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The Alien Element – Chapter 3

<unedited>

Snippet 3 from The Alien Element
Translocator Trilogy Book Two
by M.G. Herron
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved, yadda yadda

 

The Alien Element by M.G. Herron3

Not Quite Right

“Reuben!” Amon shouted over the electric thrum of the Translocator.

The clamor of a forklift offloading boxes with a metallic clatter swallowed his voice even through his earplugs. The boxes crashed and clanked as two engineers wrestled them onto the platform, through the gap in the concentric sphere of blue-green alloy rings. Filled with steel arms, screws, nuts, rubber wheels, and other tools, the parts would be used to assemble the last of the fabricators for the lunar base.

Ignoring Amon’s call, Reuben focused on the holodeck, where the controls for the great machine—and the particle accelerator which powered it—were located. Two floor-mounted holographic projectors cast dozens of images and models and graphs of real-time energy readouts around him like a cockpit.

Reuben reached out to the broad glass touchscreen at the center of the control unit and tapped a button. The concentric sphere of alloy rings that stabilized the molecular disassembly and reassembly process began to spin, gathering speed until they shifted into a semi-transparent blur.

Simultaneously, a two-hundred-foot-tall, arch-shaped array of silicone and metal nodes that extended to the vaulted ceiling crackled with energy. The noise heightened, filling the vast underground laboratory.

“Reuben, I’m stepping out!” Amon shouted again.

The lead engineer turned his body slightly, but his wild white hair and a hologram image of the inventory blocked him from seeing Amon in his peripheral vision. His attention was pulled back to the controls.

Amon rubbed at his temples, frustrated. Rueben had been more distracted than usual lately. It was a private matter that he didn’t talk much about, but everyone knew that his husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over two years ago. Lately, he’d taken a turn for the worse, and Reuben was once again showing signs of sleep deprivation and forgetfulness that were uncharacteristic

But wasn’t Amon the same? Maybe they all could use a break. Now that the MegaPower nuclear fission reactor was online, the pace of research and construction had nearly doubled. The last few months had been consumed with the construction and shipping of supplies—heavy machinery, mostly, but also the nuclear reactors. Now, the real work began—doing the research the Lunar Terraform Alliance had been formed to do, and figuring out if we can actually sustain life up there.

A headache was new, though. That had come that morning while he was double-checking inventory on the fabricator parts. The fabricators were too big to fit in the translocator, so they had to be shipped in pieces and he didn’t want anything to be forgotten.

With a practiced swipe of his hand, Rueben locked onto the platform in Dome 2 and pressed another button. A sudden absence that Amon would never fully grow accustomed to came next as the pile of boxes seemed to energize, giving off a blinding brightness. When the light faded, the platform was empty, and the boxes were gone.

A monitor against the left wall showed that the payload had been successfully reassembled in an identical platform—minus the arch—which Dome 2 had been built on top of.

He opened his mouth to call out again but stopped himself. “Forget it,” Amon muttered.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he turned and walked out of the room, nodding at two guards in camouflage fatigues who stood on either side of the wide doorway. They nodded back and continued to stand, looking bored with automatic rifles slung casually over their shoulders. Theirs wasn’t the most exciting job, but it was a necessary one. The Lunar Terraform Alliance and their international investors had a lot invested in this project.

Amon went past the stairwell, opting for the elevator to take him up the four flights to ground level.

At ground level, Amon passed through the main security checkpoint manned by two more security guards, a replica of the security checkpoints you had to go through at most airports. A conveyor belt fed through an X-Ray detector. There was also a metal detector and full-body scanner.

“Afternoon, Mr. Fisk,” Roger said, nodding and tipping the brim of a Rangers ball cap at Amon. Amon nodded back.

Afternoon already?

A long hall led him to the lobby of Fisk Industries. His phone showed cell signal again and he checked for a response from Eliana. Although he’d texted her to let her know he’d be at work late, she hadn’t responded.

Looking up from the phone, Amon realized the lobby was filled with people. The traffic and noise had increased until it was nearly as bad as it had been in the Translocator lab. He groaned. It must be lunch hour already. The only thing Amon had ingested all day was coffee, so much of it that his hands had a slight tremor when he held them out, and he felt a little nauseous.

Scientists and other Fisk Industries employees gathered in the glass and steel lobby. In addition to the Translocator project, Fisk Industries made solar panels and conducted other photovoltaic and energy research. The particle accelerator that powered the Translocator was the bridge between the two ends of the company, and they were all housed in this building (and the other buildings across the campus). They had production facilities around the world, but this was the headquarters.

People lingered around the waterfall adjacent to the entrance, sitting on the benches there and at the tables by the café, talking amongst themselves.  A woman’s high-pitched laughter bounced sharply across the lobby and wormed its way into his ear. He squinted in the sunlight. All of it grated on Amon’s last nerve.

Seeing his people happy normally made him happy, but he was getting a headache and needed to find a quiet place to relax and maybe lie down for a few minutes.

