The Jackalope

The Citadel Security transport left Astro Land with three passengers: Dahlia DeHaven, Adam Smith, and Leonard Leonard. Although originally meant to return them to their origin citadels, it had received instructions to ferry them to Storybook Land. Something was amiss and it was up to them to solve it.

Dahlia DeHaven was born in Astro Land. She was a gifted Telempath who had worked for as a scavenger before being hired by Citadel Security and assigned to Dream Land. She had retired to her caravan and scavenging five years ago. She had entered a contest to win ‘a trip to Mars’, but was grateful to have lost. The scavenger hunt had brought her back from her feelings of boredom, loneliness, and despair. She had reconnected with an old friend and made a new one.

Leonard Leonard was assigned to Star Land by Citadel Security. He had been built in Dream Land and assigned to work with Dahlia when she joined CS. The idea was that he would not distract Dahlia during her CS cases. They were wrong. Dahlia’s inability to connect with Leonard made her irritable and unfocused. After Leonard was reassigned, he missed Dahlia, but Star Land proved challenging enough to take his mind off her.

Adam Smith had excelled in school in Play Land and had been rewarded with a career in Healing Sciences. He started to work for Citadel Security as a Death Examiner. He had the chance to examine the remains of Todd Rucker prior to their departure. Whatever had killed Todd had used some kind of blade to separate his body parts. He wasn’t killed by brute force. The means of Todd’s death worried him.

The journey to Storybook Land would take five hours. Lunch on board the CS transport was served hot and in bowls. Each of the three travelers spent their time examining the data they had been given on the incidents in Storybook. And each found no anomalies, no variations, which was strange. It was almost as if the data had been written to a script.

Adam was the first to break the silence. “The wounds on the victims are identical. The slashes are the same length and in the same direction. They are made to the same depth and show no variation with regard to the victims’ musculature or lack thereof.”

“The witnesses’ stories don’t deviate either,” Dahlia added, “almost as if they had been rehearsed. I’ve never seen such consistency before.”

Leonard threw a presentation up on the video in the transport. “This is interesting. I researched the biographics on the witness and the victims and came up with a bizarre connection. Each of the witnesses is also a victim, and none of them are from Storybook.”

Dahlia was up front within seconds of Leonard’s last statement. “Go back to Astro Land. Turn this transport around immediately.”

“Our orders are to investigate the incidents at Storybook.” The pilot droned.

“We’ve been had. There were no incidents at Storybook. Someone wanted the three of us out of Astro Land.” Adam had joined her in the forward compartment.

“Let me through,” Leonard demanded. Both agents obeyed. He took a seat and over-rode the manual controls, essentially relieving the pilot of duty in the process. Fortunately they were only a few hours out, but they were long hours for the party of three.

The Chupacabra

Half-way back to Astro Land, the transport began to slow. It had gone into conservation mode because the pilot hadn’t bothered to top off the batteries before leaving Astro Land. And the nearest filling station was in the wrong direction. The transport’s solar collectors were not able to provide much power to the vehicle. No one suggested tapping into the reserve battery if they were going to survive the night.

Dahlia asked Leonard to stop and let the batteries charge while she attempted to make a psychic recon. Leonard stopped the transport and had the pilot assist him in setting up a perimeter alert system. The system didn’t immediately engage because the pilot had improperly installed one of the pylons. Leonard insisted that the pilot fix it if he wanted to spend the night inside.

Adam monitored Dahlia’s vitals while lay on a rack. Her mind drifted until she was looking down at the transport. She could see the two men outside setting up the pylons. Off in the horizon she could see the upper spires of Astro Land. She began to float in their direction until she could see the entire city. Once over the city she slowly descended into the heart of the citadel. It didn’t take her long to find her way to the offices of her former colleagues.

CS Senior Agent Drew DeHaven felt a familiar presence in his office. He closed his eyes and focused his mind on the contents of the small room. “Dahlia,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t be here. Leave while you still can.”

“Why?” Dahlia responded. “I don’t understand. Why were we sent away?”

“Because they suspect that you killed Todd Rucker.”

“I had enough trouble getting to sleep when the screaming started. I couldn’t have killed him. Check my caravan logs. It was in lockdown. And my encephalo-recorder was engaged. I was still in alpha.”

“Your caravan recordings were erased. I’m sorry.”

“Since when do you forget procedure? Old habits die hard, my friend, so check again.” Those were her last words to her friend and former training partner before she snapped back to the caravan.

“Of all the people to frame why pick on me?” Dahlia sat up and looked around. “Someone erased the data from my caravan. I expect the backup to go missing sometime in the near future. Fortunately, I’m sure that Leonard has a backup of the backup. It’s what irritated me most about him when we were partners.”

“Why would they frame you?” Adam asked, “Did you make a lot of enemies?”

“I irritated a lot of people, but not enough for any of them to want me dead.” Dahlia walked to the front of the transport. “And I don’t have any kinetic abilities, purely sympathetic. Slicing and dicing would require kinetic control over a sharp object.”

Leonard and the pilot returned to the transport and secured the locks. As soon as it was too dark to see, the grid was engaged. Everyone claimed a rack and settled in for the night. Exhaustion claimed everyone, even Leonard shut down to conserve power. Dahlia lay awake for a while after everyone else had fallen asleep, listening to the hum of the grid and wondering if she would be able to sleep at all.

In the morning, Leonard was the first one to awaken. He prepared breakfast for the others and checked the integrity of the grid and perimeter. The perimeter had recorded an intrusion and the grid had taken a hit. Whatever it was, it lay dead just outside the transport. Adam was the second to awaken and sat down to his coffee and eggs. “Shouldn’t we wake them?” he asked.

“Dahlia will wake soon, and the pilot is almost useless.” Leonard locked the pilot out of the controls and sat down.

Dahlia stumbled out of her rack and shut down the encephalo. She slipped into a seat across from Adam and tapped on the table. Leonard brought her coffee and eggs. After several sips of coffee, she managed a smile. “Good morning, agents. Eggs?” she turned towards Leonard, “Are these real or am I dreaming?”

“Leonard informs me that we have a dead thing outside waiting to be looked at.” Adam said, “Apparently, we need you to keep us from getting killed while we examine the corpse.”

“That’s not it. But if it makes you feel better.” Dahlia finished her coffee after having wolfed down her eggs.

Outside, the trio found the remains of a canine, half-starved and mange ridden. It may have been wild, but it was certainly not a wildling. They logged the incident and transmitted it to CS Central Command along with a copy of the missing data from Dahlia’s caravan.


