Thursday, January 29, 2009

Friday Fiction for January 30, 2009

Friday Fiction is hosted this week by Dorinda on her Treasures in Jars of Clay blog. Be sure to check in there for more great fiction, and also be sure to check out LauraLee’s interview as the Featured Author on Faithreaders. It’s a terrific interview, and one you shouldn’t miss.

This week’s fiction is another original, written for Friday Fiction. I’ve been considering a story, or series of stories, about a rover character. I’ve done a few short sketches of him in various situations, but wanted a short sketch that introduced both him and the ship. The actual story, when I finally get around to writing it, will be set in the Terran Archipelago of my Eridani stories, and I already have a pretty good idea of what I want to happen in that first story, well after this first introduction.

I hope you enjoy…

By Rick Higginson

He entered the tiny cockpit and felt his heart beating faster. He’d never expected to be there so soon, and the thought of his father once resting in the solitary seat brought a tear to his eye. “May the final dream be one of love and joy,” he sang the traditional blessing for a deceased relative. “May my father be welcomed to the arms of our mothers, and share in the peace of our God.” Though it seemed odd to do so for a man that had been in space for most of his life, he lowered his eyes in respect for the appropriate duration.

With nervous anticipation, he settled into the seat and reclined back. The ship’s computer sensed the pressure of his body, and molded the cushion to fit him until it seemed he rested on nothing. He settled his left arm into a recess provided for it, and nearly jumped out of the seat.

Knowing ahead of time that the cybernetic implant in his arm would make him one with the ship was one thing; experiencing it for the first time was another. He closed his eyes, and felt the warm tarmac beneath the landing struts. He could see the terminal buildings in the distance through the optical sensors, and with barely a thought, magnify them until he focused on tiny details in the wall. The cargo rested in the hold, and the mechanical retainers that held it securely in place were as his fingers. Relaxing his grip, he shifted one of the containers a short distance, and sensed the change in the balance of the load.

You are the offspring of my previous symbiote,” the ship said to him through the interface. There was no sound; the sensation was like the others induced into him. “Do you wish to access the memories he entrusted to my storage?”

“Do I need them to safely pilot you?”

“No. All that you will need, you will have once the protocols have synchronized. By Archipelago law, you must grant specific permission before I can initiate the synchronization sequence. Once the protocols are synchronized, then any time you are in that seat, we will be a single operating system. Do you understand this?”

“I understand. I do not wish to access the memories at this time.”

“Do you grant permission for synchronization?”

“Permission is granted.”

A moment of disorientation swept over him, followed by the strangest sensation of no longer being in his body, but rather of holding it in a gentle embrace. Before, he had needed to think about what part of the ship he wanted to sense; now, it was if the ship was his body, and he processed all the sensations with natural awareness. If a system malfunctioned, there would be pain; since everything felt right, he was ready for flight.

All the hatches closed and sealed, their integrity verified with no more effort than holding his breath would have taken. He looked upward, scanning and plotting his path safely beyond the orbit of the moons, and then transmitted the plan to orbital control.

“Temple City Control, this is Stardreamer requesting approval and clearance for filed departure vector,” he said directly through the transmitter.

Stardreamer, you have approval and clearance for departure. Please observe noise abatement measures until achieving ten kilometers of altitude.”

“Affirmative, control.” He lifted from the ground and made a gentle turn to follow his vector. He retracted the landing struts as he gradually accelerated to altitude, and delighted in the feel of the air’s movement and temperature against him. When the surface was over ten thousand meters below him, he leapt for orbit with a delightful rush of power. His skin grew cold, but it didn’t hurt. The air became thinner until it was non-existent, and he didn’t care. There was tightness in his throat, but not from suffocation. Instead, there was the sense of fulfillment of his fondest dreams.

He could leave a world behind and cross the void as easily as he’d once crossed the village of T’Cha. He didn’t just have his own ship; he was the ship, and as the larger of the two moons appeared ahead in his increasing orbit, he felt like God was laughing with him, dancing through the empty space like he’d once danced with his mother down the road.

