Brazos Bend: There be Gators

This year, I made a second trip to Brazos Bend State Park. I was there to find alligators as my last trip was unsuccessful. I arrived at the park early, and I headed out to the trails near the lake. I took an early detour along another trail surrounded by tall oaks. I love the oaks in this park. They are tall, old, and draped with Spanish moss.

Afterward, I hit the trail looping around 40 Acre and Elm Lakes. I assumed that the alligators would be hard to spot in their natural habitat. I regretted not bringing my binoculars along to catch sight of the beasts. Turns out the binoculars were not needed. I rounded the bend out of the moss-covered oaks and saw this beast just feet from the trail, sunning itself.

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It was such a surprise that I froze in place. After the shock had passed, I gave it a wide berth and continued on. Warily keeping an eye out for alligators anywhere in the vicinity, especially on the sides of the trails, I saw them everywhere, near the trail, in the water, and resting on distant islands.

The last photo in this collection is my favorite. The branches appear to be a small shrub as if the alligator attempted to disguise itself.

I snapped several pictures of water fowl species on the edges of the trail too.

On the trail, I noticed striking dark brown bisecting the trees near the trail. It was another water line. I went to Brazos Bend two years ago after flooding rains had soaked Houston, and I saw an ankle-high water line where the Brazos River overflowed its banks, flooding the park around it. This nascent water line was nearly eye level with me. This is evidence of the flooding that occurred after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, moved north, and nearly stalled over Houston. It was incredible how high the water may have been. I wonder how fast it flowed. It was humbling. I wondered how many adult alligators got displaced due to the hurricane.

The picnic areas where the trail begins, and where my day ended, were filled with more large oaks. So, I will end this post where it started, in the shadow of these looming giants.

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Nine: Everything I Know

Follow the links to other chapters in this story here.

Darren’s knuckles were raw, bruised, and bloody. It had been awhile since he had enjoyed giving a good beating. Sometimes, Esmeralda had a good idea Darren could really sink his teeth into.

Phineas’ nose was broken and bleeding. Blood vessels erupted in his eyes. Darren had popped out a couple of Phineas’ wooden teeth. Phineas clinched his mouth closed, grinding his existing teeth into each other.

Darren raised his fist again.

Phineas fell on his knees, raising his open, bloody palms toward Darren. “All right, all right, you win! I’ll get you or tell you whatever it is you need to know!”

Darren stood straight and smiled. “Well, that was all I wanted.” He rolled his shoulders proudly. “Now how about we get your-pathetic-self back on your feet.”

Phineas batted away Darren’s open hand and stood, his knees popped as they bent then straightened. He stumbled to his chair. Phineas winced as he touched his jaw and chin.

“A fine interrogation, Darren,” Phineas said, through a groan. “I’d be proud if I wasn’t in such pain and completely heartbroken. Your own blood, you would do this to your own blood?”

Esmeralda shot a glance down at Darren.

“We’re not related, it’s a guild thing,” exclaimed a wide-eyed Darren.

“I thought I was done with this,” groaned Phineas. “I’m a legitimate businessman now. I’m an arms dealer.”

“Oh, Phineas,” Darren said, coyly, “a legitimate arms dealer, who shifts shipments of his own lord’s weapons into the hands his lord’s enemy’s. Spiders would have trouble spinning the web you’ve woven.”

Phineas smiled through broken teeth, blood dripped from his bottom lip.

“You’re probably gonna need these back.” Darren placed the wooden teeth on the desk.

“Thank you, my boy.” With a wet grunt, Phineas spit blood on the wooden floor. “So, you gonna tell me why I got a beating? Usually you have to demand a question, then I defy you, and then you beat me to a pulp until I talk.”

Darren cracked his knuckles. “Yeah, sorry about that, old chap. That was personal. You have a good, lucrative gig here and you hire that rotten cur of a man, Jacob.”

“He said yes to the job, you were nowhere to be found.”

“Oh, you looked for me first?”

“My best pupil, why wouldn’t I?”

“Thanks, boss.”

Phineas nodded.

“Boys!” shouted Esmeralda.

“What happened to Jacob? You give him a beating too? I haven’t seen him in days. He was my point man on another arms deal.”

Darren shrugged nonchalantly. “He gotten eaten by the thing that attacked the city. I think I saw one of his eyes still blinking at me in it.”

