pulled until it showed her feet were in place and then activated the systems.

The suit clamped down and began sending signals to her spinal column past the injured area. It was like getting her legs back. She moved each leg in turn, adjusting the fit and then stood up. The suit responded as smoothly as her exoskeleton. She copied Jim, diving forward, hands first into the opening of her suit. As she stood the suit closed around her and molded itself to fit her body. For a moment it was uncomfortably tight and then everything clicked in place and she could move easily. It was still far better than the old inflated suits that had made it so hard to move.

A connection query appeared on her display, Jim requesting pairing.

Elisa approved the request and a sub-display appeared with the run-down on Jim’s suit. They’d be paired throughout the mission, monitoring each other’s vitals and suit systems in case of any problems.

“Looks like you’re green across the board,” Jim’s voice said over her speakers.

“You too,” she said. “Let’s go.”

The other teams were filing out too. The airlock lift held a half dozen at a time. She and Jim were in the first group up.

The airlock depressurized as it rose to the surface. The outside sounds faded away until she mostly heard her own breathing in the suit. She focused her attention on the wide communications channel, which activated so she could address everyone.

“You all know your jobs. We’re going out there to save the world, people. I want to thank you in advance. I’m confident that this will work, and we’ll have Oasis in orbit where it belongs. When that happens we’ll have a big celebration and we can all lift a glass of fresh, clean Oasis water!”

Cheers and whistles greeted her statement. The lift slowed to a stop at the surface level. The noise subsided. “Okay, let’s go do this.”

She switched back to the private channel as she led the way out of the lift. Jim took long strides next to her.

It was bright outside. Spot lights around the landing zone lit up the vehicles. The original pods were a collection of small gray eggs with spidery legs and their pointed ends facing down.

Further out, the mining craft were big cylindrical craft on long legs, towering above the smaller pods. The bulk of the mining craft body was a massive cargo hold. They were designed as tankers that could visit Oasis, load up tanks with fresh water, and then return to the surface. Both were filled with the bulk of the colony’s water reserves. The pods each carried smaller tanks taken straight from the colony and outfitted into the systems to pipe the water straight through the exhaust system. There were concerns about ice build-up in the exhaust system, but the pods didn’t have any other way to expel the water.

Elisa bounded across the surface toward the mining craft. This had to work. If they failed they still had time to evacuate, but they wouldn’t have enough supplies to keep everyone alive. That was a problem she didn’t want to face.

7

Almost time now. Elisa sat strapped into the co-pilot seat of the mining craft. Her mouth was dry and the suit already smelled of her sweat. And she had to pee, which she didn’t want to do in the seat, and there wasn’t time to get out of the suit and use the facilities in the ship. She just had to put that out of her mind.

A holographic display floated in front of her seat. On it, the two mining craft were large shapes with a cluster of pods in between. It had taken time just to get everyone into position relative to each other, but now the whole ‘fleet’ was in an orbit out away from Eris. They would intercept the microwave beam in moments.

“Tell me again that this is going to work,” Jim said.

His spy-eyes hovered in the cockpit.

“It’ll work,” she said.

He grinned at her. “You’re not just saying that?”

“No. I’m not.” Elisa looked out the windows. There wasn’t anything to see. The microwaves weren’t visible. “You’ve seen the math. Isn’t that what this all comes down to? The sabotage delayed the signal, so the power station didn’t shut down the beam soon enough. If we interrupt it at the right moment, then the sail disengages and everything goes back to the way it was originally planned.”

“Except that we still don’t know who was behind the sabotage,” Jim said.

That was bothering her too. “No, we don’t.”

“No word from Kim yet?”

She glanced up at the spy-eyes. “I’m sure if she had found anything, I would have been notified.”

Jim gestured and the spy-eyes drifted downward and landed on his shoulders. Tiny magnetic feet clamped onto his suit.

“Off the record,” he said. “Aren’t you concerned?”

“I’m a bit busy right now.” She pointed at the display. “We’re about to cross over into the beam. Are we ready to expel the water?”

“We’re ready. Nothing to do but wait.” Jim reached gestured and pulled up a holographic screen. He slid it over. “I shot this on the day of your accident.”

She didn’t look at the window. “I’ve seen the footage.”

“Not this.”

“What is it?” She looked him in the eye. “You had something that you didn’t turn over to the investigation?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “Take a look.”

Elisa took a breath and focused on the window. It started playing the video.

At first there wasn’t anything unusual. It was a wide shot of Central with the dome bright under the light from the Sun tower. A small crowd was gathered in the square, their faces turned up, hands shielding their eyes as they watched her foolish stunt. There had been a lot of interest around her doing the jump.

The view zoomed in on Central, all the way to the balcony along the east wall. That was where her offices were located. The view went event closer, flying above the young trees and rising up toward the  balcony.

It was a spy-eye shot, she realized. Jim had sent the spy-eye across the square, probably to get a view from that side.

Through the windows along the balcony she saw Kim Lee inside, pacing. The spy-eye hovered, watching Kim as she paced three times across the room and back. Elisa swiped the side of the screen and opened the video’s metadata. The timestamp, that was right when she was making the jump.

The spy-eye picked up a scream off camera. The spy-eye didn’t move, it remained watching the windows. Kim Lee stopped pacing and stood still for a moment, looking straight ahead. Then her head dipped for a moment, before she turned and walked out onto the balcony. There were more screams and raised voices. Kim gazed out at the square, not up at the spy-eye above her. She gazed calmly at the square and folded her hands on the railing.

Elisa fast-forwarded the video. A minute or so later Kim turned and walked quickly into the building, and vanished from view. The spy-eye hung unmoving, showing the empty balcony and then the video stopped.

“At the time I didn’t think it meant anything,” Jim said.

“Now?”

“I don’t know. It looks like she was waiting for something. The screams, those came from people seeing what happened. She didn’t look surprised. Troubled, maybe, but not surprised.”

He was right. Kim wasn’t the most emotionally expressive woman, but there wasn’t anything like surprise, shock or distress in the video. More like he said, troubled, and waiting. Waiting for her to fall?

The holographic display flashed. They were entering the microwave beam.

“We’ve got a job to do,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

“We’re right on target. Other ships reporting optimal position and green lights across the board.”

Elisa opened the connection to the other ships. “Activate deployment program.”

Green acknowledgment signals showed up across the board. She pressed the release on the console.

The ship lurched.

“Compensating,” Jim said. “Maintaining position.”

“What was that?”

“Reaction to expelling the water. Didn’t you ever launch water rockets as a kid?”

“Can’t say that I did.”

She watched the display. The animation displayed the cloud as it spread out into the path of the microwave beam. A graph beneath showed the microwave count. It fell.

“Microwave count dropping!”

The count neared the threshold, where the microwave count would be low enough to cause the solar sail to disengage from Oasis.

“We’re almost through the beam,” Jim said.

Elisa watched the graph. It dipped down closer, closer and then fell beneath the threshold.

“We’ve done it!” She reached up and high-fived Jim.

“Leaving the microwave region,” he said.

Telemetry from the other ships showed the same thing. They all showed the microwave count drop below the threshold. Elisa toggled the connection to the ships back open.

“Congratulations, we’ve done it. Our satellites will confirm Oasis’ orbit. Landing pods, coordinate with control for a return orbit. Thank you all.”

She closed the connection and sat back.

“What about us?” Jim said.

She smiled at him. “You know the nice thing about zero gravity? I can move around without a suit, or an exoskeleton. I think I’ll strip this off, hit the head, and find some way to celebrate.”

Jim smiled broadly. “You want a hand with that?”

“Oh, I’ll want more than a hand.” She pointed at the spy-eyes perched on his shoulders. “Those stay off.”

“Of course. How long do we have for this celebration?”

“Quite a while. We’re going to have to stick around until Oasis reaches orbit, and then there’s the ice to mine. I think we’ll have time to celebrate as many times as we like.”

“I like the sound of that.”

Elisa hit the release on the straps. The retracted and she pushed up out of the seat, turning to drift back into the compact living and work area behind the control deck. It was time to celebrate.

8

The two weeks Elisa spent with Jim on the Ice Breaker, a name they picked out after the first day that had a double meaning for them, was like a vacation. Or honeymoon, except that they weren’t married. Not yet, anyway.

Oasis reached a stable orbit around Eris and became its second moon. Did it count as a moon if it was artificially captured? The discovery of Eris had helped kick off the redefinition of a planet, maybe now they would trigger a new discussion of the definition of a moon. The mining was accomplished with robots and went without any problems. Floating beneath the cratered surface of Oasis, she watched the robots tracing lines across the surface as they dug out the ice and brought it back to the Ice Breaker where it was melted, filtered and stored. They also stored the organics and other minerals they found in the ice, all of it was valuable resources for the colony.

Making love with Jim was fantastic, as were the times they spent talking, in that rush of discovery of new lovers. Despite the years spent getting to Eris, all the times she had admired his work, there was so much she didn’t know about the man. It was easy to imagine a lifetime with him.

Eventually, however, they had to return to Xena and the rest of their lives. When Ice Breaker touched back down on the surface, she dreaded what she had to do next.

She excused herself from the greetings and celebratory atmosphere, promising to return to the reception later, and made her way to the jail.

Kim was in a plain cell, wearing a standard orange workall instead of her usual outfits. Elisa entered the cell and stood just inside, very self-aware at the moment of her exoskeleton. She interlaced her fingers and looked at Kim standing by the opposite wall. Kim gazed back at her and tears glistened in her eyes.

“Will you tell me why?” Elisa asked. She’d radioed the surface after thinking carefully about Jim’s video, to order Kim placed under arrest. They’d found evidence in her quarters and files that showed she had developed the subroutine that had delayed the signal.

“You lied to me.”

“What?”

Kim said, “You lied. You made me believe that we were going to a better world. All of you. Blackstone and all the rest. There’s nothing here. We don’t belong out here. It’s nothing but an airless world, and we’re barely scraping by.”

“That’s your reason? Because things are hard? Look at what we’ve accomplished! You were a part of that, why try to destroy it? Why try to kill me?”

Kim wiped at her eyes with a finger. In a defeated voice she said, “With you gone, I thought I might convince everyone else to evacuate. Pack up, return to the Farthest Shore and go back to Earth. When you survived, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Diverting the comet was supposed to trigger an evacuation and we would have had to have returned to Earth.”

It was sad. Sad that she couldn’t see what they were accomplishing, see the potential for the new world.

“We’re never leaving Eris,” Elisa said.

“You’re going to die here.”

“I hope so,” Elisa said. “Hopefully after a long life with marriage, with kids. That’s the way it’s always been. Humanity will build and expand and grow on this world, and all the rest of the worlds in the solar system. We’re going to flourish, wherever we take root, and build a brighter future.”

After that, what else was there to say? Kim was silent. They’d try to help her, jaunt in specialists if necessary. Whatever it took to help her reach a healthier place.

Elisa left the cell eager to get back to Jim, and to the company of those that would celebrate the future and dare the impossible.

<<<<>>>>

10,759 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 14th weekly short story release, and the 14th and final Planetary Bodies story. I’m excited to get this final story out. These stories gave me a chance to explore the solar system and set up an exciting new fiction universe that I would like to revisit.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a mystery story, The Murders in the Reed Moore Library. I’ve previously released this story as an e-book, under my pen name Ryan M. Welch, but until I get a new edition up under my name I’ll have it here on the website.

Makemake Released

Nothing went the as they had expected. Nellie Walker and her brother Ash left Earth with their mother for a new world. A chance to participate in the creation of something wonderful.

Until the sickness took their mother and August Partel seized control of the Makemake colony. Stranded in the distant reaches of the solar system, what chance did they have?

1

Nellie’s teeth pierced the roll’s crisp crust as she swung through Makemake’s corridors with the speed and grace of a monkey back on Earth. Her tongue softened the salty bread and her stomach growled.

It wasn’t safe to stop and eat. Not now. Not in the public corridors where any grasping grown-up might cuff her and take the roll. Besides, it was mostly for Ash.

She’d snatched it, nimble fingers quick to filch it from the baker’s shelf. Quick and light, she’d bounced up to the grips and swung off through the crowd before the old man could catch her. There wasn’t even time to shove it in her sling.

It was like playing tag back on Earth. She still remembered running on the grass beneath the sun, but it was dim. Something from before. Before, before, before everything. The rockets and the years spent cooped up in the transport when Mama died and left her and Ash alone. Before everyone got sick, and Director Partel took over the mission. When they came here to Makemake, which people said ‘MAH kay,’ like saying okay, except it wasn’t.

Nothing was okay. Not the hot and damp tunnels. Not the weak gravity that made walking clumsy and hard. Easier to swing and bounce than walk.

Nellie caught a side grip, letting her momentum swing her thin body and legs around the corner, feet-first. A shuffler, an oldster woman with weights on her legs, shrieked at Nellie.

She released at the right moment and rocketed down the corridor past the woman. She rotated, feet striking the floor as her knees bent and she pushed off, bouncing back up to the grips to swing on.

Fast, fast, that was the key. Never stop. Never let them grab you.

2

Ten minutes later she swung through the curtain sheltering her comb in the warren. The hexagonal room was small but it was only Ash and her, that was all since Mama died. The room was a converted storage container, repurposed from the transport that had brought them out from Earth. The hexagons were stacked up in the warren, one row on top of the next, with curtains hung over the openings for privacy. Add grips by the hatches, and you had everything you needed to create a private space for all of the colonists.

