Science Fiction

 

A TV control room big screen showing mutiple feeds at once.Belle ordered the TV to increase the volume to 40, struggled to get out of her chair, and hurried into the kitchen. “Noah!” she shouted through the open door leading to the basement stairs. “Noah, come quick. Lucas Walker is going to be on TV.” She paused momentarily, listening to the whir of Noah’s band saw, then shouted again. “Noah! Did you hear me? Lucas Walker is on the TV.”

Without waiting she turned back toward the family room. The sound of the band saw shutting down confirmed Noah had indeed heard her.

“What?” her husband called back up, but she was already reclaiming her seat in the recliner. She strained to get it to recline, the damn mechanics were breaking down, and waited for the commercials to play out. She could hear Noah’s steps racing up to the kitchen.

“Is everything OK, Bella?” he called once on the main level.

“In here,” she shouted back. “Your old workmate is going to be on TV.”

He stepped into the doorway, one side of his face turned down in exasperation, clearly displeased at being interrupted for a news item. “What are you talking about?”

“Lucas Walker,” Belle said, pointing at the TV. She had all but one of the channels muted and it was now showing the seventh commercial of the break. “He’s going to be on the news.”

“What for?” Noah stepped into the room and took up a position that gave him a fair view of the screen.

“He’s retiring.”

His look of consternation bordered on disgust. He took a step back toward the kitchen, as the commercials finally came to an end. Belle urged him to stay, and changed the image to full screen.

“Today is one for the history books,” the news anchor said when programming resumed. “Today, Lucas Walker is retiring from his position as head analyst with Hartman-Roberts Securities. We have been following the career of Mister Walker for some time now, and it is exciting to see his long and successful career come to a close. As the last worker in America to officially retire, Mister Walker opens the door on a new era, where all Americans can now enjoy the life of leisure.”

Noah snorted, threw out a hand in disgust, and headed for the kitchen.

“Aren’t you going to watch?” There was a plaintive tone in Belle’s voice.

“Life of fucking leisure, my ass.” Noah almost spat out the words. “Fucking robots broadcasting the news. Fucking robots delivering the goods. Fucking robots making more fucking robots.”

Belle gave a little sniff. She hated it when Noah got like this. She started to say something to placate him but stopped, wide eyed, drawn back to the screen. “Ooh.”

Noah stepped back in to see what was so interesting.

The camera focused on the reporter, sprawled in the street, it’s head cracked wide open on the curb.

“He gave it a shove when it stuck the microphone in his face,” Belle explained to her husband. “He looked quite pissed.”

“Not to worry,” the anchor said in a cheerful voice. “The stress of transitioning into retirement frequently results in such outbursts. We have another reporter standing by in case something like this happened. Bob, can you step in for Bill?”

“Will do.” The camera swung up to focus on a chipper young man with thick dark hair and a broad smile. Only the eyes gave it away. As it stepped over the hulk of the first reporter the camera swung back to Lucas Walker, who was squaring up for a right uppercut.

Noah leaned in toward the TV, his fist clenched the same way.

“Get ‘em, Lucas,” he hissed under his breath. “Get ‘em good.”

~

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Loozrboy via WikiMedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

 

Police using battering rams to break down a door.Lily awoke to the sound of her front door being broken down. She reached for Jerry on the other side of the bed before remembering he had not come home last night. In a panic she struggled out of bed and fought to get a robe on as she heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall.

“Police!” a voice boomed. “Everybody stay where you are.”

She could not help but scream when her bedroom door burst open, the frame splintering around the latch.

“Freeze!” She dove for the floor as a blinding beam of light hit her square on, the three rapid shots barely missing her.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” she pleaded, sprawled on the floor, arms stretched out and hands splayed to show she was unarmed. The police officer marched over to her, kicked her in the side, and then yanked her arms behind her back to secure with flex-cuffs. He zipped them tight.

“Hey!”

“Shut up.”

She saw other feet stomping around, some right past her, others out in the hallway. Her apartment was now awash in light as every single fixture was turned on.

“Lily Carmichael?” A new set of feet stood before her. She strained to look up. She saw a severe looking man glaring down at her through a face visor. She dropped her head back to the floor.

“Yes.”

“Does Jerald Tyson live here?”

‘Oh God, they’ve come for Jerry.’ She hesitated and the man’s foot stepped very close to her mouth.

“I asked you, does Jerry Tyson live here?”

