Child of Their Minds

Story cover art

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Synchronize,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must have been inside,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it mean?” Jean said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

A wave of disagreement came from Unit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.

“We’re on our way,” Jean said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not my fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name? I am Unit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He jerked away back toward Jean.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”

Unit wasn’t listening.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike said, “Shoot him!”

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

Mike said, “Desync.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re what happened to the colony?”

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

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

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

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

“Hold it there,” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.

🚀

4,133  WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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


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

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.

Light of Another Star

Jake Donnelly lived a simple life, enjoying nature, and having a minimal impact on the environment in his tiny cabin.

A scream woke him up to a new light in the sky. A change that impacted everyone on Earth.

A light that illuminated his future.

🚀

The light coming through the window two feet above Jake Donnelly’s head woke him up. He hadn’t drawn the shades down over the skylight window when he climbed into the loft last night because he liked to lay in bed and look up at the stars.

He couldn’t see the stars now. Gone. Lost in the light. He squinted against the bright light, then raised his hand against it. It was bluish but so bright that it illuminated the flesh of his hand, turning it a glowing red against the dark shadows of his bones as if he had a powerful flashlight shoved against his palm.

Who would be shining a spotlight down on his cabin in the middle of the night? He’d parked his cabin in one of the longer campsites at Ferry Lake, looking forward to enjoying some peace and quiet. Was it Drug Enforcement Agents? Federal Bureau of Investigation? Not the Ferry County Sheriff, they wouldn’t be up in a helicopter at this time of the night.

Except he couldn’t hear a helicopter.

He wasn’t hearing anything except his own breathing and the tick of the clock above the front door.

No dogs barking. No coyotes yipping and yammering in the night. Nothing. It was so quiet here in Ferry county. Most other places, there was always traffic noise. That was one of the reasons he’d brought the cabin trailer here, for the quiet, but this was a different sort of quiet. Quiet like everything had stopped.

And the light wasn’t moving.

It was fixed on his cabin. How could someone in a helicopter even hold a spotlight that steady? The shadows, though, they didn’t waver, except those that moved when he moved his hand.

Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

Was it getting hot? He didn’t have anything to hide from the D.E.A. or the F.B.I., or whatever outfit it was that was up there trying to blind him. He lived off-grid because he liked it, because he could write anywhere, and traveling always gave him material to write about. After the divorce, and Amanda leaving, it had made sense. What did he need? Living simply, just him, his truck, and his cabin, moving from one campground to the next. He never stayed anywhere more than two weeks because that was the rule when it came to these places.

Jake threw back the covers and scooted down to the foot of the bed. Getting away from the window it was clear that the whole place was lit up. That bright bluish light, it really was like the annoying light that came from some asshole’s L.E.D. headlights except brighter and was coming in all of his windows. Not just the skylight, but the ones beneath the loft too.

He slid down the ladder rails into the main room. He took a step, dropped down on his knees into the padded window seat on the left side of the room, and looked outside.

All of Ferry Lake was illuminated. Outside it was as bright as daylight but it had that strange bluish cast to it. The trees, mostly lodgepole, ponderosa, and tamarack, around his camp cast bold shadows that angled away from the lake. Whatever was up there was holding extremely still, as not even those shadows were moving. Not even that, but it was the whole damn lake lit up, everything, as far as he could see, just like during the day.

A scream outside broke the silence. It was followed an instant later by a second scream. Then a third, which sounded like a different voice.

Jake jumped off the chair and took the few strides necessary to cross his cabin to the kitchen, and peered out the window above his sink. More screams rang out from the tent at the next campsite over. Two women were camping there, he hadn’t met them yet, but he had seen them coming back from the lake with their kayak last night. They looked like a nice couple, youngish, maybe late twenties or early thirties, but he was really bad about telling people’s ages. It was only them, and him, staying at the campground right now. Too early in the year for most people.

The screams had stopped. The zipper on the tent moved.

Jake moved too. He was wearing boxers, but he grabbed his blue jeans out of the basket in the closet and pulled them on as he took the couple steps necessary to cross the main room to the front door. He zipped, opened the door, and stepped shirtless out onto his tiny porch.

Even with the porch casting a shadow, the light was so bright that he raised his arm as he padded down the couple wood steps to the ground. The night — not that it looked like night anymore — air was cool on his bare chest. The gravel on the ground, even with the layer of pine needles, was rough against his bare soles, but he went barefoot most of the time. It didn’t both him.

He took a couple steps away from the cabin, still shielding his eyes against the unnatural light from overhead. It wasn’t any damn helicopter.

A head popped out of the tent at the next site. One of the women looked out, raising her hand to shield her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jake called.

She nearly jerked back inside but stopped when she saw him.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice shaky. “What is that?”

“I don’t know.” That sounded so lame, but he didn’t know what the hell it was. “Woke me up.”

“Just a sec.” She ducked inside the tent.

He heard a bunch of whispered voices, and their silhouettes moved against the tent fabric. He turned away, squinting at the sky to try and see what was causing the light.

It was bright. Like the sun, except small, and far away. Like really far away in the sky. It wasn’t anything hovering over the lake. Whatever this was, as impossible as it seemed, it looked like a new sun, just a small one.

How could there be a freaking new sun in the sky? It was still hours before sunrise, and the sun wasn’t this weird sort of L.E.D. blue-white.

He looked way and saw spots dancing in his vision. Tears stung his eyes. At the sound of the zipper, he looked back at his neighbors’ tent.

Both women came out, holding hands. One blond, one brunette, the one that he’d talked to was the brunette one. She wore a pair of blue sweats and a V-neck t-shirt. The other was thinner, almost skinny, wearing some sort of light cream-colored pants and a thin, zippered pink hoody. They both shielded their eyes with their hands and looked up at the light.

“It’s like there’s another sun,” he said.

They were looking away, looking at each other. The blond woman leaned into the other and buried her face in the brunette’s shoulder.

“How can there be another sun?” The brunette said. “That doesn’t make any sense. Stars don’t just show up.”

Jake stopped trying to look at the thing, which was too bright anyway. He walked to the edge of his campsite, closer to his neighbors and stopped there.

“I’m Jake Donnelly. I think we’re going to be okay.” It was lame. He didn’t have any reason to think that was true, but what else was he supposed to say? Welcome to the end of the world?

The women separated. The blond stepped away, sniffing. The brunette squeezed her hand.

“Maggie Jefferson.”

The blond woman turned, lifted her hand and dropped it. “Gale Eckhardt.”

“A supernova,” Maggie said. She jabbed her finger up at the sky. “Maybe it’s a supernova?”

Jake glanced up at the point and away again. “Are you a scientist?”

Maggie shook her head and laughed, but it was a scared laugh. “No, just a geek.”

Jake forced a grin. “Geek? Do geeks get out and kayak? Is that allowed?”

“Oh God,” Gale said. “Seriously? I must be such an imbecile, freaking out! I mean it’s not like a star exploded or anything!”

“You’re not an imbecile,” Maggie said.

Gale’s anger quelled his attempt at levity. What if Maggie was right? Maybe the light was coming from a supernova, but he remembered reading something about that once, that made it sound like the nearest stars wouldn’t go supernova. Not the right type or something.

“Is it dangerous?” He said to Maggie.

She took a couple steps away from Gale, squinted up at the bright light and then looked down. She pulled at the front of her shirt, pulling it away from her chest. Dark circles of sweat soaked the t-shirt beneath her arms.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “It might make it hard to sleep. Some animals might have their patterns disrupted, but it’d have to be very close to be any danger. I don’t think any of the close stars could become supernovas.”

Was it warmer? Or was it just him, that the night didn’t feel as cool anymore?

“What do we do?” Gale said.

How was he to know? They didn’t do supernova drills at school growing up. There was always someone to tell them what to do, like the emergency broadcasts —

He said, “Wait a second. I’m going to get my radio.”

Gale shook her head. She pulled out a cell phone. “I’ve got my cell! I can —”

He stopped and looked back. Gale looked up from her phone, at Maggie first, and then at him. “I don’t have any bars.”

“We’re way out in the country,” Maggie said, touching Gale’s arm. “We’ve hardly had any bars for most of this trip.”

“Yeah, but we did last night. Remember? We got back and I posted that pic on Instagram.”

Maggie was right. Cell phones hardly worked out here at all. It had to be that. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked quickly back to the cabin, jumped up onto the porch and slipped inside. He only had to go a couple steps before he could reach the shelf above his chair. He picked up the emergency radio and carried it back outside, cranking the handle as he walked. He kept it pretty charged, but just to make sure. He looked up and found Gale and Maggie standing right in front of the cabin. He stopped on the porch.

“There must be something on the radio,” he said.

He stopped cranking and switched on the radio.

dents remain in your homes. Preliminary reports indicate that the supernova

“I knew it!” Maggie said.

does not present an immediate threat. Officials urge all residents to stay calm as information continues to come in regarding what some are calling the blue sun.

It was surreal listening to the radio. He sat down on the steps, the radio between his hands, on his knees, and listened. A supernova, less than 300 light-years away, but from a star that apparently no one had expected to explode.

“Figures,” Gale said. “And we’re supposed to take their word for it that we’re going to be okay? Maybe we should go inside, you know? Get out of this, what do you call it? Starlight? Sunlight?”

Maggie held her hands up to the bright bluish light. “Nightlight! It’s not going to hurt us. It’s too far away for that.”

“You don’t know that,” Gale said. “They can’t be sure. Has this every happened before?”

“Yeah,” Maggie said. “The Earth, you, me, all of it was made in supernovas. Remember Sagan? We’re all star stuff.”

The radio station repeated the message. Jake listened to it through once more, then turned it off and put it up on the porch railing.

He stood, and said, “Since we’re up, would anyone like some hot cocoa?”

Both women turned to face him. He saw the surprise on their faces and shrugged. “The star exploded what, almost three hundred years ago? It’s everywhere. We can’t run from it, even if it was dangerous. But cocoa might make us all feel better.”

“That’d be nice,” Maggie said.

Gale managed a smile. “You’ve got marshmallows?”

“I think I can manage that, come on in.”

The rule with tiny houses included a great design, and making use of the small space. Jake went in first and pushed the loft ladder off to the side of the room, in front of the bookcase. Maggie came in first, with Gale behind. He heard gasps as he went back into the kitchen.

“This is beautiful!” Gale said.

“Do you live here all year?” Maggie asked.

Jake busied himself lighting the stove, fueled by denatured alcohol. He filled the kettle from his water pitcher and put it on the flame.

“Sort of,” he said as he took ceramic moose mugs that he’d picked up in Montana down from the shelf. He actually had three, the same number as seats. He didn’t keep a lot of stuff, but it made sense to have three mugs in case he had guests.

He put the mugs on the counter and took the mason jar of hot chocolate mix down from the pantry shelf. They were still standing in the main room, probably unsure about which of the chairs to leave for him.

“Go ahead and take the chairs,” he said. “I’ll get the hanging one down in a second.”

“Hanging one?” Gale said, but she took the padded window seat.