After waiting until midday for the transport to have enough charge to move at a reasonable pace, the three decided to head toward the nearest fuel station and top off all the batteries. While there, they discussed the situation at Astro Land. Dahlia couldn’t return to the citadel without being arrested and tried despite clear evidence of her innocence. Citadel Security had ordered the transport to Central Command as soon as possible. They had also reinstated Dahlia DeHaven as a Senior Investigative officer with full immunity.

It would take a day or two to reach Central Command. Dahlia wasn’t going anywhere near Astro Land without her credentials and a weapon. Dahlia’s weapon of choice was a Stunner. It could emit a directed blast of air or sound strong enough to topple a brick wall. While at CSCC, Dahlia also intended to trade in the transport for an armored air car. She didn’t have to ask Leonard if he would join her on her quest for justice. But she had no plans to place the Death Examiner at risk.

Adam Smith had other ideas. He wanted another look at the body of Todd Rucker, only this time with some equipment that the locals at Astro Land didn’t have. Adam didn’t like unsolved mysteries.

The pilot pouted through lunch and finally asked to be allowed to drive the transport. Leonard laughed and replied, “Uh, no.”

Realizing that time was running out, the pilot opened a compartment beneath the galley and felt around for a weapon that had been stashed there. The plan was simple – kill everyone and blame DeHaven. Unfortunately, the weapon wasn’t there. “Leonard watched with an air of amusement as confusion, followed by panic, appeared on the pilot’s face. “Looking for this?” Leonard asked while waving the weapon in the air.

The pilot made a mad leap at Leonard hoping to grab the weapon out of his hand. Leonard leveled the weapon and fired at the charging pilot. The pilot dropped to the floor, twitching where it lay. Adam sedated the pilot before helping Leonard load the now still body onto a rack.

Before they could leave the fueling station, they received a message from an air transport that they would be lifted back to CSCC. Leonard demanded a verification code and after being satisfied that they were CS, he allowed the transport to be grappled by the air unit. Everyone was relieved that they had been spared a long journey.

During the airlift back to Central the unconscious pilot was examined. Although an initial scan of the face checked out, genetic markers insisted that the pilot was actually someone else. A closer examination of the face revealed the presence of a prosthetic. A second scan after the prosthetic was removed revealed a face that wasn’t in the system. The DNA of the pilot also wasn’t listed anywhere. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to kill Dahlia. All they had succeeded in doing was bringing her out of retirement. And the pilot wasn’t providing any answers yet.

When the pilot awoke in his cell, he was cold and hungry. Dahlia stood outside of his reach and just stared at him. She expanded her personal space to include him. She could feel his hunger, his festering anger at having been found out. He was a beast in a trap. She didn’t ask any questions because she knew that she was the object of his mission. As expected he focused his thoughts on her. He wanted her to come closer so that he could strangle her. He could stop pretending and just rip out her throat, if only she would move closer. Dahlia smiled at the pilot.

“He isn’t the killer. He honestly believes that I killed Todd.” She turned to leave, then turned back, “I didn’t kill him. I had no reason to. We’ll talk again.” She left him slavering in his cell, stunned by her pronouncements.

When Dahlia returned to the brig, she found the pilot fully stripped of his prosthetics. He had done this on his own as a show of good will. “What do you call yourself?” she asked. He stood silent in his cell staring at her companions. “They aren’t here to hurt you.”

“My name is Adam. I’m a healer and a death examiner. I’d much prefer to examine you alive. You won’t be harmed by me.” Adam proceeded to explain the bits of medical equipment that he had brought with him. The prisoner was most attentive to Adam’s presentation.

“Leonard is an Artificial. He’s here to take notes and occasionally to ask questions.” Dahlia moved slowly toward the cell door and keyed the lock. She opened the door to let him out.

Before stepping out, he answered her question, “My name is Connor. Todd would bring my people things we needed.”

“Well, Connor, we will talk about that later. Right now, I need to know where you got the idea that I killed Todd.”

“You were there when he died.”

“So was his Artificial. Crystal has Todd uploaded to her secondary cortex.” Dahlia watched his reaction carefully before continuing her interrogation. “I know what you are, Rougarou. I grew up in Astro Land. I used to play with a few of your kind on nights when I couldn’t sleep.”

“Rougarou?” Adam asked arching an eyebrow.

“It’s an old fashioned word referring to a man that turns into a wolf. Connor’s people only come to the surface of the citadel during the night and hunt like wolves for unguarded vehicles to pillage. I left my room door unlocked and had a case of food for a Rougarou to find every night we were there.”

“That was you?” Connor asked. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that you were her.”

“Who do you think she is now?” Adam asked.

Connor replied, “Our fairy godmother.”

Dahlia laughed. “Now that you are on our side, how about we move the bio-med exam back to the infirmary?” Connor nodded assent and the four moved out of the brig.


By the end of the day, the three Security officers were back in uniform, Connor had been cleared, and an air transport had been readied for the foursome. Dahlia had a lot of questions that needed answering. Who killed Todd? Why was she framed for his death? And why did someone send a Rougarou to take her out?

The Rougarou weren’t a problem as long as there were people willing to share resources with them. They might even be relocated above ground. It wouldn’t be the first time that Citadel Security relocated a group. She could understand the Rougarou not wanting to remain among a population full of Psi-born. But the citadel would be foolish to be rid of them as the Rougarou maintained a great deal of infrastructure as payment for what they took. They weren’t monsters, just displaced people.

But somewhere out there in the wild, there were monsters. And someone in the citadel was taking advantage of a wildling kill to create a whole lot of trouble for Dahlia. They would soon regret that choice.

It took the air transport less than an hour to make the trip from Central Command to Astro Land. The Citadel Security office had been notified of their arrival. Drew was there to greet them, well aware that all warrants for Dahlia’s arrest had been overridden. He showed some concern for the presence of the Rougarou, but dismissed those as a courtesy to Dahlia.

Connor helped Adam offload his specialized scanners and medical equipment. Adam was determined to give the body a re-examination before it was released. Crystal had been there every day, filling out the release paperwork, only to have it denied. Connor followed Adam to the morgue.

Dahlia and Leonard wanted to get a close look at her caravan. Drew had driven the caravan to the CS car-park to protect it from further damage. He took precautions against contaminating or destroying any evidence that another might have left behind.

Back in the days when Dahlia and Leonard had been partners, Leonard had helped Dahlia install redundant systems in her caravan. Along with the primary drive, there was a hidden backup for every system. Although the primary drive showed erasures, the backup was intact. Dahlia also noted that the secondary drive served as an auto-log of her activities.  And the security system that fed directly into the backup had a record of the intruder who erased the files on the primary drive. “Some days it pays to be paranoid.” Leonard made a copy of the security files.

“Unbelievable,” Dahlia leaned forward placing her elbows on the table. “I can’t believe that you would throw me under the caravan like that!”

