Tendrils

Tendrils
by Holly Barbo

ISBN: 978-0692521939
Pages: 284
Release Date: September 1, 2015
Age Category: General audience
Genre: Science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, thriller, historical fiction
Cover Designer: J.C. Clarke

The Tin of Honey

Zoe knelt by the tiny trickle of water that seeped out around the rocks. She wet some dirt and caked it on the stings that liberally dotted her face and arms. Zoe breathed a sigh as the mud eased the discomfort. The little girl would be filthy by the end of the day, but she doubted anyone would notice.

There was a scuff of sound and Zoe whirled low into the deepest shadows of the rocks. “It’s just me,” came the whisper. Bright green eyes under a messy thatch of brown peered over the edge of the gully.

The little girl sagged in relief. Sam wouldn’t tell on her.

The boy studied his small friend. “I see you found the bee’s nest. Did you get the honey Robson wanted?”

The little girl nodded. She knew the man’s desire for the sweet. He had impatiently pried open the can and grabbed a honeycomb as soon as she delivered it last time. Zoe pointed to the large tin. She stood and brushed the drying mud off her palms as she moved to the container and lifted it into her arms. Sam shook his head at the picture. The tin seemed almost as big as she was. “You got that okay? Both of us have to get back to the work team. We’re late. I’ll see you there.”

Zoe shook the tangle of tawny-colored hair out of her eyes and nodded toward the top of the gully. Sam picked up his bucket of berries and, with a wave, disappeared over the rise.

The youngster scrambled up the slope. The tin was big and awkward in her arms and she stumbled, jarring the container. She struggled to get her balance. Though she knew Sam would have helped her, she couldn’t allow that. There were consequences if she didn’t pull her weight.

Stopping at the edge of the wheat field, she set the big tin down again and rubbed at the bee sting at the edge of her collar of obedience. Nothing could be done about that particular sting. It was just going to chafe against the hard edges of the band. The collar was impossible to take off. All the kids wore one. Robson had found them in the old prison storage room and used them to ensure the orphans did as they were told. The collar was constructed in a series of overlapping metal flakes. It reminded her of the scales of the snake she had seen near the compound last week.

With a sigh, she squatted down and wrapped her skinny arms around the tin. She got the weight balanced and started through the waving grass. Running was impossible, but she hurried the best she could. Sam was far in the distance and would reach the other orphans probably ten minutes ahead of her.

Robson had generously offered to take in the orphans of the war and teach the youngsters a trade. As long as he produced food for the military, he could use the old prison property for free. Nobody rebelled and lived. It was an efficient system and he didn’t need to pay any guards. He ran the whole operation alone. That was how the children came to be raising food for the war effort.

It was harvest time on the farm and the bigger children of her team were busy cutting the wheat. There was an age range from twenty-five years to six. Zoe was one of the youngest. Everyone worked except Warden Elder Robson, as he wished to be called.

She was given the task of collecting the honeycomb because it was work she could do and Robson took delight in choosing jobs for her that would cause her pain, knowing that she couldn’t complain. Zoe didn’t speak. She hadn’t uttered a word since she had seen her parents killed.

Zoe was in sight of her team. She was short for a six-year-old and the wheat was high. Between her sun-bleached blonde hair and her height, she was indistinguishable from the tall grass if anyone would have looked. She could see Sam reaching the work crew about a quarter of a mile away and a look of determination came over her swollen face as she pressed to increase her speed. Though the wheat field had a gentle slope, the rocks had long since been combed out so she needn’t watch her every step for fear of tripping.

A flash of reflected light caught her eye. Her attention became riveted to the road that wound through the fields. She paused. There was Robson’s jeep and a truck with a canopy stopping by her work crew. She had heard of the culling: the time when the orphans who were around age twenty-four and twenty-five were taken from the farm to fight as soldiers. It happened at the same time the government picked up the food for the war effort. So it didn’t make sense to see them at a harvesting. She knew there were none near that age in her group.

The tin slipped out of her nerveless fingers as several men jumped out of both vehicles. Tears of fear streaked down her face as she saw ten children roughly loaded onto the shadowed back of the truck. These were her friends! The only family she had left! She heard screams. There were some scuffles as a few resisted. Even at a distance she could see one of the older orphans thrashing and fighting the restraints. A big man with a black beret, who Zoe thought was Robson, clubbed the struggling teenage girl. Her body went limp and she could hear raucous laughter as the strangers tossed the girl’s unconscious body in with the others. There was a shout from the crowd as an older boy surged forward. Warden Elder Robson turned toward him and extended his arm.

