The Place of Bathing and Mating

The air smells different. I knew from the preliminary analysis that the planet’s atmosphere had sufficient oxygen and no significant concentrations of toxins. I haven’t passed out yet so I assume I’ll be okay. I hear water flowing. It is night time on this part of the planet. How I know this is the same planet that we are surveying, I don’t know. Still, I am sure of it in my heart.

My eyes are adapting to the low light. I can see a pool of water in front of me. It is ten meters across and perfectly round. There is a low wall about half a meter thick around the pool. On the other side of the pool is an arch with a pole across it at chest height. Sitting on the pole is some sort of bird about four feet tall. Its head is under its wing. Standing on the ground in front of the first bird is a second bird. Its head is under its wing.

As I look around the pool I realize that there are perches at the four cardinal directions and the space between each pair of cardinal directions. I closed my eyes and listen.

“Breath deep, young fledgeling. I wish you no harm.” the voice seems to come from inside of my head. I can’t hear any physical voice and yet I am sure the voice isn’t just me talking to myself

“Who are you?” I say. “What do you want from me?”

“We seek forgiveness.” the voice answered. I hear movement behind me. I turn to see a third bird. This one is half a meter taller than the other two and has a meter long plume of feathers coming out of her head. The bird nods at me. “It is I whose thoughts you drink. Smell the color of them that you may know their truth.”

“Can you hear my thoughts?” I ask. The third bird stands swaying back and forth. A few seconds later, it answers.

“When you are intending for me to hear you I can. When you are keeping your thoughts private, I can’t hear them.” the bird explained. “I am called mother of the forest but now my brood has left the nest and I pass my days as council to this venerable one here.”

“What prompts you to ask for forgiveness?” I ask.

“One of our young warriors shot the hole in your ship. He was in an altered state of consciousness preparing for his initiation into adulthood. Do not judge him harshly. He was only doing what every fledgeling is taught to do, protect the nest.”

“Will he do it again? I asked.

“No. He has been restrained for the time being. You must be quiet now. The venerable one is contemplated the way into the future.” she admonished.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

For My Next Trick

Ellen is a fantastic cook, like five star Michelin gourmet good. She made us a feast composed of the most mundane ingredients. It turns out she was a chemist and enjoyed synthesizing spices that weren’t available in the ship’s stores per se.

While Ellen was working her magic on the stove, Janice and I decided we needed a break from reading fine print on a tablet. So, Janice got out her flute and played us a musical appetizer while I set the table.

When dinner was ready, Janice surprised both of us with a bottle of wine that she had been saving. We ate and drank and talked like we were in an apartment back on Earth. It was relaxing. It helped prepare us for the work we had ahead.

As I finished cleaning up after dinner, the intercom chimed. Janice activated it and said, “Yes? What can I do for you?”

It was the captain and he said, “May I come in?” Janice opened the hatch and the captain entered. She closed and sealed the hatch when he was inside. “I just wanted to check to make sure that you were both alright.”

“We are more than alright, Ellen made us a wonderful dinner, Janice serenaded us with her flute. It’s been a very enjoyable evening.” I said.

“I’m glad to hear it. The XO says he’s sure that whatever punctured Cartography came from the planet below. We’re not sure how it reached escape velocity, much less the velocity at which it hit the ship.” the captain said. Janice started to say something but before she could get a word out, she just disappeared. We all stood there staring at where she had been standing just a second before. We were so shocked that no one said anything for a moment. Finally the captain said, “Where did she go?”

I shook my head baffled. “I don’t know. She was here and then she wasn’t.”

The captain pressed the broadcast button on the intercom. “Janice Fletcher, report to your quarters. If anyone sees Janice, report it to me. That is all.” He turned to Ellen and me and said, “Stay here. I’m going back to the bridge. Report at once if you find her.”

“Aye, sir. We will.” I said. He left for the bridge and I turned to Ellen. “Do you have any ideas where she went? What did you see?”

“The same thing you saw, she was there and then she was gone. Something tells me Janice may be making first contact.”

