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.

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.

Killing Bennie

Space became a lot more dangerous since the automation revolution. Crews watched every system. Checked everything for fatal flaws.

They survived — as long as no one made any mistakes.

Paul Carlson fantasized about killing his bunk mate, Bennie Dutton. Not out of malice. Everyone’s survival might depend on whether or not he killed Bennie.

The only question? How to do it and make it look like an accident!

🚀

Paul Carlson lay flat on his bunk trying to decide the best way to shove Bennie Dutton out an airlock. He’d bunked with guys who snored before, both on the station and back dirtside, but nobody came close to the noise that Bennie made. It sounded like a wet fart crossed with a death rattle amplified a thousand times by some freak resonance with the ventilation system. It felt like the whole habitation can vibrated with the sound, hard enough that Paul imagined that the tether might just break from the strain. Would Bennie even wake up before they suffocated? Or would that sound be the last thing Paul heard when he took his final breath?

“Bennie!”

Bennie’s only response was another loud ripping noise.

Paul rubbed his eyes. Back home if Cheri snored, not that she was ever as bad as Bennie, he could get up and sleep on the bean bag in his study. He’d done that more than once rather than wake her up. Here on the Communications Station 10 he didn’t have that option. Each CS was laid out the same with a transfer hub for docking and undocking ships surrounded by four modules tethered to the hub, the whole thing rotating. One hub for the operators routing ground-based telephone calls, a recreation can, the mechanical and life-support can and the habitation can. Two men per can working and living on a rotation during their hundred and twenty days on station. None of the other cans had much room for extra bodies, although in an emergency they could in theory cram four people into a can. Of course, if anything happened to the mec can it wouldn’t matter. And he couldn’t call the transfer car anyway without alerting control.

No, he was stuck with Bennie’s snoring for another hour before they were scheduled to move on to the mec can. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off, six at each can, with no days off for good behavior. If it wasn’t for the pay, he wouldn’t have let them strap him into a capsule on top of a rocket and send him up here in the first place. But he’d done two other rotations already, and it always seemed like Cheri had already spent it all by the time he made it back dirtside. With all of the restoration work available dirtside he’d think she might actually get out and find herself a job, but that never seemed to occur to her even with all of the Restoration propaganda about how there was a job for everyone since the Automation Revolution fifty years ago.

Bennie’s snores sawed and sawed at Paul’s patience. He tried listening to some music but even at full volume the tape player couldn’t compete with Bennie’s snoring and the music was painfully loud.

Paul prided himself on being a reasonable guy. People said that about him. Reasonable, even-keeled, reliable Paul. But he couldn’t take it anymore. He swung his legs out of the bunk and rolled out of his small cubby. He moved too quickly and got a little dizzy with his feet moving faster than his head but he ignored it and reached up into Bennie’s cubby. He shook Bennie’s shoulder.

“Bennie!”

Bennie snorted and rolled over to face the back wall where he stuck had stuck up his pin-ups. Every goddamn night Bennie took them out of his locker and stuck them to the wall. Claimed he couldn’t sleep without them.

Couldn’t jack-off without them. At least he did that quietly. In any case, once he lay on his side facing his fantasy harem Bennie’s snores diminished to only snuffly breathing. Paul could live with that. He sank back down onto his bunk. No sooner did he lay back and pull up his silver thermal blanket than he heard Bennie roll over and the snores rose up like a power tool.

Paul lashed out, hitting the underside of Bennie’s bunk with his fist. It hurt and didn’t make any difference to Bennie, who kept right on snoring. Paul shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw spots. He’d kill Bennie. Going back to figuring out how to space Bennie, that could solve a lot of problems. And Bennie was a bit of an asshole anyway. He liked to listen in on the phone conversations, completely against regulations. Paul could even report him, but it didn’t matter, he was stuck until the end of this rotation. Swapping partners was also against regulations, not that any of the other guys would even consider it. Of course killing Bennie would create new problems for him too. He’d have to handle twice as much work on his shifts, but he could probably manage that. Twice he’d won the switching competition, which was why he kept getting asked back. The other guys might not like working on station with a killer, but they couldn’t do much about it unless they wanted to space him too. Otherwise, they’d have to wait for the switchover flight with the new crew.

But up until the ship came he’d have each can to himself for his shift.

And what if they didn’t even know that he had killed Bennie? If it looked like an accident or suicide, what then? After all, no one would suspect that even-keeled, reliable Paul might kill his shift mate.

A shiver spread through his limbs. He might even get away with it. The alarm sounded, the clanging mechanical bell sounding like God was beating on the outside of the can with a hammer. Loud enough that it woke Bennie who gave one last snort, swung his hairy legs down from the top bunk and jumped down to the floor. He landed and, with his bare hairy ass right at Paul’s head height, let out an obnoxiously loud and long fart. The smell was like spoiled stewed cabbage. Bennie chuckled.

“Man, you’d better wake up,” he said.

Yes, Paul decided, holding his breath as he climbed out of his bunk. Killing Bennie made perfect sense. But he didn’t want to rush into anything. He’d plan it out, and find the perfect time, the perfect method. He climbed out of his bunk every inch of him reasonable Paul, with a bit of a smile on his face.

Bennie turned around, his bulk filling the narrow space between the kitchen and their bunks, scratching at his armpit. “What’re you smiling at? You liked the smell of that?”

“Like roses,” Paul said agreeably. The perfect murder.

Morning had a routine and an order to it. Paul shuffled down the very short aisle and ducked into the toilet closet. He slid the door shut so that Bennie could get past to the shower. One didn’t so much sit and perch on the toilet seat. At least that was the design, Paul checked the seat carefully in case Bennie had gotten up in the night. Just in case. Bennie had a nasty habit of opening the door and letting go from a distance, which usually meant stepping or sitting in a mess. It looked clean enough at the moment. Paul took care of business, cleaning up with the chemical wipes that made the closet smell like a litter box and evacuated the whole business. One more shooting star in the sky. Then it was back out to the kitchen to grab his designated breakfast tray which he’d eat on his bunk then shower while Bennie ate. Together they’d go on to the mec can and take over for Nick and Shaun who’d move on to the ops can, taking over for Reggie and Carl who’d get time in the rec can while Kurt and Andy came back to the hab to grab some more sleep.

Paul peeled back the lid on his tray revealing pasty white muffins, a round of eggs only tinged with yellow and a gray sausage patty. He stacked the eggs and sausage between the muffins and bit into the cold mass. At least the peppery sausage had flavor. While Paul ate Bennie came out of the shower and went straight into the toilet. From the sounds of explosive decompression coming from inside Paul might have thought the toilet had decided to stage a revolution of its own and was ejecting Bennie just like one of the compressed waste capsules it expelled. Bennie’s donkey-like laughter ruined that illusion, but it did give Paul something to consider. Was there any way to turn the toilet into the means of Bennie’s execution? None that he could think of without seriously tampering with the mechanism. Back in the days of automation he could probably have punched up some commands and caused all of the various valves and hatches to open at the same time, decompressing the inside of the toilet. But now it was all mechanical. Open one, and the others closed. Without some serious work he couldn’t rig it and when could he do the work with Bennie always a few feet away?

Bennie came out scratching his hairy belly with one hand, his ass with the other, while Paul vainly hoped that his shift mate might actually clean his hands. But no, Bennie reached into the dispenser for his breakfast tray without once considering the need to grab a chemical wipe. Paul also hadn’t heard the toilet function.

“Bennie, did you flush the toilet?”

Bennie snorted and climbed up in his bunk, an act which forced Paul to turn and face the wall until Bennie was on the bunk above. “No man, sorry. I forgot. Mind getting it when you hit the shower?”

“How hard is it to flush the toilet? You can’t turn a simple crank now? Or use a wipe for that matter?”

“When did you become my mum?” Bennie snorted. “Besides, I thought we’d leave a present for Curly and Pansy.”

“Don’t call them that.”

“Why?” Bennie said, his voice muffled by food.

Paul took a breath and let it go. He ate the last bite of his muffin, glad to be done, and climbed out of his bunk. The tray went into the trash compactor, and he took the few steps to the shower. If he didn’t do something about the toilet Bennie really would leave a present for Kurt and Andy. It wasn’t right. He opened the toilet door. The odor that came out was foul—he’d been in farm yards that smelled better. Drops of urine glistened on the toilet seat and inside was a nasty wet mess. Paul fought not to gag as he reached in and pulled out a chemical wipe from the dispenser. And another, and one more for good luck.

“Aw man, you could’ve left it,” Bennie complained.