“The ruse to get you out of the citadel was to protect you,” Drew leaned forward, placing his hands on hers. “I knew that once you had figured it out that you would contact me. I didn’t erase your logs. They were gone when I checked your caravan.”

“I know, Drew,” Dahlia pulled back slightly, “I just can’t get over who did erase them.”

“We have the Artificial in custody,” Drew replied, changing the subject.

Adam and Connor joined the two at the conference table. “Was Todd handling any radioactive material?” Adam asked Dahlia.

“Yes,” she replied, “he was pulling radioactive canisters from various pieces of medical equipment.”

“That explains the radioactivity on his remains. What it doesn’t explain is the lack of radioactivity on his Artificial.” Adam showed the readings taken from his chest and arms. “His level of exposure was deadly.”

“We didn’t find any canisters at the scene.” Drew looked over the reports on his video. “We didn’t check his caravan.”

“I think we need to interrogate his Artificial, Crystal, to see …”

“No need,” Leonard interrupted, “I have everything on my video.” He threw several images up on the screens in the room. “Here’s our victim stacking the canisters up prior to loading on his caravan. And here’s whatever killed him.”

The image slowly played out on the screen. Todd was seen stacking two canisters near his cargo hatch. Something metallic suddenly appeared behind him. A loud whirring noise and several whip-like appendages originated from the unknown object before the windows were obscured by Todd’s blood. This was followed by the sound of objects being dragged for roughly five minutes and then silence.

Whatever that was, it needed to be investigated. As angry as Dahlia was about being maneuvered out of retirement, she knew that finding that thing before it killed again was priority one. She could scold her friends later. The five of them spent the rest of the day planning.


Two forensic transports arrived at the hospital around mid-day. Dahlia and Leonard brought Crystal with them while Adam and Connor traveled with Drew. The transports stopped near the Medical Office Center. Dahlia and Leonard set up imaging pylons along the perimeter of the crime scene.

Drew loaded the scanner data from the recovery unit that had collected the remains. Todd Rucker’s body parts appeared in holographic form where they had been found. Information supplied from Crystal and Rucker’s caravan logs placed his caravan where it had been parked. Adjustments were made based on input by Dahlia from her hospital view point.

Before long every known data point was entered and a rough estimate of what happened unfolded in front of them. The holo-computer slowly resolved the gaps between images and a clearer holographic video drama played out on a loop. The holo-computer could not resolve the image of the metal machine. It created something that was a mix of metallic octopus and cargo container.

The holo-movie left them with more questions than answers. Whatever it was seemed unaware of Todd’s presence at the scene. Had he been anywhere else but between it and the radioactive materials, he might still be alive – well, dying slowly from exposure to radiation, but alive nonetheless. Crystal had been unable to react due to the psychic download occurring at the time. There had to be a way to gather more data.

The secondary drive where Todd’s mirror resided had been disconnected to allow Crystal to remain functional. Leonard rigged a direct connection to Leonard to get better auditory and positional data. This allowed the holo-computer to fill in more of the hazy areas of the images, but the object itself was still undefined.

“Maybe we could get it to show up again,” the disembodied voice of Todd Rucker spoke through the holo-computer interface. The holo-image shifted slightly as Todd made adjustments and the computer followed in kind making adjustments to the after image. The objects location shifted slightly as seemingly unimportant details surfaces. The object’s reflection in the caravan’s glass and mirrors provided more detail.

Holo-cameras were placed on top of the office building and the Oncology Center. A third camera was placed at ground level in the plaza facing the crime scene. The plan was simple enough. The two Artificials were to bring out as many plutonium canisters as it took to entice the object to reappear. Its image was removed from the holo-projection and everyone else moved to a safe distance.

The holo-images of each canister were displaced by the actual canisters. Leonard and Crystal exercised care as the second set of four were brought out and set into place. They moved quickly away from the stack of eight. A sudden flicker of light where the holo-image of the caravan stood triggered the computer to drop the simulation. The forensic transport’s cameras captured the intruder as it extended its tendrils and dragged the canisters into its maw.

While the mysterious visitor was busy gathering the canisters, Leonard and Dahlia were busy attempting to communicate with it. Leonard’s attempt to hack the machine failed because the device didn’t have a recognizable operating system. It was definitely non-terrestrial. Dahlia was experiencing problems breaking past its EM shielding, but did manage to grab some images. The pilot was focused purely on the task, but she managed to divert its attention long enough for it to notice that it was being watched. It lingered briefly before popping out of sight.

Adam and Connor had been operating several scanning devices that attempted to penetrate the shell of the object. They had managed to capture some low resolution images of the machine and its pilot. The being inside resembled an octopus and controlled each of the ship’s tentacles with its own. Very little of its internal physiology was discernable from the scans.

Describing what she had seen proved challenging for Dahlia. The images were bizarre by human standards. Drew would have to help her sort out them out and make sense of them. The fact that she had made contact at all was remarkable.


They needed time to understand what they had, so they packed up and left for Central Command. The transports were safely in the air by nightfall. Adam, Crystal, and Leonard worked with the computers to process the data from the holo-cams and scanners. While Drew and Dahlia worked to interpret the images and thoughts of the intruder, Connor kept the two transports on course. By the time they arrived at CC, they hoped to have some coherent description of what Dahlia felt and saw during her brief contact with the alien pilot.

The transports docked at the Science Division port. Crew and passengers were assigned quarters and given time to eat, sleep, and otherwise prepare for debriefing. The Artificials would be debriefed first as they required the least amount of time to recharge. Leonard downloaded his data related to the encounter and then transferred all the data files from the transport computers. He had been debriefed often enough that he knew the procedure. An entire mainframe had been devoted to this investigation along with a holo-theatre and several forensic experts.

Leonard assisted Crystal with her data download, which included a formal request to the deceased to permit his processor to be relocated for forensic purposes. Todd Rucker 2.0 was delighted at the prospect at helping solve the mystery of his death and agreed to the procedure. Todd had a lot of questions to answer.

“Why did you decide to enter the contest?”

“Because I was dying,” Todd replied. “That’s why I was making a backup.”

“Why did you choose to handle radioactive materials?”

“They were to be payment for a blank Artificial,” Todd stated. “I was planning on outliving my death.”

“How did you expect to win the contest?”

“The people who wanted the radioactive materials were willing to fill my hold with high value items. It was part of the deal.”

“Did they request the radioactive material specifically?”

“Yes, they told me where the materials were, but said that they couldn’t get to them without raising suspicions.”

“Were you aware that radioactive materials would not be allowed into Astro Land?”

“They said that it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Where specifically were you supposed to make your trade?”

