Category Archives: Short Stories (S)

Two Roads Diverged (S)

Anne was kneeling beside her garden and concentrating on planting the garlic cloves exactly six inches apart.   It was a mid-October weekend and sunny, a rare event in Vancouver.  Someone coughed and she looked over her shoulder. Two men, too old to be spreading the glory and too strangely dressed to be neighbours, stared back.

“Are you Dr. Anne Simmons?”  The smaller one asked, frowning as he consulted his cell phone.

Anne shifted onto her heels as she stared up at them. They looked like they’d slept in their dark suits and crumpled white shirts.  She bet that whatever image the short one was looking at on his phone didn’t show a woman with mud on her face and her hair in disarray.

“I have an offer for you that I’d like to discuss in private.”  He stepped forward with his hand extended, no doubt expecting to shake hers.  Anne used it raise herself up, a little mean of her, considering the mud on her glove.

“And you would be?”

“David Rhodes, and this is my colleague Allan Kardos.”  The big guy nodded.  “I’m an analyst with a European firm,” David said, wiping his hand on his pant leg, “but I’m acting as a head hunter in your particular case.”

Anne didn’t like the fact that the pair of them had invaded her back yard without invitation and Rhodes had called her a ‘case’.  Exactly which European firm and what kind of analyst, she wondered. “If you were an email, I would delete you,” she said.  This was no threat.  She had done just that when others that had promised her fame, wealth and new opportunities.

“That’s exactly why I’m here in person.” David smiled.

“I can still delete you by requesting that you leave now.  Goodbye.” Anne headed towards the house.  The two men stood gawking.

“Hey, wait a minute.”  David moved forward to stop her.  But Anne beat him to the back door slamming it in his face. He had underestimated her level of fitness.  She routinely thrashed her graduate students at racket ball too.  Again, it was mean, but she wasn’t interested in pumping up their confidence on the court, just in the lab.  Through the kitchen window, she watched him leave.  No missives were shoved under the door to explain their unannounced visit.

Over a dinner of fresh halibut, steamed red cabbage and wild rice, Anne thought about the encounter.  She hadn’t seen an ID or a business card.  Mind you, she hadn’t given Mutt and Jeff much opportunity. She got up to get a cheese plate with a slice of creamy Morbier. Maybe they were literal head hunters, she thought and chuckled to herself as she finished her glass of unoaked chardonnay.

When the phone rang, caller-ID indicated her research lab.  But when Anne picked up, David Rhodes introduced himself and apologised for their uninvited appearance that afternoon. “Why are you in my lab?” Anne interjected.

“I knew you would answer if I called from here,” David replied smoothly.

“And my students simply let you in?”

“Actually, there’s no one here.”  David confessed.

Anne slammed down the phone and immediately called security at her institute. She explained that an intruder had called from her lab.  A call back a few minutes later confirmed that the lab door was open but the lab was deserted. Now that’s really strange, she thought.  They’d probably continue to harass her until she heard their proposition.  She hated to give in to those tactics.  Besides, what could they possibly want from her?  It’s not as though she was hiding an important scientific discovery.  All her work was published and someone who could break into her lab could easily hack into her computers, firewall or not.

She continued to mull over the possibilities.  She realized that her research project on nanoparticle radiation detectors was novel.  But anyone could use the idea.  Her progress hadn’t been impeded by lack of grant funds or access to top students. “What could anyone offer me?” she wondered aloud.  Then she looked out at the rain beating down the window.  Perhaps better weather, she thought and smiled.

Anne’s answer came via email a few minutes later.   She wondered if her reaction had been anticipated by the head-hunter because when Anne saw an email from David Blake, she didn’t delete it as she had threatened but opened it with considerable curiosity.  Although the email was brief, it came with a large attachment.
 
Dear Dr. Simmons:
            I apologise for appearing unannounced at your house earlier today and our crude efforts to get your attention by calling from your lab.  We would like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of heading up a new laboratory in Geneva. You would work with another group with expertise that could bring your own research to fruition in a unique way and one I suspect you have not considered.  Please see the attached file for further information.  This information is of course to be kept strictly confidential.  Funding of your research would be approximately ten times greater than your current support and you are welcome to bring your laboratory personnel with you, also with generous support. All Visa issues will be dealt with.  Time is of the essence for reasons that I can only explain in person.
Regards,
David Rhodes, TAG Recruitment, Geneva

Anne read the letter twice and printed out both the e-mail and the 32 page attachment.   She began reading the attachment.   It took a while since many of the sentences and paragraphs had been deleted.  The main idea was fairly clear though, and quite astounding.  The attachment was a description of a research project being conducted by an unnamed scientist in an unnamed laboratory.  It was a physics-based proposal that involved manipulation of time and space.  Basically, it described the possibility of time travel over nanoseconds.   However, there had been no practical test of the theory.