Pop!

As if nothing of importance had happened, the group of men got into their vehicles and left the sunny wheat fields.

Zoe leaned down, lifted the big tin and struggled to run. Her balance was awkward and she fell after a few steps, skinning her knees and banging her already sore chin and cheekbone against the container. She wiped tears away so she could see, hoisted the can higher in her arms and moved ahead in an ungainly run.

As she stumbled into the cleared area where the team had been cutting, she dropped her burden and ran forward. Nicholas was lying very still on the ground and the kids were clustered around. Some were crying while others were silent. Sam turned his head and saw her. He opened his arms and she ran to him, tears streaking her muddy face. He held her tightly as her body shook with sobs. Finally, she pulled back and looked into his face. He was one of the few who could understand her and her hands flew in a silent flurry of questions.

He held her against his chest and spoke the answers into her tawny hair. “Robson’s been gambling. He lost a lot of money to some bad men and decided to pay them in slaves.”

Zoe jerked in his arms.

He didn’t wait for her hands to express their denial and outrage. “No, I know we aren’t, but who is to question what he does way out here? The government just cares about the food we produce. Nobody checks on us and our welfare.” He smoothed her hair as he added in a murmur, “They mostly took girls.” His voice shook as he named those who were taken and Zoe’s small fists knotted in his shirt as she listened.

She was still for a minute then pointed to Nicholas.

“Did you hear the pop?”

She nodded.

“Nick’s dead, Zoe, and the others are lost to us. Nicholas went a little crazy when Robson hit Amy and Robson released the full charge of the collar on Nick. It broke his neck. This will happen again because we’re a salable commodity.”

The girl’s hands flashed in the air. Sam leaned his cheek against her hair as he answered. “You’re right. He needs us to harvest and prepare the food for the government, so he’ll wait a bit. But it will happen again. He’ll just get more orphans to fill the cells and the work teams. As long as he can control us with our collars, we are nothing but slaves.”

***

It was a somber bunch that finished the day’s labor and awaited the truck to bring them home to their dormitories. They loaded Nick’s body, the sheaves of cut wheat along with the bucket of berries and Zoe’s tin on the flatbed truck before the subdued youngsters got on and an older orphan drove them back to the compound.

Warden Elder Robson was standing out in the yard as they drove up. He held the controller device in his hand for all to see. “Unload the truck. Get the wheat into the shed. Team four will be threshing it tomorrow. The kitchen has a treat for you tonight. It’s a gift from me in thanks for your hard work, your continued obedience and your sacrifice.” He gave a soft chuckle at his witticism and looked at each face making sure that they were all cowed. Nobody met his eyes. They all pitched in helping each other unload the laden flatbed as he looked on. At last, the truck was almost emptied. Sam handed the big tin to Zoe and he grabbed the bucket of berries.

A grin spread across Robson’s face. “Ah! Our silent Zoe has found me some honey! Come here, girl!”

With downcast eyes, Zoe approached the big man with her tin. She set it down at his feet and started to turn away.

He grabbed her shoulder and held her there for his examination. “Bees got the best of you, eh?” He laughed and cruelly pinched a large sting on her face, causing her to wince. “Better you than me. Had a bad experience with those little buggers years ago. But I do love their honey. You run along now unless you want me to ask what took you so long today that you weren’t with the crew when I visited. You wouldn’t have been wasting time to get out of work, would you?”

Zoe was wildly shaking her head and backing up. She stumbled, lost her balance, and fell in the dust of the courtyard. Sam rushed to her side and helped her up as Robson gave a snort of laughter and picked up the tin.

Disregarding the children, he wrapped one beefy arm around the container and pried off the lid, knocking it aside as he stuck his hand in the gooey sweet.

Bees flew out of the tin. Zoe’s eyes opened wide in horror as she’d been unaware there had been any within the honeycombs. They took out their ire on the nearest human.

Robson staggered back and fought to get his hand free of the clinging honey and the bees in the tin. He was stung numerous times on his face, neck and arms. He looked in horror at the children. “Allergic…help m—!”

He slid to his knees, gasping for breath. The controller dropped from his fingers and the honey container rolled away. Robson’s neck muscles corded as he strained to suck in air, his throat closing.

Sam and Zoe watched in shock as the man fell over in the dirt. It was but a few moments later when the big man lay quiet. Word spread and a silent crowd gathered around the still form. At last, Chris, one of the oldest orphans, approached and knelt beside Robson to feel for a pulse. There was none. He reached over and picked up the hated controller from the dust. He slid a lever down the side, pointing it at the small tawny-haired girl. She gasped as she heard a click—and the collar dropped away.

