Encrypted message - a bug written by an anonymous programmer - cycled into web scanning used to tune the pulse density of the Curve Continuum
There's a peculiar anomaly that lies along the Curve about halfway through Trisect 9. Loadhaulers are fond of its occurrence since it serves as a break in the monotonous flow of transporting goods from one world to another. Scientists and mappers feel they know exactly what causes the Curve to brink at this point. It's a simple explanation, force unification intermixing gravity and magnetism. Three stellar systems converge here and alongside their outer edges, meteors are slowed by erratic gravity and entrapped by magnetic pull. Comets may also decline to the effect and erroneously enter an adjoining system. Loadhauler drivers like to rev their engines hoping to suck in an alias pulse created by the force at this point. It takes about half a light-year for their ships to slow back to normal speed after "hooking a monster." Opening up a ship's throttle in this vicinity is not a good idea. A sudden energy burst may end up dislodging the balance of things by blowing a meteor pack or a comet into free-fall.
The picture on Aldo's screen is painfully beautiful. It's a data clip of a large salamander tangled in the roots of a carnivorous plant. The plant is unusual. Small creatures feed on insects trapped by a sweet secretion released by the plant's leaves. The weight of the creature instantly signals the plant's roots to snap up forming a sticky web. As soon as the root mass hits the air, it tightens up. This is what Aldo is viewing now, a suffocation. Before the salamander ceases to struggle, the plant begins to dig its roots back into the ground.
Aldo is intrigued by unusual natural things, like the killer plant that exists in only one known place, in loose soil alongside a mountain range on an unassuming planet named Arsis Nege.
The data clip abruptly flashes off. The screen lights up showing the revolving icon of the Trisecular Grid Monitoring System. A synthetic voice asks for Aldo's audio ID. Aldo works for TGMS. He enters the code grunting a single syllable.
He's supposed to speak his full name out loud. Aldo likes to prank the program by bending protocol. It's his way of looking down at a machine. A living being would have asked him to repeat his name. Instead the program reads his grunt and accesses the Grid.
An orange screen glow indicates Terminus Alert, meaning the whole damn network is tuning in. Something's happened, somewhere.
TGMS connects tens of thousands of interplanetary probes. Most of this galaxy is measured by the System of Grid which makes it possible to trans-send information through a network of pulsating energy highways coined as the Curve Continuum. Since a mind's perception of quantum relativity relies heavily on visual imagery, an infinite yet invisible equation of time, space and energy can be seen as a simple country road, a road that never runs straight, goes everywhere but never crosses itself. The Curve's been up and running a long time. Information and transport long ago normalized to a level that makes life's most extraordinary phenomenon ordinary as bugs.
The screen's background changes to red. Government's tuned in. Must be issues.
A clip pops on screen. It is a holojection of the galaxy rotating some distance in front of the screen's surface. The image closes up. Aldo is given the sensation of moving into the galaxy. A narration begins.
"...Trisect 9 Alert ... class-two comet indicates in orbital flux intersecting an unplotted meteor field..." Aldo is surrounded by the projection that drifts parallel to a large comet approaching a bunch of meteors. "...a series of minor impacts..." Aldo is impressed by the visual effect of the impacting meteors. "...indicates further deviation in the comet's orbit. Code Situation to be issued as follows..." The projection fades. Numbers appear on screen.
9 190 32 0 9 3 1.1 17 72.118 7
Aldo hates decoding.
He clicks to see if Ted, his shiftmate at the TGMS station is on line. Ted's up. Great. Aldo will let him do the decoding.
Ted will most likely bring the news to Aldo. Aldo closes the encyclomedia file on the flesh eating plant. He sweeps crumbs and snack wrappers off his desk into the cycling bin. A clean office will placate any conception that Aldo's been up to any other work other than TGMS.
This is part of the routine at the station. Aldo takes a shift. Ted takes a shift but not necessarily in order or apart since machines run things as well as bodies. Machines could run the whole thing. Yet then there wouldn't be any jobs inside the solar precinct - which locally consist of a two-star system with no planets but a unique set of two large tumbling orbital asteroids called the Rolling Stones. Anyway if their jobs and the resulting support functions didn't exist, the Government would have one more economic wasteland on its hands. Aldo and Ted are connected to politico families from two major planets. They serve both economic and diplomatic engines sitting, watching terminals in offices at a painfully remote station pondering reasons why their degrees in Spaciotemporal Design never earned them anything better.
Aldo and his companion, Ted, share interests but are from vastly different worlds. Ted's begun to walk over to Aldo's office with the decoded message.
Aldo is a Fifthian, a science guy from a lush, warm planet. Fifthians picture themselves as highly evolved masters of science and learning. They are the original mappers of the galaxy. So they assume a great deal of credit for the creation of the Curve itself.
Ted, real name Theodus, comes from a varied world, mostly forested and rugged. His folks call themselves the Arrowsmiths. They are the last of a handful of militant peoples to conquer and hold the planet. While they adhere to scientific principles, they stick to tradition and are known to speak their minds by garnishing simple but colorful words.
These two TGM Controllers have been united by accordance specified in the Universal Treaty. They manage to get along pretty well despite the differences.
Aldo, a typically intolerant Fifthian, innately doubts this bellicose race of Arrowsmiths will evolve any further. Clutching to barbarous origins is a big mistake. Ancient hokum, like the practice of tongue splitting has likely set back the development of higher language which is a key pathway into the mind. Worse is their lack of purpose, their failure to connect to a higher endeavor - like mapping the galaxy - to trigger the knowledge necessary to inherit a proper place in the universe. Sapience, like that of the true Fifthian can only be honed over a span of five eons. After all, Fifthians are the people who brought all points of the galaxy within reach. They are the creators of the System of Grid.
In walks Ted.
"Holy momma. Them's not meteors wouldn't ya know."
Aldo notes how Ted manages so many wrong words and still makes sense.
The screen juices up as the alarm code doubles to yellow.