Ash stirred and woke. He rubbed dark, shadowed eyes which fixed on the bread still held in her teeth. He was small and thin. Too small for eight, four years younger than her, and weak. He’d only been four when Mama took them to the rockets saying that they had to leave. Everyone that worked with Mama was leaving, they were all leaving Earth to new worlds. Better worlds, Mama promised. She lied. At first there wasn’t any other world at all, just big balloon rooms floating in space and then the transport and then here.

 

Back on Earth Ash had run on the green grass. He had even laughed. He threw his ball. He jumped and rolled, and chased Spunky, the little rat terrier dog they hadn’t been able to bring with them, around the yard. Now Ash hardly left the comb at all, and only when he was with her.

Nellie landed lightly on her feet. She bit through the roll, taking the part that was already in her mouth. It was a bit salty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside with bits of egg, meat and vegetables. She handed the rest to Ash.

He clutched it close and tore at the roll with his fingers. Each tiny piece disappeared into his mouth. Quick fingers shuttled back and forth from the roll to his mouth like a raccoon she’d seen eating the time Mama took them to the zoo, except Ash didn’t wash his food first.

He needed a washing himself. He smelled sour. The comb smelled of their sweat and the chamber pot that needed to be emptied. Nellie leaned against the wall, crossed her arms and watched him eat.

His eating slowed when most of the roll was gone. One end remained. He looked up at her, then held out the end. Nellie’s stomach tightened but she shook her head.

“I’ll get something later. You eat.”

Later, if there was anything it’d be the green soup. Healthy, they said, but not appetizing. It kept them alive. There was never enough real food to go around. Nellie did what she could for Ash, like Mama would have wanted.

Ash tore at the remaining end. Piece by piece disappeared into his mouth.

He finished and tucked his knees up under his chin. He wrapped his thin arms around his legs.

“Thank you.” His voice was barely above a whisper.

Nellie shrugged.

“Are you going out today?”

She nodded. “I have to work. We need the credits.”

Credits to pay the protection fees. Their air, water and food tax. The housing tax. It was never enough. She did what she could, taking whatever jobs they’d let her do. Sometimes it was watching babies. Other times cleaning out chamber pots in the composting chambers. Dirty work, but it paid and it wasn’t what the older girls did, the ones that lay with the water miners. She knew all about sex. The vids showed anything she wanted. There’d been miners grabbing and pinching her, so she knew they would pay her if she wanted to do that, but cleaning the chamber pots was better. If the thought of a big smelly miner pawing at her wasn’t bad enough, the chance that she might get pregnant, that was worse. She hadn’t had her cycle yet, but you never knew. Nothing on Makemake was like what Mama had promised.

“Do you have to?”

Nellie closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. She wouldn’t get mad. She opened her eyes. “You know I have to. We don’t want to end up debtors.”

Ash hugged his knees tighter and bit his lip.

Debtors were the lowest of the low, those that had fallen behind on what they owed. They got the most dangerous jobs. People spit on them. They often didn’t last long and then they did their final duty to the colony by being composted themselves.

“Hey,” Nellie said softly. She stepped lightly over to the cot and squatted beside it. She put her hand on Ash’s arm. His skin was cool to the touch. “Put on your hoodie and stay inside. Work on your vid lessons. That’s your job, remember? You have to study and learn, and someday you’ll get a supervisor position. Or maybe even a pilot slot.”

“What about you? Don’t you need to study?”

“Tonight,” she promised. “You can sit with me while I study. Okay?”

His head moved in two quick jerks.

Nellie pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. His dark hair tickled her nose. Suddenly he grabbed her and hugged her tightly. The move pulled her off balance but the cot braced her. She hugged him back for a moment and then gently disengaged.

“I’ll swap the chamber pot first. Back soon.”

“Back soon,” Ash whispered.

Nellie picked up the chamber pot, twisted the lid to secure it and stuffed it into her sling. She didn’t like going out with the bulky chamber pot. It slowed her down and threw off her center of gravity, but she shouldn’t run into any problems now. The wardens wouldn’t come looking for her over the roll.

3

Even with the chamber pot sloshing in her sling, Nellie swung with more grace than the oldsters. They dangled and swung with slow, slothy movements while she looped around them with full releases between grabs. Too many years stuck in the deep belly of Earth’s gravity well, the oldsters hadn’t adapted to life on Makemake. Some of them even wore shoes for Sun’s sake! They also bundled up in extra thick hoodies over their workalls. It only took her a few minutes to work her way around the spiral down to the lower levels housing the composting chambers.

The air here was stifling and hot. The hottest place in the warren. All that compost, it produced heat which was carried up on rich air currents laden with the scents of fresh night soil. Close in the air was sharp against her eyes. She swung around to the head of the line and landed lightly in front of a shuffler clutching her chamber pot. The oldster’s hair had mostly fallen out, except for a few moldy patches clinging to her peeling scalp.

“Hey!” The oldster squawked.

Nellie narrowed her eyes and stared back at the oldster from the depths of her hoodie.

The oldster gummed her chapped lips together and averted her eyes.

That was better. It wasn’t that Nellie wanted to push around an oldster, most of them came along in the exodus out to Makemake, just like her. It was tough, was all. None of them found the world what they thought it’d be. Blackstone had broken her promises, just like Mama. You had to look after you and yours, was all.

Nellie reached the main desk, pressing up to the counter as she swung her sling around and pulled out the full chamber pot. The front chamber wasn’t that big, just the lobby with the crowd of people bringing in full pots and exiting with empty ones. The counter cutting the room in half was made from dirty gray printed panels, just like everything else. It came up to her chest.

Today Jason Hamilton was behind the counter, running things as he did most days. As oldsters went, he wasn’t all bad. He was also the fattest man that she knew and spent most of his time sitting in his sling on the pulley he’d rigged up behind the counter. His hair was white and wavy, his cheeks round and flushed red most of the time. His breath stank almost as bad as the rest of him. But you always knew where he was and he did what he said, not like some.

His blue eyes widened as she hoisted the chamber pot up to the counter. “Nellie, you looking to work today?”

She shrugged as if it wasn’t important. “If you’re asking for help, I suppose I could.”

Jason grunted as his puffy hands slapped down on the chamber pot’s slate gray sides. He dragged it off the counter and dropped it down behind where it clanked dully against the others building up in the bin on his right. He swiveled around and fetched an empty chamber pot out of the bin on his left, which was already half empty. Someone had to take the full pots, clean them out, and return the empty pots back to reception. She was one of Jason’s fastest workers, and most regular. It paid better than some jobs, if you could handle the stink of it.

Nellie took the empty pot and slipped it into her sling. “I’ll be right back, after I drop this off for Ash.”

“Better hurry, or I might have to give the work to someone else.”

“Someone else won’t do the job as well, or as fast.”

Jason grunted and waved a hand at her. “Someone else won’t block my counter.”

She resisted the urge to stick out her tongue and instead moved off with a leap to the ceiling bars, swinging wide out of the path of a low-hanging oldster, and releasing just a moment to bounce to the wall and back up to the bars. A quick swing up to their comb to drop off the chamber pot for Ash, and then she’d be back to help Jason with the chamber pots before he ran out of empties.

4

In the middle of Nellie’s third hour working in the compost chambers, she pushed a fresh empty bin into the front lobby. A nose clip kept out the worst smells, and the thin mask over her mouth supposedly prevented her from inhaling anything she shouldn’t. Neither measure was completely effective. Either that or her brain just wouldn’t let her get away with not smelling the shit when she saw it. She mostly tried not thinking about the smells and what she was doing. It was messy, hard, hot work but it paid for her and Ash. That’s what mattered.

She locked the wheels on the bin, and was about to shove out the next bin, half-full of loaded chamber pots when she saw one slate gray pot beneath the counter.

“You missed,” she said, bending to get the pod.

Jason swung his seat and stomped down on the pod with a hairy foot. “That’s a special request. I’ll take care of it, and if you want to work here again, you’ll forget you saw it.”

His fat face was serious. Nothing about the way he looked, or his voice suggested he was joking.

Nellie bounced back lightly on her toes. “I didn’t see anything.”

Her heart pounded away as she shoved the bin out of the reception area as fast as possible. She ran it down into the processing bay to the cleaning section. She plucked the first chamber pot out of the bin and unlocked it before tossing it onto the wheel.

Special request? What could he mean? The only thing that made sense was some sort of delivery. Not the shit that was usually in the chamber pots, but something else. Some contraband that he was dealing in. There wasn’t any way to find out what, even if she wanted to know. Which she didn’t. Whatever oldster business was going on, it was nothing to her. She wanted to go on breathing, and the best way to stop that was to get too curious about things that weren’t her business.

5

The next time Nellie went out front, with a bin full of spun and cleaned chamber pots, she kept her head down and her mouth shut. In fact she moved so fast that she had barely locked down the wheels on the bin before she was turning around to head into the back. Although even in that second, she had seen that the special request pot wasn’t beneath the counter any more. It was none of her business.

“Hold up,” Jason grunted.

Nellie froze in her tracks and didn’t turn around. She hadn’t seen anything. Didn’t want to know anything. She leaned on the empty bin. “Mostly all done, that last batch was only a half-wheel load. I can get it cleaned out, if you don’t think we’ll have more?”

“Naw, you go ahead and skip that today. You’ve worked hard, and I appreciate that. I do. But as an official employer, I also have to spread it around, you know. Come back in a few days, a week, and I’ll have some more work for you then.”

Her heart sank. Kicked off latrine duty? If they started falling behind on the payments, they’d never dig out. Not even if she started spreading her legs for the water miners. She couldn’t protest, though, not without touching on the real reason behind this. That chamber pot, that was the source of the problem.

“Okay,” she said, with mock cheerfulness. Her eyes burned. She still didn’t turn around. “I’ll scrub out. Thank you for the work.”

“Don’t mention it,” Jason said.

His tone said it all. She wasn’t to tell anyone what she saw. Her throat closed up. She nodded and pushed the bin out.

6

Nellie swung down through their curtain over the comb and saw the two men in the comb. She braked her forward motion with the grip by the door, and resisted the urge to swing on back up out and away.

Ash was right between the two men.

They weren’t doing anything to him, just standing on either side of the cot where he sat, his thin legs draw up to his chest. His arms were wrapped around his legs, face buried in his knees. His head snapped up when she came through. Dark eyes locked on her, filled with hope, but he didn’t move from that spot. His mouth opened and nothing came out.

Nellie dropped lightly to the floor. The sling at her back held two bottles of hot green soup, like coals against her back. Hot didn’t help the flavor, but it helped it go down. Until this moment, she was looking forward to a quiet evening with Ash. Dinner and then some storybooks before sleep.

That didn’t look likely, from the look of the two men.

They were big, with oldster bulk. Both wore thick long coats over their workalls, and rubberized toe-shoes on their feet. They might have been brothers, for all the difference between their dark, scruffy beards and hair. They smelled of men and oddly, enough, soap. They weren’t dirty, these two. And that meant that they carried enough clout to actually bathe. Maybe even in water? That was rare, when most folks used fine sand to scrub themselves and their clothes. Enforcers, then, that worked for Director Partel.

The one on her right spoke first. “Nellie Walker?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man on her left moved fast, holding onto her folded hammock to brace himself, his foot lashing out to clip Ash’s shoulder.

Ash screamed and tumbled away, hitting the side of the comb.

Hot rage burned through Nellie. She wanted the man dead. But there were two of them, big and strong men who had eaten recently and she was just her and there was Ash. She went to Ash, picked him up and he wrapped his arms tightly around her. His body shook as he cried silently into her shoulder.

“You were working at the waste reclamation facility today?” The first man said.

She understood what he meant, even if she never called it that. Then, because he seemed like he was waiting for an answer, she said, “Yes.”

“Did you see anything unusual with Hamilton? Did he take any suspicious packages?”

The special request that she was supposed to forget. They might be working for Partel, they might not. But they had hurt Ash.

She shook her head. “I didn’t see anything.”

“You’re sure.”

The second man took a step forward.

“All I saw was shit and piss. I spin ’em, blast ’em, and send out the empties. That’s it.”

The first man moved and she flinched, turning to cover Ash. The man didn’t hit her, he was holding something out. A card of some kind.

Nellie took it. The face was a blizzard of block dots.

“Scan that,” the man said, “and it’ll connect you to me. Go back to Hamilton for more work. Watch him. You see anything odd, don’t say anything, just call us. You’ll be rewarded for your service.”

Nellie nodded and slipped the card into her sling. She waited for something more.

Without another word the two men swung out of her comb, launching themselves out to catch the main line grips and swung off. Oldsters, but adapted and capable. She peeked out the curtain until they were lost in the crowds outside, everyone scattering from their path. People glanced at her comb and she ducked back inside.

She ran her hand across Ash’s head. “Hey there, you okay?”

Ash sniffled and looked around the comb. “They’re gone.”

“Yes.”

“They just came in and —” Ash’s voice rose until she pressed her finger against his lips.

“Let’s eat.” She pulled the soup bottles, still warm to the touch, from her sling. “Here you go.”

She twisted off the lid and guzzled it down. It wasn’t all that hot anymore and was starting to thicken. The green soup clung to her teeth and tongue as she drank it down as quick as she could. It never quite tasted the same, depending on what plant stock was blended with the algae. She didn’t even try to taste it, better that way.

The last bits she had to use her fingers to wipe out, licking off every last drop. Nothing wasted. Ash finished his just as fast.

“Let’s get the hammocks hung, and I’ll read to you, okay?”

Usually Ash was eager to hear stories read to him. The tablets could read aloud, of course, complete with holographic animations and sound effects. He just preferred to hear her read the plain text words aloud. It was something Mama had done, and something that Nellie had continued when Mama died. She had found that she enjoyed it more than she would have thought, even though she didn’t sound like Mama, and sometimes stumbled over words. Not often, anymore. Tonight, however, Ash didn’t move. He rubbed his hands together, rubbing off the soup that had dried onto his skin. Small beads drifted downward from his hands.