It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t visited Audrey in several weeks. She wasn’t prone to chatter, which he appreciated more than usual right now. Audrey’s office was located in a quiet back corner of the first floor, also behind the security checkpoint. He decided to go back and say hi to her, and then sneak in a quick nap in his own office around the corner. Amon turned and hurried back to the security checkpoint, putting his phone and wallet through the X-Ray scanner.

After Eliana returned home last year, the Lunar Terraform Alliance and NASA had agreed that it was everyone’s best interests to move the carbonados to a more secure facility. Fisk Industries was an obvious choice. The building had ample office space. Amon had tried to hire Audrey once, and admired her work ever since, so it seemed fitting that she would work in his building not as an employee, but as a colleague and friend.

In the back halls of the sprawling headquarters building, the lobby’s ruckus receded to a dim buzz, and the pounding ache behind his eyes eased. Amon shoved his hands in his pockets to still the caffeine shakes as he walked slowly toward her lab. The walls here were salt and pepper tile, with geometric green and blue designs running around the corner to Audrey’s office. He was tracing the designs with his eyes, thinking about calling the cafeteria to order lunch, when he caught sight of a small stream of red liquid in a puddle on the floor.

His stomach clenched, and he gripped the soft cloth on the inside of his pockets with both hands. Ducking low and pressing close to the wall, Amon crept closer and slowly peered around the corner.

The two guards that were always stationed in front of Audrey’s lab were sprawled out awkwardly on the floor. One lay on top of his rifle, his elbow bent oddly. They each had a hole in the back of their head from which the blood seeped. The wall across the hall was stained with two distinct red splatter marks. Amon laid his hand on the nearest rifle. The barrel was cold.

A crash of glass came from inside the lab.

Audrey!

Amon unbuttoned the pistol holster on the thigh of one dead guard and withdrew the man’s sidearm, a black Glock. He released the magazine and glanced down—it was fully loaded. Amon replaced the magazine with a snap and racked the slide of the gun. The adrenaline now surging through his veins made his hands shake even more. He paused momentarily, considering whether or not to use the guard’s radio to call for backup.

The thirty seconds that would take could be the difference maker. Audrey was a friend. Amon made his decision. He tapped his hip, where his ID was clipped, against the card reader to unlock the door, and gently turned the handle, cracking the door a quarter inch. He peered in.

In the middle of the lab, on a rectangular island with cabinets on all sides, the glass cage of a large glove box isolator had been shattered by a heavy chunk of meteorite—not the large, midnight-black carbonado sample, but a different chunky brown rock the size of a large melon which lay among the mess of shattered glass.

On the floor, sprinkled with glass pebbles, another form lay sprawled. It was Audrey, fair skinned with a neat red braid trailing along the floor.

Amon hurried to her side and knelt down, fearing the worst. As he reached her, she twitched and groaned, but there was no blood. Her eyes opened, flicked to the gun, and a flash of fear contorted her face.

“It’s just me,” he said.

She stared at him for a long moment, obviously disoriented. Then she tensed as the sound of glass crunching underfoot startle them both. They scurried behind the rectangular base of the island.

“If I didn’t tell him where the carbonado was, he would have hurt me,” Audrey whispered.

“Who?” Amon mouthed.

She pointed back toward the other end of the lab where the sound had come from, patted her pocket, and gave him a weak smile.  “But I didn’t give him the key.”

Amon glanced around the island, and sure enough, a large man in black with short-cropped hair was limping around near the storage shelving at the back, where the meteorite samples were kept. The carbonado was kept in a special locked safe not twenty yards away. The man looked vaguely familiar, but Amon couldn’t place him.

The man cursed when he saw Amon, his hand darting to his waist. Amon ducked back behind the island. Wood splinters flew into the air near his eyes.

Gasping, Amon held the gun to his chest and rose to a squat on the balls of his feet. He only had the element of surprise. Go where he least expects.

He held the gun around the corner and shot blindly twice, then dove the other way. He jumped up and squeezed the trigger once, twice, three times.

All of the bullets went wide. Amon’s throat clenched. The man raised his own gun, training it on Amon, but the gun wavered. Amon tucked, and his shot went wide, too.

Amon screamed, raising his gun and firing rapidly.

One of the bullets finally struck the man in the gut. Another squeeze, and another. The man jerked back and his gun slipped from his fingers. Amon lowered the Glock, breathing heavily.

He waited for a long minute, his own ragged breathing settling as the ringing in his ears receded. Amon crept carefully across the room.

When he kicked the dead man’s gun back, away from the body, the doors were shoved open—it was the two guards from the security checkpoint down the hall. Amon held his hands high over his head. Roger, recognizing Amon, lowered his weapon and waved for the other man to do the same.

As he waited for them to approach, Amon looked back down at the dead man’s booted feet. Something was off. He wore cowboy boots of nice brown leather, but one of them was facing the wrong direction. Had that happened when he fell? Amon’s eyes swept up the man’s clothes. There was an awkward bulge in the area of his ribs that was not quite right either.