“Thank you Zoe,” he said as he pointed the device at each orphan in turn, freeing them. “You didn’t know. None of us did. But I’m not sad he’s dead! That tin of honey has given us a future.”

Breadcrumbs

Zara felt a stinging prick in the depth of her slumber. It was a sign. She drifted toward awareness from the heaviness of cold sleep with a hint of a smile kissing her full lips. The experts said you didn’t dream when you were in the capsules, but she knew differently. The ship had traveled the 4.37 light years to Alpha Centauri at warp speed, but to conserve supplies, the crew maintained a rigid schedule of Life-Suspension-Activity in their individual sleep pods. The fact that they’d begun her wake-up sequence meant the journey was almost over.

The young woman let her mind drift back to the dream. She’d taken the dive boat out into the coral reef. It was a beautiful day and the clear azure water beckoned like a siren singing just for her. Slipping on her tank, she grabbed her mask and flipped into the lapping waves. Treading water, she smiled to let the old man in the boat know all was well. Fitting the mask over her short black curls and adjusting it on her face, she disappeared into the magical world of delicately waving sea fans and the flashing colorful scales of fish. It was the world of her heart and the motive behind her pursuit and achievement of a doctorate in marine biology. This brought her to awareness of where she was and why.

Earth was struggling with the by-products of bad decisions, population and the foibles of quixotic evolutionary changes. There’d been great excitement when the astro-scientists had discovered a class M planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. It was located in the ideal Goldilocks Zone making it perfect for human habitation. There were no detectible radio waves or light activity as far as they could determine. Zara was part of a small, but highly qualified, survey crew sent to check out the world they were calling Horus after the Egyptian god of rebirth and resurrection.

Zara slowly sat up and as her hands lifted to her encrusted eyes, a warm damp cloth was placed in her palms. With a contented purr, she pressed it against the tawny brown of her cheeks and eyelids before looking up into the blue eyes of her friend Allison.

“Captain kept your rotation team asleep for as long as he could. You’ve missed the distant approach, but we won’t be close enough for orbit for an hour. Barely time enough to get your brain out of cobwebs. I saw you smiling. Dreaming again?”

Zara nodded as she stepped out of the cold sleep pod. The willowy frame of the marine biologist swayed as her weakened body struggled to support her weight.

Allison stepped forward and pressed a hypospray against her arm. “Let’s get you to your quarters. A rejuvenating shower followed by a meal will set you to right. The captain will want all of us at our science stations as we near Horus and get more detailed scans. By the way, you know the med team says there are no dreams in stasis. So what was it this time? The green grass of home? Perhaps on a picnic with a hunky guy?”

The newly awakened woman grinned. “No. It was the coral reef near Bora Bora. That’s home to me. Do you dream?”

The red head nodded with a smile that showed dimples and drew attention to the light smattering of freckles crossing her cheeks. “Sometimes. Home is Scotland. I dream of the green land…and men in kilts. Ah well, we won’t be sharing our dreams with the others. Get yourself clear headed and fed and I’ll see you top side.”

***

A brief twenty minutes later, feeling much more herself, Zara stepped onto the bridge and to her station. Bringing up the scans of the oceans, she sunk her agile mind into what they knew so far. The data would fill in as the ship got closer and began orbit, but this was enough to familiarize her in preparation. The next few hours flew by as the ship’s scans brought in further information.

***

After they’d been in orbit for a few days, the teams met to share data and plan their planetary surveys. Zara listened to the reports from the other scientific departments, extrapolating the intelligence to get a bigger picture. When it was her turn, she paused for just the tiniest of seconds.

“The oceans are healthy with a chemical composition and balance similar to Earth’s two hundred years ago. The overall temperature is stable with only a few hot-spots along active plate subduction zones. The diversity of life, as far as the scans can detect, is robust with all niches proportionate to each other. I’m very pleased and excited for our mission.” She stopped and looked down at the small flash drive she’d been turning in her hands. “I’m hearing the same from each of our multi-disciplinary team. This is potentially phenomenal news for the people of Earth and our mission. I recommend we proceed to the next step and check out with on-site examinations. There is a questioning part of me which wonders where the higher life forms are? Horus appears perfect for habitation. Where are the”—she opened her hands is an expansive gesture—“humanoids, sentient pterodactyls or rock slime capable of problem solving? I suggest we watch for them.