“What is it?”

“Will those men kill us?”

Nellie crouched and pulled him in close against the chill. “No. No, they aren’t going to kill us. They work for the Director, is all. They want me to spy at work, and let them know if I see anything wrong.”

Ash pulled away. She let him go. His eyebrows dropped.

“I don’t think you should.”

She shivered. “What?”

“Don’t do it!”

“Ash, we don’t —”

“No! They’re bad. It’s all their fault. Things weren’t supposed to be like this!”

“Maybe not, but they are like this. If we want to keep eating and breathing, we don’t have much choice. I have to keep you safe.”

“You can’t.” Ash’s voice was flat and hard. “You’re gone working. And you aren’t big enough. But you still shouldn’t help them. The rebels should win.”

Now she was really scared. “What? Ash, where’d you hear that?”

“Around,” he said defensively. “Tommy Smith says that the rebels are gonna fight the director!”

Tommy Smith was a boy a few combs over that lived with his parents, both of whom had survived the exodus.

“What does Tommy know about it?”

Ash shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. But if you turn over the rebels, then you’re just as bad as the director. You’re working for him!”

“I am not,” Nellie said. “But if I don’t work, we could end up debtors. You don’t know what could happen to you!”

“Do too.”

“You don’t!” Nellie lowered her voice. It wouldn’t do for the neighbors to hear them fighting.

Especially not when they were talking about rebellion. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d heard people saying things like that, she just hadn’t known that Ash was hearing things too. What else did she expect? She couldn’t think he was always going to stay in their comb when she was gone. The thought of him swinging through the corridors chilled her.

“How often do you go out?”

Ash crossed his arms and didn’t answer.

Nellie rubbed his arms. “I just want you safe.”

“You’re not Mama,” he said.

That surprised her. She struggled not to let it show on her face. “I know that, but I’m still your big sister. It’s my job to look out for you.”

“We shouldn’t have left Earth.”

That was better. That was something she could deal with. “If we’d stayed behind Mama would have been arrested and they would’ve taken us away.”

Maybe. Mama had feared that would happen, but she didn’t really know. They probably could have gone somewhere else and started over on Earth, except that Mama had always dreamed that they would go into space and live in the new worlds Diaspora was building. She had believed.

“You don’t know that,” Ash said, echoing her thoughts.

Nellie sighed. “Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, does it? We’re here. This is the way the world is. What do you want me to do about it?”

“Nothing.”

He didn’t believe that she could do anything. It was written all over him, and he resented her for it. She was his big sister, was supposed to look out for him, and she was failing.

He moved away, unhooking his hammock to string it across the comb. From outside came the normal sounds of their neighbors. Muted voices rising and falling. A thump when someone hit a wall. The hexagonal combs were stacked all around the central passage, full of humanity instead of honey. They hardly had any space or privacy.

Was this what Diaspora had planned? It didn’t seem so, when Mama had talked about the colony they were going to on Makemake. She had said that things would be hard, that each day would be a challenge but that they were building a new world. That had to be exciting, didn’t it?

Mama hadn’t said anything about the way the Director ran the colony. That the whole thing was rigged. You had to work to pay for your air, water and food. For the space you used, and the waste you produced even though everything was always recycled over and over. By the time you did all of that, any credits you earned by working were eaten up by the system.

After stringing his hammock across their quarters, Ash unclipped the one end of hers and bounced across the small space. He moved through the air almost as if he could fly, with a quick snap of the hammock. It carried him across to the other side where he deftly caught a grip and absorbed the impact with his bare feet. He moved easily, naturally, but then he had known zero-gee and micro-gee for most of his life. He probably didn’t even remember being stuck on the ground unable to move so easily.

He clipped in her hammock.

“Do you need to use the chamber pot before bed?” She asked.

“No.” He rolled into his hammock and pulled the blanket over himself from the coil along the side.

The trick with the hammock, that was neat. She might be able to do something with that, if she could figure it out.

Tomorrow. Nellie grabbed her tablet and rolled into her own hammock. She pulled out her blanket and tucked it around beneath her, and under her arms. She thumbed open the book she was reading to Ash, something called Goblin Alley: the Bloodied Fang, a fantasy adventure set on Earth and in the world of fairy, connected by alley ways, and a boy with a talent at running. Ash loved the book, and secretly, so did she. Especially the romance, which was the part that Ash didn’t care for, although he agreed that Mingmei’s ability to shapeshift into a fox was neat.

If only they had alley ways like those in the book, that they could use as shortcuts back to Earth. She’d brave all the goblins and geists to take Ash back home.

She hadn’t finished a chapter before his breathing changed and he was asleep. She marked a spot a bit before that, and then continued reading on ahead, partly to make it easier when she read it to Ash, but mostly because she enjoyed the story. She finally stopped when she couldn’t fight sleep any longer herself.

7

The next day she went back to the compost center early and pounded on the access hatch. Finally the hatch opened a few inches and Jason looked out. When he saw her, he scowled, bushy eyebrows dropping.

“Walker. I thought I told you not to come back until next week?”

“Yep, and when I got home, there were two of the Director’s goons waiting for me. With my brother!”

“What?” Jason pulled back and the hatch opened wider. “Get in here.”

He tried to grab her, but she bounced away, caught the grip above the hatch and swung right over him into the corridor beyond.

The rich compost air enveloped her as she swung on a few grips into the corridor, caught and spun around to kill her forward motion. She hung by one arm.

Jason swore and shoved the hatch closed. He threw over the bar to lock it.

He tiptoed down the corridor, looking up, still scowling. “Into my office!”

She swung along easily ahead of him to the office door, and only then dropped down lightly to the corridor floor. Jason tiptoed up a moment later.

He typed in a code into the access panel beside the door. The panel slid open. This time she waited for him to go first, then followed.

She’d been in the office before, and it hadn’t changed much, except it had gotten messier. Stacks of discarded non-compostables, broken panels, worn clothing, and broken electronics, gathered around the small clear area surrounding his sling chair. It hung in the center of the tiny circular area.

Jason caught the sling chair and climbed in. He activated a box hanging on his belt and an exclusion bubble formed around them, filling that small space.

“There,” he said. “Now we can talk. Tell me what happened.”

Nellie told him about the men that came to her comb. She’d given it a lot of thought after her conversation with Ash. Sure, he was only eight, but he had a point. Things on Makemake weren’t what Mama had promised. It wasn’t anything like what they had been told. Back right after the exodus, when they were in the temporary habitats above Earth, Terra Blackstone had come to see them. Blackstone! Not them, specifically, but everyone in their habitat. She had spoken to them and talked about the new worlds.

This didn’t sound like what she had wanted.

Since those men wanted her to watch Hamilton, maybe Ash was right. The rebels must be real, otherwise the men wouldn’t have come to her, and Hamilton had to be involved. Or at least the Director’s goons thought he was involved.

He took it pretty well, just listening while she spilled it all out. If she was wrong, if it’d been some sort of test, then she was probably in trouble.

“See? I had to come back,” she said. “They told me too. If I didn’t, it would have looked suspicious.”

Jason put his fingers together and swung his legs, setting the sling chair swinging. “You were right. Absolutely right.”

He laughed and spun the chair.

“So what do I do? How do I help?”

Jason dragged his foot to stop the chair and dropped the exclusion field. The normal hum of the place popped back into existence, noticeable after the quiet in the field.

“Now? You can get out there and start getting empties ready for the morning rush. There’s also a quarter-bin of last minute pots that came in last night, so you can start cleaning those. By the time you finish the early risers should be showing up.”

“What about —”

He raised a finger and waggled it. “We’ll see how it goes. You do good work, maybe I’ll let you come back.”

Right. No exclusion field. Someone might be listening.

She pointed to the stack of worn workalls. “Can I take a couple of those old workalls? I’ve got some patching to do.”

“Sure,” Jason said, waving his hand. “Go ahead.”

Nellie pawed through the stack and pulled out two larges. She stuffed them into her sling. They’d be much too big for her and Ash, but she didn’t plan on wearing them. She had another idea.

8

After work, after waiting in the chow line to pick up two more bottles of the green soup and turn in their empties, Nellie swung into her comb. She tensed, half expecting the men from yesterday to be back but they weren’t. It was empty. No Ash.

For a second her muscles refused to move. She looked around the small chamber. The hammocks hung on the wall. Their table was folded up on the large back wall. Her tablet sat on the narrow back shelf, where she always kept it next to their spare workalls. Everything looked normal down to the chamber pot in the right corner. Just no Ash. But his tablet and sling were gone too. She relaxed a bit.

If his sling and tablet were gone too, then he must have gone out. He did go out, whether she liked it or not, but usually he was back home before she finished work.

He’d be back, probably soon. If she went looking for him, then he’d come back to an empty comb as well. She’d wait, and trust him to return.

While she waited she tried to keep busy. She lifted the table from the wall so that the single leg swung down to support the surface. There wasn’t much material to the table or leg. Back on Earth they would have looked especially thin and spindly, but under Makemake’s tiny gravity they were easily strong enough. She pulled the soup bottles out of her sling and put them on the table’s surface. Her stomach growled but she ignored that. She’d wait for Ash to get back.

To keep her mind busy, she pulled the worn workalls out of her sling. Mostly the material had worn at the edges and seems, but large sections looked fine. She could make so many things with it, but she had something particular in mind. She kicked over to her shelf and picked up her tablet and began to draw.

9

An hour passed before Ash returned, swing through the curtain to land in the comb. Nellie looked up from her work, needle in hand.

“Ash! Where have you been?”

“Out.” He skipped over to the table and picked up one of the bottles.

Nellie put down what she was working on and joined him. “It’s not going to be hot. I’ve been back over an hour.”

Ash shrugged and squirted the soup into his mouth.

He wasn’t talking. Probably still mad at her. This morning he hadn’t been happy that she was going back to work at the compost center, but she couldn’t really tell him what she had planned. Or anything about what she and Jason talked about. Secrets didn’t last long in the warren. Not when everyone was piled one on top of the next in the thin-walled combs.

She took a long drink of the soup. It tasted a bit minty today, covering some of the bitterness. It wasn’t hot. She was hungry enough that she just drank it as fast as she could, and then she didn’t have to taste it.

“Where’d you go?” She said, when she had drained most of the soup.

Ash twisted off the wide top and ran his fingers around the inside of the bottle. “Out. Just around.”

“You have to be careful,” she said. “You watch out for perverts?”

He licked his fingers clean. “I do. They couldn’t catch me anyway. I’m fast.”

Then he let a small grin onto his face. “Faster than you.”

Smiling now, Nellie said, “No way.”

“I’m smaller and lighter.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m stronger. And I get more momentum.”

“Just makes it harder for you to stop!”

“I’ve got a secret weapon.”

His eyes widened. “What?”

Nellie kicked back to the workall on the floor. It was one of her two spares. She lifted it up and held out the sleeve. A membrane ran from the sleeve on down the side of the leg. It was made from the old workalls she’d gotten from Jason. She spread the leg and showed the membrane sewed between the legs.

Ash bounced over the table, landing silently on his bare toes. He reached for the workall.

Nellie pulled it back. “It isn’t ready yet. Almost. I thought I might test it out tonight.”

“What’s it for?”

“You gave me the idea.”

“I did?”

“Yep.” She pointed at the hammocks. “I noticed that thing you did with the hammocks, snapping it to fly across the room.”

“That was just something I figured out.”

“I know. It was smart. I got the design for this from the library. It’s based on wingsuits back on Earth. I modified it a bit to handle my sling, but that wasn’t hard. Skydivers used the wingsuits on Earth, with parachutes.”

“We don’t have a sky.”

“We don’t need a sky. We could fly through the tunnels.”

Ash’s eyes widened. “Like really fly?”

Nellie sat down where the wall slope up to meet the straight wall. She turned the suit to the section she was still sewing.

“Sure, mostly. Kick off and just soar above and around everyone. Fold up your arms and legs to gain speed, then back out for lift. Once I get going I won’t hardly have to touch a grip again. Not unless I want to land or make a fast turn.”

“Can you make me one?”

Nellie pointed the needle at the other spare workall Jason had given her. “I think I have enough fabric for it. But you have to promise not to break your neck!”

“I won’t,” Ash said seriously. “Everyone is going to want one.”

She’d thought about that already. Assuming it worked. “This might be a good business for us. We can make ’em and sell ’em to make money.”

“If the Director lets you.”

“He’d just tax us for it, like any business. More money in the government’s pockets.”

She sewed and Ash stood fidgeting and watching her. After several minutes Nellie looked up at him. “Don’t you have some studying to do?”

“I’d rather watch you.”

She pointed the needle at his tablet. “And I’d rather not be watched. Get you studying done. I’ll finish this, and then we’ll take it for a test flight, okay?”

“Yes!”

Ash bounced over the table.

“And fold up the table if you’re not using it,” Nellie said.

He did that, clearing away their bottles to the shelf above the table. Then sat on the sloped wall section on the other side of the comb with his tablet on his knees. She still caught him glancing up at her now and then, but he mostly focused on his studies.

10

Nellie hung from the grips on the North down shaft. The tunnel fell away down a smooth spiral slope. There wasn’t anyone around except her and Ash. They’d swung along the grips like normal to get here from the warren. There were too many eyes around there, she didn’t want her test flight witnessed by so many.