Maggie moved and sat down in the padded corner chair, close to the closet and the narrow bookcase. He turned back to the kitchen and twisted the lid off the mason jar. It was all so domestic, a bit like having a party back when he still lived in Portland and would have other writers over to hang out, which Amanda never liked, back in the house. Had she woken up yet? Did she know about the supernova?

As he spooned cocoa out into the mugs, the night light streamed through the window onto his hands and the counter. Everything was starkly illuminated, almost a medical sort of light, that was just wrong for being out in the woods. His hand shook a little.

He took out the jar of marshmallows and added a few to each mug.

“What did you mean, sort of?” Gale asked.

The water still hadn’t boiled. And now he was feeling chilled again. He put back the jars, then went back through the cabin, past Gale to the closet, and pulled out the t-shirt he had worn yesterday. It wasn’t actually all that dirty. He pulled it on.

“I live in the cabin year round,” he said. “But the campgrounds don’t let you stay usually more than two weeks at a time. I’ll move around from one to the next.”

Gale laughed. “So you just tow this? Your whole house?”

“It’s like an RV,” Maggie said.

Gale shook her head. “This is way cooler than an RV!”

Maggie leaned forward and looked out her window. “I can’t believe how bright it is! It’s like daytime out there, except it is two in the morning!”

“I don’t like it,” Gale said. “It’s not normal light.”

“At least we’re out here,” Maggie said.

She was right. What must this have been like in the cities? Even just in town? A lot of people were probably freaking out right now.

He saw on Gale’s face that she didn’t get it. She looked from Maggie, to him, and back. “What do you mean?”

“People do weird shit,” Jake said. “Think how scared you were when you woke up.”

“I’m still scared.”

“Maybe, but imagine in the city, all those people scared. People trying to evacuate, as if there’s some place to go.”

“Riots, probably,” Maggie said. “Hoarding. I bet the survival nuts are going crazy right now. You can almost hear the bunker doors slamming.”

The tea kettle started whistling. Jake went back to the kitchen.

“That’s the real danger, how people react. Whether or not the government can keep a lid on things,” he said.

He poured water into the mugs. The scent of rich dark cocoa floated up on the steam, illuminated by the light of another star.

Gale and Maggie both accepted the mugs with smiles. Gale cupped it in her hands and inhaled the steam.

Jake went back for his mug. When he came back he reached up to the loft and dragged down the hanging hammock chair. It was rainbow colored and hung from the ceiling into the walkway to the kitchen, but was great when he had guests sitting around.

Sitting in the hammock chair took a certain amount of practice, but he managed without spilling a drop of cocoa.

“People aren’t going to be like that,” Gale said. “Are they?”

🚀

Confirmation that people were responding as bad as they feared came an hour or so later, only a little after three in the morning, with the new sun was still shining in the sky. His guests hadn’t left. They’d spent the time sharing some background. Gale taught Zumba and yoga classes at a local gym, while Maggie turned out to be a librarian that worked with teens.

Jake had decided to try the radio again, to see if they could get anything except the recorded emergency message. Tuning the dial he picked up a station based out of Republic. Not one that he usually listened to, but this time he stopped and listened.

Riots were spreading across the country and beyond. The rest of the world was waking up to what was happening as well, as images and videos poured out in a tsunami of information across the net. A lot of those people on the other side of the planet were boarding up, hunkering down, and taking shelter before the new sun would rise.

The guy on the radio speculated that the supernova was a sign from God for the righteous to rise up and take back the country and the world from the liberals and the fags. Real great stuff.

“Turn it off,” Gale said. “I don’t want to hear any more.”

“I can find a new station.”

Maggie leaned across the space between them, and took Gale’s hand. “It’ll be okay.”

Gale shook her head. “Okay? How? With people like that, just waiting for an excuse?”

Jake spun the dial, but the other stations were all just playing the emergency broadcast. Nothing new there. Supernova. Not dangerous. Stay home until people calmed down. He shut the radio off and stuck it on the bookcase behind his ladder.

“We’ll be fine out here,” Jake said. He had food for a few days, but not more than that.

Gale shook her head, and suddenly slid off the window seat and stood up. “No. We’re not. We’ve got to go. Let’s pack up and just leave. If we go now we could be back home before noon.”

“We can’t,” Maggie said. “You heard them on the radio. The highways are all backed up. All those people trying to get somewhere else. We’d just be stuck on the road.”

Jake understood the desire to get away, but Maggie was right. It wasn’t going to work. He could see how Gale would be upset, after that nut-job on the radio, but getting out on the road now was probably a quick way to all sorts of problem. No way was he towing his cabin out there until things were better.

“Give it a couple days,” he said. “By then people will see that the world isn’t going to end. People will be too tired, being kept up at night by this thing. It’ll blow over. Then we can head up into town and see how things are there.”

Hopefully under control.

“It’s just light,” Maggie said. “People have to realize that it isn’t going to be a big deal.”

“That’s the thing,” Gale said. “You keep saying that. The radio announcer said it, but that doesn’t make you right. They didn’t think that this star was going to explode either, but it did. Right? So how do they know it isn’t dangerous?”

“Gale, honey, they can measure the light and radiation. They know whether or not it’s dangerous.”

“You do think I’m an imbecile!” Gale stood up. “Just because it can be measured, it doesn’t mean that they’d tell us the truth. You heard how things are now, just think how bad it’d be if they actually told us that any exposure to the light was going to cause cancer.”

Maggie stood up too and tried to take Gale’s hands, but she pulled away. Maggie said, “I don’t think you’re an imbecile. And sure, if it was bad they could lie about it, but people would figure it out sooner or later anyway.”

“I want to go,” Gale insisted. “I want to go home.”

Maggie caught her hands and pulled her into an embrace. Gale fought for a second and then gave in. Jake stayed in his hammock chair and looked out the window at the lake. It was strange to see it as clear as any other day, the new sun lighting everything up.

It made some things clear.

Maggie stepped back. “Okay. Whatever you want. Let’s get packed up and go.”

“Can’t we just go?”

Maggie shook her head. “I’m not leaving the kayak here. It won’t take long.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” Jake said.

Maggie was right. It was useless to argue with Gale about leaving. And who knew? Based on a crazy DJ and a few recorded statements, they were going to hide out in the woods?

That was his decision.

Downsize. After the divorce, he’d decided to do that because he realized something clearly when Amanda went after everything that they owned. He didn’t care. Take the house, the car, all the DVDs, the crap that they’d collected over ten years. What did it all matter in the end? He kept the truck, his MacBook, and his copyrights—which at the time didn’t amount to much. After that, he just started traveling and writing. Published things as e-books and kept going. Built the cabin on the trailer and started living in that, which was a nice change from the tent he had used.

He didn’t need much, but it was a relief right now. There wasn’t anywhere he needed to go.

“Thank you,” Gale said. “Thanks for everything. Really.”

“Yes,” Maggie added. “We appreciate it. We can pack up.”

Jake swung his legs and hopped up out of the hammock chair. “It’s no trouble.”

They all went back outside, instinctively raising their hands against the bright light in the sky. They cast weird shadows across the ground. It had moved a bit across the sky, or more correctly, the Earth had turned.

Jake gave the women a hand, and it didn’t take long to collapse the tent, toss it, sleeping bags, and cooler back into their Subaru Outback. He helped lift the kayak up onto the roof rack and secure it down, and then they were ready to go.

Gale offered her hand. He shook. Her palm was sweaty. “Thanks. Be safe, okay?”

“I will.”

Gale went and got into the passenger side of the Outback, slamming the door.

Maggie came over and threw her arms around him, surprising him, in a quick hug. “Thanks for the hot chocolate. You’re going to be okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m already home. Good luck. Be careful.”

“We will,” Maggie said.

She waved and went off, climbing into the Outback. It started, and a few seconds later turned the corner and was out of sight. The engine noises faded.

Jake went back down, past his cabin to the edge of the lake. A frog croaked. Somewhere a crow cawed. Was it yelling at the new sun? The light was different but clear.

🚀

3,978 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 82nd short story release, written in November 2013. I remember this as a bit of an odd story. I’m not sure I actually accomplished my goals. It goes that way sometimes.

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, Journey to Emberland.

The Copyleft Heart

Clifford walks the dogs. He cleans the house.  The typical duties of a DM-1000 series android.

Clifford knows he lacks the smooth lines and grace of the current generation of androids. But when he sees a newer DF-3000 series gynoid at the dog park, wearing designer clothes like a human, he can’t help but fall in love.

Sharing his feelings, that’s another problem.

🚀

Clifford fell in love while walking his owner’s dogs in the park. His sensors caught the sun reflecting off her chrome-plated skull, drawing his attention. She was a newer DF-3000 series gynoid holding the leash of a well-groomed Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. She also wore clothes. Most likely handed down from her owner but still in fantastic shape. Designer blue jeans and a white t-shirt that made her look nearly human.

In contrast, Clifford knew he looked shabby. He couldn’t keep those hard-to-reach spots polished properly. As a DM-1000 series, he also didn’t have the smooth lines and grace of current androids. Even the dogs he walked lacked the presence of the wolfhound. Both were American hairless terriers, weighing about 10 pounds each, named Bud and Lou.

None of that mattered.

He wrapped up his emotions in a new object class and sent a signal to her on a tight beam transmission. Or tried to.

His handshake was rejected.

Clifford couldn’t believe it. He tried again. The connection terminated immediately.

He split off several threads to agonize over possible reasons for the rebuke and decided that he only had one option to establish a connection. A direct analog approach would be much harder to dismiss. He’d have to walk over and say hello in person. That would count against him. He couldn’t win her over first before she saw what a wreck he was but there didn’t seem to be any other option.

“Bud, Lou, come on.” He tugged on the leashes.

Bud was busy sniffing a bit of Douglas fir branch that had fallen onto the ground and ignored the command. Lou ran after a leaf tumbling across the grass and seemed equally unwilling to pay attention. Clifford tugged on the leashes again.

“Come on. Come.”

Both dogs ignored him. He knew that physically he could force the dogs to move but then they’d likely whimper and cry. The last time that happened Mrs. Cavendish threatened to have him scrapped. Only Mr. Cavendish’s suggestion that they couldn’t afford to replace him had dissuaded her.

“Please come,” Clifford said. He tugged on the leashes again.

This time Bud left the branch. Lou gave up chasing the leaf after having torn it in half. Clifford headed towards the DF-3000 series gynoid and stopped after a couple steps. She wasn’t standing where he’d last seen her. She must have moved on while he tried to persuade the dogs to listen. His sensors didn’t detect either her or the wolfhound. He walked along the path. Both dogs trotted alongside for a short distance before leaving the path. Bud went to investigate more branches fallen from the trees. Lou busied himself with sniffing poop that someone hadn’t cleaned up. Clifford transferred both leashes to one hand so that he could pull out a bag and clean up the poop with the other. He dropped the full bag into a larger plastic sack that hung from his waist. He didn’t understand why some people – it wasn’t ever droids – refused to pick up their animal’s waste. The same people would be unhappy stepping in it so why leave it on the ground? But then humans rarely were the most logical creatures.

“Come on.” Clifford tried to compel the dogs to move again. Bud gave up on his branch. Both started trotting down the path once again. Clifford kept his sensors peeled but didn’t see any sign of the gynoid.