Paul ignored him. This mess didn’t look healthy. Maybe he didn’t need to kill Bennie at all, maybe there was something wrong with him, eating at his gut and he’d just drop dead soon enough. Paul wiped down the seat, tossed two of the wipes into the toilet and used the last to wipe off the crank handle even though it was unlikely Bennie had touched that part. He tossed the last wipe in and spun the crank. The mechanism rotated over, taking the mess away while other parts scraped, cleaned and polished the plate. The crank clunked to a stop when the evacuation process completed. Paul shut the toilet. He shucked off his dirty uniform and stuffed it into the recycler, then went eagerly into the narrow shower.

There he hit the button and jets of lukewarm water shot out of several nozzles for twenty seconds to wet him from head to foot. Paul missed soaking in a long hot shower like back home. Right now he could really use a long scalding hot soak. He dispensed the soap and scrubbed all over. Then he hit the button again and scrubbed away the soap before the water stopped. Then he punched the button that turned on the driers. Hot hair blew out at him from several directions. Paul closed his eyes and imagined having both shower allocations after Bennie met his unfortunate end.

The air ended, and Paul went back out to find Bennie in the aisle squeezing into his uniform. Paul couldn’t get to the dispenser to get his own uniform. He crossed his arms and waited. Bennie managed to tear the elbow on his left sleeve.

“Gosh, would you look at that! These cheap cellulose uniforms are rubbish.”

“We’ve got to get going, mind if I get something to wear?”

Bennie looked over at him and laughed. “No, man. Sorry.” He backed up and leaned against the forward airlock door. He waved his arm at the dispenser. “Be my guest.”

Paul walked over to the dispenser. He pulled the door down and took out the pressed and folded uniform. Too bad he couldn’t make the airlock door pop open. He pictured Bennie falling back inside, caught by surprise. Paul stepped into the uniform imagining the look on Bennie’s face when he pulled the door shut and sealed him inside. The uniform was big on Paul, one of those one-size fits all designs that only fit a small percentage of the population well.

The alarm sounded again, clanging with headache-inducing vigor, to announce the shift transfer. Motors kicked on and hummed as the transfer car was brought over from the mec can. At the same time the other cars would ride the cable strung between cans so that each shift moved at the same time from one can to the next. Although the process was technically automated, it didn’t violate the strictures because the whole process was largely mechanical and required human participation to work. Bennie turned around as the can rang from the transfer car docking. Docking caused the airlock release to trigger, and the inner door slid open. Paul followed Bennie into the small space, barely big enough for the two of them. Being closer to the door than Bennie he was the one that shoved the lever down to shut the inner door and release the outer door. If he really wanted to kill Bennie by using the airlock, he’d have to figure out a way to trigger that mechanism from inside the can, after releasing the lockout on the inner door.

The inner door finally shut and the outer door opened along with the transfer car door. A blast of cold air flowed from the transfer car into the can. The transfer cars lacked life-support, really nothing more than a portable airlock that moved between the widely-spaced cans. Bennie went ahead into the transfer car, still fiddling with the tear in his sleeve. Paul followed him and then shoved the lever down in the transfer car. That closed the airlock and car doors and triggered their departure. The electric motor hummed and the car moved forward along the cable. Paul didn’t like thinking about how tenuous their connection was to the station at this point. One steel cable and an electric pulley kept them from being flung off into space. What if he sabotaged the cable and somehow got Bennie in the transfer car alone? If he made it look like a micrometeorite had impacted the cable, then Bennie’s death might look like a tragic accident and his survival a fortunate twist of fate.

The transfer car completed the transit to the mec can without Paul figuring out a way to stage the accident. The car hit the dock hard, making the inside ring like a bell. Right then Bennie started laughing.

“Why’re you laughing?” Paul asked. Then he smelled that rancid, sour smell and knew. “Come on man!”

Bennie laughed harder as he lifted the lever to open the doors. Paul followed him into the mec can’s rear airlock. Inside Bennie checked the light above the door. Green, the mec can was clear. Bennie pulled the lever, and the inner door slid out of the way. They went on through.

The mec can hummed with the sound of the machinery working. A pulse ran through the deck plating from the circulation pumps. The mec can had even less room to move in than the hab, with more space given over to the power and life-support systems. The mec provided all of the air circulation and the power storage from the mag lines that radiated out from the hub, pulling power from the planet’s magnet field as the station rotated. Bennie went straight to the farthest workstation forward and dropped into the chair. He spun it around.

That gave Paul an idea, maybe a simple idea. Loosen the bolts that held the chair post to the deck and the next time Bennie did that he’d topple over. But honestly, falling from the chair probably wouldn’t be enough to kill Bennie.

Paul picked up the work log board. Nick and Shaun had left a note that the air filters needed scrubbing again. Readings had to be taken from the various systems and noted in the log. Otherwise, it looked like systems were still operating efficiently. The station had been designed with simplicity and minimal maintenance in mind, but without automation they had to check and measure everything themselves.

“Readings or filters?” Paul looked up from the board. Bennie was excavating his nose. “Bennie?”

Bennie flicked his finger. “I’ll check readings.”

 

🚀

Six hours with Bennie in the mec room gave Paul more opportunities to consider ways to carry out his homicidal designs. Electrocution looked like the most likely possibility, given the real risk of it when checking on the batteries. Bennie, for all of his disgusting personal habits, actually managed to do the job safely. But a snag in the gloves, if it went unnoticed, could result in a bad shock. Maybe enough to kill, if the contact was sustained. Given the cramped quarters, a person could, in theory, get stuck between the battery drawers and the wall while being electrocuted. But chances were that Bennie’d notice any damage and slap on more electrical tape to patch them up, or if the damage was too obvious, he might just recycle those gloves and take another pair out of supplies.

While scrubbing clean yet another filter Paul considered another possibility. Some sort of sabotage to the air system, leading to Bennie’s suffocation. Poetic, but damaging the air system would likely kill everyone else on the station too unless they got into suits fast enough.

 

🚀

From the mec can, Paul followed Bennie into the ops can, the whole reason for the station to exist. For the next six hours he didn’t have much time to consider killing Bennie while routing international telephone calls from one trunk to another. Still, the idea floated around the corners of his mind, but there wasn’t even much of anything in the room to use as a weapon except maybe electrical wiring. Paul saw Bennie snake a hand down the front of his uniform, scratch vigorously and then he reached up and continued switching calls. Garroting Bennie with wire pulled out of the switchboard wouldn’t look like an accident at all, but if people knew what it was like to live with Bennie they might understand.

At least the calls kept him busy. He dreaded the next stop on their rotation.

 

🚀

The rec can, like the others lacked much space. A small library of paperback books, a selection of magazines, a radio, and a television. They received a dozen different channels on the television, all restoration-approved, of course. The drawers held decks of cards, chips, and a selection of board games. It also contained two bunks just like the hab can. Bennie went for his dinner tray first, turned on the television, and retreated to the upper bunk to eat while he watched the television.

By this time of the day all Paul wanted to do was sleep. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Bennie cracked up at something on television. Paul’s head started to throb. He imagined yanking Bennie out of his bunk, shoving him back to the airlock and what? He still hadn’t figured out a way to override the lockout. The airlock wouldn’t open unless a transfer car docked and triggered the release. He could call a transfer call, but that would get sent in the telemetry back to control, and they’d be on the radio in minutes demanding an answer. And he couldn’t very well space Bennie if there was a transfer car docked anyway.

Even-keeled Paul didn’t actually pull Bennie out of his bunk. He let the day-dream go and went to the toilet instead to take advantage of the opportunity to use the facilities before Bennie. After he had finished, he picked up his own tray, turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes today, and went to the bottom bunk. The noise from the television pounded at his head, and every time Bennie laughed it set his teeth on edge.

“Could you turn that down? Bennie?”

“I’d have to get up then.”

Paul pulled the tab to heat his tray, put it down and got up himself. He turned the volume down on the television, showing some old war movie.

“Come on,” Bennie complained. “That’s too low.”

“I’ve got a headache,” Paul said. “That noise is making it worse.”

“Why don’t you put on a helmet or something?”

Paul ignored him and returned to his bunk. If Bennie really cared, he could get up and change the volume himself. Paul picked up his tray. Now the bottom felt hot. It’d be another ten minutes before the food was somewhat warm. It’d never get truly hot, but it was better than eating it as a cold congealed mass. He held it in his lap while he waited and closed his eyes. Sleep tugged at him, beckoning for him to let go, forget about eating and just sleep. A loud explosion from the television got an even louder laugh from Bennie. Paul opened his eyes.