“The land mass appears to be mostly savanna with some arid regions and lacking our temperate rainforests and tundra zones, but people can adapt. That doesn’t bother me. The higher life forms aren’t required and it may be natural for Horus not to have them as the ecological niches appear to be stable. On one hand it’s excellent news as humans could fill the niche without disturbing the balance, but I question why this Eden lacks it. When we go down to the planet, we need to be very alert for any signs of intelligent life.” She smiled. “I hope we don’t find it in blood-sucking mosquitos.”

Chuckles were heard around the table and several heads nodded in agreement.

Zara turned to the captain and the ship’s communication officer sitting beside him. “What does our team on Earth say about our preliminary findings?”

An ensign, a young man of mixed Asian heritage, glanced at the captain before speaking. “We haven’t been able to reach them. Our communication went silent a day before we dropped out of warp. I’ve checked all systems and they are green on this end. All I can surmise is the carrier signal is delayed this far out. If I’m correct, we will regain contact by this time two days from now. Meanwhile, engineering is working with my team double checking our systems. If we can fix it or design a fail proof way around the possible glitch, I’m confident we’ll come up with something.”

The captain reached toward the ship’s data recorder. “If that’s all, we should proceed immediately with the on-world survey trips. Let’s see if we can find some answers. You know our safety, contamination and security protocols. Meeting dismissed!”

***

Over the next several days, teams flew specialized shuttles down to the surface to explore, take samples and turn over rocks in an attempt to get an accurate reading of the bio-diversity and health of the delicately woven planetary life.

***

Zara’s vehicle was one of the more complex models. It was able to land on the waves and could deploy a surface boat or a single-occupant deep-water submersible. Other members in her field were examining rivers, lakes and bays, but she preferred to survey the oceans. On the fifth day, she settled on the gently moving swells off the coast of a small continent in Horus’ southern hemisphere. The orbit surveys had indicated a small barrier reef in the shallow waters of the continental shelf and she was itching to launch the mini-sub to explore and compare Horus’ reefs to those she knew on Earth.

Once her submersible was deployed, she set her shuttle’s security lock-down. She wouldn’t be able to directly contact the mother ship from underwater but could relay a distress signal if, for some reason, something went wrong.

With a whoop of excitement, she adjusted the ballast and took the craft under. Zara set the sub’s recording on automatic so she wouldn’t miss any data but felt like a kid in a candy store. She wanted to look everywhere at once! The marine life was different but just as colorful and fascinating. About a half hour into the survey, her sonar pinged. Altering the craft’s course, she went to investigate whatever anomaly had triggered the audible alert.

Leaving the coral rib, she headed closer to the continent…following the tiny directional light on her panel. As the young woman approached the area, she spotted an irregular shape protruding from the sandy ocean floor. At a depth of about 190 feet, the light from above flickered over the object and Zara’s jaw dropped. “Holy Sh—! Computer, record all available data and analyze and link my audible report to your input. I will circle her.”

It was a stone sculpture which had been placed in the sands. “Judging from the amount of encrustation this replica of a…female humanoid appears to have been here for a little over a year. Not that long at all! For lack of a better description, the woman appears to be running. She is looking behind her and, if I could put a human emotion on her face, it would be fear.”

The sonar pinged again and looking at the blinking light on the seafloor grid, the next object was 500 yards away and aligned directionally with the path the stone sculpture was fleeing. Zara made note of that and plotted it in her survey as she increased the craft’s speed.

The next sculpture was a set of eight individuals showing a range of ages and genders. The tableau was horrifying. Goosebumps raced up Zara’s arms and she shivered in the warm air of the small submersible. Though the sub’s camera was recording the scene, Zara described it for the report. “The figures are shackled together. The range of emotion the artist captured is incredible: Horror, resistance, fear, exhaustion, panic and despair are all nuanced. It appears a being of another species is eating them as they are bound. The carnivorous alien has wings folded against its back, four clawed limbs and large teeth. Again, by the amount of encrustation, these pieces could be a year old.”

The sonar pinged again. “We are off to the next. I don’t know where these sculptures are leading, but I need to find out. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs. I’m on the alert but must follow the path to the end. Our ship and mission needs this information.” The young scientist paused in her verbal recording. “We are nearing the continent and ahead are just two stone figures. One is carrying a small, torn, injured humanoid. Circling.” She checked her grid map. “These sculptures are in a straight line to a spot on the coast. Investigating.”

