Seeking Atlantis

Todd and the Real Girl

Todd was itching for another adventure. He had lost interest in Curiosity and her limited mentality. After aimlessly fluttering around Central Command, he found himself back in the bay where Cetacean sat. He looked her over. Finding his little dock, he attached himself to her and pinged her system computer. “Hello, Todd,” the computer replied.

“Good afternoon, Cetacean, how are you?” Todd scanned her systems for recent activity.

“Fully functional, Todd.” If he’d had a face, he would have smiled at that response.

“I see that they have upgraded a few of your systems,” Todd was a little bit jealous.

While Todd was busy fiddling with Cetacean’s new toys, Cetacean had notified Leonard.

“Good afternoon, Todd,” Leonard’s voice rang out. “I see that you have found Cetacean’s upgrades.”

“I wouldn’t mind having a few of these myself,” Todd retracted the specimen hatch.

“I’m glad to hear that.” Leonard opened a large metal case. Todd flew over to inspect the contents.

“Is that for me?” Todd buzzed around Leonard and the case, “Please say yes.”

“As soon as you settle down, you can be transferred.”

Todd dropped to the deck and disconnected everything that he could. Once Leonard was certain that he could transfer Todd safely, he removed Todd’s module from the old mini-sub and dropped it into the new body.

Todd slowly connected his mind to his new body, trying out the various additions. He fluttered up into the air and flew around the bay. He extended his new arms and played with his mechanical hands. He picked up his old body and dropped it into the case. Then he rushed back to Cetacean to share the good news. Leonard shook his head and moved the case back to a side wall.

Mariana had hoped to return to Oceanside Land when her little adventure in space concluded, but the Superior delayed her departure from Coney Land. She seemed to have become stuck in an endless loop of meetings to discuss the Cresh. An extensive list of questions to which she didn’t know the answers was accumulated in their wake.

“Perhaps, Master Lee, you should go seek out those answers,” Superior Crane rose from his seat as he spoke. “And I know exactly how you can do that, if you are interested.”

Mariana stood up quickly, her seat crashing to the floor behind her, “When do I leave?”

The Superior smiled, “As soon as the rest of the crew is assembled.”

Exploring the Great Lantic Ocean had been Mariana’s dream since childhood. She was awestruck that it was about to come true. She packed for the mission and carried her rucksack with her as she wandered around Central Command. She was eating mid-day meal when her video chirped.

There were five people waiting for Mariana in the launch bay. Piotr Warszawa had been a star student of hers at Oceanside University. His detailed structural studies of saltwater lifeforms had impressed the University Superiors enough to award him a Master. Mariana squealed with excitement, ran to Piotr, and gave him a hug. Adam Smith, a Death Examiner, was there as well as Dahlia DeHaven. She smiled and waved at Dahlia, having met the Psi-born during a real trip to Mars. Dahlia introduced her to Wendy, an Artificial who would be assisting Leonard. The fifth person was Todd in his new body.

Todd extended his new mechanical arms to embrace Mariana. At first, she hesitated, but decided to hug the floaty metal person anyway. Todd did a celebratory buzz around the group before settling down. His voice projected from their collective videos as he spoke, “This way to the Great Egress.” Todd headed toward the Secure Bays tunnel. After a moment of hesitation and raised eyebrows, everyone else followed.

Girl Meets Whale

Once everyone had cleared the Security scanner, boarded the elevator carriage, and the elevator was on its way downward, Todd began the mission briefing. “As most of you are aware, the Cresh aliens spoke of having survived a Great Cataclysm which killed off most everything living in the Great Lantic Ocean. Our mission is to discover exactly what that event was and to see what survived it.”

Todd paused his briefing long enough to allow everyone to move from the elevator to a waiting tram. Once everyone took a seat, Todd continued by explaining everyone’s role in the mission, which he managed to complete just as the tram arrived at its destination.

“Pete and the delightful Marianna are on board because they are the world’s foremost saltwater zoologists. Their mission is to catalog whatever new life forms we encounter. Wendy is our pilot and will also assist our technical expert, Leonard Leonard, who we will be meeting at the end of this ride. And Dahlia is along to determine if there is intelligent life down there. Pete and Wendy are the new kids on the block.” It was obvious that Todd had been amusing himself with some ancient video records.

As the tram pulled into the secure bay, Todd announced, “Please remain seated until the tram comes to a complete stop!”

“Is he always like this?” Piotr asked.

“I don’t know,” Mariana replied.

Dahlia smiled, “he was always a little off, I think, even when he was alive.”

“Please remove all personal items from the tram. The management is not responsible for items left behind,” Todd said while everyone stood up to leave.

“Thank you for riding the tram. Have a nice day!” Todd was the first one out the door.

“What is he so happy about?” Adam asked.

“Shiny new body and a mission,” replied Dahlia. “And I think he really likes Mariana.”

Todd led everyone into the briefing room where Leonard was waiting.

After everyone had chosen seat, Todd settled on the floor next to Mariana. Leonard dimmed the room lights and a short video detailing the changes made to the Cetacean began to play. Life Assessment scanners had been installed in the expanded laboratory. There was a holo-cam station to make a video record of the captured life form before releasing it back into the ocean. To accommodate storage of saltwater zoological specimens, the crew quarters had been reduced to accommodate only four naturals. The forward seats had been updated to both link with and recharge the Artificials. The observation seats had been replaced with standing versions to take up less space in the forward compartment.

Most of Leonard’s updates were inspired by what he had seen on Leviathan. The rest were recommendations made by Mariana during her many debriefings. The Cetacean was the ship that Mariana had always desired. It would take her out to sea, under the waves, and down to the ocean floor. Mariana stared in disbelief at the shiny silver ship. She was speechless for a moment, then squealed with delight as she ran toward its hatch.

Todd intercepted Mariana before she could board the ship, allowing time for everyone else to catch up. Leonard signaled for the elder crew to board before allowing the newcomers entry. Wendy settled in at the helm and queried the ships computers. All systems were online and functioning within normal limits. Leonard explained Todd to the newest crew and highlighted his new capabilities. Todd gleefully demonstrated his new arms and ocular analogs, somehow managing to wink at Mariana.

Piotr gave Mariana a playful nudge, saying, “I think he’s sweet on you.” Mariana blushed.

When they finally boarded, Adam and Dahlia were busy inspecting the new lab equipment. Todd could be heard over a speaker, “I’m docked and fully interfaced. Let’s get this show boat on the road!”

“Somebody needs to have a serious talk with Todd,” Adam smiled at Dahlia, “and it isn’t going to be me.”

Mariana and Piotr carefully pored over the zoology laboratory. They discovered, to their delight, that all their prior research and discoveries were available on the ship’s computer. The duo carefully examined the specimen containers. “What about larger specimens?” Piotr asked. “Will we be able to accommodate them?”

“Not yet,” Leonard replied. “Large specimens are Todd’s forte He will use his onboard scanning equipment to take measurements and make video of any saltwater creature that can’t be brought aboard.”

“Why do we have a Psi-born?” Piotr couldn’t fathom why they would need a telepath.

“Because,” Mariana answered, “some of the saltwater creatures are intelligent. Having a telepath allows us to communicate with them.”