Phineas absently arranged some parchment on his desk. “Shame.” He slapped the edge of the desk with his fingers. “Well, there is an opening now.”

“Really?”

“Darren!”

Darren shrank from Esmeralda’s shout. His voice dropped. “Yes, of course. Look, Phineas, we need information on one of your clients. She’s deceased now so you don’t have to worry about her coming for you. We know her as Claire—” Darren turned and motioned to Esmeralda.

“Davanni, Claire Davanni.”

Phineas raised an eyebrow. “Why do you want information on her?”

“Have you not been listening to the word on the street, or has your legitimate business made you blind?” Darren retorted. “She was responsible for the recent terror unleashed on this town just a week ago.”

“Claire?”

“That’s the name.”

Phineas shook his head. “Such a good person. Very straightforward, always knew what she wanted and would pay pretty good prices to get it.” Phineas stood from his desk and walked to a bookshelf full of black, leather-bound books. “Quite a shame. She was one of my more reputable customers, never had a problem with her.”

“She apparently took issues with cats,” Darren mumbled.

He pulled a thin leather book. “Ah. Here we go. She wanted a lot of rare earth materials, but nothing that couldn’t be gotten through more legitimate means.”

“So, why did she choose you?” Esmeralda asked, arms folded across her chest.

“Well, she had a specific source she wanted all of the materials from. Some group in the mountains south of here. She sent the money and they sent the materials. There was a lot of correspondence between them as well. I just happened to be the discrete middle man.”

Phineas handed the book to Darren. “You may find something in there. The materials came from specific mining towns to the south. I mean, I could have gotten her the materials she needed from anywhere, maybe even cheaper, but she wanted it from these mountains.” Phineas shrugged. “Brand loyalty, I guess.”

Darren opened the ledger and raised an eyebrow when reading over the coded transactions. “Phineas, you haven’t changed your code in years.”

“Well, no one has cracked it, my boy.”

Darren turn several pages scanning several manifestos. He lifted the book close to Phineas’ face and shut it inches from his nose. Phineas sneezed with a start.

“Thanks, old man.”

“Looking to keep my face intact, my boy.” Phineas smile, but his tone cooled.

Esmeralda reached over the two legitimate thieves’ heads and grabbed the ledger from Darren’s hand. “We will be on our way now.”

“Well, you heard the lady.” Darren feigned a smile to his mentor. He tipped his hat. “Be seeing you. Get a clean cloth for that nose.”

“Will do.” Phineas response was flat.

Darren backed toward the door, when he heard footsteps, a lot of them, heading toward the hall outside.

Darren tilted his head quizzically. “You plan on showing us the way out, Phineas?”

Phineas grinned. His face angled into a scowl. Blood still dripped from his mouth. “You’ll be floating downriver when they are done with you.”

Darren heard a heavy scuffle outside the door. Muffled shouts followed by rushing footsteps. The footsteps halted, Darren heard swords draw. The sounds of repeated blows were followed by heavy thuds.

Phineas stood, his scowl breaking.

Darren smiled at Phineas, locking eyes with him.

There was a heavy thud on the door. It creaked from the wait. Phineas fell into his chair, eyes wide.

More muffled shouting. There was a second heavy thud on the door, the top hinge came lose.

“What?” Phineas mouthed.

“I think you have a complication.” Darren said.

Another heavy thud and the door collapsed. Two burly men, crumpled with it. Marcus stood in the door way, bruised and bloodied, holding a third large man by the back of his neck. The man was unconscious blood flowing from his red-stained hair. Marcus half waved with his free hand.

“All of them?” Phineas’ voiced cracked.

Marcus motioned slightly into the hall. “There are a few more in the hall. Good lads, pretty strong.”

Marcus dropped the man he was holding. He hit the floor with a groan.

“How?”

Darren bowed with a wild swing of his arm. “We will take our leave now. Thanks for the info, boss.”

Phineas only stared, mouth agape.

Darren enjoyed that.

Marcus presented his hand to Esmeralda. She placed her hand lightly in his and he helped guide her around the bodies and out into the hall.

Darren walked out last, stepping on the groaning bodies.

He stopped at the door frame and winked at Phineas. “Thanks for the help.”