TGMS has tripled its original triangulation confirming seven asteroids tracked from twelve different buoys. Ted speaks to Aldo's terminal reciting the decoded encryption sequence. Aldo's screen instantly begins to issue data about a small planet. Two omni-focal boxes divert overriding Trisect data with tracking and composition data about the asteroids. Each of the seven objects that broke loose is sounded, analyzed and individually drawn on a remaining box. One by one the smaller asteroids are eliminated from the impact scenario as the analysis progresses. Three of these will hook into orbit around larger bodies within the local planetary system. Two will impact into the solitary moon of the destination planet. Two remaining will impact almost on top of each other, upper hemisphere approximately one-fifth to axis above the Planar Galactic. 97 solar trips, 267 axis rotations from this moment.
"... two huge-assroids lightin up da sky. Kaboom! Goodbye 'n goodnight." Ted reads the last part message his way.
Curious, Aldo accesses more information about the planet.
Planet Datatlas: Stable atmosphere 777/8. Salina 1/8.2. Terra .33.
Cloroflora. Fauna. Diverse/scale .07 - 99.
This is going to mean trouble. The alarm will electrify half a galaxy. Planet huggers, religious fanatics, and idiot politicians will reignite the same old frenzied debate over rights guaranteed by the Universal Treaty. As usual, politicians will placate the religious nuts. Corporations will sell out the planet huggers. Some rich fools will make fortunes selling vacation packages and development rights to a unknown planet where living things are suddenly, officially certified as doomed by words in a treaty.
" Let's see what they gotta say."
Aldo cross indexes data about the planet. System's slow to respond. Others are accessing the same information. A moment passes before the box opens. Opposite the screen display holograms blink on.
"Big game." Ted nearly jumps as the rotating pics hover in front of the screen.
There is no word in the Fifthian language to indicate such an abrupt difference between people and other kinds of living beings. Living creatures are treasured by the Fifthians as all beings should be. Yet Aldo sees no benefit in explaining this to an Arrowsmith.
Because of a random gravitational slingshot these creatures are tragically on their way out. Halfway across the galaxy a treaty between other types of creatures, a treaty written to protect life, unseeingly defines non-intelegents as animals. And it contains a simple dead-meat clause: "Under definitive consensus of planet-wide extinction, said planet can be opened for commercial and sport harvesting provided these operations meet all standards set..."
"Look at dose teeth!" With admiration the Arrowsmith scans the data chart appearing in sync with the rotating holograms. He holds up his hairy hands to show Aldo the actual size of the teeth an immense leviathan.
He should look at his own gristly set of choppers, Aldo thinks as he wonders why Fifthians would ever entertain a treaty with beings of this nature. The reasons are complex, yet peace has held firm between dozens of worlds for a long time. So what if concept of pre-destruct salvage seems somewhat surreal.
Aldo ponders this while his overjoyed shiftmate begins to chant in his native language. He waits a moment before asking Ted what he's up to.
"It would d be awkward for me to 'splain," the Arrowsmith responded. "Aldo, how long 'fore they clear da planet?"
Aldo shifts the system back to the program index reassessing probe data. "It's been a while since the pics were taken. But look. Trisect 9 probing has never been concluded. Should be probes still collecting data in the neighborhood. Here. Let me pull the exploration file. There. Three Late Eon studies - well lookie here - currently being conducted under authority of the Fifthian Continuum Survey."
"What's it mean?" Ted wants Aldo to cut a little quicker.
"News spreading this fast means the probes have already been diverted to the doomed planet. Should be cleared before the debate gets out of hand." Aldo keys the pics back on.
"What'll hold up clearance, Aldo?"
"Intelligent life. But no chance of that. This planet was part of an original Fifthian survey. Our probes never miss. Look." Aldo zooms on the heads of creature after creature, cutout displays on all of them show small, primitive gray matter. "I don't think you have much to worry about. But still," Aldo muses, "Certain prophesiers believe brains may not be the only key to intelligence."
Ted asks Aldo for a set of chromic proofs which he grabs as fast as they print.
"Gotta call Pop," he says as he bursts out the door.
Later the next day Aldo hikes up the station trail dividing a terraced field between the TGMS building and the dorm. Greenery along the path turns yellow in the waning light as the big star slides behind the veiling atmosphere of the second Rolling Stone. Above, the rim of a crater illuminates in gold, misty light. The trail takes him up a hollow where he observes the light rapidly shifting colors as it filters through both atmospheres of the Rolling Stones. It's an amazing sight that always gets Ted and Aldo talking .
Here's Ted now.
He's comfort dressed to his usual extreme - a breechcloth. It's barely noticeable since his frame is covered by black hair. Nature guy blurts, "Hey. Nice set tonight."
The rim turns orange. The sky is pink. Turns fuchsia.
Now it's blue.
"Blue sky." Aldo looks up, breathes in.
"Freaky, like home."
Ted and Aldo are silent during the brief blue-sky. It fades fast.
"Hey. Pop says you'n da boy can join us up at da cabin. You'n I need a break. What ya say?"
Aldo's surprised by the invitation. He knows about the cabin. It's like Ted's family heirloom.
"Will we be going to that place with the desert and springs?"
"Na. Pop's moved it already."
Aldo's quick at guessing where. It comes from his Fifthian intuition.
"You know Pop." Ted's grin illuminates in the fading green light. Figures Ted's dad would be the first to set down on the planet. He's got the connections to wave normal clearance.
Aldo thinks about it, thinks about his son, how long it's been since they went anywhere together. Ted never stops talking about the cabin, the old way of living off fish and game, Pop's cooking, drinking. Meat's going to be a problem. Fifthians don't eat flesh. Best part would be the big creatures and all the other new things to see. It means he'll have to call Mrs. Ex and convince her the boy can survive hanging out halfway across the galaxy with a couple of Arrowsmiths. She'll freak. But she'll give in because Ted's family is way high up on the politico tower.