She followed the laser-thin line on the map. After nearly five minutes, there appeared to be some deep shadows on the underwater coastline. Approaching the nearest of the dark smudges, the young scientist discovered them to be sea caves. Maneuvering the small submersible as close as she could, Zara decided to leave the craft with its critically important information in the shallow ocean water. If something happened, her mother ship could find and retrieve the vessel. Donning her air tanks and grabbing a high beam light, a recorder, data bags and a weapon, Zara slipped through the marine hatch and swam into the nearest darkened rock orifice.

The cave walls tilted upward and she followed the channel to an opening above the waterline. There were older signs of habitation, bits of clothing and pots. Switching on her head cam, she bagged a few artifacts and left for the next cave. Each underwater opening led to a similar scene as the first cave with remnants of deserted humanoid habitation…until the last cavern where Zara discovered the sculptor’s workshop.

It was here that Zara found a partially-completed figure of a child and numerous small stone models about the size of her hand. At the end of a workbench was a pile of engraved metal tablets. The language was unknown, but the diagrams told an unnerving tale of the winged aliens’ arrival to this world and the ensuing decimation of the humanoid population over a span of time. The last metal plate had a detailed star chart. It was imperative the engraved sheets be translated! If the art hadn’t convinced her, the tools, the written language and the map of the skies confirmed the lost people were indeed the higher lifeforms she’d been anticipating and seeking. Grimly, the young woman netted the small models and metal plates. As she ran her light beam over the cavern, she discovered the remains of the final humanoid inhabitants of Horus. Rags clothed the skeletons of four humanoids. Zara assumed one had to be the sculptor and maybe the other three were assistants. They had died as they had lived, recording the tragedy and devastation of their people. From the state of decomposition, Zara guessed the last thing they had done was place the final stone figure of the male humanoid carrying the torn child.

Checking the air in her tanks, Zara grabbed the heavy data bags and dragged them to the cave lip. Holding tightly to priceless artifacts, she slid into the water. The weight of the data bags slowed her down and put a strain on her remaining oxygen supply. She managed to get the priceless packs to the flattened sandy shelf between the mainland and the deeper water. Leaving them there, she swam as quickly as she could to the small sub. Once inside and at the helm, the young scientist directed the craft to the pile. Robotic arms retrieved the scientific treasures and stored them securely in a bin. Setting a course back to the shuttle took but a moment. During the rest of the underwater journey, Zara studied the metal tablets, downloaded the video and added more audio to her report.

The young woman’s focus was on getting the shuttle airborne and back to the mother ship. It made the fussy docking maneuvers a source of irritation, but finally, all was secure. Lifting into the air, she checked for the location of her mother ship and set course at the same time she hailed the ship and requested to speak to the captain. Long moments went by during which Zara could count her every heartbeat. She rubbed a towel over her head to catch the drips of seawater and occupy her shaking hands.

“What is it Science Officer Zara?”

“Sir, have you seen any ships in the area and are we able to make contact with Earth?”

There was a pause. “There are no ships here but this one, and Earth is still in silence. What is this about?”

“Sir. Please consider calling in our teams and increase the defensive scans in the immediate space. I also request astro-science and engineering to work on boosting our ability to scan between here and Earth.”

“Officer Zara it sounds like you are issuing orders. Explain yourself! Now!”

“Uploading my report to you and bringing up some engraved metal plates to be translated. Captain, I found the remains of the native intelligent lifeforms I was anticipating and estimate they’ve been dead about a year. There’s evidence they were killed…eaten…by a species of aliens which traveled here from some other planet. Most likely the visiting carnivores have left nearby space but we need to check, and, sir, relatively speaking, our home system, and Earth, is in the neighborhood.”

Octopus’s Garden

“Come on, Allie, wake up! Your fever’s broken and we’ve got to get out of here. They plan to kill you!”

A girl with big dark eyes looked over her shoulder from the look-out position near the hallway. “Shh! Keep it down, Mitch! See if you can get her upright. She’s going to be worthless until she gets some fluid and one of those energy bars inside her.”

He lifted the pale girl to the edge of the bed and propping her up, touched a glass of water to her lips. “Allison, take a sip. Open your eyes and look at me. I need you to pay attention.”

The weak girl made a protesting sound but took a sip of water. Her eyelids fluttered. “Where am I?”

Sensing his building impatience, the girl at the door whispered sharply, “Tell her and get her to eat the bar!”

“All right, all right, Pilar!” Mitch returned his focus to Allie. “Can you hear me? I’ll tell you but not until you take a bite. The food will help you feel more like yourself.”