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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Capturing the Angry Sea

For all the research trips I have been on, none feel like my days in the coastal North Atlantic. My challenge on every trip had always been a way to capture the grandeur of the ocean. On a November trip, we were assailed by high winds and high seas. The trip was full of difficulties, but I managed to snap this picture while on the back deck. I braced myself against the ship as the waves rocked us and took several photos near the ship’s crane as the sea thrashed us. This photo has it all, the remnants of the waves that rolled over the deck, the angle of the ship, and the horizon high above in the picture. After this picture, I walked into an enclosed work area on the stern deck and a wave smashed into the hull. The water spilled over the covered workspace, inundating the deck where I been snapping pictures. Just a few seconds too late and I would have been soaked and chilled to the bone.

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The ship was the R/V Delaware II, a NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) research vessel. She was decommissioned a year or two after this photo. I had spent six cruises and a total of 96 days with the ship and her crew. I developed quite attachment to that rust bucket. Just so many stories to tell.

Also, if you check the Wikipedia page on ocean waves (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_wave) there is an older photo of the Delaware II in rough seas. I feel a swell of pride knowing that this humble vessel is even immortalized on Wikipedia. Not a bad fate for a research vessel.

Liquid

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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Brazos Bend

It was late in the morning, and the line to enter Brazos Bend State Park was already long. The state park is south of Houston and is a favorite day time spot for families. Elm Lake is in the center of the park and is home to an estimated population of 900 adult alligators. I guess that makes it a great place for families. It would be for me as a kid.

We ended up leaving late for the park, which was a mistake. I tend to underestimate how popular the state parks are on the weekends, especially just south of Houston. It felt like everyone converged on the park the Saturday we arrived. The main campsites were filled, so we ended up camping at the overflow site, which was similar to an overflow parking lot surrounded by grass lots for tents, a picnic table, and a barbecue grill. We could have camped in the primitive/equestrian area near the Brazos River, but I wasn’t certain if that would work in our favor, because it could only be accessed by hiking to the far side of the park.

My original plan was to hit the lakes in the center of the park, but the area was packed with visitors, so I decided we should just take a long hike starting at Live Oak Trail and follow the perimeter of the park. Most of the crowds were likely not staying overnight, so we could hike around the lakes the first thing in the morning.

Live Oak Trail runs along the southern border of the park. It’s a well-forested trail running right along one of the park’s many wetlands. It is a haven for water birds; spoonbills, egrets, and herons. The trail also granted solitude. It was far from Elm Lake and noisy families. The loudest sound we heard was our heavy steps along the dirt and limestone mixed trail.

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Live Oak Trail loops around the park’s edge and ends at the center of the park, near the observatory. There was going to be a show that night, so we had to navigate the families huddled on the trail as we passed the observatory toward White Oak Trail and the Brazos River.

I’m sure we got a few weird looks. This was a state park near Houston, and the two of us were decked out in our backpacking gear. I thought that we must look like the vagabonds I used to see hanging out at the coffee shops in Portland, Oregon, with their belongings carried in a backpack.

White Oak Trail started in a clearing just north of the observatory. A few grand oaks grew in this clearing, bunched near the entrance like arboreal guards. Silence soon came on the path traversed by only a few hikers enjoying the tranquility.

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It was later in the afternoon when we reached River View Trail. The trail skirts the eastern edge of the park and is in view of the Brazos River. The trail sits high above the river; the thick foliage and the steep river valley makes it difficult to view the river. Along the trail, we noticed spherical mounds of dirt and debris. The mounds were nearly a foot high and lined along the trail. The mounds were built by fire ants. Amazingly, the tops of the mounds were also level with a brown line on the tree trunks in the vicinity. A high-water mark. Peering down into the ravine, I noticed that the undergrowth and green foliage usually found along a river valley was gone. Thick mud and bare tree trunks remained. Many trees were uprooted.

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The year before, massive rainstorms swept through eastern Texas. Houston suffered serious flooding. Here in the state park south of Houston, I saw evidence of it a year later. Not only that, but the river must have risen over the valley it is nestled in and swept across this area of the park. The fire ants responded, building up their nests to perhaps just above the waterline. It was just incredible to see the remnants of what the rains did to the Brazos River.

At the end of the trail, we reached the primitive campsite. I regretted not camping out here. It was a fine place nestled in the trees. Much better than overflow parking. Most importantly, that would have also meant our day hike would have stopped here.

Unfortunately, for us, it didn’t.