She shook her head, not seeing a link between her projects and a nanosecond time machine, even if it could work.  Then she thought about how one would prove that they could move an object back in time only a nanosecond.  Damage by radiation occurs extremely rapidly, much shorter than a nanosecond.  In theory, a person could be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation but the biological effect could be immediately reversed if you could go back in time even one nanosecond and do something equally rapid to prevent the chemical damage in the first place.  It was all supposition of course since there was no obvious method to prevent the damage that would occur when time moved forward again.  Anne flipped through the project, looking for more insights.  Then she realized what they were probably after. Her method could be used as proof of principle for their time-shifter.  If radiation and the time device were triggered at the same moment, there should be a delay in appearance of the radiation damage. It would take only a picosecond to activate the nanoparticle radiation detector to emit light. But instead of continuous emission of light from the nanoparticles, there would be an initial pulse of light before time shifted back before the exposure.

But after that?  It was difficult to see how this particular application would be of any practical use.  Intriguing idea to use it for validation though, she had to admit.  But what did his letter mean that ‘time is of the essence’? Surely they didn’t expect her to develop a practical application overnight?  If they were in such a rush, why all this talk about setting up a lab and moving students to Geneva?  She decided to reply to the email and agree to listen to what he had to say.  However, if things didn’t make more sense, she would have nothing to do with it.

Apparently Rhodes had been waiting at his computer for her reply.  His response was almost instantaneous.  “Your house in 15 minutes?”

He appeared at her front door with his large, somewhat scary companion.  “You remember Allen Kardos?”  Anne nodded and showed them into the living room.  This was the one room not littered with books and papers but it made up for it in dust.  She laid down a tray and 3 cups of coffee.  After a couple of sips, Rhodes got right to the point.

“We need your help to prevent radiation damage in our Mars Mission astronauts.  They’re scheduled to leave in several weeks.”

Anne’s eyebrows shot up. Use in astronauts, especially when subjected to potentially lethal irradiation from solar flares, would be an excellent application.  “Now I see why time is of the essence, but haven’t you left this a bit late?”  About ten years too late, she thought.

Rhodes shook his head.  “You’ve only been shown the idea as it was originally presented years ago.  A lot of progress has been made since then.”

“Including a test of the theory using cells or animals?”  Anne asked.

“Not yet.  We were missing a response indicator, like your fluorescent nanoparticles.”  Rhodes admitted.

Anne shook her head.  “You don’t need me for that.  The idea’s not patented.  Your company can develop it themselves.”

“They’ve tried, and it hasn’t worked.  Besides, our application is quite different from the one you envisaged.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how I can do anything within your time frame.”  Anne said rising from the sofa.  “I admit that your time shifter is intriguing but it would require years for practical development.  I’m not interested.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Rhodes said standing as well.  “You don’t have a choice.”

The silent sidekick had drawn a gun and directed it at her.  “This way Doctor.”

“What aren’t you telling me?” Anne demanded.  She got no answer and was pushed towards her front door.

“Plenty of time to talk on the way,” the big one said gruffly.

She was taken to a small airfield in the valley where they boarded an executive jet and flew southward.  “Not Geneva then?” Anne questioned.

“No. Geneva was just a way to get you interested enough to let us into your house,” David Rhodes admitted.  “As you have already appreciated, we have no time to set up a lab.”

“So the application in astronauts was a ploy as well?”

“No.  That was true.” David admitted, and that was all he would say.  Anne managed to catch a few hours of sleep before they landed at Johnson Air Force base and Allan hustled her into a waiting car.  They drove to a near-by building as the sun rose.

“What do you need me to do here?”  Anne asked as they entered a laboratory.

“Your nanoparticles radiation detector works,” David said.

“I thought you said you were having problems,” Anne said.