Food poisoning, that was something he hadn’t considered. There might be some chemical in the mec can supplies that could poison Bennie. But again, it had the same problem as more direct ways of killing. They’d discover that Bennie had been poisoned. The first thing they’d do would be to look at Bennie’s shift-mate, the one person that was locked in a can with him.

Paul peeled off the fork stuck to the lid of his tray, then slid the lid off and dug into the meal. The turkey didn’t taste like much, and the potatoes didn’t taste much different, but there was plenty of pepper in the gravy covering everything. Dill flavored the small helping of carrots. As anticipated, the tray had warmed the food, but he wouldn’t call it hot. By the time he finished eating, he couldn’t hardly keep his eyes open. He got up and put the tray in the recycler and then crawled back into the bunk. He pulled the blankets up, closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep.

Bennie laughed, and it sounded like one of his farts. Wet, and long, with much gasping and moaning.

Paul closed his eyes tighter and tried not to pay attention. If he could only get some sleep then maybe he wouldn’t have to kill Bennie. They could go on doing their jobs, and nobody had to die. As tired as he was the noise Bennie was making was making it hard to sleep. Bennie had told him to get a helmet. He had a point there. It was hard to hear anything except your own breath in those things. Of course, he couldn’t do the helmet by itself unless he wanted to suffocate himself, and he wasn’t that tired yet. If he ever did a rotation again, he was going to bring some sort of ear plugs in his personal space allotment. But the helmet? If he suited up, he could wear the helmet and maybe get some sleep.

He lay for a few minutes on the bunk, but the television and Bennie’s noises proved too much. Why not try it? He rolled out of the bunk and went forward to the locker beside the airlock.

“What’re you doing?” Bennie asked.

Paul opened the locker and took out the first suit. Another one-size fits all garment. He stripped off his uniform. Bennie started laughing.

“You’re not putting on a suit!”

“Obviously I am.” Paul stepped into the first leg and pulled it up. The material stretched and squeezed his foot and calf. The space activity suit provided mechanical pressure to keep fluids from pooling, while it retained mobility. Putting it on, that was the hard part. Paul worked up one leg then switched and did the other. It felt like putting on a pair of pants four sizes too small. He always thought he wouldn’t get into it, but somehow the material expanded just enough while keeping up the pressure. If he could just wear the helmet he would, but with the gap around the neck it probably wouldn’t keep out the noise as well. Bennie went back to watching the television rather than watching Paul get into the suit.

By the time he finished, Paul was even more tired. He grabbed the helmet and snapped it into the ring, then took out the tanks. Four hours and then an alarm would sound. It sounded like a good deal to him. He snapped the hoses in place, and cold air hissed into the helmet. His ears popped, and he tasted a sort of metallic flavor, but then he was breathing normally. Even better the sounds of the television and Bennie had muted to only a dull sound in the background, lost in the general background noise of the can. Paul walked back to the bunk. He saw Bennie laughing but didn’t hear most of the sound.

Lying down in the suit was a challenge. It was somewhat flexible, but he couldn’t bend far. Even so, he managed. He lay back in the bunk, tanks beside him and closed his eyes listening to the soft hiss of the air coming in and out of his tanks.

In minutes he fell asleep.

 

🚀

A loud clanging alarm woke Paul. He tried to sit, a challenge in the suit and braced himself on his elbows. The alarm wasn’t coming from the suit. That was outside, in the can, the sound muffled by his helmet. Paul checked the time. Two hours since he went to sleep. His eyes felt like sandpaper, and he reached up to rub them, but his gloved hands hit the helmet. He started to reach for the catch on the helmet but stopped.

Why was an alarm ringing? It wasn’t shift change.

“Bennie?”

He didn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear anything over that alarm. Paul rolled out of the bunk.

Bennie lay slumped in the upper bunk at an uncomfortable angle. Paul left him there and moved forward to the airlock where an alarm light flashed. It was the carbon dioxide build-up alert. He opened the panel and plugged into the station communications system.

“General, this is the rec can. We’ve got a carbon dioxide alarm here and an unconscious crewman. Respond.”

No one came back.

Paul unplugged and opened the suit locker. He grabbed the other helmet and tanks. He took those over to Bennie’s bunk. He shoved the helmet over Bennie’s head and plugged in the lines to the tank, then twisted the valve open. Bennie kept breathing.

Moving as fast as he could he went to the forward airlock and called the transfer car. Control had to know by now that there was a problem with the life support system. Paul went back to Bennie and shook him.

“Bennie! Wake up!”

Bennie’s eyes fluttered. He blinked and looked at Paul. “What?”

“Get up. Now.”

“Why?” Bennie scowled and licked his lips. He reached up to his head, and his hand hit the helmet. “What?”

“Carbon dioxide alarm. I need you to go rear while I move forward. We need to get helmets on the other guys and meet at the mec can to figure out the problem.” The can rang as the transfer car docked. “You got it?”

Bennie blinked again, but he nodded and swung his legs off the bunk. Paul didn’t wait to see if Bennie actually got down. He went to the airlock and opened the lever to let him pass through to the transfer car. At least the rest of the systems were working.

Back in the hab can Paul found Nick and Shaun on their bunks, both still had a pulse, but Shaun didn’t respond as Paul forced a helmet on his head. Without a full suit, they wouldn’t get the entire benefit, but he didn’t think he could get their limp bodies into suits. At least he had fresh air blowing past their faces. Beyond that, he couldn’t do much until they got the systems work. Once he had them situated, he called the next transfer car. Hopefully, Bennie had gone on back to the ops can.

When he got to the mec can, Bennie hadn’t arrived yet. Reggie was stretched out on the floor near the suit closet as if he had realized the problem and collapsed before he could get there. Carl was slumped over at his workstation. Paul retrieved helmets and air tanks, first getting Reggie’s on and then Carl’s. Then he looked at the system. The filters all showed red. Paul cursed and went to the first access rack. He flipped the toggles and pulled the first filter free. Even through the helmet, he heard the sound of air whistling past. A scrap of a uniform flew around and into the gap opened by pulling the filter.

They’d been holed!

Paul slapped the filter back into place and went to the supply closet. Just then he heard a transfer car slam into the airlock dock. Paul pulled open the closet and grabbed the patching kits. He’d just shut the closet when Bennie came through with Kurt behind him. Both of them just in helmets with tanks hanging by the straps over their shoulders.

“Take these,” Paul said, passing the kits to Bennie. He opened the supply closet again and took out two more that he clipped to his suit’s utility belt. “I’m going out to inspect the outside. We’ve been holed, somewhere in the filtration system. You’ll need to pull the racks and look for the holes. I’ll inspect the unit from outside.”

Bennie shuffled past Paul, and then Kurt, with his curly brown hair pressing against the inside of the helmet. Paul made it into the airlock and shoved over the switch. Then he went into the transfer car and shoved the switch over to close the lock. The transfer car started to move, but he opened a panel and pressed down the braking lever. The car stopped. The next part was tricky, but they’d all practiced it in simulations for just this sort of emergency.

Paul opened another panel and pulled out a safety line on a spool along with a hand crank reel. Then he took out what looked like a small black gun with a round disc on the front. That was the magnetic anchor he’d use to rig a line between the transfer car and the can. He attached the safety line. Then he clipped on and positioned himself in front of the transfer car door. It took two releases, one on each side to open the door when not docked. He pulled the first, then the second. The atmosphere in the car blew past him, but the safety line kept him anchored. After the atmosphere had vented, he took aim with the gun and shot the magnetic clamp at the can. It hit the can more or less where he wanted to go and stuck.

The mec can hung above him, looking much larger from this angle, a big blocky cylinder with square components sticking out into space. A dark groove on one side was the opening that the airlock door slid through when opened. From the top of the can rose a thin looking tower of struts around the tether and the lines that pumped air and power back through the hub to the other stations. The hub wasn’t so far away that he couldn’t see it, but in the bright sunlight it hurt his eyes. He focused on the mec can and stepped off. The station was rotating, and the line sagged as he hung beneath it. One mistake and the station would throw him off into space. The clamp held. Paul activated the small motor in the reel and held on as it dragged him across the gap.

Paul came in fast and caught a handhold beside the airlock.

His radio sputtered. “Paul, this is Bennie, how’s it going out there?”

“I’m on the can, making my way around to the air filtration systems now.”

“We’ve patched one hole, but we can’t reach the other. It’s up on the top, and we just can’t get to it. Looks like something went right through the unit.”