So Aldo and Ted head back down from the crater making plans.
Later Aldo calls Mrs. Ex.
"How can anyone be so sure the asteroids won't run into another anomaly along the way and miss the planet altogether?" She asks, posing a hypothetical situation that stems from her ability to understand scientific issues. This is the way Fifthians normally talk to each other.
"Triangulation, sounding. Our instruments are good. Probes will have a second look, anyway." Aldo feels this answer can't prove itself totally reliable in her mind. He hopes she can draw upon the certainty of a bad outcome in an imperfect universe. Still he adds a little more thought. "Billions of stars and planets under grid at this moment, still, we manage to detect this minor break in the stable chain of events..." Aldo pauses to see if she's paying attention to any of this.
Just the same, Aldo is relieved to quit the pointless part of their conversation.
"Where's he going to sleep?"
"In a cabin."
"In a bed?"
What is said from this point doesn't really matter. Mrs. Ex is reasonable when it comes to Aldo and his son spending time together.
Before the planet's clearing process began, Ted's dad had contracted Loadhaulers' to transport the old cabin and camp. For some time the camp sat on a beach along a balmy ocean on a dry planet in Trisect 5. The local star, a pulsar, over eons had blasted a cold storm onto its surface which slowly created heavy elements. This impurity in its fusion produced a viral effect causing the star to overheat. The local system was doomed. After clearance, the planet had been a gem of a vacation spot with fairly good salt water fishing, sporty desert upland hunting and the hot springs. Mining had destroyed much of the dry planet's ambiance. Ted's folks were ready to move on.
Time at the cabin is the core activity of Ted's family. Arrowsmiths find adventure, getting back to basics through the challenge of any new world. Whenever a new planet opens up, Ted's folks are first on the scene. It a family trademark spawned by a profound love of purity. The new planet in Trisect 9 might offer the best of all worlds, great game, forests, water, abundance. Had there been a delay in clearance, some would think it likely this Arrowsmith family would be down there anyway making tracks with the inhabitants.
Ten days later Aldo's boy boards a shuttle to the Arrowsmith planet. He joins Aldo at an embarkation platform where they pile into Ted's Starbird.
Gear is piled all over Pop's driveway when they arrive. Aldo and the boy step around the mess clutching their neatly packed bags. The older Arrowsmith instantly snaps off orders to Ted in a deep, projectile voice. He wears a wide-brimmed animal skin hat with a hideous spotted skin band. His eyes are sharp, almost mean yet they show a remote playfulness.
This grizzled guy is a predator through and through.
"Pop. Dis is Aldo. Boy's name Lee." Ted piles gear into a watertight box through the introduction.
Without looking at either Aldo or his boy, the old guy replies, "These da guys who gonna do all da cooking and cleaning for us, eh?"
The uptight Fifthian is starting to feel a little out of step standing there with his son not quite knowing what to do. Fortunately Lee's more interested in all the stuff laying around. Unfortunately, Aldo is left all alone in an uneasy silence while he two Arrowsmiths jump around packing gear.
Aldo bends over to inspect the underside of a boat after finding something halfway familiar to talk about. "How do you power this watercraft?"
"Boat," Pop exacted, "with an archaic fossil-powered engine. Eh, Ted?"
"Ya, the only reason Pop brings me is to keep 'em running." Ted, an educated TGMS Observer, assumes a digressive Arrowsmith subservience interacting with his father. Aldo figures it'll be a cold day on a white giant before he'll act the part of village idiot to appease Pop's overbearing. This is going to suck. The Fifthian's angry thought is his typical response to insecurity. There was no place for Fifthian superiority with a guy like this and Aldo knows it.
Pop's Starbird Wagonnaire is a big bucks version of the same model Ted drives. The three of them load the boat and gear, filling Ted's, half filling Pop's. A lot space is filled by a surprising amount of material designed for the capture of water creatures.
"Yous bring good weather gear?" Pop asks Aldo directly. Before the Fifthian can answer, Pop eyes him and says, "Guess not." He opens one of the boxes and hands Aldo two sets of lightweight waterproof suits. Aldo thanks Pop. The loan relieves a load of tension. Aldo feels even better when Pop invites Lee to ride with him.
After he climbs into Ted's vehicle, with the doors sealed, Aldo asks if the suits are made of some kind of skin. Ted laughs and says once the rain begins Aldo won't give a hoot whether they are animal or people skins. Warmth and dryness are more critical issues.
As soon as the vehicles fire up, Pop's voice cannons over the com. "You bums buckle up and follow me. Ted, did that Fifthian bring a map?" The trip to Trisect 9 normally runs through a slow interchange of energy paths before reaching the primary accelerated lanes. Since the Arrowsmith home planet lays close to a collapsed planetary system - an anomaly associated with the process of gravitational pulse acceleration - one big benefit here is quick access to fast travel. Once you breech the outer atmosphere, travel normally relates to a simple equation: Divide resistance of vehicle mass by the average weight of sub-atomic matter, multiply by relational time. Distance takes about as many time units longer as you are heavier than a particle. Accelerated particles move more quickly than time, so your weight is multiplied by a factor way less one-point-zero. Since the Grid sub-divides the TS Continuum, actual distance becomes shorter.
This is the kind of stuff that goes on in a Fifthian's head. All this ciphering can be done on any basic handheld PC. Basically it means the Curve lets you zip halfway across the galaxy in no time. Besides, Pop's got his own shortcuts.
It's a smooth ride once you get past the jolt of entering the fast lane.
A familiar "chiitt" rings over the com. An involuntary gnaw in Aldo's belly helps him overcome his innate Fifthian angst and ask, "Did your dad just crack a bruski?" Ted kindly assures him, "Go ahead and grab a cold one. Heck, you're on vacation. Cooler's in back of your seat." Ted gives him the final nudge.
Aldo grabs a can then fingers through the chromic proofs Ted left on the dash. "Ever seen creatures like these?" He takes a tiny sip.