“Yes. He’s my boyfriend.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

The foot pivoted back on its heel, and the sole of the shoe rested none-to-gently on her cheek.

“I don’t know!” she pleaded. “He didn’t come home last night. Can’t you see? His side of the bed’s not even been slept in.”

There was silence from above as the foot pressed down, but the pressure stopped before inflicting too much pain.

Then, in a swift and brutal move, the man stooped and hauled her to her feet by her bound wrists. Something in her shoulder popped. She screamed out in pain. He spun her around to face him. As she steadied herself on her feet she scanned the man’s chest, but his name tag was naught but a black rectangle. His cold blue eyes and stony face studied her with not a trace of sympathy.

She watched in horror when he pulled a knife from his utility belt.

“I swear I don’t know where he is.”

“Can it.” He jerked her around, and in one swift move cut the cuffs from her wrists. The sudden release of her arms, and the shock of being freed instead of stabbed almost caused her to swoon.

“Your boyfriend,” he sneered at the word boyfriend, “is in a world of trouble.” He swung her around again and stooped to put his shielded face right in hers. “As are you.”

Lily feigned that she did not know what he meant. Damn, Jerry. She told him not to go to those meetings.

“Me? What did I do?”

“As if you didn’t know what your boyfriend was up to.”

He walked over to the nightstand and scooped her cell phone into an evidence bag.

“Where’s the computer?”

“Already got it, Lieutenant,” another officer informed him from the doorway.

“As you know, under the Keep America Free Act, giving aid and comfort to subversives means you forfeit all your rights and property.”

“Wait. Wait. I didn’t do anything.” She had insisted that Jerry do any online communications off premises, and use the computers at the library. “I told him not to get involved.”

“But you knew he was involved, and failed in your duty as a citizen to turn him in. People like you make me sick.” He idly began rummaging through her drawers, dumping the contents, one after another, onto the floor.

“You have five minutes to gather what you can carry, and evacuate the premises.” He began ransacking the closet.

She stood, dumbfounded, arms tightly wrapped around herself. “You can’t do this,” she almost whispered.

“Oh, but we can. The clock is ticking, Ms Carmichael. Best get busy.” He gave the pile of clothes on the floor a tremendous kick, sending garments flying into her face and all over the room. “And no electronics. Just food and clothes.”

With that, he turned and left the room.

~

© 2015, by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.
Photo used and adapted (cropped, rendered black and white) under the attribution and share alike license from Wikicommons. Photo by the West Midlands Police, UK, and uploaded by palnatoke.

 

They rested for but an hour beside the pool, Dak anxious to be moving on. Lin suggested daylight might reveal some trace of those who had set the fire, but Dak thought it unlikely.

“This is not the head of the burn.” He pointed out the charred remains of a handful of white thorn trees and unfamiliar scrub. “I doubt they would have been staying here.” He surveyed the horizon ahead of them. “And there is damn little cover here, Lin. If they are close, they could easily spot us.

Lin agreed to the logic of that argument and began preparing to go. While Dak refilled the water bottles Lin collected the largest of the brush pig’s bones, and any that held even a hint of meat. They would crack the bones open for the marrow come dawn, a breakfast Lin really looked forward to.

While the vicinity of the water hole afforded little cover the charred plateau they traversed provided even less. It was beginning to look like they would be caught out in the open by sunrise when they finally stumbled upon a crack in the earth, a jagged crevasse about a stone throw wide and perhaps twice as deep.

As they searched the edge for a way down it suddenly dawned on Lin that they were no longer walking on ash.

“We’ve missed the fire’s head,” she said, weariness and defeat straining her voice.

Dak came up short, and gazed around. “Damn. I’m sorry. I’m so tired I wasn’t paying attention.”

She leaned into him and gave him a squeeze around the middle. “That’s OK. I didn’t notice either. We’ll just have to backtrack and look for it tomorrow.” He only nodded in way of reply and started a very tentative descent. This time the dingos let him take the lead. In fact, they seemed reluctant to follow even after Lin began her climb down.

“The dingos don’t like this,” Lin called down after Dak.

“It’s not that bad,” he shouted back up.

She continued on down. Eventually, after much yipping in consternation, the dingos followed her lead.

They made camp amid a tumble of boulders on the east face of the little canyon. Dak took stock of their water situation and concluded that they could move onward for one more day before reaching the halfway point, at which time they would need to return to the waterhole if no new source was found.

