Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes

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

It was enough.

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there,” she called, smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She twisted on her seat. “It’s loud.”

“I know. I wish they’d stop.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“I’m Alex. Alex Bell.”

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No! Really? That’s your response?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that.”

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Alex said.

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

🚀

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

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

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

“What, honey?”

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

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

“That’s a cool bike, isn’t it?”

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

“Cool? How retro.”

“What would you call it, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

He followed Erica. What should he say?

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

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

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

“Hi Alex,” Lisa called.

“Hi.”

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

“You know my Dad?” Erica asked flatly.

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

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

“Fireworks?”

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

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

“Clank?” Erica asked.

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

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

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

Erica shrieked. Alex pulled her back closer to him.

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

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

Clank shook its head.

Erica gasped. “It heard me!”

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

Clank lifted a hand and waved.

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

“That’s clever,” Alex said.

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

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

Now that was impressive.

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

Clank turned his head slightly, yellow eyes dull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Dad?”

He blinked and looked down at Erica. She smirked.

“Staring won’t take a picture.”

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Whatever,” Tim said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd started clapping to the beat.

Lisa spun to Clank and he caught her hand, spun her around and then picked her up. He threw her up spinning into the air as easily as he had tossed the metal spheres yesterday.

Lisa came down and Clank caught her, lowering her gently to the ground as the guitarist ended the song. The crowd cheered and clapped as she spun away from Clank. They were still holding hands and bowed together. Then Lisa stepped away and pointed to the guitarist and clapped. The crowd joined in.

With the performance over, the crowd started to disperse, although quite a few people moved forward to toss money into the cargo bike’s bin, and the guitarist’s open case. Quite a few people wanted to talk to Lisa and gathered around Clank admiring him while he stood tall and aloof above the attention.

If there was someone inside that metal shell, he had to be roasting alive. Alex hung back from the crowd and watched. Lisa was polite and friendly to everyone, laughing openly with her admirers, but there was a reserve there. She held back from them just a bit and Clank stood solidly nearby like a tall metallic guardian. Once or twice he caught her looking past her fans at him. Their eyes would meet and there was that connection again between them.

Eventually, she broke free from her fans as they dispersed and she came over to where he stood. She grinned and looked up at him. She touched his arm.

“Hey Alex. You came by, what’d you think of the show?”

Her fingers played with his.

“It was fantastic. You were amazing. And Clank, incredible.”

The android was as still as a statue. Its gaze aimed at the boats out on the water.

Alex lowered his voice. “Is he really an android? I mean, there isn’t some guy roasting in that, is there?”

Lisa laughed. She leaned into his arm, smelling of sun-warmed coconut. “He’s real and has his own built-in AC.”

“Are you hungry?” Alex said. “Want to grab lunch?”

She gazed up at him. “I’d love to, really. But we’ve got more shows to do. Rain check?”

“If we wait for rain, that could be a while. If you’re coming by my place later, you could stop for dinner and something cold to drink.”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you came. I was hoping you would.”

Lisa released him and stepped back with a big smile on her face.

“Okay,” Alex said. He couldn’t help but match her smile.

He kept smiling the whole way back to work.

🚀

For the longest time, Alex had been going through the motions without really knowing what else to do. Go to work, take care of Erica. That was it. He was on the porch swing, kicking softly against the porch.

Erica dropped down into the seat beside him. She crossed her arms and pushed hard against the porch, rocking the swing back faster.

“Why is she coming here?” She kicked again.

“Because I like her,” Alex said. “I thought you did too.”

Erica shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“It’ll be nice to have company for dinner.”

“We never have company.” Another hard kick.

“Maybe we should.”

The swing rocked back and forth.

“Is the android coming too?”

He hadn’t really considered it. “I guess. Is that okay?”

“He was completely shiny,” Erica said. “You saw them dance?”

“Yes. They were good.”

“Would he dance with me?”

“I don’t know. We might find out. If we have them over. That’s the point, to get to know Lisa. You might like her.”

“She’s pretty.” Erica looked up at him. Her mouth quirked. “Weird, but pretty. I think she might like you more than Mom did.”

“You’re okay with that?”

“Sure.” Erica’s arm shot out. “Look! Here they come!”

She was right. Lisa’s bike crested the hill. As she got closer she waved and Alex lifted his hand in response. Clank raised his own hand and waved it back and forth too.

Erica laughed.

Alex put his arm around her as he stood and they walked out together to meet Lisa and Clank. They were moving forward again, into a completely shiny future.

🚀

4,830 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 101st short story release, written in July 2013.

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


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

Egg Hunt

Emmett struggled to live on Autumn, a vibrant planet done in oranges, golds, yellows, and browns.

Unfortunately humans faced severe challenges with surviving, having not adapted to the environment. The other humans survived in the artificial environment of the TerraSphere.

Engineers modified the native Skreeches, changing their eggs to produce enzymes that allowed humanity to digest local vegetation.

Without those eggs Emmett wouldn’t last. The eggs represented his best hope for survival.

🚀

Second Sun hung low above the golden hills to the South when Emmett pulled open the cabin door and walked out onto the dried sponge wood porch rubbing his eyes. It’d be another hour before First Sun rose but he couldn’t wait that long. The weasels hunted this hour. Wait any longer and there’d be no eggs at all and he fancied an omelet. Scrambled eggs. Hard-boiled. It didn’t matter. He’d eat them any way he could get them. Assuming he beat the weasels to the eggs. He didn’t even like the eggs, but without the eggs, he couldn’t digest most of what his crops produced. Without the eggs, he’d starve. And he’d be damned if he let the weasels get them first.

Of course, the weasels weren’t really weasels, not Terran weasels at least, but convergent evolution made them close enough to be called weasels. If weasels grew to twenty pounds and hunted in packs. Emmett lifted the rifle he held and checked it one more time. Loaded. Spare ammunition clip in his belt. Egg case strapped to his back. Water bladder beneath that. Good enough.

Emmett closed the cabin door and pulled the handle to slide the bar into place just in case any weasels came across the cabin. Curious creatures but not the brightest. He’d never seen a weasel that could push the handle up and slide it back to open the door. All the windows were already shuttered. The cabin should be secure while he was out. He walked on out down the steps. Dirt puffed up around his feet and he smelled that ginger scent that came from the microorganisms in the soil. He pulled up his mask and looked out as his land. Right around the cabin was his farmstead. Raised garden beds growing food crops. All oranges, yellows, and reds. Fall colors. Native Autumn plants. Nothing Terran grew on Autumn despite the best genetech attempts. Best they’d been able to do was modify the skreeches to produce eggs full of enzymes that helped humans digest Autumn foods.

He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and turned around to look down the lane that led up towards town. A person ran towards him. Small stature, baseball cap, and an orange hunting vest. Jolene. She’d actually made it. She waved at him. He waited, gun cradled over the crook of his arm.

Jolene came to a stop and bent over, breathing hard through her face mask. “Whew. You haven’t left yet!”

“Heading out now.”

She nodded and straightened up. Her mask covered her mouth and nose but did nothing to hide her smooth tanned skin or gray eyes. “Did you forget that you said I could come along?”

Emmett shook his head. “Nope, but it’s time. I couldn’t wait. If you’re coming, come on.”

He turned and headed out between his garden beds, heading towards the braided fence and the golden fields past his yard. It’d have been better to go without Jolene. But she was right. He did say that she could come along. As Terran biologists went she was better than some. Didn’t try to tell him what to do. He got to the braided fence and climbed over into the field. Snap beetles went off like firecrackers. Each crack of their shells sending them tumbling in small ballistic arcs through the spine grass. Pogo mice, alerted by the snap beetles, twittered as they dived for their burrows.

Jolene climbed over the fence behind him. The first time they’d gone out he’d expected her to say something about the noise and activity that their presence caused, but she hadn’t. She stuck close and didn’t say anything. He appreciated her silence. It helped him hear. Not that he heard anything over the noise but he listened to the pattern of the noise. One large animal moving through the spine grass caused a certain sort of ruckus. Two nearby animals moving caused a different pattern of sound. That’s what he wanted to hear. Anything like a weasel moving off through the spine grass or a skreech. He didn’t expect to find any so close but there were other things to be alert to.

His course took them through the spine grass fields towards the sponge wood groves to the west. He followed the same path he’d taken before to avoid breaking off more of the spines. Spine grass wasn’t really a grass. More of a mossy sort of ground cover that sent up spines that released spores. It took time for the spines to grow back. He kept to the same path to minimize the damage. Jolene stuck right behind him. Not too close, but she didn’t stray.

🚀

They kept going, out past the creek where he’d hung a braided bridge across the gully, all the way up to the sponge wood grove. According to biologists, the trees weren’t trees in the Terran sense, more of a mushroom, but not that either. The whole plant soaked up rainfall and stored it for the dry months when both suns were high in the sky. Dried out and sealed they made a light-weight strong lumber. Living, they looked like giant coral taken from the bottom of a Terran seabed. A two-dimension red-skinned fan that reached up towards the sky, flat edges facing skyward to maximize the area for rain collection.

The grove also happened to be a favored spot for the skreeches to build their communal nest. They’d pick a defensible spot. Something along the ridge with stone to help ward the nest against the weasels. Much of the ground cover in the grove consisted of puff gourds anchored in the trunks of the sponge wood and spreading out like a sickly yellow wedding gown around each tree. Each step sent clouds of spores into the air. Emmett checked his mask. The spores could cause all sorts of respiratory problems if inhaled. Just another one of the hazards in egg collecting. He reached a granite outcrop and stopped for a rest, pulling down his mask so that he could drink. Jolene dropped on a boulder next to him. When she pulled down her mask he saw she was as fine featured as he remembered. Somehow he’d been sure that it’d only been his imagination, but the evidence was clear. She was a beautiful woman. No question about that.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

Emmett shook his head. He pulled the hose around from his water bladder and took a long drink. The water was still cool in the bladder. It chilled his parched throat. He drank deeply.

“How come you live off-grid? Why not move into town?”

“And depend on hydroponics? Canned or frozen imports? We do that and we’ll never be part of this world. Our society is always going to be restricted, limited.”

“But the only way you have to live off-grid now are the eggs and the enzymes they contain. Doesn’t that limit growth?”

“I see it as a temporary adaptation.” Emmett looked out at the valley below. From this point, he could see the red slopes of the sponge wood grave, the golden spine grass fields beyond. The spark of reflected light in the distance came from his solar array. “Someday we’ll figure out how to adapt ourselves to this world. It’s only a matter of will. If there was enough interest it would have already happened.”

“But doesn’t that say it, there isn’t enough will? People still aren’t comfortable changing the human genome.”

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to live on this world, or probably any others. Like any organism, we have to adapt. The early work done with the skreeches answered some of the questions. We just have to follow it up.”

A sound like an over-stressed hull screamed through the morning air. Emmett snapped his water hose back into place. “Skreeches. Come on, the nest is going to be higher up.”

He pulled his mask up into place and climbed up past the boulders back onto the soft covering of the puff gourds. A swarm of sponge hoppers flung themselves from a nearby sponge wood trunk and floated downhill towards another target. Their brilliant blue wings caught the Second Sun’s light as they glided in formation. Jolene caught up with him and followed in his footsteps. He tried not to think about her without her mask. And her talk of going back to town. That wasn’t the way, he knew that. It didn’t mean that he couldn’t be tempted. Except there was a whole world waiting for them and they couldn’t ever claim that by living under domes in artificial Terran environments.

Another skreech call split the air. More answered it and together they sounded like a hull undergoing catastrophic failure. Depressurization. Metal tearing. Air hissing out in a whistling cry.

Emmett pushed back memories and kept climbing. He reached a sponge wood tree leaning out of the slope. He stopped and turned around to Jolene. “Wait here. I’m going up to see if I can spot the nest.”

“Okay.”

He pulled off his pack, setting the egg case and water bladder down at the base of the trunk. He turned and ran at the sponge wood trunk. It gave a little beneath his feet when he hit. He grabbed the sides of the wide surface and climbed up it. He had to hang beneath the first branch and swing his legs up around the branch, then climb up onto the surface. Bit by bit he made his way up as high as he dared. Limbs too small would tear beneath his weight. One of the hazards at the bottom of a gravity well but better than falling free up above. In the dark. Watching as your partner floated just out of reach. Falling in slow motion. Such a small gap. Sometimes the math didn’t work. A fingers-breath could be as fatal as a fall from this height. Just that much.

Better here. He didn’t have to worry about the air running out at least. The skreeches kept producing eggs. Enough to keep him going out here. Free to walk on his own two feet the same way humans had walked for millions of years. Long before they’d ever figured out how to fly.

From his pocket, he took out his binoculars. Flipped them open and slipped them on. Squinting or opening his eyes wider controlled the zoom. It didn’t take him long to find the skreeches. They’d gone back to the split. Higher up on the ridge, just down from the peak. The whole area’d been cleared after a lightning storm fire had burned off the ground cover and boiled the sponge wood, leaving the entire slope covered in hard chunks of blackened sponge wood. Smatterings of red showed where new sponge wood trees were growing up through the debris. There was still so much that he didn’t know about the lifecycle of the trees.

The skreeches had constructed the communal nest in the cleft of two big boulders on the ridge. Right there in the split. He saw their big yellow bodies moving across the debris field. One would run out from the nest, grab a chunk of hard sponge wood in its tiny front arms and then it’d run full tilt back up to the nest. It was like a relay team. While one set its contribution into place in the wall another was running out to grab a new piece. Still others carried back chunks of fresh sponge wood and handed it over to the stompers. It was the job of the stompers to stomp the water out of the sponge wood and mix it with dirt. Daubers gathered the mud and mortared the dried sponge wood into the wall. Squeezed sponge wood got kicked out onto the slope to dry in the light of the suns.

Looked like they’d made a lot of progress on the wall already. Behind the barrier a skreech rose up, yellow-throated neck turned towards the heavens. The scream that split the air signaled another egg laid. Did it hurt? Was that why they screamed? He had no idea.

He noticed movement below him to his left. He looked down, binoculars automatically refocusing on the nearby foreground objects. Jolene climbing up onto the sponge wood. But she’d gone out on an over-extended limb. Wide enough to look safe, but too long. Limbs like that broke off in storms. Or under the weight of biologists that didn’t know better.

Emmett tore off his binoculars. “Stop!”

“They are building a structure,” Jolene said. He saw she was wearing her own binoculars. “It’s amazing –”

“Jolene! Stop! Go back. That branch can’t support you!”

He looked back along its length. He found the pale pink line indicating a tear forming right where he expected. “Hurry up! It’s tearing!”

Emmett started back down the trunk. No way he could get there in time. He saw Jolene moving at least. She’d listened. The branch she’d climbed shook. She wobbled and nearly fell but then caught her balance and sat down on the limb. She scooted down the length. He dropped down onto a solid limb and swung around. Going faster than he’d ordinarily go.

The limb she’d climbed dipped and shook. Outer limbs started to tear from the stresses. He didn’t know if she’d make it. Then she slid past the rapidly growing tear and reached the main trunk. The limb tore with a wet gushing and arterial water sprayed up into the air. The branch fell, tearing itself apart as it crumbled to the ground. Water splashed out from the pieces and ran through the puff gourds. Jolene made it to the ground and Emmett climbed down moments later. Puff gourd dust kicked up by the pieces falling.

“Are you okay?”

Jolene nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d overloaded the branch. I hate that I broke it like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. The limbs grow too long and break off sooner or later from their weight. It’s just the way the sponge wood develops. I think it’s also a factor in the reproduction cycle. We should move up the slope, out of the spores and dust.”

“Okay.”

Emmett picked up his gear. Shouldered the egg case and moved out. Jolene kept up with him. It’d take another half-hour at least to get close enough to the skreeches to set the egg raid in motion. So far they’d been lucky with the timing. The nest wasn’t finished and the weasels hadn’t come yet. Once the skreeches finished fortifying the nest neither he or the weasels would be able to get at the eggs. They’d be secure. And he’d starve. Or have to give up his land. That wasn’t really an option.

The place he planned to strike from was downwind of the skreeches, partially sheltered by a couple smaller boulders. Skreeches used it in the past as an egg site but the more exposed position made it more difficult to defend. A knee-high broken wall of dried sponge wood and mud still stood between the boulders in a wide ring on the hillside. Skreeches dug out the floor into a bowl-shape, making it even deeper. A puddle of water filled most of the bowl but he still had enough dry land behind the wall to set up.

Jolene ran her fingers across the old wall. “Look at the craftsmanship, the way the pieces interlock. It’s fascinating.”

“Nothing that birds on Earth haven’t done.”

“But these aren’t birds, despite the feathers and eggs.”

“No, they’re more like feathered dinosaurs,” Emmett said.

Jolene shook her head. “We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are Terran organisms. We have to go all the way back to the beginning and really look at what we’re seeing here. Are these walls instinctual or learned? I understand that there have been markings cut into sponge wood pieces at some sites?”

Emmett stared at her. He’d been a fool. Let a pair of pretty eyes cloud his judgment. She was one of those. “The survey team ruled out intelligence in their study of the skreeches. That’s why they were given the go-ahead to work on the eggs.”

“That decision is being reevaluated.”

“Which is why you wanted to come out here with me? To gather information for this reevaluation?”