“Oh,” Piotr frowned, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Okay, everyone, it’s time to stow your gear and strap in.” Leonard shooed the newcomers to the crew quarters, while the senior crew settled in behind the helm and navigation stations. Leonard helped Piotr and Mariana to strap in before heading to the helm. Dahlia had to close her eyes and focus to shut out Mariana’s palpable excitement. The launch took less time than it had on Cetacean’s maiden voyage. The new seating allowed the passengers full view of the landscape as the ship headed toward the Great Lantic Ocean.

Close Encounters of the Shark Kind

The waves of the Lantic were slapping the shore. The crew watched the rising tide while the Cetacean rolled slowly into the saltwater. “Bingo!” shouted Todd, when the ship had immersed completely. There wasn’t much sea life beyond the occasional side-walker and a few tentacled floaters. The ship crawled deeper into the saltwater and turned toward the caverns where the previous mission had encountered the Cresh and their damaged spaceship.

There were some smaller versions of the Cresh floating nearby. Dahlia reached out to them, but they were too primitive. “These must be your squid, Todd,” she remarked.

“Could you grab one or two?” Mariana asked. “I’ve never seen those except in videos.”

“As you wish,” Todd chirped before darting off to collect a few. He wasn’t gone long before returning with two specimens. He unloaded the collection jar into the waiting container inside the ship. “Anything else, sweetie?”

Mariana moved the collected specimens to storage and set a new container into the transfer tube. Todd had taken off with the empty collection container to scout the area for anything interesting. Mariana watched Todd’s video while he meandered about the shallow shelf waters. A movement in the sand was enough to send him darting in like a predator to grab whatever it was that was roiling the water. He returned with some odd fish that was round and flat with eyes on the topside. Mariana accepted it and kept watch as Todd scurried off in search of something new.

It didn’t take long for Todd to find something new and unlike anything Todd had ever encountered. And it didn’t look happy to see him either. The beast was too big to fit in his specimen jar, which was already full. It was very large and mostly black with a white underbelly. Several times Todd thought that he had outrun the toothy critter, only to have it catch up to him. It was a powerful swimmer, propelled by the motion of its crescent shaped tail. Todd tried several times to evade the monster, but it always caught up with him. Todd scrambled back to the Cetacean, the only safe place he could think of.

The creature rammed the ship as Todd ducked behind it. Todd could be heard in the background muttering, “shark. It’s a shark. Oh lordy, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The thud of the impact echoed inside; the ship rocked slightly. It circled Cetacean looking for Todd, who had hidden himself beneath the ship. It circled again and made another run at Cetacean, then suddenly turned aside.

Dahlia had clenched her eyes shut. Her fingers dug into the armrest as she reached out to the creature attacking them. It was angry and directing all its fury at the strange invader in its hunting grounds. It turned away because a strange voice told it to calm down. It slowly approached the shiny object again. The voice was still there, calmer than before, assuring the beast that no one intended harm. It came to the front window where it showed off its large toothsome maw with multiple rows of triangular teeth. Its beady little eyes offset its fierce appearance.

Among the few things to survive through the years were several videos about sharks. Mariana had seen them all. “You won’t like how we taste,” she shouted at the shark, hoping that somehow Dahlia would translate. “On the other hand, you might make quite a feast for us.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t play ‘God of the Mountain’ with the shark,” Todd cautioned. “We don’t want to make him angry with us.” Todd’s camera focused on the circling shark. “Please tell him that we are only visiting and don’t want to hurt him.” Dahlia was way ahead of him. She had managed to convince the shark to allow Todd to scan him. All Dahlia had to do was to convince Todd that it was safe.

“Are you…you…you sure?” Todd stammered, “It seems pretty upset to me.”

“That’s because you stole its food,” Dahlia explained. “He hasn’t eaten in a while and you grabbed the little food that he could find.”

“Can’t he eat something else?” Todd didn’t want to release his pretty catch.

“Let me ask,” Dahlia replied. She sorted through the images the shark and presented and told the shark that she knew of a horde of squid.

“He’ll let you keep your catch and he’ll let you make scans of him in exchange for the location of the squid.” Dahlia had already negotiated the scans for squid deal, but Todd needed assurance.

Once Todd completed his scans of the shark, Dahlia told the shark where it could find the squid that they found earlier. It flashed a toothy grin and then took off into the cavern to feed. Clear of the threat of the shark, the Cetacean moved slowly into deeper water. Mariana and Piotr carefully examined the brightly colored blue and yellow fish that Todd had recently captured. They noted that the fish had a beak and spent time discussing why they thought it had one.

Then they turned their attention to the scans of the shark.  The made notes about its crescent shaped tail and the small dorsal fins nearby. After an animated discussion, they both concluded that it was a Great White. Piotr was awestruck by the download of images from the shark itself that Dahlia had gleaned from her psychic link with the creature. It was not alone, nor the last of its kind. There was a group of sharks ahead of them. As the Cetacean approached the sharks, Dahlia let them know that this strange visitor was not a threat.

The holo-cams recorded their feeding habits as they swallowed up a cluster of smaller fish. Todd grabbed a few of the food fish as the ship passed by them. The food fish were less colorful with silvery scales. A few of the younger sharks swam around the window trying to get a view of the strange visitors inside. They spent an equal amount of time showing off their maws full of teeth, but lost interest when the ship and its contents ignored their swagger. As the ship pulled away from the school of sharks and continued its crawl toward the abyss ahead, the gawking by the juveniles stopped. At the edge of the shelf, the Cetacean stopped to allow the human crew members time to sleep and prepare for exploring the deeper water.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Slope

Exploring the Hatteras plateau had been on Mariana’s wish list since she watched her first undersea adventure video. Mariana tried to remember if it would be like jumping off a cliff or skiing down a mountain side. She tried to take her time eating breakfast but she was anxious to get down there. Suddenly, Piotr was patting her on the back as she nearly choked on some scrambled eggs. “Slow down, Mari, you won’t get to see too much if you’re dead,” Piotr took her fork from her and set it on her plate. “Now take some time to breathe and have a drink of water.” He handed her glass to her. She smiled sheepishly and took a sip.

Dahlia was finishing off her can of cold ravioli when Adam finally summoned the courage to ask her why she always had pasta. “It reminds me of home,” she gave her standard answer hoping that it would satisfy him. It didn’t.

“No, really, why always pasta?” Adam stared at her, then abruptly turned his attention to his coffee mug.

Dahlia set down her spoon and the empty can. She sipped her coffee, “I just like it.”

Adam looked at her face. He could tell that she was serious, that it was that simple. “I suppose you get tired of people asking. I should not have asked.”

“No. But you did. And I didn’t end up mad over it. It’s a quirk. Over the years of caravanning without a cooker, I got used to cold canned food. And of all the cold canned food, pasta was the least detestable. And I guess that I just got to like it.”

“So, no deep-seated issues then?” Adam winked.

“Puh…leese,” Dahlia rolled her eyes. She stood up and started clearing the table. The two younger crew members had already taken their seats up front. Adam helped her clean and put away the eatery ware. It wasn’t long before they were strapping themselves in up front.

Just as Wendy started to move the Cetacean forward, Todd was buzzing about in the front window. “C’mon guys, let’s get going! I’ll race you to the bottom!” Before anyone could respond, he took off down the slope. During the downward trek, Todd returned several times to complain about the ship’s slow downward pace. Leonard had asked Wendy to keep to a slow steady pace to record any wild saltwater life that they might overlook otherwise.

