August 3, 2019: Snippet from somewhere in the story.

 

    Mark’s first reaction was amusement. He flashed to watching videos with his daughter when she was four. The creature resembled a cartoon alligator standing high on four long legs instead of belly on the ground and propelled by splayed legs. While Mark watched, the hide’s color subtly changed as if a breeze wafted over short grass.

     His amusement vanished as he became aghast as the destrex exploded, sprinting at the lombars faster than Mark knew their horses could run. The prey scattered, except for one knocked off its feet and held on the ground by a clawed front foot. Mark cringed when the doomed animal began screaming as the destrex tore off chunks of flesh to swallow whole.

     Seconds of silence by the six men was broken when Runold whispered. “Are we close enough to shoot from here?”

     “How the hell do I know!” said Mark before he realized he’s used English. He switched to Frangelese. “You’re the one supposed to know such things.”

     “There’s six of us with muskets. That should be enough.”

     “Yeah, if we all hit the damn thing,” said Mark. “What’s the chance of that at this range. We’ll be lucky to get three hits.”

     “Oh shit,” said another man. “You mean we’re going closer?”

     “Remember, they’ll stand to guard their kill,” said Runold.

     The destrex spotted them and assumed a defiant stance over its finally dead victim. It put out a screeching call and showed an impressive mouth full of jagged teeth.

     “What do you think? Closer? Fifty yards?” Runold asked Mark.

     “Yeah, but let’s do it spread out a little and go slow so it keeps eating.”

     They staked the two pack horses and aligned their horses facing the carnage. When they moved apart, Mark made sure he was on one end of their line, figuring the beast would likely charge the center of their group.

     At ninety yards they stopped until the vocal display ended and the destrex went back to eating. At seventy yards it noticed them closer and resumed screeching.

     “Let it quiet down again,” said Mark. “We only need to get a little clos—”

CRACK!

     The shot came from Mark’s left. He couldn’t see who it was except it wasn’t Runold.

     “Fuck!” yelled Mark as the destrex’s profile while eating turned into a head-on view as it charged. He didn’t know if the first shot had hit, but there was no apparent effect. Five more muskets fired a ragged volley. Mark knew his shot was good, hitting the destrex’s chest. It stumbled, but only momentarily before continuing.

     Panic ensued. One thing riders and horses agreed on was to be somewhere else—anywhere else. The problem was disagreement on which direction to take. Mark had turned his horse after he fired, ready to run for it, but when he looked over his shoulder, the destrex had a grip on the throat of a horse in the middle of their line. The man was flung skyward. A second rider was knocked off his horse by the creature's flaying tail. By the force of the blow, Mark thought most of the man’s bones must be broken.

     “Shit, shit, shit,” Mark intoned.

     He knew he needed to flee. He didn’t owe these men anything. Instead, he leaped off his horse, letting it run off. He couldn’t reload his musket while saddled. Pour powder into the barrel.

Grab a ball out his a belt pouch and drop it in the barrel, followed by a paper patch. Pull the ramrod from under the barrel and ram the ball and patch down the barrel. Sprinkle a small amount of powder in the flash pan. Raise the musket, cock, aim, pull the trigger. The hammer struck metal to ignite the pan, allowing the flash to travel the tiny hole leading the inside of the barrel.

     CRACK!

     Mark’s shot hit the side of the creature. It was less than forty yards away. Another musket fired from somewhere toward the other end of their line. He saw one of the men whipping his mount furiously as he fled. Another rider was thrown from his horse and was running after it.

Mark was an automaton. There was no time for thinking. Reload. The destrex could have torn him to shreds at any moment, but its brain wasn’t evolved to recognize wounds could be caused by enemies not within biting distance.

     CRACK! Mark fired again, this time hitting the side of the neck. He was finished reloading for the third time when his remaining colleague fired again. The creature whirled, hit again on its other side.

     Back and forth it shook his head. A human leg hung from one side of its jaw. The destrex was obviously seriously wounded, but they need to finish it off. Mark held aim at the head and slowly walked forward. He caught a glimpse of the man on the other side staring incredulously at him.