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Perch of the Old One

“Have you heard the color of their life scent?” The old one sang on the branch above the place of bathing and mating. His head bobbed up and down to the rhythm of his song and no one dared answer him. No one except mother of the forest that is. Her voice was scratching as she croaked out the following observation.

“I know not what they seek here. I look into their hearts and see only cacophony. They are blind to their own scent. But they have disturbed the young prince in his search for his adult plumage. He has lashed out as if they had sought to block his quest. This must be made right.” Her tone was shrill but her pitch was perfect.

“They are unfledged. They have neither our wisdom nor our technology. How do we make it right when they don’t know they were wronged?” The old one sang his response. The second talon unfurled his wings. The old one turned his head to stare at his lieutenant. “Sing the color of your heart, old friend.”

“Perhaps we could bring one of them here. The mother of their nest could hear the color of the prince’s quest and sing the rightness of it.” The old warrior sang to his mentor.

“I must listen to the harmony of your advice dear one. Be patient with me.” With that he stopped singing and tucked his head under his wing. The second talon walked three times around the pool below and stopped beneath the old one. He tucked his head under his wing and waited.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Dinner Plans Develop

“Have a seat.” Janice said. She pointed toward the table in the corner of the room. There were three canvas backed chairs attached to it. I sat down.

“You furnished your own room?” I asked.

“Let’s just say I got my pick of what furniture there was. I’m going to tell you a little secret. But you can’t tell anyone. I’d never hear the end of it. I’m trusting you.”

“Sure. You can trust me with anything.” I said. I was a little bit nervous.

“Okay. The captain is not just the captain.” She laughed at my puzzled expression. “He’s also my uncle Jack.”

“But his last name is Armstrong. Your last name is…”

“Fletcher. Right. But he’s my mother’s brother. You can’t tell anyone. I want to succeed on my own merits.”

“But you’ll take dibs on the best furniture?” I laughed. “Your secret is safe with me.” Janice visibly relaxed.

“Ellen should be here in a few minutes. Maybe she’ll know more what’s going on.”

“Does she know?”

“That I’m related to the captain. Not exactly. I think she suspects though. I’ve been going to tell her but the opportunity never arises.”

The ship’s intercom came on. “This is the captain speaking. Everyone needs to put on their survival suits. We have reason to believe there may be more incidents like we had in Cartography earlier today. Everyone should wear their suits and keep all hatches closed when not in use.”

“That’s weird. I wonder what’s up.” I mused. The intercom chimed. Janice answered it.

“Did you make it back to your quarters okay?” the captain asked.

“Yes. Dave and I just got in. I expect Ellen any time now.” Janice said.

“She just left the bridge. I had the bridge personnel suit up before they were relieved. We think that maybe the meteorite or whatever it was may have come from the planet. If that’s the case, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone might be taking a shot at us.”

“Do you need me on the bridge, sir.” I asked.

“No, you both stay there. I think it’s good that no one be totally alone right now. By the same token, we shouldn’t cluster up too densely either. I’ll make another announcement when we figure anything else out for sure. You kids be careful.”

“Yes, sir.” Janice said. The hatch opened and Ellen came in. She was carrying a duffle bag.

“I grabbed a few things from ship’s stores on my way here.” Ellen said. She started taking ingredients out of the duffle bag. She had the makings of a delicious meal stashed in it.

“Do you need help cooking?” I asked.

“No, I’ve got things under control. You can help set the table and clean up after we eat.” Ellen said.

Janice and I logged on to the ship’s computer and tried to find out what data had been collected on the meteorite.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Adventures in Cartography

The hatch to cartography was shut. I reached down to spin the wheel to open it and it didn’t move. I pressed the intercom button next to the hatch. There was a somewhat muffled clanging noise. “Arie! Charlie! What’s wrong with the door?” I felt stupid after I said it. It was obvious that they were venting atmosphere. I hope they were able to get into the survival suits in time.

Janice was calling the bridge. The captain was trying to calm her down. She was talking so fast I couldn’t follow what she was trying to say and I knew more or less what that was. “Slow down,” I whispered at her. She took a deep breath and started again.