“Yes.” She said it quickly and looked away.

Emmett crawled up to the wall. He brought up his rifle and looked through the sights at the skreeches new dwelling. They’d gotten the wall up to waist height already. A head rose up above the wall from the center and another awful sound split the air. It couldn’t be long now. The weasels would be coming soon. He needed to get his eggs and get out of the area. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught in the middle of it all.

“Just don’t get in my way,” he said. He brought the rifle up and prepared to shoot.

Jolene’s hand fell on his arm. “Don’t.”

He looked at her hand. “What choice do I have?”

“Is it worth the chance? What if they are intelligent?”

Emmett shook his head.

“I’ve seen dried sponge wood boards with what looks like cuneiform writing. There is an organization to it.”

“They don’t keep anything. They don’t carry anything. The marks they make are nothing but nest decoration.”

“So you’ve seen it?”

Of course he had. He lived out here. He hunted their eggs. He probably knew more about the skreeches than anyone. Enough to know that no matter how clever they seemed they were nothing but big birds with toothy snouts instead of beaks. Weren’t they?

🚀

“If I don’t get those eggs I won’t be able to eat my crops. I’d have to go back to the Terrasphere or starve.”

She still had her hand on his arm. She squeezed gently. “Would it be so bad back in the Terrasphere? With your experience, you could greatly increase our understanding of life on this planet.”

Movement caught his eye. Shit. Too late. And they were too early. “Weasels.”

Emmett scrambled around Jolene and braced the rifle on the remains of the skreeches’ old wall. The weasels came running up the ridge. They were long and covered in slick brown feathers that changed to orange at the ends rather than fur. Four times the size of a Terran weasel. The pack charging up the hill had to number forty to fifty animals.

“Land piranhas.” He clicked off the safety. “When hunting they’ll fall on anything they come across, including us.”

Jolene crouched beside him. “If we got in the water, would it stop them?”

He shook his head. “They’re excellent swimmers.”

Every few seconds one of the charging weasels would stop, stand up and look ahead. Long faces filled with sharp razor-edged teeth. Emmett carried scars from a weasel attack on his leg and that had been a solitary animal. One weasel stood, looked right at him and a clear warbling whistle rang out. The entire pack changed direction like a school of fish and headed towards the old skreech nest.

“What do we do?”

“Fight.” Emmett brought up the rifle to his shoulder. Auto-tracking locked onto the closest weasel. He fired.

The bullet caught the weasel between the eyes. Flipped it back into the back. Shrill whistles like dozens of police whistles rang out from the pack. He’d gotten them angry now. No time to worry about that.

Fired. Another down. Again and again. The shots rang through the air and in answer the weasels whistled back angrily and kept coming on. Every shot hit. Every shot took out another weasel but they had the numbers.

“We have to retreat.” Emmett stood. Sighted on the next weasel and fired.

Jolene got up and moved back. Emmett worked his way backward, still shooting. Seeing them move the weasels sent out several more warbling whistles. The pack split like a river around a boulder and became two arms reaching around the ridge to sweep up everything in its path. He kept shooting but they had to stay out of those arms or the pack would fall on them in a second.

“We have to move up the ridge.”

“But that will take us up to the skreech nest.”

Emmett fired, brought down another weasel. “I know. Maybe the weasels will be more interested in them. If we can get past the skreeches we might get away.”

Fired. “Move!”

Jolene turned and ran up the slope towards the nest. Emmett lowered the rifle and followed. He stopped after a bit, turned and brought another weasel down. Two more. Ran. Stopped to bring more down. Turned to run again.

Up ahead the skreeches gathered about the nest and in the nest. They’d seen what was coming. Emmett turned. Fired. Another weasel tumbled through the puff gourd dust. A piece of dried sponge wood sailed past his ear. Jolene cried out.

He turned, ducked as another piece flew at his head. The skreeches were throwing the dried sponge wood. Another missile hit the ground near his feet. That was a rock! Much more effective than dried sponge wood. It’d hurt. Indeed Jolene rubbed her shoulder.

Emmett dropped to his knees facing downslope and fired. One. Two. Three little dead weasels. He rose and ran at the skreeches. He expected a rain of wood and rocks, but that was better than letting the weasels get closer. Instead, the skreeches held their fire. Jolene slowed. He caught up to her and they ran up to the nest together. He was sure that Jolene had never been so close to living adult skreeches. Up close they stood as tall as he did. Those nearest shuffled their clawed feet nervously but their attention was on the approaching weasels.

“They aren’t attacking us anymore,” Jolene whispered.

“Good for us.” Emmett grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the nest. “Get in.”

Skreeches made gulping noises deep in their throats when they got close to the nest but did nothing to stop them. Jolene walked through the one gap the skreeches had left in the wall. Emmett followed. Dark green eggs, each as large as his fist filled the bowl-shaped floor. A half-dozen fat, egg-laden skreeches crouched around the eggs and hissed at him.

“I’m not going for them right now,” he muttered. He turned back to the wall, braced the rifle.

Auto-lock. Fired. Weasel whistles grew more shrill. The pincers of the pack began closing in on the nest. Skreeches pelted the oncoming weasels with wood and stone. Their aim wasn’t great but given the pack’s close quarters many were hit and injured. He kept firing until his clip ran out. He ejected and reloaded.

Sheer numbers carried the pack right up to the nest even though they’d left a trail of dead and injured weasels behind. Probably twenty healthy weasels reached the nest. In close quarters the skreeches put their powerful legs to work. He watched one catch weasel leaping at the nest wall with one clawed foot. A quick clench of those powerful toes crushed the life from the weasel. Others simply kicked them, shattering their bones. Emmett had a harder time getting a lock in the crowded conditions but he fired when he got the chance.

A weasel made it over the wall until Jolene clubbed it with a piece of sponge wood.

Then a loud shrill whistle cut through the racket and the remaining weasels, no more than a dozen, turned and fled the nest area. Emmett lowered his gun. No need to kill more if they were leaving. He slowly stood and looked at the skreeches. They watched him warily. Did they remember his past raids? No way he could get to the eggs under these conditions. He didn’t even know if he wanted to any more.

“We’re going,” he said softly. He eased towards the gap in the nest wall. Jolene followed. The skreeches parted to let them leave.

He didn’t feel safer until they’d gotten some distance from the nest. Then he broke the silence. “I’m not going to be able to stay out here without those eggs.”

“We could use your help in the Terrasphere,” Jolene said. “After my report the skreeches status will be reevaluated. You could help us.”

Emmett nodded. “I’d like that. I don’t know if they’re intelligent or not, but I want to stick around until we can figure out a way for us to adapt to this planet.”

Jolene took his arm. “I’d like that too.”

He hoped that they’d make it work. There were so many unknowns. Could they adapt or not? Either way, he couldn’t wait to find out.

🚀

5,090 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 100th short story release, written in April 2010.

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


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

Swarm Think

Callum left Oakville for college without any intention of returning.

Instead, he found himself back in Oakville outside of his mother’s house. No one wanted to hire a new graduate without experience. He lacked the connections to land a job in this market.

If no one gave him a chance then only one option remained. Create the future he wanted before he lost everything!

🚀

There’d been a time when no one would have picked Oakville, Washington, home of the Acorns, as the next hub of the technological revolution. That would have been Seattle and its surrounding hubs like Bellevue or Everett. Not a town without a stoplight straddling Highway 12, with decaying and empty storefronts. A town where the abandoned and decaying general store proclaimed, with faded and chipped paint on the window, “50 years in business!”

That all changed with Callum Danville’s return to Oakville after having attended the University of Washington. Saddled with outrageous student debt and no prospects of paying it off working a minimum wage job at a retail giant, Callum found himself standing again outside his parent’s faded blue-gray house. Over the years the color had changed until it nearly matched the frequent cloudy skies.

In all other ways, the house was equally in disrepair. Thick carpets of green moss crowded the edges of the asphalt shingles on the street-facing, north side of the house. The front yard was nothing except tall, somewhat-dried grass stalks moving stiffly in the breeze. The surviving rose bushes at the front of the property line suffocated under the weight of vines from years past. A crab apple had grown, and half collapsed across the porch roof.

Between that and the tall weeds on the drive, the rusted end of the Ford pick-up at the side of the house, and the pile of moldering newspapers stacked next to a cracked green plastic trash can, it looked as if the owners had up and left. Or died and no one had bothered to come check on them.

Callum scratched at two days of stubble and briefly considered just going back and waiting for the next bus. He was a young man born to older parents, and his dad had already passed away during his second year leaving his mother nothing. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother, seeing the place like this sent a fresh stab of guilt through his heart. The last thing she needed was another burden, his dad had been enough of that in his last year fighting cancer that had stripped him away to a bitter and penniless wreck.

The door never repainted from when Callum’s dog had scratched it with muddy paws (now buried in the back yard), opened and proved the place wasn’t quite as abandoned as it looked.

For a couple faltering heartbeats, Callum didn’t recognize the old woman that waddled out onto the porch in faded and stained once-pink stretch pants and an equally worn cloud-gray sweatshirt. She still had his mother’s eyes though, rapidly filling with tears as her hands fluttered like birds trying to escape her grasp.

“Callum!” Her voice was a harsh wheezing noise like air squeezed from a worn tire.

Truth was, Callum didn’t have any place else to go, and now it was too late anyway. He couldn’t leave things like this. He picked his way up the faint path through the tall grass to the porch.

“Hi ya, Mom.” Callum bent down to enfold her in a hug.

It was like hugging a bony pillow, as if her flesh was melting down over her bones. He was much taller, always a big, athletic-looking boy and now appeared as an athletic man. The Acorns’ coach up at the high school had never understood why Callum wasn’t willing to play football or basketball. In a town where that was the biggest thing going on, why did he insist on spending his time at the dinky public library in the city hall meeting room? Looking big and athletic didn’t do a thing to change Callum’s geeky heart. He was far more at home studying physics and engineering or reading science fiction, than going out for the football team.

“You came home, look at you! I hardly recognized you,” Mom said. “Such a thing, not recognizing your own son. I couldn’t figure out why a good-looking young man was standing out there looking at the house. I thought maybe you worked for public works or something. I was going to call over to city hall and ask about it when I realized it was you!”

She laughed as if it was the funniest thing she had heard in a long time.

Callum stepped back and just looked at Mom. Through the years and the weight she had gained, it was still her. The guilt rose up again like bile as he realized the last time he had seen her was at Dad’s funeral. They’d talked on the phone, he posted on Facebook, he was just always busy in school, so it was strange to feel like he had been in touch only to realize that she never really shared anything about her life. No selfies, no real posts except comments on what he posted. Two years!

Mom smiled and patted his arm. “You’re here now, come on in. You must be tired after riding the bus all those hours.”

On the way down from Tacoma, the bus had only had standing room. It was full of desperation, plus several crying babies. He had hung onto the seat backs and tried not to look down the cleavage of the teenage mother in the seat, although he couldn’t escape her milky smell, a bit sour and sweet.

“It was fine,” Callum said, following her into the house.

If bears lived in houses, it would probably be like this dim, cool cave. Reflective curtains kept out the sunlight. No air-conditioning, not with the carbon taxes. Who could afford it? Blocking the windows during the day and opening the windows at night had to serve.

Although he had lived here before college, it hardly looked familiar. It was emptier for one thing. Dad kept stuff, all sorts of things from DVDs, books, and magazines to all sorts of toys and gadgets. They’d shared a love for how things worked. This, though, was a Spartan environment. A basic wood couch with thin burgundy cushions, the left scalloped and shaped from being sat on while the others looked dusty but unworn. No more shelves, no knick-knacks, or coffee table. Just a dusty wall-mounted tv-pc and a tiny wireless keyboard on the single end-table.

“I had a clean-out,” Mom said. “After your father was gone, I sent you a box, didn’t I? I didn’t know if it was anything you wanted or not.”

It wasn’t, not really. Just junk that Dad had collected. Like Mom, he hadn’t had room in his life for it.

“I couldn’t look it all after he was gone. I wanted things simpler.”

“It looks great, Mom.”

She smiled at him and leaned into his side, wrapping him in a hug again. She smelled like butter and sugar, cookies. She loved cookies, Dad used to call her that, Cookie.

🚀

Hot sun baked Callum’s shoulders, and sweat ran down over his chest toward his belly button. He swung the push mower around and shoved it back into the tall grass. The spinning blades chopped into it and stopped. He yanked it back and took another run at them. Half the yard already looked like a kid with a bad spiky haircut, but it would get easier if he stayed on top of it. Almost a week past already, and the prospect of any job looked bleak.

The grass bent and didn’t cut. He yanked the mower back and ran at it again.

Thanks to Mom, he had a roof over his head. He wasn’t out on the street asking for handouts because he was taking them from her. Risking her state assistance, if they got wind that she was supporting someone undocumented, her benefits could get cut. He hadn’t even used the tv-pc to go online because that would only help the bill collectors find his location quicker.

The grass bent before the mower, and he stopped and mopped at his face with the rag from his pocket.

Before he was tracked down, he needed to get a job. Or move on. Hit the road. Lots of people drifted these days, the disconnected by choice or necessity. Getting his degree was supposed to prevent that from happening, but no one wanted to hire someone right out of school. They wanted to see that you’d already done the job first, but you couldn’t get the experience unless someone gave you a chance.

He had used his tablet offline, noodling around on concepts and ideas that he couldn’t fully develop. Not without time, and when you’re spending nearly every waking moment just trying to survive, how was he supposed to invent anything? The best he could do was work in bits and pieces, but the whole process was going to take forever.

Sort of like trying to shove the mower through the tall stubborn grass. The thick outer stems looked dry, but the interior contained enough moisture that the grass bent instead of cutting.

Callum pulled back the mower and ran at the grass again. It’d be better if he didn’t have to waste time and energy on simple chores like mowing grass, but there was no way he was lying around Mom’s house, eating her food and doing nothing to help out. Even if an argument could be made that focusing on his inventions might help them both in the long run, there was no telling how long it would be.

If only there was a way to take care of the mindless chores while he focused on the important stuff. Sort of like how the body worked. Breathing, heart pumping blood, digesting food, he didn’t have to think about any of that consciously. Even taking a crap was less about thinking how to do it than getting to the can in time.

What if chores could be automated the way the body worked? There were expensive solar robots to mow perfectly manicured lawns using random behavior to eventually get the job done, but it was hardly efficient. It’d be better if he could just do the mowing intelligently, while still be free to work on more intellectual pursuits. True multi-tasking, not the task switching that most people called multi-tasking when they wasted time switching back and forth between different things.

The mower cut through a stubborn club of grass. The air was thick with the smell of fresh cut grass, and a couple flies buzzed lazily through the air.

What if the two were combined? What if he could control a robot with part of his brain, but without having to think about it consciously? Like breathing. It just happened, but if he focused he could change his breathing.

Thought-controlled interfaces were common enough, but they all required conscious focus and were non-specific. If he could find a way to relegate it to a more autonomic sort of function, though, then he could have all sorts of bots doing what he wanted while leaving him free to focus.

His pulse increased. Maybe there was something to the idea. If he ever got a chance to figure it out.

🚀

Callum resisted the urge to fiddle with the tie wrapped constrictor-like around his neck. It wasn’t going to choke him, and he didn’t want to appear nervous when he walked into the meeting room. He was too nervous to take a seat on any of the shiny leather couches in the reception area. He stood instead, pretending to look at the art on the wall. It actually was pretty cool, a large spaceship flying between two stars, one pulling material off the other. It looked familiar, maybe from a science fiction novel cover, but it also looked like an original.

Auspicious Ventures was located in a huge skyscraper in downtown Seattle. It’d taken him twenty minutes to find a place to park his share car and then he had to nearly run to get here in time for the meeting. If it went well, these people could help provide the initial capital that he needed to get his project off the ground.

The demonstration was simple enough. If it worked. If it didn’t, he was going to look foolish, but he had to be confident.

Behind the reception desk, the young man who had greeted him was busy working on something on his computer. Jim. That was his name. Jim looked up and saw Callum looking at him.

“You’re sure I couldn’t get you anything Mr. Danville?” Jim said. “Latte? Coffee? Water? Soda?”

Callum chuckled. “No, thank you. Mind if I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Jim was probably Callum’s age, within a few years. It looked like this was probably a pretty decent job. Auspicious Ventures had an expensive space in the building, good taste in art, and a great sci-fi rocket swoosh sort of logo that had caught his eye when he started looking for a venture capital firm.

“Do you ever wish you could do more than one thing at a time? Or be in more than one place at a time?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “All the time.”

Callum nodded. “Thanks.”

“That was it?”

“Yep, I just needed to hear that.”

Jim grinned. “You’ve got something cool, don’t you?”

Callum grinned as well. “I think so.”

“Mr. Danville?” A woman said behind him. “We’re ready for you.”

He turned around, and his heart nearly stopped. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. Attractive, yes, but it was all in how she stood and looked at him. She was a brunette, with short hair styled so that it parted the left side of her hair, with miniature dream-catcher earrings. She wore a shimmery, colorful scarf over a black dress and her quirky sort of smile just did him in.

She was walking toward him, her hand out. “I’m Aquilina Kentucky, but call me Lina, everyone does.”