At twenty yards away, the creature stopped moved, starring at Mark, mouth open.

CRACK!

     Mark shot at the open mouth and hit the back of the throat. He hurriedly reloaded.

CRACK came another shot. The other man was also nearer the monster and had fired into the back of its head.

     Mark finished reloading and was raising the musket to fire when the animal’s legs collapsed, the head thudding to the ground. Both men froze, looked at each other, and then as if by mutual, though unspoken, agreement, walked to with ten feet of the head and put two more musket balls into the brain.

     Mark’s hands had been rock steady . . . until now. They trembled as he sat the musket stock on the ground. His mouth felt like it last tasted water in at least a sixday, his knees threatened to knock together, and his heart thudded within his chest.

     The other man starred at him, at the destrex, at Mark again, the man’s mouth opening and closing several times before words came out.

     “Thought the fucker would never die.”

     Mark agreed, but what he said was, “Well . . . that was exciting.”

     “Yeah, well, then I’ve had all the excitement I need for rest of my life.”

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July 2, 2019

 

On the Far Side of the World

 

CHAPTER 1: AN END AND A BEGINNING

  

Beach Near Tregallon, Dominion of Frangel, Planet Anyar

 

He woke staring at the sky. Scattered white clouds moved across a blue background that was not the azure of Earth but a lighter tone, a muted cerulean blue. A V-formation of flyers crossed in front of a cloud. They were not birds. Sounds diverted his attention. Waves. Water touch his feet. His fingers flexed and dug into . . . warm, dry sand? He raised his head and saw surf breaking fifty yards away. Water from another spent wave washed over his feet. He looked right to see empty beach backed by plant growth that was not quite trees. Left was more beach ending in a rocky spine a hundred yards away and extending into the water.

He shivered, but not from cold. A forlorn plea flashed over his consciousness; was it the beach in Hawaii where he’d spent his and Jocelyn’s honeymoon? That had been perfect—or so he had thought at the time.

Reality vanquished fantasy. Twenty feet away, another flyer darted through his vision—a blue body and white wings, whistling like no bird every did. Strange-looking insect-like creatures buzzed past him. Creatures that were not insects.

Memories washed over him. Panic gripped his chest and his fingers dug into the sand. The artificial intelligence he’d named Hal had bee truthful. This wasn’t Earth. The sun whose warmth he suddenly noticed wasn’t Sol. He knew this sunlight shines not on Colorado where he grew up, Palo Alto where he lived, or, for that matter, Finland, Madagascar, or Japan. This sun shines on an entire planet that he knew little about.

The knowing made him dizzy. He closed his eyes and willed his breathing to slow and deepen. He rose to one elbow, rolled to that side, braced his other hand on the sand, and slowly pushed himself into a sitting position. He was naked. He hadn’t thought to ask in what condition he was to be abandoned.

A larger wave broke fifty yards away and he tried to stand until a spinning head precluded the thought to move higher on the beach. The final push of the wave encircled him before receding, and he crawled twenty yards into warmer, drier sand where he sat and let the conflicting thoughts intertwine before settling into acceptance.

Emotion swirled through his mind. Fear at facing an unknown future and elation at the chance to start life over—as if he’d fallen off a cliff, only half confident a cushion awaited his landing. He would never see Earth again. Never speak English to another person. Never see again any of the people he’d known over his lifetime. Have no physical ties to his previous life. Never watch TV, drink Coca-Cola, eat chocolate or tacos, or any of the thousands of things that had made up his existence.

However, for reasons he didn’t fully understand, he didn’t despair the losses as much as might have been expected had he been content with his life. He knew his view might change with time, but there was the sense of being reborn. Whatever had gone wrong with his life had been wiped clean and he had the chance to start again. Exhilaration at the possibilities warred with trepidations—both causing his pulse to quicken.

His vision whirled and he almost fainted when he tried to stand, so he crawled another twenty yards over the sand into shade of vegetation and leaned against a trunk of a “tree.”