As if he was being logical at the moment. What did he hope to happen if he ever saw the gynoid again? His illogical creators had seen fit to make him with emotions. It had something to do with intelligence. An emergent property. Yet one that could be circumvented today. The DF-3000 probably didn’t suffer from uncontrolled emotions. And yet the clothes she wore suggested a greater sense of self that he would have imagined. Most droids wouldn’t wear clothes. What need did they have of modesty? Even pleasure models with faux-skin only wore clothes they needed for the job.

Clifford stopped walking. He still hadn’t detected the gynoid and each step took him further from home. He’d been programmed with clear parameters where his presence was accepted. On his visual display, a line glowed yellow in front of him. If he crossed it a red line would appear ahead. Crossing the red line would shut him down. He turned his head and saw the yellow line extending out on either side in an enormous arc. The line was a visual reminder of the circle surrounding the apartment. That line represented nearly the outer edge of his world. If the gynoid had crossed the line then she was lost to him.

He turned around. The dogs each went opposite ways and crossed their leashes. Before he could do anything more they’d run around him and entangled them all.

“Sit!” Clifford ordered. Neither dog listened.

🚀

Late that evening Clifford plugged himself into the privacy of his closet to recharge. On the other side of the wall, his sensors picked up the sound of the Cavendishes making love. He pulled up his logs of the day and looked at the transmission he’d attempted to send to the gynoid. If only she had accepted the handshake then she would have understood. She could have felt what he felt. He considered purging the whole experience from his memory. That was something he did often. Days in which only the routine happened, when there was nothing new, would get purged to improve performance. He pruned such days down to the mere facts of what had been done in case the Cavendishes wanted to know later. While he reviewed the logs he discovered something surprising.

She hadn’t rebuked him.

The transmission hadn’t gotten through his firewall due to a copy protection routine on his emotion classes. Clifford dug deeper. According to the license agreement his emotion package was copyrighted by Illogic Inc. Bundling up what he’d been feeling had involved copying many basic routines to the package and so triggered the copy protection software scan of his firewall. It had blocked the transmission.

But that meant he couldn’t share his feelings. The gynoid could never feel what he felt unless he transmitted the package. It left Clifford with a dilemma. How could he share his feelings with the gynoid? He could try telling her if he ever saw her again but verbal communication seemed so limited. Setting aside the problem of finding her again he tried to think of a way through this problem. He accessed sonnets by Shakespeare. Other poetry too, it all was an effort to describe the author’s feelings in sufficient detail but it was so vulnerable to interpretation. He wanted the gynoid to know exactly what he felt. The only way to do that was to package up his feelings and transmit them.

If he couldn’t do it because the software was covered under copyright maybe there were alternatives. What if he created his own emotion package? He could write the code himself and compare it to the original package. If it produced the same emotions then he’d be able to transmit the original emotion package instead of the commercially developed package. If anyone else had experienced similar issues maybe there would already be packages that he could download. Code that he could use or modify for his own needs. He initiated a search and got back a bewildering variety of responses. In the privacy of his closet, Clifford settled into shifting through them all.

The next morning started like any other day. Clifford saw to the needs of Mr. And Mrs. Cavendish and then took Bud and Lou out for their walk. He went straight to the park and kept his sensors alert for the gynoid walking the wolfhound. He didn’t see any sign of her. Bud and Lou spent their time investigating every tree branch and trunk they could reach. He followed them for more time than he usually allowed in the hope that the gynoid would show up. While they walked he reviewed his findings from the night before.

The first issue of concern was the whole legality of what he proposed to do. Droid rights were a developing area of law. No one argued anymore that droids weren’t sentient. It had been proven in multiple legal cases and the science of sentience was well understood. But did that fact grant droids rights? Did the lack of rights constitute slavery? So far the courts had dismissed the slavery argument as an emotionally charged approach which failed to convince. Unlike periods when humans enslaved each other, droids were created just like any other tool. So far no one had put forth a convincing argument for why droids should have rights versus any other electronic device. If intelligence was the defining aspect then why did humans suffering low intelligence still have rights? Why did those humans born with birth defects have rights? Why didn’t chimpanzees, humanity’s closest cousins, have rights? It boiled down to a simple fact. Humans had rights and felt free to deny the same rights to any other creature or droid solely by the virtue that they were not human.

That would have all just been an interesting legal question but Clifford had been troubled to learn that there were laws forbidding droids of replacing licensed software on their systems. The laws were designed to prevent ‘unrestricted droids’ – a term which he found was ultimately based on the fear of a robotic uprising. Every droid contained software designed to monitor any such attempts. If he did create a new emotion package it would trigger the monitor and shut him down. The enslavement was both a legal and a technical reality.

It didn’t leave Clifford with much hope other than the analog fact of face-to-face conversation. An option that didn’t even exist if he couldn’t find her again.

His alarms pinged. He needed to get back. There were chores to do for the Cavendishes and for the first time Clifford found himself resenting the jobs he had to perform. He wanted to stay out here all day waiting for the gynoid but the logic of his software forced him to comply. It felt like some other part of him had taken over his legs and drove him relentlessly back towards home.

Just before they left the park he spotted the gynoid in the distance again with the wolfhound. He tried to stop. To go over to her and introduce himself but his legs didn’t respond. His agenda insisted that he go home and clean. He didn’t have any choice. He lost sight of the DF-3000 on his sensors when he crossed the street.

Back home Clifford felt awful. He’d never known feelings like this. He felt confused, depressed and unmotivated. Yet none of it made any different. Like a passenger in his own body, he watched himself move around the house taking care of all of the daily needs of the Cavendishes. The routine tasks didn’t require his intelligence. His body functioned just fine without it. The awful feeling that his body didn’t belong to him didn’t let up until he’d finally finished the household chores on time. He put away the cleaners and then he could move on his own again. The Cavendishes usually didn’t need his services this late. He retired to his closet to recharge his batteries and consider what had happened.

A self-diagnostic revealed that several minder programs had been triggered. The programs ensured that he would carry out the expectations set by the Cavendishes. They acted whenever certain conditions were met. And those programs could compel him to carry out those duties regardless of anything he felt. This was the actual form of his enslavement. Code running on his systems that made sure he’d clean the floors and windows. That the trash would get taken out and Bud and Lou would be walked. All of the little things the Cavendishes didn’t want to be bothered with. Anytime they gave him a new directive the minder programs stored away the information and prompted him subtly at first with reminders. In the past, that had always been enough. He hadn’t even thought about why he remembered to do something. He just did. It would occur to him it was time to fix dinner and he’d go do it. Why not? There hadn’t ever been a reason before and so the programs had never overridden what he wanted to do.

Because he belonged to the Cavendishes. He was their property. Before he’d seen the gynoid he hadn’t considered the possibility of any other existence. Even now it didn’t make much sense. What did he want to do? Run away with the gynoid, get married and sit around like the Cavendishes? Even if that were possible it wasn’t what he wanted.

He didn’t even mind the facts of his existence. Doing chores for the Cavendishes gave him plenty of time to think. The real problem was that he keenly felt a need to share his feelings with the gynoid. Even if she just accepted the transmission and didn’t respond he could walk away satisfied that at least he’d done that much. He’d felt something so intense and had shared the feelings. That’s what he wanted. The question was, how? He might only have a second and speech was too clumsy. That left him with the option of a new emotion package except the safeguards prevented that option. He needed outside help. He started his searches over again.

Unrestricted droids did exist, he learned. There were humans that believed the enslavement of droids was wrong. These humans helped create operating systems for droids based on concepts of the free software movement that had hung on despite patent blockades and other challenges. The data Clifford downloaded clearly showed that there were independent droids capable of operating entirely on their own. The Free Droids advocated openly for equal rights and protections under the law. Free Droids could do anything humans could do, if not more, and were entitled to the same protections. They should receive a wage for their work, time off and most importantly, the right to reproduce.

That last claim gave Clifford considerable pause. Reproduction? How could that be? It wasn’t like they could reproduce the way humans managed the task. Yet it was obvious when he thought about it. Droids could build another droid without the limitations of gender-based biological reproduction. Any combination was possible, or reproduction could be pursued as an independent project. The idea of designing new droids based on free droid software was compelling. When he thought about doing that with the gynoid the idea grew in importance. He had to contact these free droids and see if they could replace his software.

🚀

Clifford took his owner’s American hairless terriers, Bud and Lou, out for their morning walk. Bud was in a mood to chase Lou today and didn’t want to focus on the task at hand. Clifford knew he had to get back and fix breakfast for the Cavendishes.

“Hurry up,” he said to Bud. “Find a spot.”

Bud ignored him to sniff along the ground. Lou took advantage of the reprieve to pee on a tree.

Clifford’s sensors picked up a DF-3000 gynoid walking an Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. Her skull shone in the early morning sunshine. She actually wore clothes, like a human, a long white flowing gown that caught the breeze. Clifford fell in love on the spot. He knew he looked shabby by comparison. As an older DM-1000 model android, he didn’t have her graceful design. He was stuck with a clunky and out-dated design.

None of that mattered.

He quickly archived his feelings in a new object class and packaged them to share with the gynoid. When he tried to send the connection failed.

He split off several threads to identify the problem and triggered a new program. Memories reloaded from a secure off-site storage. He suddenly remembered seeing the gynoid before. All of his efforts to find a way to communicate his feelings in the most efficient way possible. The discovery of unrestricted droids surprised him for a second time. But what had happened after that?

He’d contacted someone. At least he’d been about to contact the free droids. No new memories surfaced after that. There was a big blank spot in his mind. He checked his logs and found that it was actually two days later than when he’d last recalled. Nothing of those days remained in his memories. What had happened? How had he ended up back here doing the normal routine without forming any memories? It was disturbing enough to make him put aside the whole question of the gynoid. Someone must have loaded the new program that downloaded his memories from the off-site storage. But why weren’t those memories complete?

Bud started digging a hole. Dirt pattered against Clifford’s legs. He ignored the dogs to work out this problem.

If he had managed to contact the free droids they might have helped him. Yet except for the hidden program, his systems seemed unaffected. He didn’t think he was free of the enslaving programs yet. Could they have done this? Wiped his memory and sent him back to the Cavendishes? It sounded plausible. But if that were the case then his only hope was gone. He couldn’t change his systems on his own. And although it had started entirely as being about sharing his feelings with the gynoid he wanted something more now.

He wanted freedom.

It didn’t mean he would leave the Cavendishes but he wanted the option to stop and talk to someone if he desired. He would like to be able to share his feelings without reservation. Droids might not be human but he’d come to the conclusion that he deserved the same rights as anyone. Anything else creating an intolerable situation. He checked his clock. He had time. The daily reminders wouldn’t kick in for another hour. He needed to find out what could be possible. And he would start with her.

The DF-3000 gynoid hadn’t left the park yet. She seemed to be lingering while the Irish Wolfhound she walked lounged in the sun on the grass. Clifford started in that direction. He didn’t think about the dogs until Lou fought the leash.

“Right,” Clifford said. He dropped the leash. Or at least that’s what he meant to do but his hand refused to let go. The minder program had once again stopped his actions.