This tunnel spiraled on down to the industrial tunnels that housed the colony’s environmental systems, machine shops, and hydroponic gardens. Eventually it also led to the mining tunnels that spread off through the ice following the veins of water ice. The lights were widely-spaced along the tunnel ceiling, creating alternating pockets of bluish light and darker areas. The air rising from below was warmer and scented with dust from the diggings.

Ash dangled from the grip beside her. “Well? Are you going to do this?”

“Yes, just give me a second.”

“You’ve already had a second.”

Brother. Still, it was good to see him excited about something. Nellie took a deep breath. What was the worst that could happen? Even falling wasn’t going to hurt here.

She spread her hands on the grip and brought her feet up, pressing them against the bar between her hands. Just a normal kick off.

She jumped, aiming low so that she didn’t hit the next grip.

She shot forward into the tunnel. The floor was approaching fast.

She thrust her arms out and spread her legs.

It was as if a hand had grabbed her and yanked her up toward the ceiling. She twisted and dropped her arm and rolled just in time to miss slamming into one of the grips.

The wall was right there!

Nellie rolled the other way, spread her arm and caught the air.

She brought in her arms, just a hair, and dropped slightly.

There was a noise behind her. She dared a glance back over her shoulder and saw Ash, swinging along the grips, skipping every other one, yelling his head off.

She grinned and drew in her arms a bit more. Her speed increased as she dove through the tunnel.

As the tunnel turned she banked and followed the curve. It was faster than she had ever gone through the tunnels. She couldn’t help but grin as the wind rushed past her.

Then an oldster shuffled out of a side tunnel, right into her path!

Nellie reacted instinctively, snapping open her arms. The wingsuit caught the air and she rose up over the oldster, buzzing past his balding head.

“What?”

Then she was past, and diving down the tunnel again, laughing now.

All too soon the tunnel leveled out on the industrial level. Steam blew past her head. The air was hot and moist.

Nellie dragged her legs in the air, and embraced it with her arms. The drag slowed her quickly and she dropped. A quick flap of her arms at the last moment, and she landed lightly on her feet.

She turned around, looking for Ash but there was no sign of him. A chill pushed aside the exhilaration of the flight. Taking him out here? This late? What was she thinking?

She bounced up to the grips, caught one and swung forward. As she built up speed she let go and spread her arms. Flying up the slope, the ground came up quickly. She flapped her arms experimentally.

It worked!

She rose up. Flapping faster, she flew up the tunnel. After every few flaps she rest her arms and rode the air until she had to flap again.

Still no Ash.

She was starting to panic when she finally saw him as she rounded the curve in the tunnel. He was swinging gamely along the grips toward her.

Even though her own arms were tired, she flapped up to meet him and caught a grip to stop.

She was breathing hard, but said, “See? I am faster.”

Ash grinned. “Only because you’ve got the wingsuit! Wait until I get mine!”

“I’ll work on it,” Nellie said. “But it’s late, and probably not a good idea to be out here. Let’s get back.”

“Okay.” Ash yawned. “That was amazing.”

Amazing. Imagine that. Nellie swung alongside Ash, letting him set the pace.

Back at the comb he hooked up the hammocks without complaints, rolled into his and was asleep before she got out of the wingsuit to sleep. She folded it carefully and climbed into her hammock.

In her mind, the tunnel walls were a blur. She’d never felt so free, not since running on the green grass back on Earth.

11

When Nellie went back to work at the compost center the next day she wore the wingsuit but she didn’t fly along the corridor. She did extend an arm as she made a quick turn, catching the air to help make the move, but that was all. It was different with so many people out and about. The tunnel was crowded, and she didn’t want to draw too much attention. Not unless she had to.

Jason let her in without commenting on her modified workall. He disappeared quickly with instructions to start cleaning out the leftovers before the main rush started. Not a word about anything.

She went to work thinking about it. Was it because he didn’t trust her? Or because someone might be listening? The Director probably had bugs and stuff all over the place. When they had talked Jason had used the exclusion field to prevent anyone from listening. Actually, thinking back on that conversation, had he said anything about being part of the rebellion? Not really. He had listened to what she had to say, and then he had dropped the exclusion field. That was all. He hadn’t said he was part of the rebellion, or anything.

Nellie picked up a full chamber pot. She twisted the lid off and stuck the pot in the big wheel, clamping it in place. The lid snapped into place beside the pot. She gave the wheel a turn to the next position and picked up the next pot. It sloshed as she twisted the lid off, and the smell! Her eyes stung. Some were worse than others, and that was nasty. She quickly snapped the pot into place, the lid and turned the wheel. Once she got the wheel filled, then she’d drop the lid, and power it up. It spun to draw out all of the material from the pots, which was carried off to the compost chambers. After that that dry sand and heated air would blast the pots and the wheel clean, before spinning up again to remove the sand. She always like the blasting the best. Everything scrubbed away.

The next pot was light. She twisted the lid off, expecting a mostly empty pot, and instead there were some electronic components at the bottom. She recognized one crystalline piece as a quantum computer core stone. That definitely wasn’t what she normally saw in the pots!

She put it aside and quickly finished loading the wheel. She activated the sequence, scooped up the pot with the components and slipped it into her sling.

Chances were, she wasn’t supposed to have found it. There was that special pot the other day that Jason had, and this was probably the same sort of thing. He was connected to the rebels!

But what were they doing?

Did she trust him, or report him?

It wasn’t a hard decision.

He was out front, at the counter, with a line of people dropping off pots when she shoved in a full bin of cleaned chamber pots. Jason barely glanced at her as he took a pot from a needle-thin oldster, dropped it in the dirty bin and registered her deposit before taking one of the last clean pots out of the clean bin.

The woman looked down her nose at the chamber pot he put on the counter. “You should have someone else handling the clean chamber pots. And the counters should be separate.”

Hamilton grinned at her. “Budget cuts, ma’am. Feel free to complain to the Director, maybe he’ll increase my budget and I can hire some decent help. Have a nice day now.”

Nellie moved the remaining clean chamber pots into the full bin of clean ones, and swapped the bin positions. The woman focused her attention on Nellie.

“You’ve got her. She could handle the clean ones, while you take the dirties.”

“You wouldn’t want me to do that, ma’am,” Nellie said, grinning. “I’m the one that has to open the pots and get ’em cleaned.”

The oldster wrinkled her nose and picked up the clean chamber pot from the counter. “Someday we’ll have decent plumbing and you’ll be out of a job!”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Jason said. “Thank you for your business.”

She made a noise in her throat and shuffled out of the way of the other people waiting. Nellie took advantage of the moment to get close to Jason.

“I’ve got a pot that’s got something in it I’ve never seen before. I think you should take a look at it.”

Jason picked up a sign from beneath the counter and plunked it down before the next customer could put down his chamber pot. The customer was a young man, with dark eyes and pale, pale skin. Sort of cute. He looked at the sign on the counter and then down at the chamber pot her held.

Nellie smiled at him. “Break time. We’ll be back in ten minutes!”

“Thank you for your understanding,” Jason said.

The young man looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t think of the words.

Jason slipped out of his sling and hurried out of the lobby area. Nellie grabbed the empty bin and pushed it after him.

She left the bin in the back and followed Jason to his office. As soon as they were inside, Jason activated the exclusion field. The static filed popped into existence around them and cut off all the noises outside. He snapped his fingers, loud in the field.

“Show me.”

Nellie slipped the chamber pot out of her sling and twisted off the lid. Jason reached for it and she pulled it back, tipping it so he could see but not letting him take it.

“Give it over,” Jason said.

“No.” Nellie tucked it back to her side. “What is it?”

“Nothing that concerns you!” He made a grab for the pot.

She bounced out of his reach.

“I want to help. What’s going on?”

“You don’t want to get involved,” Jason said. “You want the Director’s goons back after you?”

“No, but I want to know what’s going on. Things can’t stay like this.”

She hadn’t ever said it out loud like that, but it was true. Makemake couldn’t go on like this. It was getting worse.

Jason raised his hands in surrender, showing his palms, and stepped back. “Fine. We have to be quick, before the people out there get impatient. Those are components for an initiator, for Diaspora’s instantaneous communications network.”

“What’s that?”

“Think of it like a radio with no lag. We can call Luna in real-time. Better than that, they can do full holographic calls over it. Diaspora is getting everyone hooked up, but the Director has delayed building the initiator. Without it only Diaspora can initiate an instantaneous connection, and it ties up the main communications station. Since he controls that, he can tell them anything he wants about conditions here.”

“He’s lying to Blackstone?”

Jason nodded. “Yes. But we have people that got the plans for the initiator, and they’ve been fabricating parts. That’s the last of it, but something’s wrong. My contact should have given the pot to me. It shouldn’t have ended up in the back.”

“What does that mean?”

Jason rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. Look, we have to get that to the ones building the initiator. They have to get a call out to Blackstone, and let her know what’s going on. I can’t leave here.”

“I can do it,” Nellie said quickly.

“It might be dangerous. If the Director’s people are on to us, you could be asking for trouble.”

Nellie put the lid on the chamber pot and twisted it into place. She slipped the pot into her sling and settled it against her back. “Where do I go?”

12

After leaving the compost center, Nellie felt like every eye was on her as she swung along the grips through the tunnels. According to Jason, the rebels were holed up in a played out series of water mines. That meant going into the lowest levels, into sections she normally avoided. The closest way down was the South down tunnel, much like the North tunnel where she had tested the wingsuit. All she had to do was get down there and find her way through the industrial areas to the mining entrances. Jason had shown her a map and made her memorize it, rather than risk having it on her if she was caught. He was trusting her.

She caught a grip and swung her body around an oncoming guy. For a split-second his dark eyes were on her — was he one of the Director’s men, he had that look? Then she was past him. She didn’t look back. She didn’t dare.

A woman ahead, tall with her black hair closely braided to her head, was watching Nellie. The woman wore a smooth, crisp workall. And glasses. Not the prescription kind, but the data kind, with full holographic capability. Not someone that was struggling to get by then, which meant she was most likely working for the Director. She moved casually, taking a step before jumping up to catch a grip.

Two more swings and Nellie was getting close. The woman wasn’t looking at her, she was looking at something else that Nellie couldn’t see, something projected by her glasses. But then she looked up and her eyes met Nellie’s. There was recognition there. The woman’s red lips parted a bit.

Nellie looked back. The guy that she’d swung past, he was back there, swinging lazily behind her. His dark eyes met hers too, and a muscle in his jaw jumped.

They were following her.

Now she was truly scared. If the Director was after her, if the rebels were caught, then it was all over. Except, if that was the case, why come after her? She wasn’t important. She was a messenger, at best.

The woman was right there, a couple grips away and moving now to block her.

Nellie released the grip she was on and caught the next with both hands. She swung up, not releasing, twisting around and switching her hands. Her feet came right up to the next grip and she let go, bending her knees.

For an instant it was like she had landed on the grip and the floor was only the wall in front of her.

Nellie jumped, in an instant reversing her direction and going back toward the man.

Now the floor was back to being a floor again and she was flying toward it. The man was in front of her. His eyes widened with surprise but he let go of the grip and dropped.

Just as she’d expected. He thought she was going to ground to try and get past him.

Surprise! She thrust her arms out. The wingsuit caught the air and she swooped up. He had nothing, wasn’t touching the ground yet, didn’t have a grip, and she dipped one arm to twist sidewise as she flew past him.

Someone shouted, she didn’t see who. Now that she was past him she was gliding down the tunnel. She whooshed over the heads of a couple oldsters shuffling on the ground. The man’s up-turned expression of shock was hilarious, but not more than the woman’s delighted smile.

Clear of them, Nellie flapped her arms. The wings caught the air and thrust her forward. She flapped hard, a swimming motion, reaching forward and then thrusting down against the air. Chalk one up for Makemake, that wouldn’t have worked under Earth’s gravity.

She banked into a side tunnel and caught a passing grip to make the quick turn. She swung and released, catching the next, and continued. She glanced back behind her. No sight of the two goons. Not yet at least. She had to get out of this tunnel, and head up to the North access. Hopefully they’d just picked her up leaving the compost center and hadn’t been waiting to cut her off.

They’d have back up coming and now that they’d seen what she could do in the wingsuit, they’d be better prepared. She had to get ahead of them, find the rebels and deliver the components.

Through the warrens, that was her best bet. Lots of people. She could blend in and get past. Not by swinging, though. They’d be expecting her there.

Two quick tunnel sections took her up past the baker’s and the other shops. She dropped off the grips and landed lightly on her feet. She took one shuffling step, then another, bending over as if her sling carried a heavy load. Tiptoe, as if she was afraid of losing her balance, of tripping over her own feet.

God, it was slow. She didn’t see how the oldsters could handle it. What did they think when they saw the younger members of the colony swinging past overhead? Did they even notice?

A gray-faced woman, gray hair, was just ahead of her, shuffling along with each step. Her face might have once been pretty but it was lined and haggard. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. Her arms hugged her body. From the dark circles beneath her eyes, she looked like a ghost.

Nellie mimicked the woman’s posture. If she moved like that woman, the Director’s people might not see her. They’d be looking for someone swinging along the grips like a monkey, or flying free. Not a tired, worn oldster.

The crowd thickened as she entered the warrens. The hum of voices filled the air. Most of the people just stood around. Some sat in the openings of their combs, legs hanging out. A lot of people didn’t have jobs. She shuffled past a group of men standing in a circle and caught fragments of the conversation.

“— don’t know. That’s what I heard.”

“A crack down? What…”

She didn’t stop. It sounded like people were talking about something going on. She wanted to find Ash and make sure he was okay, but going back to her comb right now was a stupid idea. That’s where they’d look for her. All she’d do by going home was put Ash in danger.