It’s real, he thought. I thought I finally believed it aboard the spacecraft, but part of me must have held out hope it was somehow a dream, delusion, or illusion—anything but true. Now I know. I have to put aside anything except how to survive here. But not now. Now I need to wait until the dizziness passes. Just a few minutes and I’ll try again to stand.

He let himself feel the onshore wind waft over his nakedness, hear the waves that sounded like those of Earth, and to reflect.

***

It was odd what he remembered—the suit he wore onto the plane because he had to go straight to a meeting once they landed in Chicago. He wouldn’t have time to check in to a hotel and change.

The plane filling, passengers jostling to find seats and store carry-ons. The nerdy-looking young man in the window seat when he found 28C, his own seat. The teenage Hispanic girl who sat between them and for whom he had to step into the plane’s aisle to let her in moments after seating himself.

The movie he was watching on the flight to distract himself from the latest disappointment at home—this time his wife grumbling about needing a larger house since she’d decided their current neighbors needed upgrading. Their fourteen-year-old daughter whining about her limited wardrobe that cost of thousands of dollars and some of the items had only been worn a few times.

The embarrassed young mother walking her baby up and down the plane’s aisle in the attempt to soothe it into silence. The teenage girl with the pink hair and nose ring. The sturdy man in cowboy hat and boots. The distinguished-looking woman with grey hair. A tall African-American man helping a diminutive young Asian woman put her carry-on in the overhead compartment. The man in first class with tattoos covering both arms and his neck.

Of the collision he had no memory. One instant he was focusing on the movie and the next moment he was falling outside the aircraft, battered by turbulence in the freezing air as he slowed from five hundred miles per hour.

 

Then . . . nothing until he awoke in a white room. He looked around. There was no one else in the room.

“Hello,” he called out, his voice cracking.

After clearing his throat, he tried again.

“Hello. Is anyone there? Where am I?”

“You were in an accident and sustained minor injuries. Everything should be fully functional,” came a disembodied voice.

Accident? Functional? He frowned. Then he remembered: the plane, falling. His mouth gapped, eyes widened, and heart pounded. “What—?”

“Do not be alarmed. Everything is fine. We believe you are functioning within normal parameters.”

“Where am I and where are you?”

His questions were ignored as the voice repeated a series of questions, only moving on once Mark answered.

“Thank you, Mark, your mental functioning seems to be satisfactory. Rest now and we will talk more later.”

“Hey! I answered your questions, so how about . . . “

His awareness shut off as if a door slammed shut.

 

His next conscious moment he was once again staring at the white ceiling. This time he tensed muscles and sat up on a white slab. Rotating his body, he sat on the edge. The entire room was the same featureless white.

“Hello. Anybody there? How about telling me what the hell is going on?” There was no answer. He glanced down. He was naked. That fact did not shock him as much as the missing roll of stomach fat that for the past several years he had promised himself to do something about . . . and never did.

“What!” His torso and limbs were pale and the skin flacid. Had he been in a coma for long enough for the change in his physique?”

“Mark, there is something you need to be made aware of. It is theorized that since you said you are an engineer, a practical demonstration might make acceptance easier.”

“Huh?”

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye was movement. He jerked his head to the right. A two-inch diameter blue ball bounced off the floor at a forty-five-degree angle. It was the first color he’d seen in the room, but what mesmerized him was that the ball moved far too slowly. He watched as it hit a wall, then the ceiling, the opposite wall, and the floor . . . . repeating the cycle twice more before Mark staggered to his feet, walked two steps and caught the ball.

He squeezed it—some kind of rubber or another material with similar elastic properties. He held it a eye level and released it. It fell too slowly.

“What?”

He repeated twice more with the same result.

“This isn’t right,” he said aloud. “Hey, whoever you are. Is this ball made of some odd material, is it hollow, or somehow has helium encased—something to make if fall slow?”

“Try the iron ball, Mark.”

“What iron ball?”

He turned to looking around and stubbed a toe.