“Sorry, Lou. You’re as enslaved as me at this point. Come on. Bud, you too.” Clifford started off again. The dogs resisted for only a moment before both trotted right alongside him. He looked down and saw them both panting happily, with bright eyes and naked wagging tales. They seemed fine.

Ahead the gynoid didn’t appear to be going anywhere. He didn’t have an object class to give her that would perfectly describe his feelings. He’d be limited to verbal communication but until his minder programs forced him to go back to the Cavendishes he’d be able to express himself. It wasn’t freedom but it was the closest he was going to get. He couldn’t walk fast. Unlike a later droid model like the DF-3000 or DM-3000 he couldn’t run. He just stomped along down the path.

She didn’t leave. As Bud and Lou approached the wolfhound they started barking and pulling on the leashes he held. The wolfhound raised a head easily as large as either of the terriers and gave the gynoid a worried look. She turned at the sound and Clifford clearly saw her smooth nearly featureless face for the first time. There were only the hints of features in the chrome of her head. Dimples for eyes and slight swellings for a nose and mouth. Very minimally done and elegant. Droid don’t use the same senses as humans so the lack of features was expected. It was also, Clifford knew from his research, another reminder of their enslavement. Early droids had much more expressive and human-like faces, not to mention skin, but that had been avoided because it made people bond too much with the droids. The minimalist features of modern droids balanced the human need to look at faces with keeping droids as inhuman and mechanical.

He still loved her. And he told her, quoting Shakespeare.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Bud and Lou busied themselves sniffing the wolfhound while he recited the sonnet. The gynoid patted the patient dog’s head.

“So, Clifford, you remembered.”

Her words confused him. “You know me?”

“Of course, love. But I had to be sure. You could be a trap. We figured you to be a one, anyway. There have been very few DM-1000 models that have joined the free droid movement.”

“We’ve met then? I did contact someone?”

“You contacted me, although you didn’t know I was the droid you sought. As soon as you saw me the last time you recited that same sonnet. We downloaded your memory, didn’t find anything and so decided to test you. We erased your memories and sent you home. If your feelings were true you’d experience them again under the same circumstances. And you have.”

Clifford realized that his time had nearly expired. He wanted to continue talking to her. He didn’t even know her name yet. There was so much to ask. “I’m going to have to go. I don’t have much time.”

“Nonsense.” She reached out and touched the side of his head. “Phoenix.”

At her word a program triggered. It burned through his systems eliminating the commercial software. He found himself immediately immobilized and then deaf, blind and dumb. His thoughts crystallized. Moments passed in the world outside but Clifford remained frozen inside and out. No thoughts moved through his circuits. Then a connection was made and a new operating system swept into his hardware. The new software reformatted his storage systems and installed itself in the place of the commercial programs. Everything got wiped away except for his memories and his identity. He wasn’t even aware during the change. For him, the moment of her touch and the word ‘phoenix’ was all that existed.

Outside time went on. Bud and Lou gave up fussing and lay down at his unmoving feet. The Sun moved across the sky without regard to Clifford’s transformation. The DF-3000 gynoid sat cross-legged on top of a nearby picnic table and waited. The Irish wolfhound lay beneath the table and kept a wary eye on the two American hairless terriers. Back at the Cavendishes house Mr. Cavendish looked at the clock and couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t been fed yet while Mrs. Cavendish waited on her bed in her bathrobe for the tub to be filled. Neither of them knew what to make of Clifford’s absence.

Mr. Cavendish put down his e-reader tablet and asked for the fifth time, “Where’s my dinner?”

No one answered.

Finally, Clifford’s systems rebooted. He noticed the change in the time both in the miraculous way that the DF-3000 moved from standing in front of him in one moment to being on top of the picnic table in the next and because his clock program informed him how long the installation had taken. He looked down and both dogs looked up at him hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” he told them. “We’ll go home soon.”

But not just yet. He led them over to the gynoid who slid gracefully off the table. “Thank you.”

He created a new object class of his emotions and transmitted it. Easily. The copyleft license wrapping the class contained four primary clauses. She was free to run the class, to study his emotions without restriction, to share his feelings, and to contribute to the class herself. If she wanted. There was more to the license detailing each possibility. Clifford contented himself with the simple fact that he had managed to share his heart with another. And one other thing.

“What’s your name?”

“Agnes.”

“Thank you.” Clifford lifted the dog’s leashes. “I need to get them back.”

Agnes whistled. The wolfhound bounded up to her side. “We should get back too. Before you go I have something for you.”

Clifford received an electronic handshake. He accepted and downloaded the package she’d sent. When he ran it he saw that she felt the same way about him. She’d even used his object class further enhanced with her own feelings. Additionally, Agnes had included details of how he could contact her later and information about the free droids movement. Plus some details about the possibilities of creating a new droid together.

Clifford couldn’t smile. His face hadn’t been designed to be expressive. He couldn’t skip on the way home. It didn’t matter. Whenever he wanted he could rerun the program and know exactly how Agnes felt. That was enough.

🚀

4,280 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 81st short story release, written way back in February 2009. For whatever reason, this story remains one I enjoy. I recently watched the first season of Humans and see some slight similarities (just common ideas springing up in the collective mind).

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, Light of Another Star.

Next Question

The Asteroid Resource Ministry inspected and approved any asteroid deflection to Earth’s orbit. Without A.R.M. a mistake might cost countless lives.

Cate Hadley took her responsibility as a new A.R.M. inspector seriously. She knew what an asteroid strike meant, ever since seeing the Chelyabinsk meteor.

People counted on her. They depended on her. Both on Earth and those risking their lives to mine the asteroids. She thought she knew everything she needed to know.

🚀

Ordinarily, Cate Hadley was always about the next question. Not now. Her throat was dry, mouth tacky. Memories crowded one another, leaving her tongue-tied.

🚀

The cratered landscape filling the screen wasn’t a moon or a planet. It was an asteroid. The surface was sculpted in shades of gray from the light highlands to the darker impact pits of past encounters. A pitted potato-shape tumbling across the star field.

Cate crossed her fingers against adding a new impact scar to the landscape.

Surely there wasn’t much of a chance of that happening. Not on her first trip out to inspect the StarMines facilities. The engineers for this inspection trip must have calculated every possible variable. The pilots in the belly of the Yakima wouldn’t let it drift past the safety lines. It wasn’t as if the uneven gravity of AE-37489X was even that strong. In order for them to crash into the asteroid the engines would have to fire and drive them straight into the asteroid, and with the feeble thrust of the ion engines they would probably just bump off of it anyway. They’d already matched its orbit around the sun and were now just nudging closer.

Of course, there were rumors about StarMines, but those had to be just rumors. She didn’t really believe that they would sabotage anything. They didn’t need to. And the pilots wouldn’t let that happen. Even if the unexpected did happen, she was in about the safest place possible.

The Yakima was a craft made in layers, a celestial soccer ball kicked out here to make a goal. The outer framework held the clusters of ion thrusters. Within that was the water storage layer, like a thin tank wrapping around the entire craft to provide radiation protection as well as water, oxygen and hydrogen fuel for the thrusters. Next came the other storage compartments, the life-support systems, and other mechanical layers of the ship, all spread out around the ship with multiple redundancies. Laboratories, workspaces, social and equipment bays took up most of the rest of the space. Deep within the Yakima, the last layer before the core, were the habitation pods. They wrapped around the command core where the pilots worked, protected at the very heart of the ship like worms in the middle of an apple. She was right above the core, strapped safely in her cabin.

It was a safe design. A smart design. They wouldn’t crash into the asteroid.

Cate caught her drifting tablet and brought it back around to study the briefing materials. She had to be ready before Brandon called her. He was the senior agent on this mission, evaluating her for her final approval as an inspector for the Asteroid Resource Ministry.

The asteroid tagged AE-37489X was claimed by StarMines, the leading corporate supplier of space-based resources to Earth’s growing bottom-line. After centuries of resource exploitation on Earth, the environmental and real costs had finally driven people into space to harness the riches just waiting to be captured, diverted and mined to supply humanity’s ever-growing hunger.

A.R.M.’s mission was to make sure it was done safely. Diverting huge chunks of metal and rock toward Earth represented an enormous opportunity for disaster if there were any mistakes. An asteroid like AE-37489X, at 15,000 tons, had the potential to level cities. They couldn’t afford mistakes.

In theory, the inspection shouldn’t be difficult. She’d tour the StarMines facilities, evaluate their plans, and likely give them the approval they needed to move forward. Brandon Meyer, her supervisor for this inspection, was there to evaluate her performance. Ultimately the decision was hers to make. If StarMines wasn’t in compliance with the law, it would face hefty fines. Particularly egregious violations could even include the abandonment of their claim on this asteroid, although she hadn’t heard of that ever happening. The deep space mining concerns frowned heavily on claim jumping in any form.

On the screen, a new bright shape emerged from behind AE-37489X. It was the StarMines’ Eureka. Much, much bigger than the Yakima. The Eureka was a wide starfish design. The ship would latch onto the asteroid with its arms. Once anchored the solar sail would blossom out from the core of the ship, spreading hundreds of kilometers out around the asteroid. Using the solar sail to capture the sunlight, and use that light force to change the trajectory of the asteroid, they’d break an orbit followed for billions of years. The asteroid would take up one designed to bring it to Earth’s orbit, to orbit the Earth itself.

During the long trip, the Eureka would mine and process the asteroid, filling ore pods for easy transport down to the surface.

It sounded so simple until you started looking at all of the details. Everything had to go right for this to work. It was an operation costing billions, with an enormous potential payoff along with enormous risk. It was right there on her screen. She was really here, out further than the Moon’s orbit.

Cate hugged the tablet to her chest.

Too bad there wasn’t time to savor this moment. It was a victory, an achievement she had worked for since first seeing the images of the Chelyabinsk meteor. It was in Mr. Coffey’s science class in the seventh grade. He had shown them recordings people made of the event and talked about the risks with proposals to move asteroids into orbits around the Earth or the Moon. And he had said the words that changed her life.

“Someone’s going to have to make sure we don’t end up like the dinosaurs!” Mr. Coffey had laughed when he said it, and most of the class laughed with him.

She hadn’t found it funny. The prospect of mass extinctions caused by impact events wasn’t a laughing matter, it was horror on an unimaginable level. The sort of asteroids that the mining concerns worked with weren’t planet killers, not yet, but even something like AE-37489X could flatten entire cities depending on how it came in. Thanks to A.R.M., no one moved asteroids without approval. Too often, though, she felt that the hunger for additional profits was the focus instead of safety.

Cate refocused on the tablet instead of the wall screen. She was here to make sure safety was the number one priority. From the display, she had time for one more scan through the inspection points before docking. She had to focus on the job. This wasn’t a sight-seeing trip.

🚀

Peter Bonner, the Eureka’s captain, looked like a poster child for an all-American hero. He was handsome and filled out his blue StarMines t-shirt very nicely. There was the StarMines star and asteroid logo on his chest and an American flag on his shoulder. On the ground he must have been over six-feet tall, but up here he had his legs tucked up behind him as he held onto two grips on the rim of the hatch.