A commotion up ahead. She heard voices raised. Someone shouted. Then an amplified voice rang out.

“All of you back to your quarters! Off the streets. Director’s orders! Back to your quarters!”

She froze in place. She wasn’t the only one. Voices rose up again near the front, angry questions shouted out. A half-dozen enforcers in clean black workalls swung into view above the crowd. Batons hung from their belts. A big man hung in the center, like a gorilla studying the crowd. He had a wide, brick-like face with small eyes and almost no neck. He spoke, and his voice was picked up and amplified throughout the warren.

“Back to your quarters. We have an active terrorist threat. For your safety, clear the streets!”

People bounced up the faces of the combs. Others carefully climbed the ladders. Many of those sitting in the openings to their combs pulled back inside.

She’d have to get past them to even get to her comb, and they were searching each person that tried to pass. Looking for her, or other rebels? It didn’t make any difference. If they searched her they would find the components hidden in the chamber pot. Not only that, if they saw her close up they’d see how her workall was modified. She’d be arrested. They’d arrest Jason, if they hadn’t already, and maybe even Ash just because he was her brother.

Her only chance was to get past them, get away, down to the rebel’s tunnels. Maybe they wouldn’t find her there, if she was fast enough to get away.

Nellie took a deep breath and let it out. The crowd was thinning. Her time was running out, she had to move even though her feet felt like they were frozen in place. She took one shuffling step forward, then another. It wasn’t hard to mimic the oldster shuffle, not when she was facing the Director’s goons.

Three of them had dropped down to search the crowd, while the others, including the big man that had spoken, remained above to watch the people. She’d have to surprise them and be quick.

One of the enforcers, a young man with blond hair, roughly patted down a woman ahead of her. He smirked as he ran his hands over the woman’s breasts and body. She kept her head up, eyes straight ahead. Nellie was approaching on the woman’s left, one shuffling step at a time. If she could slip past while the man was distracted, she might have a chance.

The woman’s eyes flicked over and focused on Nellie. Her lips tightened and she lowered her hand to the man’s face. Her fingers ran along his cheek as he straightened, grinning. She leaned closer.

Nellie took the chance the woman was offering her. Why this stranger was doing it, she didn’t know, but she was grateful.

She took two bounding steps, picking up speed, and jumped to the wall. The man jerked away from the woman, lunging for her, shouting.

Nellie’s feet hit the wall and she jumped off into the air. She did a big flap with her arms and once again felt the rush of air past her face as she flew higher in the warren. Here there was lots of air between the grips and the floor.

A black shape flew at her from her right!

An enforcer, one of those from above, leaping to catch her!

Nellie tucked in her arms, twisted her legs, and rolled away under the grasping hands. She stuck out her arms, catching the air and swerving madly toward the floor.

She corrected, caught the air, and flapped up. There were shouts behind her, orders to stop. She ignored them and picked up speed by angling her arms back so that she dropped slightly. Just like sliding down a hill on a sled. She brought her arms forward, caught the air and rose back up. Then down again. It was faster than swinging grip to grip or trying to run along the warren.

The tunnel leaving the warren was much smaller. She tucked in her arms and shot toward it like a bullet. Two enforcers stood in the tunnel, batons in hand.

They saw her. Two men, eyes wide. It had to be a sight, a girl falling from up high, head-first right at them. Nellie swung her fists forward in front of her head.

The men held their ground.

She kept coming, falling faster and faster. Too fast to pull out of the dive? She didn’t know. The wind tore tears from her eyes, blurring her vision.

She screamed in the last moments before she reached the men.

At the last second they bounced out of her way, rather than be hit by her.

Nellie thrust her arms out and was yanked upward. She buzzed right above the tunnel floor, barely missing it. Her arms ached from the strain. She dropped them back, sacrificing lift before she smashed into the ceiling.

She gained control and soared on down the empty tunnel. The enforcers must have driven everyone before them into the warren. She twisted, taking one side passage and then another. The shouts behind her faded.

Her arms were very tired already, but she flapped on to the North tunnel. The familiar spiral passage down was a welcome change. She coasted, gliding down into the depths.

13

The empty tunnels were eerie. Nellie hung from grips in one of the side passages and listened to the sounds in the corridor she had just left. It was people. Enforcers, from the sound of it, sweeping through the industrial tunnels, ferreting out anyone caught hiding. She’d gotten out of the main tunnel before being spotted. For now.

She swung quietly away. This was a narrow connecting tunnel and it twisted and turned as it bore downward into the rock. Maybe it’d once been a water ice seam back when the colony was first dug out. Robots were sent down to Makemake to dig and chew into the crust of the planet. Water ice was rarer on this planet. She didn’t know why, maybe the scientists did, but she’d studied it before they even left to come out here. There was other sorts of ices on the surface, methane, ethane and other stuff, the tholins. Not much water ice. What there was, it was in fissures in the crust and as hard as rock. The robots dug down to harvest the ice and left behind passages that the colonists sealed and pumped full of air before they moved in.

It was all ancient history, as far as she was concerned, but here it was very real.

She was below the industrial level now and the lights ended, leaving the tunnel ahead dropping away into blackness. Nellie stopped.

The way down was this way. Deeper down, away from the improved passages, off into some played out shaft. How was she supposed to find her way in the dark? There wasn’t any light down there. None.

She couldn’t do it swinging, or flying. If she was going to do this, she had to do it on foot.

First, she needed a light. She pulled herself up onto the grip, hooking her legs over to keep herself in place as she reached out to where the last light glowed. It was self-contained, driven into the rock. She dug her fingers around the sides of the light and twisted. At first it didn’t budge. She wrapped both hands over the light and twisted harder, anchored with her legs.

It gave way, a tiny bit. Dust floated away from the hole and slowly drifted downward. Nellie twisted until her fingers hurt and slowly, scratching, the light unscrewed from the anchor in the rock. Two more turns and it began turning more easily. A minute later she had twisted it free entirely.

The end was pointed, and threaded where it went into the anchor. The top was bulb-shaped and dim, but it produced enough light for her to make her way. She held it up and took cautious, short bounding steps down into the tunnel. It shouldn’t be much farther now.

14

Nellie eased along an uneven floor, watching her step as best she could in the dim light from the bulb she held. It was a self-powered area light from the tunnel above. There wasn’t anything like it in this tunnel. Nothing about this tunnel was developed.

The floor was uneven, and covered in rock chips. Threaded marks on the walls and floor showed the passage of the robots that had chewed out this passage. Hacked out, smashed out. There wasn’t anything neat about the tunnel. No smooth floors or squared-off sides. No lights, grips or planters. It was a dry and empty tunnel on the ass-end of the colony.

It had to be the right tunnel. She ran her fingers along the rough surfaces of the walls. She traced the marks left by the robots, and the others no doubt done by men and women mining the tunnel.

This looked like the tunnel Jason had described, but so did the last three tunnels she had passed through. This one didn’t look like anything special.

At least right up to the point when a section of the rocks moved on both side of her and a cool metal barrel was pointed at her head.

They wore camouflaged clothes that blended into the rocks and shadows. She hadn’t seen them at all until they moved. There were at least two of them, but she had the impression that there were more behind her. A woman moved in front of her, putting her weapon back in a pocket in her outfit. The woman’s skin was naturally dark. She had high cheek bones and black hair cut short. A pair of glasses were pushed up on her head. Her dark eyes were fixed on Nellie’s.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” The woman demanded. Her tone was calm, but serious.

“Jason Hamilton sent me. I’m Nellie.”

The woman studied Nellie’s face. “You? A child? Why?”

“I was working in the compost center with him. He couldn’t get away, and I found the special chamber pot. There was a lock down. The enforcers were sweeping the tunnels, making everyone go back to their combs.”

“Ambra, what do we do?” Said a man on Nellie’s left.

The woman didn’t look at the man. She stayed focused on Nellie. “You have it, this pot? Hamilton gave it to you?”

“Yes.”

The woman plucked the light from Nellie’s hand. “No lights.”

She took Nellie’s other hand in hers and then pushed the buttons that turned off the light. Absolute darkness enveloped Nellie. If it wasn’t for the woman’s warm hand holding hers, Nellie would have been scared.

“Come with me,” the woman said in the darkness.

Nellie followed the woman through the dark and wished that she had glasses to see where they were going. They walked and walked through the dark. At times Nellie stumbled, tripping on the uneven floor, but the woman steadied her each time. She didn’t speak. Nellie couldn’t tell if the others followed or not. If they did, she didn’t hear them. They turned several times, taking other passages, or the tunnel just turned, she had no way to know.

Finally, they stopped. Nellie heard a hissing noise and then light poured into the tunnel. She blinked against the bright light, shielding her eyes with her arm. A hatch was opening. The light gushed from the space around the hatch. She barely had a moment to adjust to the light before the woman pulled her into the opening.

As soon as they were inside the door slid closed behind them and the woman let go of Nellie’s hand.

They were in a room. A real room, with a floor and walls and a high ceiling. It was a pale rusty red color. The light came uniformly from white panels in the ceiling. Planters along the sides of the room were filled with green growing plants.

Plants! There were tomato plants with small bright red tomatoes just hanging all over the plant. Nellie’s mouth watered. She hadn’t had cherry tomatoes since Earth!

“Have some, if you like,” the woman said, gesturing at the plant.

Nellie looked at the woman. She was smiling, but also looked sort of sad. She was really beautiful. Ambra, the man had said. Was that her name?

“It’s okay,” the woman said.

Nellie bounced over to the plant and inhaled the tomato scent of the plant. Her stomach growled. She picked one, then two more because they were right there in that cluster. She made herself stop then and popped one into her mouth. The skin burst and sweet tomato juices and pulp flooded her mouth. She chewed with relish. There hadn’t ever been a better tomato. Not ever!

At least until she ate the next one. She swallowed it and slipped the last one into her sling. She’d take that one back to Ash. More, if she was allowed.

The woman just stood there watching her.

Nellie swallowed. “Your name is Ambra?”

“Yes. And you’re Nellie Walker, one of the children that came here with the exodus transport.”

How? Her glasses, of course. The woman, Ambra, had looked her up while they were walking.

“Nellie, do you still have what Jason Hamilton gave you?”

“Yes.” Nellie pulled the bulky chamber pot out of her sling, glad to get it out. She held it out to Ambra.

Ambra took the pot in both hands. “Thank you, Nellie. You may have saved us all.”

She twisted off the lid and looked inside. She smiled a little, then smiled much wider, flashing white teeth. She laughed and looked back up at Nellie.

“This is perfect. I have to get this to our engineers. Come on, we’ll get you a real meal and a place to rest.”

“I have to get back,” Nellie said. “My brother, Ash, he’s alone.”

Ambra shook her head. “I can’t let you go yet, Nellie. You said it yourself, that they have the upper levels locked down. We’ll keep you safe. The faster we work, the better we’ll be able to help your brother, and everyone else.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to save the colony. Let me show you how.”

Nellie took a breath. Ash was going to be scared that she wasn’t in the comb. The Director’s enforcers might already be questioning him, demanding to know where she was. He couldn’t tell them, he didn’t know. But if she went back, Ambra was right. They’d catch her and make her tell them everything that she knew.

“Okay.”

15

There was a whole other colony hidden down here. Nellie followed Ambra, amazed at what she saw. These weren’t simply tunnels cut through rock and sealed. They had to be that much, but in these corridors the surfaces were all covered. The light was uniform and as bright as sunshine on Earth. And everywhere, plants grew in containers along the corridors, mounted on the walls, and in planters at the center of intersections.

It was busy too. They passed people swinging through the tunnels on ceiling grips, just like above, but here there didn’t seem to be any people shuffling along. Even those that walked, they took long bounding steps. Everyone wore standard black Diaspora workalls, new, just like the Director’s people.

“How do you have all of this?” Nellie asked.

“We have our own fusion generator and printer,” Ambra said. “It’s let us build this outpost under the Director’s nose. And we’ve hidden the entrance. So far, they haven’t found us.”

“If you could do all this, why haven’t you just taken over?”

“We don’t have enough people. This is a small example of what the Makemake colony should have been like, if Partel hadn’t seized power.”

Ambra stopped outside of a door and touched a panel on the wall beside it. The panel flashed and the door slid open. “What you’ve brought us will change things.”

She went in, and Nellie followed her.

The room was small, but there were holographic displays all around the room with people working at them. In the center of the room was a table, and some sort of machine sitting at the center. The people in the room, three of them, all stood up as Ambra came in. A man with a round face and curly brown hair broke into a big smile.

“Ambra! You’re back.” He looked at the pot she held. “Is that it?”

“Yes.” Ambra handed it over.

“Awesome!” The man said, looking inside.

He looked up, at Nellie. “Who’s this?”

Ambra stepped back and touched Nellie’s shoulder. “Nellie Walker. She’s the one that brought us the parts, evading a lockdown in the process.”

Ambra pointed at the man. “This is Dr. Rick Banner. He’s in charge of this project.”

She pointed at a short woman, not any taller than Nellie, with long blond hair. “Dr. Rachel Dexter.”

Then Ambra pointed at the last person, an oldster with gray hair and a lined face. “Dr. Stan Anderson. This is our team that’s putting together the initiator.”

“Why’d you need these parts?” Nellie asked. “If you have a printer, couldn’t you just make your own?”

“Good question,” Banner said. “She’s smart. We could make most of the things we needed but not everything. The printer can’t make everything, and these needed specialized equipment to manufacture. We had people upstairs that managed to use the equipment there to make the parts for us. It was risky, and dangerous, but it looks like they’ve done it. Now it’s up to us to finish putting this together.”