On the way down, a few Great White sharks buzzed past the front window. The sharks didn’t seem too concerned about them though. Dahlia found them curious but calm. Todd kept a safe distance from the sharks, a holdover from his surprise encounter the day before. Near the midpoint of the slope, they found the opening in the rock wall that would lead them to the abandoned city of the Cresh.

The opening was too small for the Cetacean. The two saltwater zoologists had a list of what they wanted to see and sent the request to Todd. He flew to the opening and before entering, managed a salute while saying, “Super Todd at your service ma’am.” He was inside and back out within an hour.

“That was quick!” Mariana asked, “are you sure that you found everything that we asked for?” Mariana was hoping that there might be a clue to the Great Cataclysm somewhere in the Cresh city.

“Yes, ma’am, Lady Lee, found every little nook and cranny.” Todd feigned taking off a hat while making his statement.

“Transfer is complete,” Piotr turned to face Mariana, “I told you he was sweet on you, Mari.”

Mariana blushed. While Todd and Wendy returned to the journey downward, Mariana and Piotr went over the holo-video that Todd made of the Cresh city. It was very ordered, resembling the habitats of burrowing critters like hoppers, but with a central hall that resembled the home of a paddle-tail. The central hall must have been where they ate their meals. Fish bones, including an intact skeleton or two, littered the floor.

The quarters were austere except for the random presence of debris from sunken ships. There were some china cups, random pieces of flatware, bits and pieces of broken chandeliers, and odd knickknacks tucked away in some of the chambers. There were even a few live fish wandering about, which Todd had brought back with him. There were no Cresh left behind to answer the pressing question. Overall, the Cresh city was a disappointment.

As the Cetacean reached the bottom of the slope, Todd shouted, “three, two, one, contact! We have arrived! Thank you for flying Todd Air.”

“Gee, thanks Todd,” Dahlia remarked, “as if we hadn’t noticed.”

Todd’s sudden run at the front window, followed by his sharp upward turn, startled even Leonard and Wendy. His noisy, panicked reattachment to the Cetacean was as disturbing as his sudden lack of commentary. The cause of his panic appeared a short while afterward. The beast had a large maw, made prominent by its forward position on the face. Its eyes were large and flat. But Dahlia could sense no aggression behind its actions. Apparently, Todd had collected some small sea life forms before encountering the beast and in his hasty retreat he had left behind a trail of the creature’s food. After a brief discussion, the two zoologists concluded that it was a Megamouth shark. Dahlia concluded that Todd should calm down and told him so.

After the megamouth left, the Cetacean and Todd continued their journey outward from the slope. The water was warmer than expected, most likely the result of the global warming event. They were still no closer to determining what the Great Cataclysm was.

Bright Lights, Deep City

As the Cetacean continued its slow crawl down the shallow slope of the Hatteras, the light from above faded away. The dark sea was navigable, but it hampered observation. The lights at the front of the ship cast an eerie red glow over the ocean floor in front of it. Occasional flickers of light would appear as randomly as the flasher beetles on the surface would light up a warm night. Todd made it his mission to chase them down, capture them, and load them into the collection jars aboard Cetacean.

One of the specimens collected was a deep blue fish with jagged teeth. Another specimen was a blob that oozed its way along the ocean floor. Todd brought back a fish with a transparent dome for a head and upward facing eyes.

“Piotr, look at those eyes,” Mariana passed the specimen to Piotr.

“The better to see you with, my dear,” he quipped.

“Careful, Pete, you’ll make Todd jealous,” Dahlia cautioned.

“You won’t like me when I’m jealous,” Todd responded.

“I don’t like you now,” Piotr muttered to himself.

Mariana and Piotr spent some time examining the new specimens and attempting to identify them. Todd darted off on another foray into the darkness. Dahlia closed her eyes to deal with a headache. If she could find the source, she could possibly shut it down. “Are you okay?” Adam asked as he watched Dahlia rub her temples. “Is there anything I can help with?”

“There is something out there. I can sense a lot of noise from some intelligence, but I can’t quite make sense of it. And it is giving me a headache,” Dahlia thought to Adam as she let her conscious mind drift outward. A smile crossed her face as she felt Piotr’s attraction to Mariana. She almost laughed when she heard Todd’s voice singing an old ditty from the ancient days. She could see the images that he was sending back of a cluster of sunken ships ahead of him.

Todd began to dart around like a hummingbird in a floral garden. He would stop to make a holo-pic of each ship then move on to the next one. Suddenly, he stopped. “Oh my…” His voice trailed off. “Would you look at this?!” The holo-image changed from static to video. Pinwheels of blue lights were floating around him looking very much like alien ships from an old fiction video.

The noise in Dahlia’s head gave way to multiple images of Todd slowly spinning around to video capture what surrounded him. The chattering of these creatures slowly made sense to her brain as she felt their wonder at the object that was Todd. They had made of city out of this undersea scrapyard, one that rarely received visitors. Images of these broken vessels from long ago still resonated in their thoughts. Some of the ships had flown in the sky before crashing down. Others had sailed the surface of the waters before driven below by an angry ocean. They had a multitude of stories to tell.

The images transmitted by Todd’s holo-cam came into focus. The creatures possessed eight arms lined with bright blue luminescent suckers. They emitted their light in short bursts like the glow-bugs on land. There was webbing between the arms of the small creatures that made them seem larger. Todd was having trouble capturing one, especially after his first attempt failed. Dahlia laughed. “They are playing with you, Todd. If we want to examine one, we will have to ask.”

After reaching out to the group of floating stars, a volunteer darted into Todd open container and tried to close the lid. Dahlia explained that Todd didn’t want to risk harming it and it settled down to enjoy the ride. The little fellow was very chatty and curious about the inside of the Cetacean. He crawled out of the container a few times to wander around and explore. The video screens fascinated him but not as much as the holo-player. Seeing the outside of the ship and his colony projected in three dimensions inside a square box convinced him that we were gods.

Dahlia had quite a time convincing him otherwise. She had an equally trying time convincing him to leave the ship and return to his home. Finally, she conceded defeat when he refused to leave an air vent that he had squeezed into. He oozed out of the vent only after they assured him that he could go back to the land with them.

The Squid and the Stargazer

While Dahlia was busy negotiating with the octopus, Todd was having troubles of his own. He was chasing an interesting specimen whose eyes and mouth were at the top of its head. It liked to bury itself in the sand covering all but its eyes and mouth. From that vantage point, it would grab and devour anything that came too close. Todd tried several times to scoop it up from behind but it always took off and found a new spot to bury itself in. Fortunately, he could track the fish to wherever it went.

After several failed attempts at scooping it up from behind, Todd decided to come at it from the front. The fish kept backing away every time Todd moved the container toward it. Exasperated by the stubborn behavior of the fish, Todd reached out one of his new arms to shoo the fish into the container. Fifty volts of electricity surged up his arm, which automatically retracted to protect Todd from harm. Angered by the jolt, Todd stopped trying to sneak up on the fish and managed to catch it before it could bury itself again.