He shook her hand, warm, firm grip. Her eyes were brown as well. “Callum. It’s nice to meet you.”

She winked. “Don’t be nervous. Your pitch has us intrigued. Let’s go see what we can do together.”

Several things came to mind, none of them appropriate to the situation. Callum pushed the thought away, he could ask her out later, maybe, if things went well. Or not.

He followed her into the meeting room. A big space, with folding tables pushed together to create a bigger table at the center. Mesh chairs on wheels arranged around it. Out the windows, there was even a view of downtown Seattle and a glimpse of the Space Needle.

He expected a room full of people in suits and was surprised when he found the room was empty. There were chairs for a dozen people around the tables, but it was only him and Ms. Kentucky in the room.

“Are there more people coming?” He asked.

She smiled and gestured to the chairs. “Nope. Just us, Callum. Our firm trusts our partners to make good judgments about our investments.”

“And if you make mistakes?”

“Mistakes are one thing. We support the creation of new innovation here, and with that comes a certain measure of risk. We do expect our partners both in the firm and those we chose to work with to succeed more than they fail. The successes pave the way for future successes.”

Her eyes focused on the case he held. “I assume you brought something to show me?”

A dry mouth and a racing heart were the least of his problems. Out of all of the firms he had approached, this was the only one to ask to see more. Creditors were already after him about the student loans. Mom’s benefits were cut and just paying the property taxes on the house was going to be tough. He needed this to work, or they’d both be out drifting, and Mom couldn’t take that.

Callum placed the case on the table. “I do. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Lina crossed her arms and watched him.

“Do you ever wish you could really multitask? Not switch from one thing to another, but really do several things at the same time?”

“Of course,” Lina said. “Your pitch raised the question, but I’ll admit I’m skeptical. Software agents are great, but they can’t take the place of real human judgment.”

Callum snapped open the latches on the case. “Of course not, but I’m not talking about software agents.”

“You’re not?”

He shook his head and lifted the lid. “I’m not. I’m talking about Swarm Think.”

Several small shiny orbs floated up from inside the case. Each was packed with scrounged up electronics taken from discarded gaming devices, silent fans from recycled cooling systems, and dozens of other parts from digital cameras, smartphones, and tablets. The cool silvery spherical bodies came from decorations with the top and bottoms cut off. He’d made four of them with what he could pull together, and they floated up around him.

Lina smiled. “Those are cute.”

One zipped off toward the door. The doors whooshed open to let the sphere through.

“Where’s that one going?”

“To ask Jim to bring me a mocha after all,” Callum said.

A second flew around behind her. Lina turned, trying to watch it as it flew near the window. “And that one?”

“Just admiring the view.”

The other two flew out over the table and the lasers he’d managed to pack in projected a holographic display above the table with his presentation. His voice came out of the spheres.

“What you see here are multiple drones controlled by me, not software agents.”

Her eyes narrow as she looked at him, but his mouth wasn’t moving.

“That’s right,” his voice said from the spheres. “I’m not talking.”

In fact, Callum, heart-pounding, turned and walked to the end of the table. He pulled out the chair and sat down. Then he reached into his case and brought out a tablet and opened up one of his e-books and started to read.

“I’m not trying to be rude,” Callum’s voice said from the spheres. “Please don’t take it that way.”

“I’m not,” Lina said. “I’m intrigued. Go on.”

The door opened, and Jim walked in carrying two steaming mugs. The sphere flew past him and took up a position hovering near Callum.

He accepted the mocha from Jim and savored the rich chocolatey smell. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” Jim pointed to the spheres. “What are those?”

“Part of a client demonstration,” Lina said. “If you’ll excuse us?”

Jim grinned. “Sure. Of course.”

After Jim was out of the room, while Callum sipped the hot mocha and read his book, the spheres said, “As I said, these aren’t controlled by software agents. They’re all me.”

“How is that possible?”

“It’s easier than you might think. Do you remember your dreams, Lina?”

“Sure,” she said. She laughed and looked at him. “This looks like a nifty ventriloquism trick.”

He lifted the mocha and took a drink as the spheres showed diagrams of the process. “Thought waves, transmitted to the spheres control what is happening. In your dreams are there other people?”

“Yes.”

“People you talk to, interact with? Maybe dance with, or kiss or fight?”

Lina nodded. “Yes, of course. They’re dreams. Anything can happen.”

“Do you ever think about who is controlling those characters? When you’re talking to someone in your dream, do you think about the fact that you’re talking to yourself? You can be a whole party of characters interacting, and all of it is your brain talking to itself.”

“I guess so. I’ve never thought much about it.”

Callum put down the tablet and stood back up. He’d made his point already. He said, “That’s what this is. Your brain controls the drones. They do what you want to do, but without requiring your conscious control. You can focus on other things while your drones are busy doing all of the things you need them to do. A drone can be anything. A computer. A lawn mower. Camera. Whatever you need, and it will take care of things.”

The hologram between the drones shifted. It showed a video of a solar lawn mower moving across the grass at his mother’s house.

It didn’t look like the house he had seen when he first got home. The yard and flower beds were immaculate. The lawn mower moved across the lawn in a tight back and forth organized pattern. No random moving around the yard without a brain.

“I’m mowing the lawn. I’m talking to you. I’m working on an email. All of it is controlled by me, thanks to Swarm Think.”

Callum turned his head so that she could see the small sensor nets and fine circuitry tattooed onto his neck behind his ears. The spheres displayed the tech.

“Painless, removable, the net interfaces and gives you control over your swarm.”

Her smile was gone. She crossed her arms tighter and took a deep breath. Callum’s gut sank.

Lina shook her head. “Thank you, Callum. I wish you all the best, but I don’t think that this is something that Auspicious Ventures will support.”

His voice echoed from all of the spheres when he spoke. “What?”

Callum continued with just him speaking. “Would you be willing to give me some feedback? Is there anything I could do to improve the technology so that it would be more appealing?”

Lina pressed her hands together. “We have to weigh everything about our potential partners very carefully, Callum, I’m sure you understand. And what the implications are for whatever they are presenting. Autonomous agents controlled by your subconscious, it sounds dangerous. That, along with your financial situation, makes this investment too risky. We like some measure of risk, but you have to see that the first time one of these swarm robots injured someone how liable the company would be?”

“They won’t do anything you don’t want them to do,” Callum said. “It’s like breathing. They’ll do their jobs without you having to think about it, but if you do focus on them, then you have conscious control.”

Lina was shaking her head before he finished. “I’m sure that’s true, and it doesn’t matter. All someone has to do was claim that it acted against his or her unconscious wishes and they’d have a case. How do we prove otherwise? None of us are perfect, we sometimes have unkind thoughts, but what happens if this technology acts on those subconscious impulses?”

“It won’t,” Callum said. “I considered that and—”

“I’m sorry,” Lina said. She held out her hand. “Thank you for sharing your vision with me. I wish you the best of luck with it.”

She wasn’t going to be convinced. He liked her and got the sense that she liked him too, but obviously that wasn’t enough.

“Okay, thank you for taking the time.” He shook her hand, and at the same time the swarm spheres and flew back into the case and settled into their slots.

He released her hand and snapped the case closed, then picked it up. “Have a good day.”

🚀

As jobs went being a publisher wasn’t bad. Callum’s work paid the bills for the house to take care of him and his mother. Thanks to his swarm, he could handle working on multiple tasks at the same time. Right now he was laying out an interior file, searching image databases for appropriate pictures for another project, and handling uploads to various retailers of his latest project.

While all of that was going on, he worked his way through his emails, those left after the swarm think agent had already processed the messages. It left him with the messages from new and existing clients that required that extra conscious touch.

Which wasn’t that many.

That was the trouble. He was bored. Busy, his brain was used to juggling a half-dozen different tasks these days, but his conscious mind wasn’t engaged in anything the way it had been when he first developed the swarm think technology last year. After the failed attempt to secure funding, he had used the technology to start his own freelancing business. Publishing was straight-forward enough now, shifting through the slush pile was the biggest chore and something easily shoved off onto the swarm think agents.

The biggest problem he had was figuring out a way to develop the swarm think technology for the market. It worked great, Swarm Press was proof of that, but he still didn’t have an answer to Lina’s concern. He didn’t believe that it could do something without the person behind it wanting it to happen. People had built-in checks on their behavior. They might write a hateful email but then would delete it instead of sending it.

Except sometimes they did send the hate email, or post nasty comments, or do much worse things. So if someone that would do something worse did it with swarm think, then couldn’t they claim that the agents had done it without their conscious permission? He’d gotten so focused on the impossibility of it, he neglected the one simple fact that people lie.

Lina was right. One person claiming it would trigger an avalanche of other claims. He had a technology that would multiply the productivity of a single worker, and he couldn’t use it.

Even without the potential risks, there was the other side of the coin. Doing everything he was doing, even at this scale, would take at least a dozen people and he could do it all. The labor organizations weren’t going to look favorably on that sort of thing. With different sorts of robotic agents, a single person could be the brains behind dozens of agents, all working perfectly together to get jobs done. Worth a lot, but it wasn’t something the world was going to accept easily, especially not with unemployment at record highs.

At least he had the advantage of the swarm to help him get more done. It was the reason that he had managed to keep them above water.

Mom walked in, one of his original swarm spheres floating along behind her. In her hands, she carried a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. The smell was heavenly.

“You wanted cookies?”

“Thank you,” he said.

She was looking much better than the first day when he had shown up outside. She was getting out more, walking, and reading the books that he published. As fast as he could publish them, she was reading them.

“How’s it going?”

Callum gestured at the screens arrayed around him. Documents and other work flowed across the screen. On one he was making copy-edit corrects to the text of a fantasy novel. Editing hadn’t been a skill he had, but with swarm think helping it had given him the time he needed to study while he worked on other things.

“It’s going well. Everything is working fine.”

“That’s good. I’m so proud of you.” She said, repeating herself since she said it at least once per day.

“Thanks, Mom.” Callum picked up one of the chocolate chip cookies and took a bite. Hot melted chocolate dissolved in his mouth. “Delicious. I’m just trying to figure out what I do now.”

“What do you mean? I thought everything was going fine.”

“It is,” Callum said. “But I hadn’t planned on running a publishing business. I wanted to invent things to change the world for the better. Swarm Think should give people the time to explore and do what they want. Instead of being stuck doing a job all day, people could let their swarms do the work while they learn and find answers to problems. People always say they wish they could be three places at once and with this they can—I just can’t figure out how to let them have it without costing us everything.”

“What if you did let them have it?” Mom said. “We would still have our publishing business, right?”

“You mean just give it away?”

“Well, you could publish it, couldn’t you? Write a DIY manual on Swarm Think. What do you call it, open source hardware?”

Callum was stunned. It was obvious, but he hadn’t thought about it. He smiled until it hurt and jumped to his feet. He wrapped his arms around his mother, gently, and kissed the top of your head.

“You’re brilliant!”

🚀

At the worksite, the workers were busy playing games, reading, studying, and sharing stories. Callum walked through the site, noticing the laughter and good cheer. These men and women were having a good time while Swarm Think robots built by the workers climbed, flew, and slithered around the building as they built the new Swarm Press headquarters in downtown Oakville.

Lina stopped at the edge of the construction site and accepted the sunshine yellow hardhat that one of Callum’s drones offered her. She put it on her head, grinned and waved at him.

Callum reached her and offered her his hand. “Thank you for coming out. I wanted you to see this first hand.”

She gazed at the site, noting the workers gathered around their tables beneath the awning. “It looks more like a party than a work group.”

“But each one of those workers is also working on the building.” Callum pointed at the busy hive of activity. “Not only that, but they assembled their own drones. Strictly DIY.”

“Clever,” Lina said. “You don’t make any of the drones, then?”

“Nope. You can thank my mother for that idea. Swarm Press publishes the manuals, design specs, and sells parts to hobbyists and large orders to businesses, but we don’t manufacture anything. That all comes from other suppliers.”

“So anyone manufacturing Swarm Think drones is liable for their use.”

“And we’ve published dozens of articles, funded research that shows that the drones won’t act independently of the controller’s wishes. If someone uses a drone or software agent to commit a crime, the research is going to show that they’re responsible.”

Lina smiled up at him. “You’ve done it on your own, but that begs the question why you wanted me to see it? It doesn’t sound like you need Auspicious Ventures help. It wasn’t to rub my nose in it, I hope?”

Callum laughed and shook his head. “No, not at all. Lina, would you care to have dinner with me?”

Her eyes widened with surprise that quickly turned into a nod of acceptance, and for one moment his swarm paused as all of his attention focused on her widening smile.

🚀

5,090 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 99th 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, Egg Hunt.


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

Quantum Uncertainty

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to the few who knew him, took interesting jobs. Unusual corporate work.

Nothing illegal. Interesting. This latest assignment involved corporate espionage, very hush, hush, corporate secrets stuff. High tech. Just how high tech, he didn’t know.

Not until the whole job goes very wrong and Doc faces one of the weirdest situations in his career.

🚀

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to his friends, what few he had, crouched to tighten the cuffs on the perp. He didn’t like being so close to the guy, one Phillip Norton, who smelled of too few showers and too much weed with a beer aftershave. He stood up confident that the guy couldn’t slip out of the cuffs.

“Come on, man, those hurt!”

Doc shrugged. He turned his attention back to the desk, a large dark glass and black metal affair littered with computer parts. Three monitors acted as the centerpiece of the unit. Doc sat down in front of the screens.

“What’d you do with the data you stole from Q-Prime?”

“That’s what this is about? Man, how’d you find me?”

Doc brushed a fingertip across the screens. They came to life. Red lasers flicked on from a small device in front of the monitors and created a keyboard pattern on the glass desktop. But the keys were all laid out in a different order than normal. Doc looked back at the guy.

“What’s this?” He gestured to the keys.

“A keyboard. What does it look like?”

“Don’t get smart. Why are the keys in the wrong places?”

“It’s a modified Dvorak layout. More efficient, you see?”

“Right.” Doc studied the layout. Vowels on the home row. This was going to take time. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t had time to lock the computers down. It was all open and available. Doc reached out and dragged open the guy’s file system. Tons of stuff but when he checked the recent activity logs he found the files he wanted under Armageddon. File sizes and count matched what Q-Prime had given him. He pulled out a jump drive and stuck it in a USB port on the monitor. A quick grab, drag and dump and the files were being moved over to the drive. No need to use that weird keyboard at all.

“Man,” the perp said. “You can’t give that back to them!”

Doc spun the chair around. “Look, I’ve already called the cops. They’re going to be here soon. I’m turning you over to them. You were pretty clever getting out of Q-Prime, I’m still not sure how you managed that –”

“I beamed out.”

“Beamed?”

Phillip nodded enthusiastically, a move that sent his greasy brown hair flying around his face.  He twitched his head to shake it back away. Phillip had to have brains to get into Q-Prime and managed to get out again with this data, but he didn’t look like it.

“Right, dude. That’s what this is all about. They’ve developed technology that can transport anything somewhere else. I got in, copied the data and set it to erase after I left. Then I beamed back here. The computer wiped and they lost everything.”

The files were still copying. It was a lot of information. Doc looked back at Phillip. “You lost me there. Are you talking about teleporting or something? Like in science fiction?”

“Yes! Exactly! Dude, think about what they could do with that sort of technology?” Phillips bloodshot eyes widened. He leaned forward as far as the cuffs allowed. “It’s the end of everything.”

“Sounds to me like the end of rush hour traffic, what’s so bad about that?”

Phillip slumped. “Dude, you don’t get it. Shipping industry, gone. Manufacturing, gone. Transportation, gone. Medical, gone. Agriculture, gone. Pretty much everything will be gone. And then when they turn it into a weapon we’ll all be gone too.”

“You’re crazy, kid. But that’s not my problem. I just do the job.” Doc heard sirens outside. The files finished. Perfect timing. He pulled his drive and slipped it into his pocket. “I turn you over to the cops and give Q-Prime back their property. That’s it.”

Phillip thrashed against the cuffs. “No! Seriously, you don’t understand!”

“Yeah, right, kid. I’ll be seeing you.”

Doc walked around the chair, planning to go out and meet the cops. He’d hang around until he saw the kid tucked safely away into the back of a squad car and then he’d be on his way. Another job done. You had to love these industrial espionage cases.

The first shot took Phillip in the throat, knocking his chair over backward and spraying blood across the hardwood floors. The crack of the chair followed by the whack of Phillip’s head against the floor were both louder than the shot. A silencer then. Someone didn’t want the cops outside to know that they were shooting. The fact that the shooter took out Phillip first gave Doc a chance to hide behind the desk, not that the furniture and computer equipment provided much shelter. Still, anything was better than nothing.

Doc drew his weapon and fired off one shot at the ceiling. There wasn’t a second floor and the shot would alert the cops to be cautious at least. He tried to peek out and was rewarded by the monitor above his head exploding into sparks, smoke, and flying glass. Doc ducked lower. A second shot hit the computer behind him. He smelled electronics burning with a hot ozone scent. Time to move.

He darted towards the kitchen and the hallway down towards the bedrooms. Bullets hit the wall beside him but none caught him. He made it to the hallway and kept going. If the shooter caught up to him now he didn’t have any cover. He reached the bedroom and kicked the door shut. Phillip had about as much sense of cleanliness in here as he did out in the other room. The room stunk of stale beer, weed, and moldy food. It lacked any furniture except a futon on the floor with black blankets wadded into a pile. It didn’t even have a dresser he could shove in front of the door.