"What you know about 'em?" Ted responds knowing he's giving Aldo a chance to emit a bit of Fifthian encyclopedia, kind of like the way you cycle off super-heated vapors to keep an engine from blowing up.
"Well," Aldo winds up, taking a bigger sip, "these are almost perfect examples of evolutionary diversion, almost analogous to life on early Fifth. Since life must become a reflection of environmental demands controlled by a uniform set of physical outcomes, there remains only a few choices in the way life must develop ... sort of the same reason why people all over the galaxy are so much alike."
Aldo tilts his bruski then continues. "In this case an early form must of developed along an offshoot branch which by evolving great size enabled utter dominance in a relatively diverse world. Heck, Ted, there's all kinds of smaller creatures down there, some smarter, some way better adapted. But it's usually the big ones that call the shots."
"Sure studied your encyclomedia, eh, Aldo?" Ted chimes as Aldo takes another sip. Like he didn't know all that already.
"Chance of a lifetime getting to a place like this. Most every planet in our neck of the grid passed through this early stage long ago. This place is a lot closer to the edge of the galaxy and you know systems are few and far between further out you get. For such a planet to open up to, well, chance of a lifetime."
"Them monsters ain't so dumb." Pop's voice barks over the com. "Ted, you pack dat bag of stink-bait like I asked? 'Want to set a crab trap soon as we get there."
"Bait's in da big cooler, Pop." Ted answers. He leans toward Aldo and whispers, "Pop's already been to da planet. 'Left Sis there to scout things out. You can be sure da cabin's in clockwork condition when we get there."
"Your sister? Alone?" Aldo asks and take a big gulp.
"Ah, she's alright. Practically lives at da cabin. Goes wherever it goes. Plus she can eye da best spot to set that place down - better than Pop even . Knows just how to set da posts so nothing shifts. You can't pay for help like that. Also loves to fish." Ted is bragging about his sibling.
"She cook and clean?" Aldo kills the bruski crunching the can.
"Heck no, Aldo. Pop does all that."
"Dat Fifthian and his son eat fish?" Pop's back on com.
Ted checks Aldo's response expecting him to freak. Instead the Fifthian's enjoying a major brew rush amplified by the false gravity field. Best response he can muster is a shrug.
"Guess so," Ted says.
"Dat's good," Pop adds, " 'cause his boy just pounded down one of my trout salad sandwiches."
"How much bruski you bring, Ted?" Aldo grabs another can from the cooler.
"Lots. Pop's a guzzler in the boat when he has Sis doing da driving. Plenty more at the cabin."
Aldo, it seems, is beginning to lighten up.
The vehicles break through the planet's atmosphere where a range of mountains arches an endless body of water. Mist hangs in each valley below. They cruise to a point where they pass over to a crest in the watershed. Now the Starbirds soar over a dryer plain until they reach a large river valley. This is the beginning of an endless green. As they slowly descend, the green becomes outlined by the shapes of giant trees. They are still too high up to pick out any single living thing. A gentler mountain range sprouts off the far side of the river - no sharp peaks yet the topography has definitely lifted. Numerous lakes appear as they move deeper into it. Pop increases the descent over the largest lake. It is an endlessly intricate waterway of bays and channels.
"There they are!" Lee's voice rings over the intercom.
"Ted," Pop's voice follows. Those huge rocks over dere. See um? Them's not rocks. They're da backs of those gygoondo fatboys I was telling you about, da ones with them teeny heads and long necks. One of 'em's bigger than a house. They'll clean all that green scum outta da bay then move on to da next. Watched 'em do it. Thing is, they walk out on shore when they need to piss or take a dump, like they don't want to foul up da water. It's funnier n' heck to watch them step in their own piles. Crap flies forever."
Aldo's last bruski spilled off the dash back when Ted's vehicle shifed out of the accelerated lane. Soaked his pants. That was some time ago. The wetness stayed. So as Pop described the creatures relieving themselves, the words and the wet spot in his crotch causes it to strain to hold back the pressure of the six-pack he killed over half the galaxy. The bivy is burried under gear. Ted urges him to piss in an empty can, but Aldo's afraid to loosen his seat harness out of fear of loosing control of his bladder.
The vehicles hover and land on a hardened platform built at the end of a cove off the main channel. Ted wastes no time releasing the door seals, even helps Aldo with the harness.
Aldo breaks loose and jumps down. Halfway through his leak, at the moment where the pain changes into relief, Aldo sees an Arrowsmith woman standing where the platform meets the water.
Fortunately the woman is preoccupied. Moments earlier she hooked a monster fish. The thing took a spoon the size of her hand then ran back out into the channel. She pumped it all the way back in before realizing the fish didn't know it was hooked. It casually sauntered under the platform right under her feet. The fish was as long as her boat.
At this instant she tugs the spiny-back giant back out into the light where it finally figures something is challenging its sense of well being. It rockets out to the deep water. The woman's racing heart almost chokes her.
Didn't stop her from being able to scream, "One of yous get your butt down here 'n grab da net. In that boat. Hurry, damn it!"
Pop gets there first.
"Fish's too freaking big for da net." Pop gauges after studying the bend in her pole. "Could use da gaff. Mine's somewhere in that mess up in Ted's vehicle. Might as well cut 'em loose."
"Take the pole you old fart." The words are pointed despite her panting. "I'll climb in the boat. You muscle it in and I'll belly rub it long enough for Ted to snake a stringer through his gill."
"Then what." Pop argues. "Heck you don't have arms long enough ta reach under that thing's gut."
The pole jerks hard while they yell at each other. The woman stays her ground. She keeps the pole's tip high while her reel buzzes and squeals.
Ted runs to the boat and grabs the net.
Little Lee runs over to his dad who's zipping up his pants. Both stand still not quite sure what they're supposed to do.