Lin set about cracking open the bones. Each crack of the rock she used echoed eerily up and down the arroyo. Neither she nor Dak liked it, but they had to eat. They scooped out the marrow with sharpened twigs and tossed the remains to the dingos. Komaninu leapt upon them with relish, but Shisha only sniffed, then turned away with a whine, and laid down with her head between her forepaws, shivering.

Lin looked from Shisha to Dak and said, “I don’t think we should stay here too long.”

~

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Some previous excepts (most recent first):
Setting Out
Firestorm
Escape from Hel

 

The I Write Friday Flash badgeThey hid amongst the rocks just outside the mouth of the cave. Dak held a palm-sized stone in his right hand – a small pile of similar stones stacked near his feet. Lin crouched beside him, dividing her attention between the man walking on the charred plains below, and the two fully alert dingos which stood near her side. If either Komaninu or Shisha began to fidget she would soothe them to keep them quiet.

“Can you tell who it is?” Lin asked, straining to see.

Dak shook his head, no. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be.” He considered the figure below. “Judging by his size and bearing, maybe Jacob?”

Lin nodded. “Yeah, kind of reminds me of Jacob.”

So they were lucky. Jacob was not one of Michael’s best trackers.

“I think the wildfire has thrown him off.” Dak said.

They collectively caught their breaths when the man looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. He mopped his brow, bowed his head, and moved on. As soon as Lin relaxed Shisha let out a little yip.

The man looked up again, but only hurried his pace. He was alone in the wild, and evidently did not relish a run in with a dingo.

Once he was fully out of sight Lin and Dak retreated to the coolness of the cave, followed by the pups, which curled up at their feet.

“We best leave tonight,” Dak said.

Lin wormed into him to make herself more comfortable. “We have water here.”

“We can come back, if need be. We need to find whoever set that fire, Lin. He knows where we are. We don’t know where he is. That gives him the advantage.”

Lin drew in a deep breath and let out a slow sigh.

“Will it ever end, do you think?” she asked him. “The running. The hiding.”

Dak wrapped an arm over her shoulder, cupped her breast, and having no answer said nothing.

~

They climbed to the top of the cliff by the light of the setting moon, Tetu, and waited behind a low rock face for it to fully sink below the horizon. Dak wanted to leave the area in the darkness between moons, figuring that if their position was watched such timing would offer the best concealment.

The top of the plateau had been desolate enough before the wild fire. Now it was like a scene from Hell itself. And like Hell, it was hot, radiating back heat from Kepler’s unforgiving gaze. Dak reminded himself that they would miss this heat in just a few hours, after the full chill of the desert set in.

They decided to strike out in the direction the fire had come from. Dak hoped to find its origin, and from there that Lin, the more experienced of the two when it came to skills of the wilds, might find a trail to follow. Water was their most limiting factor, so they had agreed before setting out that they would only go as far as half the water would take them. If they found no other source of water by then they would head back to the cave to refill and reconsider their options. For now they went on, Dak steering by keeping the Sentinal over his left shoulder.

As usual, the dingos ran before them.

The second moon, Iah, had just cleared the horizon when a warning went up from the dingos. Dak and Lin froze, trying to fix a bearing on the yips. They had taken only a few steps when the yipping stopped.

“What do you think?” Dak asked Lin.

“I don’t know.” Once a dingo got started they usually only stopped yipping after the kill, or when killed.

They hurried forward, but with caution. It was not long before they heard something racing toward them, then heard one little yip of recognition. Shisha paused only a moment, then turned tail and ran back the way she came.

“They’ve found something,” Lin said, quickening her pace and taking the lead.

Shisha came back three more times to ensure they were following. The next time they saw her she was with Koma, chewing on the remnants of their kill, a brush pig.

“I thought you trained them to save the kills for us.” Dak said with a bit of humor in his tone.

As they approached they forgot the pig for something much more important. A few feet beyond the kill was an open pool of water.

© 2015 by Jon M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

A NASA concept image of a space station.I hovered just outside the circle of Dockside officers surrounding Captain McGuire, trying to catch his eye. No doubt they were busy, what with launch just six hours away, but I really needed to bring this issue up with him post haste. McGuire was known for his temper, as well as his disdain for civvy staff members. Since I’m definitely a civvy I dared not interrupt. Hendricks, our Chief Operations Officer here on LF-4, finally left the little cluster of uniforms and the Captain cast me a skeptical glance.

