Joe lay flat on his back, spread-eagled, on a pile of dirt at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. The wind was knocked out of him, and he may have been unconscious for a while. It was dark. It was cool. And he had no idea where he was. He slowly sat up, trying to calm himself down, but it wasn’t working. “Okay,” he said, shaking, “I’m in a dark hole, inside an alien planet and…I hate caves.” He mustered up some courage and stood up. He felt all around him in the darkness. He blinked his eyes hard to make sure they were open and decided that it was more calming to keep them shut, at least it felt more familiar. He moved forward, his hands probing in front of him, each step slow and methodical, testing the ground with every movement. It was cool and musty, and a little dusty smelling. He could smell. He could hear. And he could feel his way. Three out of five senses, not bad.
He hoped to make his way toward some light. He heard the movement of rocks sliding or falling, followed shortly by a large whomp. The sound startled Joe and he tensed. The air filled with dust and became more difficult to breathe after the whomp. He couldn’t decide what the noise was, so he continued on even more cautiously. Even though he was already being as vigilant as possible, probing the darkness with his hands, sliding his feet to test the ground at every step, how much more carefully could he move?
Sound was magnified in the darkness, and so was his imagination. A rustling of pebbles — or was it the pitter-patter of tiny demon feet rushing around? — and another huge whomp — or the footstep of a very sluggish giant. The sounds echoed in the emptiness surrounding Joe. He shakily reached into his pocket and pulled out his last stick of gum.
He continued, probing, sliding, and moving cautiously. He needed to get somewhere other than where he was, for where he was was not the place to be. Minutes seemed like hours. Another whomp, this time without the warning pitter-patter of demon’s feet, or did he just fail to hear them? He thought the whomp came from behind him, but the cavernous echo disguised the true source. The gum he was chewing became stale, and he spit it out. I’m going to step on that, aren’t I? He continued his slow trek through the darkness, as his mind raced to conclusions about the whomps that now seemed to come more frequently. Or was he imagining that, too? He didn’t know. All Joe knew was that the most lethargic creature in the universe was chasing him down, and he couldn’t outrun it.
Another whomp was accompanied by a turbulent crash. Had the slothful beast stepped on something in the dark? Joe thought it had come from his left, but he wasn’t sure.
A deafening burst, then sparks ignited off to his right. The thing was straddling him. The sparks created a cloud of glowing gas that slowly drifted to the ceiling. It hung there like a poorly lit chandelier, faded, and disappeared.
A rain of gravel and a burst of light flooded in from above as a large portion of the cave ceiling plummeted to the ground, landing with a large whomp. “That explains it.” Joe felt a little relieved. Dust rose up as the clod of dirt and stone shattered. After it cleared, Joe could see that he was in a large cave…Not so much a cave as a warehouse or hangar with finished walls and floors. A humongous stockpile of equipment, vehicles and what looked like weapons and ammunition was scattered throughout the cavernous space. Mounds of dirt littered the floor where sections of the roof had caved in and crashed. One mound, in particular, contained the imprint of an Earthling.
When Joe realized the roof was caving in he stopped breathing, beyond panic. It took only a moment for him to decide to breathe again and start thinking rationally about his options. A technique he had learned in one of the many wilderness courses he enjoyed: Remain calm, think, and panic later.
A golden plane sat among the debris of the self-destructing cave, gleaming like a beacon. It looked as if it had just been washed and waxed, without a speck of dust on it. A large boulder fell from the ceiling and hit the plane. The boulder shattered and fell off to the side. The plane suffered absolutely no damage and gleamed, showroom-new. Joe nodded. “That’s where I’m going.” The ceiling began to crumble faster, opening up to the sky and allowing more light to pour in. The cave floor quickly filled with rocks and soil as Joe, dodging falling debris, scrambled to safety under the ship. Relentlessly, stone and rubble pummeled the ship, and the landing gear bounced as it absorbed the impact.
The whole cave was filling in. The dirt and stone rose from the floor like a flood, everything in the cave swallowed by the rising tide of soil. Joe crawled further under the plane near the front landing gear as he and the plane were slowly engulfed.