Ted shouts an up-to-the-moment commentary, "Pop's trying to keep Sis from killing herself, that's all. She thinks she can rub da fish's belly and it'll go into a stupor. Pop knows better. Something we never seen before, hell, might sting ya or worse." Ted's refereed between Pop and Sis like this a million times.
"Want us to do anything?" Aldo obliges.
"Here." Ted offers Aldo the useless but symbolic net. "Hold this while I run for da gaff."
Pop takes a quick study of Sis, sees she's starting to gain on the fish. Cocksure that his comment about cutting the line pissed enough adrenaline to make her strong as a bull, he offers a little reinforcement. "Keep pumpin' that son-of-a-bitch in and I'll snap a bolt in its head if you want to keep 'em. Leastwise, we'll get you sitting down beside him in the boat and take a picture."
The fish surfaces, splashes a big wave over the corner of the platform soaking
Aldo and Lee. "Wow! What kind of fish has an ugly head like that?" Lee asks.
"Pescofelius," Aldo answers.
And Pop translates. "Big freakin' catfish. Good eating. No bones." He turns to Sis. "Want me to shoot 'em with the c-bow?"
Pumping her pole furiously, Sis gasps. "Go ahead, but I ain't cleaning him."
"Ted." Pop condenses a command to his son in the Starbird.
"Got it." Ted knows what his old man wants. In a flash, he runs over and hands Pop a small crossbow and two metal darts.
"Look." Lee tugs on the net to get Aldo's attention then points at the channel. Suddenly the line starts hissing off the reel. Ted slides a hand through Sis's belt to steady her.
"No dad, look!" Lee points more furiously at the channel.
"Motha." Pop picks out what Lee sees.
"Holy Momma." So does Ted.
An immense surge cannons toward Sis's fleeing quarry. In the blur of its billowing wake a giant serpent torpedoes the tiring fish. A quick thrashing is followed by the surfacing of a long and powerful neck where the once huge fish dangles like a minnow in the mouth of an eel. The serpent turns back into the channel, never slowing.
Sis's rod explodes when the line runs out.
"Told you never tie line to da end of a reel." Pop condemns. Them rods ain't cheap."
Sis sits down to calm her shaking. She has nothing to say.
While Pop has a quick temper when things break, his insight is sharp and it usually overturns his anger in time to make up for whatever nasty things he says. He repairs by sitting next to his daughter, telling her she put up a great fight. Then he remarks about how hard the platform cement had set, how she was right to insist they quarry new lime from a sinkhole by the ocean instead of trying to crush up the nearby reef bed with the pulsmasher.
Ted and the others begin to unload the Starbirds. Lee and Ted chatter about the fish and the serpent. Aldo's head is pounding but it doesn't stop his senses from expanding over the sights and smells of this new world.
Pop and Sis picked this spot for the platform because it was already underlayed with a flat rock shelf. The cabin had to go where the fishing and hunting was best. There they chose a rocky island off a point where the lake widened. A long stretch of water between, but Sis already knew the shortcuts, where to skirt past the the reefs and hidden rocks. She did a bit more exploring earlier on her way to pick up Pop's crew. She was glad for the company but would miss having the whole planet to herself.
Pop urged they get going. Night was coming.
Aldo marvels at the way Pop and Ted quickly organize the chaotic mess of gear loading each boat in accordance to balance. Pop reads the pleasure Aldo takes in seeing this. He actually addresses the Fifthian one-to-one. "Aldoni." The corruption of Aldo's name means Pop was about as close to personal as he can get with an alien. He hands a techno device to Aldo. "Know what ta do with this?"
Flattered and grateful to have been offered a task he understands, Aldo takes the remote, flicks on the field charger, locks the Starbirds and sets the alarm. "How high you want the hardness set?" He confidently programs the field scan and avoids looking at Pop for approval.
"Best give her nine clicks. Don't want some monster toenail scratching da piss out of da Birds' mirrocoat. Body work being what it is..."
Aldo sets the high-force frequency. The feedback tones down quickly in response to his near perfect field setting. Techno ability is partly why he has the big bucks controller gig.
Pop hands a floatation vest to Lee who chooses to ride with him in Sis's boat.
Ted screws in the motor and connects one of the noxious fuel cans Sis had brought. He rotates a crank on top of the artifact until it springs back causing electricity to react with the fossil distillation which had been pumped into the machine. It quits. And Ted repeats several more times until the motor pops and spits to life. One crank and Sis's kicks in. The air is fouled by the smell but the smoking quits once the boats speed out into the channel.
During the space ride Pop discovered how the Fifthian's runt offered a kind of freshness that was likely to charge him up. Didn't mind the constant questions at all. Fact was, he was going to play a bit with him. Bring his character to life. After so many worlds, so many camps it was a fine thing having this unexpected new-life. "Gonna call that fish-stealing beast 'Bess' after your ma." He shouts over the motor at Sis while grinning at the boy. "Always amazes me how something so huge moves so fast when food's in front."
Warm wind in his face, Aldo quickly gets past his fear of Ted's boat. He deeply inhales relaxing his mind. The musical drone of the motor transcends his thoughts into pictures, images reflecting the beauty of the waterway, its rich lily pads and tubular rushes winnowing in the wake of the boats. Primordial air flavors his senses. Its briny richness salts the scent from resinous trees. These trees, their massive trunks hoisted from the shallows by a jumble of legs, course an indiscernible edge along the flats of the lake. The lowlands are interrupted by dark rocky headlands that the eye can trace back and connect to a tall ridge of hills. Aldo recognizes the flowing patterns of molten rock, the familiar mafic sills and fine-grained texture that reveals details of a volcanic process common to so many worlds. In familiarity he finds security. Trees, lilies, water, living creatures: his mind startles.
He turns abruptly and faces Ted at the motor.
"The feathered flying creatures." Aldo shouts.
Ted slows the motor to hear better. "What?"
Aldo flaps his arms.
Ted nods. "Birds. I know."