Looking northward towards the faint yellow star, he increased the magnification sufficiently to plot his course. “Puerta del Cielo Control, I am Stardreamer, and I request clearance for Earthrise.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Friday Fiction for January 23, 2009

Friday Fiction this week is being hosted by Patty on her blog, Patterings, where you’ll find Mr. Linky to direct you to other fine submissions.

I decided it had been too long since I’d posted anything original written specifically for this blog, and so wrote this short story. This event is mentioned briefly in Cardan’s Pod, and I thought today it might be fun to write the scene. This story takes place while Joshua Cardan and Diego Hyland are still in college, and over Spring Break, not only have they both flown home, Diego’s fiancĂ©e Sally has come along to meet her future in-laws. On this particular day, Josh has invited them to join him for a cruise on his sailboat, a few years before the opening scene of Cardan’s Pod.

The song Sally sings in this story is a real one, written and recorded by Christian artist Kemper Crabb, on his currently out-of-print album, “The Vigil”, and also on the album "Live from Rivendell". The Rivendell arrangement is available to listen to on Rhapsody. It’s a wonderful song, and has been one of my favorites for many years.

Wonders in the Deep
By Rick Higginson

“So, this is the sailboat I’ve heard so much about. I must confess, I was starting to wonder if it was real, or whether you two were just pulling my leg,” Sally said, walking alongside the vessel.

“Pulling your leg?” Josh said, laughing. “Diego, what have you been telling this girl about me?”

“Just the truth, Josh; I told her your family’s made millions in drug money.”

“Oh, thanks. Remind me not to hire you as a publicist when I take over the company someday.”

“Aye aye, Skipper.”

“So, how long are we going to be out today?” Sally asked.

“A three hour tour, a three hour tour,” Josh sang.

“That’s not funny. Seriously, where are we heading?”

“Oh, I figured we’d head out a little ways from shore, and just enjoy an easy cruise. We’ll be back well before dark, unless you two want to make this an overnighter.”

“Um, how many beds does this boat have?”

“Two doubles in the cabin; plenty of room for three people.”

She shook her head. “Unless you and Diego are planning on sharing one, there’s no way we’re staying overnight. Maybe it’s okay with you to sleep with someone before you’re married, but I was raised differently.”

“No problem; once we’re out to sea, I’m technically the captain and I can perform a wedding for you two.”

“No, thank you. Let’s just plan on being back before dark.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He looked at Diego. “Is she always this bossy?”

“When it comes to my reputation, yes,” she said.

Advancing the throttle to cruise dead-slow through the marina, he steered away from the berth and towards the channel leading to the ocean. Once clear of the breakwater, he gave her a bit more speed until he was out of the traffic lane, and then cut the engine. Trimming the sails, he let the breeze push them on a leisurely course south.

Diego and Sally took a seat on one of the benches near the wheel. “Now this,” Diego said, “is the way to spend Spring Break.”

“If you ask me, this is the way to spend a lot more time than just Spring Break. I keep considering taking a year off after we graduate, and just sailing down the coast and off to maybe Bermuda or Puerto Rico. I’d love to do some traveling on the Bitter Pill,” Josh said.

Sally pulled some sunscreen from her tote bag, and began applying it to her arms. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that name; why do you call your boat the Bitter Pill?”

“My Dad taught me to sail when I was a kid, and during High School, I kept bugging my parents for my own sailboat. They told me if I graduated with decent grades, they’d give me one for a graduation present. The day they gave it to me at the marina, Dad told me that it was mine, that taking care of it was my responsibility, and that I was liable to find owning a boat was a bitter pill to swallow. While I was still thinking about what to name her, I kept telling them I was going to go visit my bitter pill, and one day it just kind of stuck. Mom thought it was an especially appropriate name, considering the family business.”