Todd supplied GPS coordinates of the meeting site. The satellite network was immediately queried for twenty-four hours of surveillance data surrounding Todd’s time of death.

The rest of the crew was debriefed as they woke up. Connor detailed the relationship that his people had with Todd. This was immediately confirmed by Todd. When asked about his attempt to kill Dahlia DeHaven, he replied, “I overheard a conversation about Dahlia having been there when Connor was killed. I figured that if she didn’t protect him, that she must have killed him. I was angry about that. It turns out that I was wrong.”

Adam Smith was the next to debrief. He testified that the wounds were consistent with the tentacles that the alien machine used to gather the radioactive materials canisters. “Had he been standing anywhere else, he might have survived, but it severed his head while it grabbed the upper canisters.”

“What did the scans of the alien reveal?”

“That it was shaped like an octopus and possibly aquatic,” Adam replied.

“Were you able to determine what kind of atmosphere the vessel contained?”

“The scans were inconclusive.”

“It was fluid, some kind of liquid,” Dahlia interrupted. “I could see ripples in it caused by the sonar hitting floating debris. The creature winced with each ping.”

“Wait your turn, Agent DeHaven. We haven’t completed debriefing Examiner Smith.”

Dahlia sat down and waited while they asked Adam more questions about Todd. Adam confirmed the presence of radiation poisoning, but said that he found no other ailments. Todd wasn’t dying until after he had handled those canisters unshielded. “Huh,” Todd responded, “son of a tick lied to me.”

Drew laughed. It was his turn next, despite Dahlia having arrived before him. His interrogation was short, because his involvement was limited to offering technical assistance. Unlike his sister he was a Normal through and through. Psi-born were debriefed differently.

Dahlia was still struggling for words when she sat in the chair. She was relieved to be fitted with the device that would transmit her memories to a video. It was easier to show what she saw through the alien’s eyes. The image slowly resolved of a red-skinned tentacle creature controlling external tentacles to wrangle objects into custody. The ripples in the atmosphere inside the ship were clearly visible. The pings from the sonar scanner rang loudly in the capsule. The moment he turned his attention toward the others froze briefly on the video while Dahlia attempted to resolve the memory, but it remained hazy. And then it was gone. The contact was broken. The scene returned to Dahlia’s view of the empty lot.

There were no other questions for Dahlia. Everything of interest to Citadel Security had already been entered into the record. The group was dismissed except for Crystal and Todd. The rest walked slowly down the corridor to the living quarters. Connor broke the silence first. “What happens next?”

“I go back to my desk job,” Drew replied. “My transport leaves in an hour. If you want a ride home, Connor, you should pack your belongings.”

“We’ll see about that,” Dahlia replied. “But pack anyway, little brother.”

Posted in Where The Wildlings Are | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


The Factory

The building had been abandoned for twenty years. Nature had claimed much of the grounds on which it stood. Dahlia liked exploring old buildings. Sometimes she found interesting stuff there – old photographs, timesheets, accounting books, and other items left behind. She had already rescued an old pair of sunglasses. They were dusty but amazingly unscratched. Dahlia checked the time. It was still early afternoon. Most of the machines had been left behind, rendered obsolete by new technology. She passed them by as she crossed the shop floor heading for a set of stairs.

She bounced up the stairs two at a time, paused at the top to look around. Some of the windows at rooftop level were open; others were broken. She continued down the walkway to the offices. That was where she found the good stuff. Paper and ink were rare and people paid good money for good quality paper and pens. The offices looked undisturbed. There was a good chance of finding something valuable.

There were some pens in the desks, but she needed to find the ones that were still sealed. The used pens would be dried out. She found a few open boxes and tossed them into her rucksack. Her search for paper uncovered a few unopened packages that quickly joined the pens. There were a few shiny baubles on the desks that Dahlia also collected – letter openers, paper weights, and an old magnifying glass. She picked her way through all the desks in all the offices. She raided the closets for whatever treasures they held.

In the last office, she found an old safe. It was locked, but Dahlia had come prepared. Inside the safe was an object that Dahlia had only seen in pictures. She gently picked it up and examined it. The strap was intact. The lenses were clean. She looked through the eyepieces and slowly adjusted the focus. A small object across the room appeared larger and in reach. The binoculars would come in handy.

Noticing that the light in the room was dimmer, Dahlia checked the time. She only had an hour to get out of there before sunset. The Wilds weren’t safe after dark. She hurriedly packed the binoculars in her rucksack and walked quickly to the stairs. She took those as quickly as possible and broke into a run across the shop floor. She covered the open ground between the abandoned factory and her caravan in less than an hour. Once inside, she bolted the door and energized the electric grid attached to the outside.

She unpacked her rucksack, carefully sorting and stowing the contents. She opened a can of ravioli and slowly spooned the meat-filled squares into her mouth while planning out tomorrow’s foray. One more raid on the factory was in order before moving on. After finishing her meal, she took some time to examine her newest tool. It could do more than let her see far away objects. It could tell her how far away they were. This would be an advantage out in the Wilds.

In the morning, she downed a can of mixed fruit and set out to finish harvesting the factory. There was little left for her to take, but she managed to collect a few more boxes of pens and reams of paper from a floor level office that she had missed the day before. Upon returning to her caravan, she fired up the engine and continued down the road to find another abandoned area.

The Fueling Station

Dahlia stopped at a small fueling station and recharged her caravan. The wildlings had not damaged the station, but the doors were locked. After some fiddling with the mechanism, she was able to gain entry. She removed canned food from the shelves and grabbed several bottles of water to restock her pantry. There were a few t-shirts hanging at the end of an aisle that would serve as a fresh change of clothing. She emptied the shop of as many supplies as she could while the caravan took on charge. She took advantage of the station’s electrical independence to heat up a can of spaghetti. It was nice to have a hot meal after being away from civilization for days.

Dahlia locked the place up before she left. She wanted to get her caravan in order before nightfall and move it to a safer location. In the past few days, she hadn’t encountered a single wildling and she wanted to keep it that way.

One of the items that she had liberated from the station was its microwave and supply of plastic bowls. She was looking forward to being able to heat up her favorite canned meals. The caravan’s batteries registered full charge just minutes before dusk. She quickly disconnected the chargers and set off down the road.

Dahlia hadn’t driven far before encountering trouble. It was standing in the road staring her down. She had never seen anything like it. It didn’t quite fit the description of a wildling, but those eyes. After a minute or two of mutual staring, the creature cleared the road. She watched it bound off into the woods to be followed by several others like it. They were elegant in their movements as they bounded across the road from the fields to the woods. Their little white tails were the last she saw of them.