"There are none." Aldo is beset with a childlike puzzlement. "No warbling, no chirps, no calls. Missing, like at the station."
"Pop caught a look at a big-headed flyin lizard, said he missed seein any birds." Ted revs back up to speed.
Aldo turns to hide his disappointment.
Feathered flyers had not evolved on the Fifthian planet. They were the first living creatures brought to the planet during their primary space exploration where they quickly became living treasures. Hundreds of thousands of species were introduced. Many were detrimental. The joy of these colorful winged songsters inspired the Fifthians to overcome the bad by creating adaptation models, environmental and genetic controls. Yet as they learned more and more about these creatures, questions surfaced. Why were they abundant on one planet and not on the next even where life zone profiles were practically identical. More perplexing were the origin theories. Missing links. On Fifthian, everyone at one time or another discussed the mystery of the feathered flyers.
For Aldo their absence is an empty footnote amplified by the silence in the trees.
Gradually a main channel develops where tea stained water seethes along the edge of rushes. Sandbars lift alongside eddies heaping huge shell beds wherever smooth headlands slowed the steady flow. Water creatures dart in and out of shadows at the edge of wide pools. Ahead several pieces of shelf rock have broken loose off the tip of a long point. On these flat stools bask shell backed terrapins half as big as the boats. Ted slows and angles his boat over for a better look. One by one they lift their noses and splash in the water sensing the approach. Beyond the point the channel widens.
A huge buzzing shadow bursts out from the sun baked leeward bank. In a blink it hovers face to face with Aldo who cries out loud, "Waaah!" A primal Fifthian scream, Ted figures. Two massive eyes with hundreds of iridescent jeweled lenses stare plaintively while invisible wings roar same as the sound of the motor but louder. Long as Aldo's arm, the insect buzzes off the instant the boat passes the point into the cool wind of the open water.
"There's a flyer for ya, Aldo." Ted's poke breaks a smile from a shaken Fifthian.
The cool air mixes with adrenaline killing off the last tinges of Aldo's hangover.
The channel spreads where towering basalt columns overhang the water, each spire cut and shaped as if chiseled by some intelligent, artistic hand. Waves thump the hull. Slowly the cliffs descend to another point. Beyond, in the waning sunlight, the air glows from what promises to be a bigger expanse of water ahead.
In some earlier period, the planet's rifting landforms quaked. Great batholiths toppled off the end of a cliff forming a jagged island which through a quickening of geologic processes began a filling time. First was dust blown in from a distant dryland plain. Rain and seeds followed on the heels of the same wind. Then decay, warmth, growth and more decay offered an opportunity for trees to root and form the canopy of a gently inviting place.
Pop's cabin sprouts snug in the shadows of a grove of tall needled evergreens. It is impossible to imagine this place ever sat anywhere else. The dock is cornered off the edge of a sheltering rock jetty. Like the cabin it is wooden - built by hand - displaying its roughness as an artistic interface between the natural world and the world of people.
Aldo fastens on the sight of his boy running up the trail underneath an umbrella of ferns. Every living thing he encounters dwarfs a person's perspective. The planet has been scaled to giants.
"Water's cold as hell." Pop tests it by dipping his hand. That and da flow'll keep away da crud and them people eating snouts." He tastes it. "Salty enough for crabs."
"Can't drink it?" Aldo asks Ted.
"Pop's got a drip basin stuck under da ice house." He anticipates Aldo's next question. "Buzzed a big chunk of polar ice when he was here before. Keeps it over in da shed." Ted continues the verbal tour while they unload the boats. "Fuel barrel's behind da spare boat over there. Two extra motors and spare parts are in that shed off da cabin. Got a workbench in it. Extra lifevests, paddles, boat stuff, fishin poles."
Lee runs back to pick up a load of gear after Pop yells: get to it.
"Dad." Lee pants. "Guess what? Toilet's out back. Just a circle in a board over a big stink hole."
Aldo thinks better than spurring some sort of retentiveness in his child. Overcomes his own personal gross-out by reassuring Lee. "Part of roughing it." He hefts a heavy cooler onto the dock to affirm his disconcern. Then he thought about the smell.
Sis moves the gear into the cabin after the boy lays it on the front deck. Last of the big heavy stuff comes up with Aldo, Ted and Pop. The wind dies as the primary star edges the horizon. It is a long setting, a sign their location is high in the planet's latitude. Before the trip, Aldo had envisioned a steamy, tropical place but now he is charged by the invigorating coolness. He wishes the planet's datatlas had been more complete. Like so many works of this kind it had focused on the sensational, skimming the details. This place, the island, the lake and the surrounding hills is seasonal. Large brown pointed leaves are packed over spongy ground. Smooth bark trees above them have recently budded with slighter leaves of the same design. Is this a vernal season? So many needled evergreens tower over the island and over the hills, trunks so huge you could live inside. The largest he'd seen, close to the cabin, wore a broken scar from an atmospheric discharge. Pop sees Aldo gaping upward. "Big motha, eh Aldoni? Good place for da cabin. Cloudspark never strikes twice on the same spot." Pop's jest is indicated by a slight grin in his eyes. The deep blue sky, the intricate tress of the rocky headland mirrored in glassy water, no sound of warblers above only the echo of Sis's wood chopping ricocheting from cliff to cliff, the coolness, the spice of a brown tree needle carpet, golden tones of waning light shafting through the dense canopy: this is a spot.
Pop breaks a genuine smile, offers to buy Aldo a drink.
They swing over to the ice shed. Pop creaks open the foam-packed door. Cold rushes out. He picks up a small ax that laid beside the aquamarine slab. He hands the primitive tool to Aldo, stepping back. "'Say there's a trick ta chopping ice without covering yourself with a spray of chips. Hell if I ever figured it out."
Ted shoots through the screened outer door as Pop and Aldo step up on the deck.