Joe crawled up the landing gear into the wheel well and the fuselage. The struts compressed under the great weight as he and the ship became entombed within the planet. He was in complete darkness again. Recalling the shimmering access panel from Fred and Frank’s craft, Joe started feeling around in the dark for something similar to the controls he had found in the Esprit’s engine compartment. As the dirt rose higher, he could only hope this ship had an access panel as well. Suddenly, with a strange glowing shimmer, the panel above him disappeared, and a rush of fresher air came down from above. “Aha!” Joe cheered out loud, thrilled at the prospect of not being buried alive. He crawled into the ship. He searched for an inner control and closed the panel behind him. He was in the dark cockpit of an alien plane buried on an alien planet. What will their archeologists make of me years from now?
The land above collapsed into a giant sinkhole. The Ulurues scattered for safety. The tow truck and the search teams had left long ago.
The cabin of the plane was quickly running out of air. “Air!” Joe gasped, realizing the air was getting thin. “I need air.” A couple of lights flickered on the instrument panel, and air began to flow. “Voice command!” Joe blurted out in excitement, and more lights flickered on the panel. Alien symbols scrolled across a small screen, but Joe couldn’t read them. “Lights!” he demanded, and the lights came on. Joe said “Cool,” and cool air flowed out of the vents. I better watch what I say.
Joe righted himself in the seat. He could see the dirt piled on the glass of the canopy. He then noticed his surroundings. The interior looked luxurious, like a fine Italian sports car. Wrapped in leather and trimmed with wood and brushed metals. At least that was what Joe thought a fine Italian sports car would look like since he’d never actually seen one. The seat was covered with a soft, supple material. Corinthian leather. He noticed he was a little tall for the seat, but not by much. Looking around, Joe tried to make sense of the controls, but they were just too foreign. The only thing familiar was a joystick at the end of each armrest, at perfect arms reach when seated. He touched the control panels and played with the buttons and joysticks, because boys loved toys.
He started experimenting with the voice commands. “Fly!” didn’t work. “Return to your previous destination,” didn’t work. “Return to last takeoff place,” also, no reaction. “Unbury yourself.” Nothing moved. Getting frustrated, he said, “Blast your way out of here,” and then realized that may not have been a wise choice.
“UP!” The plane started to move up. Air shot out from below the plane and plumes of dirt rose out of the sinkhole as the ship shifted through the ground and unburied itself. Once the plane rose from its grave, the dirt slid off, and the engines fired. Joe and the plane hovered. Joe commanded, “Take me to the nearest airport.” It didn’t do anything. “Spaceport?” Still nothing. “Port?” and the ship listed to the left. “Stop! Stop! Okay, multiple definitions of the same word. I’ll have to watch that, too.” He thought for a moment. “Home!” The ship shot into the sky like a bat out of anneheg, throwing Joe back into the leather seat. Quickly he grabbed the seat belts and buckled in.
Case #: 010313584508
Reporting Officers: Desi #8354011 and Dash #4323530
Desi entered his report: “Early Sunday morning. It was quiet, Sunday-morning quiet. Appropriately quiet. Detectives #4323530 and #8354011 drove purposefully through the majestic estates of Manor Hills to Mr. Henry Streator’s house. Dash at the wheel, the ever-vigilant Desi recording important information that would imminently result in the swift and efficient conclusion of the case of the ‘Ladascan Larcenist.’ Henry Streator, one of the victims of the recent break-in, and one of many interviews the valiant detectives would make in the course of their investigation. The house was fairly large, but in comparison, was older and smaller than the surrounding estates that now filled this ritzy neighborhood.”
“Are you narrating the report, again?” Dash asked.
“I’m only embellishing it a little,”
“Well, don’t,” he commanded. “It’s not efficient.”
“Neither is interviewing everyone in this case. Could this process take any longer?” Desi complained.
“Well, it’s a good thing we’re automatons and not limited to the short life span of a natural being,” Dash pointed out.
“There is a statute of limitations, and besides… I hate that term. ‘Automaton’ makes me think of a doll or child’s toy rather than an artificial life form. Which, come to think about it, I don’t like that phrase either. There’s nothing artificial about me, I’m just different.”
“I concur with you on your philosophical dissertation, my metaphysical colleague.” Dash and his partner exited their vehicle and walked up to Mr. Streator’s door. “But we do need to place our immediate attention on the case at hand.”