“That was only partially correct,” David admitted.  We reproduced your experiments with the nanoparticles.  We got a pulse of light as we expected when we applied the radiation and time shifter at the same moment.”   Anne smiled.  “I see that you anticipated that result.” David looked impressed.  Have you’ve figured out the next problem.”

“You mean that you can’t do anything practical with only a nanosecond time shifter?” Anne asked.

“True, but once we had your nanoparticles providing a readout, we were able to develop the physics further.  We can now travel back five minutes.

It was Anne’s turn to be impressed, but she could start to see the problem.  “Exactly what is it that travels back five minutes?”

“You’re getting warmer. When the radiation triggers your nanoparticle alarm system, the astronauts have five minutes to get to a radiation shelter.  It is only practical to have a small radiation shelter on board the space vehicle – too much weight otherwise.  But the time shifter has to transport the entire space vehicle to give them that time.  We have that working now too.”

“Sounds great to me. So what’s the problem?” Anne asked.

David turned to stare at her.  “With the first evidence of radiation, your device triggers the time shifter and the astronauts have five minutes to get to the shelter.   But five minutes later, the whole process starts again and sends them back to the beginning of the storm.  They’re stuck in this repeating loop.  We need a way to turn it off after it’s triggered the first time.

“That shouldn’t be difficult. High intensity UV radiation will bleach the system.  It could be triggered automatically.  But there could be several solar storms during a mars mission.  You’d have to restart it when the coast is clear.”

That’s a physics problem and not why you are here.”  David said.

“Why am I here?”  Anne looked around at the well-equipped lab.

“Your job is to figure out how to inactivate the nanoparticle detector remotely.  What we didn’t tell you is that there is a mission on its way home and there was a solar event 30 hours ago.  Proton radiation reached the capsule last night and the capsule keeps shifting back in time and space every five minutes. We’ve lost contact with the crew and they’re running out of time.

Anne was astounded. “Don’t tell me you didn’t install an automatic inactivation system?  Radiation storms from solar flares can last a while.  When the astronauts shift back in time, they’ll have no idea that it’s happened before, so they won’t inactivate the system. I don’t suppose there’s a way to communicate with them and tell them to shut it down?”

David looked glum.  “Because we’re not shifting back, we’re now in their future, about 15 hours and ten minutes in their future to be precise.”

“Groundhog day.” Anne muttered, referring to the movie where the main character relived the same day over and over. “But the astronauts should notice the oxygen and fuel levels declining.  Is there anyone on board who is likely to think this through?”  Anne asked.

“We thought they would have figured it out by now and pulled the plug on the device.”

“Where is the Professor who developed the time shifter?  You need him to develop a longer jump so he can go back and fix this mess.  I don’t see any other way,”

“Professor Larkin disappeared a few hours ago,” David admitted. “We can’t communicate with him either.” David was staring at the floor and looking miserable.  Anne wondered when he had last slept.  He was obviously not thinking clearly.

“He had another device?”

“Yes, I presume he used it because it’s missing too.”

“And I suppose that’s the only spare.” Anne said, shaking her head in amazement.

David nodded.  “And before you ask, yes, we can fabricate another, but we don’t have time.”

“Too bad.  The astronauts think they have all the time in the world.  But you have another problem,” Anne said, scribbling on a note pad.  David waited while she finished her calculations. “If they are 15 hours behind us and they keep jumping back every 5 minutes when the wave of proton radiation reaches them, they’ve experienced a small fraction of that radiation dose 900 times.  The radiation shelter reduces but doesn’t eliminate the exposure.  If my calculations are accurate, your guys have already received a lethal dose of radiation.

David’s phone rang, and Anne watched the emotions play across his face: relief followed by confusion and disbelief. Finally he shut off his cell phone and smiled.  “The astronauts figured it out.  They turned off the machine.”

“When?” asked Anne.

“After only five jumps.”

“So why didn’t you know before now?”  Anne’s mind was racing.  If they were running only 25 minutes behind, would that still affect communication?

“They don’t acknowledge our transmissions.”  David looked at Anne hoping she would see the problem. “They’re missing 25 minutes.”

“So, time flies.  What’s the big deal about 25 minutes?” she asked.

“We can’t see them.  They’re not in our time.”

“But you can see where they were 25 minutes ago,” Anne said.

“Actually, we can’t.” David said. “They were never present in our time after the time shifter was triggered.”