She laughed. “Having a beautiful boat like this is a bitter pill? I find that hard to believe.”

“Want to see the monthly bill for her berth?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to be hurting you too much.”

A noise off to one side of the boat drew their attention, and Sally jumped to her feet. “Oh my gosh; did you see that? What was that?”

“I didn’t see it, but it sounded like a whale spouting,” Josh replied.

It took several minutes of watching before the whale not only surfaced again, it leapt out of the water to splash sideways back into the waves.

“That was so awesome!” Sally said, barely above a whisper.

“I see them do that from time to time,” Josh explained. “They’re migrating from the Caribbean up to the waters off Massachusetts this time of year.”

“They’re so beautiful,” she said, and started singing quietly.

“What’s that song?”

“Oh; it’s one I heard many years ago, taken from Psalm 107.” She sang it again, loud enough for him to hear. “They that go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.”

“That’s a nice song.”

“You should get a plaque that says that for your boat,” she said. “You must have seen some incredible wonders in all the times you’ve been out sailing.”

He shrugged. “After a while, you just kind of get used to seeing such things.”

“You should never get used to seeing wonders. I think we should always be amazed by the things God has done.”

She expressed similar sentiments many times through the remainder of the day, and by the time they cruised back into the marina, Josh wondered if her response to an overnight trip would be different if he offered again. You’re a lucky man, Diego, he thought. Her kind of joy is rare to find.

“I should call my folks to come pick us up,” Diego said.

“What do you two have planned for tonight?” Josh asked.

“Not much; we’ll probably just sit around and visit with my parents.”

“Why don’t you go out tonight?”

“That’d be nice, but my sister already has dibs on the car this evening.”

He eased into the berth and killed the engine, as Diego scrambled to get the forward mooring line. Josh secured the aft, and then resumed the conversation. “Why don’t you take mine? I’m not planning on going anywhere tonight. Dad wants me to read over some of the financial reports for the company, so he can quiz me about them tomorrow. He says if he’s going to pay for my education, he wants to know that I’m learning the right stuff.”

“Are you sure?”

“Go have fun,” he said, passing the keys and a couple of folded bills to Diego.

“Josh,” Diego said, trying to hand the money back to him.

“The skipper pays his crew; go have fun.” He accepted an embrace from his friend, and a more casual one from Sally, and watched the two walk towards the parking lot. When they were out of sight, he went into the cabin, poured himself a drink, and pulled a stack of papers from a case, absently singing, “…and His wonders in the deep.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Updating Layout

Having taken the time to see what others are doing and including on their blogs, I've finally decided to buckle down and work on updating my blog layout. Return visitors may notice some changes already, which include the short introduction to this blog, and - more importantly - the addition of the blog list for other blogs I read.
It's going to take me just a little while to add in the blogs I enjoy visiting, and if yours doesn't appear right away, it more than likely an oversight and not a snub. For tonight, though, I need to finish feeding the furry brats so I can get to bed. Tomorrow isn't a holiday at my workplace, so the alarm will be going off in only a few hours.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Friday Fiction for January 16, 2009

Friday Fiction this week is being hosted by Lynn Squire at her blog, Faith, Fiction, Fun, and Fanciful. If you haven’t gone there first, be sure to click on the link to find your way to the terrific submissions waiting for you.

I realized this week that there is one other book of mine that I have not directly excerpted for this blog –
Cardan’s Pod. This is a rather clumsy oversight, since it’s also the one that anyone interested can actually order and read the entire story, instead of just getting teased with a snippet of an unpublished work.

The doctor that created the Pod had been missing for some three years before Marta rescues Josh, and the Pod has been forced to subsist on whatever they could catch or find in the ocean. While exploring parts of the island that they cannot reach, Josh finds an old pantry with some canned goods remaining, and brings the food to them. This scene from Chapter 7 takes place shortly thereafter.