On the other hand, he could see through a small slit in the curtains that the windows weren’t barred so that was something. He holstered his gun and went to the window. He reached through the curtains and dragged the window open.

“Freeze! Don’t move! Hands above your head!”

Cops. Doc lifted his hands and folded them on his head but looked back. The door knob turned. Stay and get shot in the back or go out and risk being shot by the police. Not a good choice. He dove forward through the screen. He hit on his back, not too hard, and heard shouts all around. Hands grabbed him and flipped him over onto his stomach.

“Shooter inside!” Doc shouted.

That got their attention. He found himself hauled up and hustled along the alley. Someone slapped cuffs on his wrists as they went. They took up shelter behind a squad car and Doc finally got to see who he was with. Young cops. Rookie cops with nervous eyes. Sandoval and Hicks, according to their uniforms. Sandoval was young, blond and a woman with a very pretty face. She looked very pale. Hicks was a bigger teddy bear sort of guy with baby fat still in his cheeks. He looked almost panicked.

“I’m Barry Holliday. I’m the private detective that called you. There’s a shooter inside, he already killed Phillip Norton, the guy you’re here to arrest.”

“Yeah, buddy, just sit tight. We’ll handle this,” Sandoval said.

He didn’t have any other choice so he waited until the other cops came out, his identification was checked and verified. With nothing to hold him on they cut him loose. Doc thanked them and headed home with the data from Phillip’s computer.

🚀

Home was a downtown apartment. Nothing fancy. A small bedroom with a bed and unpainted pine dresser. The main living room slash kitchen and dining room looked bigger than it was simply because he didn’t have a lot of stuff. He’d never been a fan of a lot of stuff. He had an over-sized blue denim bean bag chair, a lamp with a flexible gooseneck and a wood TV tray set up under the window. A wood chair, painted green, sat beside the tray. That was it for furniture. He hadn’t hung any paintings. The kitchen counters sat bare and empty except for the dish rack with his single bowl, plate, glass, spoon, fork and knife. They didn’t even get used that often since he usually ate out. Doc came through the door, locked it behind him and pulled off his coat.

He took out the USB drive and his tablet before hanging the coat on a hook on the back of the door. He walked over to the bean bag chair and lifted it up and flipped it over to fluff it up. Then he dropped into it and closed his eyes as he sank into its comforting depths. Some days he didn’t even leave the bean bag to sleep. He turned on the tablet and plugged in the USB drive. The files came up.

He opened his email program and picked one of the smaller files at random. He attached it and sent it with an invoice to Q-Prime. As soon as their money showed up in the escrow account he’d established then he’d release the rest of the files. He felt bad about Phillip dying. Someone hadn’t wanted him to talk.

Teleportation, Phillip had said. Doc scanned the other files and opened one of the documentation files. It was full of technobabble but as best Doc could make out Phillip had been telling the truth.  Q-Prime had developed a way to transport material from one spot to another. It could operate on scales from single atoms to large objects. He didn’t understand all of the details but it had something to do with changing the space-time coordinates of the target. Basically, they told the object that it wasn’t here but was actually there. They called it quantum bit-shifting. It didn’t sound like beaming the way he’d thought of it watching the old Star Trek shows. They weren’t talking about converting matter into energy and back but in the end, he didn’t see that it made any difference. You went poof in one place and appeared in another.

Doc didn’t want to think about it too much. He’d done his job. Yeah, he could see Phillip’s point about something like shipping, assuming that building the device wasn’t too difficult and it didn’t sound like it was from what he’d read. But that wouldn’t mean the end of everything. What worried him more were the military applications. What if you could ‘beam’ a warhead inside a target? High-yield explosive just appears inside a nuclear reactor. Ka-Boom! No warning. No way to trace who was responsible. If a terrorist group got hold of these files they could hold the world at ransom.

Not his problem. He’d been hired to recover the files. He’d done that. Doc shut the computer down, sat it aside and leaned back. He closed his eyes and folded his hands across his middle. He could use some rest.

🚀

He’d hardly closed his eyes when the bean bag vanished. He dropped onto a hard surface and lights blinded him. He heard voices and the hum of equipment. He lifted a hand to block the light. It came from two bright fluorescent tubes above his head. He blinked and looked around finding himself in a small room with concrete block walls. The air felt cold and dry.

“It worked,” some said. A woman. Young, by the sound of her voice.

“I told you. Phillip said it would.” A young guy with a scratchy smoker’s voice.

Doc flipped over in a crouch. His hand went to his gun—

🚀

He fell. He barely registered the sensation of falling before he hit the ground. He didn’t have time to do anything to break his fall and he hit hard on his elbow and side. Not enough to knock his wind out but hard. He lifted his head and found he was still in the same room. This time he saw his captors. Two twenty-somethings standing behind a bank of computers and equipment on the other side of the room. Doc reached for his gun. Fast. Faster than most people could draw.

His hand hit an empty holster. The gun sat on the table in front of the man.

“Don’t bother, Holliday,” the guy said. “Just chill out.”

The guy wore an expensive suit. Clean-shaven. He looked like a young Wall Street sort of guy. The woman with him looked more like a computer geek. She wore a black business dress but her hair was carelessly pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty in a slightly curvy overweight geek fashion. Her auburn hair had darker and lighter streaks.

Doc rocked back on his heels. “You’ve got the Q-Prime tech.”

The guy nodded. “That’s right. Phillip came through for us. But it isn’t without problems. We need the latest data from the company.”

Doc shook his head. “Can’t help you. I already turned it over.”

🚀

Falling. It didn’t surprise him as much this time. He slapped the floor when he hit but lay still. Let them think he’d been hurt. They’d teleported, beamed him, quantum bit-shifted, whatever they wanted to call it up to the ceiling and then let him fall.

He heard the woman’s heels click on the floor.

“Stop,” the guy said.

“He looks hurt.”

“He didn’t fall that hard. And he slapped the floor. He’s faking.”

🚀

Falling again. Doc took the fall and didn’t bother faking an injury. He rolled and popped up into a sprinter’s position. He pushed off. One stride, two, nearly there—

🚀

Fall. Hit. And rolled forward, still with the momentum of his brief sprint. Doc collided with the back of the computer equipment. He grabbed a fistful of cords and yanked.

“Shit!”

Doc heard keys rattle. The girl gasped. Doc stood up and shoved the monitors at the guy who gasped and jumped back as the monitors shattered. Doc grabbed his gun. He had it pointed square at the guy’s chest.

“Name. Now.”

“Whoa! Okay! Shit.” The guy lifted his hands. “Martin Donaldson.”

Doc looked at the girl. “You?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “We didn’t want to hurt you—”

“Name!”

She jumped. “Kasey Linton.”

Doc kept the gun steady. “Get over to the wall. Hands on the wall. Legs spread. Don’t piss me off.”

They hesitated.

“Now!”

“Okay! Fuck!” Martin went to the wall. He slapped his palms against it. “Holliday, you’ve got to—”

“Shut up.”

Kasey leaned into the wall. Her shoulders shook. Doc went around the computers. Some of the equipment still looked to be on. He saw a couple power strips and hit the switches. The computers went dark. He went over to the two standing against the wall. Martin flinched when Doc frisked. He didn’t have a weapon. Neither did Kasey. But he did take cell phones off them and pocketed them both. He stepped back.

“Sit down facing the wall. Cross-legged. Hands folded on your heads.”

Martin got down. So did Kasey.

“Good. Now you’re going to answer some questions. How did you get the machine working so quickly?”

“It isn’t that hard once you understand it,” Kasey said. “I had to write some targeting routines. That’s why we wanted their research. They’ve had longer to develop the implementation.”

“So anyone with the resources could build one of these?”

“Right,” Martin said. “Q-Prime is going to deal with the highest bidder and whoever that is will control everything. Get it? Phillip came to us. He told us what was happening. I had the funds and between him and Kasey, they got it working. We were going to make it available to everyone. It’s the only way it’ll work. Balance of power, you know?”

Doc lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. He glanced at the material on the desk that wasn’t covered by the shattered monitors. He didn’t understand the papers but he recognized the Q-Prime logo.

“Why’d you kill Phillip? To cut him out of the deal?”

“We didn’t kill him,” Martin said.

“We didn’t,” Kasey added. She sobbed. “I loved Phillip.”

He believed them. “Any ideas who did kill him?”

“It was Q-Prime that killed him. They didn’t want him talking about their technology.”

Doc didn’t rise to the bait. “If every nutcase on the planet has access to this technology then no one is safe.”

“Wrong.” Kasey looked back. “We’re safe because no one is safe. Who would use it, knowing that any survivors will have access to the same technology to retaliate?”

“Plenty.” Doc sat down in a chair. “How many copies of the research are out there right now?”

“Don’t tell him,” Martin said.

Doc nodded. “So only yours and what I’ve got. Why didn’t you and Phillip just destroy the data? Then no one would have it.”

“You can’t destroy knowledge like that,” Kasey said. “I understand it. So do the researchers at Q-Prime. It’d take time to develop a new working model but not that much time. Months.”

“Which is why we have to go public with the technology now rather than later,” Martin said.

“It isn’t just the technology.” Kasey twisted around. “This is a fundamental discovery about how our universe works. Knowledge like this needs to be shared. Q-Prime won’t share it.”

To his left was a closed green metal door. Doc twitched his head at it while keeping the gun on them. “Where does that go? Where am I?”

Kasey answered. “You’re at the University. This is Lab 3, one of the rooms in the basement. That just goes out into the hallway. We convinced labs to give us the room for the semester.”

Doc eased over towards the door. “I’m leaving now. I suggest you stay put until the cops get here.”

“Cops!” Martin started to lower his hands.

“Up!” Doc snapped. “Do it!”

“Jeez, okay. Why are you calling the cops?”

“You stole the data with Phillip. You kidnapped me with your device. I don’t even know if being teleported is safe. I think you’re going to be facing charges.”

“Shit,” Martin said. “You can’t do that.”

“Watch me.” Doc opened the door. As they had said, the door opened onto a concrete hallway. An exit sign glowed green at the end.

🚀

When the cops arrived they found the equipment back on. Martin and Kasey were gone. Doc checked his account balance using the campus Wi-Fi and found the money deposited as contracted. He created a compressed archive of the files and sent it to Q-Prime. Then he deleted the files. He’d fulfilled his contract. All the rest of that stuff, what was going to happen with this technology, this new knowledge that the researchers had developed, that was out of his hands.

It always had been. The world might change but he couldn’t stop the changes, he could only adapt and move on.

🚀

3,274  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 98th short story release, written in November 2009.

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.

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.

Shermmies’s Planet

Cover art for Shermmies's Planet

Work and play collide in this story of alien first contract.

Bad enough the planet smelled like lemon meringue pie. But for Uplift Agent Holly Kirk her future hinges on convincing the furry natives to adopt her uplift contract, before her competition beats her to it.

Unfortunately, the natives are more interested in dancing!

🚀

Project coordinator Holly Kirk didn’t trust any planet that smelled like lemon meringue pie. She stood at the base of the squat saucer-shaped lander with a scanner held up to her eyes. Her tight blue enviroskin clung to every curve and the smooth line of her body from her tiny ankles to her long neck. A brisk breeze carried the lemon meringue smell across the bright orange spring grass plain. The wind tugged at her black hair, but her glittery silver hair bands kept every strand in place. Her space-pale brow, unmarred by unfiltered starlight, wrinkled as she surveyed the area.

Worse even than the smell was the impossible cuteness of Shermmies’s Planet. The smell came from the spring grass, each coiled orange stem leaking tiny sap beads out through pores. The odor attracted the sipper moths that crawled around each stem, nibbling on the sweet syrup as they left behind their eggs. Even those bugs were cute to human eyes as if a Disney god had designed their bright multi-colored wings and big faux-eyes. Nothing was cuter than a shermmie, the technologically adept, if backward, natives that she’d come to uplift. Through the scanner she watched a contingent of them skipping through the spring grass toward the lander.

The markings varied on each shermmie, as did their general height and weight, just like humans. In a broad sense, shermmies looked humanoid but hardly human. Bilateral symmetry, with two legs, two arms, a head on top of a body. But they were round, soft and covered in long fur that bounced and waved with each skipping step. Only about the height of a toddler but wider than any human child, they looked like madly gleeful bunny people or ecstatic hamsters skipping across the plain. Their faces were fat and cherubic. They eschewed clothing in favor of stashing whatever they wanted to carry in their marsupial-like pouches. Even when they carried their young.

And these were the people that she had come to uplift. As project coordinator, it was her job to convince the shermmies to adopt technology appropriate to their development, with a goal of getting the shermmies up into space. Success meant royalties and licensing fees that would help keep her team funded in the years ahead, even with the overhead costs she paid to the Prometheus. She had nothing against the shermmies, not really, but being around them did put her on cuteness overload. And to make matters worse, she had Gerald Davis leading his team to the southern continent to try and get the shermmies there to go with his uplift plan. Only one of them would get the final contract, so she needed these deplorably cute aliens to go for her plan when instead they were out there skipping after a scarlet road runner.

She lowered the view and yelled back at the lander. “Skipper! Get out here!”

With a whirr of electronic whip-like legs, Skipper rolled down the launch ramp onto the spring grass. As his silvery arms crushed the plants, the lemon meringue scent increased, and sipper moths rose up in a colorful cloud around the robot. The transparent center of his wheel-shaped body turned cloudy, and a fat human face grinned out of the smoke.

“What can I do for you, love?”

Holly pointed out at the gallivanting shermmies. “Go herd them back here onto the launch. It took us three days already to set up this meeting. I want to get started.”

Skipper rolled out onto the plain to chase down the shermmies. Holly lifted her scanner and looked out at the gorge in the distance. On the far side, she saw the delicate buildings the shermmies had built, suspended above the raging river below by impossibly delicate lines that glittered in the sunlight. Their city resembled a dew-covered spider web sagging under its own weight. The scanner’s overlay displayed distance and composition of the structures. Clearly, they could do what she wanted, provided she convinced them to buy into the program. That was the big if. Holly lowered the scanner and went up the ramp into the launch. It was too painful to watch shermmies scattering from the spinning robot like children playing tag.

Twenty minutes later Holly put down her half full water glass and stood up as six shermmies tumbled into the large conference room with Skipper bringing up the rear. Around the large oval table, her team leads also stood. On her right, Leo McCloud stood even taller than her thanks to Lunar engineering that had shaped his reinforced skeletal structure. Across the table from Leo was Clarice Thompson, a seemingly delicate Asian woman with fine bone structure and bright pink hair. Clarice was so cute that she looked like she belonged on Shermmies’ planet. The third member of Holly’s team, Autumn Whisper, was also the oldest person in the room. Autumn’s green skin, long white dreadlocks, and rough weathered skin spoke to his origin on NuEden. His broad shoulders stretched the deep brown enviroskin he wore. The shermmies all came to a stop along the side of the table and blinked up at the standing team members while grinning with big vacant grins. Holly felt her own lips twitch in response but refused to smile. She wasn’t even convinced that the shermmies’ expressions matched the corresponding human emotions. That look could be a look of abject terror for all anyone could tell her. The contact specialists and xenolinguists thought that their expressions corresponded, but how could they know for sure? Maybe the aliens all thought that Skipper had brought them here to be eaten by the giants.

With so many people in the room, it felt smaller than normal and more claustrophobic since she had opaqued the walls to a soothing light orange, like a pale version of the spring grass outside. She’d also had the large light panel above the table spectrum shifted to match the shermmies sun. Hopefully, the changes made the room feel a bit less sterile and more inviting to their guests. She did notice that the aliens had brought in the lemon meringue scent with them from outside. She’d never want to eat one of those pies again.

“Everything is going to be okay, no harm will come to any of you. We want to help.” She paused while Skipper translated her words into the shermmies’ language, which sounded like baby babble and children’s laughter.

One of the shermmies with dark tan stripes in the fur around its large doe-eyes chattered back at Skipper.

“Happy says that they understand your speech,” Skipper reported. “But their symbiotes haven’t adapted yet to producing the words, so they need me to continue translating what they say.”

Symbiotes? The reports indicated the possibility of an advanced level of genetic engineering. But how advanced? She’d have to find out how it’d impact her plans. “Happy is your name?”

“That’s right,” Happy answered, with Skipper’s help.

“Pleased to meet you, Happy. My name is Holly King, you can call me Holly. Let me introduce my team leaders.” She went around the table and introduced her people.

“These are my family,” Happy said. “Glee, Cheer, Joy, Ecstasy, and the small one on the end is Bliss.”

Holly took a second to absorb those names while she knew that the launch AI had matched their images with their names and recorded it all in the launch datanet, for storage on Prometheus. “If you don’t mind, how did you select those names?”

“By studying the information supplied by your ship’s xenolinguists. You have a rich and fascinating language, but our naming custom is to find the word or words that best describes one’s nature. These were the closest matches we could find in your language.”

“I see.” Holly gestured to the seats around the table. “Would you like to sit down?”

Happy bounced. “I think we’ll stand. It’s so much more fun.”