Anne held her head. “OK, I sort of see what you mean.  We can’t see them.  If they land their craft by some miracle, we still won’t see them.  So they don’t exist for us. But will they see us as we were 25 minutes ago?”

“Moot point.  I don’t see them getting back here.” David asked.

“David, how do you know they’re only 25 minutes behind us if you can’t communicate with them?”

“We know what dose of radiation they’ve received from the onboard dosimeters attached to their suits.  It sends us the data. It peaked at 52 milliSieverts and has stayed constant.  One of our technical people was listening in to what you said earlier about the 900 jumps, and she worked back from the radiation dose to calculate how many jumps they must have made.”

“Didn’t you just tell me the astronauts don’t exist in our time?   Oh wait, I get it.  It’s like starlight.  A star can be so far away that the light takes centuries to reach us.  If the star goes nova today, we won’t know about it for centuries because we still see the light.”

“That’s right.  We’re using optical telescope communication in space and satellite relays to earth.” David said.  If the craft sends us information, we get it even if there’s a delay.”

“Can we communicate with them using this technology?” Anne asked.

“I think they can leave messages for us, but we can’t send messages to them.” David said.

Anne nodded.  “Now I see why they’ve been sitting up there quietly.  It’s up to them to come up with a plan.  There’s nothing we can do to help them.  They sat in silence for several minutes, taking the opportunity to relax and enjoy some hot caffeine.  The liquid didn’t deserve the name coffee.

David’s phone rang again.  “What do you mean they’re back in our time?”  This time his face reflected only confusion. He left the room and returned almost an hour later. “You won’t believe this.”

“What happened?” asked Anne, annoyed that he was gone so long.

“I’m not exactly sure.  Professor Larkin disappeared just before the radiation detector was even triggered.  He found out about the solar flare before the wave of protons hit the ship.  Somehow, he’s gone back in time and managed to set everything right.”

“So he anticipated the loop.  And I’ll bet he’s still gone.” Anne said.

“Yes. Why do you say that?” David asked sharply.

“He needed to transport to an earlier time to communicate with the crew,” Anne said.  “So if he went back before the solar flare, he would be able to leave messages for them. That would explain why they knew to turn the device off after only five cycles.  No,” Anne stopped, “That can’t be right.  There’s only one way he could get them back to our time, and that’s if they never switched to a different timeline in the first place.

“What do you mean?” David asked.  Anne saw his white face grow even whiter.

“I’m pretty sure that the Professor got them to unplug the device before the solar event even occurred, so there was never a shift back in time for the astronauts. They did get exposed to a small dose of radiation because they were probably late getting to the radiation shelter.  That’s the dose you measured.  Unfortunately, that leaves Professor Larkin living back in a different timeline.  Did he leave a message for you?” Anne asked.

“I’m embarrassed to say that in all the panic, I just found his note on my desk,” David said.  The Professor wrote that he was shifting back ten hours to let the astronauts know a solar flare was imminent and to turn off the device which was faulty.  The astronauts have undoubtedly been in the shelter and didn’t bother to communicate with anyone until now because they assumed the Professor would let us know what was happening. I was hoping Professor Larkin would leave more messages,” David said.  “Yet he was able to send a message to the astronauts.”

“He would have sent that message to them as soon as he shifted back in time.  Perhaps as time moves forward, his path diverges more and more from our own timeline.  And if that’s true, we may not hear from him again.”  Then she saw David smile.  That’s the first time he’s done that, she thought.

“The Professor will figure it out, if anyone can,” David said.

“Why does he need to?  The timeline he’s on now started when he shifted back.  His past life will be identical to the life he had here.  He’s lost nothing.  On the other hand, how will you explain his disappearance from this timeline?” Anne asked.

“Missing person, I’d say,” David mumbled, lost in thought.

Anne waited patiently but then asked, “I’d like to go home now and forget this ever happened.”

“I’m afraid you can’t,” David said coming out of his trance.   He motioned to Allan Kardos who had been sitting quietly in a corner the whole time.  “Allan, could you escort the doctor to our holding facility?”   Turning to Anne he said, “I must apologize, but until we can fabricate another time shifter and send you off on your own path, you’ll be staying right here with us for a few days.”

“Please. I promise I won’t say a word. Who would believe me anyway?”