His face was normal. And it was a face that Amon recognized. It was Montoya, the Hawkwood mercenary who had impersonated an FBI agent last year after Eliana disappeared last year.

As if that wasn’t worrisome enough, Amon knew with a rising terror that there was only one way Montoya could have snuck behind the two guards shot them in the back of the head without raising any alarms. And that this method was also responsible for his backward foot and the bulge in his side.

The guards approached and peered over his shoulder. as Amon used one shoe to lift the man’s shirt, exposing the bulge near his ribs.

Roger hissed his breath inward. “What in the hell?”

The other man cursed and turned away. Audrey came up behind Amon, one hand on her head. “Oh, my.”

Amon grimaced when the shirt was drawn up to reveal a complete knee joint sticking out of the Montoya’s abdomen.

The Alien Element – Chapter 2

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Snippet 2 from The Alien Element
Translocator Trilogy Book Two
by M.G. Herron
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved, yadda yadda

 

The Alien Element by M.G. Herron2

First Flight Back

Eliana hurried across the campus of the University of Texas, sweat gathering at her collar of her blouse and under her arms. Today was the day of her final guest lecture at the University, and she was late for her own class.

The leather messenger bag she purchased when she had been offered the guest lecturer position at her alma mater earlier that year swung at her side, rubbing against the bare skin of her legs below her shorts. After a single semester, it was still not broken in, and the edges were sharp.

The spring air was fresh and she couldn’t help but slow her steps and bend to admire the bright bluebonnets spilling out of every patch of grass edging the sidewalk. Seeing the bluebonnets bloom wild and free in the spring always made Eliana long to be outdoors, in the sun, and the sight of them today made her check in with herself.

Yes, she thought, I have been outdoors latelyquite a lot.

Eliana rose from sniffing the bed of wildflowers and continued her walk across the university campus, this time forcing herself to walk more slowly. What did it matter if she was late? It was her last lecture.

After a grueling nine-month application and permission process, the research team she now led had just spent three weeks exploring the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a jungle in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that extended into Belize and Guatemala. Their goal, at least on paper, was to map uncharted Mayan ruins, of which there were a great many in the dense 13 million acre forest.

She considered, for a moment, the path that led her here. After she returned from Kakul a year ago, Eliana had begun to digest her harrowing experience. She wrote down everything she’d seen and learned, from the moment she was zapped across the galaxy by a glitch in Amon’s Translocator, to the last time she saw the two moons in the night sky of that other world.

Even if she had possessed pen and paper while she was in Kakul, she didn’t know if she would have had the presence of mind to keep notes. The first weeks had been so incredibly disorienting. She had been so intent on avoiding becoming a sacrifice to their ancient god, and then learning the language and working for her food, that nothing else had mattered. And then had been brutally attacked. Who has time to keep a journal when your very survival is at stake?

Once Amon brought her home, she wrote down what she did remember. It went slowly at first, but once she had the facts down—how people lived there, what they ate, all the words she knew (spelled out phonetically), the people’s religious customs—she finally began to ask the other questions that had been nagging at her mind.

How had the Kakuli people gotten to that planet in the first place? And when? The archaeologist in her demanded an explanation. Eliana consulted with Renee Shaw, her mentor and former advisor at University. Renee was a linguist who specialized in ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and she confirmed that the language Eliana learned was, indeed, a dialect of Yucatec Mayan. Given all the words she didn’t recognize, she suspected that it would make sense that it was an unknown dialect or one that had diverged some time ago and had developed in isolation.

Later, much later, Eliana would admit to herself that she thought about going back to Kakul at that moment, and rejected the idea outright. Not only did she have absolutely zero desire to be translocated anywhere again, but Amon’s work was under more scrutiny now than ever. The US government had insisted, to Amon’s annoyance, on increasing security. She couldn’t use a billion-dollar molecular reassembly device under high security for her research without a lot of hassle.

Eliana turned, instead, to the other place she was likely to get answers. Though she still felt scarred from the experience, her recent exposure in the press was a boon. Eliana Fisk wasn’t just an archaeologist anymore—she was the woman who survived the world’s first and only Translocator accident.

She managed to secure funding from an archaeological society associated with her alma mater, put together a competent exploration team from her old contacts in the field, and go through the nine-month application process with the Mexican government. After today, she could continue her search for the answers to her burning questions about the Kakuli people in the Yucatan Peninsula, the ancestral homeland of the Mayan people.

She finally reached the building where the small lecture hall was located, dashed up the steps, and yanked on a polished brass handle. As the door opened on smoothly oiled hinges, a murmur of voices filled the air.

She may have been late for her lecture, but that only enhanced her entrance. A hush fell over the crowded room. Judging by attendance, word had spread that she wouldn’t be continuing these guest lectures next year, as originally rumored.

Eliana stopped a few feet from the open door to catch her breath. After composing herself, she strode purposefully into the room. The sound of the door latching echoed in the quiet room.