Paul crawled along the skin using inset handholds on the surface, just like climbing a wall. “I’m working my way there.”

The unit was a big block sticking out of the can. He saw the hole that Bennie had patched, it looked like a small pimple in the skin. He pulled himself up the end of the can to the top. There he could actually stand up and walk. It didn’t take long to reach the top side. Paul found a small crater at the top of the unit with air fogging out into space. He crouched and pulled out the patch kit. He took out the small plate and the tube of instant sealing compound. He worked carefully, squeezing out a rope of material around the outer edge of the plate and then a second ring inside the first. He pressed the plate into place over the hole and activated the charge unit. One quick zap like a Taser and the sealing compound bonded the plate with the can. It’d take a torch to cut it free now.

“How does it look in there?”

“Pressure is increasing,” Kurt said.

“We’ve swapped out the damaged filters,” Bennie added. “I think we’re good for you to come on back. Carbon dioxide levels are falling across the station.”

 

🚀

By the time they contacted control and explained everything three more hours had passed. Paul glossed over how he’d managed to get into the suit in time to help with the emergency. Control offered them all bonuses for handling the emergency. Paul didn’t care about that, he just wanted to get some sleep, and for once even Bennie couldn’t keep him up. His last thought before sleep overtook him was that he should be grateful that Bennie snored or he wouldn’t have been in his suit when the emergency hit and they all probably would have died.

And on their next rotation to the mec can Paul used the damaged air scrubbers to fashion himself a pair of ear muffs. It didn’t block out Bennie’s snoring completely, but it at least muffled it enough so that he gave up his plans of killing Bennie.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 75th short story release, written in January 2011. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

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

Space Lot

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

“What was that?” Darren said.

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

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

“You’re not,” Lex said.

“Stop!” Darren said. “Listen!”

“Chase,” Kl’ct said.

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

“Alert. Alert.”

“We hear it,” Darren said.

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

“Shit,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”

Darren said, “Call home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Lex nodded. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kl’ct and Lex stopped to look up.

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

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

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

“What?” Three voices asked at once.

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

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

“We should go help,” Darren said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trapped. No way out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not meteorites?” Lex said.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re in here!”

Mike pounded on the glass.

“Stop it,” Darren said. “Stop!”

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

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

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

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

Kl’ct hissed softly and scuttled backward around Lex.

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

“Attack?” Lex said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod had hit him!

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

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

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

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

“You’re pretty tough,” Darren said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McQueen laughed harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What if the dome depressurizes?” Lex asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Rod tapped his arm. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

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

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said.

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

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

Darren finally relaxed and turned back to face his friends.

“That was insane,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Throw rocks?” Kl’ct said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s right,” Darren added.

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

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

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

“Other ways out?” Kl’ct said.

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” Kl’ct said.

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

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

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

Lex nodded. “Sure okay.”

“Sure okay,” Kl’ct said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Here, here!”

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

EMERGENCY ACCESS ONLY. NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS.

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

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Open it.”

“Is it going to sound an alarm?”

“Likely result,” Kl’ct said.

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

It didn’t move.

“Come on,” Lex said. “What’s wrong?”

“It won’t move,” Darren said.

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

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

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

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

“Unnecessary,” Kl’ct said.

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

“What are you doing?” Darren said.

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

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

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

“Larger humans help?” Kl’ct said.

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

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

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

Darren said, “No. Let’s ask them.”

“Really?” Lex said.

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

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

“I can check it out,” Mike said.

He stepped away and spread his wings.

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

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

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

“Right!” Mike said.

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

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

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

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

Darren shouted, “Okay.”

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

“They’re just up ahead.”

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

Rod turned around. “What are you doing?”

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

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

The guys caught up.

“The drots fixed it,” McQueen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Rod said. “Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be dumb, help me!”

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

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

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

“Everyone!” Rod said.

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

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

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

“Keep pushing!”

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

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

“One. Two. Three!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sorry,” Rod said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren pulled back. “Who attacked the station?”

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

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

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Darren said. “I’m fine.”

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

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

He had to be ready for it.

🚀

4,690 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Garden of Evan

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

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

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

🚀

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

He was late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two minutes.

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

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

“Go through,” Evan said.

“You’re across the stream!”

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

“Go,” Evan panted.

One minute.

“No,” Sarah said.

“I’ll get there,” Evan said.

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

He wasn’t going to make it.

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

Twenty seconds.

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

“Go! Sarah! Go!”

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

Now he just had to get it out of range.

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

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

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

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

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

And tasty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WELCOME TO THE GARDEN OF EVAN.

PLEASE REMOVE SHOES.

HAVE IDENTIFICATION READY FOR IMMIGRATION CONTROL.

RING BELL FOR SERVICE.

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

“Me. Me. Me. Me,” the scalies said.

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

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

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

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

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

He went on about his rounds.

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

“Hey Lupe,” Evan said to the furball.

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Evan,” Sarah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are all of the books?”

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

“Journals. Records, observations of everything.”

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

“Back?”

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

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

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

“So what took you so long?”

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

“They scattered, to other worlds?”

“You figured that out?”

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

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

“Have you found any of those worlds?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you establishing new colonies?”

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

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

“I have a request,” he said.

“What is it?”

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

“You have to come back,” she said.

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

“Evan, you can’t stay here alone.”

“Lupe,” Lupe said.

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine,” Evan said.

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

🚀

6,671 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Bouncing Baby Boy

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary laughed. “It’ll be fine.”

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

“Du du!” Micro-Gee shouted.

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

“Du du. Du du. Du du.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Du du!”

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Du du.”

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

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

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

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

Blackness.

Nothing but black outside the ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Micro-Gee! Wait!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

🚀

2,832 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

The Wind of Rushing Trees

EEQ-14, the 14th Earth-Equivalent planet surveyed lay outside the ship out of Kyle’s reach since his parents didn’t let him out.

Regulations. Rules. Worry that he might get hurt by the planet’s unusual plants.

Only what more could they do? He was already trapped inside.

A story for anyone who longs for an adventure.

🚀

Kyle watched the golden sunset through a porthole pitted with the years of micrometeorite impacts. The glass, called glass even though it wasn’t really but because that’s what people called it, gave the scene outside a fuzzy, dreamy quality. Complicated growths rose up from the surface of the planet outside. Trees. That’s what people called them, though they weren’t. At least the trees he’d read about, the ones from Earth, those didn’t walk on thick gnarled legs that would take a chain of a dozen adults to reach around.

These trees walked.

From the safety of the Earthseed’s living quarters Kyle watched the trees walking outside, taller even than the huge vessel that had brought his parents to this planet. To EEQ-14, the fourteenth Earth-Equivalent planet found by some survey done back in the solar system he’d never seen. Here, on this planet, trees hundreds of feet tall walked toward a golden sunset.

No one tree looked just like any of the others. He could see one close now to the window. The bark of the trunk-legs looked rough and dark like the scab he’d gotten on his knee after falling down while running on the track around the habitation deck. As the trunks rose they melded together into a fantastically massive solid trunk bigger than the survey shuttles that hung in the Earthseed’s hangar deck. Thick branches stuck out at all angles from the trunk, writhing and lashing about, always moving as if propelled by a strong breeze. The end of each branch was covered in broad round gray-green leaves. The tree leaned forward, branches blowing back and snapping forward whip-like as it strode after the setting sun. Old leaves twirled and spun off in its wake.

Hundreds of trees, thousands of trees, a whole parade of trees, chased the sunset in a sort of mad stampede. Kyle worried about the Earthseed. If those trees collided with the ship even the defensive shields wouldn’t hold. He pictured those massive limbs, those scabby trunk-legs, ripping through the skin of the ship, casting the crew down, crushing them beneath the branching “feet” at the bottom of each trunk.

“Clive,” he asked the ship. “Is the ship in any danger from the trees?”

The ship answered, calm tones soothing. “I don’t believe so. This island was monitored by remote probes for the three weeks we stayed in orbit. None of the trees crossed the river to the island.”

“Can you give me audio? I want to hear what it sounds like out there.”

“Of course, Kyle.”

A loud rushing sound filled the room like a gale. It roared and pulsed through the room. He heard branches creaking, snapping, the creak and groans of wood tortured and twisted. The din filled the room. He pressed his hands against his ears.

“Turn it down!”

“My apologies,” Clive said. “That was the decibel level outside.”