Glee chittered at them. “I don’t see how you can sit all the time.”

Holly shook her head. “We don’t always, we’re happy to remain standing.”

Skipper remained behind the shermmies, while also standing in front of the door.

Autumn crossed his arms and stood as solid as a tree. Holly knew that he preferred standing too.

“Let’s move on. We asked you here to talk more about our uplift proposal. Have you had a chance to discuss it in your council?”

“Really?” That came from Cheer. “Oh, we talked about it lots.”

“Yes, many discussions,” Bliss confirmed.

Happy made a noise that Skipper didn’t bother translating before he—was Happy male? Holly made a mental note to find out if such terms even applied—continued.

“Yes, yes!” Happy bounced in place. His arms waved around. “Much fire! Massive explosions hurling a rocket into space. Even so far as our moons!”

“Then you like the idea?”

“Like it!” All the Shermmies giggled. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a giggle, but it sure sounded like a giggle. But then Orgainians fart to thank you, so who knew? “We loved it! Terrifically exciting. And you actually do this? Ride these rockets into space?”

“Well, not anymore,” Holly said. “We’ve developed more advanced technologies, which we will share in time, but we need to start with the rockets. Once those principals are mastered, our people will continue helping you advance.”

“Yippee!” Joy cried out and spun in a circle that made the other shermmies move back. Right there beside the conference table Joy started dancing. Okay, maybe not dancing but hell, it sure looked that way to Holly.

A second later Glee jumped in and started shaking and shimming along with Joy. Holly leaned on the table, working hard to keep her face neutral as Bliss, Cheer and Ecstasy also joined the dance. Skipper rolled back into the doorway to give them more room, his facial projection giving her a look like he expected her to do something about the spontaneous festivities.

Right in the middle of it all Happy hadn’t joined the dance, and now he spoke.

“Of course the whole proposal is impossible,” Skipper translated.

Before Holly could get a word out to ask why Happy jumped into the dance with the rest and it was Bliss that climbed up on the table to continue the dance.

Autumn looked at her, plainly expecting her to do something about the shermmies as Joy clambered up with Bliss. Clarice had her hand on her mouth trying not to laugh while Leo gaped openly at the spectacle.

“Please!” When no responded, she raised her voice. “Please!”

Happy lowered his arms and blinked up at her. He chattered at her. “Why don’t you join the dance?”

“Why’s the proposal impossible?”

All the shermmies stopped dancing. Bliss and Joy stayed standing on the conference table which put them at eye-level. Everyone’s eyes watching her and Happy. Happy did a little wiggle and brought his fat little hands together like a moth flapping away. The fine fur and markings on his hands made a passable imitation of one of the sipper moths.

“We don’t fly like a sipper moth,” Skipper translated.

Happy cleared his throat. A deep, understandably human voice came out of his mouth. “That’s right.”

“You can speak our language?”

“Now.” Ecstasy closed her eyes and shivered. Then she opened her eyes a bit and looked sidelong at Autumn. Her voice sounded smoky. “Now we can.”

Cheer grabbed Bliss and pulled her down from the table, swinging the smaller shermmie around. “Now we can! Thank the symbiotes!”

Leo unrolled a palmsheet. “Symbiotes, what symbiotes are you talking about?”

Happy snorted and waved a dismissive hand. He spoke in that same deep voice. “What does it matter? We don’t need the machine to translate anymore.”

Holly had to get the meeting back under control and on topic. “Fine. You’re right. But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand why you won’t consider our offer. With space travel comes a great expansion of your species. You’ll learn by flying to your moons, but soon you’ll go out further into your solar system. There are asteroids there full of mineral resources just waiting to be mined.”

“I know.” Happy grinned. “Your xenolinguists told us all this when they gave us the information to study. We also know that your people are forbidden from mining even a single comet directly.”

Holly didn’t dare look away from the adorably cute alien standing in front of her, only now she realized that she had let their fat, furry, grinning faces and those big eyes trick her. The mind behind that cute front was as sharp as they came.

“That’s obviously true, no one has lied to you or tried to deceive you. We’re here to help. If you accept our proposal, then our team works with your people to build a whole new area of technology. Space travel will introduce you to the wider galactic culture. Just think of the benefits that will bring! In science, education, and culture. And those asteroid and comet resources, not to mention the wealth from the other planets, are the raw material you can use to trade for anything you want. We can make you wealthier than you can possibly imagine.”

Glee skipped forward and spoke in a high piping voice. “And you do this for a percentage?”

Holly pinched her fingers together with a tiny gap. “A small percentage, and as your uplift agents we can guide you into this new phase of development for your planet.”

Happy skipped back from the table. Instantly the other shermmies skipped toward the door. Skipper rose up, but Holly flicked her fingers at him. They couldn’t very well hold the shermmies prisoner in the launch. Skipper rolled out of the way, and she watched as the shermmies joyfully skipped out down the corridor taking her hopes with them.

“Make sure they don’t get lost,” Holly said to Skipper.

“Will do.” Skipper’s arms whipped around, propelling him on out the door after the shermmies.

Holly dropped into her chair, feeling the mesh reform to her body. She touched the massage control, and the smart fibers started kneading her back. “That could have gone better.”

Around the table, the others settled into their own chairs. Clarice leaned forward as if she was going to say something, but at that moment the edge of the table pulsed blue and a ding-dong chime rang through the room. Holly tapped the tabletop.

“King here.”

The center of the table appeared to vanish, replaced by a hologram of Gerald Davis, the last man she wanted to see. Not that he was hard on the eyes. His green enviroskin clung to well-defined muscles on his slender physique. That, and she liked the way his hazel eyes looked out at her while an easy grin played on his lips. The Prometheus was a competitive environment, and in this case, it was Davis that had put up the competing bid for the shermmies’s uplift. They’d worked together in the past on sub-contract rights and other, smaller, rights options but as luck would have it they were both ready to move on to a bigger prime contract position, and only one of them could win the bid. So it didn’t matter how much she liked the look of his hands or the shape of his jaw. Instead, she focused on the fact that his nose was a bit too large for her taste and forced a smile onto her lips.

“Davis, what did we do to deserve this call?”

“Just a courtesy, Holly. I know how those landing fees and everything else can rack up quicker than it seems possible. I’m getting close to signing a deal here. We’ve worked well together in the past, so I thought I’d give you a heads up. Figured you’d appreciate the chance to cut your losses now. Plus I might have some sub-contract deals for you once we nail this down. Maybe you’d like to get together back on the Prometheus over dinner? My treat?”

Holly wasn’t going to go supernova over the man’s arrogance. He really thought she’d drop out with an offer of a few sub-contracts and a dinner with him? Either that or he was feeling her out to see how close she was to signing the shermmies herself.

“Funny,” she lied. She let her gaze drop and travel up his body back until their eyes locked again. She licked her lips. “I was about to call you and make a similar offer. I guess these guys are all pretty eager to become space jockeys.”

“Yes.” Davis cleared his throat and broke eye contact. “Don’t be too disappointed when I file first. And that dinner offer is always open. I’d best go. Good luck.”

Davis vanished, and the table surface turned opaque again.

“Wow,” Clarice said.

Leo waved the palmsheet he’d taken out when the shermmies were talking. “I need to study these readings. I think they’ve got some interesting tech here.”

“Is it anything we can use to get them to sign the contract?” Holly asked.

His shoulders came up nearly to his ears when he shrugged.

She waved a hand. “We’ll look at it, but I need leverage right now. We’ve got to convince them to sign with us before Davis closes his deal.”

“I don’t believe he’s as close as he suggests,” Autumn said. The big man interlaced his fingers on his chest. “But he wants you to believe it.”

“So the Southern shermmies probably aren’t taking the proposal any more seriously than ours?”

Clarice shook her head. “It’s dangerous generalizing across a planetary population. Look at the variety of human cultures. Maybe Davis got lucky, and the southern population is more receptive to the concept.”

Holly leaned forward and pinch flicked her access open. A quick drag and snatch pulled up the map of the planet which she flung out onto the table surface, and palm dragged it to fill the space between them. The real-time simulation showed a large tropical storm over the large primary ocean, with more cloud cover over the two major continents in the northern and southern hemispheres. She grimaced at the thought of the satellite connection fees she was racking up just looking at the map, but she had to see what there was to work with.

She reached out and tapped the western continent, more of a submerged continent with a few large volcanic islands surrounded by a shallow sea. “What about here? What do we know about the shermmies on these islands?”

Leo reached out and then stopped. “Do you want me to purchase the survey data?”

“No! Just tell me what you know.”

He settled back in his chair. “Only what the catalog survey showed. There’s data available but the survey identified only two sites with sufficient resources to pull off a large-scale space program. That was here and Davis’ site on the southern continent.”

“I knew that much.” Holly reached out and gave the map a shove, sliding it around to show the eastern continent, clearly once part of the southern continent, but continental drift was carrying it away. Most of the smaller landmass looked like a desert. “I assume the same story here?”

“That was the conclusion,” Clarice said. “We didn’t buy the full data set. Our bid only included potential uplift sites, and Davis outbid us on the southern continent. They do have much larger metropolitan areas there all built up in the rainforest.”

“These people appear to build their cities with an eye to integrating them into the natural environment,” Autumn said. “Maybe the idea of blasting off into space is simply against their beliefs.”

Holly shook her head. “We’ve seen the data about the shermmies here. They obviously have sophisticated metallurgical skills. Which means that they have mining and refining technology. We’re not talking about straw huts here.”

“What about what Happy said?” Clarice asked. “He said they don’t fly.”

Leo leaned forward, nodding. “That’s true. No aircraft of any kind. The survey included that detail and limited ground transportation. They do use domesticated animals to haul carts, and they’ve got a fairly sophisticated railway network. Otherwise, most travel is on foot.”

An idea occurred to Holly. She slid her hands together across the table, closing the map. “Right. Maybe we’ve approached this the wrong way. We flew down here in a lander. What if we approach them on foot? Meet with them on their terms and stress the environmental benefits of moving industry applications into space? Not to mention all of the other subsidiary environmental remediation technologies we could write into the contract to offset the impacts of developing the space program.”

“I believe it’s worth a try,” Autumn said.

Holly stood up. “Great! Then you’re with me. Clarice, Leo, keep an eye on the fort and start working on the contract language. I want to have that nailed down in case they go for it. We need their agreement and need to get it transmitted to the Prometheus as quick as possible. Everyone clear?”

Nods all around. Silver flashed in the doorway as Skipper rolled into the room. “What did I miss?”

Holly was already heading out of the room with Autumn on her heels. “Check with Leo, he’ll get you caught up.”

🚀

Close up the shermmies’s city was even more impressive than when Holly had seen it through the scanner. She stood in front of a floor to ceiling transparent wall looking down at a thousand foot drop to the whitewater rapids at the bottom of the canyon. Her initial impression of the city as a dew-covered spider web was good, but up close each of those dew drops was a building hanging by cables that also served as skywalks connecting the buildings. But her impression was also wrong because the city was a three-dimensional web with multiple levels stretching back and forth between the canyon walls. Thanks to the transparent walls everywhere she looked she could see shermmies busily going about their tasks and living their lives. That was a lot of dancing, skipping and cavorting cuteness. Holly turned away from the view back to the room they’d been guided to when they reached the city after walking the three kilometers from the launch.

The floor was bowl shaped, and Autumn stood at the very bottom of the bowl with his arms crossed. It wasn’t that deep but enough so that she was almost the same height for once. Their guide had left them alone. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t sleeping but was doing some sort of NuEdenist meditation in the sunlight streaming through the roof.

“Autumn!”

Without moving a muscle, he opened one eye. “Yes.”

“Are you with me?”

His eye closed. “Of course.”

Holly was pacing around Autumn when Happy skipped out of one of the connecting tubes into the room.

He flung his arms wide. “Greetings!”

Holly smiled and threw her own arms out wide. “Greetings! Thanks for seeing us again.”

“After we spoke I came back and talked to the council again.”

Holly took a deep breath. “That’s great. I actually wanted to come here and talk to you, to your council if you like, because I realized that in all of our talks I’d left out some important points.”

Happy’s big eyes blinked. “Oh?”

“When you left we realized that we didn’t share the environmental benefits that come with a space program. Sure there’s an impact to the program itself, and we can include environmental remediation in the contract, but once you’re established out there in space, you can relocate most of your heavy industrial applications. Back on Earth, we reversed centuries of environmental damage once we got our space legs.”

“We discussed this,” Happy said, cheerfully. “I had overlooked something too.”

Autumn stirred. “What was that?”

“Fun!” Happy spun on one foot and flung out his arms. “Glee thought of it on the way back.”

“Fun?”

Happy’s eyes widened. “All those explosions, riding on top of a rocket, it sounded very scary. We don’t fly. What you call sipper moths fly, other animals fly, but we don’t fly. I don’t think any shermmie on the planet has ever really thought about flying.”

“Never? Is it some sort of phobia?” Holly hadn’t considered that. What if the whole planet was deathly afraid of flying? They’d never sign the contract then. Not unless she could convince them to hire an outside workforce, with the overhead taken out after her percentage.

Happy waved his hands. “No, no. Not a phobia.” He scratched his head. “We didn’t see the need. Why do it? There are safer and more reliable methods to travel.”

Holly got it. “Fun! You’re saying Glee was the first one of your people to realize that flying might be fun?”

Happy’s heels kicked out in a little jig. “Exactly! It seems obvious, but even many on the council had difficulty imagining how it could be fun. But Glee set up what your database called a swing in the council chambers, and they all took a turn! Glee said flying would be like swinging, but you don’t come down!”

“Flying is fun,” Autumn agreed.

Holly had never felt better in her life. As the primary agent of contract for Shermmies’ planet, her future was nearly assured. She pulled a palmsheet out of her pocket and unrolled it. “That’s great news, Happy. We’re all happy now! I’ll contact the launch, and I’m sure they can get the contract of intent transferred right away. That’s just the initial contract that shows you agree to work with my team on the uplift contract and then we can work out all of those details.”

Happy had started a little jig, but he stopped. He crossed his arms, mimicking Autumn’s pose. “Oh, no. We can’t sign a contract with you.”

Holly managed to find her voice. “What? Why? Did the southern continent already sign with Davis?”

“No,” Happy said. He gave a little bounce. “The council spent more time studying the information you provided and came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to pay a percentage of our future forever. As it appears we would in your legal system, if we agree to the agency deal you propose. Instead, they’ve agreed to work with the southern council to build an independent space program.”

Holly shook her head. “You don’t want to do that, Happy. You’ve got to go back to the council and urge them to reconsider. Or let me talk to them. It isn’t easy building a space program. On my home world, we had several false starts before we really got established in space and it cost people their lives. Working with an agent, we can guide you past those troubles. It’s a percentage, but once you really understand what’s involved, I’m sure you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”

Happy gave her a little bow. “Thank you for your concern, but now that we see how fun it could be I believe we can figure it out on our own. And if there are any stumbling blocks it looks like there are those that provide technical assistance for a one-time fee, in case we get stuck.”

“That’s hardly the same as an agent that works with you every step of the way. Just think of the time you’ll save in not having to figure it out yourself!” Holly put away the palmsheet. “How about you just agree to give it a little more thought before you decide?”

Happy giggled. “You just never give up, do you? In that case, the council has instructed me to revoke your contact permit. I hope you have a fun trip back to your ship!”

And with that, he skipped out of the room.

Autumn looked at Holly. “Do you remember the way back?”

🚀

Holly stormed through the Prometheus’s clean white corridors on her way to Legal. There had to be a way to get back down to the surface and convince the shermmies that they needed to sign the agency contract. She almost ran into Davis before she saw him coming toward her, she was so into her head and was looking down at the deep blue floor while she walked. She stumbled trying to stop.

Strong hands caught her arms, steadying her. Holly looked into his hazel eyes and noticed the flecks of green and gold mixed together. He had really pretty eyes. “I see the furballs threw you off the planet too?”

Holly scowled and stepped back. Davis’ hands fell to his sides.

“Yes, they’ve decided to go independent. Evidently, they think that’ll be more fun.”

“They could be right,” Davis said, a grin playing on his lips. “In a way I’m relieved.”

“Why?” Did he know how long it had taken her to save up to make this uplift bid? “I just threw away a small fortune trying to land this uplift contract.”

He raised his hands. “Hey, me too, but I wasn’t looking forward to spending a bunch of time around all those cutesy, happy furballs. It was a bit much, you know?”

Holly laughed. “I’ll agree to that.”

“Good. And since you’re in an agreeable mood, how about we get that dinner we talked about? I have a proposal for you, I think we can pool our efforts and maybe land a new uplift contract on a new planet just surveyed.”

He did look really good, and she hadn’t eaten anything in the past ten hours. Holly gave him a small nod. She raised a finger. “Dinner. We’ll see about the rest of it after. But if they have lemon meringue pie for desert I might kill someone.”

Davis laughed, and as they walked back down the Prometheus’s corridors, Holly finally laughed too.

🚀

4,972 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 94th short story release, written in June 2011, during a workshop on the Oregon coast.

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

Different Gravities

Kyle Rader discovered fatherhood on Mars and more challenges than dirty diapers!