From Cardan’s Pod
By Rick Higginson

It was as if a holiday had been declared, and by afternoon the Pod had enjoyed a relaxed day. Lessons were cancelled and foraging was held to a minimum. Play seemed to be the overriding thought on everyone's mind.

Josh sat on a rock and watched it all. ‘It’s really not that different from what used to go on at the Country Club pool,’ he thought, as the two sixteen-year-old boys postured and showed off for the girls. He noted the mermaids were acting just as disinterested as the girls had when he and Diego had clowned around for them way back then. They had always kept watching, though.

But this was not the Country Club, and they did not have the designer clothes, or the jewelry, or the latest hairstyles to impress anyone. He and his peers had thought all that superficial stuff was so important, but for the Pod, a few old cans of peaches were cause for celebration.

Had I really been that shallow?’ he wondered. ‘Could anyone here get away with being as phony as so many of the Country Club people had been?’

Just as some of the mothers back at the Country Club had done, Eva and Marta exerted a subtle, but unmistakable, control over the group. At the sound of a curt word from Eva, Josh turned to see a pair of the fourteen-year-olds starting to make out. The correction was received without argument or even a scornful glance, and the two returned to a platonic distance.

Are they not allowed to fool around at all, or just not in front of everyone else?’ Whatever discipline Eva and Marta used, Josh thought a lot of parents could learn something from them.

Yet, despite her authoritative position, he noted Marta was as much a part of the shenanigans as any of the others, while Eva tended to keep sober watch. When one of the young girls leapt out of the water close to the elder mermaid and landed flat to splash her, Marta chased her down and responded in kind. The adult's splash was much larger than the child's, but when everyone shook the water from their faces, the only thing evident was laughter.

One of the sixteen-year-old boys boasted he was going to touch the roof of the cavern. The young merman dove and then erupted from the surface to climb toward the stone ceiling above. His arms flailed over his head, but never contacted anything before he fell backwards.

Eva scolded him, in a mock-stern voice, saying he had not done it correctly at all. She disappeared beneath the surface, and a few moments later burst from the same spot the boy had. Twirling as she rose, she continued to climb in the air over the pool until everyone clearly heard the sound of her hand slapping the stone overhead. Falling tail first, she executed a graceful half-flip as she angled herself headfirst toward the surface. She tucked her arms to her sides and re-entered the water with a smooth splash.

Josh watched in awe as she swam a circuit of the pool, just beneath the surface, making a low leap every few moments.

A voice next to him interrupted his thoughts. “You're being rather quiet right now,” Leanna said.

“I'm just...” he searched for the right word, “overwhelmed.”

She laughed. “Eva doesn't play very often anymore, but when she does, it's always a good show. She's one of our strongest swimmers.” Leanna lowered her voice a bit. “Personally, I think Marta is stronger, but she won't do anything to prove it. She respects Eva too much.”

“Do you know your relationships in the Pod, Leanna?” Josh asked, hoping the question didn’t sound judgmental or superior. How much of what he had read did they already know?

“Of course,” she said. “Marta is my older sister, and Ophelia and Francine are our younger sisters. Eva’s sisters are Lily, Beatrice, and Annette. We have no brothers in either of our families. Both Candace and Marianne have one brother and two sisters in their family groups. After that, each family contains two boys and two girls. The youngest sisters in two of the families, though, are still missing.”

Josh nodded, though he wasn’t sure if she’d seen the gesture. What she told him agreed with what Marcel had noted in his records.

Leanna continued without his prompting. “The boys were supposed to father all of our children, but Dr. Marcel decided that wasn’t such a good idea. He said it might be good for horses, cattle, and dogs, but not for people. Beginning with Robert and Timothy, we have potentially two couples in each age group, since those two are the same age as Annette and Francine.”

“But no one for you older girls?”

“Dr. Marcel taught us that getting pregnant too young increases the risk of problems later in life. He wanted us to have more time to mature before the boys were ready to father children. He didn’t think about us pairing up like people do until later.”

“Doesn’t that bother you sometimes?”