“What is it, Abbot? You’ve been dancing around there like you’ve had to piss in the worst way for the last half hour. Get it off your chest.”

Clearing my throat, I stepped forward, close to the remaining circle, yet not actually joining it. Fleet boys have an overdeveloped sense of personal space and have been known to deck anyone stupid enough to intrude. The three remaining officers stood nonchalant regarding me with smiles, bordering on sneers. I paused, uncertain of myself, of the situation. “Get it off your chest,” was a questionable invitation at best.

“Sir, I need to talk to you about the supply situation.” The sneer on Lieutenant Du Val’s face melted into a blank, unreadable expression. Lieutenant Anderson looked at her watch.

As Dockside Logistics Specialist for this launch it was my job to make sure everything was properly procured, delivered, and stowed aboard the ship before we sent her on her way. Once launched there’s no turning back, no resupply. First Crew would not emerge from stasis until the ship reached its full cruising speed, in about three years. The survival of the colonists depended upon a full manifest.

I cleared my throat again. “There seems to be a problem.”

Lieutenant Du Val frowned, folding his arms over his chest. Sub Lieutenant Gamble assumed Parade Rest, hands behind his back. His half smile-half sneer remained on his face. Anderson looked like she suddenly remembered something needing doing, and departed at a good clip.

I did not interpret the officers’ body language as good signs, and felt my situation growing tenuous.

“May I speak to you in private?”

Captain McGuire scowled, ever so briefly, then jerked his head to the side, dismissing the others. Du Val saluted and walked away, casting a black glance my way. Gamble stood off to about 3 meters and resumed his at ease position.

“What’s on your mind, young lady?” McGuire asked, his countenance all sincerity and concern.

“I’ve just finished my inventory, Captain, and there are critical shortages in the supplies.”

McGuire looked puzzled and stepped a bit closer to me. “What do you mean? Last week you told me everything was well accounted for.”

“Last week everything was well accounted for. I supervised that inventory personally, and everything was there down to the last gram of coffee.”

“Then how can there possibly be any shortages?” he asked, scratching his graying beard. “And what kind of shortages are we talking about here? Food? Medicine? Materials?”

“Yes. Yes to all of that. Plus equipment. Two tractors are missing. Otherwise, about 30% of the food and building materials have disappeared, and fully half of the pain killers.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “That can’t be right. All those supplies have been under guard and seal since their arrival. Either you must have made a mistake upon delivery, or are mistaken now. I can’t see how they could have just gotten up and walked away.”

My stomach dropped.

“With all due respect, Sir, there was no mistake. Then or now. Obviously someone has stolen these goods, and in doing so put the lives of hundreds of colonists in peril.” I could not help letting my eyes drift toward Sub Lieutenant Gamble. As if being reminded he was there, Captain McGuire turned and signaled the Officer over. As Gamble approached I took a reflexive step back.

“Yes, Sir?” Gamble stood rigidly at ease.

“Joe, Liz here seems to think there is a problem with the supply inventory.”

“Sir?”

“She says close to a third of it has disappeared.”

Gamble’s face remained a study in stone.

“You can confirm that Warehouses 6 and 7 have been under 24/7 security?” McGuire looked stern.

“Yes, Sir!”

“And that the contents were moved, in their entirety, aboard the SS Hudson last night?”

“Yes, sir. I observed the transfer personally.”

“But–” McGuire cut me off with a gesture.

“And that the hold has been under constant guard since being sealed?”

“Yes, sir.”

McGuire turned to me with a skeptical, half bemused look on his face. “I think you must have made a mistake, Ms Abbot.” I opened my mouth to object, but he cut me off again. “Now don’t fret. We’ll double check everything, and believe me, if anything is missing – one, I will personally lead the investigation, and two, we will not launch until any shortfall has been filled. Thank you for coming to me with this. We’ll get on it right away.” He turned to Gamble. “See to it, Joe.”

“Yes, Sir!” Sub Lieutenant Gamble saluted, smirked at me, turned on his heal, and marched away.

“Captain!”

McGuire glared at me. “I think we are done here, Ms Abbot. Dismissed.”

He walked off, leaving me drained and shaken.

I knew what I needed to do. I had to downlink right away. I turned and rushed back to my quarters.