The stargazer wasn’t Todd’s only company. Hiding in the dark was a large predator, something that would give poor Todd nightmares for weeks to come. Like Todd, it had been stalking the stargazer. Unlike Todd, it had epicurean designs on the fish. It followed Todd back to the Cetacean and watched him as he emptied the container. Then it struck.

The giant squid wrapped its arms around the Cetacean and began to attack the small hatch with its beak. Dahlia reached out to the beast, but could not find reason beyond its hunger. The panicking stargazer released several jolts to no avail from inside its insulated container. Todd had already disengaged from the ship’s hull and was moving away. Taking a cue from the stargazer, the crew decided to try shocking the squid. They only succeeded in angering it into lashing out with its tentacles.

Todd panicked and randomly chose a direction to run in. He had not gone far when another fearsome creature started to approach him. “Eep!” Todd shrieked, “It’s Jimmy Durante’s ghost come back as a shark.” The shark noticed Todd’s sudden reversal of course and followed him back to the Cetacean. Spotting the giant squid, the shark turned aside just as Todd ran into one of the squid’s large eyes. The squid flicked Todd aside with one of its tentacles and resumed trying to bite its way into the ship.

The long-nosed shark circled around and silently drifted in. It tore a chunk of flesh from one of the squid’s arms. The squid lashed out and tossed the shark aside.  The shark drifted in a second time and snipped off one of the squid’s tentacles. The shark’s next strike was against the squid’s eye, which left it blind on one side. Several bites later and the squid ran off to nurse its wounds while the shark circled the Cetacean. Todd had recovered from the squid flinging, but he showed no interest in engaging the shark.

Realizing that the shark was still hungry, despite its snacking on the squid, Mariana scooped a few lucky specimens from the food fish container and flushed the rest out the upper port. The shark gobbled up the fish and then wandered off. “Whew, that was close,” Todd remarked as he came out of hiding. “And the way he ate those fish,” Todd paused for effect, “you might say that he was a goblin shark.” Todd returned to his perch on the top of the ship and downloaded all the holo-images that he had made. A few hours later they were back at the base of the slope. The Cetacean went into energy conservation mode while the human crew slept.

Leonard and Wendy had spent the night keeping the stargazer excited by poking at it to push as much energy as possible into the ship’s batteries. They stopped short of killing the fish, concluding that it should recover by morning. Wendy expressed concern about climbing the slope as it was higher than where they had come down to the Hatteras plain. Leonard reminded her that they would encounter light at the same level regardless.

The Cetacean rose slowly up the slope wall recording everything for later analysis. There would likely be many more journeys ahead for the small submersible, but for now it headed for its new home base. The University at Oceanside Land had moved its Saltwater Studies Unit into a new home. The new structure contained housing for the students and masters who would live there. There were new zoology labs to study the physical structures of saltwater specimens. And there was a special docking bay for the Cetacean. They had named the small fortress Submarine Land. Mariana called it heaven.

 

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Wildlings of the North Lantic

In the days of settlement, there were many Wildlings that menaced the unwary traveler of the North Lantic Region. A caravan traveling from one citadel to another would be set upon by theses wily creatures and would end up either dead or missing. Their caravans were often found untouched by the Wildlings. Reclaimers were granted ownership of the caravans.

The remains of the previous owners would be gathered up and examined to see if the cause of death would lead to a description of the Wildlings. When made into a single picture, the Wildling was a horrific beast with huge teeth, claws, and talons. Bits of fur and feather would often be recovered from the bodies. At first the stories of Dragons took hold as an explanation, but that was soon ruled out when large birds were observed feasting on the flesh of a dead body.

It wasn’t until the after the caravans were outfitted with the electric grids that the true Wildlings were either killed or at least stunned. It was discovered that a variety of Wildlings existed. The largest is the Clawed Bigfoot. It is covered from head to toe in fur with sharp claws on its hands and feet and sharp teeth for tearing apart flesh. The fur of the Bigfoot varies in color, either brown, black, or white.

One variety of Wildling comes in a variety of sizes and hunts in groups. The Wildling called Lupes prefers their prey to be already dead, but they will attack smaller live Wildlings to survive. The other group hunters are called Mogs and always hunt live prey. Lupes and Mogs will often fight over a kill, but otherwise ignore each other. Lupes and Mogs come in a variety of shapes and colors.

Hoppers are a common prey of both Lupes and Mogs. They can be found digging for bulbous roots or nibbling on the broad leaves of a plant. Hoppers are just one of the various tunnelers discovered out in the wild. Most tunnelers eat only plant material, but one feasts on the smallest of them. Ratties have been known to kill and eat meece and occasionally ratty babies.

It is believed to have been the Bigfoots who carried off the missing travelers, but there has been no proof of it. Over the years, rags and bones have been found that are believed to belong to the missing people. And now that caravans are equipped with holo-cams to make video of the travel from citadel to citadel, there are some new types of wildling that have yet to be named.

Written by Mariana Lee for Elementary Life Studies (age 10)

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Siren Sea

Much of the planet was still recovering. History books were only now being rewritten, much of their content being drawn from the oral history passed down from one generation to the next. Along the way, some stories grew out of proportion to the truth and others stopped being told. The authors of the history books saw this as a way to heal the planet. For others, the solution lay in rediscovering the natural world.

“Aye Calypso the places you’ve been to”

Mariana Lee fell in love with the sea at a very young age. She was fascinated by tales of crossing the Great Lantic Ocean during the ancient days. Wooden ships pushed forward by the wind caught her imagination. Most of what she learned about the sea-going ships were passed along as oral history. Monstrous waves battered the ships against rocks. Whirlpools swallowed them whole. The ocean was a dangerous place, or so the stories told.

The few video records that survived were documentaries of ancient scientists who studied the ocean and the creatures that lived there. She had even learned a song from one of the videos – Calypso. She would often sing herself to sleep to the melody.

She often day-dreamed about sailing ships and submersibles. Mariana believed that her calling lay in the Great Lantic Ocean and its saltwater denizens. Her father, impressed by her skill at dissecting the freshwater food fish that he farmed, encouraged her to pursue a career in Healing Science. Being a dutiful daughter, she honored her father’s wishes.

“The things that you’ve shown us”

When the opportunity arrived to study at the University at Oceanside Land, she leapt at it. The Lantic was a stone’s throw from the citadel and listening to the waves break upon the shore was music to her ears. The sound of waves hitting the beaches often played in the background when she studied.

She specialized briefly in human midwifery before branching out into general midwifery. General midwifery allowed her to study the development of many species and make comparisons to her own. The saltwater environment of the embryonic sac only fueled her desire to explore the ocean. Occasionally, she would venture outside the citadel to collect specimens for study. Her interest in saltwater zoology did not go unnoticed by the University Superior at Oceanside.

“The stories you tell”

Her studies took her to saltwater tidal pools where various forms of sea life were trapped during low tide. She carefully sketched each creature on her video. She made observations of their interactions with other creatures within the pools. Because saltwater was unpalatable, it was commonly believed that saltwater creatures could not be eaten. One day during an outing, Marianna observed a shore bird grab one of the side-walkers and carry it off. She made a record of the bird ripping apart the side-walker and devour it.

Her keen observation led to a study of the habits of shore birds and their food preferences. The food most often selected by the birds would be taken back to be tested for toxicity and palatability. The side-walkers and Athena shells were quite delicious when steamed. On several occasions during high tide, the birds themselves became prey to creatures that preferred deeper water than the tide pools provided.