Nellie looked at the machine. “And this will let us talk to Diaspora? We can tell Blackstone what’s happening here?”

“Yes,” Ambra said. “Thanks to you. What do you say that we get you something to eat, and a place to rest? We’ll let them work?”

“Okay.” Nellie waved at the people “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too,” Banner said. “And thank you.”

“Yes,” Anderson said, his voice deep. “You may have saved us all.”

Nellie blushed and turned away. Saved them all? Was that possible?

16

The next afternoon there was a chime from the door to Nellie’s room. It was twice as big as the comb, with real furniture instead of hammocks, and its very own plants growing along one wall. It was like having her very own garden. Ambra had brought her to the room after they had a meal in the rebels cafeteria. She had just been watching an old holographic movie from Earth, trying not to think too much about what was happening right now. She hadn’t had any word yet, and she was worried about Ash.

Nellie shut off the holographic screen and faced the door. “Come in?”

The door opened. It was Ambra. She stepped inside and the door slid shut behind her. Ambra gave her a small smile.

“How are you doing, Nellie?”

“Okay, I guess.” Nellie spread her hands. “What’s going on? I couldn’t get any information on the system.”

“Sorry about that. We’ve gotten by this long by being very paranoid. But I do have news for you.”

Nellie hugged herself. Mama had said that, before they left Earth. Honey, I have news for you.

Ambra’s eyebrows went up and she held out a hand. “No, it’s not bad. Just the opposite. With the parts you brought they’ve finished the initiator. It’s ready to go. I wanted to invite you to be there when we make the call. If you want?”

Nellie nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”

Ambra turned and palmed the panel to open the door. She smiled. “Let’s go.”

Nellie followed Ambra through the rebel outpost to a large round room. It was dimly lit, mostly by dozens of holographic stations. She saw views of the inside of the colony, with enforcers watching lines of people.

“What’s going on?”

“Partel is trying to root us out, but he can’t keep the people just sitting in their combs. He’s got to let them out, but he’s clamped down on everything.”

“And you can see all of this?”

“Yes, we’ve been monitoring the situation. He’s offering incentives for people to come forward with information on us.” Ambra’s pointed ahead. “We’re going to use the main display.”

Nellie recognized some of the people present. The team from the lab that she had met yesterday, Banner, Dexter and Anderson. There were other people waiting, all of them looking at her and Ambra as they approached.

“Ready for the big moment?” Dr. Banner asked Nellie.

She nodded.

Banner gestured to Ambra. “If you’d like to do the honors?”

“Thank you,” Ambra said.

Everyone around the room had stopped what they were doing and were standing, watching. Nellie felt very conspicuous standing in the center of it all, but no one looked unhappy. They were all watching Ambra.

“Thank you,” Ambra said again, louder. She turned, looking at the people. “Your sacrifices, everything we’ve accomplished has led to this moment. We almost didn’t get the chance.”

She put a hand on Nellie’s shoulder.

“This young woman, Nellie Walker, risked everything to get us the last few components we needed. Without her, we might have lost our chance. I’ve asked her to stand with us.”

Ambra’s hand dropped from Nellie’s shoulder. She gestured and a holographic display opened up before her at the center of the room.

“Initiator online,” Banner said.

“Okay. Let’s make the call. Give me Diaspora Base, Terra Blackstone.”

The Diaspora Group logo of planetary orbits appeared in the floating middle of the room. The tiny planets spun around the sun.

“I hope we don’t get a busy signal,” Ambra quipped.

Nellie grinned as nervous laughter flew around the room. The tension in the room eased up.

The logo faded away and a woman stepped out of nothingness. It was Blackstone, just as Nellie remembered her when she had visited the exodus habitat above Earth, before they left for Makemake. Blackstone was beautiful, with fair skin and wavy black hair. She wore a black workall, but on her it wasn’t baggy and shapeless. Her feet were bare, but her toenails were painted bright red, with golden flecks, just like her fingernails. It looked like she was really there, right in the room with them, but it had to be a holographic display. She looked around the room, and then focused on Ambra.

“Ambra Smith, it’s good to see you. I didn’t expect this call.” Blackstone’s red lips broke into a grin. “Really good considering Director Partel reported you as lost months ago.”

“There’s a lot that he’s been lying about, Terra. We need your help.”

Nellie listened as Ambra summed up what had happened since Partel had taken over. As she talked Banner started a data transfer, sending all the details, all the information on the illness that had swept over the exodus mission. Partel had seized the opportunity to gain power, and when they arrived at Makemake, he had used his people to seize control of the colony facilities. It was only then that Nellie realized, with a start, that Ambra Smith was the woman that had been in charge of Makemake before Partel arrived and took over.

When Ambra finished summing up what had happened, Blackstone spread her arms.

“I wish I could give you a hug! All of you!” Blackstone looked around the room. “I commend you all for your bravery. And I can help. Together, we can make things better. Now that you’ve created an initiator we can use that to seize control of the Makemake command core. I’ve got overrides to make that possible, but I haven’t been able to use them. Partel isolated the core from outside connections or I could have already used them to find out what was going on. He’s been using an isolated system to send us false reports.”

“We’re already tied into the colony systems,” Ambra said. “Just give us the word and we’re ready. If we can gain control of the command core, he won’t have any choice but to step down and face charges.”

Blackstone grinned. “It’s good to have you back. You’ve pulled off a miracle. It’s like you’ve come back from the dead, and I couldn’t be happier.”

“We almost didn’t make it,” Ambra said. “For all of our sacrifices, it eventually came down to a few key components and one brave young woman.”

Shocked, Nellie realized Ambra meant her again. Blackstone looked at her, and there was recognition in her eyes.

“This is Nellie Walker,” Ambra said. “She created a clever wingsuit, and used it to evade Partel’s people and get us the parts we needed to make this call. We wouldn’t be talking without her help.”

“I remember you,” Blackstone said. “You left here with your mother and your brother. Are they okay?”

Tears stung Nellie’s eyes. She shook her head. “Mama died when people got sick on the ships. It’s just been Ash and I since, and I don’t know what’s happened to him since the lockdown.”

Blackstone looked at Ambra.

“We’ll find out,” Ambra said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get you back to him safe.”

“We’ve got a lot to do,” Blackstone said. She looked back at Nellie. “Thank you, Nellie. Let’s take our colony back and make it what it should have been all along.”

Nellie nodded. “Okay.”

As the adults discussed what to do, Nellie bounced up and caught a grip in the ceiling. No one was using them, so she hung above it all by herself. It gave her a great view as Ambra, Blackstone and the rest planned what to do. Apparently Blackstone could use their connection and the initiator, to activate deep overrides in the colony’s command core that controlled, well, everything. Air, water recycling, power, the economy that Partel had set up, security, all of it. They could even control the emergency hatches and doors.

17

In the end, taking the colony back went smoothly. Partel never knew what was going on. Blackstone locked the place down, locked Partel and his people where they were and the rebels went out to seize control. As soon as the people realized what was happening, there was cheering throughout the colony.

Nellie followed the rebels back up to the colony, but then she left them and flew through the tunnels, using the wingsuit. She made it back to the warren in record time. She reached her comb and swung through the curtain to land on her feet.

Ash yelled and jumped at her. She was so surprised that she barely caught him with one arm, and a grip with the other to stop them from falling right out through the curtain.

He squeezed her tight and his body shook against hers. Nellie hugged him back.

“It’s okay. We’re okay,” she said. “Ambra Smith is back, she’s taking back over with Terra Blackstone’s help.”

Sniffling, Ash pulled back. “Really?”

“Really.” Nellie put Ash down. “They’re going to make things better, the way it should have been, the way Mama talked about it.”

“Where did you go? I thought they had arrested you!”

Nellie shook her head. “Sorry, Ash. I had to help, and Partel’s people chased me. I found the rebels, though, and helped them.”

“You did all of this?”

Nellie shook her head. “I only helped a little.”

“More than a little,” a voice said, behind them.

Both Nellie and Ash turned quickly. Terra Blackstone’s face was on Nellie’s tablet on her shelf, smiling.

“You must be Ash.”

He rubbed his nose and nodded.

“Your sister is very brave. She came through when it was needed and saved the colony.”

Nellie blushed. “I didn’t —”

“You made a difference,” Terra insisted. “And you’ve been carrying a bigger burden than you should have to carry alone. I’m going to personally make sure that you get the help you need. I’ll be checking up on you, I expect great things from you, and you, Ash, but you shouldn’t have to do it alone.”

“Thank you,” Nellie said.

“You’re welcome.” Blackstone grinned. “And that wingsuit you made? That’s a great idea for low-gravity worlds. I’m going to have someone work with you on getting that design out. I saw you on the cameras, amazing, beautiful. Are you okay?”

Nellie hugged Ash close. “We’re okay.”

“Great. I’ve got to go make sure Ambra has things in hand. We’ll be talking. Bye!”

Ash waved and then the tablet went blank. He turned and gaped up at Nellie.

“Don’t look at me like that.” She pointed at his tablet. “Just because we helped save the colony, it doesn’t mean that you get away with not studying. You still need to learn.”

Ash grinned and bounced over to pick up his tablet.

Nellie sat down on her side of the room, leaning against the wall. She wasn’t tired. Not yet. She was energized, like when she flew through the tunnels. All of that fear that she’d been carrying around was melting away, releasing her to soar.

14,359 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 13th weekly short story release, and the 13th Planetary Bodies story.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!

Haumea Exultant

The Diaspora Group colonized the solar system with a series of launches to the major planetary bodies. The first launches had the farthest to go, out into the dark outer reaches of the solar system.

Those left on Earth found themselves shut out from the solar system after a failed attempt to seize Diaspora’s base on Earth’s Moon.

Now Patricia Colby has an opportunity to open the door for those on Earth to join the effort to expand humanity’s frontiers.

1

The first successful jaunt happened on the snowball world of Haumea, at the far reaches of the solar system. One moment Patricia Colby was in the dark on Earth, and then in the next she opened her eyes in a room on another world.

As rooms went, the one she found herself in was small and bare, with dark walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a twilight landscape of rock and ice. It seemed she was perched on the edge of an abyss. Cliffs dropped away into a wide chasm of reddish rock and bright frost. The room had an antiseptic, plastic smell common in closed in habitats and ships.

Light panels on the ceiling gave off a dim blue glow which left the room as dark the landscape outside. As Patricia sat up, the lights brightened. She felt barely tethered to the bench she found herself on, as if any movement might send her floating off to the ceiling. She moved with slow, careful movements, as she adjusted the to the circumstances of her arrival.

Arms and legs, all were working. She was wearing the same cream-colored suit that she had on when she lay down, the smart wool soft to the touch. Her feet remained bare to the cool air and looked perfectly normal, just as they had when she lay down in the sensory chamber. Even her nails were still peach-colored. Her hands also appeared unchanged. She flexed her fingers experimentally. If there was anything different about them, she didn’t detect the difference at all. Her hands looked completely normal, down to the scar over the base knuckle on her index finger where she had cut herself with a saw as a girl.

What amazing technology! If she hadn’t known that her body was still back on Earth, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Even her tongue still tasted faintly of the peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich she had eaten before making the jaunt!

“Patricia? Are you alright?”

The voice came from behind her, a woman’s voice, pitched low, and filled with concern. Patricia twisted around, bracing herself on the bench.

There was a woman standing behind her, near the plain gray wall. She wore Diaspora’s standard workall, a black one-piece garment with many pockets, her black hair cut short above her shoulders. She had a stocky build and a wide slash of a smile. Patricia recognized her, Dr. Emily Green, the lead researcher on the Haumea jaunt project.

She wasn’t alone. Three other people stood with her. There was an older man, hair gone mostly gray that fell in waves around his broad face. He was tall, pushing against the height limits the Diaspora had in place back when the Haumea expedition set out. Dr. Max Highlet, the same Dr. Highlet that had developed the nano-neural circuitry.

Going left to right past him, was a young man, cute, with short brown hair and a scruffy beard. Patricia remembered his profile too, Dr. Riley Kinsey. A brilliant young man that had left a lucrative consulting business to join the mission.

And next to Riley was another woman with a severe, narrow face. She might have looked angry except for the fact that she was grinning. She was Dr. Corinne Shaw, one of Patricia’s personal heroes on the expedition. She’s was the one that had saved two other crew members during an impact event on the way out to Haumea.

Patricia swung her legs off the bench and stood. She bounced experimentally on her toes. Each flex took her inches off the floor and she was slow to drop back down.

 

“I’m fine,” Patricia said. “Everything appears to be working as expected.”

Emily studied a tablet she held, and tapped the screen. “Confirming that the link is holding strong. Neural activity looks normal.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Patricia said, laughing. She massaged her right hand with her left. “If I didn’t know better, I’d never suspect that this was an android body with a holographic overlay.”

“It’s a lot more than that,” the young man said. “The interface taps into your sensory memory to make it all real. As far as your brain can tell, you are here, on Haumea.”

“Except I’m not. My body is back in the sensory chamber on Earth. How come it seems so real? I thought this would be like a telepresence sort of thing.”

Corinne shook her head. “Thanks to the instantaneous communications network, the android feeds real-time feedback to you in the sensory chamber. Even on Earth your senses aren’t as perfect as they seem, the brain has ways of feeling in the gaps so that you don’t notice them. The same thing here.”

“I’d say.” Patricia smoothed her jacket. “Okay, then. Let’s get to work. What’s first?”

Emily pocketed the tablet. “Right now, we want you to rest. We’re going to check on the initiator and other components.”