I locked the door even as I noticed my message board blinking. When I called up the text any hope for support melted away. Instead of a reassuring message from Captain McGuire, it was orders. I was being reassigned. I was the new Logistics Specialist for SS Hudson. I was to report onboard within the hour. As I reached for the communications console my door swept open. Two Marines stepped in, one to each side, followed by a grinning Lieutenant Du Val.

“Good afternoon, Liz. Come with us please. Oh, don’t bother to pack.”
~

© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved.

NASA image believed to be in the public domain.

 

A fictional spreadsheet showing assets and liabilitesThe bar graph floated above the conference table, elements growing or shrinking dynamically as Whey Young Cheng asked probing questions. The models driving the briefing were compiled by the best mathematicians and modelers Cheng Communications Group International had to offer, and as one of the top five corporations world-wide, they were fine gear heads indeed.

Alex watched the the last bar, labeled ‘Loss estimate,’ with a keen eye while at the same time trying to gauge Cheng’s reactions, as well as those of Truss Welstone, the company’s Chief Financial Officer.

“As you can see, even if we halt production right now the Losses are well within allowable tolerances.”

The presenter, who appeared as the disembodied head of Mandy Predway, floated just under the bar graph at one third actual size. She was the only board member not physically present, still wrapping up operations in the manufacturing center located in Leon, France.

“If I may interject?” Alex asked, shifting in his seat to look more directly at Mr. Cheng. A scowl crossed Welstone’s face.

“Certainly, Alex,” Cheng said, waving an open hand in Alex’s direction.

Mandy looked down, apparently arranging her notes.

“These models do not take into account the effects of catastrophic failure at the end state,” Alex observed.

Truss Welstone turned to face him, his jaw working to bite back an angry retort, but it was Mandy who spoke. Her floating head looked pained that he would even bring up this subject.

“Yes, Alex, we have accounted for all manner of catastrophe at end state. Triple redundancy is built into each unit. Power systems. Drives. Navigation. Life-support. Even entertainment. We have everything accounted for.”

“What about the triple redundancy of the units themselves. We are not talking about washing machines here, Mandy, we’re talking about ships, and lives – people we’ve sent beyond any hope of assistance should trouble arise. It was bad enough cutting back from eighteen to twelve, but at least with twelve ships we had enough materials and supplies in the chain to enable rapid recovery should one, or even two of the ships fail to reach the destination. KL1 is an unknown, beyond what little we can tell from the deep space scans and the telemetry of one probe. These people are going to need every bit of what was promised to them…”

Truss waved dismissively to interrupt. “Hogwash, Alex. The atmosphere of KL1 is a 98% match for our own, minus the air pollution and radioactive fallout.” He got a chuckle from around the table for that line. “It is a little on the dry side, but has two large water oceans, areas of dense vegetation, and presumably arable land. And if the land needs amelioration, we’ve packed the foundries to handle it.”

“On the second ship,” Alex protested. “What if the Zheng never makes it to KL1? Or if the Ericson,” the lead ship, “fails to arrive? By canceling Vespucci you are canceling the backup foundries. The Cabot would have been the tertiaries. There is not triple redundancy in that plan at all.”

Various members of the board shifted and grumbled. The veins in Truss’ neck visibly throbbed. “We have triple redundancy built into each and every one of those ships, Alex. There is no reason in the world to think one, or more, will not arrive at end state as scheduled. You are being alarmist to the extreme.” Truss turned to Director Cheng. “Whey Young, we’ve been over this all before. With the loss of the Indian markets we simply cannot afford to throw unlimited money at this… operation. Our stockholders simply won’t stand for it.”

Director Cheng raised an eyebrow. Controlling fully 65% of the corporation’s preferred stock there was a twinkle of amusement in his eye.

“Mister Director,” Truss now used all formality as he pleaded, “we simply have to get these costs off our books. In-Pak changed everything. It will take decades to rebuild those markets.”

“Oh yes,” Whey Young sighed. “We must protect our investors.”

Alex deflated.

“But this… operation, as you call it, was my bright idea. Remember? Hubris of the first order, the Times called it. Perhaps it was. You are right, Truss, CCGI cannot continue to carry these costs when it will be centuries, if ever, that we see any return on investment.”

Truss leaned back, replete in the air of victory.

“Do not dismay, Alex. I looked at the models you sent me last night. Quite disturbing. CCGI will shed this project, cut its losses, but I will fund three more ships from my personal portfolio.”

An outcry went up around the room in an attempt to dissuade him.