“Aye Calypso, I sing to your spirit”

Mariana made detailed records of everything she discovered during her days at the shore. Every creature that emerged from the sand, every sea plant that washed ashore, every encounter with a denizen of the sea was noted. And when she returned to her class in Life Studies, she gave lectures that earned applause from her classmates and her Story-master.

Her stories about her discoveries earned her the right to continue to lecture as a Story-master in a newly declared specialty – Saltwater Life Studies. After a time, an old word resurfaced and Life Studies renamed itself Biology. Every newly discovered record on the subject of saltwater biology would be sent to her for review. Most of the recordings were badly damaged and some were indecipherable. But she kept them anyway.

“The men who have served you so long and so well”

Mariana kept venturing out into deeper water. She would request use of aerial transports for her forays into the ocean, but she still was just scratching the surface of a deep-water mystery. Some of the creatures came to the surface to greet her. Most were displaying curiosity, while a few were menacing.

She wanted her own floating laboratory. She wanted Calypso, but she would settle for an old barge as long as it was seaworthy. Much to her surprise, her dreams were about to be realized in the creation of a submersible named Cetacean.

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Sea Hunt

Stingray

Four people were waiting in the transport bay for their clearances to leave Citadel Security Central Command. They were expecting to be assigned passage on different transports to head home to their respective citadels. They were about to be disappointed.

Three videos chimed with orders to board a single transport, along with their civilian consultant, for a special mission. The mission was pretty basic – locate radioactive materials, place a tracker on the canisters, and wait for the aliens to retrieve them, then follow the aliens to their home. “Easier said than done,” Drew DeHaven remarked.

“Not really,” replied Leonard Leonard, the technical expert. “It requires a simple frequency hack and identification spoof.”

“Who’s in charge?” Dahlia DeHaven asked, “Just so I know if they can be trusted.”

Leonard replied with a blank stare. Dahlia laughed knowing full well that Leonard was the senior agent. “Fair enough,” he replied, “I suppose that I deserved that.”

“Damn straight,” Dahlia replied, “it’s what you get for throwing me under the caravan. And don’t try to say that it was an accident.” Dahlia stared Leonard in the face. “And I wasn’t fooled by your sudden discovery that we had been tricked into leaving the citadel either.”

“Central Command wanted you back in an official capacity to investigate. It worked.” Leonard tapped at his video and waited for a reply to his inquiry.

“He has a point,” Drew agreed, “It’s nice to have you back.”

“We’ll see about that,” Dahlia muttered.

“So,” asked Connor, “why am I invited?” Being Rougarou, Connor couldn’t see any reason for his inclusion in the mission. His people lived in the lower levels of the citadels. They maintained the pipes and people left them food to “steal”. It wasn’t really theft if they worked for it, but occasionally they would raid the visiting caravans for the odd rare item. Connor still had the sunglasses that he took from Dahlia’s caravan. She didn’t seem to miss them.

“Somebody has to haul my equipment,” replied Adam Smith. “You’re my pack mule.” Adam arrived with a sled full of crates and bags.

Connor grinned; although he had no idea what a pack mule was, he was happy just to be part of the mission. Dahlia assured him that he would be playing a very important part of the mission, especially the opening gambit. At some point, the group would have to go below into Connor’s world, the subterranean layers of the citadels. The rules were different down there and Connor might be the one to keep them out of trouble.

“We are waiting in the wrong launch bay,” Leonard said with an irritated tone. “They have a special transport ready for us to use on this mission. It’s sitting in a secure bay that’s located a level down from here.”

“How do we get there from here?” Adam asked. “Remember, I have a sled with me,” he said pointing at his equipment.

“This way,” Leonard was already heading for a short corridor that led to a secure freight elevator. Each person was scanned as they entered the corridor and cleared for entry into the elevator carriage. When everyone was safely aboard the carriage, it descended to another corridor that led to a tram. It was large enough to hold the sled an there were plenty of seats for the crew. The tram seemed to know where they were going as it passed by several other secure bays along the way.

Skydiver

As the tram pulled into the bay, the hatch closed behind it. There were several deck jockeys in the bay to assist with loading Adam’s equipment and prepping the transport for departure. The crew was not permitted to embark immediately. They were ordered into a small room with stadium seating for a briefing on the mission and a short recording on the capabilities of their new ship. The mission briefing didn’t reveal anything new beyond what was already included in their orders.

The short recording however was full of surprises. A tour of the interior showed spacious private sleeping quarters for eight Natural crew and four recharge berths for Artificials. Two full lavatories with shower stalls were situated at the rear of the ship. Moving toward the front, there was a fully equipped galley and a large dining area for the human crew. At the center of the ship, there was equipment storage and a laboratory. The laboratory area consisted of two video stations with multi-touch access to the dual processors dedicated strictly to research. Backup computers were available for all systems, especially climate control systems.

The nose of the ship contained the navigation and helm controls. The ship was capable of flight and was fully submersible, using four large turbofans and adjustable wings to power the ship through the air or the water. The wings folded against the ship’s outer hull when not deployed. Although airtight underwater, the ship was not equipped for space flight. This fact disappointed Connor greatly.

From the outside it looked quite small, slightly larger than a standard caravan or transport. All of the edges were rounded off, giving it the appearance of a beached whale with a shiny silver skin. Emblazoned on the outer hull was the name of the ship’s point of origin – Marine Land – and below that the name of the ship – Cetacean. The resemblance had been noted by her designers. After the video ended the five were given the opportunity to ask questions. Dahlia decided to source as much information directly as she could get away with. The people giving the briefing had not been briefed on the crew. Dahlia smiled.

After the Q and A, the crew was led to the open hatch of the Cetacean and invited inside for a live tour. Any concerns that they had about taking the Leviathan underground were gone when they saw the actual size of the ship. It was quite obvious that the short introductory recording had been the pitch for the project. Reality often falls short of expectations. The spacious sleeping quarters were anything but that. And privacy consisted of a “breadbox” shutter. There were only six berths for the Naturals and two recharge berths for Artificials. The seating was limited to four seats in the nose and one at each computer station. With her current complement, Cetacean was undermanned. Each crew member selected a berth and placed their carry-ons on them.

“When does the rest of the crew arrive?” Dahlia asked.

“I’m already here,” the disembodied voice of Todd Rucker responded.

“Seriously?” Dahlia turned to look at her tour guide.

“The two remaining crew will be arriving shortly. They have already been briefed on the mission and the ship,” the guide replied.

After thoroughly examining the less than stellar accommodations, the group waited in the mess for the late arrivals. Briefly Adam and Leonard wandered off to inspect the lab. Drew and Connor soon followed to check out the forward compartment, leaving Dahlia alone near the open hatch. While the others were busy up front, Dahlia felt a familiar presence and went outside to meet an old friend.

“Loki Greenwood,” Dahlia thought, “now there’s a face I thought I’d never see again!”

Loki laughed and thought back, “It’s nice to see you again too!”

“Who’s your friend?” Dahlia asked nodding toward the Artificial accompanying him.

The Artificial extended his hand, “My name is Leonard.”

Dahlia shook her head, “Nope, Sorry, but we already have a Leonard.”