The Motel

Farther down the road, Dahlia found an abandoned motel. She pulled in and parked behind the motel office. She planned to check the place out in the light of day. For now, she was debating whether to stay inside her caravan or risk sleeping in one of the rooms. Ultimately, she opted for safety over possible comfort.

She wondered how the others were doing. Had they found anything of value? Had their supplies run out? Had they encountered any wildlings? How many of them would she see again at the end of the hunt? She popped the last piece of pasta into her mouth and set her up her bed in the narrow caravan.

The early morning sun woke her. She put away her meagre bedding and changed her shirt into one of the new ones from the fueling station. After turning off the grid, she stepped out of her caravan and headed for the restaurant. Once inside, she checked out the kitchen. Most of the equipment wouldn’t fit into the caravan. She would have loved to have taken the stove. After taking stock of supplies and food, she decided to see if a cooked breakfast would be possible. There were eggs and bacon available in the walk-in chiller. The first gas burner that she tried fired up. She found a brew station for coffee and made a pot. After her breakfast, she examined the kitchen pantry and decided that the cans and bags of coffee would be the most valuable item to take from the place.

While poking around the rest of the building, she found several pillows still wrapped in their plastic packaging and took them. There were also a few new blankets, both wool and cotton. She took those items of bedding. What she didn’t use, would fetch a pretty penny. Dahlia stowed the coffee and bedding materials into her caravan and set off toward her next objective.

The rooms held little of interest. They were painted in pastels to compliment the coverlets and curtains. The beds smelled of must and urine. Dahlia was glad that she had opted for the caravan rather than braving a room for the night. The paintings that were screwed to the walls were worthless. The wall-mounted video screens were obsolete. The contents of the mini cooler were questionable.

There was no electricity. However, there was running water fed to the motel from a tower. It would likely continue to flow until the reservoir was emptied. It would be a cold shower, but she knew she would feel better cleaned up. Dahlia stripped off her clothes and braved the cold water. It felt good to wash off the dirt and dust of the past week. Fresh from the shower, she toweled off her light brown hair while pausing to look at herself in the mirror. She was still in good shape for her age. Dahlia dressed and returned to her caravan. Checking over her collection, she realized that she was several items short of her goal. As much as she wanted to be the first one back, she wanted to return with a full hold and there was still room for more. It was time to get moving.

The Church

Dahlia stopped beneath the carport of a church to slurp down a can of chicken noodle soup. She didn’t expect to find much of value there. The religious iconography was lost on her. No one believed in the old superstitions these days. Still, she searched the building.

It was a waste of her time. Useless artifacts, a collection of worthless paper and coins, and books full of fairy tales were plentiful. But a person could starve to death in this church. There was nothing comforting about the place. She left it behind with its doors wide open to the wildlings. An hour and a half later, she found a more promising site.

The Hospital

Dahlia stopped her caravan along the road and stepped out. The sign along the road has lost some of its letters but she could make out one word clearly – Hospital. She took out her binoculars to survey the cluster of buildings. There were four buildings in a cluster around a central square with parking between and behind the buildings. The hospital was marked with a large H with the Emergency entrance off to the side and below the main entrance level. That was the building where she would find the most valuable items. She packed her knapsack with her tools and set off in the direction of the Emergency entrance.

Fifteen minutes later she arrived at the Emergency entrance and set to work unlocking the doors. She only had a few hours to work before needing to head back to the safety of her caravan. It didn’t take her long to find the pharmacy and dump out all the drugs. She grabbed a few emergency kits while she was there. Her next stop was upstairs where the central pharmacy was located. “Jackpot,” she whispered.

There was no way that she could carry all that it held back to her caravan. It was time to risk moving closer to the building. Thirty minutes later, Dahlia parked her caravan under the carport of the Emergency entrance and jaunted back upstairs. Just as she cleared the stairwell, she noticed movement across the small square. A figure was struggling with some heavy equipment that they were liberating from the Oncology Center. She watched through her binoculars as they gave up trying to force the object through the doors and simply removed a container from it. She recognized the symbol on it. “Poor bastard,” she shook her head, “That radioactivity is going to kill you before you reach the goal.”

Before long, she had managed to clear out most of the contents of the pharmacy. She left behind the opened bottles and the refrigerated items. By the time that she had it all neatly stowed it was time to lock up. She still had a small amount of space left, but there would be time to fill it in the morning. She had almost forgotten about the race to scavenge the most items of greatest value out in the Wilds. But she hadn’t forgotten the most important rule – don’t get yourself killed.

Unfortunately her rival had forgotten. He was too busy loading everything radioactive into his caravan that he had lost track of time. Before the radiation had a chance to kill him, a wildling finished him off. Dahlia could hear his screams just as she was settling into bed for the night.

Dahlia waited for the sun to be fully above the horizon before venturing out. She walked around to where her rival had parked. There were blood and body parts scattered about. Some of the parts looked like they had been gnawed on. She resisted the urge to scavenge his caravan. There was no point in risking radiation exposure this close to the goal. When back inside the hospital, she searched for surgical kits, preferably the sterile packaged kits, to fill up the empty space in her hold. On the second floor, where the surgical rooms were located, she found a closet full of surgical kits and other supplies.

With her hold now full, Dahlia started off towards the goal. Before leaving the grounds of the Hospital, she engaged the security grid on the caravan. The idea was to fry any potential hitchhikers. It was still early in the day, but after what she had seen that morning, she wasn’t taking any chances.

The Goal

She would be early arriving at the gate. She knew that she might not get inside until the next morning, but as long as she kept the grid energized she would be safe. The citadel rose up in the distance like a beacon to anyone lost in the Wilds. The road widened as she approached the vast city. She stopped some distance away and trained her binoculars on the gate. There was no one ahead of her. Dahlia smiled and resumed driving. She had made it to the goal – Astro Land.

Dahlia stopped her caravan about a ten-minute walk outside the gate. She checked the time. Sundown was three hours away. Pulling out her binoculars again, she surveyed the area just inside the gate. The tunnel was clear of vehicles. At the other end of the tunnel, was another gate. The tunnel was long enough to hold several caravans. She wasn’t expecting to enter the tunnel until mid-morning, but the gate raised to allow her entry. She pulled forward to the inside gate and stopped and waited.

It was the same drill where she came from. The citadels were secure fortresses against the wildlings. No one ventured outside except by caravan. Every so often, a scavenger would fall victim to a wildling. The caravans would sit until another scavenger set out with a reclaimer.  Dahlia had been a reclaimer her first time outside her citadel. She had been out scavenging many times in the past. This was the first time in her lifetime that there had been a prize offered for scavenging. The scavengers had to bring their hauls to the goal. If she won, Dahlia would have to give up her caravan as well as its cargo.