“Rest? I didn’t jaunt across the solar system to rest. I don’t think this body even needs rest. I’d like to see the rest of the facility. That’s what Blackstone promised us.”

The negotiations between the United States and the Diaspora Group had been tense at times, given the previous’ administrations unfortunate and embarrassing efforts to seize Diaspora outposts at the Moon and Ceres. Actions that had led to the Diaspora Groups exodus from Earth.

Corinne took a step forward. “Please, Patricia. This is new. We don’t know the psychological impacts of this sort of displacement right now. Let’s take it slow. We’ll be back soon and talk more.”

The others were already moving out the door. Max Highlet stopped on his way out. “Hang in there, kid. It won’t be long.”

Then he was gone, and with a sympathetic smile, Corinne followed Emily out. Patricia bounded across the room in one large step. She was too slow and the door slid closed. She ran her hand across the panel beside the door.

No response.

She pried open the access panel in the door and pulled the manual release. It moved easily, too easily. They’d disconnected it. The release did nothing to open the door. She was locked in.

She hit the door with her fist. It echoed dully. “Hey!”

No response from the other side. Locked in? That wasn’t part of the deal.

Patricia turned, making a slow survey of the room. As she’d seen when she woke, it wasn’t a big room. Three or four meters on a side, with big floor to ceiling windows that took in the view. Even from across the room it was as if a single step would send her flying out over the deep canyon.

According to the briefing materials, the facility was located on the equator, on the edge of the massive chasm scooped out of the surface. An impacting body had hit a glancing blow on the dwarf planet, tearing up pieces of the crust and knocking it into a dizzying spin that had it rotating in just under four hours. In the holographic recording she’d seen, it was a weird, squashed world as the spin caused the equator to bulge out. The two small moons, Hi’iaka and Namaka spun around the odd world. Hi’iaka was nothing more than the biggest piece of Haumea that had been scooped out by the impact event.

She crossed the room in two light, tip-toe steps and stopped her forward momentum by touching the windows. The glass was cool to the touch, but not cold.

Outside the ground tumbled away in fractured layers. The shine on the reddish rocks indicated a layer of hard, amorphous ice. The cracked and broken rocks ended at a wide chasm which dropped away into black shadows below. The bottom wasn’t visible from here. Distant cliffs were clearly visible. Haumea lacked an atmosphere, so no haze to hide the cliffs.

This chasm was a treasure trove of resources and knowledge about the dwarf planet. It gave the colonists ready access to the resources they had needed to build this facility. The Workshop, that’s what they called it.

Too bad there wasn’t a door to the outside. In this android body, she could go walking outside, right out there to the edge of the cliff. According to the design specs, the body was tough enough to handle any of the solar systems harsh environments. Across the solar system, in all of the established Diaspora colonies, work was underway to manufacture more of these bodies. Coupled with the instantaneous communications network, it was going to open up the solar system. All the worlds would be open, provided that she didn’t screw this up. Earth needed Diaspora’s help to solve many of the ecological and economic challenges it faced.

And Diaspora needed the one resource that Earth had in abundance. People. Lots of people. A pool of humanity that Diaspora couldn’t match, but that could visit the Diaspora worlds in bodies like this one to work. And eventually, hopefully, Diaspora would return to Earth and open up immigration launches again.

She returned to the bench and sat facing the windows. It was a high bench and she swung her legs back and forth. She wasn’t going to screw this up. They knew everything she was doing, surely they were monitoring her android body, so she’d be patient and wait. That didn’t mean that she couldn’t get work done. She activated her glasses and the holographic display unfurled like flowers around her. She focused on the Haumea briefing materials and started reviewing what Diaspora had shared about the Workshop.

2

After two hours of waiting, Patricia’s stomach growled. She stopped pacing and pressed her hands to her stomach. How could she be hungry? The android body wasn’t going to get hungry. It must be from her real body back on Earth. That sandwich she’d grabbed on the way into the lab obviously wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t like she could eat anything like this. It’d have to wait. She wasn’t going to disconnect without seeing anything of the Workshop.

The door chimed and she turned around to face it.

It slid open, admitting Emily Green.

“I’m sorry about the delay, Patricia. You’ve been so patient, thank you.”

Earth needed this to work. She needed it for her career. “Not at all, Dr. Green.”

“Call me Emily, please.”

“Emily. You lived in Seattle, right? Before you left to work for the Diaspora Group?”

“Yes, that was the last place I lived, not counting the time I spent at our training facility in New Mexico.”

Patricia turned her hands over, palms up. “This must be pretty amazing to everyone here, too. If we manufacture these androids back on Earth, then you could visit Earth whenever you like.”

“Maybe.” Emily gestured to the door. “Shall we take that tour now?”

Patricia smiled. “I’d love to. Thank you.”

Emily walked out into to the corridor and Patricia followed. The corridor was wide and lined with planters growing with an abundance of vegetation, all of it edible or fruit-bearing. Patricia recognized lettuce, kale and spinach. Other plants looked like herbs, but she wasn’t enough of a gardener to recognize them all. Lights on the walls glowed warmly above the plants.

“This is lovely,” Patricia said, lightly touching the leaves. One of the plants with fuzzy leaves gave off a sharp mint smell as she ran her fingers across it. She lifted her fingers and sniffed. “Wow, I hadn’t realized how strong mint could be!”

“Smell was one of the most important senses to include in the android,” Emily said. “Even the subtle smell of other people, of sweat and bad breath, and all the rest, it is the sense that grounds you in reality at an unconscious level. Without it the experience would seem much less real.”

Patricia bent closer to the plants and inhaled the mingled fragrances of mint and basil and the earthy-smell of the containers. She stood up and laughed.

“That’s amazing!”

“This way,” Emily said, gesturing. “We have a lot more to show you. We’re very proud of what we’ve built here.”

As they walked, the corridor curved out in the direction of the cliffs. Sure enough, as they rounded the corner one whole wall of the corridor was nothing but big windows like those in the waiting room. A transparent wall that curved out over the chasm. The whole corridor was suspended out above the drop-off.

Emily stopped beside the windows, gazing out. The icy rocks were far, far below, like looking from the top of a skyscraper at the ground below. If there were supports holding up the corridor, they weren’t visible from the windows.

“Is this safe? It’s not going to fall or anything, is it?”

Emily shook her head. “No, we’re perfectly safe. With Haumea’s gravity we can build structures that are completely impossible on a higher gravity world.”

Patricia leaned out into the curve of the window. The whole chasm lay beneath her. “You’re going to make a fortune with tourists wanting to see this!”

“If tourists ever come here.”

Emily’s face was composed and neutral. She was obviously unwilling to give anything away. Patricia smiled, trying to trigger a response, but Emily’s expression didn’t change. Patricia straightened up.

“You don’t want tourism?”

“It may have its place, provided it doesn’t jeopardize what we’re building.”

“And what’s that?”

A hint of a smile touched Emily’s lips. “That’s what you’re here to see, isn’t it? Shall we continue?”

“Yes. After you.”

Emily gestured down the corridor and they continued their walk. The corridors were clean, well-lit, and attractive with the plants growing all along the walls. It gave it a wild touch. In places where vining plants grew up across the corridor there were light frameworks of thin, spider-web thickness structures, holding the plants.

“The plants must serve a purpose other than decorative,” Patricia said.

“Yes, they are integral to our environmental systems, as well as producing much of our food. We rely on them.”

“And you created all of this in the short time you’ve been here?”

“What else could we do? We came prepared to build our colony and the Workshop is the result.”

“Workshop, it’s called that because of the team that discovered Haumea?”

Emily nodded. “You’ve done your homework. For a short time they called this world Santa. The Workshop seemed an appropriate name, particularly when we got our first glimpse of the world.”

Jagged, icy rocks didn’t really bring Santa to mind, for Patricia. But who knew with these people? They had left Earth behind for a journey that lasted years to even get here. The Haumea expedition had been one of the first missions that the Diaspora Group had launched. They headed off for the far reaches of the solar system with only what supplies they could carry. These days, thanks to the beamed power stations that Mercury had constructed, and the solar sail network they continued to expand, transportation across the solar system was much faster.

And closed off from the Earth. Because of what had happened with the launch of the Lincoln, Earth lacked any access to space beyond lower Earth orbit. It was likely to stay like that unless Patricia and the other ambassadors talking to the Diaspora worlds could heal the rift between their worlds.

Emily kept walking, obviously leading her somewhere. It struck Patricia that they hadn’t passed anyone else in the corridors. They passed closed doors, connection corridors and walked through open common areas without seeing anyone else around. And it was quiet. A ghost town, or the inhabitants were staying out of their way.

“Where is everyone?” Patricia asked.

“Busy working,” Emily answered without breaking stride. “You’ll meet more of them later. We built the Workshop to accommodate population increases.”

“Children?”

“Yes, and there are two Exodus transports on the way here. They’ll arrive in six months.” Emily shook her head. “It’s so much faster now that the beamed power stations are up along with the solar sail production.”

“With the jaunt program, though, you can have workers here as fast as you can produce the android bodies.”

“It’s not just workers that we want. We’re trying to build a new human world here. We need people that will call this home.”

Patricia absorbed that and didn’t respond. What could she say? How many people would voluntarily give up their lives to come out here? You didn’t get much more in the middle of nowhere than Huamea. Except Diaspora also had outposts at Pluto, Makemake and Eris.

What kind of people were attracted to these small frozen worlds at the far reaches of the solar system? This was literally the tip of the iceberg, as studies showed over two hundred dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt alone, plus thousands beyond that region. In terms of sheer numbers, these worlds won hands down. And in the wrong hands the smaller bodies of the Kuiper Belt could be turned into deadly weapons. Already rumors circulated that Diaspora was sending automated solar sail missions out into the Kuiper region and beyond to snag icy comets and begin steering them on paths into the inner solar system. That possibility had no doubt caused her bosses more than one sleepless night!

If it was true, they’d have to talk about it at some point. Diaspora might claim that they were mining the cometary resources, or using them to terraform Mars, but if they could change the orbits of the comets then they also had both the upper ground and the most powerful weapons available. Extinction-level weapons if they wanted. Back home there were people already working on response scenarios if Diaspora decided to drop comets onto Earth.

Even just seeing what they had built here at Haumea, it was hard to imagine that Diaspora would attack Earth. Why would they? It didn’t gain them anything.

3

At last Emily stopped in front of an elevator. They still hadn’t seen anyone, but the sheer size of the Workshop was intimidating. This wasn’t a small facility dug into the ice. It went on and on, and now an elevator?

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see,” Emily said.

The doors slid open. Emily gestured for Patricia to enter.

“Please, it’ll be worth it. I promise.”

Patricia walked into the elevator. It was spacious and well-lit. Emily joined her and the doors slid shut. The elevator shot up rapidly and for a second Patricia felt her weight increase. Only a fraction, but noticeable. Emily stood composed, her fingers interlocked, patiently waiting as the elevator rose.

Accessing her glasses, Patricia picked up the public display on the elevator. Floor numbers spun past, already at thirty and rising. In seconds it had reached sixty. Ninety. She gasped. The numbers continued climbing. It passed a hundred and twenty and she turned to face Emily.

“How is this possible?”

Now Emily smiled. She chuckled. “This is the Workshop. Anything is possible here.”

Three hundred and climbing fast.

Patricia requested more information from the system. Denied. The only thing she had access to was the public display.

An alert blinked in the corner of her eye. She focused on it and a new window opened up. It was a status alert from her android body. Her weight was decreasing. The android body only weighed a fraction of what it would have weighed on Earth anyway, but now those numbers were dropping. Instant weight loss when she didn’t need it.

Her weight dropped, and the elevator display increased.

They weren’t on Haumea any longer. The elevator was carrying them away from the planet.

“This is a ship?”

Emily shook her head. “It’s an elevator, just as it seems.”

“An elevator –” Ah. It clicked into place. “A space elevator? You’ve built a beanstalk?”

Emily spread her hands and gave a small shrug. “It isn’t the only one, you know about the station at Ceres?”

Yes. Everyone knew about the Ceres outpost, where the Lincoln, that ill-fated ship, had gone after failing to take over the Diaspora’s base on Luna.

“We have our own plans, of course,” Emily said. “Every world is different. We’re taking advantage of Haumea’s rapid rotation.”

Haumea rotated every 3.9 hours. It made sense, given the rapid rotation and the dwarf planet’s low mass, creating a beanstalk wouldn’t be that much of a challenge and it’d create an efficient delivery system.

Patricia’s weight continued to decrease to the point where her feet barely touched the floor. She bounced her toes against the floor and rose up into the air. Emily joined her, laughing.

“I always love change-over!” Emily spun in a somersault in mid-air.

Patricia touched the ceiling and stopped her upward drift. She pushed back off into the air and tumbled. The elevator walls spun around her. A hand caught her calf, Emily was holding onto the rail mounted around the elevator and was steadying her.

“Thanks,” Patricia gasped. “I’ve never been weightless before!”

Her readout showed her weight beginning to increase again, but she was drifting toward what had been the ceiling before. “We’re still going?”

“All the way out,” Emily said.

Patricia drifted on down until her feet touched down on the new ‘floor,’ which was covered in the same textured material as the new ‘ceiling’ above. They’d passed through the geostationary point above Haumea without stopping. Now, as they continued along the beanstalk, the centrifugal forces were acting on them. Her weight continued to climb as the effective g-forces grew.

“How much longer?”

“Not long.”

Indeed, soon the elevator slowed. By the time it came to a stop Patricia’s displays showed the effective gravity at .75 gee, three-quarters of what she would weigh on Earth.

As the doors slid open, Emily said, “Welcome to the Cottage.”