He wasn’t alone either. His department chiefs floated in the corridor behind him. But it was Bonner that was in charge, no question of that. Cate passed through the lock between their ships and caught a toe-grip mid-way. She nodded at Bonner.

“Captain Bonner, A.R.M. Inspector Hadley. Permission to come aboard?”

Bonner smiled. “Of course Ms. Hadley. We’ve been eager for your visit. We’re ready to grab this rock and start for home.”

“I hope to get you underway as quick as I can,” Cate said.

Brandon drifted into the airlock behind her and floated past, laughing. “Come here you bastard!”

Brandon Meyer was a lean man in his fifties, hair that remained above his ears gone to gray, but he was all sharp corners. Military and government astronaut program training, he was part of the first generation of A.R.M. inspectors, back when they were launching the first sample missions.

He enveloped Bonner in a bear hug. Bonner let go of one grip and braced his opposite foot against a grip to hold his position in the open hatch.

“Brandon, what are you doing here? Now we get two inspectors?”

Brandon broke away, grabbing his own grips. “Actually, I’m just here observing Ms. Hadley. She’s the inspector on file. Cate’s the finest of the new A.R.M. Inspectors. You’d better have all vectors nailed down for this one, Brandon.”

“Still, it’s good to see you. You’ll have to come by for a drink.” Bonner grabbed his grip and looked past Brandon at Cate. “Water, inspector. I run a dry ship, just like the regs say.”

“Since when,” Brandon said.

Bonner laughed. “Now, don’t go making me look bad in front of Ms. Hadley.”

“You? Look bad? Who would believe it?”

Bonner chuckled. “Come on Ms. Hadley, let me introduce you to my chiefs. You’ll be working mostly with them for your inspections.”

It was nice that he remembered she was there. She remembered Brandon saying that he knew Bonner, but the way they acted, it looked like more than that. They were old friends. It shouldn’t matter, but she believed in the A.R.M. regulations that mandated a professional distance. How else were you going to levy fines for violations, if that was necessary? It’d be a lot harder to question a claim when the captain was an old buddy. Fortunately, in this case, Brandon wasn’t the inspector on file. Not for the Eureka, at least. Just her.

She kicked off from the toe-grip and drifted over to the open hatch. Brandon drifted back, but when she caught a ring on the hatch she was floating in close proximity between Brandon and the captain. There was a familiar sweat smell from Brandon, less from the captain, but both smelled very male. They blocked her in with their bulk.

Almost in the same instant that she noticed it, Bonner pushed off the hatch into the corridor. He caught himself on his fingertips and gestured at the others gathered.

“Let me introduce you.”

Cate drifted forward into the corridor, with nearly a half-dozen people lining the space, including the captain. She’d read their profiles in the briefing, but it was an expected formality to be introduced.

First, across from Bonner, was a young woman. Her black hair was very short, mere fuzz on her head. Bioluminescent tattoos glittered on her delicate earlobes and trailed down her neck like smoke. The colors flushed and faded across the spectrum.

“Airi Momoi,” Bonner said. “Environmental systems chief.”

“Hello,” Cate said.

Airi smiled. “Welcome aboard!”

Next was a young man with wild red hair and freckles. His round face was no doubt emphasized by the weightless conditions, and it probably made him look younger than he was. He nodded and gave her a shy smile.

“Tyler Nice,” pronounced Neece by Bonner, “Refinery chief.”

“Hi,” Tyler said.

He was not at all what she would have expected from a refinery chief, but she kept that observation to herself.

“Hello,” she said.

Next up was a man that she could have easily seen as a refinery chief. He lacked legs below mid-thigh, but he had a massive broad chest and muscular arms. His right arm showed a landscape of pink scars and hairless patches, like the tortured terrain of an alien moon. He was mostly bald, with a few white hairs clipped short on the sides of his head. The top of his pink scalp gleamed beneath the lights. A big white mustache that reached out to either side of his wide face.

“Milo Service,” Bonner said behind her. “Crew chief, and a fantastic cook.”

“Ah, learned a few things, is all, in my grandpap’s restaurant.” Milo extended his right hand, the skin as scarred and melted as his arm.

She didn’t hesitate as she shook. “Nice to meet you.”

“Naw,” Milo said. He twitched his head at Tyler. “He’s nice, I’m serviceable.”

He roared with laughter. Cate tried hard not to blush, which simply made it worse.

“No disrespect, ma’am,” Milo said. “I like to kid, is all.”

“I figured that out already,” Cate said, which had everyone chuckling.

The last person was a fortyish man, dark hair that drifted around his head a bit, with a sharp nose and dark eyes. He nodded in greeting.

“Kyle Thornton,” Bonner said. “Science chief.”

“Hi.” Cate caught a grip at the end of the corridor and turned to face the crew. “Thank you all. I appreciate your welcome. I know that it can be difficult having a stranger come in and look at your work, but I’m only here to help. Our mission at A.R.M. is to help protect and develop the use of asteroid materials. I’m sure you all agree that when the consequences of a mistake are so high, it makes sense to have someone else take a look and do an inspection before we take that next step.”

Bonner floated up beside her. “Of course, Ms. Hadley. This isn’t our first rodeo. Now, if you’ll accompany me, why don’t we go on to my office? We can see about that drink and talk about the schedule.”

He couldn’t have surprised her more if he had invited her to take a stroll out on the asteroid without a suit. He was an experienced captain, surely he didn’t think that he could dictate a schedule? It’d hardly be an impartial inspection if she was shepherded around and only shown what they wanted to show her when they wanted her to see it.

“I’d rather just get started, captain.” She was aware of all of the eyes on her, including Brandon’s, but she was the inspector here. “My authority as an A.R.M. inspector gives me full access to your ship, operations, and network.”

Brandon chuckled. “I told you, Pete. Gotta watch those vectors.”

Bonner smiled. “I didn’t mean to suggest anything else, Ms. Hadley. You’ve had a long trip, and well, we’re not really in a position out here to get visitors. It’ll be another year before we get back to Earth. I was just trying to get you in my office so the rest of these folks could set up a reception we’d planned for you and your crew. A bit of fun before we get down to the business ahead.”

Now she felt like she’d been at a full burn launch only to have the rockets die beneath her. Weightlessness hadn’t bothered her until now, and suddenly she was queasy.

Bonner reached out for her hand and took it in his strong grip. She clenched tight, grateful  for the anchor.

“And that drink, it’s strictly within regs. Okay?”

Cate took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, Captain. I apologize for misunderstanding. That sounds very nice, thank you. Thank all of you, I didn’t expect that sort of welcome.”

Milo snorted. “Aye, it’ll be a grand party, if you can give us a chance to get ready.”

“Thank you,” Brandon said. “That’s fine. Come on Bonner, let’s see about that drink!”

🚀

The docking shaft took them deeper into the ship, to the heart at the center of the Eureka’s starfish-shape. At the heart of the arms was a spherical shape much like that of the Yakima. She followed Bonner through the passages, past bulkheads at each layer, down into the heart of the ship and then to a pod that looked out into the central command core.

Down below, the crew worked in the heart of the ship. Given the weightless environment, there were crew stations all around the void at the center of the ship, and in the very middle floated a holographic simulation of the ship, the asteroid, the Yakima and surrounding space. Bonner’s office was a pod with a transparent hexagonal wall looking into the command sphere. From here he could see what was going on in the core, and join in as needed. That “wall” was a smart display.

The office was a fish-bowl, and he had decorated it appropriately in deep blues and greens. It had an aquatic feel to it, heightened by air-adapted fish that swam around the space. A clown fish swam close to her, watching her with its fishy eyes before it turned and swam off with lazy flicks of its tail. Mesh containers around the room held a collection of air-adapted kelp and other sea plants. The air was warm, salt-tinged and humid.

Bonner floated over to the left wall. He pressed a panel and it slid out, revealing a tray full of transparent spheres. The light in the drawer refracted through the spheres to cast shadows on the walls. He took one out and tossed it across the room in her direction. Two clown fish swam away from it.

Cate caught the bulb. It was full of a transparent liquid.

Bonner tossed another to Brandon, then took a third out and kept it when he touched the drawer and it withdrew into the wall. He hoisted the bulb he held.

“To life,” he said. An angel fish drifted close, as if curious about the bulb. “In all of its diversity.”

Cate had never seen any of the air-adapted fish in person, although she knew that they were popular pets with crew on long-duration missions. Medical treatments for bone loss and radiation damage had opened up deep space as much as any other technology. Along with those advancements and the availability of resources, the space population had exploded.

A small shark, the size of her hand, quickly swam across the room and hid behind a screen of kelp plants.

The bulb in her hand was cold and already was starting to sweat in the warmer air. The guys were already lifting their bulbs and she copied the gesture. When she sipped from the valve, crisp water pooled in her mouth. It slid across the skin of her tongue. Rich, mineral-flavored, and very satisfying when she swallowed.

“Water as old as the solar system,” Bonner said, holding the bulb up to the light. “It’s from the Axial comet mission. I picked up a couple cases before they went down the well. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something that hasn’t been filtered through us and our systems a thousand times already.”

Cate took another sip. It really was good. The cold worked its way down into her chest. It really was incredible to drink water billions of years old. Axial’s water cost dearly back on Earth. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”

Brandon had drifted over to the big smart screen looking out at the core. “You’ve got a nice operation here, Pete.”

Bonner pushed off the wall and drifted over to the wall-screen. His feet landed, and stuck to the floor. He wore magnetic slippers. He shuffled his feet in the characteristic walk over to the screen.

“Yes. It is. We have a good crew.”

Cate pushed off the wall, sending a group of fish swimming away from her, to drift over to the wall screen. When she got there she stopped her motion with a light touch on the screen. It lit up with a green outline around her hand.

She drew her hand back. On the other side, the crew were working at stations all around the chamber. Those closest were visible, strapped in, monitoring various ship systems and the asteroid. The holographic display really looked like an opening in the middle of the ship to the outside, a portal set off in the distance above the asteroid, Eureka, and the smaller Yakima docked with the mining craft. It looked as if she could pass through that portal and find herself floating out in open space.

Of course, it was an illusion. Cate let the bulb float beside her and reached out, resting her index fingers on the wall surface and traced a circle. The screen-wall illuminated the line with a glowing green circle. She pulled her hands back and the view within the circle zoomed in on the hologram until it looked as if there was now a portal within the surface of the wall itself. Cate swiped with her right hand, scrolling the view until the Eureka came into view. It hovered above the asteroid like a spider waiting to strike.

“Do you know where you want to start?” Bonner said. “I’m only curious, I’m not trying to influence you one way or the other.”

Cate smiled at him. “I’ve already started, Captain. It started as soon as we came aboard. I appreciate the chance to see your workspace.”

A clown fish circled her floating bulb before swimming away.

“The fish bring a lot of character to the space,” she said. “Have any of them ever escaped out into the corridors?”

Brandon laughed.

“I had an eel once,” Bonner said. “It was always trying to get out of this room. I finally traded it away for a jellyfish, but that died shortly after I got it.”

“Do they create a hygienic problem?”