Dahlia thought about the caravan that was left behind at her last stop. It was unlikely to be reclaimed unless there was a radiation suit available. She wondered if it was too late to back out of the competition. She had way too much time on her hands, or maybe not enough. While lost in her reverie, night fell unnoticed. The sudden light show in the tunnel startled her back to reality. The sparks flew everywhere between the tunnel grid and her caravan grid. Anything trying to sneak in would be fried by the jumping sparks.

After fifteen minutes, the light show stopped and the inner gate opened. She was directed to a parking space to the left of the gate and told to wait inside until cleared. She shut down her grid as instructed and tapped impatiently on the wheel. A mechanical loader extracted the cargo hold from her caravan. The bin already bore the name of her origin point – Dream Land. It was tagged with the number “1” to indicate that it was the first to arrive.

Rooms had been set aside for the contestants at the local hotel. She gathered up her personal belongings and headed there. After securing her room, she went to the downstairs eatery and passed a can of food to her server.

“Honey, it’s on the house,” her server replied while passing the can back to her. Dahlia smiled and nodded. “Cider,” she said before the server could ask.

The hot meal of meatloaf, mash, and corn surprised Dahlia. She hadn’t seen meat in any form beyond what existed in the canned foods. She took her time eating. The video feed in the eatery showed the arrival of a second caravan. The light show started as soon as it entered the tunnel. By the time it reached the end, the inner gate was open. By the time Dahlia had finished her dinner, the second contestant was cleared. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and dark-skinned. His cargo hold bore the name Play Land. Dahlia didn’t wait for him to check into his room before cornering him.

“Dahlia DeHaven,” she said while extending her hand. He glanced at her hand, then reached for her shoulder.

“Out of my way, woman,” he said shoving her aside.

“No need to be rude, asshole,” she shouted at his back. He turned on his heels.

“What did you just say to me?” “That you are an asshole and a very rude one at that.” Dahlia smiled broadly.

He returned the smile. Extending his hand, he introduced himself, “Adam Smith. It’s nice to meet you, Miss DeHaven.”

“Likewise, Mister Smith.” Dahlia said, while shaking his hand. “See you around.” Dahlia let him walk off this time without asking the rest of her questions. There would be time in the morning while waiting for the deadline.

The Deadline

Two other caravans arrived by mid-morning. The scavenger from Fantasy Land was one of two who set out from there. The dead scavenger that Dahlia saw at the hospital was the other one. The woman had dyed her hair bright green and wore red leather clothes. They didn’t look the least bit comfortable to Dahlia. The second arrival was from Star Land. He avoided eye contact as much as possible. Despite acting so squirrely, he still managed to smile and introduce himself as Leonard Leonard.

Adam managed to intercept Miss Fantasy Land and engage her in conversation. Dahlia walked Leonard over to the duo and introduced him to Adam. Adam introduced Dahlia to Miss Fantasy Land as he called her since her refusal to give her name. She was actually surprised that two people had beaten her to the goal. But she seemed confident that her haul would win her the prize. Dahlia asked her if she knew the name of the other scavenger from Fantasy Land. “Why?” she replied.

“A wildling killed him two nights ago. It ripped him to pieces. I couldn’t find the head, just a whole lot of body parts.” Dahlia left out the part about being there at the time.

Miss Fantasy Land had a stunned look after that revelation. “He was a friend, actually, more than a friend. His name was Todd, just Todd.” She sighed. “My name is Crystal. Todd and I had a thing.”

“I’m so sorry,” Leonard hugged Crystal. “I lost my boyfriend too.”

“Let’s get you two settled in and then get some grub,” Adam said as he herded the new arrivals toward the desk.

The next caravan to arrive came just before dusk with only minutes to spare before the deadline. The scavengers were a set of twins out from Adventure Land. While the other scavengers saw the twins as cheaters, Dahlia saw the disadvantage of having to argue about every item that would go into the hold. On the other hand, when they agreed, they could load twice as much stuff as everyone else.

Mike and Ike were amiable. They had a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. And they had a story to tell about running afoul of a pack of wildlings and barely surviving. Crystal excused herself from the group and Dahlia followed her to the counter. “Most of that story is pure shit. Wildlings don’t hunt in packs. They don’t need to.” Dahlia could see that she needed to change the topic.

“Bartender,” Leonard slapped the marble counter, “something frilly for the ladies, please.” Dahlia smiled at Leonard, grateful for the rescue.

The scavengers sat together during the evening meal. By the end of the meal, they had each had a chance to talk about their journey from their home citadel to Astro Land. Crystal sat quietly while Dahlia talked about her journey there. Dahlia left out the part about Todd’s death as a kindness to Crystal. The twins had a few more tales to add about finding a church full of gold icons and raiding the appliance section of a department store. Adam talked about running something down in the road and turning on his grid just in case. Leonard didn’t say much of anything. He seemed anxious to get away from the group.

When everyone arrived back at their rooms, they found a notice about a breakfast meeting to discuss the results and announce the winner of the contest. The twins set up a security system because they didn’t trust the door locks. Adam tucked a gun beneath his pillow. Crystal rigged a few traps just inside the door that should knock out any intruder. Dahlia didn’t bother to lock her door. And Leonard stayed awake all night.

In the morning they met in a small private dining room where a breakfast buffet had been set up. Dahlia and Leonard were the first to arrive. They both loaded their plates with sausage and scrambled and tots. Large glasses of raw cider and mugs of coffee accompanied their first course. By the time the rest of the scavengers arrived, they had just sat down with heaping seconds. Adam sat next to Dahlia. Crystal sat by Leonard. And the twins sat between Dahlia and Leonard.

Several city officials arrived and sat down opposite the twins. Everyone sat back and pushed away their plates. “We have examined your goods and assessed their value on the open market.” There were no introductions. “We appear to have a tie for value.” Dahlia smiled. Leonard leaned forward.

“Well?” Adam asked, “What does that mean exactly?”

“It means that we are re-sorting the inventory by value to determine whose inventory had the most high value items. We should have an answer by mid-day meal.” The officials stood and departed the room.

“Oh for the love of…” Crystal stood up and marched out of the room. Leonard pulled out a pocket video unit and stared intently at it while Dahlia cornered the twins.

“You made up that story about the pack of wildlings. Why?” Dahlia asked.

“Because we saw something else far worse,” Ike replied.

“It’s about Crystal, isn’t it?”

The twins looked at each other and nodded.

“I recognized the caravan when it pulled in.” Dahlia continued, “It was the same one that was parked at the Hospital that I stopped at. The poor guy was torn to pieces.”

“I noticed that she doesn’t eat much.” Adam chimed in. “Neither does Mister Leonard.”