“Of course, but it’s not like we can do anything about it now. Dr. Marcel made his mistakes, but he really did love us and take care of us. That’s why we keep hoping he’ll come back.”

“What will the Pod do if he never comes back?” he wondered, without realizing he’d voiced the question aloud.

Leanna touched his foot and gave him an admiring gaze. “If Dr. Marcel does not come back,” she answered him, “we have you now, Joshua Cardan.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Friday Fiction for January 9, 2009

This week’s Friday Fiction is hosted by Catrina over on her blog, A Work in Progress. Be sure to head over there for Mr. Linky and this week’s terrific submissions.

Nearly three years ago, a friend on an internet forum posted that he was working on an idea for a series of stories set after a world-wide plague had nearly decimated the human race. He asked for anyone that was willing to write up character sketches and submit them, so that he would have an interesting variety of characters in his stories.

I gave him two; this one, and one for Constance, who is mentioned herein. I decided to create a Jewish Rabbi character, and framed his sketch around the Kaddish, which has become a traditional prayer associated with mourning. It is not a prayer for the dead, but rather, because the Kaddish was associated originally with the study of Torah, it was considered a blessing to pray it in the memory of departed loved one. It also is not to be prayed alone, and part of what it does is help the bereaved to remain connected to the community.

It was tough to imagine what it would have been like to be the survivor of such a calamity, and the struggle to hold on to one’s faith in the midst of it would be monumental. For Jew or Christian, we both hold to the idea that God reigns over all the Earth, and that even in the darkest times, He must have a plan in work.

I Am Samuel Harold
By Rick Higginson

Yitgadal v'yitkadash shmey rabba b'almah d'verah chirutay…

How many times have I prayed this prayer over the past 20 years? I prayed it each time as I buried my children and then my wife. I tried to pray it each time I buried someone from the Shul, until the time would only permit me to pray it once each day. I prayed also that the Holy One, baruch Hu, would grant that there would be someone to bury me as well and say the Kaddish for me when the disease claimed me.

It never did. I did not even get sick with it. Instead, I watched my family die; I watched my congregation die. I found a digging machine and learned how to use it well enough to bury as many as I could, until there were just too many for me. I rubbed the Vapor-Rub beneath my nose to block the smell, until it reached the point that I lost all sensitivity to it except in memory. Now, it seems that no matter how many times I wash or change my clothes, I still think the smell of death is clinging to me.

…v'yamlich malchutay b'cha'yaychon uv'yomechon uv'chayay d'chol bet Yisrael…

I remember the smell, but most of all I remember the flies. Oy, how I hate the flies! They swarmed about the bodies faster than I could bury them, attracted by the smell of death. I cannot abide flies anymore. I never pass an opportunity to kill them and I have worked hard to seal our home from their invasion. They feed on death and corruption, and I cannot see one now but I think of them upon the faces of those that I had loved.

If there is any saving grace to the flies, it was the minor amount of them that led me to check Constance. Her family lived next to the home of one of my Congregation, and on whim I checked the house. The people had always been good neighbors, and I thought to repay their kindness by at least granting them a decent burial. Her parents and siblings were already dead, but I noticed that only a few flies paid attention to her, unlike the swarms that plagued the deceased. She was sick, but alive. I took her home and tended to her, thinking that if she was going to die at least she would not have to die alone.

…ba'agalah u'viz'man kariv, v'immru Ameyn.

She lived; she recovered and became my reason to live. So many times in those early months following the plague I wanted to join my fathers in eternal sleep, but now I had this young girl who looked to me for her care. She needed me; her parents were dead. Looking back, I know now that I needed her as well, for my children were dead. I became her father, and she my daughter.

She stands with me now, a beautiful young woman, saying the Kaddish with me for the families that we lost so long ago. Her husband stands beside her, and their son sleeps nearby in his crib. I am a grandfather, yet I cannot help but feel the loss of knowing that my lineage will end with my death.