The careful colony timetables get thrown out the airlock when the new Martian governor announces her pregnancy en route to the red planet.

Unexpected challenges introduce new stresses when raising the first child on Mars, but Kyle believes his son’s destiny will transform humanity.

🚀

Coming to Mars Kyle Rader never imagined this, this waiting. We’re hardly on another planet but we’ve already managed to recreate waiting rooms. You would have thought we could do better.

A slight man with a kind smile and epicanthic folds that revealed his mixed heritage, he smoothed the legs of his blue overalls and waited for the doctor to return while keeping an eye on his son Jon. The room was small, by necessity most of the rooms in the outpost were small. It wasn’t really a waiting room, but also an examination room. Native red brick walls, an examination bed made from aluminum and recycled fibers. Jon lay on the bed looking up at the lights above. He loved lights. A touch screen hung on the wall and a portable supplies cabinet sat in the corner. No magazines, of course, but the screen did offer a menu of entertainment options. Kyle ignored the screen.

Barsoom only housed a hundred people. A hundred and one now. His son. A pregnancy that had caused a great deal of consternation back on Earth when they discovered eight weeks into the trip that Jenny had gotten pregnant. There had been a lot of concern about whether or not she could handle the landing on Mars at eight months pregnant. The Mars Colonization Project Administration hadn’t been pleased that their carefully selected Governor had been the first to get pregnant but what could they do?

Jon turned his head and grinned broadly at his father, showing his six teeth.

“Hey buddy,” Kyle murmured. “Bored yet?”

Jon rolled and sat up. He waved his arms in the air.

“It won’t be long.”

As if on cue the door slid aside and Dr. Ayres stepped into the space. A slight woman with her red hair braided back and very pale skin. She served as the chief medical officer for the colony. Kyle stood up.

“Doctor.”

She smiled. “Call me Amanda, Kyle. It’s good to see you.” She looked at Jon and her smile grew. “Hi Jon! My, you are the cutest baby!”

Jon smiled back at her. He loved everyone in the colony. They all fussed over him. The first Martian. He was a celebrity before he’d even been born. “Baa. Daa. Ni!”

Dr. Ayres, Amanda, went to the other side of the bed. She crouched to put her head at Jon’s height. He happily batted at her face with pudgy fingers. “He looks good. How’s he doing?”

“Good. Very good. He’s eating well. He’s gotten sitting up down and crawling but he hasn’t been able to walk yet.”

Dr. Ayres pulled out a tablet from her pocket. She tapped and flicked her way through the screens and wrote a quick note with her finger. She pocketed the tablet. “Does he try to walk? Is he pulling himself up on furniture?”

“Yes. He’ll pull himself up, and a few times he’s tried to take a step away but he can’t keep his balance.” Kyle put a hand on Jon’s back. His son beamed at him. “I think he’s worried about falling.”

“Did he get hurt?”

“No. He didn’t fall that hard.”

“And he gets around fine crawling?”

“Yes.” Kyle looked at his son. He loved Jon more than anything. They hadn’t planned this to happen but he couldn’t imagine life without him. “He’s all over the place crawling.”

As if to prove it Jon lunged forward onto his hands. Kyle scooped him up in his arms. His son hardly weighed anything. Around 8 pounds. He still had to do the math in his head and convert that to weight on Earth, but even then Jon didn’t weigh much. It kept all sorts of scientists busy watching his development.

“So you don’t think we have anything to worry about?”

Amanda shook her head. “People learn to walk at their own pace. Be patient. He’s only a year old.”

“But back on Earth he should be walking by now, at least most children would be but he doesn’t seem to be showing any progress.”

“He’s not on Earth,” Amanda said. “We have to give him time. He’s the first person to grow up on Mars. Jon is going to be teaching us a great deal.”

🚀

On Jon’s third Earthday, what would have been his third birthday on Earth, Kyle watched his son unwrap his big present with butterflies in his stomach. To accommodate everyone they were holding the party in the park dome and it looked like the entire colony had turned out. Jon sat at the center of the gathering facing a large sack. Back on Earth, he’d have been showered in gifts. Here they had worked out one gift that a number of the colonists could produce. Jon struggled to get the ties undone.

Jenny crouched beside him and offered to help. Jon shook his head and kept at the knots. Jenny straightened up and sipped her glass of water. “You’re almost there!”

True enough. Jon untied the last knot with a flourish. Kyle was proud of his son but still worried about the gift. He and Jenny had argued about it but she’d been determined that her son needed help to walk. Kyle still believed that Amanda was right. Jon would get there on his schedule.

The bag fell away revealing the walker. Everyone cheered. Kyle saw lots of satisfied smiles. People raised their glasses and clapped. It looked pretty slick. A woven seat, rounded frame and four wheels crafted by the machine shop. All from recycled material. Expensive but Jenny wouldn’t have any other way. She claimed that it was necessary now that there was another baby in the colony, plus one more on the way. The population would grow and they had to know that their children could learn to walk. At least that was what Jenny claimed.

Jon pushed it with one foot. He used his feet often, just not for walking. Kyle thought his son was quite adept at it. Jon looked over at Kyle. “Dad?”

That usually meant he wanted his father to explain something. Kyle squeezed Amanda’s hand and went over to Jon. He crouched down. “Happy birthday, son.” He kissed his son’s head. “It’s a walker. You sit in it and then can walk around.”

Jon’s grinned melted faster than ice could sublimate. He pushed the walker harder with his foot. It rolled toward Jenny. She stopped it.

“Now, Jon, that’s no way to act. This will be fun.” She gave Kyle a hard look. “Tell him it’ll be fun, Kyle.”

Kyle ran his hand through his son’s hair. “Why don’t we give it a shot, bud? Just try it out for your mother?”

Jon looked at his mother, back to Kyle and then at Amanda. He shook his head.

It was the look at Amanda that did it. Jenny got that look in her eyes. She reached down and picked Jon up. He screamed and flailed his thin arms. No matter how hard he twisted he couldn’t break free from Jenny’s grip. She stepped over to the walker and started to lower him. He kicked his feet at the seat.

“Give him some time to get used to the idea,” Kyle said.

“He’s had time. You coddle him instead of encouraging him.” She turned Jon around to face her. “I want you to try this. It’s no harder than sitting in a chair.”

Which he hates, Kyle thought. Jon didn’t care much for furniture at all. He preferred to sleep wrapped in a blanket on the floor than in his bed. He crawled and sat on the floor and didn’t appear to want to change that.

Jon shook his head. “No! No!”

“Yes,” Jenny said. “You’re going to have to try it. Understand?”

People in the crowd looked uncomfortable. Kyle didn’t want to get in a big fight with Jenny but he hated to see Jon forced into the walker. He’d tried to tell her that Jon wouldn’t like the walker but she’d convinced herself that he would once he saw it.

Jenny plunked him down into the seat. He wouldn’t extend his legs. He pulled up his feet and gripped the front of the walker’s tray. His bottom lip quivered. He sucked in air and then held it. His face turned red.

“Stop it,” Jenny said. “Don’t hold your breath like that.”

Jon kept holding his breath. He screwed his eyes close. Jenny reached down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Jon, breathe.”

Amanda brushed past Kyle. Jenny looked up and saw her coming but too late. Amanda reached down and picked up Jon who threw his arms around Amanda’s neck. His breath blew out noisily and then he sobbed into Amanda’s shoulder. Jenny stood up.

“This is the problem. You let him get away with everything!” Jenny looked around and saw everyone staring at them. Her gaze hardened. “We can never forget that we’re the first outpost of a new human civilization! We need to do everything we can to help our children succeed and sometimes that means making them do something they don’t want to do.”

“He gets around fine without walking,” Amanda said. “Why are you so insistent that he walk?”

Jenny shook her head. “I’ve got work to do. Party’s over, people. Let’s get busy.” The crowd started to disperse. When Kyle joined Amanda with Jon then Jenny turned back to them. She pointed at the walker. “He’s got to learn to walk. We’re not going to launch a new human civilization on our hands and knees.”

🚀

Jon hated the walker and never used it. Put him in and he’d lift his legs. But put him on the floor and Jon was happy. By his eighth Earthday Jon still didn’t walk but he could gallop around the habitats and climb better than any adult. Kyle thought that his son was very graceful and it didn’t look like he’d be alone any longer as the younger children didn’t show any sign of walking either. Amanda thought that it was something in human development that didn’t work on Mars. With the different gravity, the kids just never learned to balance properly for walking. Their muscles developed differently. They could stand holding onto something but for general movement, they preferred crawling. Or quadrupedal movement on hands and feet. Or climbing. They hated shoes, and their genetic testing didn’t show any abnormalities.

Kyle and Jon were at home when the house system announced a visitor at the door. Jon swooped down from the bars that Kyle had installed around the house and landed in front of the door before Kyle even got up from the couch. Jon slapped the pad to open the door. It slid aside revealing Jenny standing in the doorway.

Jon brought his legs up to his chest and hugged his knees. Jenny crouched. “Hi Jon, aren’t you going to say hi to your Mommy?”

“Hi, Mommy,” Jon mumbled reluctantly.

Jenny tousled his hair and stood up. She stepped over their child and he bolted out the door on all fours. He was fast and down the path out of sight before either of them said anything. Jenny shook her head and sighed. She looked around at the bars mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.

“You’re not even trying Kyle. You’ve let our son devolve into some sort of monkey.”

“He’s not a monkey.” Kyle took a breath. It didn’t pay to argue with Jenny. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Thank you, but no. The station is ready. It’s time for Jon to go.”

Kyle walked into the kitchen nook. He picked up his glass from the counter and filled it from the tap. He drank the cold water and turned back around to face Jenny. “He’s not going up to your station.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Kyle. He needs an education.”

“He can get that here.”

“He can’t get the physical training he needs here. It’s important for his health.” Jenny pressed her hands together. “We’ve talked about this before. I thought you understood.”

“I understand that you can’t see that our son is fine how he is. All of the kids are fine. Amanda says –”

“Amanda is not the governor of this colony!”

“– that the children are healthy. Sending them up to the station will increase their exposure to radiation. And for what? So that you can force them to learn to walk?”

“It’s more than walking. That’s only one consequence of developing in low gravity. We know that now. If our children have any hope of a normal life then they need to develop in an environment that simulates the world they came from. It’s like –”

“Amphibians going back to water to lay their eggs.” Kyle put down the glass. “I’ve heard all the speeches. As adults, we can live and thrive in lower gravity environments but our kids need to go back to the water. Well, that’s bullshit, Jenny and you’re not taking my son.”

Jenny’s lips tightened. “He’s my son too.”

“And you left us,” Kyle snapped. “You left and now you can’t stand to look at your son.”

Jenny shook her head. “You’re in denial. He’s not okay. I’m doing this for him and all the other children.”

“You’re not, Jenny. You’re not seeing the future here. You’re clinging to the past. And I’m not going to let you do it. Jon stays here!”

🚀

Kyle stopped the rover a kilometer out from the dome. It wasn’t a single dome any longer but a cluster of geodesic structures anchored by red bricks. Through the transparent panels, was the familiar green of Earth plants. Amanda joined him up in the front. “That’s it.”

“Yep. Namaste.” The new dome built by the children of the original settlers. It’d been a point of debate for the past decade. M.C.P.A. liked to pretend that they still controlled Mars but Jon and the rest had other ideas. “Come on.”

He kicked the brake release and they bounced on down towards the dome.

Jon met them as they came out of the connecting airlock. He’d grown long of limb and body and he hung by one arm from the tunnel roof. Regularly spaced bars ran the length of the tunnel. He wasn’t alone either. Eileen, the second child born on Mars now grown to a woman, hung from bars behind Jon and Brad peeked out of the pouch she wore.

“Dad.” Jon swung forward and wrapped his free arm around Kyle’s shoulders. “It’s good to see you.” He released Kyle to pull Amanda close. “Mom, glad you could make it.”

More faces appeared at the end of the tunnel. Children, some hanging upside down to look into the tunnel. Jon saw Kyle looking and turned around. He waved an arm. “Scat!”

Laughing the children scampered away. Jon shook his head and smiled at Kyle. “You know how kids are.”

Kyle looked at his son, now a man some twenty-five Earthdays old. To Kyle’s Earth-born eyes his son looked frail. Too skinny and thin of limb but there was no hiding how easily he moved through the tunnel with his family, with strength and confidence to face the future.

“It’s good to see you, too, Jon. I’m eager to see what you’ve got going on here.”

“He’s got a lot to show you,” Eileen said. “Come on. We’ll show you the way.”

Jon and Eileen swung off, slowly, waiting for their old ground-pounders to follow. Kyle watched them move with grace and beauty. Jenny had been right about one thing. This was the birthplace of a new human civilization it just wasn’t going to conform to old ideas. It was going to surprise them at every turn.

And Kyle couldn’t be more proud.

🚀

2,630 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 91st short story release, written in January 2010. I wrote this for my son. Watching him find his way has been one of the most miraculous things in my life.

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

Space Monkeys

Cover art for Space Monkeys

IRiS, the Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft, captured samples from a  comet passing through the solar system and found something remarkable.

Danny lives in his own world, finding connections through video games and gesture.

Emmett does what all good fathers do and seeks for new ways to connect with his son.  Sometimes first contact begins right here at home.

🚀

All I could think about as I pedaled along the bike path was aliens. I loved aliens as a kid. Heck, I still do. That’s why I couldn’t wait to get home and give my son aliens of his very own.

Daniel is in the second grade, with his own ideas about the world. I’m not sure what they are. Figuring out what is going on in Danny’s head is a challenge, but it’s rewarding when something gets through to him. Maybe aliens will be just the trick.

I parked the bike in the garage, took the panniers off the back and headed into the house. “Danny!”

Nata came out of the kitchen. “Good luck. He’s up in his room.”

Up in his room meant one thing: video games. I found him perched on the corner of his bed playing a retro Super Mario Bros 3. Danny was determined to beat the entire series from its very beginnings.

Mario grabbed a raccoon suit and took off into the sky.

“Hey Danny.”

He made a grunting noise. That was typical. His way of telling me that he knew I was here but he didn’t mind. I sat down on the bed. Mario grabbed a turtle shell and threw it at a line of walking turtles. He chased after it until it hit the last turtle and a one-up mushroom appeared. Mario ran into it and continued his rampage.

“Good moves,” I said.

Watching Danny play is amazing. He is so quick and responsive in the game. When he pulls off a difficult move, you can almost see a smile on his lips. Interrupting him now wouldn’t work; I’d have to wait until he finished the current level. Now that I was home, and he could see that I had a package, he would probably come find me when he finished.

I kissed the top of his head. He didn’t pull away. That was nice.

Nata was sitting on one of the bar stools in the kitchen with a cup of coffee sat on the counter beside her. She lowered her Kindle.

“What do you have there?”

I took a seat at the dining room table and put the package down in front of me. “Space Monkeys.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“You know. Space Monkeys. Like Sea Monkeys, only these are aliens from space.”

“Aliens?”

“Remember? It was on the news.”

“Oh, really? Did you get those for Danny or yourself?”

That really was a good question. I wanted to share this with Danny. Finding ways to share things with him was one of the most challenging, and rewarding things in my life. It was like that with video games. He took to all of the old classics right away. Some of my best memories are playing those games with Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Link. Danny hasn’t tried the Zelda games yet, but I don’t want to introduce them until I track down the old Gameboy games. Danny likes to do the entire series, in order produced. I figure there are plenty there for him to do, but I want him to learn more about the universe than video games.

And aliens might be just the thing. I tipped the package back. There were pictures of the aliens on the packaging. Enlarged, of course, but they looked something like fat fish with four radial arms. In motion, they pointed the arms forward and back and wriggled like a snake through the water. When they stopped, they used all four arms to capture prey. The most exciting thing about them was their bioluminescence: they flashed a rainbow of colors. Signals to one another, it seemed.

Nata sat down and took the package. “It was that probe you told me about?”

“IRiS. Interstellar Recovery Spacecraft. It was the sample return mission from that comet that was passing through the solar system. An amazing technical feat. They couldn’t match velocity, so they approached it on a trajectory that took them through the tail and captured debris coming off the comet.”

“And found aliens? Are they sure about that?”

I love my wife, but this sort of thing wasn’t something she paid that much attention to. In that respect, she was more like the rest of the population.

“Yes.”

“How do they know this wasn’t from Earth?”

I took the package and turned it around so that she could see the short popular science explanation on the back of the box, showing the key proof that these really were aliens, all in a snazzy 3D holographic display.

“Handedness. Amino acids on Earth are left-handed and sugars are right-handed, but with these guys it’s the opposite. It also makes them safe. They can’t spread because they couldn’t digest anything on Earth.”

“Life finds a way,” Nata said.

“Yeah, but these aren’t enzyme-inhibited dinosaurs. They simply aren’t going to find anything compatible on Earth except for the food that the company produces.”

Our debate was interrupted when Danny came downstairs. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs for a moment just taking in what was going on. After he saw enough, he came over and sat down at the end of the table. I met Nata’s eyes. She smiled. I pushed the package over in front of Danny.

“Aliens, packaged and sold.” Nata shook her head and stood up. “Amazing.”