“My name is Leonard,” he repeated.

“You’ll have to pick another name. We already have a Leonard and he was here first.” Dahlia replied.

“My name is…” He was interrupted by Dahlia placing her index finger across his lips.

“What is your full designation?” Dahlia backed off to let him reply.

Before he could respond, Leonard called out, “Harp! Good to see that you’re still functional.”

“Harp?” Dahlia echoed. Harp nodded. “Welcome aboard Cetacean,” Dahlia swept her hand toward the ship.

Iron Fish

After Loki and Harp settled in, the group met to dismiss the mission and their respective roles. An hour later, Leonard and Drew were requesting clearance to launch. The Cetacean rolled forward in the bay until it was beneath an iris, which opened to reveal a bright sky overhead. The wings were deployed and soon followed by the sound of air being blasted through turbofans. The craft rose slowly up through the iris into the open, then drifted slowly down to the road ahead.

A cancer treatment center had been located near Coney Land farther up the coast. The facility housed several pieces of equipment that used radioactive fuel. It had a multi-level attached parking structure as well. It was the perfect place to conduct phase one of their mission.

As everyone settled in for the long ride, some members of the crew were noticing their empty stomachs. Loki opened the larder and started taking requests. Adam asked for a nice bowl of steaming hot stew. Connor settled for some vegetable soup. Dahlia didn’t have to ask. “Let me guess,” said Loki. “You’d like pasta,” he said while placing a bowl of ravioli in front of her. Dahlia smiled as he sat across from her with his own bowl of ravioli. Drew came back to the galley to find that Loki had already made a wrap for him to take back to the front.

Harp kept busy in the lab preparing for the mission. They would be ready to set up as soon as they arrived in the morning hours. Until then there would be conversations and sleep. Connor sat quietly while Loki answered all his unspoken questions. He was used to telepaths and their impatient ways, having grown up beneath a city full of Psiborn. Loki also answered questions about Harp, although he did state that Leonard probably knew him better. Adam was particularly interested in how Loki and Dahlia were alike and different and whether there were any specific genetic markers for their abilities. Loki shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Dahlia probably doesn’t either. Leonard, err, Harp might know. He’s well versed in exobiology”

“Beyond my being a telempath and Loki being a telekine, I don’t know anything about genetics.” Dahlia knew at that point that she needed to get some sleep. She didn’t usually shorthand her answers unless she was in need of some down time. Dahlia wandered back to her berth and settled in for the night. It wasn’t long before everyone else that needed sleep did the same.

Harp took over navigation. Leonard initiated a link that would allow them to catch up without disturbing the sleepers. Todd, feeling very much alone and ignored, started to ask some questions very loudly until the two Artificials let him join their conversation. Todd was surprisingly content to just listen to the two share their adventures.

Dahlia and Loki were up just before dawn and their arrival at the “oan-Ketteri” cancer treatment facility. The smell of fresh brewed coffee roused the rest of the sleepers. There was a lot to be done just after breakfast. The Cetacean was moved to the top deck of the parking structure to allow its solar collectors to recharge the batteries and power the equipment. Holo-cams would be set up on three levels to record any activity that occurred. Radiation sensors would also be set up with the holo-cams. Both telepaths would monitor the center level where the radioactive containers would be placed.

If there was no activity within the same period as before, then it would be up to Todd to make contact. Leonard and Harp had managed to stack the same number of containers as before and were returning to the building when the alien appeared. This time Loki attempted to contact the alien pilot while Dahlia sought to infiltrate the ship. If the trackers failed, she might still gather some intelligence on the alien’s origin. The alien’s shields were easy to penetrate and she was able to grab several data packets before it completed its task and disappeared.

After grabbing all the equipment and stowing it in the ship, the crew set about analyzing the data. Loki began setting the electrodes that would allow Dahlia to transfer the alien observations to a portable digital processor. The device was isolated from the ship’s system to protect them from any harm. “I hope you don’t mind that I threw a few trackers directly on the alien ship. The pilot was so single-minded that there was little to be gained from attempting conversation.”

“No, Loki, in fact I wish that you had kept it busy trying to grab the canisters just to keep it here a little longer.” Dahlia closed her eyes and focused on the data stored in her brain. The transfer went smoothly. Now it was up to Leonard to make sense of it.

Dahlia and Loki grabbed some bowls of pasta before downloading Loki’s contact experience. The visuals were essentially identical to those Dahlia had with the first contact. Loki tried pushing some buttons just to see how the pilot would react, but the controls appeared to require actual physical contact. Dahlia bookmarked some of the memories to look at later. Both of them needed to get some rest if they were to continue to be useful to the team.

Adam and Harp began an analysis of the data related to the structure of the alien pilot as well as its environment. A three-dimensional model of the pilot appeared on the screen in front of them. “How many tentacles do you see?” Adam said as he finished counting under his breath.

“Ten,” replied Harp.

“Damn, two too many.” Adam sighed. “I was hoping for an octopod.”

“It’s still a cephalopod.” Harp pointed at the screen, “do those eyes look off to you?”

“Yes, they are set too high.” Adam began typing commands into the computer. A second image appeared of the pilot from the first encounter. “Look, this one is the same way.”

“Is that one holding on to something with its beak?” Adam asked.

Drew and Connor were sitting in the cockpit tracing the signals from the trackers. The signals had stopped briefly when the alien craft disappeared and restarted when it reappeared over the Lantic Ocean. A satellite uplink had been engaged by a floater unit that would relay positional data from its sonar base. They had tracked the ship until it was out of range of the sonar, but they now had a viable search vector. Drew informed Central Command of the mission status and requested clearance to proceed to the second phase of the mission.

Nautilus

In the morning, the Cetacean crew met with a second Citadel Security team who would set out bait for the aliens and tag them with trackers. The satellite over the ocean was already primed to intercept the trackers’ signals and relay the position of the alien ship to the Cetacean. The Cetacean flew out over the Lantic while the second team set up. The transfer from land to sea went well, despite initial concerns about the design of the ship.  After the second team confirmed that the radioactive material was in place, an alien pod popped out of the ocean. The pod rose slightly above the water surface before disappearing. Seventeen minutes later, it reappeared, dropped into the water, and began to head back to whence it came.

The Cetacean dropped to the surface of the ocean and slowly tilted its wings to undersea mode. The sonar pings were still audible when it finally submerged. An intercept course was plotted based on the previous track. The two tracks intersected just outside an underwater cavern.

“Finally,” exclaimed Todd Rucker rather gleefully, “I get to do my thing!”

A mini-sub equipped with holo-cams detached from the hull of the Cetacean. The entrance tunnel to the cavern was short; the mini-sub reached the inside within minutes. Todd gave a running commentary on everything that he saw.

“I can see the pods the aliens used to gather the canisters.”

“There are a bunch of octopuses or squid floating around, but they haven’t noticed me.”

“There’s a passage leading up toward the surface.”

“I can see them heading that way. Let me get a closer look.”

“The passage isn’t big enough for the Cetacean. I’m heading up now.”

Contact with Todd was lost a few minutes later, but he continued his running commentary while he explored the passageways inside the cavern. “Jackpot!” was his only comment upon reaching the source of the aliens. He followed a contingent of cephalopods back to the cavern and watched as they slithered into their small craft through a small opening. The pilots then, mimicking the motion of a caterpillar, proceeded to push and pull their tiny craft up toward their ship.