“Captain. This is Janice Fletcher. I’m in the companionway outside of cartography with David Mathews. The Hatch is sealed. We can hear the decompression alarm through the intercom. It is muffled. We need assistance.” Janice finally slowed down enough that she was understood.

“Very good, Janice. We’re sending help now. Both of you find a survival suit and get into it now. Be careful,” the captain said. I found the survival kit half way down the companionway. I drug two suits out and put one on. Janice pulled one on as well. We both decided to wait to pressurize them until it was necessary. They pressurized almost instantly.

I turned on the radio in the helmet. The channel was busy. Apparently a micrometeorite traveling at .8c had gone through cartography entering from the bottom of the module and exiting through the top. Up and down were relative. By convention we normally engaged the artificial gravity on the side closest the object we were orbiting. When we were in space, the aft of the ship was down. Everything was easily adaptable to which way was down at any given time.

It was strange that the meteorite had come from the planet side. It must have just grazed the planet before it struck the ship. It was also more than a little strange that it was travelling at such a high velocity.

The XO and the maintenance chief were climbing up the ladder at the end of the companionway. The XO stopped to fill us in on the plan. He and the chief were wearing EV suits. “You two go down the ladder we just came up and seal the hatch behind you. Pressurize your suits just in case. We’re going to equalize the pressure so we can open the hatch to cartography.”

We both nodded and pressed the button to pressurize our suits. We scrambled down the ladder, Janice first. I closed the hatch and sealed it. “We’re secure sir,” I told the XO over the radio.

“Acknowledged. We’re equalizing pressure now.” We could hear the pumps kick in. It seemed like forever but I had glanced at the suit chronometer and it had only been three minutes. The XO came back over the radio.

“Bridge, this is the XO. Tell doc to get ready to treat two mild cases of hypothermia. Arie and Charlie both got in their suits in plenty of time. It got pretty cold in there before we got to them. Chief says it will take several hours to patch the holes. If that’s what a meteorite the size of a grain of sand will do, we’re lucky it wasn’t any bigger.”

“This is the captain. Acknowledged. Did you get that doc?” the captain asked.

“Acknowledged. We’ll have the thermal stabilization blankets ready for them. Bring them on.” Doc answered.

We heard the pumps re-pressurizing the companionionway above us. After just a few minutes the pumps cut off and the hatch opened. Janice and I helped Arie and Charlie down the ladder. The XO said, “I’m going to go help the chief patch those holes.”

“We’ll take them to sick bay.” Janice said. Both of the patients were shaking. Their teeth were chattering. They could barely put one foot after the other. We helped them to sick bay and into the waiting blankets.

Randy, the nurse, said, “You both did a good job. We’ve got them taken care of now.”

“Thanks, Randy.” I said. Janice and I started back toward cartography but ended up back in the galley. “How about some hot tea?” I asked.

“That sounds good. Didn’t you think it was odd that the meteorite came from planetside?” Janice asked.

“It did seem odd to me. And even odder was the speed it was traveling. What natural object of that size travels at .8c?” We sipped our tea in silence. It was a comfortable silence. I could feel the adrenalin wearing off and I was beginning to feel drained. We checked back with sick bay but Doc said the patients had warmed up and been sent to their quarters to get some sleep. He suggested we do the same.

We got to Janice’s quarters first. “Why don’t you come in a minute?” she suggested.

“Um, well I … I mean, okay.” It wasn’t that I hadn’t dated or had girl friends before. I just had pushed thoughts of such things out of my mind. I had come on this mission to do a job, not take a vacation cruise. But then Janice was a scientist. And a woman. She was definitely a woman. There was no denying that. And I was a heterosexual man. But we were both professionals. Hell, I didn’t know what to do in this situation. I didn’t have any experience to compare this with. I went inside. She closed the hatch.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Dave and Janice Do Lunch

It had been ten days since we started investigating the planet below. There were twelve of us running three eight hour shifts. The captain had approved my temporary reassignment to Cartography. I was getting good at finding anomalies but no one had caught any IEs in any of the pictures that we had been taking. It was getting a little spooky. Arie had posted a bounty to go to the first person that correctly identified an IE on the planet. The captain matched it “just to make things more interesting.”