Y'hay sh'mey rabba m'v'orach l'olam u'olmey olma'ya.

Her husband is a Christian, yet he and I share a strange camaraderie; we both expected Moshiach instead of this plague. His family had taught him that Jesus would return, while my people have waited for thousands of years for Moshiach to come and deliver us. Messiah was to come to Israel, but I wonder at times if I am all that is left of Israel.

HaShem, You promised to our father Avraham that You would always maintain a remnant of Avraham’s seed upon the Earth. Surely that remnant cannot die off with me, can it? Truly, with all the people that have gathered here in this city now, I cannot find even one other, let alone a minyan for a proper service. I must confess that my faith is sorely tested. When they ask, “Where now is their God?” I fear I have no answer anymore.

Yitbarach v'yishtabach, v'yitpa'ar v'yitromam v'yitnasay v'yithadar…

And yet, I still pray the prayers and keep the Shabbat. As much as I can, I observe Kashrut, though there is no longer any Rabbinic groups certifying the foods. I would teach Torah, if there were those who longed to learn it. Instead, I teach the children the other skills that will serve them well in this new world; reading and writing; mathematics and what of the sciences that I know.

And music; I teach music to any and all who would learn whether young or old. The sadness of all that we have lost is best expressed in song, as is the joy of such blessings as a grandchild. So much vanished from our world when the plague hit; it would be an added tragedy if we let music fade away as well.

…v'yitaleh v'yithalal sh'mey d'kudesha b'rich Hu.

The children who were born after the plague are reaching adulthood now; they know of no other world than this one, and the tales we tell them of cities teeming with millions of people are little more than fairy tales to them. I have walked groups of children to the airport and pointed out the aged craft that sit silently by the terminals now. The children think me crazy when I tell them people once rode those things through the sky to places all over the world.

We have a former pilot among our group, but there is no infrastructure to support the aircraft; no maintenance nor navigation systems on-line anymore. Nor is there any guarantee that the destination airport will be in any shape to safely land. From time to time a small, simple aircraft will come through, though as the fuel supplies deteriorated those became increasingly rare as well. All the wondrous things that humanity built had never been intended to last through so many years of neglect.

L'eyla, l'eyla, min kol birchata v'shiratah tushbechata v'ne'chemata…

I have learned instead to live as my ancestors did, with horses and oxen. We have all learned how to live without all those essential technologies we grew so dependent upon. We still have electricity, thanks to the work of some individuals who know how to build wind generators, and some of the electrical devices are in plentiful supply and do not degrade as they sit on the shelves in the old stores.

…da'amiran b'alma, v'immru Ameyn.

Yet, I still miss the life I had before the plague. I miss the warm, modern home I shared with my family. I miss the lively discussions of Torah during the Oneg Shabbat. I miss the people that so enriched my life with love and laughter. I even miss the cranky old widow who used to so vex me with her constant complaints. What I would give to be surrounded by all that again!

Y'hey sh'lama rabba min sh'mayah v'chayim alenu v'achol Yisrael, v'immru Ameyn.

I still see them, though, each night in my dreams. I see their eyes, looking to me for the answers when they ask why this plague was taking them, and the hopelessness when I could give them no response. I see their fly-blown corpses disappearing beneath the dirt until I had no strength left to bury them, and the accusing stares of the vacant eyes asking why I left their bodies to rot in the open.

The younger children ask why I will suddenly start weeping for no apparent reason, but the older ones such as Constance do not. They know.

Osey shalom b'meromav, hu ya'asey shalom alenu v'achol Yisrael, v'immru Ameyn.

“May He who makes peace in the Heavenly realms, may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, Amen.” We conclude the Kaddish in the same way as we always have, and I am again struck by the irony. There is no more war that we know of; there are too few of us left to fight and die needlessly. The Holy One, baruch Hu, made peace for us in this world. Would that He might make peace for me in my dreams each night.