With her eyes still closed, Allison chewed. “Answers now!”

“We’re in the medical research pod of Oceania Four, the Underwater Habitat west of California. A hundred and twenty of us were recruited to help the scientists find ways for humans to adapt to living and working for long periods of time underwater. Do you remember any of this?”

Half of the bar was gone and Allison was sitting up on her own. “Vaguely. Keep talking.”

“We came here to work in the labs. Our college debt would be forgiven and we were guaranteed research jobs.”

“So…I got sick?” The bar was gone and Allie started on the second. She could focus now and was looking around the dimly lit room as she listened.

“We all did. It turns out we’ve been guinea pigs for their gene manipulation experiments.”

“Oh shit. Give me the bottom line.” Allison slipped off the bed and onto her feet. Shaking a little, she reached for the glass of water and a third of the highly-efficient power bars.

“Forty-nine died screaming in agony. Thirty-four mutated into…things beyond nightmares. Eighteen of us made it through the fever and were lucky enough to wake at night and slip out of the facility between security shifts. We’ve come back for you but we’re nearly out of time. There are eighteen remaining and they’re all in beds in this ward, desperately ill. They’ll not get a chance to win or lose their personal battle in the cellular war. We’ve learned the decision’s been made to do a major cover-up and ‘sanitize’ this facility. They plan to euthanize all their test subjects in the morning. That means us if we’re caught!” He glanced over at Pilar who was still watching the hallway but had begun to move restlessly. “Are you up to moving Allie? Security will be making their rounds soon and we need to be away. Slip into this skin suit. We’ll be getting wet.”

As she was tugging on the strange, slightly opalescent-translucent garment, she muttered, “Two more questions: Why weren’t you rounded up and why did you recover but not the others?”

“Different gene splicing for different groups. Even then some couldn’t adapt. As for how we got away? They couldn’t find us.”

Allison met Pilar’s glance and nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

***

Mitch leaned into the hall then Allison and Pilar eased past him and the three ran down the darkened passageway on almost silent feet. Turning a corner, they heard security approaching. All three stepped into a shallow alcove. Mitch put his finger to his lips and winked reassuringly to Allie. Moments later, she was astounded when the night patrol passed them without notice.

Once security was out of sight, the three darted into motion. They slipped inside a darkened room where the ocean portal lapped softly. This was where dive teams accessed the encompassing water world. Pilar nodded to Allison and, without an air tank, slipped into the circular pool and disappeared.

“What…?”

Mitch put his arms around her reassuringly. The hug was brief and when he stepped back, he cupped her face and looked deep into her eyes. “Trust me.”

With no further warning, his hands dropped to her shoulders and pushed. Allison fell into the sea with a splash, sinking into the dark blue depths. She felt a disturbance and Mitch joined her. Grinning, he tugged her hand as his voice came into her thoughts. “It’s okay Allie. We can breathe here, too! ”

He led her through bright anemones and shy yellow-spotted fish. They swam deeper into the labyrinth of the coral reef until it opened into a large grotto. Pausing, Mitch winked. “Now you see me…”

Within seconds he was indistinguishable from the red coral outcropping. As he vanished, seventeen people coalesced from the rock and sea fans! They had mimicked the reef so perfectly they’d been invisible! Mitch reappeared. He reached out to touch the frond of a waving fern. Startled, a camouflaged octopus became visible and jetted away in a cloud of ink.

“Our genes were spliced with those of an octopus. The resulting mutation has changed our blood so we can tolerate the ocean temperatures. We’ve gills and have developed chromatophores in our skin so we can camouflage completely. We can’t go back home, but we have each other and this world.”

Suddenly, there was a percussion wave and an enormous air bubble exploded from the habitat. Debris rained down on the nineteen swimming through the reef toward Oceania Four. Shocked, they watched water flooding the station through a ragged hole in the structure’s wall. The entire research pod had vanished.

Pilar murmured, “We didn’t anticipate that, but it’s an efficient way to destroy the evidence. We’re now the only ones alive who know what they did. I hope they think us dead, or we’ll be hunted next.”

14 Short Stories. 4 Award-Winning!

Stories come from any number of places. One could start from a memory, a photo in a magazine or from pondering a news item and wondering, “What if?”

This collection arose from that sort of random stimuli. Some are pure imagination of science fiction or fantasy. Others, though, developed from random historical facts or the disturbing news stories of war-torn regions.

Each of the 14 short stories in this collection have coalesced from “what if” to “what is.”