Most of us were concentrating on finding and marking anomalies but Arie and Charlie, his senior tech, had taken a different approach. For the last two days they had been looking for patterns in the placements of the anomalies relative to each other and other natural features, like oceans and rivers and mountains. No one had come up with anything yet but we were all still excited.

I had been scanning images for four hours as fast as I could without risking overlooking something. Janice, one of the other junior cartographers came over to where I was working. “Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Yes, now that you mention it I am,” I said. She smiled coyly and crooked her finger at me. I hit pause on the scanning program and followed her out the door. We raced to the galley like kids. When we got there, we discovered that we had the place to ourselves.

“What would you like?” I asked.

“How about a veggie fajita salad with guacamole and chips,” she said. I punched in her order and ordered a burrito and queso and chips for myself to keep in the spirit of things. While we waited for the autochef to prepare our meal I fixed two large lime waters.

“You do like lime water,” I asked. She nodded yes. As I set the drinks on the table the autochef chimed. I got our food and joined Janice at the table. “What else do you do around here when you’re not looking for IEs in cartography?” I asked.

“I am an anthropologist and a geologist. But mostly, I help the quartermaster keep tabs on our inventory. What are your other occupations?”

“Well, I’m a pilot/navigator so I normally pull a watch on the bridge twice a day. I’m also a physicist and an apprentice engineer so I get to help keep the ship’s engines in top running order.” She looked at me with an incredulous smile. “Actually, I do odd jobs for the chief engineer and sometimes he lets me watch while he keeps the ship’s engines in top running order.” I admitted.

“That’s more like what I heard from my friend Ellen. She is the clerk.” Janice said.

“I know Ellen. She proofs my reports sometimes. I am a terrible speller and she said she didn’t mind. The captain likes his reports flawless. He maintains it reflects on the integrity of the ship and its crew.”

“Is this your first survey mission,” Janice asked.

“Yes. I just graduated from Feynman University. I had a scholarship from the Star Service. I spent my summers learning to fly starships. How about you?”

“This is my second mission. I’m on the last interval of a geology internship. I will finish my dissertation when we get back and then I’ll be Dr. Janice Fletcher. Then I want to apply for a post as science officer on a survey ship.”

“Good for you! It takes longer to work your way up the command career path. I’ll probably be a pilot for a least ten years before I get a chance to move up.” We finished our lunch and placed our dishes in the washer. Then we headed back to cartography to get back to work.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Intelligent Patterns Emerge

There was a buzz of excitement in Cartography as I entered. It took a few minutes for it to sink in. They were talking about cities on the surface. They weren’t like any cities on earth. These cities were so integrated into the natural environment that they weren’t immediately obvious from orbit.

The cartographers were debating the features on a projection of a picture they had taken through one of the high powered telescopes. “See how these ridges are perfect sine waves and are perfectly parallel to each other for fifty miles. That has to be an artificial construction.” Arie, the senior cartographer pointed out.

“Why haven’t we seen any signs of the builders?” Susan, one of his crew asked.

“Perhaps we have. We are biased to look for bipedal mammals a meter and a half tall. Perhaps these artifacts are constructed by a different type of intelligence. We need to get as many eyes on these pictures as possible. We need to figure out what is behind these constructs. This may be a first contact situation.” We all knew the potential consequences, both good and bad, that might come of contact with an alien civilization.

Mankind had found four civilizations at a similar level of development as itself. Two of them had strict taboos against contact with alien races. One welcomed us with open arms. The fourth, well we were still working to disengage from one of the deadliest wars that mankind had ever known.

The Eleni were a fierce species. They were anywhere from 1.2 meters to 2 meters tall. They were the only other intelligent bipedal species that we had encountered so far. They had small feathers where humans had hair. They had two eyes with diamond shape irises, two holes where our nose was, a mouth that was bigger than ours full of sharp teeth, and membranes on either side of their bald head that served for ears. They had arms that had developed from vestigial wings.