I am Samuel Harold, and I say Kaddish for Genevieve Harold, my wife; for David and Ruth Harold, my children, and for more names and faces than I have time to list.
The Kaddish, with translation, can be found here.
"Baruch Hu" is Hebrew for "Blessed be He"
"HaShem"; literally, "The Name", used in place of the Holy Name of God.
"Minyan" is ten Jewish men, considered the minimum needed for a prayer service.
"Kashrut" is the Hebrew term for the kosher laws.
"Oneg Shabbat" is the communal meal shared after the Shabbat service.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Friday Fiction for January 2, 2009

For the first Friday Fiction of 2009, I thought I would post an excerpt from the only remaining novel that I haven’t featured on this blog yet. “Lana’s Pack” was my NaNoWriMo project for 2007, and was another idea that I’d been thinking on for a long time. While it originally was intended to be a standalone story, the more I thought about the plot, the more I realized it had a strong potential connection to the Pod stories. It became book # 5 in the Pod series, and was a lot of fun to write.

The Prologue introduces one of the main characters, Ray Bittman, as he is handed what will become the most unusual assignment of his career. The story is seen primarily through his POV and through the POV of the title character, Lana, as their lives converge because of the Pack.

Lana first appeared in a supporting role in the previous Pod story, “Merrowsong”, and ended up as one of those characters that begged a story of her own. I had first thought to give the role to Marcel Cardan, but in the end decided Lana’s association with the Cardan family in that story was a great catalyst to propel her into this one.

Lana’s Pack
By Rick Higginson

Sunday, 10:02 a.m.

Deputy Marshal Raymond Bittman followed the lab assistant through a series of hallways and secured doors. His assignments usually started in jails, prisons, or his office in Sacramento, not in some secluded research facility in Nevada, and he fought back feelings of annoyance at having his Sunday morning interrupted for what should be someone else’s job. They passed through one more set of doors to arrive in a small, densely organized office, where the middle-aged man at the desk did not bother to look up at them.

“Thank you, Simons,” the man said, turning the page of a stapled stack of papers. “If you would, please, see if the coffee is ready and bring me a cup?”

“Yes, sir, Dr. Sonders,” the assistant replied. “Marshal, would you like a cup as well?”

“Thank you, I would; just black is fine.” He turned back to the man at the desk. “Dr. Sonders, I am-”

The doctor held up one hand to forestall the introduction. “One moment, please,” he said, turning the next page. His eyes scanned down the sheet before he folded the pages back to original order and set it to one side. He looked up with an appraising gaze and his expression became dourer. “You are the Federal Marshal sent to assist us with the retrieval?”

“Deputy Marshall Bittman, Dr. Sonders,” he said, displaying his badge for emphasis. The doctor’s condescending tone did little to assuage his worsening mood. “My team is gathering as we speak, though I must say I can’t understand why my office has been called in on this assignment. We track dangerous fugitives and return them to custody. From what I have heard of this case so far, this is more in the jurisdiction of the FBI; you had a security breech and property stolen. We don’t investigate break-ins and we don’t recover stolen property, unless it’s in the apprehension of a felon.”

Sonders folded his hands in front of him and leaned back in the chair. “Do you have any idea what we do here, Marshal?”

The assistant returned with the coffee, and Ray thanked him as he took the cup. He took a sip; it was average tasting but properly brewed and welcome. “Well, considering that the rumors are your perps were members of an upstart animal rights group that is calling themselves ART, for Animal Rescue Team, I’d say it’s a safe bet that you do animal research.” He pulled over a chair and took a seat, tired of waiting for the doctor to extend the courtesy of offering it to him. He noticed the man hadn’t acknowledged the arrival of his coffee, either.

“We do genetics research here, Marshal. Our job has included studying the work of Anthony Marcel, Daryl and Geneva Malach, and others, along with seeing how their theories and techniques can be applied in more practical and acceptable ways. The animals that were stolen are more than just research animals; they are genetically modified prototypes and case studies.”