Dahlia laughed.

The Item of Value

The hotel staff removed the breakfast trays and cleaned off the tables while Leonard continued to study his video. Adam and Dahlia questioned the twins at length about what they actually saw versus what they thought they saw. After an hour, the twins excused themselves and left the room. The remaining three moved to a round table in a corner of the room.

“I thought they’d never leave,” Leonard exclaimed. “It’s safe to talk now.”

“I thought this contest had rules.” Adam pulled out a chair and sat down.

“It does. And, apparently, only the three of us followed them.” Dahlia leaned against the table. “Well?” she said while looking at Leonard.

“Yes,” Leonard replied.

“Yes what?” Adam glanced at the two of them.

“Crystal is an artificial, an old model. I don’t think she killed Todd.”

“Was she registered as a contestant?” Adam threw his heels up onto the table and leaned his chair back slightly.

“No. But Todd Rucker was registered. His inventory lists a sex surrogate as one of his personal items.” Leonard pulled up a chair and sat.

“She seems a bit too bright to be a simple. Illegal upgrades, maybe?” Adam asked.

“No way to know without tipping her off,” Leonard looked at Dahlia, “unless you can read her.”

“I can barely read you,” Dahlia replied. “What about the twins?”

“The registered contestant, note singular, not plural, from Adventure Land is a man named Karl Aesop.” Leonard continued. “According to the Adventure database, Karl had no offspring. He does have two nephews, twins, named David and Daniel, Idents match the twins.”

“Where’s Karl?” Adam said as he lowered his feet to the floor.


Dahlia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “The local Feds are relaying an inquiry to Adventure Land. They’ll get back to me when they have an answer.” She cleared her throat. “Or we could just ask them, she said nodding in their direction.

The trio intercepted the twins. “How are the Aesop boys doing?” Leonard asked.

Dahlia laughed. “Leonard is a hack as well as a scavenger. He checked the roster of contestants. The two of you weren’t on it, but your uncle was.”

“He got sick.” David, aka Ike, replied. “We took his place. How did you know that he was supposed to be in the contest?”

“Exit visas,” Leonard replied, “are public record. They should have been updated when you took his place.”

“Who are you three?” Daniel, aka Mike, asked. “Are you Feds?”

“Private investigators,” Adam replied. “We were hired to find something out there. With any luck, one of us has.”

While the hotel staff was busy setting up the mid-day meal, Crystal returned to the room. Leonard intercepted her while everyone else sat down at the table. The seating arrangement was changed from the morning. Adam and David sat at one table. Daniel sat near David and Dahlia took the seat next to him. Leonard saw to it that Crystal occupied a chair between himself and Dahlia. The moment Crystal sat down, Dahlia sensed something very odd about her. Even Leonard seemed disturbed by it.

Artificials all have the same EM field surrounding them, with minor variations that allow for identification. Crystal’s field was inconsistent as if something had corrupted her programming. Leonard erected his firewalls and isolated his video from the citadel’s networks. Sticking strictly to NFC, he started to access Crystal’s field. She was emitting a distress code hidden beneath her ident.

Dahlia had been monitoring the investigation into Todd Rucker’s untimely demise. They had managed to find his head beneath a bush. The autopsy revealed the Todd was dumping his consciousness, most likely into the artificial, Crystal. Dahlia decided to try to reach out to Todd, but instead encountered mental blocks. Watching his true self be torn apart must have traumatized his copy. The damaged neural net was likely disrupting Crystal. Leonard had already started to work on normalizing the malfunctioning artificial when the contest officials arrived to announce the winner.

Dahlia wondered if any of the other contestants fully understood what the prize was. The twins were too young to collect and had not brought their uncle with them. Artificials are ineligible, but the officials already knew that Leonard was a citadel investigator. Todd was deceased. That left Adam and her as the only possible winners, and Adam was young and in perfect health. Dahlia was beginning to have second thoughts about the prize.

It seemed that the officials were way ahead of her. “We have taken steps to bring the winner here by secure transport. It was a tough call, as Dahlia DeHaven brought us some much needed medical supplies, but the twin surrogates for Karl Aesop brought us visual footage of a wildling attack. This is worth more to us than every physical object that has been collected in this contest.”

“How is that possible?” Adam asked. “They weren’t anywhere near the attack site.”

“They were close enough for satellite monitoring to catch the attack. The imagery is mostly thermal,” the official replied.

“The twins had pulled in after I left, just in time to see Crystal drive off. They saw the remains of Todd Rucker and assumed that Crystal was responsible.” Dahlia continued, “The daytime satellite imagery likely confirmed that the thermal was a wildling attack.”

“It would have been better to have more detailed footage,” Adam stated.

“We do,” Leonard replied. “Crystal had night vision imagery and a recording of her owner’s death. I made a copy before suppressing the file. We also have Todd’s first person experience as downloaded into Crystal.”

“Citadel Security will be pleased. Could Astro Land have a copy?” Dahlia rose from her seat and raised her glass of milk. “A toast to the winner and his surrogates is in order. Congratulations all!”

The naturals rose to toast the winner while Leonard continued his work on Crystal and relayed all pertinent files to the appropriate authorities.

“It’s just as well that I didn’t win. I don’t think that I’m ready for a ‘trip to Mars’.” Dahlia turned toward the twins, “do you boys understand what your uncle has won?”

David replied, “Like you said, a trip to Mars.”

Dahlia smiled.

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Easy Mexican Style Rice

My daughter and I love to eat Mexican inspired food. When we can’t get out to our favorite Mexican restaurant, we toss together a meal of taco-seasoned beef, refried beans, and Mexican rice. Making the Mexican/Tex-Mex rice had always been a challenge, but I found a simple four ingredient solution.

2 cups chicken broth/stock
1/4 – 1/2 cup chunky salsa
1 Tsp double concentrated tomato paste
1 cup converted rice

Combine chicken broth, salsa, and tomato paste into a two-quart saucepan.

Heat to boiling. Stir in rice. Cover pan and reduce heat. Cook for 20 minutes on simmer.

Remove pan from heat. Let stand uncovered for 5-10 minutes while the rice absorbs the moisture.

Uncover, stir, and serve!

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Cold Storage – 1.6

Gaia, Sander, Zack, and Thaniel sat quietly while Speaker Law ushered in the rest of the council members. Ever since the arrival of Doctor Jason Freed and the Antarctic, the four had been assigned to assess the mission of the machine that passed itself off as human. The drama had finally played itself out, although not as the android nor its masters had hoped.

“What was on that ship that we just destroyed?” Speaker Law was not one to mince words. “Just how much of a threat was it to Nova?”