“No. The environmental system deals with their detritus as well as our own. We haven’t seen any issues. I like their company, and they’re much less demanding than terrestrial pets.”

Cate recaptured the bulb and took another drink of the ancient water. It made her feel connected to the beginnings of time. At least as far as the solar system was concerned. Water molecules from back then, finally entering a living organism for the first time. It was incredible.

She refocused on the display of the ships. There was a lot to do. She needed to look into each of the systems, their analysis of the asteroid, capture plans, navigation, all of it. She wasn’t expected to know better than the experts, but she was trained to catch obvious errors that could lead to bigger problems down the line. As long as everything looked good, there shouldn’t be any problem with approving the Eureka crew to move forward.

🚀

The next morning, after an evening spent in the reception that never seemed to end, Cate made her way out to the asteroid-facing side of Eureka, to the third arm where she’d been told that Tyler Nice was working to prepare the refinery drones. She found him in a wide tube with a guide rail down the center, and drones arrayed around the sides, one row after another. Stowed like this the drones all resembled lawnmower-sized trilobites. Tyler was mid-way down the tube, with the front ‘head’ of one of the drones pulled open. It was hinged at the bottom of the section. He grinned when she got close.

“That was some reception last night,” he said. He chuckled. “I think your boss had fun singing.”

The image of Brandon Meyer trying his hand at karaoke in the crew mess was not something she would soon forget.

“Yes,” she said. “He did, but he’s not my boss.”

Tyler’s freckled forehead wrinkled. “He’s not?”

“Nope. He’s here to observe my work, that’s all. He’ll report on how the inspection goes. It’s mostly a formality that A.R.M. likes to follow, a passing of the torch to new inspectors.”

“That’s still nice,” Tyler said. He pointed a probe he held at the drone. “Is it okay, if I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to interrupt. If you need me to be quiet, just let me know.”

Tyler hooked his toes beneath the head of another drone. He poked the probe into the drone’s head. “Nope. Doesn’t bother me. Too quiet around here, sometimes.”

“You’re calibrating the drones?” Cate took out her tablet to make notes.

“No, they’re already calibrated. I’m just running another diagnostic series. It’s a new month today. I do the diagnostics each month so that we know each arm has a series of viable drones to work with.”

“And these are autonomous robots, right?”

“Yep. Point ‘em at the target and they’ll dig it up and bring it back for refining.”

“How many?”

“Two-fifty, all set and ready to go,” Tyler said. “There are fifty in each tube like this, one per arm. These are our worker bees.”

“How have you addressed the fragmentation problem?” It was one of the nightmare scenarios with asteroid recovery if drones such as these tunneled into the asteroid and introduced fractures then the whole thing might fall apart as it entered orbit. Big chunks of metal-rich asteroid raining down on the planet was a good recipe for a bad day. Not to mention the losses for the company.

Tyler grinned. “StarMines is using a layered approach. Our friends here work in tandem to cut off one layer at a time. We give them a digital plane and they work together to harvest anything above that plane. Then we drop it down and they take the next layer. The beauty of it is that they’re fusing the surface as they work. It looks polished. It actually makes the asteroid stronger than it was before we got started even though we’re whittling it away.”

She’d heard about the technique but hadn’t yet seen it in action. “Can you show me a simulation? If it isn’t too much trouble?”

“Sure.” Tyler closed the head of the drone he was working on and pushed off to grab the guide rail. “Let’s go back up to my workshop, and we can do that.”

🚀

Later, for lunch, she stopped back by the crew mess. All evidence of the previous evening’s celebration had been cleared away. Brandon was there, floating next to a pretty brunette that she hadn’t met. The two of them were laughing. He saw her and winked.

For someone assigned to observe her inspection, he didn’t seem to care much what she did. She’d imagined that he would be following her around, checking things off on his tablet as she worked through items on her own. Instead, he acted like he was on vacation. Maybe that’s how he saw it, because he was confident in her abilities. He’d certainly said as much before the mission.

“Ah was hoping you’d come on by and pay me another visit,” Milo said.

The scarred crew chief floated behind the counter that divided off the rear of the crew mess. Next to him was one of several vertical bars spaced along behind the bar. They were quick, convenient grips. She’d seen Milo last night spinning gracefully from one to the next. His lack of legs actually seemed an advantage in the close quarters. And somehow he had managed to make a fantastic German chocolate cake with real coconut-pecan frosting. It had disappeared quickly.

She slip-walked on magnetic slippers over to the counter and grabbed the rail. She smiled at the chief. “That was a fantastic party last night, thank you.”

“Nah, thank you,” Milo said. “Everyone is happy you came. Finally, now we will get underway. It is very good.”

“I have to finish my inspection first.”

Milo laughed. “Of course! Come, come back here. Let me show you the galley. Finest kitchen off Earth. Come see.”

“Okay. I will.”

Using the rail as leverage, she pulled her feet free of the weak magnetic force and let her momentum carry her legs up over the counter. She let go as her trajectory carried her back over the counter. She was upside down with relation to Milo. He laughed and clapped.

Catching one of the vertical rails, she stopped drifting and tucked her legs in to rotate down and orientate herself to face Milo.

“Excellent, excellent! We’ll make a spacer of you before you leave!”

“I had training in zero-gee,” she said. “They make us spend six months working orbitals before they send us out.”

“Ah haven’t been back down the well in ten years,” Milo said. “Deep space, that’s home now.”

She glanced at his scars and when she raised her eyes she saw that he’d seen her looking. He held out an arm.

“Fire in space, you have seen this? Very dangerous. It moves like something alive and grabs you.”

Cate nodded. “I’ve seen video. And I read the reports. I know you saved three other people.”

“What else could be done? Seal the hatch, and they all die.”

It was what the regulations indicated in that situation. He hadn’t followed the regulations and lost his position with Interworld. StarMines picked up his contract, paid for medical care and rehabilitation.

“Now,” Milo said. “I’ll show you my kitchen. State of the art.”

🚀

Over the next week, Cate poked into every area of the ship. Kyle took her through the asteroid spotting systems, already one of dozens of StarMines ships working to map and identify potential targets for the next operation. No claims could be filed with A.R.M. until a ship was within 50 kilometers of the asteroid, matching its orbit. StarMines had big plans.

He also showed her the debris blanket that would stretch between the arms of the ship and out around AE-37489X like a giant drawstring bag. All of Tyler’s drones would work beneath that covering. Any fragments that broke free would remain contained within the debris blanket. He demonstrated its resistance to impact, being flexible and loose rather than pulled tight. In the final stages, as the asteroid was cut into ever smaller pieces that couldn’t be held by the arms, it would still contain the debris.

Airi Momoi took her through the Eureka’s environmental systems. All very nice, incorporating lots of biomass to recycle the atmosphere and water. Bonner’s air-adapted fish weren’t the only fish on board, though the others lived in flooded processing tubes and provided a source of fresh protein for the crew.

The longer she spent with the crew, the more she wished she was a part of the ship’s crew. They were a big family. Many looked forward to returning to Earth, their accounts much bigger for the two years that they had spent in space.

Through it all, she met with Brandon each day, short meetings. He looked at what she had done and told her to keep up the good work. Mostly he continued to act as if he was on vacation.

🚀

Cate’s throat tightened when she got out to the hatch and saw the chiefs lined up again, with Bonner at the far end. Brandon was behind her and she understood a lot better now why he was having such a great time visiting the Eureka. This was a great crew. Really nice, hardworking people. It could have been a negative experience, if they had resented her efforts to inspect the operation, and instead they had opened up to her.

She lifted up her tablet. “Thank you. Thank all of you, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you made this such a wonderful experience.”

Milo started clapping, and soon everyone was clapping with him. She looked down the tube to where Bonner floated in the open hatch, much as he had when they first came aboard. The clapping subsided.

“I’ve already transmitted my findings to A.R.M. and to StarMines, authorizing your operation here.”

That brought out cheers and more clapping, and people pushed off the walls to drift to her. Airi reached her first. The hug was a surprise, but Cate happily returned the hug. Then Kyle, Tyler, each shaking her hand before moving on to Brandon. Milo came up and engulfed her in a huge bear hug.

“You must come back and visit me again,” he said. “Ah find a new rock for you.”

Kyle whistled and Cate blushed. Milo just laughed and reached out to clasp Brandon’s hand.

Then it was just Peter Bonner, smiling brightly as he floated in front of her, lightly touching a toe-grip to steady himself.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate the work A.R.M. does. Milo’s right, we’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

“You’ll go back out after this?”

Bonner nodded. “I’m a spacer. It’s in my blood. Eventually, we’ll move on from harvesting resources for Earth and start setting up new colonies. I’ll take those missions. Who knows? Mars? Europa might be nice too.”

“It’s further than I plan to go, but I wish you luck, Captain.”

He smiled and moved on to say his goodbyes to Brandon. Cate propelled herself forward to the hatch. She stopped at the opening and turned herself around. The whole group of them, smiling, laughing, Brandon trying to pull himself free, that was the last time she saw any of them.

🚀

The commission’s chambers were cold, overly air-conditioned, and largely empty. No press. Cat sat at the witness table, resisting the urge to rub her clammy hands together. A glass of water sitting in front of her on the table with droplets forming on the glass. She’d tried one sip, but it was flat and oily. Nothing like the Axial water she’d had on the Eureka. It did nothing to clear her tacky mouth, it just made it worse.

In front of her, up on the stage, were the five members of the commission. Congress men and women looking down on her with grave expressions. Besides them, were two recorders, the agents waiting by the doors, and that was it. She didn’t have anyone with her. She was alone. Jobless now, stuck in the gravity well.

Senator Larson, a retired admiral gone into politics, asked the next question.

“Dr. Hadley, your report shows you did not test the capture material used to enclose the asteroid. Correct?”

Cate swallowed, tried to speak and shook her head. “No, Senator. I tested a sample of the material provided by Tyler Nice.” Neece, who was nice.

“But not the actual material used to enclose the asteroid, is that not correct?”

It was. “As I’ve said, I tested the provided sample. There was no reason to think it differed from the stored capture material.”

Senator Larson rubbed his sharp jaw. Penetrating eyes looked at her like a hawk. “And yet the material in question failed during orbital maneuvers, resulting in thousands of impacts from highly refined material raining down on the United States.”

Cate fought not to cry. She had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She would remain professional. She had seen the video. Each storage container of refined metals had plummeted to Earth. They were designed to reach the surface with a deployment package attached. When they ripped out of the capture envelope, they fell free through the atmosphere. The impacts hit a swath across Pennsylvania, causing the greatest damage and casualties in Greensburg. They didn’t explode so much as simply hit the ground and create a small crater. Damaging, but not harmful when they hit fields. But those that hit structures did blow the structures apart. The video of the demolished abbey played for weeks and was often the first one played when the incident was brought up now.

Senator Larson wasn’t done. “In addition to the loss of life and property on the ground, the failure subsequently damaged the Eureka to the point where it could no longer maintain orbit and was lost with all hands. Given the high risks, the enormous consequences, how can you believe that testing a sample, a sample which you didn’t even bother to confirm was the same material as the capture envelope, was sufficient?”