“Aw! Damn! What—” Next to his foot was a metallic ball the same size as the blue one. He picked it up. It was heavy, tens of times or more the weight of the blue ball.

“How do you do that?” he questioned. There was no answer.

He held both balls at eye level and dropped them together. If there was something about the blue ball that counteracted part of gravity’s force, the iron ball should hit the floor first. He was repeating the classic experiment of Galileo. Absent air resistance or buoyancy effects, two objects, no matter the size or composition, should fall at the same rate.

They hit at the same instance . . . the metal ball not moving off the floor and the blue ball bouncing up.

A chill started at Marks neck and travelled down to his feet. He repeated the test twice more. He knew one answer to the puzzle, but it couldn’t be true . . . could it?

“It is assumed you are aware that the gravity you are experiencing is less than on the surface of Earth.”

Mark didn’t respond, his mind searching for other options.

“It is understandable that this may be difficult to accept. To aid understanding, the gravity in the room will be altered slowly. Try not to make sudden movements or push off from surfaces too strongly.”

He suddenly felt lighter.

Although his mind was not conscious of estimating time, it must have been several hours later when he began to accept the voice’s assertions. He was on an alien spacecraft that had accidently collided with his airliner. The aliens had rescued him after the plane disintegrated and healed, or repaired as was told him, his injuries. However, it was a specific statement by the voice that focused his attention the most—he would never set foot on Earth again.

 

He couldn’t estimate the number of the following days because he had no references to judge intervals. The time was hard as he cycled among disbelief, confusion, fear, anger, despair, hope, and finally, so he had thought, acceptance when the artificial intelligence (AI) he’d named Hal told him his only future options were to be terminated or placed on a planet inhabited by humans.

“Humans? On another planet? How is that possible?”

“The answer is unknown at this time, only that humans, along with an evident selection of plants and other animals, were transplanted from Earth to other planets. All of these planets are being remotely observed to answer your question.”

“What kind of selection? How many? What kind?”

The voice was silent for several seconds . . . which was unusual. Then . . . 

“Details of the selection process are not known. From orbit, only larger life forms are discernable. For example, there are horses, but not elephants, redwood trees but not baobab trees.”

A thought rose in Mark’s mind.

“Earth insects, and . . . uh . . . spiders?”

“Unknown. They are too small.”

Well, there’s hope, he thought. Spiders were not his favorite creatures—to his embarrassment.

There had also been many moments combining degrees of frustration, wonder, and revelation, such as the interchange that began when he inquired of other passengers.

“Are there other survivors?”

“I cannot give you that information.”

“Huh? Why not? Am I the only one then?”

“I cannot give you that information.”

“Whether or not there were others, how did I survive? I should be dead.”

“You were retrieved in good condition, considering the circumstances. That your injuries were relatively minor is best attributed to serendipity. Repairs were straightforward.”

“I wish you wouldn’t refer to me as if I was a machine.”

“As you prefer, although strictly speaking, you are a biological machine.”

“So, I was injured. Exactly how?”

“It is not necessary for you to have this information. All you need to know is that you will find yourself as you were before except for additions to your functioning to better adapt to your new home.”

Mark didn’t like the word “additions.” “Uh . . . what additions are you talking about?”

“The planet you will be taken to has gravity 1.18 times that of Earth. Although the difference is not insurmountable for you to adapt to, as part of our obligation to you we have modified your energy producing genes for more efficiency. You should find the added weight of no concern. In fact, you may experience enhanced energy over your previous condition, although our familiarity with human physiology makes this uncertain.

“In addition, in studying your condition, we discovered a mass of cells that apparently had escaped replication control and was invading several sections of your brain. Your current level of medical technology would likely have been unable to provide a positive prognosis and you would have died within a year of your time.”

Mark’s hand tightened on the bar at the end of the platform he slept on. “You mean . . . I have cancer?”

“You had cancer. While we made minor repairs caused by the collision and made minor modifications to improve your physiology, we also introduced elements into your system that destroy uncontrolled cells—the cancer. The elements are a permanent addition to your body and be assured you will never again develop cancer.