Lee follows. Each time the door pops open a singing metal spring snaps the door shut with a loud, sharp crack. Lee runs back out wearing a swimsuit. Ted, with his fringed animal skin breechcloth, leads the race to the end of the dock where he splashes in. Lee hesitates shy of the cold shock. "Come on ya little chicken shit," he taunts after surfacing. Lee jumps in screaming.
The deck runs the length of the cabin. Windows spread across the front above the deck, door in the center. Frames are split log. Siding is simple uncolored clapboard. All of the construction bears deliberate simplicity in respect to the practical nature of the Arrowsmiths. Simple material and design offered advantages like durability. It encouraged upkeep since the crafting of replacement pieces, mostly wood, was easier. The stresses of interplanetary moving and decontamination vats left their scars. Yet the old place held up. The deep, silvery sheen was subtle testament to its ability to weather with dignity.
Inside the wood shone gold from coat after coat of organic varnishing. Past the entry room through the kitchen you move into a large room with beds stacked along the back wall. Lee's clothes were scattered over the top bunks after foraging for his swimsuit. Aldo's bag was left on one of the lower bunks. A side doorway leads into a bedroom. There are a few small windows, a table, chairs, shelving filled with things that could have been artifacts in some museum. Above, rounded beams hold hanging things, some with sharp hooks sparkling in the warm darkness.
Heat. Aldo feels the radiance emitting from a blackened metal drum across the big room. Orange light pulses through slats at its base. Popping, cracking from inside connects to the sound of Sis's ax outside. This is where the wood is burned.
Pop chips at the small ice block in the kitchen. The late daylight, still bright, glows through the clear silica sheeting of the front windows. No syn process in the universe produces better clarity than sand. Perhaps, as Aldo stretches his spine next to the warmth of the barrel stove, there is no better heat than wood. Pop's kitchen is methodical chaos to a stranger. Cooking pots, spice containers, demijohns of oils and sauces, cutting tools, ladles, spatulas, storage flasks, cans, bottles, bowls, are assembled over time, everything within proper reach not to be touched by anyone but Pop. Anything else, like the huge stove, is uncluttered and spotless.
Pop and Aldo took sit out on the deck. Sis brings up her load of split wood, grabs a bruski and sits with them.
Ted and the purple-lipped boy shoot back into the cabin heading for heat.
"Guess I'll grab my pole and see if their splashing woke up some big hungry fish." Sis couldn't sit still very long. It was her nature to blend into activity since most everything she liked to do she could do at the cabin.
Because of her academic proclivity and Pop's connections back home, Sis had landed a government research job which allowed a lot of flex time, time she spent at the cabin. A young adult female, she was often perceived as an idiosyncratic shadow of Pop. This was an incorrect assumption, mostly divvied up by a pile of suitors who had little luck turning her on. She truly had Pop's eyes, his renowned shooting ability and lust for cabin life. She had no interest in leading people and this is where her character diffused from Pop. Something troubled her from deep inside. In the vigorous Arrowsmith world, Sis should have been a natural queen. She possessed a most ancient gift, a gift given to only a few Arrowsmith women throughout their history, a gift which no longer had a place in this modern time. Sis was borne to be a Handler. She could converse with animal mothers.
Only Pop knew her secret.
At this moment his attention swerves to something he had wanted to try since his original trek to the planet. He calls Ted and Lee over to shed beside the cabin where he hands a wire box to Ted and the bag of stink bait to Lee. Walking down to the dock he explains his hunch to the boy. Behind the island a rocky causeway runs toward a high point. He'd seen shell parts wash up on shore here, big parts which previously held unbelievably succulent tidbits. Pop uses a non-meat word trying not to offend his young Fifthian helper. They are going to set a crab trap for whatever creature the shells came from. As they paddle him over to the backside of the island, he empties the contents of the wire box: rope, an empty poly jug, and a mesh bag. Just off the rocks, he tells Lee and Ted to lay down their paddles. He hands the mesh bag to Lee, tells him to hold his breath and dump in the stink bait. The boy wiffs the contents anyway and groans. He tells Ted to hook the mesh bag inside the box, showing Lee how the entry allowed the crab to get in but not out. The rope is tied to the box and the jug which is floated to mark the spot.
Pop makes up a rhyme on the spot which he had them repeat for good luck as the trap is dropped into the shallow water. They chant it over and over again on the paddle back. "Crabs, crabs, tasty treat. The more you eat, the more you sheet..."
Back on the deck Aldo is enjoying his second buzz of the day.
Sis is fidgeting with a matrix antenna on the roof of the cabin. The honeycombed metal is an eyesore to Aldo who by this time has adjusted to the natural ambiance. As soon as Sis climbs down he asked what was up.
"Wave net." The tinkerer responds. "Be stupid ta be all alone in a strange place without keeping an eye open at night."
Aldo remembered the picture of the big toothed creature and allows the techno compromise.
Pop returns and immediately starts cooking. Sis and Ted pick unseen tasks. So Aldo sits and talks with his son. The local star has already set. Fortunately, the twilight is endless. Because Aldo, his mind in low buzz has a lot to say and does not want darkness to spoil their togetherness.
In the darkening a concert of peepers and toads begins. If not warblers, at least there are amphibians.
Aldo lays awake in his bunk before dawn gun-shy of his need to take a dump over the shit hole. Lee had no trouble doing it the night before. What bothers the Fifthian now is how he wants to be done before anyone else gets up and detects his rumblings.
He thinks about how stupid all this thinking is, how he freaks himself out of enjoying just about everything. In this sudden breakthrough, Aldo shoots up out of the bunk no longer inert. From the board he imagines each dropping as a layer of personal crap. Hearing footsteps boom across the floor boards of the cabin he hastens his conclusion.
"Whoa! Someone sure laid a ripe one."
Pop was usually the first one up.
Mortified, Aldo creeps under the ferns to the dock. Soaked by dew, he shivers in the pre-dawn chill. Mist drifts slowly across the dead still water. Tops of the surrounding cliffs lighten with the sky.