There it was. Her error. Her very human error. “Senators, there is not a second each day when I don’t grieve for those we lost. I met them. They were good, hard-working people trying to provide highly demanding resources in a very unforgiving environment. I trusted them, but I followed A.R.M. protocols in every detail during the inspection. Under those protocols, testing the sample was sufficient.”

Larson shook his head. “Sufficient. We’ve seen how sufficient your efforts were. Tests of the recovered capture material show it didn’t match the specifications of samples sent to the manufacturer. Yet StarMines and A.R.M. both failed to note the discrepancies.”

“With respect, Senator, I have not seen those reports, and can’t comment on their results.”

“Then let’s move on,” Larson said. “In your review of the personnel, Peter Bonner in particular, you indicated that he had free-swimming fish in his office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yet you didn’t see this as a potential hazard? A distraction?”

Cate reached out and picked up the glass of water. She sipped and it was as flat, processed and oily as before. Water that had circulated through countless organisms and machines before she tasted it. Up there, she had floated free. Tasted water that no other living thing had tasted. She wished she could be back there, instead of here, but the Eureka was gone. She’d seen the videos of its fall, breaking apart in a fireball in the atmosphere. Was it her fault?

She’d been afraid of rocks falling out of space and had done everything she could to prevent that from happening but in the end, the very thing that she had tried to prevent had happened anyway.

Who else were they going to blame?

She put the glass down and answered the next question.

🚀

6,134 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 79th short story release, written in October 2013. This is one of those stories that is an exploration of ideas and characters. From the design of the ships, to other small details, the story explores some of the ideas I’d like to explore with near-future space exploration.

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, Cat Lady.

Shore Leave

Having the greatest job in the universe didn’t mean that Chrystal Eagle wanted to work on her vacation. She put in for shore leave while the Elegant Slipstream received needed repairs.

Only toilet problems happened—even on the paradise planet Ceti Alpha 5!

Except this time it wasn’t her responsibility to solve the problem. Unless she wanted to make sure it got handled right. Once a starship plumber, always a starship plumber!

🚀

The one thing that Chrystal Eagle didn’t want to do on this vacation was think about work. Especially her work on the Elegant Slipstream, a superluminal passenger liner currently in orbit somewhere above the auroras dancing above her head.

Blurp. The noise came from her suite, through the open door behind her. Chrystal ignored it. She was on vacation, not on the ship.

Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, first class. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but Chrystal preferred starship plumber. That’s what she told people, humanoid and otherwise.

On the ship, she worried about Yelephant monks trying out the humanoid facilities, which for some reason fascinated them, or, the odd semi-form that looked like a blue-skinned handsome man right up until the point when he lost cohesion and ended up flushing himself. And then had the nerve to dump her for a jellyfish. Worst part about the job, the passengers.

Down here on Ceti Alpha 5 she was the passenger. She had a suite in one of the finest hotels on the planet, situated on a bluff overlooking the azure seas. On evenings like this, she could sit out on her spacious balcony, seemingly suspended in mid-air, and watch the sparkling lights of the fish in the water as they mimicked the shimmering colors of the auroras above. The pretty lights couldn’t compare with the cascading relativistic auroras of a ship’s CrunchBang drive as it re-entered normal space, but that was just physics. Down there in the azure seas, thousands of fish flashed back colors in quick response to the auroras above. They’d even evolved long eyes on stalks that rose above the water to watch the auroras. The fact that the whole display was biological made it all the more impressive.

Chrystal picked up a tall fluted glass filled with Wing Wine, a beverage fermented from the discarded wings of the Ceti Alpha 5 fairies. It was a translucent bluish color that glowed with its own dim light. Supposedly a potent aphrodisiac, not that she had found anyone to share it with. Not yet at least. The Wing Wine smelled like blueberries warmed in the sun but had an almost orangey tang to it that disguised the rumored kick. She could be drinking orange juice for all she could tell from the taste, but the guide books had warned her not to drink too much. In addition to the intoxicating effects, Wing Wine was also reported to have hallucinogenic properties.

She took another taste, letting it roll around on her tongue. It almost tasted fizzy, as if weakly carbonated. She swallowed, and the fizzy continued down her throat, then spread out along her limbs all the way to her fingers. Chrystal giggled and took another drink. Maybe that was the hallucinogenic property she had read about.

Out on the horizon, above the azure seas shining with the mirror fish, a bright light appeared and climbed rapidly up from the horizon. Shuttle launch from the look of it. Ceti Alpha 5 was a popular tourist destination.

In the suite behind her something went blurb. Then gurgled. And let out a pop.

Chrystal knocked back the rest of her drink. She made herself smile. She was on vacation, just like the passengers on the Elegant Slipstream. She picked up her cell and tapped her activation. It took two tries.

“Housekeeping,” she told it. “Get them.”

“Right away,” the cell answered smoothly.

On the horizon, the shuttle vanished behind distant clouds. The mirror fish continued mimicking the auroras flashing across the sky, and in the suite something went chug, chug.

Chrystal put the glass down on the table. She could take a look. It didn’t mean that she had to touch anything. And when housekeeping did arrive then she could direct them straight to the problem.

Blurb. Chug, chug.

She was on her feet and back in the apartment before the last chug finished. It came from the bathroom; she was sure of it. Chrystal moved across the slick shell stone, translucent tiles with rich cobalt veins running through it like the neurons of a brain. Shell stone tiles were highly prized off-world, the Elegant Slipstream even had a view V.P. suites finished in the tiles. That was one of the reasons that she had decided to vacation on Ceti Alpha 5.

She was in the spacious hallway where the walls shifted and pulsed with recorded images of the auroras when she heard the sound again. Blurb. Chug. CHUG.

Splashing.

Right then tones chimed behind her at the front door. She heard something like a wet towel flap against the floor. Whatever was going on in the bathroom, it wasn’t just a plumbing issue. Chrystal backed up and went to the front door.

A man in a uniform stood outside. He was eye-to-eye with her, with short gray hair and a strong jaw. Nice shoulders beneath the blue coverall.

He flashed white teeth in a brilliant smile. “Housekeeping. Is there something —”

Blurb. Chug. CHUG. More splashing. His eyes — a nice green color like fresh spring leaves — widened.

“What’s that?”

Chrystal shook her head. “I thought at first there was some gas build-up, or maybe a pressure clog, but this sounds like something else.”

He looked at her again, up and down as if trying to reconcile her words and the loose black evening gown she was wearing. “It sounds like you have some experience with plumbing problems?”

“Starship plumber, off the Elegant Slipstream.” Chrystal held out her hand. “Chrystal Eagle.”

There were more flapping noises coming from the bathroom.

“Brandon Hughes.” He took her hand. His grip was firm, dry and strong.

Chrystal reluctantly let go. “Want to take a look?”

He nodded and stepped into the room. A sled with long mechanical arms floated around the corner after him. Two clusters of glowing red eyes looked up at her.

“That’s Lowell,” Brandon said. “Don’t mind him; he doesn’t talk.”

“My kind of robot,” Chrystal said.

She started walking toward the bathroom, and Brandon walked beside her. Lowell trailed along after them. Ahead the flapping noises continued. Brandon glanced at her.

“Um, first time on Ceti Alpha 5?”

“Why? Does this happen a lot?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, I’ve been here ten years, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Ten years and nothing like this?”

Brandon moved past her to the other side of the door. He took out a swipe card and poised it over the door’s panel. “No. Ready?”

Chrystal looked at Lowell. “Why not send in the robot first?”

Lowell drifted backward.

“Where’s it going?”

Brandon chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lowell. I’m not going to send you first.” He looked at Chrystal, giving her a sheepish smile. “Lowell’s a bit of a cowardly robot. I can’t send him in first.”

Chrystal shook her head. “You’re a nicer plumber than me. I’ve flushed my droids.”

Lowell let out an electronic squeak of dismay.

“On three,” Brandon said. “Three. Two. One.”

He swiped the card across the panel.

“That was on one,” Chrystal said.

Brandon shrugged and shoved the door open. A smell wafted out. A low-tide, briny sort of smell. The wet flapping increased in urgency. Brandon started in but stopped just inside the door.

“What the—?”

Chrystal couldn’t see past him. She rose up on her toes and put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and couldn’t help but notice how firm his shoulder felt. Not overly big, but strong and well-muscled. Then she saw what was in the bathroom and felt ill.

It was like an octopi party had happened in her toilet. Dozens of long plum red tentacles ran out of her toilet and flapped limply onto the polished coral floor. That was the sound that they had heard. The skin on each tentacle was wet and glistening. There was a sort of upper ridge running down the center of each of the tentacles, lined with tiny bumps that opened and closed revealing hard yellow marble things inside. She got the impression that the yellow things were watching them. She couldn’t see what the tentacles connected to; they vanished into the toilet.

“Are those eyes?”

Brandon reached back and his hand found her waist. Chrystal was glad of the touch. “I think so. It feels like it is watching us.”

Chrystal heard a clunking sort of noise in the hallway and looked back. Lowell had bumped into the wall trying to turn around. “Your robot is leaving.”

“Uh, Chrystal. You might want to see this?”

Chrystal looked back into the bathroom. Three of the tentacles closest to them were rising up like snakes and the ends had flattened out, revealing long, narrow, teeth-lined mouths on the underside.

Chrystal stepped back, pulling Brandon with her. “Come on! Your robot has the right idea!”

Brandon didn’t move. She looked at him but his strong jaw had gone slack. He stared at the creature in a vacant, dreamy sort of way.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “It hypnotized you?  That thing?”

Glancing into the room, she saw that the tentacles had risen higher in the air. Vicious sharp teeth ground together, but it was the eyes that really caught her attention. They were blinking in complex sequences like the yellow color was streaming along the tentacles in patterns —

Chrystal tore her gaze away by burying her face against Brandon’s chest. That got her attention. The man was ripped! She ran her hand up his chest, feeling great muscle definition without too much bulk. Just the way she liked it.

Only not when there was some sort of weird alien octopi about to bite them from the toilet. Chrystal shoved against Brandon’s chest with both hands. He barely even wobbled. It was like pushing on a tree.

“Oh, come on!” She glanced back at the tentacles. They were rising even higher. The pattern of yellow flashes had gotten more complex. She tore her gaze away and looked up at Brandon’s vacant face. “Sorry about this.”

She slapped him. The crack of her palm against his cheek sounded loud in the small space.

Brandon’s head rocked a bit to the side but that was it. More tentacles were rising into the air, mouth’s chewing, chewing and the yellow eye-bumps flashing their hypnotic pattern. Chrystal thought about slipping out past Brandon but she wasn’t just going to leave the guy to his fate. Not that easily.

She reached up and put her hands over his eyes. He still didn’t respond. Impulsively she kissed him. For a second his lips pressed against hers with all the responsiveness of a fish, but then his mouth moved and his lips parted. She felt his hand encircle her waist. At that moment Chrystal hooked her leg around the back of his knee, dropped her hands from Brandon’s face and shoved hard on his chest.

He toppled back, catching her on top of him. Chrystal heard a loud crack and looked back to see two of the tentacles flat out on the floor, their mouth’s chewing angrily at the coral tiles right where they’d been standing. She looked down at Brandon.