The sound dropped. Still loud, but not so loud that Kyle felt the need to cover his ears. He pressed his face against the warm glass, looking through the many layers as the trees rushed by. He heard the water rushing over the rocks below the island where the Earthseed perched. Another tree came into view, easily twice as massive than those in front of it. Two lesser trees scattered from its path. One of the smaller trees, still at least a hundred feet tall, slipped at teetered on rocks along the river’s edge. Branches whipped and snapped as it fought to keep its balance. He heard the cracking booms of its limbs and trunks. Then the giant was past and the smaller tree regained its footing.

EEQ-14’s sun sank lower. Only the tops of the trees still glowed with that golden light. Above them the blue sky, laced with bits and pieces of clouds scattered across the sky, dimmed.

“Okay, restore the sound to the outside level.”

“As you wish.”

The sound rushed as if he had been dropped into a storm. It battered at his ears but Kyle didn’t cover them. He stood, bracing himself against the window. If he focused he could hear the river, or the sounds of the smaller tree stomping away through the rocks, kicking some in sharp cracks like gunfire. But the din didn’t sound quite as loud as it had been only a minute earlier.

While he watched the trees started to slow and the sound of wind dropped. He heard the river clearly.

Behind him the door hissed open.

“Kyle! What is that racket?”

Kyle turned around as his mother rushed into the room. Claire Mainter, biologist and well-liked on the crew. Petite, dressed in her tight blue uniform, her blond hair pulled back into a pony tail. Kyle had once heard Assistant Director Pete Collins refer to her as a pixie. When he had told her that she had grinned and laughed, but Dad hadn’t looked happy about it. When he had asked what it meant she said that it meant that she reminded Mr. Collins of people from fantasy stories, but if that was the case then he didn’t know why it bothered Dad.

“Clive,” Claire snapped. “Turn that off.”

The sound cut off immediately. “My apologies, Dr. Mainter.”

“What were you doing?” Kyle’s mother asked again.

“I wanted to hear what it sounded like outside.”

A smile crossed her face and was gone like a flash of sunshine. “It sounds like a storm, doesn’t it?”

Kyle nodded enthusiastically.

“The thing is they only move when there’s been good weather. It’s like they have to build up their reserves and then they make a run for it all at once. Unless there are other trees in their way and then they just wait, like at the start of a race when you’re in the back and can’t start running for several minutes, not until the people in front of you are going.”

Kyle hadn’t ever been in a race. He hadn’t been anywhere expect on the Earthseed. First in space, and then here on EEQ-14. Running wasn’t allowed in the ship corridors. But he didn’t point that out to his mother.

“I think we’ll see a few more stampedes like this one before the season ends.”

“They don’t move when it gets colder?” He knew the answer, Calvin had showed him the survey videos done.

But knowing the answer and hearing it from his mother were two different things. He so rarely saw her these days. It was always survey this, survey that. The trees rushing to get nowhere gave him a rare chance to have her home. Even now, though, he saw her eyes starting to drift to the door that led into her small office. If she went in there she wouldn’t come out again, not for hours and hours.

“Why do they do it?” he asked, trying to keep her talking. “Why do the trees move like that? They don’t do that back on Earth, do they?”

She shook her head, blond ponytail bouncing. “No. Trees on Earth stay rooted in one spot. They do move, growing to get the best light, but that happens slower than we can see most of the time. The trees here evolved this unique survival mechanism. Basically if there’s space on one side and trees on the other they build up energy and then dash away, as far away as they have energy to travel, before putting down more roots. That creates a gap that then the next trees rush to fill and so on until some trees aren’t ready or it gets too cold.”

Kyle’s forehead wrinkled. “Wouldn’t they all just stop, I mean like even out so no one is too close to anyone else?”

His mother reached out and pulled him close into a hug. She crouched down beaming at him. “You’re so smart! It does seem like that’d happen, wouldn’t it? There’s more going on here than just access to light, though. Soil properties, terrain barriers, and injuries or death of trees. Sometimes they end up clustered together and then the cluster runs apart only to encounter others, and well, it’s a very chaotic system.”

“It sounds cool,” Kyle said enthusiastically. “Couldn’t we go out and see them closer?”

“Sorry honey, it’s dangerous. Once we understand the details more of what’s going on, and find a way that’s safe for the trees to keep them out, then maybe we’ll be able to claim a section of land for our settlement. For now we’ve got to stay in the ship.”

She stood up and touched his shoulder. “In fact I’ve got lots of work to do. Are you okay playing by yourself for a while longer? If I could just work for an hour then I’ll make dinner. Deal?”

Kyle kicked at the featureless floor. “Sure.”

“Thanks honey. I’ll see you at dinner. If your father gets back in before then maybe he’ll join us.”

Fat chance of that happening. Kyle forced a smile on to his face. “I’m fine. Go ahead.”

With a final wave his mother disappeared through the door into her office. She wouldn’t come out in only an hour, despite what she said. Time always got away from her and if he tried reminding her she’d just say that she couldn’t stop yet. He’d find something else to do and if it got too late he’d fix dinner for himself. Chances were he’d go to bed without seeing either of his parents again tonight.

🚀

Life on the Earthseed hadn’t changed much with landing on EEQ-14. Kyle had his studies and his parents had their work. They all stayed busy all the time, except for brief moments like earlier with his Mom when their paths crossed. As Kyle sat at the slide out table eating his reheated meal of roast beef and roasted vegetables, he looked out the window at the trees still rushing on even as the sun had nearly set.

A whole group rushed into view, jockeying about for position. A tall thin tree with many whip-like branches was gaining ground on the others, widening its lead. Then it suddenly slowed. A few more faltering steps and it stopped in its tracks. Kyle put a piece of zucchini in his mouth and chewed, enjoying the slightly rubbery garlic and oil flavor of the zucchini while watching the show outside. The other trees caught up almost immediately but one big tree with gnarled dark brown bark failed to change course fast enough.

It smashed into the thinner tree! Branches whipped out grappling with each other as both trees tottered. Kyle rose from his seat and pressed his face to the window. The other trees in the crowd managed to change course, parting to pass around the two struggling trees. The trees that had collided rocked back and forth, smashing at one another in an effort to get disentangled.

“Let me hear it, Calvin, but keep the volume down so we don’t bother my mother.”

“Of course,” Calvin answered.

With the volume low it sounded like a distant wind blowing in the trees, but wasn’t overpowering like it had been before. It was still enough that Kyle could hear the snapping cracks of the branches as the two trees fought.

It looked like a fight now. They pummeled each other and staggered around, some branches always locked together. The other trees had already gone past and were in fact slowing but these two trees seemed determined to fight over that spot.

The fight didn’t last long. The thinner, maybe younger, tree that had stopped first ripped itself free of the other’s grip, leaving behind branches in the process. It ran away on two massive trunks. The bigger victor settled down in the vacated spot. Thick tendrils at the bottom of its trunk sank into the earth. The branches shook and broken bits, including those torn from the other tree, rained down on the ground beneath it. The sun had nearly set when its branches drooped down and hung still at last.

The other trees had also stopped. The wind of the rushing trees died down and the forest was silent. A large gap remained around the victorious tree, while the loser had moved as close to others as it could.

“Okay, thank you Calvin, that’s enough.”

“As you wish.”

Kyle rocked back in his seat. The trees had finally stopped moving. Shouldn’t it be safe to go out among them? He knew that some of the biologists did that, went out at night to collect specimens. He’d get in trouble if he was caught, not just from his parents but for breaking ship regulations.

But it might be worth it, too. A chance to get out of the ship and explore? What could they do except confine him again, just like now?

🚀

Thinking about sneaking out of the Earthseed and doing it were two very different things. Kyle finished up his meal, put the dishes and utensils in the recycler and then headed back to his room to get his stuff.

His pod, for one, so that he could record and document what he saw. The emergency flashlight from his room because it was getting dark. He wanted some sort of bag and settled on grabbing one of his spare shirts. He knotted the sleeves together and tied off the bottom of the shirt, leaving the neck open. It gave him a basic bag. He tossed the pod and flashlight into it, then slung rolled the whole thing up into a bundle which he tucked under his arm. Carrying it like a bag might draw attention, the bundle shouldn’t get much notice.

As big as the Earthseed was, it didn’t take very long to get where Kyle wanted to go. All he had to do was walk down the corridor to the nearest transit car, get in and use his palm authentication to give the car his destination. The forward, main airlock. The car took him to the hub lobby just off the main airlock bay.

It was very busy. Kyle had only ever been here once before, with his father for a class assignment to see where most of the activity in and out of the ship happened. There were other ports of entry, but the primary one was at the Earthseed’s fattest point, mid-section, part of the wider bulge that wrapped around the ship. Everything connected up to it, all of the vehicles and shuttles, and maintenance droids. As the car came to a stop Kyle had his face pressed to the car’s bubble top, just trying to take it all in.