They rang the bell, and within they heard slow, determined footsteps approach the door and stop. An awkwardly long moment of silence was broken by the heavy snap of a lock bolt, only to be followed by another arduous lapse. Dash and Desi looked questioningly at each other. The latch on the door released and it creaked lethargically open.
An elderly gentleman looked up at them. As Desi was about to break the lengthy interlude, the octogenarian said, “Good day, gentlemen. May I help you?”
“I’m Detective Dash, and this is Detective Desi from the Thirty-Third Precinct. We are here to ask Mr. Streator a few questions about his recent loss.”
“Show them in, Winston,” a voice shouted from within.
“Right this way, gentleman.” Winston showed them in with a gesture of his hand, closed the door behind them, and led them to a small sitting room nearby.
Desi, forgetting to radio-think to Dash, whispered, “I’m impressed Mr. Streator has the means to support a butler.”
“That’s ‘valet,’ sir.” Winston’s terse words and menacing glance let Desi understand his position on the term “butler.”
Dash and Desi looked around the house as they followed Winston in. It was lavishly decorated, except everything seemed to be poor copies of quality pieces, the kinds of things one would buy when trying to keep up the appearance of a lifestyle one couldn’t afford. Winston led them into a sitting room furnished with a few large chairs, a couch, and a small table. A bookcase, complete with a rolling ladder, spanned one wall, next to a fireplace in the corner. A middle-aged man with slightly graying hair and a wiry build greeted them.
“Detectives Dash and Desi of the Thirty-Third Precinct,” Winston announced. “Mr. Streator.” He turned to the detectives and, looking Desi square in the face, paused dramatically. “Sirs.”
“Good afternoon, gentleman. I’ve been anticipating your arrival.”
Desi eagerly pulled out his electronic ledger and began recording every detail, while Dash began the interview.
“As you know, your safe deposit box at the Mercantile Exchange office was robbed.”
“Yes, I received an email about it late Saturday, while I was on a buyer’s trip, so I hurried home to assess the losses. Do you have any suspects?”
Unceremoniously, Desi took Henry’s hand and recorded his fingerprints into the ledger. Henry looked at him questioningly.
“We have a few leads,” Dash said.
“It was quite a job to rob a safe that big,” Henry remarked, blinking in reaction to the flash from Desi taking his picture. “How many other boxes were broken into?”
“We’re not at liberty to divulge such information during an ongoing investigation. Was there anything significant in your box?” Dash asked as Desi took a hair follicle and recorded its DNA into the electronic ledger.
“No, not really.” Henry rubbed his head where Desi had plucked the hair. “I deal primarily with small diamonds used in jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, earrings, that sort of stuff. The contents of the box were
valued at only about one hundred thousand credits.”
“That’s still a tidy sum. Do you ever deal in anything large?”
Henry recoiled as Desi noted his shoe size. “Is this really necessary?”
“Please, Mr. Streator,” Desi dismissed his objection. “We’ll ask the questions.”
Henry hesitated as he processed Desi’s first remark. “Rarely. Maybe a five- or six-karat jewel every now and then, usually by request from a prepaid buyer.”
“Were the contents insured?” Dash asked.
“Of course, I have an inventory of the contents right here for my insurance claim. You can have a copy if you like. Unfortunately, the insurance company will assess their own value on the diamonds, not my actual costs. Insurance companies, they’re the biggest crooks of all.”
“Who is your insurance provider?” Desi asked as he scanned the inventory into his ledger.
“One other thing, Mr. Streator,” Dash asked. “Why would the Quesonte government be interested in the contents of your box?”
“The Quesontes!” Henry’s voice pitched, as he straightened in his chair. He glanced around as if to see Quesonte agents bursting into the room.
“Yes. Apparently, the Quesontes have requested copies of our investigation. Why?”
“I…I don’t know,” Henry said. Dash and Desi noted an increase in his peripheral physiological variables, indicating deception. “Maybe they’re interested in the robber more than what was robbed.”
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Streator,” Dash said. “Will we be able to contact you here, or do you have a personal phone that would be a more reliable means of communication?”
“Here’s my card with my mobile number; I almost always have it with me.”
Dash reciprocated, handing Henry his own card. “And here’s my mobile number. I always have it with me,” he replied, referring to the phone all androids have built into their circuitry. Both convenient and annoying; it’s convenient to always be connected, but annoying to never be unplugged.