The Director held up a hand for silence. “I will send funds directly to InterStell. Alex, as our Chief of Science and Technology, I will rely on your expertise to,” he stabbed the ‘Loss estimate‘ column with his laser pointer, “minimize the losses.” He looked at Truss. “I think that should settle both our balance sheets.”

~

© 2012 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Graphic by J. M. Strother.

 

Wind whipped around Dak, threatening to tear the pages of his book. He turned them only when there was a slight respite, then quickly, plastering them down as best he could between his splayed fingers. He crouched in the lee of a large boulder, but the wind swirled round and over it, constantly finding new pathways to annoy him. He was not exactly enjoying this morning’s reading.

He paused periodically to scan the underlying lowlands for any sign of pursuit. He was sure Michael would not rest until he and Lin were brought back and executed. Michael was obsessive about many things, loyalty to himself foremost. Dak harbored no doubt that more than one tracker was on their trail. He smiled despite himself. Let them try and follow that trail, he thought, looking down the way they had come.

The cliff had been a desperate chance, but when a pack of hungry kalecks is closing in options become quite limited. The dingo’s had saved them, raising the alarm before it was too late. Then Shisha, the smaller of the pups, found the barest hint of a path up the rocky escarpment. The kalecks being, larger and less sure of foot, struggled to follow, but follow they did. He and Lin paused to rain rocks down upon their heads, which turned the beasts back, buying them the precious time needed to escape.

The climb left them exhausted yet elated to be alive. It had been madness to make the ascent in darkness, but necessary. Now he let Lin and the pups rest, delaying for a time the decision that faced them—a harrowing climb back down, or to strike out across this plateau and let it take them where it would. He could not help but think water, scarce at best on Kepler 11-d, was more likely found down there. Along with Michael’s hunters.

Shisha squirmed near Lin’s feet, her nose working, ears twitching. At the same time Komaninu sat up straighter, lifting his head to smell the breeze.

“What is it, Koma?” Dak asked.

Komaninu stood and began to turn in a tight circle, hackles raised. Shisha, sensing distress, was suddenly up, and let out a yip.

Lin sat up, working kinks from her back and shoulders as she did so.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Your silly dingos seem upset.” Dak sat where he was, trying to remain still. Movement attracts the human eye—well any predator’s eye for that matter. “You need to teach them to sit.” He scanned the floor of the lowlands but saw nothing of concern.

Lin sniffed. “What’s that smell?” Then, “Is that smoke?”

She stood up and scrabbled up to the top of the rock. “Dak!”

He scrambled up to join her. Below, the dingos yammered in distress. He poked his head above rock level, shielding his eyes as best he could from wind-borne debris. His eyes widened in shock, which he immediately regretted. The plateau directly to their west was ablaze in wildfire.

They both scrabbled back down. Lin did not hesitate, gathering up what few possessions they had, and headed for the cliff.

“Where are you going?” Dak asked, rubbing grit from his eyes.

“We can only hope the cliff will stop it,” Lin shouted. “What other choice do we have?”

She started down the same path they had come up the night before. The dingos apparently agreed and skittered by her, then lead the way. Dak fell in, bringing up the rear.

They had not gone far when smoke began sheeting off the cliff face behind them. Some swirled down on eddies and currents, threatening to choke and blind them. Embers began to shower down. To their dismay what little scrub managing to maintain a tenuous foothold on this cliff burst into flame.

Shisha let out a yip and scurried to the right along a hint of a track. Koma did not hesitate to follow. Lin trailed after the pups.

“Lin!”

“We have to trust to the dingos,” she shouted back over her shoulder. With flames licking up the side of the cliff Dak plunged after the rest.

Shisha suddenly disappeared into the cliff face, followed by Koma. Lin stopped and turned back toward Dak. “It’s a cave!” He followed her in, hot on her heels.

The cave was tight, angling slightly upward, and quickly narrowed to the point where Lin could go no further. Dak crawled in as far as he could, climbing right on top of Lin, drawing his feet in as far from the mouth of the cave as he could. He craned his neck to look behind and saw billows of smoke roiling down slope, hot embers flying like glowing rain. One large ember drifted into the cave and he crushed it with a flurry of mad kicks.

“Take it easy on my ribs,” Lin said.

One of the dingos came back, Shisha he thought, and licked Lin on the face. Lin scooted forward as far as possible toward the pup. “I think the air is better back here,” she said. Dak wormed his way as deep as he could.