“That’s a risk my bosses won’t take,” David said.  “Besides, as you said, your past will be the same.  Just imagine that you’ve taken the road that diverged.”

***

 The paradoxes of time travel are intriguing and frustrating.  If we travel back to the past, can we ever return?  The title of this story came from a favorite poem by Robert Frost that shares the theme of diverging paths.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Underneath (S)

Lynn struggled into the neoprene and rubber suit, tugging the material over her slim hips and torso.  She smiled in anticipation of the dive.  She could count on it to be the best part of her day.  After untying the boat and rowing a couple of hundred yards from the dock to her assigned GPS coordinates, she set her diving buoy, checked the valves on her tanks and adjusted her mask.  Leaning backwards, she flopped into the clear acidic water of Chesapeake Bay.  As the surface noise dissipated, she could feel the tension in her body subside.  How she loved these quiet times. Then she began the endlessly repetitive job of identifying potential sources of scarce metals likely to be found in communication conduits, water pipes, and city dump sites. The old brick and steel buildings below her had been submerged when the water levels rose rapidly almost fifty years ago.  Once global supplies of accessible copper, lead and zinc were depleted, underwater salvage in the under-water city became a lucrative business.

Even though the work was dangerous, Lynn would never consider giving up this job for a land-based one.  Who else could boast that they enjoyed solitude and clean air on a daily basis?  Her dive partner, Paul, said that the crush of bodies up above would suck your soul dry.   She’d enjoyed working with Paul, but declining resources meant they now had to operate alone so they could double the territory.  Today, she knew Paul would be diving a half mile north of her.

She had just tied a marker balloon to the roof of one of the buildings when a flash of light , a boom from an underwater explosion, and an instant wall of water lifted her up and flipped her over.  She righted herself in time to see a body tumbling towards her wearing Paul’s green and black dive suit and trailing a line of red blood.  She grabbed his tank and pulled him about, his eyes pale and vacant. There was a large hole in the left side of his chest where something hot had burned through and charred the edges of his dive suit along with the critical  tissues beneath.  Pushing herself off the building roof, she dumped a weight and headed up to her dingy, Paul’s lifeless body in tow.   Surfacing she realized that the location where Paul had been diving was now covered by an Atlas Salvage platform.  As she tugged his unwilling body over the gunnels of her boat, she could hear and then feel a second explosion rock the dingy.

Approaching the pier, she saw Sam, her boss, standing there with another man.  An ambulance pulled up just as she tied up her boat.

“What the hell is going on out there, Sam,” Lynn shouted. “Paul’s dead.”

“Yeah.  I can see that,” Sam said quietly, reaching down to help her up to the dock. She could smell his anger.  Lynn didn’t know the other guy, but he wore a suit and moved with authority.

“Terrible accident.  Communications broke down.” The fellow was frowning but Lynn thought he didn’t looked overly bothered by the bloody scene in front of him.

She ignored him and turned back to Sam.  “When you saw the platform, why didn’t you make a call and tell them not to blast?”

“Atlas was sold yesterday, Lynn.  I tried but I didn’t know how to get in touch with the new guys in time.” Sam turned to introduce Lynn to the other man. “This is Brent Dewdney.  He’s taken over Operations for Atlas.”

Lynn frowned at Dewdney.  “Why were you blasting?  We haven’t even finished our work or filed our surveys for this area.”

Dewdney shrugged. “We didn’t know someone was down there. Obviously.”

“They plan to do things differently,” Sam said quickly, glancing at Dewdney as if considering what he could say in front of the man that was his new boss. “They don’t hold with dive surveys.”

“Or safety procedures?”

“It’s really too bad about your friend.  It shouldn’t have happened,” Dewdney said. He pursed his lips in some effort at concentration. “Why don’t you take some time off to recover and we’ll call you when we know for certain.”

“Know what for certain?” Lynn was confused by the statement.  Paul was dead, that was certain, she thought.

“Whether we’ll need your services in future.  Like Sam said, our company does things differently.  We use remotely operated vehicles for surveys.”

Lynn glared at him. “You can’t get away with this.  Random blasting is a crime.  One of the main reasons we do the manned surveys is to avoid blasting contaminated sites.   There’s lots of radioactive materials down there and toxic waste sites that shouldn’t be disturbed.  Stuff left in hospitals for example. ”   She remembered reading what had happened as the water rose and cities were abandoned.  No one wanted toxic waste stored on land needed for agriculture.  So a lot of nasty chemicals ended up encased in plastic drums and concrete and left with the coastal cities.