Evening drifted over us on the hike back to the campsite. We traveled along the river and heard a pack of coyotes on the other side of the river. At least, I think they were on the other side of the river. Their haunting howls and yelps vibrated through the very air. They sounded close, almost as if I waited long enough I would catch a glimpse of them. We left the river to head toward our campsite and left the coyotes behind. Our night was filled with the long shadows of trees reaching across the trail like massive twisted, bony hands in the fading light. Also, we heard the noisy rustling of armadillos waddling around in the refuse like nature’s drunk uncle.

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The night certainly does play tricks on a traveler. We were, at first, startled as we stumbled to the sight of Spanish moss hanging above us with no tree to drape over. It appeared to float in the air with fresh starlight behind it. Curiosity took over once the initial shock passed. I shined a light and found it hanging over a power line, invisible in the starlit sky. We then heard the sound of other campers, especially their children.

But this wasn’t our campsite. Nope, we still had half the park to cross.

With the park blanketed in darkness and only our headlamps lighting the way, I decided against heading back to our camp through the trails that would take us around Elm Lake and 40 Acre Lake. These were the areas where the alligators congregated, and I wasn’t certain what would happen if we met one in the dark. We followed the road back to our camp instead.

We had been hiking for hours at this point. My feet were on fire and the first signs of blisters were showing. Also, the ground on the sides of the road were sloped at a steep angle, which made the hike more uncomfortable. It was easily two to three miles to our camp, across uneven ground, with traffic from the observatory passing us.

Exhaustion crept in on the last half-mile and we just wanted our tents and some sleep. It was at this point that a park ranger in a pickup truck stop to ask if we needed a ride to the campground. Now, a sane person would jump at this chance. In fact, we had discussed this possibility earlier.

However, when the opportunity presented itself, we puffed our chests out and decided we were going to walk the rest of the way. Pride overtook common sense. The ranger told us we were about half a mile from the campground. And it was the longest half mile I had known up to that point.

I slept well that night, but my feet burned all night long.

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Chapter Eight: A Terran Problem

Start the Adventure from the Beginning!

Chapter links: OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSeven

Mendin entered the hexagonal war room. A circular, gray table was in the center, bounded by metallic, concave walls. Three other officers were present at the circular table. Two stood at Captain Firehoon’s approach, a larger female did not.

Mendin slowed his paced as he saw the larger female, a sector commander. What was she doing out here? Mendin now understood the real reason he had to give up the prisoner, she was too important to risk losing in an outmatched firefight.

Firehoon stood rigid as he approached the table, staring forward, but never making eye contact with the sector commander. Mendin deftly dropped his head in reverence as was customary for one of his station.

He only heard her deep voice. “Please be seated. There is much we need to discuss.”

Mendin reached for a chair and sat slowly. She was ready to discuss his failure to secure the artifact. Shame crept into his usually confident mind.

“Eye contact is permitted,” she said.

Mendin slowly lifted his head. He was directly across from her. Her eyes were large, brown irises with red sclerae. Her snout was more pronounced; Terrans considered one of her breed monsters. It was the one of the few times Mendin would agree with them.

Within a moment the room was bathed in darkness, followed abruptly with the sudden flash of millions of stars and other celestial objects surrounding the table. A map of the known areas of the settled galaxy.

“Spies have hacked some information as to what the Terrans have been up to in regards to this unknown artifact or probe,” the sector commander began.

The galactic map zoomed into a cluster of systems, the Arboreal Cluster, an area rife with human stellar settlements. The map zoomed further, focused on a single star system, Magellan. The map flashed the system’s large sun directly above the table. The eight planets of the system and other celestial objects filled the room. A blue circle highlighted the sixth planet. A ringed gas giant, Trinidad.

The sector commander stood and walked toward the gas giant. It spun wildly, its gravity pulling eight rocky satellites with it.

“Terrans first encountered the alien probe here.”

A blue light flashed around the fourth moon.

“It appeared in low orbit around the moon Carrack. From what we know, it appeared without warning. There was barely even a single detectable gravity wave or heat source until it appeared.”

The floor of the room flashed reddish brown, with the curve of the moon. Mendin observed a diamond-shaped object appear along the moon’s terminus. It stood out from the Terran satellites and manned communication relays due to its size.

“There are reports that the probe scanned every object within orbit around the mining colony. It caused communication problems between the moon and the mining facilities in low orbit above Trinidad. A security force was sent to investigate, but the colony lost contact with the team the moment it approached within fifty thousand kilometers of the object. A local patrol cruiser from Magellan’s defense fleet arrived an hour later. They dispatched a series of probes at the object; however, the artifact pulled out from its orbit and vanished before the probes could complete an analysis.”