The whole thing was over in less than an hour. When the roar of the fire was gone and Dak could see blue skies through naught but wisps of smoke he lifted himself off Lin and crawled to the entrance. The fire raged on, now in the lowlands below, moving away from them. They had survived, once again by the good graces of the dingos.

“Oh, wow,” Lin said, settling beside him. Shisha came out and settled by Lin’s feet. She wrapped one arm around Dak and stroked the dingo between the ears with her free hand. “I had no idea wild fire moved so fast. Were we ever lucky.”

“You know,” Dak said in a guarded tone, “There was no lightning last night.”

Lin twisted round to gaze up at him, concern etching her face.

They both knew what his words implied. The hunt was still on, and now the hunters were before them.

 

NASA image of the far side of the moonIf you poke God in the eye he’s bound to get pissed. At least that’s what the Luddites back on Earth are saying. We spent ten years building the Massive Lunar Interferometer, then another six months calibrating the damned thing. At last we got some clear signals – our first sampling of very low frequency radio waves from the beginnings of time. After two more months of number crunching by the eggheads back on Earth we were rewarded with mankind’s first glorious glimpse at the big bang itself.

The celebration did not last long.

While most of the world’s astronomers were focused on the view from the dark side of the moon damned if Hell didn’t open up this side of Mars in the form of an uncharted comet now dubbed Hades.

I always figured we’d destroy ourselves via one of the usual suspects – war, overpopulation, genetically modified biotics. The Near Earth Object Defense System had rendered threats from asteroids and comets a thing of the past, or so we thought. The odds of an object too large for the system to handle were astronomical – no pun intended. Well, Hades is just such an object – a mostly water/ice comet larger than Deimos that no one saw coming in anywhere near enough time.

If the calculations are right it impacted just east of the Azores about two minutes ago. So here we are on the far side of the moon gathered round the base of Array #7 watching for the plume of ejecta to rise over the horizon. Marv says it should be beautiful.

~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved. Photo of the far side of the moon via NASA.

 

NASA image of HaumeaNate crossed off another day on the calendar. Only 24 more days to go. His son, Jackson, would be 10 before he saw him again. Seven years is a long time to carve out of raising a son. He flicked through the latest pictures Annie sent up: a dozen or so of Jackson’s ninth birthday party, a few from Jackson’s 5th grade graduation, and one of Jackson at the zoo riding on the shoulders of Peter Harper, Annie’s new mate. She could have left that one out.

He didn’t hate Pete Harper, hell he never even met him. And he really couldn’t blame Annie. It’s hard to raise a kid on an E-9′s salary, even with space duty bonus pay. Not to mention the loneliness she must have felt with 36 million miles separating them.

“After the first 14 million miles the rest doesn’t matter,” Sergeant Harrison told him. Everyone agreed – there was something psychological about postings more distant than Mars. He repeated it over and over in his head that night trying to convince himself while Sergeant Harrison slept curled against his chest.

Guilt over his ongoing affair with Harrison didn’t help any when two years later Annie sent word she wanted a divorce. Realization that she was screwing some guy he never even met ate at him for weeks, putting the whole unit on edge, until Corporal Assad threw Harrison in his face. What a row that set off. Only the threat of court-martial broke the two apart.

He’d lost Annie. Nate knew that. But at least he still had Jackson along with Annie’s promise never to come between father and son. So far she had been good to her word, faithfully sending pictures, vids, school reports. The time delay between Earth and KOB Haumea negated any possibility of realtime chat, but she did her best to keep him up to date.

He’d have much more than realtime chat very soon. In 24 days he shipped off this rock, and this time next year he’d be back on Earth holding Jackson in a bear hug.

The overhead watch lights blazed on, flooding the fighter bay in red as warning klaxons blared.

Nate pounded the view console.  “Goddammit, I don’t need Armageddon right now!”

Nate grabbed his flight helmet and ran for his fighter, Harrison right behind him.
~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Image from NASA via Research.gov. With few exceptions NASA images are public domain.

 

Three days out from Hel and still no signs of pursuit. They rested now, backs pressed up against the cool north face of a boulder, one of many such stones strewn across this barren plain. Lin reasoned that this was the last direction Michael would expect them to go. The terrain was difficult, with little in the way of food and even less in terms of water. To their advantage the rocky soil left little in the way of a trail to be followed. Her decision would either save them or they would die of dehydration.