It was amazing. Danny reached up and touched the pictures on the package. I knew he’d already read the text. He turned the box around and studied the holographic explanation. When the probe returned with the comet samples, he’d only been three years old; but even then he watched the news with me. Did he remember that? I remembered how he sat next to me the entire time, not moving, his eyes fixed on the screen and afterwards he had smiled at me.

Danny set the package down. He got up, left the table and went back upstairs.

Nata came around the table and hugged me close. She kissed the top of my head. “Sorry, Emmett.”

I dragged the package over. No problem. These things took time; I’d get another shot at it.

🚀

My chance didn’t come until the next morning. I’d left the package sitting on the dining room table; and when I came downstairs, I found Danny already up, sitting at the table with his cereal. He was looking at the package.

“Good morning, Danny.” He didn’t pull away when I kissed the top of his head. I took that as a good sign, but I didn’t push it.

I went into the kitchen and started making my oatmeal. Routine is important for Danny. He takes comfort in things being the same each day; changes have to be introduced slowly. That’s why I didn’t worry too much when he walked away yesterday. Keeping the Space Monkeys out on the table was a way to let him get used to them.

I finished the oatmeal and sat down on the other side of the package. Danny looked up, and then back down at the box. He pushed aside his cereal bowl and pulled the package onto his side of the table. He turned it around and stared at the pictures of the aliens. I could sit and watch my son for hours, but I don’t get the chance: life always gets in the way. When he was a baby, he would sit next to me while I worked. The computer fascinated him. For a while it looked like his development would be normal, but then something changed. Like other families, we don’t know what happened or why; but we see the results every day.

Nata is wonderful but she doesn’t believe that the bright baby boy we remember is still with us. She loves Danny and is supportive, but she thinks I should just accept that he’s never going to respond as much as I think he can. She worries that I might be pushing him too hard.

I tapped the box. “The aliens are inside. If we fill their bowl with water they’ll grow.”

Danny looked up at me and back down at the box.

“You’d be able to see them swimming. They flash like Christmas lights.” And hopefully wouldn’t trigger a seizure. I didn’t think they would.

Danny pushed the package away. He got up; but he took his bowl and cereal box to the kitchen, so he couldn’t be too upset. He headed upstairs, all perfectly right in Danny’s world;  it must be video game time. I checked the time, though I didn’t really need to. Yep, just as I’d thought. It was like Danny had his own day planner in his head, with everything scheduled to the minute each day. His day-to-day scheduled varied to take into account different activities; but if you knew his schedule, you knew what he’d be doing at any given time. It took him a while to adapt to any changes to his routine; he wasn’t going to scrap his schedule to look at aliens. Which meant I had at least two hours before he came down again, so I finished breakfast and went to get work done.

I took a break when I heard Danny coming downstairs. We both arrived at the table at the same time. He looked across the table at me and then at the box. We didn’t need to talk about it. I opened the box, and one at a time handed him the contents.

One activation code to download the instruction manual to a reader. I keyed it in and handed the pad to Danny.

One glass fish bowl with a laser-etched flag on the bottom signifying it was produced in the United States of America.

Danny sat down the pad to study the glass bowl.

One bag of white gravel. Optional, according to the instructions.

One reusable steel jar containing a one-month food supply. Specially designed for the appropriate chirality needed by the Space Monkeys.

One specially designed net to transfer the Space Monkeys to another container when the bowl needs cleaning.

One bag of salts to recreate the saltiness of the cometary water found to contain the Space Monkeys.

And the last thing, one steel capsule designed to emulate the capsules on the IRiS probe that first brought our visitors to Earth. The capsule kept the Space Monkeys in a state of hibernation, just as they’d been found on the comet, even these that had been bred on Earth.

Danny studied each offering in turn. He laid them all out in a row in front of him according to the order that they were used in the instructions. We sat there studying these pieces as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. He lightly tapped his fingers on the table top, first the left and then the right. From his slight rocking I could see that he was kicking his feet. It dawned on me then what he must be feeling. He was excited! I tried not to smile too much, but it was the greatest thing to sit there and realize that he’d gotten excited about what we were doing.

Abruptly he got up from the table and headed back upstairs. I looked at the clock. 11:00 AM and Danny’s internal planner said it was time for more video games. After the excitement of the unpacking, he probably needed the games more than ever. I left him to it and made myself go back to work. I needed to get my word counts in today.

🚀

I came back out for lunch and saw Nata putting the contents back into the box. “Don’t!”

She jumped. “Emmett! What?!”

I looked at the stairs. Danny wasn’t down yet, but he would be soon. It was almost noon. He was precise. I moved past her and took the bags and containers out of the box. I laid them out as he’d had them set up. I picked up the pad and switched it back to the instruction manual. I put it down as he was coming down the stairs. We don’t fight often and never in front of Danny.

I looked that way with my eyes, quickly, but so that she’d notice. “He laid them out.”

Nata nodded. She might not always agree with me but if Danny took an interest in something then she supported it.

Danny came straight to the table. He stood for a minute behind his chair and stared at the objects. He looked up at us.

“I’ll make lunch,” Nata said.

She went into the kitchen, and I sat down. Danny looked back at the contents of the Space Monkey kit. He reached out and moved them, one at a time, small adjustments. Getting them back to exactly the position they’d been in before Nata had moved them, I realized. Then he sat down.

We waited. Nata finished the sandwiches and brought them to the table. Grilled cheese all around. We ate in silence. Danny bounced a bit in his chair as he ate. He was still excited.

“Daddy was telling me about the aliens earlier,” Nata said. “Aliens from outer space on our table. That’s pretty neat.”

Danny rocked a bit more as he finished his sandwich. He set the plate to the side closest to Nata. When she finished she took his plate and mine. Nata stayed in the kitchen. Danny and I sat at the table with the kit between us. Danny picked up the bowl. He got up and carried it into the kitchen. Nata moved aside to let him at the sink. There’s a step stool on one side for Danny. He walked up, put the bowl in the sink and turned on the water. When he had it full he turned off the water and brought it slowly and carefully back to the table. He didn’t spill a drop. As soon as he sat it down he left the table.

After he was gone, Nata came over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Did he lose interest?”

I pointed to the pad but didn’t move it. “Step three. Let the water sit at until it as room temperature. At least two hours.”

“He understands that?”

I squeezed her hand. “Yes. He does. He’s excited about this but he’s got his routines too. We’ll see what he does later.”

🚀

4:00 PM. Danny came back to the table and we both sat in our chairs. For a while he tapped his fingers and kicked his legs. Then he went to the kitchen and came back with a large spoon. He set it down so that he could open and pour the contents of the salts bag into the water. He stirred the bowl with the spoon until the salts were completely dissolved. Not a trace remained. I thought he might stop then, but he didn’t. He added the white gravel. Then a carefully measured serving of the food, which, according to the instructions, needed to dissolve into the water. Last of all he picked up the capsule with the Space Monkeys in hibernation. He twisted the two halves but couldn’t get it opened.

I thought that might be it. If he got too frustrated would he abandon the whole experiment? “I’ll open it for you. If you want?”

Danny said, “If you want?”

I heard Nata gasp in the kitchen. He so rarely said anything these days. I understood that by repeating the question he meant that he did want me to help. I held out my hand.

He gave me the capsule.

My throat tightened. I felt pressure in my eyes, but I focused and twisted the capsule open. It was hard to open and came undone with a pop. Danny rocked more. I handed it back to him with the halves still together. He took the capsule and opened it up above the bowl. I don’t know what I expected. Some sort of powder, I guess. Instead, things like wrinkled white raisins, a little smaller, tumbled out into the water. A dozen or so of them landed and sank like stones. Now I understood why the gravel might be optional. Against the white gravel, you could hardly make out the Space Monkeys. Danny closed the capsule and set it to the side.

I was aware that Nata had come up behind me. We were all watching the bowl.

I saw them now. They swelled like mushrooms from the bottom of the bowl. If they’d been raisins before, now they became lumpy grapes. Suddenly one shot off the gravel surface with a push of four limbs that had uncoiled from its body. It hung in the water with the limbs whipping around. The edges looked slightly furred, and I realized it was combing the water for food. We all watched the tiny alien as it ate whatever was available. In moments, the others launched themselves from the bottom as well. They took up positions in the bowl and swept their arms about for food.

Danny clapped his hands.

It startled us both. When I looked up at Nata I saw her hastily wipe tears from her eyes.

“Oh, Emmett,” she whispered.

I smiled and looked back at Danny. He met my eyes. Just a second and then he looked back at the Space Monkeys.

We watched until it was time to fix dinner. It being my turn, I left Nata at the table with Danny and went to make pizza dough. It doesn’t take long and let me get back to the table again. We all sat and watched the Space Monkeys. After feeding for quite a while, they started swimming around the bowl. When they swam, two limbs went forward like someone putting their palms together over their head and two limbs went back. No way to know which was the head or tail, if either term applied at all. They wriggled through the water with a snake-like motion. Fed and rehydrated, they looked to be at little more than a centimeter long.

The pizza dough finished rising and I made pizza. We ate at the table watching the Space Monkeys swim around. Or at least Danny watched them: I found myself watching him more than the Space Monkeys. He might not be expressive, but I could honestly say this was the happiest I’d seen him. Then he finished dinner and abruptly left the table and the Space Monkeys behind.

Nata looked like she was going to say something but I shook my head. He went upstairs.

“He has his routines,” I said. “That’s fine. He probably needs a break anyway. This was a big deal for him.”

“For all of us. You were right to bring them home. But, are you sure they’re safe? I mean they are aliens, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they are. It’s fine.”

🚀

Danny didn’t pay any more attention to the Space Monkeys until it was time to get ready for bed. He broke his usual bedtime routine to come back downstairs to the table. He stood at his chair rocking back and forth for several minutes, his eyes watching them dart around the bowl. Then he picked it up and carried it towards the stairs with careful steps. Nata and I followed, but at a distance so that we didn’t crowd him. He took each step one at a time, getting both feet on each before going to the next. When he got upstairs he carried the bowl to his room and put it down on his nightstand before climbing beneath the blankets and turning out the light.

As if another switch had been thrown, the Space Monkeys lit up as we both walked into the room. Danny lay in his bed watching them flash and swim. Reds, greens, blues, yellows and many more colors. At times it looked like they swam in patterns flashing through colors in fast sequences. He watched it all.

I remembered being a child and looking up at the stars with my father through a telescope. He’d always believed there was life out there. I loved the stories and read all of his science fiction books. I felt a thrill realizing that we were sitting here watching a show that evolved somewhere else. I don’t know how they got on the comet, but I remember reading that it might have been deliberate, the same way we sent recordings on probes. Someone might have seeded an interstellar comet with a tough example of life from their planet. Something that could survive the passage. The fact that these weren’t simple microorganisms suggested a whole ecology. The argument was that the Space Monkeys couldn’t have evolved in space. There had even been suggestions that the comet itself had been artificially propelled on its journey. It was as if we’d taken tardigrades and sent them off into space on a comet accelerated to leave the solar system.

It was a miracle that could be bought now in most toy stores. The thought was so odd that I nearly laughed out loud.

Nata told Danny goodnight and left. I stayed sitting beside him a while longer to watch the Space Monkeys.

“We don’t know how far they came. Thousands of years over many light years. We don’t know. The comet is seeding them throughout space. They might not have survived anywhere else, but they are thriving on Earth. We know that we’re not alone.”

“Thank you, Daddy.”

I blinked back tears and kissed his head. I left him then with the alien light to keep him company.

🚀

3,446 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 90th short story release, written in July 2009. It appeared in On Spec, and was later reprinted for special educator’s package. The education edition included background information, a glossary, and discussion materials, as well as illustrations. It remains one of my favorite stories.

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, Different Gravities.

Poly Contact

Aliens arrived and offered to share their advanced technology with humanity. The secret to reaching the stars, ending wars, and suffering.

The price? Marriage. The aliens want to forge the alliance through marriage.

Bill and Anne sign up to marry one of the sexy aliens—but when it comes down to it, will they go through with it?

🚀

It was a living room. Bill’s own living room, but at that moment he saw it the way a stranger might see the room, which wasn’t too surprising considering who was coming over in, oh just any minute now. What would an alien think of the house?

The furniture mostly came from the Furniture Barn over on highway 507, a big tan microsuede reclining couch along the wall. It was the sort that reclined with the touch of a button but somehow swiveled so that the couch could be right up against the wall and still recline. Bill always thought the couch was designed by the folks that designed minivans because it had the same sort of cup holders tucked away into the arms and the central compartment that also had plenty of room for the army of remote controls.

The loveseat matched the couch, and so did the one solitary reclining chair. The piece that never fit with the rest was Bill’s own gigantic blue denim Bed-in-a-Bag and matching footstool that he’d had since college. They all called it the blob, after the monster in the old James Dean movie, because the Bed-in-a-Bag was a big mass that dominated the side of the room next to the recliner. From the big Samsung HD LCD television to the furniture, the room looked lived in. A place to play with the kids, to watch a movie with the family and, now and then, to fool around on the big couch.

Bill rubbed his hands on his blue jeans and paced across the room again. He glanced up at the quartz clock embedded in a polished slab of redwood from their California trip. Any minute now. The rest of the family looked almost as anxious.

Well, Anne did, sitting in the recliner with her Nook balanced across her knees and her feet tucked up under her as if she was still just a girl instead of a hair over thirty. Bill couldn’t sit like that, not for long, unless he wanted his knees to ache and stiffen up. He thought Anne looked beautiful, though, with her dark red hair tumbling down over her light green blouse that matched her eyes, but a couple shades lighter. Even at her age people always mistook her for younger and then they gave him that questioning look because his own short hair was now going about fifty-fifty gray. Not gray, actually, white. Especially on the sides and on his face if he let his beard grow out at all. He had let it grow for a week last winter and had thought it made him look so old that he had shaved it off.

Stretched out on the loveseat, Trinity looked like a younger version of her mother with a pixie-cut instead of long hair, and like her mother, she looked younger than her actual age, but whereas Anne enjoyed people thinking she looked younger, Trinity hated it. She didn’t look very happy about this meeting either, but she was here instead of out with friends or working an extra shift down at the library where she shelved books after school.

It was his living room and this was his family. A family that anyone could be proud of, and now they were thinking of adding another member to that family. Bill wiped his hands on his jeans again and had just looked again at the clock when the doorbell rang.

Anne looked up at Bill. Their eyes met and he remembered the first time he saw her at a crowded environmental group meeting in college. Their eyes had met then and he hadn’t been able to look away. He hadn’t even heard the speakers anymore. He had spent the rest of the meeting mostly gazing across the room into her eyes, so much so that when they finally met after the meeting it already felt like they were intimately involved.

“Prompt,” Anne said.

Trinity swung her legs off the loveseat and bounced to her feet. She smiled at Bill. “Well, Dad, let’s go meet it.”

“It? That’s not polite,” Bill said.

Trinity’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Why?”

“Ze and Zer are the correct pronouns. We want to make a good impression.”

“Fine, let’s go meet zer, then.”

“Is Rory outside?”

Trinity rolled her eyes. Rory was her Old English Sheepdog. Very friendly, but Bill didn’t want the dog all over zer for their first meeting.

“He’s out in the yard. But you know he’s going to want to come in.”

“Later.”

Anne touched Bill’s arm. She’d gotten up while they were talking. Bill patted her arm and headed toward the front door. He reached out to put his arm around Trinity’s shoulders but she took a step to the side out of his reach. Bill let his arm fall. No need to push it right now. He reached out and opened the door.

Zer stood alone on the broad wood porch and looking into those deep azure eyes with the tri-lobed pupils Bill felt like he had back in that meeting with Anne, like he didn’t want to look away. The intensity of zer gaze took his breath away. He felt his heart beat faster.

Zer spoke in a deep, smoky voice. “I am so pleased to meet you all at last. My name is Rysala.”

Bill finally managed to blink. He grinned broadly and held out his hand. Rysala’s hand slid into his and zer grip was firm, strong and dryly warm. He felt a twinge of regret when the contact ended. “Bill. We’re glad to meet you too. This is Anne —” He waited for them to shake. “And our daughter, Trinity.”

Rysala gave them all a small smile that didn’t reveal any teeth. “I am very pleased.”

Bill stepped aside and gestured for Rysala to enter. “Please, come in.”

Rysala walked past and Bill caught a scent of something, nutmeg, maybe. Rysala was everything that the videos had showed and so much more. Shorter than zer had looked, not much taller than Trinity. He hadn’t noticed looking into zer eyes but seeing zer walk with Anne and Trinity he could see it now. Of course, ze was humanoid and ze moved with an easy fluid grace that was captivating to watch. Zer features were fine without appearing overly delicate. Zer golden skin was a deep warm color like wheat fields in the sun and zer outfit revealed lots of skin, bare arms and legs, and the flowing green dress left zer back bare as well except the dark golden-brown braid that hung down zer spine. Bill thought that ze was beautiful and exotic, so much so that it made him more nervous about this whole idea.

Anne laughed at something that Rysala had said. Bill recognized that laugh and the flush that had come to Anne’s cheeks. She was also responding to Rysala. The press said that Rysala’s people were androgynous but that wasn’t really it at all. To him, Rysala looked definitely female but he knew that to Anne ze must look male. It was quickly established that—to humans—the Giselians appeared male or female depending on the gender-preference of the observer. Bill tried to see Rysala as male and just couldn’t. She was too pretty, like a model with that amazing golden skin.