Eliana heard only the sound of her footsteps as she crossed the floor to the lectern in the center. She took a second to stow her messenger bag carefully on a low shelf, fix her air, and adjust the microphone down to her height.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “I see that there are far more of you here than have been attending class for most of the semester. Many new faces. Thank you for coming. I’m sure we’re breaking all the fire code regulations.”

Gazing up at the gathering of students, Eliana noticed that not a single seat sat empty. In fact, students even sat side-by-side on the two columns of steps leading up through the theater-style seats. They stood behind the back row and gathered at the doorways.

No pressure, she thought. A vibration came from her messenger bag, where her phone was stored. She ignored it.

“Since you’re already here, and this is my last lecture, you are welcome to stay. I won’t tell.”

The tension in the room eased visibly, and Eliana saw a few guilty grins light up the young faces at the back of the room. Laptops opened, the backlit logos of the computer companies shining down at her.

She rested her forearms beside the microphone and began the speech she had prepared. “Our topic today is a continuation of the theme of this series—how Mayan art and architecture has influenced the modern world. Specifically, in this lecture we’ll be examining what we can learn about complex societies and economics by studying the decline and abandonment of many major cities in the southern Maya Lowlands during the ninth century CE.”

The lecture went on from there, and Eliana fell into her groove. This was a topic she had been fascinated with since she began her career in archaeology, so it was easy to talk passionately about the details, from when the Maya entered the cultural consciousness of Western civilization in the early 20th century to the restoration of the pyramid at Chichen Itza. She showed them the jade mask of Palenque, evidence of the advanced mathematics of the Maya astronomers, photos of the codices and ancient scripts that, to this day, no one had fully been able to decipher or catalog in full.

It was a topic that had recently taken on more personal color, but she kept her own theories out of it. So far she had only told Amon and a few people close to her what she’d really experienced on Kakul. She couldn’t lay her theories on her students—not without more concrete evidence.

An hour passed in the space of a breath. As she began to wrap up the lecture, one young woman who had been typing furiously on a laptop during the entire lecture begin to fidget restlessly. Eliana knew her

“Now—questions?” Eliana said.

The fidgety girl’s hand shot into the air. Eliana tried to keep her face relaxed in a neutral smile. So much rested on a teacher’s expression. She’d been this girl once, and it wouldn’t be kind to embarrass her for her enthusiasm, even unintentionally.

“Is the research you’re doing in Mexico connected to your disappearance last year?”

The question stole the breath from her lungs. Eliana blinked and felt her face flush. She closed her mouth and inhaled slowly through her nose.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Fisk,” the girl said. “It’s just—I had to ask. The newspapers last year said you came back wearing jade and shell jewelry and dressed in coarse-woven cloth, and I’ve heard rumors that—”

A door opened and shut. The girl hesitated. Someone cleared their throat.

Eliana held up a hand. “It’s okay, Margaret,” she finally said. “I suppose someone had to ask eventually. The research my team is doing in Mexico is exploratory in nature. We’re trying to map the undocumented ruins in the more remote regions of the Calakmul Reserve. That’s all. Those jungles are incredibly dense, and we believe that still may contain some interesting discoveries about the Mayans.”

The girl’s face dropped, obviously disappointed. But she smiled and nodded, apparently satisfied with that explanation.

It wasn’t a lie—more like an evasion. How had this young woman put the pieces together? Not even her research team had the full sense of Eliana’s suspicious about the Kakuli people. She had kept those cards close to her chest. Eliana would have to tell Renee about this student. A girl with that kind of intuition—not to mention her passion—showed promise.

“That’s all for today,” Eliana said. “Thank you all for coming. Be sure you register in advance for the next guest lecture you attend.”

With a rustle of bags and papers, the students all rose at once and filed toward the exit. The shy girl, Margaret, averted her face and hurried for the exit. Eliana turned to try to catch her attention, to get her name, but when she turned around she looked straight into a very familiar face.

“Renee!” she said. “I thought we were meeting later for lunch.”

Her former mentor and present president of the University proudly wore a trim red pantsuit that reminded Eliana more of a politician than a linguist. Renee probably felt that her new position demanded she dresses the part.

“I hope you don’t mind. I snuck in at the end,” Renee said “I didn’t want to miss your last appearance. They students are completely enamored with you, you know.”

Eliana couldn’t conceal the blush that crept up her neck.  She changed the subject. “That girl who asked me about my research, do you know her?”

Renee inclined her head. “Margaret Jaffray. Yes, she’s an excellent student. Made the dean’s list three years in a row.”

“Oh, good,” Eliana said. “She’s a bright one. Might have to recruit her for my research team after she graduates.”

Eliana grabbed her messenger bag and slung it across her body, then reached in and grabbed her phone. She had two messages, several missed calls, and half a dozen text messages. She scrolled through the texts as she distractedly followed Renee out of the lecture hall.

“So where would you like to eat?” Renee asked.

Eliana didn’t answer her. She wasn’t trying to be rude, it was just that the text messages absorbed her whole attention.

We found something. Take the first flight back. You have to see this with your own eyes.