The sector commander fell silent. “You may speak now.”

Firehoon was the first. “Vanished?”

She nodded. “Yes, it was how the Terrans described what happened. No gravity wake, no temporal distortion, no heat signature, not even a radiation trail. It was untraceable.”

Impossible. Mendin mouthed the words. Who had the Terrans upset this time?

“The Terrans had contact with the probe in seven other systems in the Arboreal Cluster. Each time it appeared, collected information on the system, and vanished before it could be intercepted. It never seemed hostile, but the Terrans were paranoid about its ability to travel undetected through their most populated cluster.”

“The probe has a keen interest in the Terrans,” Firehoon mused.

“Uncertain.” The sector commander shrugged. “Intelligence is not certain, but we know the Terrans have recently been able to pursue it through three isolated systems from the Arboreal Cluster to the verge of Terran system, which eventually led them here.”

The room went black and then promptly lit up with the metallic, diamond structure Mendin remembered. However, this time it was in low orbit above a rocky planet, not within its atmosphere. Also, the probe looked fully enclosed with pulses of bluish-white energy pulsing along its perimeters like rivulets.

He noticed three cylindrical Terran probes approach the artifact. They fell into orbit around the object.

“This encounter near the edge of Terran space is when the artifact appeared to be less concerned about the Terran probes. A squad of three survey cruisers were in pursuit, but they kept their distance on the outskirts of the system.”

“Did they find some way to trick its sensors?” asked Firehoon.

“We do not know. We know they sent transports loaded with troops and a science team to investigate. When the teams were within a million kilometers the probes went silent and the artifact jumped again. The Theseus pursued, but the other two cruisers had to pick up their transports.”

Mendin smiled the Theseus was the cruiser that had made it to this system, ambushed by Firehoon’s vessel in unclaimed territory. It was still out there somewhere limping around while its two companion cruisers circled them now. Everyone was waiting for the spark. Mendin craved that spark.

Firehoon leaned back in his chair. “Well, that brings us up to speed. We were aware of the Terran’s obsession with this artifact by the time they encountered it at the edge of their territory.” 

Mendin smiled again. Which led to the glorious ambush.

“Something funny, lieutenant.” The sector commander’s red eyes focused intently on Mendin.

He felt like prey. He shook his head. “We should be proud, we were the first to land on that artifact, we were the first inside. Perhaps it has chosen us to delve its secrets. Maybe the Gods have chosen.”

Not worthy.

Mendin heard those words echo in the back of his mind. That is what he heard before the artifact imploded. But he was there, he had made it inside. Surely, there was a reason.

The sector commander grunted. “The Gods don’t grant promises.”

Inagrin. Mendin uncomfortably readjusted himself in the seat. He had said those exact words to Inagrin, moments before a rocket killed her.

“What did you see inside of the artifact?” The sector commander was now upon him.

Mendin stumbled over his words, his composure shaken. “We, I saw mostly a hollow inside. There seemed to be a central core or processing center in the center of the artifact. However, it had little in the form of consoles or even holographic projections. It was never meant to be manned.”

“Then, how did you get in?”

“There was a door.”

“How did you open it?”

“I didn’t. It opened once the attack from the Terrans began.”

“It let you in?”

Mendin choked, he had never thought it let him do anything. But why did it open? “I cannot be sure, but it did open. I was only trying to find a tactical advantage.”

The sector commander placed a large hand on his shoulder. It was twice the size of his own. She bent down to stare directly into his soul, it seemed. Her breath was hot. Mendin realized she never blinked.

“You have gotten the closest than any other sentient to the purpose of that probe. Will you, for the glory of the Curtani, do it again?”

Mendin nodded. “However, it imploded. There is nothing left.”

“I’m not certain of that.”

“What?”

The sector commander stood erect and the room switched to a view of the two Terran cruisers with the circular table nestled between them.

“If it is confirmed that the probe is no more, why haven’t they left?”

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

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Rivulet

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Chapter 8: Just Wanted One Moment

Start the story from the beginning with these links: Ch 1Ch 2Ch 3Ch 4Ch 5Ch 6.

Darren slumped into the chair. He exhaled slowly and haphazardly tapped the table to a beat he heard once but couldn’t place.