“Does anyone here remember Earth?” Gaia watched while every head in the room shook “no”. “Of course not, because we came here on a generation ship with limited resources. Our ancestors brought along a history of Earth. It detailed how the wealthy preyed upon the less fortunate members of society. And we built a colony without such predators.”

“When the mutations occurred, we couldn’t afford to sacrifice lives over petty differences,” Speaker Law interjected.

“But some of those differences were startling in their power,” Gaia grabbed Sander’s hand. “A war aboard ship would have destroyed any possible future. And killing infants was unconscionable when it was necessary to increase the population to useful levels after the disaster responsible for the mutations had decimated our numbers.”

“A decision that no one has regretted,” Speaker Law interrupted. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“The rich people who shipped out our ancestors while they stayed behind to finish their rape of the Earth were on that ship. The same people who refused to learn from their history. Those wealthy money hoarders who refused to pay their employees a living wage, who chose to deny basic human rights to people with the misfortune not to be rich – those were the occupants of that ship.”

“They sent our ancestors out to live or die on generation ships and to set up colonies that they might one day invade. They were going to steal the fruits of our hard work. They had forgotten how they had banished our ancestors to die in space, while they traversed space as frozen cargo to be resurrected on some thriving colony. They had forgotten – unfortunately for them, we hadn’t.”

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Cold Storage – 1.5

Gaia ripped off her mask and sped up the ladder to the chamber where her crewmates were trying to order the mechs to return. Turning to Sander, she asked, “Where’s Jason?”

“Good question,” Sander replied. Raising his palms to face Gaia, he said, “Let’s find him.” Gaia placed her palms against his and the two interlaced their fingers. Gaia closed her eyes and let her mind expand throughout the large ship. She didn’t recognize Jason at first. He didn’t look human; he didn’t feel human. His electrical patterns were too regular, not random enough.

The bridge dissolved around them as Sander moved them through a dimensional shift. Gaia’s eyes were wide open when they arrived at the small command center of the large ship. Jason was standing in a chamber in the back of the compartment. The larger vessel had executed a course change and was heading for Nova Terra. Sander and Gaia sat at what appeared to be the ship’s navigation and communication stations. There were already warnings for the larger vessel to divert its course.

Gaia opened a channel to reply to the incoming messages. “This is Gaia Wald of Nova Terra. We are attempting to divert course, but the ship is not responding. We are requesting consideration of one hour.”

“This is Nova Command. You have 59 minutes.”

Gaia closed the channel. She turned to face Jason. He was standing perfectly still, eyes open and staring ahead of him. Gaia noticed that he wasn’t blinking. “What the…” Suddenly, Jason stepped forward and locked his eyes on Gaia.

“Welcome aboard the Arctic,” he spoke in a relaxed tone. “I’m suppose you want an explanation.”

“Keep it short,” Sander replied, “We have less than one hour to save this ship, if it’s worth saving.”

“It is a treasure trove. The last of every living thing on Earth preserved for transplant on some lucky planet. And Nova Terra is that lucky world.” Jason sounded like a used spaceship salesperson, and neither Gaia nor Sander was buying his pitch.

Zack and Thaniel had already set about getting themselves off the ship before it was blown out of Nova’s sky. The Novan mechs were modular and Gaia had insisted that the evacuation modules were loaded aboard the Antarctic before launch. The spaceport guards had even allowed it.

Gaia thought back to Speaker Law and his question about the Antarctic’s long-range ability. It dawned on her that he wasn’t asking her about that because he wanted her to go on a deep-space mission. He wanted to know if the ship had already flown a long-range mission. It had been Jason’s ship originally; he had arrived in it.

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Cold Storage – 1.4

Gaia locked her quarters and turned on the pulmonary assist device next to her bed. She wasn’t exactly going to sleep. It would be hours before the mechs completed their survey of the alien vessel. Gaia wasn’t that patient. She affixed the nasal pillow to her face and lay down. As soon as her eyes were closed, her mind began its journey. Because her attention was focused up, she missed the activity below decks.

Sander, like Gaia, was among the last of the Nova Terra colonists born in space. He had his own special talents, but they were not needed yet. Sander was hoping that they wouldn’t be needed. It never ended well when they were. He slept while Gaia prowled the ship above.

As Gaia’s mind drifted up, she could see the two younger crew members busy overseeing the progress made by the mechs as they explored the ship. All of the compartments surveyed by Leena were cold despite the ship generating more than enough power for climate control and life support systems. Devon had reached a deck that was not numbered. It appeared to be a control deck. Gaia pushed on up toward Devon and let her mind flow over the deck. The controls were labelled in an old Earth script, but even without the knowledge of that script, she could decipher the numbers. The chambers both above and below were being kept incredibly cold.

Both mechs registered a change in the ship’s position as they gyros were forced to adjust. The slight lateral acceleration caused by the firing of small rockets was followed by the roaring to life of the six massive thrusters. The burn was brief, but it woke both the sleepers. The course change would prevent the massive ship from passing to close to Terra Nova’s star, allowing the cargo to remain unaffected by excessive solar radiation. It also set the ship on an intercept course for Terra Nova.

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Cold Storage – 1.3

“That was a little too easy,” Gaia said. “We’ll be sending the mechs out first.”

The ship’s two mechs were standing ready at the airlock. The one-meter tall bipedal mechs were standing at attention when the crew entered. Gaia examined their components to be sure that they were properly equipped for their missions before issuing orders. “Leena, I want a full atmospheric analysis. Scan for life forms, but don’t engage. Devon, find the ship’s control center. Determine its course, flight objective, and defense systems, but don’t engage with any crew. Understood?”

The two mechs nodded what passed for heads in response before entering the airlock between the two ships. The gantry lift carried them up into the larger ship.

Thaniel sat at a monitoring station watching the feeds from the two mechs as they entered the upper airlock. “Signal is strong and clear,” he reported. “Leena reports a breathable atmosphere. No positive signs of life though.”

“Have her keep looking,” Gaia sat down next to Thaniel. “Does Devon have anything to report yet?”

“He’s still climbing the central shaft,” Thaniel replied. “Should I make him climb faster?”

“Too risky,” Zack objected. “We can’t risk Devon being discovered; and he’d make too much noise if he climbed any faster.”

“Zack, Thaniel, we could be here awhile.” Gaia rose from her seat. “Zack, you stay and watch with Thaniel. The rest of us will get some sleep, or at least try to.” Gaia motioned to Sander and Jason as she moved toward the Antarctic’s central lift.

The two followed her into the lift and the three slowly descended to crew quarters. After seeing Gaia and Sander to their quarters, Jason returned to the lift and continued down to a lower deck. He opened an airlock and drifted across the space between the Antarctic’s outer hull and the inner hull of the larger ship.

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