Their race had always been flightless but they probably evolved from some kind of flying mammal. They gave birth to live offspring which were raised by an extended family unit. They breast fed their young. And they were fiercely territorial and didn’t believe in taking any prisoners. They had transdimensional drives similar to ours but not nearly as efficient. Their ships had a maximum range of about a quarter of what our least capable starships.

This was the context behind the discussion. If there were intelligent beings with any kind of advanced technology, we had to be very careful not to do anything to agitate them. If the didn’t have advanced technology we owed it to them to allow them to develop naturally without any interference from mankind. There was an old twentieth century TV show, Star Trek, that introduced the concept of the prime directive. Star Service HQ had adopted it as a standing policy after our first encounter with the Arnus, one of the races that shunned alien contact.

While I had been wool gathering, someone had called the captain. He came in followed by the ships doctor and the XO. “What kind of brilliant discovery have you made, Arie?” he asked. Arie pointed out the parallel sine wave ridges in the projected picture.

“We have seen other suspiciously artificial features in earlier pictures that we have taken over the last seventy two hours but this one is the most convincing. What do you think?” Arie asked the captain.

“I think we need to get you at least four more pairs of eyes for the next couple of weeks. See to updating the schedule, Eric,” the captain said. Eric was the XO. “And maybe we can get the doc and his staff to give you a hand if you get some pictures of potential IEs.” IE was what the Service called Intelligent Entities.

“Can we launch a small constellation of orbital sensors to speed up the scans?” Arie asked.

“I think that makes sense. Keep it down to less than half a dozen. Nothing bigger than a cubic meter. We don’t want to spook the natives.” the captain replied.

“Aye, captain. I’ll get you a detailed preliminary report by 1800 hours,” Arie said.

“That will be great. I look forward to it. We’ll get out of your hair now.” The captain and the other officers shook hands with the cartographers and the captain and the XO left.

The doc asked Arie, “Would you like some help from the biological perspective? Barb is an experienced xenobiologist. She would be happy to give you a hand.”

Arie said, “Thanks. I can use all the help I can muster.”

“I’ll be glad to help when I’m not on watch,” I volunteered.

Arie smiled. “That will be great Dave. I’ve noticed you here the past couple of days. You know your way around the scopes and have a good eye for detail.”

“Thanks,” I said. I sat down at one of the smaller scopes in the corner of the lab. It was going to be an interesting couple of hours.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Join the Star Service and See the Galaxy

I sat on the bridge of the small survey ship orbiting above the large blue planet. It looked a lot like another planet I knew light years away from this one. The continents were a little smaller and there were more of them. The oceans were a good bit larger and deeper at that. The biological survey team had already discovered two species that would dwarf anything alive on Earth today. One was a large mammal that swam in the oceans. The other looked something like an over-sized camel, twice as tall as an Indian elephant and half again as wide.

My watch would be over soon. I ought to get some sleep but the excitement of the unknown had me pretty wired. Maybe I’d have a look through the powerful telescopes in the cartography lab if they weren’t all in use. I could look for an hour or two and still get six hours of sleep before I had to be up in the morning.

On a ship this small, we all had three or more specialties. It was the only way that made economic sense. If  you sent a crew of eighty people to far flung planets light years away from anywhere, they had to be pretty self reliant. We were out on a three year tour and we wouldn’t get back to civilization until near the end of our mission.

The plan was to survey this planet for three to six months, depending on how rich or poor it was in features of interest. The science officer had already determined that it had enough interesting features to warrant a full time research outpost. That seemed to indicate we would spend more time here than we had on our previous stops. When it came down to it, we would spend as much time here as the captain thought prudent before moving on to the next planet on our agenda.

All together there were eight stops on our list each with a planet of potential interest and we had already marked two of them off. The first was a large, young planet still very hot and in the process of forming. We had finished our preliminary study of that one in just over six weeks. The second one was a tiny little planet about the size of Mercury and not much further away from the star that it orbited. We only spent a week on that one.