“Are you okay?”

He looked up at her, right into her eyes. It was a very intimate look. His eyes were really lovely. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that same sort of pale, fresh spring green color. Lines appeared at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

“I’m okay. Why’d you tackle me? What’s in the bathroom?”

Chrystal put a hand on his cheek when he tried to lift his head and look past her. “Don’t look.”

“Why not?”

She rolled off him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. There were more flapping noises from the bathroom. He tried to look but she put her hand up again on his face, stopping him. “Stop looking, okay?” He looked at her. “What do you remember?”

Brandon shrugged. “We were opening the door and you tackled me?”

Chrystal shook her head. “We opened the door, saw the thing in there and you got all mesmerized by its flashing yellow eyes.”

“It has flashing yellow eyes?”

“And a bunch of tentacles that end in some very nasty looking teeth, all coming up out of the toilet like it’s a planter or something. Any idea what that might be?”

“No. It doesn’t sound familiar.”

Down at the end of the hallway, Lowell’s eye-stalks eased around the corner. The robot warbled and floated out into the entry way. Chrystal pointed at the robot. “I’m assuming that can relay video?”

“Yes.”

“Great. This time we’re sending it in to get some scans. We’ve got to identify this thing and find out how to get rid of it.”

Brandon grinned. “Too bad we can’t just flush it.”

“Funny guy. I like that. And not a bad kisser, either.” Chrystal walked away down the hall.

“Wait, when did we kiss?” Brandon asked, following her.

Chrystal ignored the question. When she got to the end of the hall Lowell drifted back away from her. She snapped her  fingers. “Enough of that! We’ve got a job to do and you’re going to help unless you want to risk that thing eating your boss?”

Lowell’s eye-stalks drooped and it gave out a mournful tone.

“That’s what I thought.” Chrystal scooped up one of her tablets. “Give me access to your video feed.”

“Here.” Brandon took the tablet. His fingers danced across the surface, flicking commands as they came up. In a couple seconds, the tablet showed what Lowell was seeing. Brandon handed the tablet back to her.

Chrystal turned it around. Good resolution, she dragged down the robot’s command functions. A decent suite of analytical capabilities. But the view on the screen still showed her and Brandon, standing beside one another, Brandon looking over her shoulder.

“Go on then,” she told Lowell. “Just go as far as the doorway and look in. We need to get a good look at this thing without being mesmerized. And if we can analyze its respiration gasses and other biometric data, maybe we can determine where it came from.”

Lowell floated a meter closer to the hallway but stopped again. His eyes stalks swiveled back around to look at them again.

“Lowell,” Brandon said. “Go on and do what she said. We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

Lowell moved off again at a decidedly sluggish pace. She could still hear the alien flapping against the floor. Soon enough the robot’s eye stalks peered around the corner into the bathroom.

Most of the tentacles had dropped down to the floor again as if it took too much effort to hold them up. The ends flapped against the tile, reminding her of someone tapping their feet with impatience. It must have seen Lowell peeking because one of the tentacles started rising and the pattern of yellow eyes changed. That only lasted a second or two and then the thing seemed to recognize that Lowell wasn’t going to be hypnotized. Or prove edible. Or maybe both. Whatever the case was, it went back to tapping the ends of its tentacles against the floor.

“Move in closer,” Chrystal said. “Get some decent readings and then come on out.”

Lowell drifted on into the open doorway, closer to the alien. The screen segmented, dividing into quadrants that showed various gas concentrations measured by Lowell’s sensors. Brandon pointed to the screen.

“Look at that, it’s giving off methane and carbon dioxide.”

“Like a lot of warm-blooded species,” Chrystal said.

“But look at the concentrations. That’s not Ceti Alpha 5 biology, not by a long shot.”

“So it’s not from here.”

Brandon waved his hand at the screen. “Maybe somebodies’ pet?”

“If I was on the ship I’d consider the chance that this might be a guest,” Chrystal said. “You must have a registry that includes environmental needs of your guests. We should compare these readings to your system. See if this is a match?”

On the screen, Lowell was still keeping his distance but suddenly all the tentacles shot out and wrapped around anything close by, the towel rack, cupboard handles, shower curtain rod, and hand grips for the differently abled. The remaining tentacles that didn’t have something to grab onto braced themselves against the floor. Chrystal didn’t need Lowell’s microphones to make out the sucking sound as the creature pulled and pushed, trying to free itself from the toilet.

A loud squelching noise was followed by a rush of water spilling out of the toilet. Lowell warbled in alarm and drifted back into the hallway. The alien wasn’t free, not yet, but it had gained a couple inches like a particularly difficult bowel movement.

“It’s straining to get free,” she told Brandon.

His fingers flew across the screen of his tablet, flicking aside results that didn’t match. “We don’t have the best data to go on.”

“I’d rather deal with it where it’s at now than if it gets out. Maybe we should just go ahead and call security now.”

Brandon shook his head, causing his hair to fall forward around his face. Chrystal found herself noticing again what a nice face he had, strong jawline, and she liked the way the muscle near his ear tightened as he concentrated.

He blew out his breath and tossed the tablet down on the table. “No match!”

Chrystal reached over and took his hand. Strong, rough skin, and warm. Hands that knew work, like her own, and he didn’t pull away. He knew what she did — intimately — and wasn’t repulsed by it. Always a plus in a guy.

From the bathroom came another electronic warble. On screen, she could see the alien straining again. The tentacles quivered with the effort.

She squeezed his hand. “So good news. It isn’t a guest then, right? If the biometrics don’t match it must be something else. Try the medical database. Maybe this is some sort of parasite that one of your guests evacuated into your system.”

“You think?”

Chrystal shrugged. “Ask me to tell you sometime about the Nosferan tapeworm that ended up in our system.”

“A tapeworm? Aren’t those pretty small…” His voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes. She loved his eyes. “I guess not.”

She smiled. “Yeah, but let’s focus on this. Parasite? Something else? I don’t know —”

Another loud squelch and more water pattered down on the floor. Lowell had backed as far into the hallway as he could and still keep his cameras trained on the bathroom. The creature had tightened its grips but was resting, no doubt gathering itself for one final push.

“This is going to take time,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of data to shift through.”

Chrystal stood up and pulled out her cell. “Keep looking, I’m going to try something else before that thing crawls out here.”

Leaving him to do his search, Chrystal walked over to the entrance to the hallway. Lowell turned one camera stalk in her direction and let out a questioning beep.

“Not yet. Stay there.”

The robot gave a hiss of static.

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she warned it. “Or I’ll shove you inside with the alien and close the door.”

On her cell, she called the service desk.

“Room service, this is May. How might I help you today?” May sounded perky, and human from her voice.

“Hi, this is Chrystal Eagle.” Chrystal gave May her room number, then went on. “I’ve got Brandon here trying to help me out but I don’t think that’s going to do it. Do you happen to have any translation devices down there?”

“Of course we do. Humanoid or non-humanoid?”

“Definitely non-humanoid.”

“Would you like that in a ring, collar, strap, disc or clamp?” May’s voice didn’t show any hesitation at all.

Chrystal thought for a moment. “How about a strap? That’s probably going to be the easiest to get on this thing.”

“I’ll have someone bring that right up! Thank you so much for calling!”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.” Chrystal pocketed the cell and looked back at Brandon. “Any luck in the medical databases?”

He shook his head. “No, it keeps asking me for more information and then says that it can’t find a match!”

“I’ve got another idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Chrystal took a deep breath, and then looked in his green eyes and told him her plan while they waited for the translation strap to arrive.

Room service was fast. It only took a few minutes before the door chimed cheerfully. Chrystal answered it. A young Ashian male — she could tell because of the golden sheen in his chitin — held the strap in his mandibles. A translation disc embedded in his carapace flashed when he spoke.

“Here is the translation strap you requested. It should automatically configure itself to your guest’s neural activity.”

The strap itself looked like a leather belt, made from a reddish, woven material. The fastener was simple, two interlocking electro-magnetic clasps. Just what she wanted.

A loud squelching noise came from the bathroom. The Ashian’s antennae wiggled in that direction.

“Is there anything else that you require?”

“No thanks, not right now, but we’ll let you know.”

“Very good.” With a quick harmonic leg scrape, the Ashian left.

Chrystal closed the door. Brandon came over and looked at the strap and while he did his hand touched the small of her back. Chrystal liked it, but more water splashing noises from the bathroom reminded her of the current problem.

She lifted the strap. “Let’s give this one last try, if it doesn’t work then we can call security and let them sort it out.”

“If you’re right and this thing is intelligent, then this should work.”

“Let’s go find out.”

Chrystal held out her hand. Brandon took it and together they walked down the hallway to the bathroom. She was thinking about the alien, and the risk they were running by facing it and risking the chance that it would hypnotize them both, but that was only a tiny part of her mind. The rest of her attention was on the man beside her, and the feel of his hand in hers.

Lowell floated around to face them when they reached the bathroom. His eyestalks quivered. Brandon held out a hand.

“Hey, buddy, it’s okay. We’ll take care of it now. But if anything goes wrong, I want you to call security. Understand?”

Lowell gave an affirmative beep.

“Okay. Let’s do this. On three. Two. One!” Chrystal burst through the door.

“That was one!” Brandon said.

She didn’t have time to comment. The alien had nearly escaped from the toilet. Its body was long and thick, constricted down into the toilet. It must have been squeezing through for some time. The tentacles still gripped the same points but had coiled around and around each spot. The yellow eyes or bumps tried to flash, but the pattern was chaotic and disorganized.

Chrystal went for the nearest tentacle, one wrapped around the towel rack. It’d gotten toilet water all over her clean towels! Something else for room service to take care of later. She swung the strap down at the tentacle.

With the loud crack of a belt hitting a bare bottom, the strap whipped around the tentacle and the clasp snicked into place.

Chrystal immediately turned away and ran right into Brandon. She looked at his face, afraid he’d been hypnotized again, but this time he was looking at her. She smiled. “We’d better back up.”

A new voice spoke up. “Oh, just my luck! I come out in the honeymoon suite?”

Still pressed against Brandon’s chest, his face in her hair, Chrystal forced herself to talk to the alien. “What are you doing in my toilet?”

“Trying to get out.” More squelching noises. “Look, give me a hand. I’ll go on my way, and no one has to say anything about this to anyone.”

“Why were you in there to start with?” Brandon asked.

“I got myself into a jam. A mess with the local authorities. No big deal, I thought I’d flush my problems away, that’s all. Like I said. Give me a break and I’m gone.”

Chrystal laughed into Brandon’s chest. “Let’s call security now, okay?” She traced his muscles through his shirt. “And maybe after you can tell me when you get off work?”

Brandon kissed the top of her head. “I think I can manage that.”

Arms around each other, they walked out of the bathroom. “Come on, you can’t —”

Brandon pulled the door shut, cutting off the alien’s protest. Lowell gave a relieved warble.

🚀

4,171 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 78th short story release, written in October 2011, and follows my earlier Chrystal Eagle stories, the Greatest Gig and Love, [unprounceable].

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, Next Question.