Eliana swallowed against the dryness in her mouth. Her heart slammed against her ribcage. She looked up at her former mentor. “I’m sorry, Renee, I’d love to catch up with you but I think—I have to go. Let’s reschedule. I’ll let you know when I’m back in town.”

Renee stopped, her hands falling loosely at her sides. “Back in town?”

“Yes,” Eliana said, walking backward toward the door. “I’ll call you!” She turned, not waiting for an answer.

Eliana booked a flight on her phone on the way to the airport. As the plane left the runway, she forced the hope down inside her chest, trying to keep it contained until she’d seen the evidence for herself.

Copyedits in for The Alien Element

Yesterday afternoon, my editor got back in touch with copyedits for The Alien Element. Right on schedule!

I hustled to get them all entered today. This is a simple but slow process where I take the changes back in to Scrivener, which I’ll use to produce the ebook version.

It was after dinner, nearly 11pm before I was done. Then I went out for a long walk to stretch my stiff back and legs.

A solid day. Tiring, but productive. Good to know I can do copyedits (and some minor revisions) for a full length novel in a day.

Tomorrow I’ll format the ebook and get it out to ARC readers. If you’re on my ARC list, look for an email in the next day or so! If you want to read this book early in exchange for an honest review, get in touch with me by email or leave a comment here.

Teasers for the book are starting to come out, too. Read Chapter 1 of The Alien Element on the blog there.

In the home stretch now!

The Alien Element – Chapter 1

<unedited>

Snippet 1 from The Alien Element
Translocator Trilogy Book Two
by M.G. Herron
Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved, yadda yadda

 

The Alien Element by M.G. Herron1

A Year-Long Peace

Rakulo trudged through the ancient forest with low spirits and limbs so tired and heavy it seemed a miracle that his feet continued to obey his commands. He walked on through the grey, sunless day, clenching his teeth each time the cold and biting wind sliced down through the trees to prickle his sweat-soaked skin.

He held his head high despite his exhaustion. Thirty young warriors trailed in a ragged line behind him, their clumsy footsteps occasionally catching on concealed tree roots or vines buried among the deep leaf-covered forest floor.

Even though Rakulo felt as tired they did, he couldn’t let them see any signs of weakness. A good leader never showed weakness, no matter how tired he felt.

About an hour outside the village, Rakulo held an open hand up, signaling to the warriors following him that it was time to stop and rest. Most of the weary men and women sank wordlessly to the ground with their backs against the nearest tree, not even bothering to seek out the most comfortable spot. When you’re that exhausted, anything that supports your weight feels like the softest feather bed.

“We’ll be home soon,” Rakulo said. “You’ll have two days with your families before we set out again, so make good use of the time. And it goes without saying, but not a word, not even among family, about what we were doing at the Wall.”

They nodded, but no one spoke, for no one had the energy. A few heads lolled back to rest against moss-covered trunks. One or two warriors took deep breaths and blew out their cheeks as they sighed.

Citlali stood from where she had been squatting and walked over to Rakulo. Of all his warriors, Citlali was among the fiercest. Where some of the younger men were still scrawny, lean cords of muscle stood out beneath Citlali’s tawny skin. Where others tired after half a day of hard walking, Citlali could run from one end of the wall to the other in a single day, and have energy to spare. Even now, the only sign of her fatigue was the quick rise of her chest while she breathed, and her puffy eyelids, which betrayed a lack of sleep.

She leaned close to him and spoke in a low voice so the others wouldn’t overhear their conversation.

“Don’t you think you’re pushing them too hard?” Citlali asked. “We’ve been in the forest for a score of days now.”

“They need to be in fighting shape,” Rakulo said.

“They also need time to recover,” she said. “And time to spend with their children. You’re too hard on them.”

“No one knows what dangers wait for us beyond the Wall. They need to be ready—for anything.”

She bobbed her head from side to side considering this. Rakulo said nothing about the fruitless journey from which they were now returning. They had searched along the Wall for days and days, looking for a way around or through, and found nothing. She finally nodded, turned, and sauntered casually back to where she had been resting a moment ago, making sure not to let her agitation show in her movement or on her face.

Citlali might disagree with Rakulo about his methods, but even if she was opposed to him, she would be careful not show any sign of open dissent. Rakulo was their chief now, and had been for twelve cycles of the two moons.

Rakulo turned his back on the group of weary warriors and gazed off into the distance, where he knew the empty stone city called Uchben Na—Ancient Mother—stood empty in the jungle. His ancestors had lived there once, but not for many generations. For as long as anyone could remember, and long before that, his people had lived in Kakul, the village on the edge of the sea.

Citlali was right, of course. He was too hard on them. But he had to be.

They hadn’t found a way through the Wall this time, but one day they would. He needed them all to be ready when that happened, when the day came to fight for their freedom. Rakulo directed them to prepare in other ways. Together, they had learned to carve canoes from sturdy tree trunks. Together, they made flint-tipped arrows, and knives of obsidian, and spears with tips of obsidian and flint. All of it was training. All of it was preparation.