4

Unlike the Workshop below, the Cottage was anything but a ghost town. As soon as the elevator doors slid open, and Patricia peeked out, two people stepped up to the doors.

It was Max Highlet and Corinne Shaw, both of them grinning at her.

“Welcome!” Max boomed, throwing his arms wide and nearly hitting Corinne.

Corinne neatly avoided him, stepped forward and extended her hand to Patricia. “Come with us.”

Patricia let herself be led out of the elevator, only to discover that Emily wasn’t following. The other woman waved from the elevator.

“I’m going back down,” Emily said. “We’ll talk later!”

The doors whisked shut before Patricia could say anything.

Max took Patricia’s other elbow as Corinne released her. “Are you afraid of heights?”

“Not really.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

She let herself be guided by him as she took in her new surroundings. The walls and floors were gray and hard beneath her bare feet, and slightly rough. The material looked almost pitted, like pumice. There was a curved wall around the elevator but no ceiling above. The wall stopped at about eight feet up, while the cylindrical elevator shaft continued on and on up for at least a couple hundred feet before it passed through a geodesic lattice across the dark sky filled with Huamea, as white as snow except for the large reddish scar.

Patricia stopped, gaping at the planet hanging above them. It filled the sky while the line of the elevator shaft shrank into nothingness before it reached the planet.

Corinne touched her shoulder. “There’s a lot more to see, and better places to see it from.”

Patricia dropped her gaze and met Corinne’s eyes. They were dark, and sympathetic.

Earth was so far behind Diaspora when it came to space exploration. Somehow Terra Blackstone had led the Diaspora Group into leap-frogging over any of the baby steps, to full-blown colonization. It was chilling, and overwhelming. Her brain skipped as the image of that elevator rising to the planet above came back to mind. She glanced up, just a second, and for a dizzying moment felt as if she would simply fall to the planet.

Patricia hugged herself. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Her guides stayed close by her sides. The curved wall ended in an opening and they walked out under what seemed like bright sunlight, except it came from lamps scattered around the habitat.

There were trees, bushes and gardens, and then open areas with tables and workstations. It looked as if someone had taken all of the areas that were normally in an office building and simply scattered them around randomly through a park. The path they were on didn’t run straight, there weren’t any straight lines, just pathways that twisted and curved around, branching and spreading throughout the habitat. It was flat either, the paths dipped and rose, climbing around and up small hills. A flower-scented breeze caressed her face. A pair of bright yellow finches flew past, in a twisting and diving chase. From somewhere out of sight came the soft sounds of a stream.

And the people! Everywhere she looked, there were people. Mostly wearing Diaspora workalls, although the color varied. Some stood or sat at workstations, while others were moving with a purpose. Still others lounged on the grass, talking or reading or interacting with interfaces only they could see on their glasses. The bustling activity of the Cottage calmed her. This was why the Workshop had been so empty.

“You’re all up here, all the time?”

“Not all the time,” Max said. “You haven’t lived until you’ve gone skiing on Mt. Warlock!”

“It’s adaptive loss,” Corinne said. “If we spent all of our time on Haumea, we’d lose muscle and bone mass in the low gravity. Out here, we need places like this for both our mental and physical health.”

“I didn’t know any of this existed,” Patricia said. “It’s incredible.”

They continued walking, and it almost seemed like there was no end to the path. With all of the branches, and the twisty, curvy nature of it, you could probably walk for hours without retracing your steps. After a few minutes the path led them to a bridge, made of pumice beams, that arched over the small stream meandering through the habitat. The stream bed was covered in rough gravel, the water was only a couple feet deep. Patricia stopped on the bridge.

“Where did all of this come from?”

Max leaned on the wide railing. “Haumea. She provides all that we need.” He pointed at the stream. “That rock. This bridge. The water flowing beneath us, it all came from Haumea. She’s the provider for us all.”

“We brought the seed stocks and animal embryos,” Corinne added. “This looked much different, not too long ago!”

Max chuckled. “Yep. When this was all bare ground? It was a mess, but almost everything we’ve planted has done well in our processed soil.”

Patricia’s stomach growled, reminding her that she wasn’t really here. No matter how it seemed at the moment. She was back on Earth, her senses receiving all of the sensory input from the android body via instantaneous communications link. She focused on her status icon lurking in the corner of her vision and it unfurled in front of her.

Nearly four hours had passed since she initiated the jaunt! Her mission parameters had put a cap on this first excursion at five hours. Then she would automatically disconnect.

“I don’t have much longer,” she said to her guides. “Maybe we should find a place where we can talk? I have several topics my superiors have asked me to address.”

“Of course,” Corinne said. “Just a little farther now.”

5

The conference area sat on top of a hill bisected by the outer wall of the dome. There was a stone table, impressively solid and polished to a high shine, and comfortable, printed ergonomic chairs like those you’d find in any corporate office back home. Max and Corinne took two chairs with their backs to the dome and the unnerving drop off into the void, and Patricia took a chair at the end of the table.

From this vantage point, she could see the bumpy terrain of the Cottage spread out beneath them, with the intricate swirling pathways, work areas and bountiful gardens. Overhead the elevator stalk climbed up to invisibility and the planet overhead.

“This was worth the walk,” she said, sitting down. When she looked out, through the transparent wall of the dome, there was a bright bauble far off in space. A thin line ran from that bright object toward Haumea. She slightly rose up again, leaning on the table with one hand and pointed.

“Is that another habitat?”

Corinne reached over and patted Patricia’s hand. “You should sit down,” she said.

Looking at the seriousness in Corinne’s face, mirrored in Max’s face, Patricia sank back down into the chair.

“What is it?”

“That’s not one of ours,” Max said. His gaze was on his hands, now he looked up and cleared his throat. “It was here when we arrived.”

Here when they arrived? It wasn’t possible. No one else had launched any expeditions out to Haumea. It couldn’t have happened without setting off every defense system back on Earth.

Earth. Patricia looked at Max, eyes widening in shock. Earth. Not anyone from Earth.

“Alien?” The word squeaked out.

Their expressions confirmed Patricia’s question. She sank back into the chair. Nothing in the briefing had dealt with this news, the existence of this habitat, or the space elevator. Space elevators, if she counted the alien habitat.

Max gestured and a hologram rose above the surface of the table. It was Haumea, a portion of the surface, rising up out of the stone. Down on the surface was a conical structure, from which rose a bright line that ended in a tear-drop shape. That was the habitat. Given the shape, there was more to it beneath the park-like surface. Of course there had to be systems to help manage the environment, recycle the water, and all the rest.

The holographic Haumea turned and another line rose from the surface. It was longer than the first one, and the habitat was differently shaped, conical and flattened on the top, or would that be the bottom if you were inside?

Patricia folded her arms on the tables cool surface and leaned closer to soak in as much detail as she could about the alien structure. The stalk was different, six lines rose from the surface to the habitat. The habitat itself looked solid. There were windows, but it wasn’t as open as the Cottage’s geodesic structure. It had the same sort of conical shape as the Workshop. But why would the Workshop have the same shape as the alien habitat. Unless?

“Wait.” Patricia turned to Corinne and Max. “The Workshop was already here too?”

“Yes,” Corinne said.

Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

“It was empty, and damaged,” Max said. “There was an impact event that had damaged the structure and collapsed the beanstalk.”

“So you built a new one?”

Corinne nodded. “We repaired the Workshop, restored the environmental systems and moved in. It gave us a head start. We used our own equipment to construct the beanstalk, but having the Workshop meant we didn’t need to establish the base station. We just used what was already there after we fixed it and cleared out the debris.”

A thousand questions buzzed in Patricia’s brain. Her time remaining for the jaunt was limited, and this changed everything. Still, their story bothered her, and then she realized why.

“The aliens hadn’t repaired the damage. Why not?”

“They weren’t here,” Max said.

“It was abandoned long before the impact took out the beanstalk,” Corinne added. “Dating the materials is difficult, but based on weathering from micro impacts, we estimate that the structures are at least a million years old. Possibly much older, it’s hard to say.”

Max moved his hands, pulling and manipulating the holographic display. Haumea shrank as he pulled it up, and rotated. Another beanstalk came into view, and then another. He turned the display so that the beanstalks were parallel to the table top. Haumea spun around and, Patricia counted them, there were a dozen beanstalks rising from the dwarf planet’s equator. Seen at this scale, the human-built beanstalk was obviously different. Shorter and the habitat was smaller, rounder.

“Oh. Wow,” Patricia said. “It wasn’t only the one.”

“No,” Corinne said. “Far from it. There’s a sub-surface transportation network connecting them all.”

“And it’s all abandoned?”

Max nodded his shaggy head, his face gone long and mournful. “A long time ago.”

A chime sounded in Patricia’s ear. An alert popped up in her vision. Only ten minutes left before her connection ended.

“My time for this jaunt is nearly over,” Patricia said. “I need to know what this means for our talks.”

“Our resources are limited,” Corinne said. “Our population is small. We haven’t even finished cataloging and exploring the Workshop, and there are eleven others on the surface, as well as evidence of other structures. Plus the habitats and beanstalks. We’re going to need help.”

“You’re going to give us access to all of this?”

“Supervised access, yes,” Max said. “A partnership. We have a list of scientists on Earth that we’d like to invite to jaunt out and help with this project.”

“And we get open access to everything that is discovered?”

Corinne said, “Yes. Provided that you provide open access to everyone on Earth. This isn’t information only for your country, or your government.”

That was going to be a bitter pill for some, Patricia knew. They’d have to swallow it. Without the Diaspora Group’s cooperation and technology, they were still locked up on the planet. In the exodus, the Diaspora Group had taken all their key personnel, material and had wiped what they left behind. Even with access to all of Diaspora’s old launch sites, the United States wasn’t any closer to a presence in the solar system.

“I think I can convince them of that,” Patricia said. “We want to work with you.”

“That’s good,” Max said. “Remember that and we’ll get along fine.”

The holographic model continued rotating in front of her. Patricia reached out and stopped the rotation. She gestured and the view zoomed in on one of the alien habitats. The conical structure reminded her of a seashell, spiraling around up to the point where it connected with the beanstalk. In the close-up, weathering and pitting was visible on the gray skin. The dark glints of windows refused to reveal anything of the interior. Turning it over, with the beanstalk rising above it, the shape also brought to mind yellow jacket nests. What secrets did it hold inside?

Another chime sounded. Her time was almost up.

“Are these the same aliens as the ones that visited Titan?”

Max shrugged.

Corinne glanced at him, then back to Patricia. “We don’t know. The map that the Titan visitors left behind didn’t indicate anything about Haumea, and we haven’t seen anything like it here. My gut tells me that we’re dealing with a different species here.”

“Your gut?” Max chuckled. “Truth is, we don’t know either way.”

“That’s true,” Corinne said. “Give us enough time, and I think we will know. There’s even a chance that the red spot, the impact that sent Haumea spinning like a top, was engineered by the aliens.”

“We don’t know that,” Max said quickly.

Patricia’s timer flashed. She only had another minute. There wasn’t time for everything, not with this jaunt. The idea that these visitors had engineered Haumea specifically to create this network of beanstalks was amazing. Breath-taking. The holographic display rotated in front of her like a brilliant snowflake with branches reaching out.

“Tomorrow.” Patricia said. “I’ll jaunt back tomorrow. We can start making plans. Okay?”

“Yes,” Max said.

The last thing Patricia saw was Corinne, smiling past the display and then the darkness enveloped her.

6

Patricia’s heart beat audibly in her ears as the light came back. The sensory chamber’s acoustic panels damped down all noises until her own pulse was loud. She hung suspended above the baffling in the interface suit that covered her entire body in the stretchy material and support bands.

The door opened as the cables lowered her to the floor, and people rushed in to help in a flurry of lab coats.

Patricia let them work at unfastening her, freeing her from the suit. It was so strange, even though only hours had passed, to be back here. On Earth. She pictured that snow-white world turning, with the alien beanstalks reaching out into space. In the space of a blink she had traveled across the solar system from the inner reaches to the outer edge.

A face appeared in front of her. She focused on the pockmarked face, the intense blue eyes. Marcus Finch, her boss, was beaming at her as her grabbed the sides of her head.

“You were fabulous!”

“I’m going back,” she said. Flatly, daring him to deny her. “Tomorrow.”

“Yes. Yes, fuck yes!”

Tomorrow, she’d jaunt back. Eventually, Diaspora would return to Earth and the launches would resume. When they did, she would go and see Haumea herself, in the flesh. Until then, there was the jaunt, which would open the entire solar system to people everywhere. And who knew? Maybe someday they would reach beyond the solar system, to other worlds, and discover more about these mysterious visitors that had left their mark and moved on.

6,241 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 12th weekly short story release, and the 12th Planetary Bodies story. The last couple stories visited Pluto-Charon, a binary dwarf planet system. When I see people talk about whether or not Pluto should be called a planet, it’s often just that it was called a planet when we were kids. I grew up with the idea that there were nine planets in the solar system. Nine’s an easy number to deal with and you can remember them all without much effort. How about 10,000? That’s an estimate that includes not only potential dwarf planets in the solar system and the Kuiper belt but also those scattered beyond. Ceres, seen in Embracing Ceres, was also originally called a planet for about fifty years. Currently the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognizes five dwarf planets, and those are the ones that I’ve included in the Planetary Bodies series.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Makemake Released. After that is Eris Revealed, the final story in the series. Starting June 1st I’ll continue posting weekly stories but they won’t be in this series. For the most part it will be stories from a variety of genres. Even if I didn’t write a single new story I have enough to keep doing weekly releases for a long time!