The hub lobby ceiling was far above. Actually, ceiling was all relative since the Earthseed maintained an internal gravity field. The dock his car stopped at was only one of dozens strung like beads along a string that curved up, away and overhead at least 50 meters above. Transit cars buzzed in and out constantly, docking only long enough to pick people up or let them get out, and the string he was in was only one of a dozen other tracks suspended above the main floor.

The canopy top slid silently back and warm air that smelled of machines and people flooded the car’s interior. But beneath that familiar smell was something else, richer and organic. The smell of the air outside?

“Please disembark,” Calvin’s voice said. “In order to facilitate the timeliness of the transit system, please disembark.”

Kyle grabbed his bundle and scrambled out of the car onto the platform. He glanced up at the cars and docks overhead, the swallowed when his stomach wanted to do somersaults. He focused on the dock beneath his feet but the scuffed deck plating showing the wear of so many feet did little to comfort him.

“Thank you,” Calvin’s voice said again.

“You’re welcome,” Kyle said automatically, even though he knew that Calvin wasn’t really focused on him at the moment. That voice was nothing more than a subordinate program running simultaneously along with thousands upon thousands of others at the moment. The ship’s artificial intelligence wasn’t really paying attention to him. At least Kyle hoped that Calvin wasn’t paying attention. But if Calvin was, he wasn’t questioning what Kyle was doing down at the main docks.

Kyle hurried on, just in case Calvin had some program watching to see if anyone lingered on the transit docks. He took the ramp down to the main concourse and headed toward the main airlock.

Calling it the main airlock made it sound like there was only one, when in fact there was a whole complex of airlocks. Big ones designed for vehicle use that could accommodate entire convoys, as well as all sorts of specialized airlocks for different equipment. He didn’t really know all the details, but he had learned that the smaller maintenance locks were individually keyed while the bigger ones allowed entire groups through. He didn’t really have a plan except to get close and see what happened. If anyone asked, he could always claim he came down to find his Dad and see when he would be home.

Like the transit car docks, the lock doors followed the curve of the ship up around but the lower locks were all lined with red indicators. Kyle knew what that meant. Those pointed down with respect to the planetary gravity field. If you opened those doors you’d fall. They’d talked about that during his field trip. Kyle kept walking until he got to the green lit locks. The whole time it looked like he was walking down a slope, but felt perfectly flat thanks to the Earthseed’s artificial gravity.

People were busy all around. Researcher types in their light blue uniforms like his mother, and the engineering types wearing uniforms marked in light green. There were loaders and lifts moving crates around, people shouting, talking and hurrying around. Kyle hugged his stuff close and tried not to look lost or afraid. That’d attract attention. He walked straight ahead as if he knew where he was going. If he had to he’d walk clear all the way around the ship rather than look lost, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Then, just up ahead, Kyle saw an open airlock and a crowd of people moving in and out. It looked like they were bringing in crates from outside. Samples, most likely, maybe specimens from the island and the river. That’s as far as people went. Kyle clutched his bundle tighter and kept going.

His heart hammered and his mouth felt dry. As he got closer he could see over the heads of the people in the lock. Both doors were open. Exobiology had already judged EEQ-14 within habitable parameters as far as pathogens were concerned. It didn’t make it safe, but safe enough. He’d heard that enough from his mother.

Kyle squared his shoulders and walked straight toward the lock. If everyone kept thinking that he belonged there then he’d get away with it, just slip out in the confusion.

And he’d almost made it too when a hand grabbed his shoulder.

Kyle jumped and twisted around. A pretty woman, younger than his mother maybe, but wearing the green of the engineering crew stood behind him. She had a soft round face with big dark eyes and matching dark hair. Her lips looked very red when she smiled. She bent at the waist and pressed her hands together.

“Very sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Her voice sounded soft, like a breeze just rustling the trees. “I’m Megan. Are you lost?”

Kyle shook his head. “No. I’m not.”

Megan’s smile widened. “I think you’re a little young to be on this work detail. What’s your name?”

“Kyle.” Kyle made himself laugh even though he felt like he was going to puke. He had to think of something to say, but his mind had gone into complete melt-down. He couldn’t think of anything.

“What’s that?” Megan nodded at the bundle he held.

The bundle! That was it. “Stuff for my Dad.” Kyle turned and looked at the people at the lock. A man turned and glanced in their direction. Kyle waved his hand vigorously. The man waved back. Kyle looked back at Megan and grinned. “Okay?”

Her smooth forehead wrinkled and then she nodded. “Okay. But don’t hang around, alright? I know it’s interesting, but the locks aren’t really a place for a kid. You don’t want to get run over by a loader or anything.”

“I’ll go straight home after,” Kyle promised. After he had a chance to see the outside for himself.

Megan touched his shoulder, then stepped back. She gave him a small wave. “Go on, then, Kyle.”

Not believing his good luck, Kyle turned around and walked quickly toward the open lock. The man that he’d seen was busy loading sample crates onto a trolley. Kyle walked straight toward him, but when Kyle got there he slipped past the man and kept walking.

All around him the lock rang with the noise of the activity. People rushed around him but no one really paid him any attention, they were all so busy with what they were doing. Before Kyle knew it he stood right at the top of the ramp with the world right there, right down in front of him.

It smelled real. Not like the men and machines smell of the Earthseed. It smelled like dirt and plants and water and he could hear the sound of the river rushing past even though he couldn’t see it. This low he couldn’t see much of anything except dirt and rocks, and the springy sorts of blue-green plants that grew everywhere. Bushes covered the hillside on his right, crawlers that moved too, but not like they trees. The bushes rolled, slowly, from place to place as they jockeyed for the best position.

“Hey, kid!”

Kyle didn’t even look to see who had called out. He bolted down the ramp. He ran as fast and as hard as he could, his lungs sucking in the outside air. He felt like he could fly down the ram. More shouts behind but he didn’t look back, he didn’t hesitate. He hit the ground running and turned right, running in the shadow of the ship toward the far side of the valley. He wanted to get high enough up to see the trees, maybe down the other side as far as the river. It didn’t matter.

🚀

Fifteen minutes later Kyle crouched by some rocks down at the river’s edge. Lights danced along the ridge. Search parties. He couldn’t believe he had managed to stay away from them so long. Once he had gotten up among the crawling bushes he had dropped down and scrambled up the hillside. The crawlers shivered as he passed but were too slow to really react.

On the horizon the sun dropped completely out of sight. Kyle was surprised it didn’t immediately get dark, like when you switched off a light. Sure, everything wasn’t as bright, but he could see well enough to make his way even without using his light. Well enough to make it all the way down here to the river.

It looked narrow at this point and dark. The sound of it rushing past reminded him of the wind of the rushing trees, a constant powerful white noise behind him. He made his way upstream, away from the search parties with the lights. Soon they’d send out fly cams with all sorts of tech to find him. He couldn’t believe he’d gotten this far, but he couldn’t very well get in more trouble now so he figured he might as well keep going.

Kyle was moving from boulder to boulder, trying to keep the big rocks between him and the search parties with something wet and hard lashed around his thigh. It squeezed hard and yanked him off the rocks!

Before he could yell he plunged into the river. Kyle splashed his arms, dropping his stuff in the process. Whatever had him hung on like a clamp, pulling him under. He couldn’t see anything in the dark water. It was cold and took his breath away. His chest burned. Real fear seared along his nerves. He wished he had never run out!

Kyle reached down and felt what grabbed him. It felt rough but pieces rubbed off when he grabbed it. Kyle tried getting his hand beneath what held him and the instant he did he felt something else in his head.

Darkness. Fatigue. Panic.

Kyle recognized the feelings, but they weren’t his. His chest burned. He needed air!

Abruptly whatever held him thrust him up, rushing through the water. His face burst out of the river into the air. He gasped and breathed in hungry gulps.

Light. Light!

Searchers, shining their lights on the ridge line, looking for him.

Kyle got an impression of many limbs, of the thing holding him. A tree! A tree submerged in the water, washed up on the shore of the island. Disorientated. Confused. A tree didn’t have eyes. They sensed the light, the warmth of the sun. It grabbed him trying to pull itself out of the river.

He reached down and grabbed the branch still holding his leg with both hands. He pictured it loosening, letting go.

Confusion. Hesitation.

Please, Kyle thought. Let go!

The branch uncurled. Kyle held on and floated with his head out of the water. In his mind he pictured the tree pushing down with branches on the river bottom side, lifting itself up out of the water.