Mark assumed the “elements” were a type of nano-machine as had been theorized might be developed to remove plaque from arteries, suppress neuron-associated amyloid bodies related to Alzheimer’s, and attack cancerous cells. From what he’d read, humans were a generation or more from such developments, but he wasn’t surprised that anyone, or anything, that could fly between stars would have developed amazing medical science. What did surprise him was the ability to apply such knowledge to alien physiologies. He had to ask.

“How is it that you could do this since your physiology and biochemistry must be quite different from mine?”

“By ‘you’ I assume you mean my creators. While there are biological differences, there are only a few basic paths to develop life. In addition, human biology is relatively simple.”

Mark wondered if Hal had intentionally dropped tidbits of information previously avoided or was the AI fallible and didn’t realize it had revealed its creators were biologicals. In addition, if Hal thought humans were relatively simple biologically, it must mean there were more complex organisms. He wanted to probe for more information but was reticent in case Hal had slipped up and querying would alert the AI to be more careful.

“Okay,” Mark said. “Are there any other effects of these elements?”

“They will also prevent you from developing illnesses caused by any type of micro-organism or virus. However, the general protective action will not allow you to receive transplants of any kind from other humans or animals.”

“Well, all this sounds like a good deal. If I understand correctly, I won’t ever get cancer or become ill. Do I have it right.”

“That is correct. However, you are still subject to accidental damage to your body. Once you leave this ship there will be no further access to our medical technologies.”

Mark quit speaking as he mulled over the revelations. If the collision had not occurred, and Hal was to be believed, the accident saved his life. He might already have been dead since he didn’t know how long it had been since the collision. Instead, he was alive and would never again contract cancer or any disease.

The problem was the tradeoff for saving his life—never again setting foot on Earth and being dumped into an alien society with no guarantees of survival or prospects. His gut longed to return to Earth and the life he knew, but as time passed in the white room, and in his calmer, more introspective moments, he acknowledged he’d lucked out. Even if given a choice between the accident never having happened or his present situation, he knew he would have no choice but to go with the second option. Not that he liked it. Not that he wasn’t angry to be at the mercy of powers beyond his control. But he accepted, as much as he could, that all things considered, it was not illogical to think he had stumbled into a better fortune that he could never had imagined.

After the required four years of service following graduation from the Naval Academy, he left the Navy due to a combination of his wife wanting a different lifestyle, Mark’s finding he didn’t like being at sea, and neither was enthused about a career of shore duty. Instead, he opted for industry and the more opulent lifestyle than the Navy could offer.

It was on his fortieth birthday that he realized he hated his life, including a wife he hadn’t loved for most of the marriage and who he preferred not being around, a daughter turning into a copy of her mother, and a management position with no strong connection to building anything—the reason he’d studied engineering. And that was without knowing about the cancer.

In the end, and despite fear of the unknown future, he worked to see the opportunity to start again, although not in the manner he could ever have imagined. For several years he had fantasized about divorcing his wife, forswearing the executive life, and searching for something he looked forward to each day. However, he’d never worked up the courage, inertia, or whatever that stopped him from changing his life. He didn’t dwell on whose fault it was that he was unhappy, only that he’d taken too many wrong forks. Now that the decision was forced on him, one regret he knew he’d never loose was not forming a bond with his only child.

When Hal showed Mark the images of the destination planet from space, the AI unwittingly provided additional motivation during Mark’s final exchange with Hal.

“You say you’re merely a passive observer of the humans on this planet,” said Mark, “but that seems contradictory to putting me among them since I might change things.”

“So unlikely as to be discounted,” droned Hal in his emotionless voice. “One human will be irrelevant and insignificant among hundreds of millions.”

Mark flushed and bit off words on the tip of his tongue, though they were prominent in his mind.

Irrelevant? Insignificant? Maybe you’re right you cold piece of machinery, but we’ll see. I don’t know what’s in store, but I’ll do everything I can to make you eat those words.

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