“Anything to report?” the captain asked from over my shoulder. He had walked in so quietly I hadn’t heard him. I think he enjoyed startling unwary junior officers.

“No sir, nothing too far out of the ordinary.” I replied, “I was just about to write up my watch report. O’Neil is supposed to relieve me at oh six hundred.”

“Good man. Are you headed to bed after your watch?” he asked.

“I thought I might spend an hour or so in cartography first. I can catch up on my sleep when we are between planets.” The captain smiled. He was proud of the enthusiasm of his crew. He knew each of us fairly well and made it his business to make sure that we were in good spirits.

“That’s a fine sentiment, son. Don’t push yourself too hard though. We’re going to take a long hard look at this one.” He sat down at his command console and started skimming the reports on his tablet. I busied myself writing my report and keeping my eye on the sensor dashboard of my watch station.

Ten minutes later, Bob O’Neil showed up to relieve me. I handed the watch over to him, told him and the captain good night and headed to the galley to grab a late supper before heading down to cartography.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Why, In My Day…

Where does use end and abuse begin? I am an internet user. I have what Apple so coyly terms a “digital lifestyle.” I read my email daily, several times a day, actually. I am online all day at work. I use the internet as a reference tool for my job. I develop web applications for my employer. Some of the information that I need to do my job is only available online.

I write a blog every day, usually in the evening before I go to bed. Sometimes it is an essay. Sometimes it is fiction. Sometimes it is worth reading. Often it falls short of my standards.  I strive to be interesting, informative, and sincere.

I frequently take pictures with my phone. At this point it is the only working camera that I own. I text and talk with my wife several times a day. I often play games or read on my phone when I have to wait somewhere, in the doctor’s office, waiting for a take-out order, etc. I do not do these things when I am with someone. I think that is rude.

In short, I use technology but not to the exclusion of people in the real world around me. I think that is an important distinction to make and a critical line to draw. Technology enhances my life. It doesn’t shield me from the world around me. I’m not sure that is true of many people in our society.

To the extent that I can stay in touch with people that I can’t be physically with, I think that online interaction is a good thing. For some people that live in places remote from the majority of their friends, the internet provides much needed support. That isn’t what I am talking about.

I am talking about the people that will sit and look at their phone when they are sitting in a restaurant with someone else! They will text with people that they are sitting across the table from! As far as they are concerned, it didn’t happen if they haven’t posted about it on Facebook.

I am hopeful that this phase will pass. We will come to our senses and remember to enjoy the physical world around us. Or maybe we’ll just be sucked in to the next big attention vacuum. Maybe we’ll all get wired up with direct brain implants so we won’t need external devices any more. We will become remote sensors for all our friends and family as they will be for us.

What do you think?

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.


The sky is beginning to turn pink on the horizon. The birds have been singing for a while now. I am counting my breaths. I breath in for a count of ten then I  hold it for a count of three and breath out for a count of fifteen. Or that’s the plan anyway. I do it perfectly for five or six times and then my mind wanders.

When I was little my father told me that to catch a bird all you had to do was put salt on its tail. The irony of this instruction escaped me. I sometimes think there is some irony that I am missing when it comes to the breathing exercise.

I close my eyes and try again. This time I establish a good rhythm. I keep it up for much longer than I had before. And then I feel the sun breaking over the horizon and shining on my closed eye lids. It is so profound that I forget myself again. I quit counting but continue breathing in and out slowly and deeply. I don’t know how long I keep it up. Finally, I open my eyes and hold my hand up to shade them from the sun.

I stand up and dust myself off. I walk briskly back to the apartment. I am greeted by joyous barks from the puppy. She is wagging her tail so hard I’m afraid she’s going to give herself whiplash. I pick her up and she licks my face. She puts her head on my shoulder for a minute and then starts to wriggle. She wants down. Who can stay still when they have this much pent up energy?

Fiction is best which starts with some universal truth and spins out from there. Sunrise, meditation, and puppy love. What can be truer than that?

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.