Who knew being a hero could be so exhausting? It had been only two days since Darren, Marcus, and Esmeralda saved the town and thwarted the Weird. That was what Esmeralda had called it after that fateful night. Darren believed she was just making it up, naming what couldn’t be named or even described. However, weird worked for him.

Darren had gotten his chance to stand before a crowd, next to Marcus while they were granted the key to the city or something like that. Darren only paid attention when the town elders mentioned free alcohol from the tavern. Darren had spent most of his life in the shadows and keeping a low profile. On the stage, he felt the most vulnerable. Out of habit, he had scanned the crowd for an angry crossbow bolt or a knife thirsting for his blood.

The barmaid approached with their drinks. Darren perked his head up from the table. Just like at the ceremony, alcohol distracted him.

Esmeralda was given a tall, slender glass of red wine. Marcus had two large mugs of his favorite slop. Darren cringed, it still smelled horrible. Darren received a simple pint of ale a wooden cup. No flair, no special, just alcohol. He gleefully watched the barmaid place it on the table. This was going to be his first of many.

“Anything else?” The barmaid smiled.

Marcus shook his head.

Darren wrapped his hands around his wooden pint as if it contained gold. “Everything is wonderful. Just don’t let this go empty.”

“Ma’am?”

Esmeralda remained quiet and distant. Darren wasn’t even sure if she could hear the barmaid. It was as if Esmeralda was not even present in the moment.

Marcus nodded. “She is fine, just preoccupied. We will let you know if we need anything else.”

The barmaid nodded as she turned her attention to the rest of her rowdy patrons. She breathed deeply before stepping out of the bubble that muffled the sound at their table.

Marcus leaned over and whispered to Esmeralda. “Hey, Ez, your wine is here.”

Her left hand autonomously wrapped around the base of the drink, but she didn’t lift the glass. Her face wore a scowl as if Marcus had suddenly offended her.

Darren decided it wouldn’t be his fault if Marcus suddenly got turned into a newt and would only focus on his pint of ale. He lifted the cup to his lips.

“Well, it’s unlikely that Claire was receiving any funding from the university.”

Darren smacked the cup into his chin when Esmeralda’s sudden voice startled him. Some of the ale spilled on his tunic.

“Dammit.”

“Yes, it makes our next move more difficult.”

“No, Ez, the ale fell on my. . . nevermind.”

“Building portals is not a cheap project. She would have to get the finest materials. She also would have some extra research to do.”

“I thought you said Claire started this work at the university,” Marcus said, casually lifting one of his great mugs to his lips. “She would have the research in her journals she took with her, correct?”

“No, the magical universities are very protective of the work done in their halls. All of her work would have been confiscated. Failure and expulsion tends to mean that she had no right to practice magic out in the world.

“Failed wizards tend to still practice magic in small ways. They can usually set up businesses in small towns like this as fortune tellers, palm readers, even potion makers. The universities usually don’t pursue such rogues. This would be a different matter entirely. However, if Claire copied and stole her notes from the university, she took a step that not many have before her.”

“So, she had connections with more the seedy elements in the town.” Darren could smell the alcohol from the pint. It was glorious.

Esmeralda’s green eyes fell on Darren. It was like staring down the muzzle of a predator. Darren froze, the rim of his pint touching his lips.

She pointed a finger at him. “Yes.”

Darren swallowed.

“And you have connections with the underbelly of every town we go to, it seems.”

Darren smiled. “I know a few people here and there.” Wait, did he just volunteer for something?

Esmeralda snapped her figures. “Yes, you can find out if Claire used any smugglers in the area for the materials she would need.”

Darren shrugged. “Sure, I could do that. I killed the one I was most connected with, but I’m sure I can weasel my way into something around here. It seems to be mostly arms smuggling though.”

Pleased that his skills would come in handy, Darren prepared to take a big gulp of his fine ale.

Esmeralda reached a hand across the table and pulled the pint from his face. Ale wetted Darren’s lips. He licked them, then stretched his tongue out in vain to lick from the pint. A child-like whine escaped his lips.

“We have to start immediately.” Esmerelda’s green eyes nearly burned with urgency.

“But we beat the Thing, this can wait, can’t it?”

“If Claire had funds from somewhere, someone was interested in the results. They might come looking for her notes once they learn what transpired here. Or they could just move to another rogue wizard somewhere in the land. We got lucky this time. We cannot let this be repeated.”

Somehow, Esmeralda’s deft hands had wrested the pint from Darren and placed it on the table. He was mortified and impressed.