Ninety minutes later, Todd returned and reattached himself to the hull. “It’s good to be back.” The entire running commentary and the holo-scans of the chambers within the cavern were downloaded into the main research and navigation computers.

The Cetacean rotated her engines and rose vertically out of the ocean. It followed a path roughly equal to the one Todd had followed within the underwater cavern. The ship lowered to the ground just short of the target while satellite based sensors scanned the ground around them. A shape slowly developed revealing an alien ship buried in the sand above the cavern. The ship resembled a giant nautilus shell with a main corridor that spiraled toward the center of the ship.

Dahlia and Loki walked slowly toward a point on the surface directly over the center of the spiral. They reclined prone on the ground and closed their eyes, letting their collective consciousness sink down through the sandy soil. Rummaging through the alien’s luggage was proving to be a challenge, but this wasn’t the first time that the duo had engaged in remote viewing and manipulation. Both Psi-born were adept multi-taskers, a skill that would prove necessary to keep the aliens from blowing up their ship by creating a critical mass with their stolen fuel.

The aliens called themselves the Cresh. They were focused on moving the radioactive isotopes from the canisters to a single location just above their ship’s engines. Despite having no contact with their home world since crashing into the sandy shelf, their plans were to return to their home, Desh. They chattered among themselves about the foolishness of the species that allowed them to steal the nuclear fuel for their ship. Others concerned themselves with stowing food for the journey home. A few were worried about the ship needing to be blown clear, more so about damage to the ship than damage to the planet.

It was taking a lot of energy and concentration for Dahlia and Loki to continue to gather information on the species beneath them. Just as exhaustion overtook them, they could feel their bodies being lifted off the ground by the two Artificials. Once the two Psi-born were safe in their berths, the Cetacean flew over the Lantic to drop the mini-sub into the water. The Cresh were about to receive a last-minute addition to their crew. Maybe Todd hadn’t won a trip to Mars, but he was being given the chance to travel to a new world as a stowaway on an alien ship.

SeaQuest

It would take hours for the new fuel to fully power the ship. This gave Todd plenty of time to explore and find a safe place to tuck himself away. The Cresh, who Todd called the “squid people”, were still busy taking on supplies from Earth’s ocean. In the flurry of activity aboard the ship, Todd was just a momentary shadow on the ceiling. He stowed away in an equipment hold where he was just another random piece of technology.

Seeing that he had some time to kill, Todd began to inventory the contents of the hold that he could recognize. Quite a lot of it was useless to a water-born species like the Cresh. The equipment was not designed to work in a wet or underwater environment. A few pieces that they had gathered would have fetched a pretty penny at a scavenger’s market. There were some pieces of tech still enclosed in their waterproof cases, some so old that they had become encrusted in barnacles. Parts of wrecked ships could be seen as well: an old ship’s bell, a rusted anchor chain with the anchor still attached, a carved mermaid from the prow of an old wooden ship, a brass lantern, a signaling lamp, an unexploded torpedo, and several harpoons of varying lengths.

The ship began to vibrate as the engines came online. The illumination level in the compartment changed from soft to bright. Todd felt a push toward the floor as the Cresh urged their ship skyward. Despite their concerns, the ship broke through the shallow layers of ground covering it. An image of the ground below was projected on a wall. Todd watched as the Earth fell away below him. After a while its sun was lost among the stars and Todd was suddenly homesick.

Deciding that he would feel better if he were reminded less of home, Todd exited the cargo hold and started to explore more of the ship. This was his chance to learn more about where he was going. There were a lot of questions that needed answers. The Cresh ship had left its home world with a full complement in search of a suitable planet to colonize. Earth was a beautiful blue ball full of water. What they didn’t expect was the ocean’s hostility toward life in general. At least that was their explanation for why they had crashed on the planet. Pilot error was not an acceptable excuse.

The Cresh ship was returning with less than half of its capacity with a hold full of strange artifacts and exotic food. Their population had grown while they had been stranded until a strange event killed off over sixty percent of their people. Very few of the survivors expressed an interest in leaving and it had taken centuries for the land dwelling natives to make the necessary fuel to power their ship. The hardest part was tricking the land people into making it available to the Cresh.

They might have gotten away without being noticed if they hadn’t killed Todd. Or they might have been able to raid the underground nuclear storage facilities if they had known about them. Instead it took them years to gather the fuel they needed to make the ship operable. And how hard could it be to fly a spaceship? Didn’t they practically fly themselves?

As Todd flew by the Cresh pilot his mind was distracted enough to replace the thought of “Desh” with “Home”. Unfortunately, the only home that he had ever known was back on Earth. His new focus caused the ship to alter course and turn back towards Earth. By the time that the mistake was discovered, it had already entered the Solar system. A sudden struggle for control of the ship caused it to crash on the nearest planet.

The damage to the ship was extensive. It was leaking atmosphere in several compartments. The Cresh were too busy saving themselves and casting blame to notice Todd floating out of the ship onto the reddish-brown soil below. Todd sat for the time it took for the water to stop flowing. There wasn’t much to see at ground level. He rotated his flippers (as he called them) and ran his engines until he had achieved some lift in the thin atmosphere. Employing a little forward thrust he was able to scale a shallow crater wall.

He turned to look back at the crash site to see the extent of the damage. The ship had turned turtle after receiving damage to its underside on one of the promontories on the crater wall. There wasn’t much chance of it taking off again. On the bright side, he could send out a homing signal on the off-chance that it would reach Earth.

Todd decided to follow the sun as it traveled down in the Eastern sky. Several hours later he came across a small machine trundling about the surface examining rocks and sending signals to a distant planet. He decided to introduce himself, but the little thing was more interested in a rock that it had found. Todd moved to the front of the smaller device and in the process, blew off much of the accumulated dust covering it. The little thing became agitated and swiveled its head around looking for the source of the unexpected breeze.

Todd settled down directly in front of the little machine and let it look him over. He tried to communicate with it, but didn’t speak its language. He sent a signal towards what he reasoned must be its home world. “Hello, down there! My name is Todd. Could you tell me where I am?”

Seaview

Several days had passed since the alien ship left Earth with Todd stowed away on board. Drew had gone back to Astro Land with Connor. Loki and Harp had returned to their regular assignment. Adam spent his days analyzing the data gathered on the Cresh, while Leonard focused on the alien ship.

Dahlia stared into her coffee trying hard not to focus on anything. Her focus was broken by an eager young agent who had been sent to get her. “Ma’am,” he chirped, “your presence is requested in Central Communications.”

“Seriously?” she gave him an annoyed look.

“Superior’s orders, Ma’am.” He replied, “I’m to escort you there.”

“Lead on,” Dahlia took her coffee with her and sipped at it along the way.

Leonard was already there and Adam arrived soon after. When the three of them were comfortably seated, the Superior Communications Agent asked if any of them were familiar with any of the old Earth space programs. Leonard raised his hand, Adam shook his head, and Dahlia opted to play dumb. The excitement in the room had already given away the surprise as far as she was concerned. She was having trouble as it was keeping a straight face.