“Bill?” Anne asked.

Bill nodded and followed the everyone into the living room. Anne gestured at the couch. “Would you like to sit?”

Rysala inclined zer head and went to the couch. Ze sat just like Anne had earlier with zer feet tucked up beneath zer. Ze smiled at them all. Trinity dropped onto the loveseat. Anne went back to the recliner which left Bill to sit on the couch in between them. He started to lean back but he felt much too nervous to recline against the padded back. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knees. He glanced over at Rysala.

“How was your trip down? Encounter any bad weather?”

Rysala shook zer head. Ze reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand. He felt an electric thrill and held very still beneath zer touch. Zer fingers were long, with an extra joint and an extra finger. He hadn’t noticed it until now. It should look odd but it looked pretty normal.

“I am grateful for the invitation to meet with you. I understand the complexity of what we ask. You must have questions for me?”

“I’ve got one,” Trinity said loudly.

“Trin—” Anne started to say.

Rysala raised a hand. “It’s quite alright. This affects her as well. What’s your question?”

“Why are you guys doing this? Why would you want to marry into families on Earth?”

Bill spoke up. “We’ve talked about the reasons, Trinity.”

“I’d like to answer,” Rysala said. Ze leaned forward, zer elbows on zer knees. Zer dress fell forward slightly and Bill caught a glimpse of a smooth curve of zer breast. He looked away and saw Anne’s face, staring at Rysala.

“Trinity, you’ve studied history, right?”

“Yes.”

“In your history, you’ve read about wars, right?”

Trinity nodded. Rysala smiled that warm smile of zers. “You must have read about alliances forged through marriage? People finding peace through the bonds that they forge and the children they bear?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. But this is different.”

“Certainly. It must be different. For one thing, we’re not human. And we all must wed to forge this alliance. Which of those facts bothers you?”

Trinity shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess both. What am I supposed to call you? Mom? Dad? How’s that supposed to work?”

“Rysala is fine.”

“But you’ll be my parent too?”

“That’s correct. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, to care for you and see that you live in a peaceful world.” Rysala glanced over at Bill, and then Anne. “That’s assuming we come to a decision.”

Bill found it hard to look at anyone. All of a sudden the situation seemed so surreal. What had he been thinking? A year ago the ships appeared and then the offer had been made. When all of the aliens had wed into human families then, and only then, would they share their technology and all the wonders that promised. That had caused a great deal of conflict, to put it lightly. On a planet that couldn’t even agree on humans of the same sex wedding, or on having multiple spouses, the idea of polygamous relationships with aliens was enough to enrage many people.

But who was he kidding? Bill knew exactly what he had been thinking. It wasn’t about how cool it was that dozens of starships orbited the planet, or that the aliens were already building a colony on the far side of the moon. It was when he saw the first broadcast and saw them standing on the bridge of their ship. They looked like angels. Sexy golden angels. He’d been captivated by their radiant beauty. Scientists talked about the golden ratio and suggested that for them all to be so perfect that they had to be the product of some sort of genetic engineering, but none of that mattered. He couldn’t get the image of them out of his mind. Three days after that broadcast he had guiltily masturbated while looking at pictures online.

It took time before the treaty was signed over the protests. Even so, he wouldn’t have ever dared to bring up the possibility if Anne hadn’t also seemed intrigued.

Trinity and Rysala had kept talking. Their laughter brought him out of his introspection. He smiled, very aware that he didn’t know what they’d been laughing about. Then Rysala looked at him and he was drowning again in zer azure eyes.

“Uh, so how does this work? What happens now?”

Rysala pressed zer hands together. “How does it work normally?” Ze looked over at Anne. “How did it work with the two of you? Was your marriage arranged?”

Anne laughed. “Hardly! That’s not very common here. Some places I guess.”

“I see,” Rysala said. “So you arrived at this arrangement on your own. How did that happen?”

Anne looked at him. Bill shook his head. “You tell it better.”

“Okay.” Anne took a deep breath and looked at Rysala. “It was intense. We were both in college and we thought we were determined to save the world. Our eyes met across a crowded room and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.”

“Please,” Trinity said.

“Hey!” Bill looked at his daughter. “Careful, missy.”

Anne laughed and the whole time Rysala watched them. Anne went on. “For Trin’s sake, I’ll leave out the gory details. The fact is, we fell in love.”

“What’s love?” Rysala asked.

Bill looked at zer, they all looked at zer. “What do you mean?”

Rysala’s head cocked slightly to the side. “This concept has come up often in our discussions and I admit I still find the notion mystifying. Your people talk about falling into love and out of love but no one can give us a clear answer. We’re pointed to literature, music, and poetry as much as science and none of it gives a clear answer.”

“You don’t love anyone?” Trinity asked.

“No.” Rysala smiled. “We have mutually satisfactory relationships, often with multiple individuals. It is very pleasurable and beneficial.”

“But you’re giving that up by coming here?”

“That’s correct. We all want integration with your people. It seems the best course to develop trust between our two cultures.”

Bill stood up. He smiled. “Rysala, would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“We have wine, tea, coffee, soda, water, juice or milk? I don’t know what you usually drink.”

“Water, please.”

“Okay. Anne, could you give me a hand?”

“Getting water? I think you can manage that Bill.”

“I’d like a root beer,” Trinity said.

“Funny. I’ve only got two hands.”

Anne got up. “Fine.”

Bill led the way out of the living room and into the kitchen. He went to the cupboard and started pulling down glasses. He handed one to Anne.

She looked at it. “Do you think ze wants ice?”

“If not ze can always tell us. What did you think about all of that? They don’t understand love?”

Anne put the glass under the ice dispenser. The ice maker made grinding noises and crushed ice dropped down into the glass. “I don’t understand love. Do you?”

“I know I love you, and Trinity. I don’t need to understand it. I feel it. Ze doesn’t.”

“So?” Anne moved the glass over to the water dispenser. “This could solve so many problems for us. Rysala’s income would take us up several income brackets.”

“You think we should do this for the money?”

Anne took the next glass and started filling it with ice. “People have always married for money, or alliances like ze said.”

“Maybe, but we’re talking about marrying an alien. An alien who can’t love us.”

“Actually, I heard that they’re great in the sack. Very enthusiastic.” Anne looked at him. “You should love that.”

“I’m not talking about sex.” Except he couldn’t deny thinking about it. Heat rose on his neck. “If ze doesn’t understand love, how can we trust zer?”

Anne filled another glass. “I don’t think we need to obsess on this detail right now. Why don’t we see if we even like each other? I think ze can understand liking someone.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bill said.

Except when they went back to the living room with the drinks and Anne brought it up Rysala nodded right away. “Like? Certainly. We have preferences, just as you do.” Ze lifted the glass and took a sip. “I like ice in my water. It isn’t something that we ordinarily do, but the cold is very refreshing.”

“What do you do?” Trinity asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like a job.”

Rysala shook zer head and put zer glass down in one of the cup holders on the couch. Zer moments looked graceful and smooth, like a dancer. “Whatever I find interesting. Since our arrival, I’ve been very interested in your mystery fiction. I think I might like to try writing.”

“Oh.” Trinity laughed. “Like Castle?”

Rysala laughed as well. Zer laughter sounded like a baby laughing, pure joy. “Yes! Castle! I’ve watched that show. It is very enjoyable. I understand that most mystery writers do not help the police as he does, but it makes for a most entertaining fiction.”

Anne asked, “What did you do before this?”

“I spent time working on the designs for our facility on the moon. That’s right? You refer to this planet’s natural satellite as the moon?”

“Right,” Bill said.

“Very odd, imprecise phrasing. There are many natural satellites in this system. Wouldn’t our moon be more accurate?”

“It might,” Bill answered. “I couldn’t tell you why we don’t phrase it that way.”

“So you worked as an engineer?” Anne asked.

“Yes,” Rysala answered.

“But now you want to write fiction?”

“Yes.”

“And your bosses don’t have a problem with that?”

Rysala sipped at zer water. “We do not have a hierarchal societal structure the way you do.”

Bill found that surprising. “But we’ve seen the broadcasts, isn’t Pyrny your equivalent of a President?”

“No, although that seems to be a common misconception. Most people want zer to be a President, or King, or General or some other term for one who commands others. Pyrny is simply the one that represents us in these discussions because doing so interests zer.”

“You’re socialists,” Anne said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“That wouldn’t be accurate, although I can see how it might seem that way. Our economic system is aimed at parity. One type of work isn’t valued more than another, although unpopular work may require bonuses to interest someone. Yet the basic rights of life require that everyone’s basic needs be met. There are many injustices on this world.”

“We know that,” Bill said. “But you still decided to join us. I’m surprised that you didn’t take your ships and leave.”

“That could still be the outcome,” ze said. “If we are unable to integrate into your world then we will depart.”

“You’d just leave?” Anne asked.

Rysala leaned forward and lightly touched the ends of Anne’s fingers. Bill expected her to pull back but she submitted to zer touch and even smiled. “We are a patient people. We would not leave without making every effort to make this alliance work.”

Bill watched Anne’s fingers playing with Rysala’s golden fingers and he felt a deep churning in his stomach. His throat constricted. His eyes felt moist. He rubbed his eyes and coughed into his hand. Abruptly he stood. “Excuse me.”

He left the room and went blindly into the kitchen. He coughed twice before he got there and blundered over to the sink. He turned on the water and turned his head sideways to drink out of the faucet. He straightened up with cold water dripping down his face. He grabbed a blue terry cloth dish towel — part of the set of towels his mother had given them as a gift last Christmas. He toweled off his face.

Where had that come from? He’d been sick with what? Anger? No, although that was there, it was something more. The sight of Anne’s fingers flirtatiously playing with Rysala’s had made him jealous. It didn’t happen when Rysala touched Anne. It had happened when Anne touched zer back.

“Are you okay?” Rysala asked in zer silken voice from the doorway.

Bill put the towel back. “Fine. Just something caught in my throat.”

Rysala walked into the kitchen. God, she swayed as she walked. Bill couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was ensnared by her — zer, no — her. He couldn’t see Rysala as anything except an exotic, incredibly sexy woman. Alien in a way that excited him rather than repulsed. Bill took a step back and ran into the sink.

She didn’t stop. He couldn’t move further away, it’d look ridiculous. He suddenly felt like he had at his first high school dance, standing against the wall watching Kathy Brown dance with the popular boys while wishing that he could get up the courage to just go up and ask her to dance. Chances were that she’d say yes if he could just get up the courage to ask.

Would Rysala agree to stay if he got up the courage to ask? Did he dare after that fit of jealousy?

Rysala came close and didn’t stay back. She came right up until she was almost pressed against him. She stood an inch or so taller than him. He smelled nutmeg again. Not overpowering, but it tickled his nose. She spoke, her breath warm against his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before her lips brushed his. Smooth and wet without being overly so and very warm, like kissing someone with a fever. It ignited his nerves. His hands moved up and brushed the green fabric of her dress. It felt like microsuede beneath his fingertips. Rysala pressed against him, her whole body hugging against him. He ached for her.

“Bill?” He broke the kiss, looking past Rysala to Anne standing in the doorway. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was all stiff, though, she didn’t look happy. “What are you doing?”

Rysala turned around and held out a hand to Anne. “Come here.”

Anne crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think we should just go back to the living room and talk more.”

She left without another word. Rysala put a hand on Bill’s chest. “It will be okay. I will talk to her. Why don’t you stay here?”

Bill worried about Anne’s reaction but that was a small part of his concern. Mostly he wanted to hold Rysala again. He’d never felt anything so strong. And the thought of her going to Anne — he couldn’t even think about that.

“Stay here,” Rysala said.

Bill couldn’t find any words as she turned and walked with that incredible sway towards the door. He found himself watching the way her braid hung down her bare back. Trinity showed up in the doorway just as Rysala reached it. Rysala touched her arm lightly and went on through. Seeing Trinity compelled Bill into motion. He went around the kitchen island, around the bar to the dining room and sat down at the table. He put his hands flat on the surface of the table. Trinity came over and sat down across from him.

“Dad, what’s going on? Mom came back into the room looking all pissed. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her. But he never lied to his daughter. He glanced at her face and only saw concern. “Not much, anyway. Rysala kissed me and your mother saw.”

Trinity looked down at her own hands. “Isn’t that part of this whole thing? I mean, you and mom are talking about marrying zer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s one thing to talk about it and another to do it.”

“So you’re not going to marry zer?”

Bill shook his head. “We just need to work through some of this first. Rysala is going to talk to your mother. I think we’ll work it out. What do you think of her?”

“Mom?”

“No, I meant zer, of Rysala?”

Trinity grinned. “Ze is sort of cool. Ze reminds me of Orlando Bloom, except sometimes ze seems more like Angelina Jolie too. It’s strange, but it seems to depend on whether or not ze is focused on you or on mom.”

“Tell me about it!” Bill laughed. “I can’t picture zer as a guy. It’s all very weird.”

“As weird as polygamy? I mean, wasn’t it all illegal until the aliens showed up?”

“Yes, but there was already a movement to get government out of the business of regulating marriage. The Giselians tipped the scale with their offer. No one wanted them to just up and leave. We need their help.”

“The whole thing is crazy.” Trinity shook her head. “I mean, ze already said that ze doesn’t know what love is.”

Bill thought back to the kiss. “Maybe not, but they still know what buttons to push.”

“Dad!”

He held up his hands. “Come on, I’m not going into details. I’m just saying, they may not think of things quite the same way but that doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not sure Rory feels things the same way we do, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Rory loves me, how can you say that?”

“I’m just saying that he’s a dog. He’s affectionate and loyal but how can we know if he feels love the same way as we do?”

“Because I know.”

“Maybe. Dogs evolved on Earth, I can see that other animals would be wired the same as us. But Rysala isn’t from Earth. It sounds like they just don’t understand love at all.”

“Maybe it’s just because they’re only learning the language.”

“Maybe.” Bill rapped his knuckles gently on the table. “What about you? How are you doing with all of this? Do you want another parent around?”

Trinity shrugged. “I’m happy with you and mom and I’ll be going off to college soon. It doesn’t change how I feel about you guys. It’d be weird, but I still love you.”

“That’s good.”

Trinity glanced over at the door to the living room. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Bill stood up. “Let’s go rejoin the party.”

He held out his hand and his daughter took it. It made him feel much better. Stronger. He could face whatever was happening in the other room. They went to the living room together. He half expected to see Rysala and Anne kissing or something and was relieved that they were just sitting on the couch, facing each other with mirrored postures. Both had one leg up on the couch and one extended down to the floor. Anne looked up as they entered and smiled. Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Sorry about that Bill, it just caught me by surprise.”

Bill shook his head. “Me too.”

Rysala turned slightly so that ze could see them. “Come sit down, Anne and I have been having a nice conversation.”

Bill went to his big blob chair and dropped into the comforting softness. Trinity went over to the recliner and sat down there. “So we’re good?”

Anne nodded.

“I am enjoying your company,” Rysala said. “I believe that I’d like to pursue these relationships further if you all consent?”

Bill looked at Anne and she gave a slight nod. Trinity shrugged and gave him a big grin. “Go for it. Why not?”

Bill took a deep breath and looked at the two women and the alien in his life. It felt like stepping out of a spacecraft high above the Earth but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

Rysala laughed, a deep infectious laugh. Soon they all started laughing and Bill couldn’t even say why they were laughing but it bled the tension out of the room that had been there since they first opened the door. He felt more comfortable after laughing than he had all night. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“So, what would everyone like for dinner? Chinese? Thai?”

Trinity and Anne both looked at Rysala. Ze smiled and looked at Bill. “If it is okay I’d like to try pizza. It sounds very interesting.”

“Okay, pizza it is.”

He flicked through his contacts and picked the place. If ze wanted pizza he had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine.

🚀

4,636 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 84th short story release, written in October 2010.

There’s a lot of debate about marriages and relationships these days. Some want to define marriage as only being between a man and woman and deny it to others who love one another. Historically marriages have sealed treaties, patched relationships, and have bound families together. What if aliens showed up and didn’t just want to trade, but wanted to marry into our families? Would we do it to gain access to their advanced technology? I think it’s a fascinating concept, one I might return to again later on.

At least the Giselians are attractive to both sexes, they could have been something very different.

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

Journey to Emberland

Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.

Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.

Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!

🚀

Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.

Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.

Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.

“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”

Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”

“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”

“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”

Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”

Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”

A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.

Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”

A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.

It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.

Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?

He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.

The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.

Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.

He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.

🚀

A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.

Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”

Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”

Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”

“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.

“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.

“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”

“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”

Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.

“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”

Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”

Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”

Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”

“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.

He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.

“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked.

Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”

Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.

“There it is, Emberland.”

She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.

“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.

There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”

“Are there plants?”

Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”

“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”

“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”

Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”

“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”

Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”

“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”

Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.

Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”

“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.

At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?

Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”

“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”

Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”

“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.

“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.

For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.

“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.

Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.

🚀

By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.

“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”

Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”

“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”

Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.

Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”

“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”

Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.

On the screen, a storage error message appeared.

Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.

The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”

“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”

“What?”

Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”

“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”

“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”

Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”

Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.

“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”

When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.

She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.

Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.

Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?

🚀

1,898 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.

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