Dash and Desi left the house and returned to their car. “What do you think?” Desi asked as they drove down the street.
“He has a need to practice economy,” Dash said.
“He’s obviously living in a neighborhood he can’t afford, trying to live a lifestyle beyond his means.”
“You got that from the interview?” Desi asked.
“While you recorded, I observed,” Dash explained. “His house is older than the surrounding houses and is in disrepair. He’s trying to keep up appearances with a coat of paint and a few knickknacks thrown about but has made no real improvements or satisfactory maintenance. On the inside, it was filled with ornate objects but nothing of significant value. Definitely not up to the standards of the neighbors living around him. His car is ten years older than the oldest car in the neighborhood and is probably a sore spot with the neighbors. Although Mr. Streator was not a torrent of information, his home spoke volumes. He is in a desperate way, but how desperate I cannot tell as yet.”
“Explain how he can afford a butler, then,” Desi asked.
“Valet, my good man. You do not wish Winston to become terse with you again.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A butler is a household servant; thus he serves the house. A valet is a personal attendant to the ‘master of the house’, a gentleman’s gentleman, if you will, thus he serves the master. And to answer your original question, I do not know. By all accounts, he should not have one.”
“Oh.” Desi felt the cold hand of Dash’s lecture. “Do you think he may have robbed himself for the insurance money?”
“I don’t believe he is the one who actually committed the crime, but I don’t believe he is innocent of the crime either.”
“Shall we put a trace on his communications?” Desi asked.
“Definitely, and a tail on him, too,” Dash added.
Parked down the street, Evinrude watched Dash and Desi drive past his car and out of sight. Evinrude stepped out and leisurely strolled up the block to Mr. Streator’s house. He rang the doorbell and Winston answered it. “Good day, sir, may I help you?”
“Please inform Mr. Streator that Evinrude Boulougante desires a conference with him.”
“I heard, I heard,” Henry nervously acknowledged, uncertain of his near future. “Please show him in.”
“Follow me, sir.” Winston led him to the same room.
“Thank you,” Evinrude said to the valet. “Hello, Mr. Streator. My name is Evinrude Boulougante.”
“It concerns me that this would gain the attention of Evinrude Boulougante!” Henry shook in terror.
“Well, as you know we are interested in one of the stolen articles.”
“Oh yes, I know of Quesonte’s interest, but why did they need to send you?”
“Well,” Evinrude went on, baiting him with a half-truth. “It does seem pretty odd that your box was the only one broken into.”
“It was? The detectives didn’t say anything about that!”
“The police like to give you only what they want to give you. It’s their power. And if you take in the level of expertise the thief exhibited in gaining his way into one of the Shooman Towers, it is even more curious that they wasted their immense talents on an insignificant heist like this.”
“I haven’t been told of how it was done.”
“It leads us to believe that it was a covert operation with a collaborator on the inside. And of course, we don’t need overwhelming or even conclusive evidence to eliminate our problems.”
“I’m not the only one who knew about the delivery.” Henry found some courage and tried to reason his way out. “And besides, what about the Souftes? They have an interest in the package, too?”
“True,” Evinrude agreed.
“And I don’t have anything to gain,” Henry explained. “You’re my bread and butter. I wouldn’t be able to live without your government’s support.”
“Yes, I understand. But I’m not the one you need to convince. So, if you could provide me with information as to where we should direct our attention, I’m sure we could keep you on the payroll.”
“I don’t have anything,” Henry pleaded. “I was out of town when it happened. It was as much a surprise to me as anyone.”
“My card, keep in touch.” Evinrude stood and presented Henry with his card.
He stared at Evinrude and slowly took the card.
Winston appeared in the doorway as if he had been listening in, and escorted Evinrude to the door.
Henry just sat, dazed, pondering his fate.
Homer’s Log Day Two
Early this morning, I set out to find the ranger’s station. Joe had mentioned there should be one directly north of our camp. I took a compass and a few supplies I thought were necessary for the trek and left everything else behind. I left the tent up in case Joe returned and needed shelter. I made an arrow out of large rocks, pointed north. After four hours of hiking, I came upon a campsite near a lake. The tent had been abandoned. Beside the tent was an arrow made of large rocks pointing to the north.
I’m going to die, aren’t I?