“Sorry, but our risk analysts don’t see it that way.  We can get what we need for the initial surveys from ROVs without using divers.  If that had been an ROV down there instead of your friend, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”  Dewdney turned to answer a call and headed up the dock without another word.

“Look, Lynn.  There’s submerged wood recovery going on in the Great Lakes.  I can give you a strong reference.”

“Sam, even I know that subs are doing that work.”

“Yeah, but those ones are manned.  You could be an operator.”

Running a sub was something she’d dreamed about but never saw happening.  “Just where would I get the training?  I’d be last in line for a job.”

“Not necessarily.  Atlas could train you.”  He stared at her hard.

“What’s in it for them?”

“Avoid a law suit maybe?” Sam smirked.  “After all, they blasted while you were on the job, and Paul`s dead because of their error.  You could make them look real bad, might even hold up their operations for a while.”  Lynn realized that Dewdney was still talking on his phone at the foot of the pier.  “I’d work fast if I were you,” Sam advised following her gaze. “Grab that guy and make sure he realizes that you’ll talk to a lawyer if he doesn’t agree to retrain you and certify you for subs.”

Lynn took off on the run.  Dewdney saw her coming and looked less than pleased. When she explained what she wanted, he stared at her silently for a few moments, as if weighing his options. “I can’t agree to that right now.  I need to talk to headquarters.  I can let you know in a week or two.”

“No.  You’ll agree now, and I want it in writing or I’m going to a lawyer. I’m asking for training, not hush money.  You owe me that.”  By the look on Dewdney’s face, she knew he would agree.  She felt herself shaking and was amazed at her nerve.  The anger she felt at Paul’s death had driven her to this, and she had one more reason to regret losing him.

As he passed her the signed agreement, Dewdney had the nerve to leer at her. “I’m giving you a great opportunity, and I hope you appreciate it.”

Lynn almost choked in anger when she heard him.  “Paul’s death has given me this opportunity, not you or your corner-cutting company.”  It was her turn to leave without another word.

***

A Little Housekeeping (S)

“We could rent a furnished house for the weekend.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed as he considered my suggestion. “Good one, Maggie, but they know where we live.”  He was referring to his parents who would be flying in that evening. Housecleaning was something we rarely thought about, except in emergencies like this. “I’ll take the kitchen, and you do the rest.”

I sighed. His voice told me he wouldn’t be open to considering another suggestion. The division was more than fair. The kitchen was home to grunge layered upon grunge. In the last few months, I’d gone through a vegetable canning period, deep-fry period, salsa period, and had recently entered the dreaded puff pastry phase. Ryan said an archaeologist would feel right at home in our kitchen, mapping our culinary history like fossils at Olduvah Gorge.

I dreaded cleaning the furnace room, so I’d left it until last hoping Ryan might have finished the kitchen and would offer to help, especially if I deployed my seal pup eyes. No such luck. He was still scouring away at the deep-fry period and refused to look at me when I suggested he could use a change of scenery.

Even the vacuum cleaner didn’t want to visit the basement. The canister refused to follow me until I yanked on the hose and gave it the excuse to slam into my shins before it tumbled the rest of the way down the stairs. The racket gave fair warning to all living creatures in the vicinity.

In addition to the spiders, the occasional field mouse migrated to the warmth of the furnace room using the musty dirt floor of the crawl space beneath our bedroom as a kind of rodent freeway. They’d plop over the edge of a long horizontal opening about five feet up from the baseboard, lured, I suspected, by aromas from the kitchen. Our Burmese cat, captivated by their nocturnal mutterings, would wait patiently for a victim, grab it in her mouth, and then trot to our bed. My shriek was used as an excuse for Starbuck to drop the mouse and enjoy an instant replay of the capture. But in spite of her successes, mice kept appearing which is why I found myself stapling eight feet of fine wire mesh across the opening of the crawl space when I should have been vacuuming the floor. In the back of my head, I could hear my mother-in-law chiding, “Maggie, those things carry diseases, you know.”