When his warriors had caught their breath, Rakulo motioned them to their feet and moved onward, setting a slightly slower pace this time. They skirted around Uchben Na, crossed the river, and soon were padding into the farmland around the village, past the rows of corn and beans, toward the thatched-roofed huts that made up the village.

Men and women came out of the field and village to greet them. As soon as word spread about their return, more people emerged from between the mud daub walls. Children cried out happily, weaving between their parents’ legs in bare feet.

Rakulo exchanged polite greetings, and smiled as his warriors were reunited with their families and led home by their husbands, wives, brothers and mothers. The children ran circles around them, whooping and laughing. Rakulo breathed deeply of the tangy sea-smelling air, carried to him by another cool breeze. Despite his discontent at a year of searching and no results, it sure felt good to be home, especially now while the weather seemed to be giving them a break.

A plump figure draped with seashell necklaces, her shoulders thick with tattoos that showed her seniority and high social status, turned a corner. Spotting Rakulo, Ixchel walked quickly toward him. He could tell by her posture that something was bothering his mother.

“Chief Rakulo,” Ixchel said, loud enough for those still lingering nearby to hear. “I’m glad to see you’ve returned home safely again, my son.”

Rakulo hugged her close to him and whispered, “Is everything okay, mother?”

“We must speak in private,” she replied softly.

He followed her back to the house they shared near the center of the village. It was one of the oldest homes, with a fired clay foundation, sturdy wooden walls, and a thick roof that kept the house dry during even the fiercest monsoons. As chief, Rakulo could have commandeered a new house for himself, but he wasn’t home that often, and didn’t want to isolate his mother, who had lost her husband and her youngest son in quick succession last year. Although there was no door to close the hut—all the houses in the village were open to the air—once inside, they had some privacy and could speak more openly.

“Did something happen while I was gone?” Rakulo asked.

“Ekel, the fisherman, has gone missing,” Ixchel said without preamble.

“What?” Rakulo swore, his hands clenching into hard fists. “When? Who else knows?”

“Word has certainly spread by now, although no one is talking about it where they can be heard.”

So that explained the obvious relief on the faces of his warriors’ families when they came to greet their loved ones. It was no shock that no one was talking about it. Everyone knew what it meant when an old man or woman went missing.

“Could he have just gone off on his own for a while? Down the coast, or into the forest? Has anyone checked the caves?”

Ixchel gave him a condescending look. “Old Ekel, the homebody? The man who’s gone fishing in the same spot every day for ten years?” She shook her head firmly. “No.”

Strange, indeed, Rakulo thought.

It had been over a year since Xucha had shown his face—the God had been absent since the death of Chief Dambu, Rakulo’s father. Had Xucha taken Ekel in retribution for what he’d done? And if so, why had it taken so long?

In direct contravention to tradition, Rakulo’s first order when he became chief was to immediately cease the human sacrifices that Xucha had demanded, and which had been reinforced by Chief Dambu and the endless line of shamans and chiefs that came before him—often unwillingly. Chief Dambu had been punished for his resistance, and eventually offered as a sacrifice himself.

When Rakulo became chief, he decreed that Chief Dambu was to be the last sacrifice.

The next few cycles of the moons were tense as everyone braced for a retaliation from their God. None came. Xucha stayed away, no one fell ill, and eventually people began to relax. Many new babies were born in the last year, and—this was unprecedented—one elderly woman even died a perfectly natural death in her sleep. Rakulo had her buried next to the grave of Ixchel’s youngest son, Rakulo’s little brother, Tilak, who had been struck ill by Xucha in punishment for Dambu’s disobedience.

Since Rakulo took over as chief and refused to continue the tradition of sacrifice, their village had experienced a year-long peace.

Until now. Until Ekel’s disappearance. He knew what people would think. The whole situation stank of Xucha’s influence. The black-clad God was known to be deceptive, to work in secret and by the cover of night.

Or was there another explanation?

“Why Ekel?” Rakulo asked. “Why now?”

“He stopped fishing while you were gone because the journey to the beach had become too hard on his knees. At least, that’s what he told everyone.” She was silent for a moment, considering the source of the information. “Your father would have said he was the sensible choice.”

“There are other things Ekel can do! And father’s not with us anymore. I’m the Chief now.”

“I know that.” His mother scowled at him, and for a moment he felt like a child again, and doubly guilty for reminding his mother that her husband was gone. “Why do you think I’m telling you these things? But there’s something else.”

Rakulo took a deep breath. “What is it?”

“I think Maatiaak had something to do with it.”

“Elder Maatiaak?”

“The two of them barely spoke to each other before a few days ago.”

Rakulo nodded. “They both wanted to marry Dea, Citlali’s mother, and have been rivals ever since. But why does that matter?”

“They were never kind to each other. But after you departed a few weeks ago, that changed. Maatiaak began spending a lot of time with Ekel. They suddenly acted like old friends. I thought it was odd, but paid it no mind at first. I was happy to see that they had finally found common ground after all these years.” She pursed her lips and paused.