The laughing call echoes from out in the open lake. Shrill but tonal the call repeats. It takes a moment for Aldo to realize its avian quality. But he is unsure as it sounds like nothing he has ever heard before.
He notices Sis's fishing pole set up off the end of the dock. It's jerking. Aldo's impulse to pick up the pole is nixed by his fear of screwing up. It 's pretty tempting since no one is around to watch. He touches it. Then the fish splashes out in the dark water.
Aldo calls for help.
Pop appears, glances at the pole to gauge the size of the fish then tells Aldo to go ahead and take it.
"Jerk hard. Make sure he's hooked deep."
Aldo slams the pole the instant he feels wiggling at the end of the line. The sensation vetoes Aldo's innate dread of harming this living creature. The Fifthian never knew he had it in him.
He pumps it in following Pop's ordinance. Fish is no giant but it fights hard. "I'll be damned." Pop muses over the dripping contents of the net. "Some kinda mean looking char."
Without a glance Pop intuitively acknowledges her.
"Aldoni nailed a keeper on your set line. What kind of bait you use?"
"Cut up shiner."
"Them stinky ones?"
"Bunch. Seined them out of da bay back there."
Pop turns to the fish catcher who doesn't understand a word of their conversation.
"This guy puts a whole different light on things, Aldoni." He picks up the fish out of the net. "Fun ta catch. Damn good eatin."
"Shore lunch." Sis adds while she casts out another line.
They had pancakes for breakfast. Aldo and Lee passed on the fried spice meats. To avoid a hassle from Pop, Aldo promised to try some of the fish at lunch.
Loading the boats, they hear a croaky call from high up. A pair of big-headed flyers lung downward from the tallest hill. Skirting the tallest trees they gain incredible speed. Their wings are not light of feather but of tenuous almost transparent skin. Mandibles were more birdlike but not much else could be picked out as they glide past. They circle wafting upward in a warming air column. Low guttural calls are uttered between them as if they are commenting about the people in the boats below.
Sis rams through her gear bag and pulls out a zoom scope.
His lens filled by the departing pair, Aldo, the Fifthian birdwatcher, already has his scope out. This entitles him to make an identification.
Which he could not do. They called like rooks. But no proper name existed for creatures like these. Best he could tell was, after disappearing over the distant horizon, they were probably migrating.
Boats split up to fish opposite sides of the lake. Pop fixed on a distant point where they'd rejoin for shore lunch. He took Lee and sped off in Sis's boat.
At last free to his own unique way of doing things, Ted expands into his essential self. More than Pop, or Sis even, Ted loves to fish. His passion for it created his need to develop a talent for tinkering. From the most remote interwork of an antique motor to the jeweled bearings of his reel, every part, every bit of mechanics was to Ted synchronously part of fishing. "Rapture Science," was what Sis called Ted's love of this.
He assembled his gear, explaining its origin and design to Aldo in a surprisingly dignified tone.
Flexlite rod fibers from one world, spidersilk line developed for micro surgery from another, sonorscope circuitry salvaged from a baleen-class submarine, iridium alloy spoons, forged by hand, moleccoated with a rare magno-reflective chromic silica: all of this compelled a surprised Fifthian to awe over the deep attentiveness of this Arrowsmith Observer. System controller attitudes shattered. Ted's ever steady movement would never again be confused with slowness. He was as deliberative and intense as any person or any Fifthian Aldo had ever known. For the first time ever, Aldo hoped to become this guy's true friend.
On choppy blue water the ground between them firmed up. In accordance to Ted's favorite ways to catch fish, they troll and jig up rough fish and char until their arms ache.
Showed up late for lunch, grinning at each other when Pop bitches them out.
Ted fillets the catch while Aldo tears over the bald granite outcrop looking for bits of dry wood for Pop's cookfire. Pop mixes a little bruski into some pancake batter he saved from breakfast. Sis slices a pungent bulb into rings and lays them out next to a loaf of risen bread. Lee gabs about catching the biggest fish while throwing wood on the fire. Aldo drops off an armload of sticks and reaches into Pop's cooler for a cold one.
Pop lays a huge fry pan right on a heaped bed of coals. Tells Lee to brace it by keeping a steady hold on the handle. He empties the jug of oil into the pan, breaks off a match head and tosses it in. Once it flares, the oil is ready for the fish.
Aldo fears the whole works will burst into flames but Ted explains how the chemical in the match head ignites at a cooler temperature. Oil will drown it out before it flares.
For once Aldo doesn't think twice about doing something new. With his basal senses, hunger, smell, taste, the crunch of the herb and golden fillet, he absorbs more than food. His body annexes the energy and renews. In the wash of his bruski burst the essence of the fish, its living world passes on from one to another.
Aldo is aware of the concept of ingesting life for life, a belief he once dismissed as archaic nonsense. Hard to admit, Aldo is now a witness to the experience.
He quietly steals off over the rocky headland, down a creature-path, through scrub tree and into a clearing where he squats for the second time that day. Across the clearing , Aldo watches a small, hairy, ungainly cross-eyed creature gnaw on a huge dry turd. Essence to essence, life to life: there is truth.
No sense trying to escape it.
"My name is Dave Krikorian. I've written very little fiction since my days at the Uiversity of Illinois circa 1970's. I have written for marketing, advertising, sold articles to various magazines, a couple to Field & Stream. The story 'Pop's Cabin' is my first attempt a a more lengthy sci-fi piece. I'll be 44 in April. I live along the North Shore of Lake Superior just north of Duluth, Minnesota. I'm partners in a company specializing in Web commerce development. We have some cool aps and some virtual 3D on our Team Duluth Site - www.teamduluth.com and we have a rather huge superstore called ECMD Early Childhood Manufacturers' Direct - www.ecez.com. I mostly program HTML, some Java and Micromedia in creating the graphics and copy - the Web is the best place on earth to enable some crazy guy like me to combine a broad range of skills.
The best way to contact me is at my e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org"
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