Fatigue. Weakness.

Kyle concentrated. Try! Push!

The tree shuddered beneath him and then he felt it move. The surge of water rushed around him, almost tearing him free. Kyle wrapped his legs around the branch and held on. Two smaller branches on that side of the tree steadied him. With the sound of wood groaning, the tree broke the surface of the water. Kyle hung on as the tree rose higher and higher, carrying him with it. It crawled up until it regained its footing. He sensed how tired and weak the tree felt but now that it had gotten out of the river it seemed in a hurry.

Hunger! Fatigue! Sleep!

The tree staggered up onto the rocky beach. Search lights on the ridge turned and pointed down. Bright lights fell across the tree and Kyle, almost blinding him.

Light!

With big cracking steps the tree stomped across the beach, grinding rocks with loud crashing noises. Shouts went up on the ridge. Kyle squinted through the lights, seeing people running down the side of the hill. The tree kept going until it passed the last of the rocks. When it reached the ground it stopped moving. Thick tendrils or roots around its legs burrowed themselves into the ground, anchoring it.

Sleep!

The tree’s limbs drooped. Kyle slid down the thick branch that he was on, sliding down until he could drop safely to the ground.

Then the search parties reached him, gathered around him, shouting questions. Two pushed to the front. His parents! Kyle staggered when his mother grabbed him and pulled him into a hug.

🚀

Kyle expected to get in trouble, but he didn’t expect to have to face the ship’s Board and Director. He’d never even been up onto the Earthseed’s Command deck. Now he walked between his parents down a huge hallway light with soft warm lights and shockingly bright green Earth plants growing out of pockets in the walls. After spending so much time looking out at the gray-green of EEQ-14’s plants he hadn’t remembered what really green plants looked like.

His mother touched his shoulder. “It’s okay, Kyle. They want to hear what you have to say, that’s all.”

Kyle looked at the floor and nodded. Getting yanked into the river by the tree was one thing, but this? He rubbed his hands on his pants and somehow kept walking.

At the end of the corridor was a smoky glass door that slid silently to the left out of their way when they approached. A tall thin man, almost no hair on his head and what was there was white, stood just inside. He wore the bright blue uniform of command. And his deeply lined face was split by a broad smile. He reached out to Kyle.

“There you are, lad! Come in! Come in! We’re eager to hear what you have to say!”

Kyle couldn’t do anything except blink at the man. Not just any man, that was the Director, waiting here for him at the door! Director Reynolds.

“Sir. Sir.” Kyle heard his mother and father say.

Director Reynolds nodded. “Thank you so much, quite the brave lad you’ve got.” The Director winked. “If a bit disobedient!”

“Sorry, sir,” Kyle whispered.

The Director wave his hand and made a dismissive noise. “At least you weren’t hurt! We have protocol for a reason, young man. To protect people from harm. But don’t worry about that, you’ve got time to learn all about it. You’re the first person to communicate with the trees and we want to hear it from you, first hand, what it was like! You may have just found the key to let us truly settle this planet. We’re very excited.”

The Director’s hand fell on Kyle’s shoulder and guided him on into the chamber. It was big with a large U-shaped table surrounded by people. And they all were watching him walk in, but their faces looked happy.

Kyle felt some of the tension loosen in his chest. Another person walked across the room, but it wasn’t really a person at all, but a silver-skinned, willowy android with large blue eyes. The soft-metal face formed a smile.

“Welcome to the Ship’s meeting,” Calvin said. “I apologize if my inattention allowed you to come to any harm.”

“He’s fine,” Director Reynolds said, scowling. “Are we ready?”

“Yes, sir,” Calvin said smoothly.

Director Reynolds patted Kyle’s shoulder and gave him a little nudge. “Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce a brave young man, Kyle Mainter, he’s going to tell us about his adventure.”

Kyle swallowed nervously, took a breath and looked around at all the faces watching him. It felt good. It felt right. Everything was going to be alright after all. He wasn’t in trouble, they just wanted to know what happened. What it was like to talk to the tree. He smiled. He couldn’t wait to tell them, and maybe, just maybe, he’d get to go out and climb in the trees again!

🚀
5,117 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 44th weekly short story release, written in August 2011. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Final Thoughts

I shared my novel Europan Holiday here on my blog, Wattpad and Leanpub . This is the final post! Eventually I’ll do a regular print and e-book release, not sure when that will happen.

Europan Holiday

Just over a year ago I wrote Europan Holiday. Hard to believe that the year has gone by so fast! I finished it November 2nd and considered doing something with it at the time for about five seconds. I put it away to worry about later.

Writing Europan Holiday was a different experience for me. For the first time I dictated the first draft of the book. I used a digital record and transcribed it using Dragon. It’s not perfect but I’d put the transcript on one side of the screen and then on the other I rewrote it, fixing what went wrong with the dictation, including all of my fumbling, false starts, and searching for the words. Those rewrites went faster than sitting down and writing from scratch because I had already worked out what I was writing in the dictation. Now I just made it intelligible. Since I mostly dictated (hands-free) while driving it was basically free time. In a typical commute I’d come back with 3,000 words of the book and then use my writing time to rewrite that into something better. I did need to train the software to recognize some of the names in the book. That was pretty simple, otherwise the process went smoothly.

The idea came from the aether as they all do. While doing an online writing workshop I was given an assignment to write a scene about a character in a snowstorm. I wrote about EuropaNick in his tiny space cabin in the middle of a storm. It was only the first 400 words or so at that point but I wanted to know more about this guy. Vibeke showed up and he got yanked up into space and I didn’t really know where my subconscious was taking us, it was just fun. I wrote it without expectations of it fitting anywhere — I just wanted to tell the story.

When I finished I moved on to other projects and just put this book away. As the year went on I had the idea to start sharing it a chapter at a time, giving me a chance to look it over and see what I had. It was also an excuse to check out Wattpad, Leanpub and Patreon, so I decided to put it up there and on my website. Still without expectations other than curiosity how others would respond to the book. I hoped that readers would enjoy it, as weird as it is.

Clearly EuropaNick’s story isn’t over. He made it back to Earth, if not home, and has a new home and a new purpose with the Christmas Gambit. I don’t remember thinking consciously that I set it up for another book, but reading over it these past weeks it’s pretty clear that at least on some level I intended to write the Christmas Gambit. I have no idea when that will happen. Right now I’m in a graduate program to get my Master of Information and Library Science degree. I’m writing all the time, just not much fiction, though I do squeeze in a bit when I can.

Thank you for reading this far! If you’ve enjoyed Europan Holiday please check out my other novels or the free weekly short story that I post on my site.

Ryan M. Williams, December 2015

❄❄❄

New World

I’m serializing my novel Europan Holiday here on my blog, Wattpad and Leanpub . I plan to post on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule until it’s done. Eventually I’ll do a regular print and e-book release once I’m done but this gives me a chance to review the book as I go.

Europan Holiday

As far as the eye could see there was rock and barren dirt with patches of ice. Above was a pale sky washed and tired like sun-bleached laundry. Weight pinned Nick down into the seat. The rover appeared intact.

He scanned the holographic screens, which flashed and updated before his eyes. New readouts flowed. He recognized atmospheric readings. Oxygen nitrogen atmosphere at near sea level pressure. Cold temperatures, but only negative 153°f, not nearly as cold as the temperature on Europa.

Outside alien reindeer team had come down to the ground and they sprawled on their broad bellies like a colony of sea lions, flippers spread wide around them, energy antlers dim and hard to see in the sunlight.

“Are they okay?”

When Vibeke didn’t answer he turned his head to look, alarmed, and saw her slumped in the seat. She stirred, and opened her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Nick reached out and gently touched her shoulder.

Vibeke nodded, slowly. She straightened in her seat and managed a small smile.

“I’m okay. The sudden transition, I wasn’t prepared.”

Nick breathed a little easier. “Were on Earth, aren’t we?”

“Yes, the team created a direct jump. Very dangerous. And very difficult. We’re incredibly lucky that we made it. I can’t believe they did that.”

Nick looked back to where the team lay on the rough ground. “Will they be okay?”

“Yes, I think so. The effort drained their energy. They will need to recover before they can easily cope with the higher gravity.”

Nick studied the landscape outside. It was hard to guess where they were, but he reminded him of pictures he had seen from some of the interior areas on Antarctica. As good as any place for the team to have taken them. Although they might be rather conspicuous out here, exposed like this.

He turned back to Vibeke. “So what now? Doesn’t this change things, as far as the Trinhlin are concerned? We’re on Earth now.”

