Twilight deepened. Desti crouched beneath
the dense boughs of a cypress,
her gaze fixed on the wall of the Vault.
In the wan light of Hacen, the little moon,
the barrier gleamed a ghostly white,
its smooth surface broken only
sideposts framing the point of entrance.
The gateway always gaped open during daylight hours,
but now, after curfew, it looked to be
just another solid stretch of wall.
Two of the three Factors had left the Vault
and headed for their dorm some time ago.
Desti flicked a spider off the hem of her mantle
and waited for the third old woman to depart.
Through the sprigs and ferns of undergrowth
wafted a breeze rich with
the scents of a woodland summer night.
Stars appeared overhead where sky
showed through the evergreen canopy.
At last there came a flicker of movement at the gateway.
A vertical crack appeared,
rising halfway up the five-meter height of the
The gate parted silently,
giving a brief glimpse of the courtyard inside.
Factor Tesk emerged, and the gate slid shut behind her,
solid and blank as before.
The old woman shuffled down the path to the Commons,
oblivious to the watching sixteen-year-old.
Desti held motionless, as still as a tree stump --
but inside she thrummed like a hive of wild bees.
Tonight she meant to break more than curfew.
But she did not move, not yet.
Slow as a snail, Hacen crawled down the dome of sky
and sank behind the forest palisade.
Only then, in full darkness,
did the girl crawl out from hiding,
brushing needles from the rough wullen weave
of her mantle as she faced the gate.
By starlight Desti could just make out
the faint seams of the gateway.
It arched more than two meters from the ground,
high enough for even the Gentry to pass through
without ducking a regal head.
Or so the Aunts said.
Partway down one of the gate's sideposts was an eyescanner,
and below it, the crisscross pattern
where Factors tap a greeting to the Vault before entering.
Desti knew better than to try that route.
If she didn't want to spend a week or more in isolation,
she had to find another way in,
some way other than this well-guarded portal.
Desti picked up a fir cone, stepped back a few paces
and lobbed it over the barrier.
She heard a faint plop. If not through the wall, then over...
The podcraft bobbed as Jessie leaned overboard
and lifted the nutrient extractor unit from the briny deep.
"Briny Deep," the name of the day for this forsaken planet.
Jessie had dubbed the water-world with many different titles
since her pod splashed down ages ago.
A tap on the spigot triggered the NEU
to dribble brown tea into her mug.
She gulped down the nutrients,
then hung the unit on the roof to recharge
during the coming hours of daylight.
Jessie gazed around the flat horizon.
No islands had appeared overnight.
A few clouds in the east glowed pink and rose.
Inside the pod, the receiver crackled and hissed,
announcing another day of static.
What rotten luck. Humanity finally finds
an alien world with a friendly atmosphere
and a day-span of twenty-five hours
to match their true diurnal rhythms,
perfect for colonizing...
and they have to sleep during the day
so they can monitor wavelengths at night.
"Rotten Luck," Jessie muttered,
renaming the planet yet again.
Somewhere out there, other single-occupant escape pods had splashed down.
Somewhere out there, other survivors sieved a living from the sea.
The pods all had solar-powered propellers for reuniting,
but their communications tech for setting up
a rendez-vous point had proved worthless.
The unexpected high solar activity of this star
and strange magnetic fields of the planet had combined
to dash all those plans.
One night, Jessie had caught
a snatch of S.O.S. from one of her shipmates.
It had lasted all of five seconds.
Now, with dawn, the vigil turned hopeless.
She might as well turn in and hope
for the oblivion of sleep.
Something bobbed among the waves.
The pod bobbed in a slower rhythm.
"I'll call this lovely planet Bob,"
Jessie announced as she watched the object.
She tapped up the propeller app on her wrist
and sent the pod to cross paths
with the little floater.
It was a bottle.
Jessie's heart leaped. She bounced in excitement.
The pod swayed. She nudged the craft closer,
leaned over, and snagged the bottle.
Glass. Bubbled and lop-sided.
Someone's home-fired handiwork.
Someone had landed on a sandy shore,
rich with the silica needed to make glass.
Someone had found fuel for a blazing hot fire.
Someone had built a furnace.
Someone was thriving somewhere on Bob.
As she turned the bottle,
Jessie could see something flopping around inside.
A stopper had been heat-welded into place to make the thing water-tight.
She couldn't pry it out.
With a grimace she broke the bottle
against the edge of the propeller mount,
and drew from the shards a strip of plastic,
etched with words.
"Haven at North Pole," it read.
"But compasses don't work here!"
Jessie cried in dismay.
Then she noticed the pattern of dots, and smaller print.
"Pole star," it read, and an arrow pointed to one dot in the middle.
She recognized the constellation,
after countless nights with nothing else to look at
but the night sky.
Jessie laughed with joy. Come nightfall, she'd be on her way.
Coming someday, the third book in the Phoenix Afire trilogy:
But don't hold your breath. It hasn't yet grown beyond outlining...
except for the first chapter, which you can find as a teaser
at the end of PERIHELION.
I'll be taking a good long time writing CHIMERA.
If you subscribe to this newsletter, you'll get notice
when it finally reaches completion.
In the meantime, watch for the occasional collection
of flash fiction I'll be publishing.
Thank you for coming with me on these treks through time!