“So, we go now, huh?”

Esmeralda nodded.

She stood up and kindly slapped Marcus on the shoulder. “Let’s go, big lug.”

Marcus raised a finger as he finished his second mug of black swill. Darren wanted to gag. Marcus slammed the mug on the table and rose to his feet.

“Wonderful, more adventure!” Marcus exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Darren was less ecstatic, “no rest for the weary.” He eyed the pint on the table and grabbed it.

“Just another day in the life!” Marcus laughed as he slapped Darren on the back.

Darren was caught off balance as the large hand landed square on his back. He lost the grip on his pint. Ale flew the air as the pint landed on its side.

“Dammit, Marcus!”

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

Thwart

Posted in One Word Prompts, Short Stories | Tagged , , , , ,

Promise/Reflection

I enjoy sunrises and sunsets equally. Each represents a different way of approaching a day, like bookends with all the stories in between.

A sunrise is the promise of the coming day. It promises a mixture of the plans that I make and all the unknowns that can either help or hinder my plans. It’s a calling to march, once more, unto the breach. I can’t predict the result, but it’s important that I, at least, get on my feet and on my way. And some days are harder than others to moving.

When the sun begins to dip low toward the horizon, it is a time for reflection. I have discovered the mysteries and trudged through the banality of the day. I have been embraced by success and embroiled in failure. The sunset gives me that time to look back on how the day went and, more importantly, how I reacted to it. Sometimes, it is simply a moment to throw my hands into the air and let the frustrations from the day pass into shadow. In any case, perhaps there is a small crumb of wisdom I can glean from the day to make tomorrow more productive.

These two photographs were taken on the first full day of a short research cruise at the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. I was out on the R/V Manta with crew and scientists with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They were going to survey the reefs at the sanctuary while I was going to collect water samples as part of what my lab hoped would become a long-term monitoring project related to ocean acidification.

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The sunrise is framed on the back deck surrounded by dive gear and what is known as a Rosette Sampler. The white cylindrical frame held twelve grey Niskin bottles. When deployed, the bottles are held open with wires stretched across the bottle. A signal from the ship shuts the bottles when the rosette sampler reaches the desired depths for water sampling. I can then collect the water when the sampler is brought back on board. This was the promise of our day. It was a day of diving and water collection in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The second picture is sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. I was on the top deck of the ship, waiting for twilight and the night sky to light up with stars not seen in the city. It was a moment of bittersweet reflection as we only had one more day out in the gulf before we would return to the mainland. However, it was a beautiful sunset; a good end to a productive day. You can also see another oil platform on the horizon. There a lot of them in the Gulf of Mexico, our only connection to human civilization.

I love the field days out at sea. They can get nasty, but out there I am free from most of the stresses and anxieties of the mainland. All I have to do is roll with the sea, do my work, and make it back in one piece. And get some great sunrises and sunsets to boot.

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

Rise/Set

 

 

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Shoe Size

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It was a chilly afternoon, the temperature had warmed since the blizzard that plowed through western Virginia, but the snow remained. We had arrived in the mountains an hour or so before sunset. It was just enough time to summit Spy Rock. We were hoping to catch the glimpse of a comet—or maybe it was a planet—visible on the western horizon after the sun fell from view.

A woman accompanied me, my new traveling companion, for a time. She was a beautifully stubborn woman and my new sudden and unexpected crush. I took a stab at building a romance with her; this trip was after my initial failure. I hadn’t entirely given up, but such a desire was put on the back-burner. She trusted me enough to spend a weekend in a cabin in the woods, so I would let the relationship grow as fate would have it. There was already a great friendship, and she was with in this moment, so there was little need to force it.

Spy Rock is quite the site. It is a large collection of boulders sitting on the mountain’s edge. The rocks sit precariously as if they could slide into the valley at any moment. The rocks grant a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a deep blue or purple landscape in the failing light. It had been a clear day, but, as luck would have it, a blanket of clouds covered the lower western horizon, exactly where the celestial event we came to see would be. Still a fiery band of fading daylight, contrasted with long thin wisps of purple clouds was still a site worthy of the hike. And worthy of the company.

It was a fun, silly evening. In a moment, of exultation at being atop Spy Rock, she forgot which direction was west, which I kindly nodded my head in the direction of the setting sun. Her face contorted in embarrassment and laughter at her obvious mistake.