“It will force their hand. Either they have to send ships and enforcers to Earth, which exposes them more, or they let us play out the Christmas Gambit.”

Nick stared at her. “The Christmas Gambit? You still want to do that? I’m no Saint.”

“You’re my Saint Nick,” Vibeke said. She smiled. “And it’s not as if were trying to deceive them. We just introduce ourselves in a way that speaks to our peaceful intentions. What do you think would go over better? Those spacecraft land and enforcers walk out? Or the team bringing in the rover with Saint Nick and his elvish assistant?”

She was grinning and Nick couldn’t help but laugh at the image. “You have a point. Enforcers would scare anyone. Especially if Cinder Claus came with them.”

“They’re not so bad when you get to know them,” Vibeke said.

“Maybe not, but they do look like something out of a Lovecraft nightmare. The Trinhlin aren’t much better. I’d like to think people can rise above that, but if we’re going to put our best face forward, I’d rather it be yours.”

“Oh, you’re so sweet.”

“But are the Trinhlin going to let us get away with this? I would imagine they can still stop us if they want.”

Vibeke unfastened her seatbelts. “Yes, they could. But they also have to consider that their team decided this was the better course of action. Enough to even defy the enforcers.”

Vibeke reached out and touched controls on the holographic display. “Why don’t we asked them?”

They might not have had the connection to Earth’s network anymore back on Europa, but it looked like Vibeke could still call home.

A hologram formed in front of the cockpit window. It was one of the Trinhlin, one of Cthulhu’s little cousins, which one Nick couldn’t say. He also didn’t understand the warbling the musical notes that it said or saying.

Vibeke grinned and looked at Nick. “The Council has agreed to give our approach its blessing!”

“That’s great.” Nick still felt a twinge of disappointment, mixed with apprehension. Presenting himself Saint Nick, emissary to aliens? He swallowed. That was going to be a big change.

And then it hit him. He still hadn’t had a chance to explore Europa. Or for that matter the rest of the solar system.

“When this is all done, do you think we actually finish our plans to explore Europa?”

The Trinhlin warbled more notes.

“He says they you would be welcome to explore the surface, if that’s what you wish.” Vibeke smiled. “As long as you bring me.”

Nick reached out and took her hand in his.” “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They sat for a moment, the Trinhlin’s eyes watching them, glancing self-consciously at each other, and finally Nick said, “Okay then. We’ll get to work as soon as you restore our connection to the internet. Goodbye.”

He touched icon to break the connection to Europa. The Trinhlin’s hologram winked out of existence, and left him alone again with Vibeke in the rover.

Vibeke giggled.

Nick smiled. “In movies they would’ve already faded black. Kind of skips over all the work we have to do. Where do we even start? Who do we contact first? Where do we go?”

Vibeke gazed up at him and shrugged. “Your Saint Nick, it’s your world, where do you think we should start?”

It was a good question, and he had the answer, before even realized it. “We already have. The videos we uploaded of my abduction –”

“It was much easier that way.”

“– and the video of us on the surface. Now we just continue it. Add in the uncut footage, and other videos to fill in the back story, and do it from right here.”

“Right here?”

“I’m assuming this is Antarctica?”

Vibeke shrugged.

“Well, assuming that it is then this is not any particular country. So we’re not about to cause any issues by favoring one country over another. I’ll continue my journals and that’ll be how we do it.”

“So we just live here?”

Nick looked at back down the length of the small rover. It certainly felt like home. “Would that be so bad?”

Vibeke shook her head. “No, it wouldn’t be bad at all.”

“We’ll have to figure out supplies.”

“That won’t be a problem, we have replicators for that.”

Nick rocked back in the chair, stunned by her simple statement. “Replicators? like matter-energy conversion?”

She laughed, obviously delighted that she and stunned him. “Of course. How do you think we managed to create everything that you’ve seen?”

The simple admission made it clear that the Trinhlin were scary advanced. He’d already known that, and had speculated about their technology, but her statement brought it all home and made a very real.

“I guess in that case we don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Oh, I think though be plenty to worry about. We’re going to be introducing two worlds, after all.”

Nick put his hand on his belly. He took in a deep breath. “Ho ho ho!”

Vibeke’s eyes widened with delight and she clapped her hands over her mouth. “

“After all, I’m Saint Nick. And who doesn’t love Saint Nick?”

They both dissolved appeals of laughter. Nick knew the world needed a little Christmas spirit, and goodwill to everyone. What could be better than that?

Chapter 35

I’m serializing my novel Europan Holiday here on my blog, Wattpad, and Leanpub . I plan to post on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule until it’s done. Eventually I’ll do a regular print and e-book release once I’m done but this gives me a chance to review the book as I go.

Europan Holiday

There moments when everything changes. Nick was about to upload the uncut footage when he saw movement outside the large portal behind Vibeke. For less than a second he thought that the movement was one of the team outside — but that large, long, silvery shape was not in any sense one of the alien reindeer. It was a familiar shape. Identical to the sleek craft that the enforcers had used to take him to the Cottage, it hovered outside above the icy surface. And it wasn’t alone. Several other enforcer ships hung above the surface in formation with the first.

The idea that they would be allowed to explore Europa’s surface on their own was clearly too good to be true.

“We have company.” Nick pointed at the craft.

Vibeke turned around. Her breath hissed through her teeth when she saw the craft outside. Her hands clenched into tiny fists. “They shouldn’t be here!”

A tone from the laptop drew Nick’s attention back to the screen. At first he didn’t notice anything, and then he saw that the connection icon was showing that he was disconnected from the network.

“We don’t have a connection anymore,” Nick said. He clicked the icon but there wasn’t anything showing. The connection to the wireless network was gone and with it any chance that he had to upload the continuous feed video to the site.

Nick stood up and closed the laptop. Glancing at the cameras, he said. “They’ve cut us off. Without the continuous footage to upload people won’t believe the video we sent.”

Vibeke’s eyes narrowed. “I will protest this! They can’t do this!”

“They are doing it.” Nick crossed the cabin again and leaned over the bench to get a better look out the large portal. There were at least a half a dozen of the enforcer spacecraft outside. No doubt the cameras on the rover were recording everything, and it was too bad that he wouldn’t be able to upload the footage. If JupiterFan had thought that the intro video was unbelievable, what would he had said seeing these spacecraft? The only way Nick could get footage like this back on Earth would be with millions of dollars of special-effects work. Not that that would stop people from disbelieving. They would simply look for the movie studio behind the EuropaNick persona. They would probably even conclude that the whole thing — all of his posts — were simply to build up to this event as a sort of viral marketing effort. Not an exactly unreasonable explanation. If he was back on Earth witnessing all of this he might’ve come to the same conclusion.

Vibeke’s arm slipped around his waist as she joined him in looking out at the enforcer craft, which at this point had moved from taking up their positions in an arc facing the rover. It was a little disturbing.

“What are they doing? They’re not going to blast us are they?”

Vibeke shook her head once, hard. “No. They have no need to blast us. They’ve already cut off our communication with Earth I expect they’re here to take us into custody and return us below.”

That didn’t sound so bad, except the part about being a prisoner, which Vibeke hadn’t actually said, but it seemed an implied.

Outside something else is happening. The team was back. Alien reindeer took up positions flying around the rover in a circular fashion. Vibeke grabbed his arm and pushed him away from the window. “We better get strapped in”

Donder and the rest weren’t directly confronting the enforcers spacecraft, instead they were flying in circles around the rover. The bright rainbow hued energy flowing into their heads reached out further and further, forming massive antlers of energy which streamed down and around their flippers, twisting and combining into broad bands. It reminded Nick of something.

“Come on!”

Vibeke yanked on his arm.

Nick followed her, bounding through the cabin. At first his overly enthusiastic steps carried him high enough to nearly crack his skull on the rover’s loft. He used his hands to ward off the impact, and followed Vibeke into the cockpit. She swung into her seat and snatched up the belts, which clicked into place as the magnetic catches engaged. Nick got into his own seat with less grace, and pull the straps across his chest and fastened them. The big cockpit window gave them another view of what was happening outside.

There were even more enforcer ships then he had imagined they surrounded the rover. Inside that ring of spacecraft the alien reindeer flew in a blur like the walls of a cyclone done in rainbow energies. Their big, streamlined bodies were mere darker blurs, and through that wall of energy he could see the enforcers crafts holding the ground.

“What are they doing? Is that some kind of force field?”

“Force field? no. It’s –”

There was a jolt and the world vanished.