Rakulo finished her thought for her. “And then Ekel disappeared,” he said. “All of a sudden.”

“Something’s wrong, Rakulo. I can feel it.”

A dread twisted his stomach. She was right. Something was very wrong.

“I better pay Citlali’s father a visit.”

 

Not Alone: A Sci-Fi Short Story

Ahoy, stargazers! I’ve returned to Austin from a week-long vacation at the land of 10,000 lakes. Just in time to deliver you a new sci-fi short story.

Not Alone is about a freighter pilot who’s down on his luck but won’t give up his dream.

Here’s the blurb:

Not Alone: A Sci-Fi Short StoryDid life ever exist on Mars?

Astrobiologist Ackley Griven once set out to answer that question…and came up with squat.

The mining companies, though? They struck gold on the red planet. Gold and oil.

When accidents in the low mines bring Griv back to Mars with a delivery of mining bots to replace the ones that were inexplicably destroyed in electrical fires, his stale search for Martian life is thrust onto a surprising new trail.

Not Alone is a science fiction short story about space ships, superstition, and one man’s lifelong obsession.

Get Not Alone on Amazon

A sample from the beginning of Not Alone

 

1

Deirdre

After paying for the station mechanics to repair a small breach he discovered in the hull of his ship during the journey back from Mars, Griv bounced off his freighter like a man half his age and fifty pounds lighter. A message from Deirdre had synced to his personal inbox when he docked, and though they had bickered bitterly last time they spoke, the prospect of seeing his daughter elated him. Not even the cost of the repairs could get him down just now. It felt like someone in the control room had cranked back the artificial gravity on the space station.

He relished the floating sensation as he strode in worn leather boots through the familiar bustling traffic of pilots, passengers, and supplies on the hangar floor. His equally battered duster—not leather or canvas, but a heavy, breathable synthetic the color of which matched his brown boots—billowed appreciatively behind him.

Near the far end of the hangar, Griv stopped and waited while a young mechanic with a scraggly goatee guided a replacement spacecraft wing through a thick crowd. The wing was supported on a maglev cart. Griv knew the metal floor was lined with magnets so that a single person could move heavy equipment—like that wing— across the hangar. But most civilians had never seen such a thing. A knot of Asian businessmen and their wives—space tourists—whispered and pointed excitedly, and waved the mechanic to a halt.

A geriatric gentleman wearing a green casino visor and fine polished shoes of expensive leather separated himself from the others. With a wide grin plastered on his face, he approached the mechanic. The young man’s expression went blank and he nodded, but Griv noticed his posture stiffen as the tourist ran his hands along the sleek metal surface of the spare wing. A woman handed a small camera to a third man, and sidled up next to old gent. The third man took photos of the couple in two poses, and another when the woman pulled the mechanic into a third shot. The young mechanic’s face softened into a hesitant smile. The old man laughed aloud, then lounged back onto the edge of the maglev cart and jostled the heavy metal wing.

The mechanic’s face went pale. He tore himself away and fumbled with a controller in his hands. The top-heavy wing began to tilt and the mechanic desperately threw his own shoulder under the wing. Griv brushed through the crowd, elbowing the frightened tourists out of the way, and added his own hands to the other end of the wing. The mechanic finally managed to stabilize the maglev cart with one hand on the remote control.

“Thank you,” the mechanic whispered to Griv.

“Damn tourists,” Griv muttered under his breath, winking at the younger man.

The mechanic blanched, then rapidly hurried off in the opposite direction, using the remote to speed the wing to safety, away from the tourists. They hollered apologies as he retreated.

Griv chuckled and shook his head as he walked onward. It was no surprise that the mechanic kept his mouth shut at Griv’s comments, but it rankled him at the same time. The lucrative space tourism trade greased the metaphorical wheels of every space station now, he knew. Near-Earth orbit was the new exotic getaway.

Ridiculous, he thought.

Silence finally came like a thunderclap as he passed from the orderly chaos of the hangar into the narrow corridors of the space station proper. On the High Road—a long, slightly curved foot path that encircled the rotating core of the station—where he had time to think, Griv began to worry what his daughter might say. Could they just have a nice lunch together, or would she bring it up again, all that stuff about his health and how he needed to settle down? She was just like her mother that way. Griv lengthened his stride, knee joints popping from lack of use. He used to be able to do a dozen round trips to Mars with barely a dock-day between them, but the same pace was much harder on his body these days.

He finally stepped off the High Road and turned into the newly constructed greenhouse extension, where Deirdre said she would be. The round entryway door spiraled open with a soft sigh of air, and Griv waded into the thick smell of rich earth, thyme and rosemary and—he wrinkled his nose—cabbage. Vines hanging from a lattice overhead brushed his shoulders as he wandered deeper into the place.

Incredible that they’d set all this up here. The scientist in him, long dormant from lack of use, began to wonder how they’d transported the soil, and what percentage of the water used to grow this lush opulence was recyclable. Was it a drain on the station’s ecosystem? Was growing thyme extravagant, and should they focus more on the staples of the human diet—potatoes and cabbage for instance?