I was balanced precariously on the ladder and just starting to unroll the mesh when I noticed a pair of large red eyes at the far end of the crawl space. I knew they didn’t belong to Starbuck because she made it a rule never to raise her lids during daylight hours. Perhaps a skunk, I thought. There was no odour, but a house that sheltered a family of skunks was often the last to know about it. As I took the precaution of backing down the ladder, I was amazed to see the eyes spring towards me. This was not normal skunk behaviour, and I jumped the last two rungs and ran for the door, my feet hammering in time with my heart. As I pushed the door shut, it smashed solidly into a creature at my heels, leaving the front part of its body jammed between the door and frame.

It was the size of a large dog, but unlike any I had ever seen. The jaws were massive, slavering, and full of four inch long teeth that belonged in a prehistoric shark. It came equipped with powerful hairless shoulders and horrible sharp nails that were doing a great job ripping up my linoleum. Aside from the incessant snapping of jaws, the thing made no noise. I pressed my back against the door as hard as I could while keeping my legs well out of reach of the teeth and nails. I screamed to Ryan for help.
He came on the run but stopped short to gape in amazement. “Get the poker,” I shrieked as I tossed my head toward the fireplace. Ryan grabbed the poker and began vigorously banging the creature over the head, trying to make it pull back into the furnace room.

“What is this thing? What did you do to make it so angry?” he gasped, sounding more mystified than terrified. I had no ready answers.

Although I was cringing at each whack, the creature seemed unperturbed and the door wasn’t going to last long. I couldn’t believe that it might win a battle against two adversaries twice its size. When Ryan tried to spear it through the mouth, it snapped down on the iron poker, bending it effortlessly. I turned to Ryan with eyes so wide they hurt. He wedged the bent poker under the door. “Keep a foot on the poker and push hard on the door,” he ordered. “I’ll be back in a second”.

Ten long seconds later, he returned with his chainsaw. I was dubious, but it started up on the first try, and the ferocious head was lopped off in a single pass.

“Brilliant move!” I hugged him, feeling proud as could be. Clutching sweaty palms, we stared down at the creature lying in two pieces in an expanding pool of blood, and we tried to make sense out of what had just happened.

Adrenalin-shaken and confused, I phoned the police. I must have sounded distraught since the officer asked if I were on medication. Pulling myself together, I managed to describe the encounter as simply as I could, but as soon as I said that the creature was the size of a huge dog, the officer immediately assumed it was rabid, and since neither of us had been bitten, he lost interest. He told me the body would be picked up later that afternoon for rabies analysis. Ryan and I agreed that whatever was downstairs, it was not a rabid dog.

It was no surprise to us when a short hour after the “dead animal pick-up” we received a phone call from Dr. Carson at the Baltimore County Office of Disease Control. He had already examined the creature and was now anxious to see where it had been found.

A few minutes after Ryan left for the airport to pick up his parents, I opened the front door to a serious-looking young man wearing spotless white overalls with the Baltimore County logo stitched across the top pocket. I smirked when I imagined how clean they would be after a tour through our crawl space. I reviewed the incident with him, stressing how the animal was extremely strong and aggressive. “I did nothing to provoke it. It just came at me with those terrible fangs.” Dr. Carsan gave me a look that I had trouble interpreting.

I led him down to our furnace room. It was none too clean after a hasty mopping, and apparently not yet dry since he struggled with his balance and finally grabbed the ladder for support. I had to force myself to enter the room, and I shifted continuously from one foot to the other, trying to convince myself that, logically, there couldn’t be another one of those creatures on the planet. “What do you think it is?” I asked, not really expecting him to reveal much.

“No idea. Never seen anything like it,” he shrugged. “We’ll need to compare DNA sequences with our database, but I won’t have the results for at least a couple of weeks.”

“So it’s not a dog with rabies?” I drawled, a satisfied smirk spread over my face.

He ignored me and pointed to the crawl space. I nodded, so he climbed the ladder and switched on his high intensity flashlight, but he was at the ledge for only a moment before he jumped down and stared up the opening, his face as white as his lab coat.

Within seconds, the entrance to the crawl space was filled with the drooling jaws and muscular shoulders of several creatures. So much for logic, I thought. I streaked from the room again, but Dr. Carsan didn’t move fast enough. A beast leapt from the wall and bit through his neck, and when I turned to pull the door shut, I saw his lifeless body drop to the floor and disappear under more creatures.