Lin rooted through her ever lighter rucksack and came up with the bundle she was searching for. She unwrapped the plastic bag and gave Dak two pisspods, taking two for herself. “We still have four left,” she said as she started chewing on the nasty tasting succulents. Dak held out his hand, offering his two back to her. “No. You need the moisture as much as I do. I sure the hell can’t carry you.”

He nodded and began to chew, gazing out over the expanse of desert still awaiting them.

“We should make for that,” he said, pointing with his half decimated pod toward a ridge line in the distance. “I don’t know much about geology, but I think I’ve heard escarpments are caused by fault lines and faults can allow springs to reach the surface.”

Lin shrugged. One waypoint was as good as another as far as she was concerned, as long as it led away from Hel, Michael Macdonald, and his immortal zealots.

“We should wait until the sun is down,” she suggested. With that they both curled up in what little shade they could find.

She awoke to find Dak sitting beside her reading by the dwindling light of dusk. His little book of poetry was his most prized possession. He found it on a scavenging run to Second City, and wisely kept it secret. She was the only person in Hel who knew he had it. There were damn few opportunities to read in Hel. Now he could read at his leisure. When she stirred he set the book aside.

They ate the last of their korba beans and then chewed a pisspod each, careful to suck out every last drop of moisture. They saved the last two for their hike. They marked the position of the Sentinel, just becoming visible in the darkening sky, and struck out for Dak’s escarpment.

Sometime after their third break Lin pulled up short, holding up a hand in warning. Dak drew close, and whispered, “What?”

“Listen.” She cocked her head, turning it this way and that as if it were an antenna.

Then he heard the yip.

“Kalecks?” he asked.

She shook her head, no. “Dingo.” That was good. Kalecks hunted in packs. Dingos usually roamed alone. “We better skirt west.”

Dak held her arm to keep her from moving. “No. I think we should follow the sound.”

She shook her head vehemently. “They are dangerous.”

“But it will be near water.”

She opened her mouth to object, then closed it again without saying a word. Water was a powerful lure.

~

They had damned little in the way of weapons – a walking stick and a few tools Dak had pilfered from his workbench: a knife, two screwdrivers, a pair of wire cutters, and a needle-nosed pliers. Not much to face down a forty pound desert-wise predator.

The yips were closer now, perhaps as close as the next valley. “The winds are right,” Dak said. “It should not smell us coming.”

He knelt to rummage through his sack. He came up with a length of nylon rope and an odd metal ring about three inches thick, slightly larger than his palm. He tied the rope to the ring, creating something akin to a bola. Standing, he gave it a few experimental twirls. “I’ve been practicing with this rig up at the shop,” he told her. “I’m pretty good with it.”

They climbed the hill cautiously, eyes constantly roving for movement, ears alert for any sound. The yips had been fairly regular. Now the pattern was broken and all was eerily silent. Dak took the lead, walking upright, his iron flail swinging loosely at his side. Lin brought up the rear, crouching, constantly glancing behind least they get flanked,

There was a yip off to the right. An answering yip came from the left.

“Hell.”

Both attackers came at once. Lin screamed even as she started flailing with the stick. She heard the sudden hum of the rope spinning up to speed and then an anguished yowl. She managed to hold one of the dingo’s at bay with the walking stick, striking it several times as it tried to come in low for her legs. As it attacked again there was a swoosh and the iron ring came down solidly, breaking the animal’s back. It yowled in agony until Dak fell on it with his knife to put it out of its misery.

All the energy drained out of Lin and she sank to the ground. “You son-of-a-bitch,” she huffed, catching her breath. “Don’t ever do this to me again.”

“What? You did great. And now we have enough food for a week.”

“We were almost food for a week.”

Dak laughed and began field dressing their kills.

Lin remained on edge, worried there had been two dingos. She had never before encounter more than one at a time. As Dak worked Lin got up and prowled the perimeter, staff in hand.

“Dak!”

He rushed to her side.

“Look.” A shallow den was dug in the side of the hill. Two dingo pups huddled there, yammering for their mother. “That explains it,” she said. “They were a breeding pair.”

“Kill them.”

As Dak walked away Lin knelt and reached for the nearest pup’s throat.

~

With the coming of sunlight they could see greenery near the base of the ridge. An oasis. Water. Life. Even from here they could see clusters of teruga trees.

They ate quickly anxious to be off. Lin threw strips of meat to the two dingo pups yammering at her feet. They devoured their mother greedily.

~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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