Cocking his head to give the man a sidelong glance, he folded his arms across his chest. “I thought in the wake of what Marcel and the Malachs did, such research was illegal?”

“It is illegal to perform such research on humans, and I assure you, Marshal, we are doing nothing on human subjects. Additionally, I assure you we are doing nothing as extensive as what Anthony Marcel accomplished. The truth be told, I would love to be able to duplicate Marcel’s success, but even after studying it for over twenty-five years, we still cannot figure out how he managed what he did. No, what we’re doing is much simpler, and could best be described as shortcutting around many years of selective breeding. We are accentuating potential that is already there, even as a breeder would do over many generations of purposeful breeding. We’re just not taking many generations to reach the goal.”

“That still doesn’t explain why a team of Federal Marshals has been tasked with this and not an agency more suited to such work.”

“These animals are considered classified, and the National Security Advisor felt it best to get them back as quickly as possible. To that end, she elected to call in the agency with the most experience in tracking escapees. I really could not care less who they send, as long as I get my animals back.”

“How did these activists get access to this facility if these animals are classified? I passed enough security doors just getting to your office to have frustrated an accomplished spy; a bunch of bunny huggers should never have gotten inside the outer gates.”

“We’re looking into that; we suspect they had inside help.” He handed over a sheet of paper. “Most of the animals have tracking collars and RFID chips, though my tech weenies so far haven’t managed to get a lock on the location. One of them suggested maybe the thieves knew about the tracking and have taken measures to block it. This is a list of the frequencies and ID codes for you, and this-” he handed over a photograph. “Is what we suspect is their vehicle. All the security video for the time of the break-in was deleted, but they didn’t go back quite far enough and left us with a second or two of this van driving by the gate.”

He took the photo and sighed. “This isn’t much to go on; no license plate, and in the lighting it’s difficult to tell even what color the paint is.”

“I’m told the U.S. Marshals are the best for tracking down people with minimal information; maybe that’s why you were assigned this task. If you can find the thieves, you should also find the animals.”

“To think I had to skip teaching the Bible study at church this morning for this,” he said, wondering who the pastor would have found to fill in for him on such short notice. “You do understand, Dr. Sonders, that this isn’t our normal quarry. We as yet do not know who our thieves are and whether they have priors we can work from. We have no established patterns to base reasoned behaviors off of, and we don’t even know for certain the thieves will keep the animals. They may transfer them to some rescue society, release them, or keep them in a remote, shielded location. My team will do their best, as always, but this is going to be new ground for us.”

“Just make sure you’re paying more attention to getting my animals back than to studying some antiquated religious texts.”

As difficult as it was to believe, the man’s disdain was worse than before. Rubbing his forehead, he overlooked the doctor’s attitude. “Are any of these animals dangerous to the public? Is there anything my team needs to know before we potentially face them?”

“They’re animals, Marshal; they have some genetic enhancements, yes, but they are still just animals. None of them was bred to be vicious, nor do they carry any diseases. All have been properly vaccinated and kept well-socialized. However, it would be remiss to not remind you that, as with any animal, they might react in unexpected ways if cornered or threatened. Use the same kind of caution you would when approaching any animal that doesn’t know you yet.”

“You do understand that I will hold you personally responsible if any of my team or anyone nearby is injured by one of these animals because you withheld information?”

“If any of the stolen specimens were particularly dangerous, I would tell you,” he said, turning his attention to his computer. “Simons will show you to the enclosure the animals were stolen from, in case you can gather some evidence there.”

Ray turned to follow the assistant; rolling the sheets of paper he’d been given, he was just about to step through the door when Sonders called after him for one more comment.

“Oh, and Marshal Bittman? It should go without saying that these animals are very valuable. I trust you and your team will make the utmost effort to insure they are returned to us healthy and unharmed.”

He took another sip of coffee, letting the hot liquid stop him from saying that it wasn’t the animals he was considering harming.