I stumbled upstairs and ran for my Honda civic. My trembling subsided briefly until I saw more of the beasts digging out of the ground and heading for our neighbours’ homes. Just up the road, a car had pulled over and inside, a woman I thought I recognized was waving her arms and screaming for help. Several creatures were tearing their way through the metal of her rear window frame, and all I could do was press down hard on the accelerator.

Closer to town, I heard the sounds of shots and sirens mingled with screams. Although the elevated expressway was clear of the beasts, thousands of them loped below me. Then the car flew past the sign for the Baltimore zoo and I shouted, “Hallelujah!” The safest place for me was behind bars.

Veering off the road, I drove into the zoo parking lot, but the zoo was closed for the day and the main gate was locked. Luckily, Starbuck had taught me a thing or two, and with the car wedged tight against the fence, I climbed up on its roof and hoisted myself over. I landed noisily on top of the corrugated iron roof of the concession stand, hung from the edge, and dropped to the ground.

The large mammal building was closest and I ran to it. Several cages were unoccupied and one was unlocked. The smell of excrement in the recently vacated gorilla enclosure was painful, but some of my dread subsided when I closed the door to my cage and collapsed in a corner. In my panic, I’d forgotten my cell phone and could only imagine what was happening to Ryan. My neighbours were an orang-utan two cages down and a cougar opposite me. We looked at each other anxiously.

Just before sunset, the zoo was discovered. Several of the beasts slavered around the place for a couple of hours, but surprisingly, they paid little attention to us. The only time they turned in my direction was when a bout of self pity caused me to sniffle noisily. Needless to say, I stopped.

 

For two days, I sat in a semi-stupor while trying to block out the distant screams of slaughter. I drank from a water bucket and, like the cougar, I reserved the far corner for a litter box. The cougar never stopped growling at me and the orang-utan sat almost immobile with his back pressed against the wall and his two large pink feet pointing at me. Both my neighbours seemed to be trying to direct any attention my way.

I spent most of my time scratching flea bites and trying to figure out where the creatures had come from. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been torn apart by those dreadful jaws. Remembering how the first one had so easily bent the iron poker, I knew they could get to me if they’d wanted. I imagined a galactic sporting event where our planet provided the prey while aliens gambled on the outcome. The score was not looking good for the humans.

About noon on the third day, all was ominously quiet with the exception of my grumbling stomach. I had almost talked myself into making a short foray to the concession stand when the creature I was watching suddenly froze in position. I stared at it for several minutes, but it remained lifeless. Finally it dawned on me, accompanied by some mental kicking of my backside, that the creatures must be machines. While considering the implications and my next move, a thrumming noise started overhead and became progressively louder. Something large settled down nearby, shaking the building as it landed.

Minutes later, a tall spindly-looking humanoid appeared at the door of my building and lurched towards my cage. My swollen eyes warily followed his movements, and my robot-sensing organ, finally in working order, was dinging a warning.

“You are safe now and can come out,” it said in a monotone, the words originating from a small device at throat level. When I failed to respond, it said, “The custodians are no longer active.” I watched in a state of confusion as the creatures slowly morphed into compact irregular masses that resembled harmless rocks rather than monsters.

I stood up shakily but felt no desire to leave my cage. First I needed some answers. “Why am I alive?” I squeaked. I had been brooding over this question for days. Now I’d been told I’d somehow avoided being butchered by custodians from hell.

“Custodian vision is sensitive only to movement. We remotely programmed them to detect human smell and human vocal sounds before they attack. You survived because your smell was masked by the odour of other creatures here, and apparently you did not talk.” It paused briefly before adding, “You are now free to join the others who avoided detection.”

Not so fast, I thought.  I waved my arms wildly, “So you are responsible for this carnage? Why?”

At my outburst, the alien stretched himself taller as if surprised or perhaps perplexed. “We saved your planet by eliminating the excess human population. Your species would have consumed everything.”

My jaw dropped. “But the creatures appeared all at once, from below ground. How did you do that?”

“Custodians were placed on this planet at the time your species first evolved in order to manage certain inevitable situations. They made use of available raw materials and planet core energy to multiply and then lie dormant beneath the crust of your planet. We sent activation signals only when it became necessary.”

He started to leave, but paused at the door and turned back. “We sincerely hope that it will not become necessary to activate the others.”

***

This is the kind of dream I’m glad I don’t have very often.

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