“An old Earth organization called Naza Jet Labs launched a bunch of probes at a nearby planet. One of them is still functional and has been sending signals back to Earth. We haven’t deciphered the signals yet, but we have identified the probe. Early this morning we received a signal that we could read clearly from someone you may know. We sent back a set of questions and should be receiving answers back any minute now.” The Superior sat down at the head of the table opposite the video and waited.

Within a few minutes, the video filled with an image of the old probe being sent from one of Todd’s holo-cams. Before the image played, the response and set of questions presented to Todd were played. “Hello, Todd,” a voice intoned. “You are showing us a picture of Curiosity. And you may very well be giving us the key to decoding decades of transmissions from that old probe. As for where you are, you are on the surface of the planet Mars.”

Todd’s reply followed the list of questions. “Is this a joke? Am I really on Mars? Looks like I won that trip after all. As far as getting here, it seems those squid people can’t fly a spaceship without crashing it somewhere. Only this time, they wrecked the ship pretty badly. They don’t seem to have lost anyone yet, but I don’t know how long they can survive. Their ship has a hole in it and is upside down. It’s west of my current position. I’m fine except for Curiosity not wanting to be friendly.” Todd didn’t answer all the questions, but he likely didn’t know the answers.

Dahlia burst out laughing.

“We’re not going to leave the Cresh stranded up there, are we?” Adam asked.

“They aren’t our problem,” replied the Superior. “They left Earth of their own accord. It’s not our job to drag them back.”

“What about Todd?” Adam demanded, “If he wants to come home, aren’t we obligated to bring him back?”

“You heard him. He’s happy as a cat in a box.” The Superior started walking towards the door.

“What about their technology?” Leonard chimed in.

“We don’t need their nuclear fueled engines,” the Superior said, taking another step toward the door.

“What about their ability to pop about from place to place? We could use a scaled-up version of that drive, couldn’t we?” Dahlia saw a smile cross his face.

“Yes, we could. And we could promise them a ship to go home in while we are learning how it works.”

Leviathan

The tunnel stretched on for hours beneath the surface despite the breakneck speed of the supersonic tram. Adam, Dahlia, and Leonard exited the bullet shaped car that they arrived in and took seats in another slower tram, which would take them to their destination. They arrived an hour later.

Much to their surprise, the Port had been maintained rather well despite having had no traffic in nearly a quarter century. The public walk was lined with closed shops. Dahlia stopped a few times to admire items still on display in the viewing boxes. Leonard had to drag her away to keep them from being late to their appointment with the Port Superior.

At the end of the public walk was the entrance to the Port Administrative Center. There were no guards, only a scanner and a mechanical voice welcoming them and directing them to the Briefing Office. They were the last to arrive and barely on time. There were some familiar faces at the table, Loki Greenwood and Leonard (also known as Harp). And there was a new face, a saltwater zoologist named Mariana Lee from Oceanside Land.

Mariana was a hugger, which was enough to make Dahlia wince at her enthusiasm. Loki laughed as Mariana gave the three newcomers her usual warm greeting. “You could have warned me,” Dahlia thought to Loki. “Why ever for?” Loki thought back, “Nobody warned me.” Dahlia would have thrown something at him but he would have deflected it. The briefing lasted for an hour and a half and consisted of the ‘do’s and don’ts involved it space travel as well as special considerations for the mission itself.

After the briefing, the Superior led them to the launch bay for their ship. It was massive. The old cargo ship had been maintained simply to keep the Exo-atmosphere Program active. It was a cultural imperative that few people understood. The six were given a tour of the hold, which could easily accommodate the alien ship they were rescuing. They were shown to their quarters that were larger than those promised by the designers of the Cetacean. Their next stop was the food court where they ordered lunch. After lunch, the six were shown the bridge and their stations.

The two Artificials closely examined the interface chairs where the Artificial pilot and navigator would sit. The old plug-in interfaces had been replaced with newer proximity units. The first Artificials were basically walking computers whose decisions were often overridden by the Naturals. This time out, the Artificials would have almost complete autonomy. There were four other Artificials aboard who would work the helm and navigation in shifts on the journey to and from Mars.

The next stop along the tour were the bio-medical research facilities. They were equipped with all the current technology, much to the delight of the two specialists. Although a holdover from the olden days, a single dissection table, was available, the laboratory had been outfitted with newer non-invasive means of determining physiology and monitoring life processes. A large saltwater aquarium had been installed to allow for study of the decapods. An electro-mechanical lab had been set up on the opposite side of the aquarium.

While Leonard, Harp, Adam, and Marianna sat in the observation deck overlooking the ship’s bridge, Dahlia and Loki sat at Communications Interface Stations. The doors ahead of the ship parted and a launch platform rolled the ship forward out of the bay, then sank slowly into the ground. The bay doors closed behind them and a voice could be heard throughout the ship, “Terran Carrier Leviathan requests permission to launch.”

In the time that it took the Leviathan to reach Mars, Todd had successfully decoded Curiosity’s language and had managed to teach her a few new tricks. He had helped her to visit the alien ship “to see if the squid people could be helped.” Curiosity had helped him weld together some of the damaged hull, but there was no way to restore the missing atmosphere, nor could they right the upended ship.

There had been some misunderstandings with the “squid people” during Todd’s early efforts to help. One of them used a cargo pod to attack Curiosity. She responded by severing its tentacles with her laser while keeping just out of reach of the flailing arms. Todd was able to contact the Cresh, using the same channels that they had used to contact him when he was alive, and convince them that he just wanted to help them. There wasn’t much else to do unless one wanted to run around examining rocks and soil. And according to Curiosity, they were too far away from the polar cap to mine water.

Routing negotiations through Todd proved helpful in convincing the Cresh that Leviathan was there to help. Loading their ship into Leviathan’s cargo hold took less than an hour. The Cresh gave the damaged pod over for study. Todd and Curiosity assigned themselves to the electro-mechanical lab much to Leonard’s delight. Loki joined the group in the event there were questions that only the Cresh could answer.

Convincing a Cresh to leave the water for detailed scanning took some doing on Dahlia’s part. Once the Cresh realized that he could survive several minutes out of water, he agreed to allow his body to be examined. By the time Leviathan left Mars’ atmosphere, every non-lethal, non-invasive test had been performed. The minimally invasive procedures were still being negotiated as a blood draw was apparently against Cresh religious beliefs. During the process of righting and repairing their ship, a deceased Cresh was discovered. Their religion did not apply to the deceased, only the living.

Before Leviathan had reached Earth’s atmosphere, the Cresh pod had been completely deconstructed and mapped. The electro-mechanical team was able to determine that the engine could be driven by conventional power systems. Contact could be made with any viable Terran colonies using this new drive. Marianna and Adam had completed an autopsy on the deceased Cresh. They were busy preparing a treatise on the species.

The Cresh thanked the Terrans for their help in rescuing them from Mars. They asked to be allowed to go home to Desh after resupplying their ship. The Leviathan dropped their ship on the continental shelf at a point where it was just fully submerged. Leviathan returned to Port to refuel and debrief.

A day later the Cresh left Earth again.

 

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Snipe Hunt

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.

Rougarou

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.

Wendigo

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.

Jackalope

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.

Squonk

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.”

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Scavenger Hunt

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.

“Unknown.”

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.

INGREDIENTS
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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