Deirdre would know. The company she worked for, Sustainable Rotation, had been crowing about a sustainable future for humanity in near-Earth orbit for over two decades. They ran nearly a dozen of the so-called Habitation Stations, space stations meant only for civilian use, and reserved for the ultra-rich.

But this was something else entirely.

Griv rarely made it out of his ship, let alone wandered to the experimental side of this station. Remarkable what they’d managed to achieve. Would it reach their goal of full sustainability? And if so, how long would it last? He absent-mindedly cycled through water-use calculations in his head, but was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it, and was that much more impressed with his daughter’s abilities. She was light-years ahead of him as a scientist. Good for her.

“Ackley Griven!” A man’s surprised voice cut through the thick air. “Is that you?”

The prideful glow dampened, and Griv turned to see a group of lab-coated scientists surrounding a man wearing designer jeans with more holes than fabric. The difference in the man’s appearance drew his eyes—he was a full foot shorter than Griv and wore a Henley t-shirt with all three buttons opened at the top to reveal an annoyingly well-muscled chest. His head was as hairless as his chest, and he was missing both eyebrows. Once a genetic disorder called alopecia, full hairlessness was now an affectation of the ultra wealthy.

“Well, I’ll be,” Griv said, extending his hand. “The man himself. I wasn’t sure you’d be here, Sinclair.” He owned this station—he owned nearly a dozen of them. Of course Griv knew Sinclair Axelrod would be here. He was just hoping he wouldn’t be.

“Deirdre,” Sinclair said, mock disapproval in his tone. “You didn’t tell me you were expecting a visitor.”

Griv’s daughter stepped out of the pack of scientists that surrounded Axelrod. Auburn curls framed her lightly freckled face. Soft cheeks cut down to a pointed chin the exact opposite of Griv’s own chin, which in recent years had seemed to merge into his neck. Her face was hard, her green eyes flat and angry. But a big, loving smile spread helplessly over Griv’s face at the sight of her, and his daughter’s face softened as well.

“I didn’t know if he would come,” Deirdre admitted.

“Here I am,” Griv said, spreading his arm magnanimously. “Sinclair, the space tourism industry has been good to you. This garden is like a slice of Eden. Incredible, truly…but we all know who really deserves the credit.”

Deirdre blushed. “Dad, stop.”

“He’s right, of course,” Sinclair said. “You have a naturally green thumb, and a brilliant rational mind.”

“She inherited that one from her old man,” Griv said, tapping his temple with one finger. Deirdre gave him a wry look. “Do you mind if I borrow your head botanist for a little while?”

“By all means. We were just wrapping up.” Sinclair made a motion, and the cluster of lab-coated cretins followed the little bald man away.

Griv held out his elbow. Deirdre took his arm, looking askance as she pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek

“You’re not mad?” she asked when the others were out of earshot.

“I can’t stay mad at you.”

“You have to admit, you do spend a lot of time on that ship.”

“That’s how I make my living, sweetheart.”

She looked at the floor. “It’s also become your home, which is not healthy. You can’t live on your ship, Dad. Fill out an application and I’ll fast track you into the Habitat program. You’ll get a place to live, a guaranteed basic income…a cabin all to yourself!”

“I’m not taking charity, Dee. Especially not from goddamn Sinclair.”

“It’s not charity. You’d have to work your hours on the farms or in the water sanitation facility, the same as everyone else. And Sinclair has nothing to do with it.”

“You work for him.”

She frowned at her father. “I work for his company. I live for myself. And I care about you.”

Griv sighed heavily. “What’s the difference if I live in a metal box on my ship or a metal box on a station?”

“Other people live on the station, Dad. I worry about you, spending so much time alone.”

“Pfah!” he said. “I see plenty of people, here and on Mars.”

She gave him a dark look. They didn’t talk about his work much. Griv had been a government researcher once, the head of the first team to conduct scientific research on a foreign planet. No research teams worked on Mars these days. All the money for industry on Mars went toward the hunt for new petroleum deposits, and the lucrative gold and platinum mines. Griv used to be get angry when he thought about the potential signs of ancient life those idiots were probably destroying every single day as they greedily sucked the marrow from the bones of their sister planet.

Deirdre put her hands on her father’s arms and looked straight into his face. His heart broke when saw the tears forming in those big glistening greens.

“Dad, I know why you keep going back. You’re hoping something will change. But there’s no life on Mars. We’ve known that for decades now. I can’t deny that there’s got to be sentient life out there somewhere. You taught me to believe what I can see with my own eyes, and I look out at the stars and think that in all that vastness, there have to be others like us somewhere in the universe. But can’t you look elsewhere?”

Griv said nothing, but his heart ached.

“I love you, Dad, but you can’t go on like this. It’s not good for you. I miss you. Even mom misses you, though she’ll never admit it. Stop searching for something where there’s nothing to be found.”

Finish reading Not Alone on Amazon