We were sitting and chatting in view of the setting sun when she took this picture, contrasting my giant feet next to her tiny shoes. Obviously, she was shorter than me. I had nicknamed her Half-Pint because of it. When I had first called her that was probably the time I realized how far I had fallen, because she shot an accusing glance at me and called me “Quart”. Such a small exchange, but that was when everything changed for me.

The picture displays the silliness of the moment and a fond memory, but it also symbolizes the miles we traveled together as our relationship grew and the goofy adventures we had. It is my favorite picture of her and our time together. Moments like these are ephemeral, and soon time and drive sent us on different paths. However, there is always something of her in my life from all we shared: music, a sunset, a mountain hike, or a nightly stroll on a bioluminescent beach. It is amazing how some people, or even moments, alter our entire lives.

Sweet

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

 

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Chapter Seven: Debriefing

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Eric’s body rocked as the transport landed in the Charon’s hanger bay. His hands robotically unlocked the safety harness once the troops around him began to shuffle out. Eric was in a daze; his head was heavy with the events at the artifact repeating continuously in his head. Emb being shot out of the air, Jensen’s last moment, and the brutal grip of the Curtani that had captured him. Everything else was a blur.

He felt a calm, forceful pull on his shoulder. Eric stood and headed out into the bright lights of the hangar bay. The back of his eyes winced with pressure at the sudden change. He was surrounded by troops, humans. They had risked much to travel into the belly of the Curtani vessel to retrieve him. Obviously, a threatening posture of two human cruisers and a calm, forceful commander, engineered his release. But what about the others? What about every soldier who died on that wretched artifact, so he could live?

Not worthy.

That was the only thing the artifact articulated, in languages everyone could understand. Then it imploded? All that engineering to produce a massive floating installation just to have it collapse in a firefight it didn’t want. Was it looking for a more peaceful first meeting? Perhaps it should have said something earlier. Isn’t that what a more intelligent advanced species would have done?

Eric’s security detail rushed him from the hangar and into the cruiser’s narrow corridors. The lighting in the corridors was dimmer, the pain in his eyes eased. Only his body responded to those around as he kept pace with their march. Eric was still with the dead, with the artifact.

Not worthy.

Of course, a more intelligent and advanced species could just as easily decide that Eric and the others were not worthy of their attention. The artifact may have scanned everyone on that bridge as they fought and died, analyzed DNA sequences, and find every species inferior. Not worthy of further communication.

Not worthy.

And then, the programmed probe would remove all traces of its existence without regard for those dying inside.

Not worthy.

Doors slid open before Eric. A tall, lean woman with brown hair firmly grabbed his arm. The rank of lieutenant was emblazoned on her shoulder. The other troops stood at attention behind him.

A large table spanned the room before Eric. The center of the table was a projecting console that spilled three dimensional images of Forlorn, the planet below them. A failed mining operation had given the planet its moniker, and now a failed first contact scenario had cemented it.

Not worthy.

The room was filled with six highly decorated officers, two of them were corporate presidents, the other four were officers from the two vessels. A familiar, white-haired man at the head stood up as Eric was escorted into the room by the lieutenant at his side. His body did not resist. The older man wore the badge of a three-tiered step pyramid just above his row of medals, the insignia for XenoTech Expeditions, Eric’s employer.

“Eric,” the man said with an uncertain nod.

This was the first time Eric responded. “Jim.” Eric’s voiced cracked and struggled as if he hadn’t spoken in months. “Or is it, President Marsen here?”

President James Marsen managed a weak smile. “After what you have been through, Jim is fine.” Jim presented his hand toward an empty chair closest to Eric. “Please, have a seat.”

One of the younger men to Eric’s left, a captain, spoke once Eric was guided to his seat. “We need your contacts removed.”

“Pardon?” Eric stammered.

“Your contacts, Eric,” Jim repeated with less abruptness than the captain. “All the information they collected can help us come to the bottom of this situation.”

Eric nodded. “Yes, Jim.”

Eric carefully pulled the contacts from his eyes. Although unseen to the human eyes, each contact was a computer, which relayed and stored probably nearly as much information as the human brain. They were used on nearly every human endeavor. They had little intelligence installed on them, but they had a host of testing parameters and sensors for collecting data and linking communication with the people on the ground. Hell, there was enough bio-metric information to tell whether Eric suffered from gas due to disagreeable food.

The captain to his left collected the contacts in a rose quartz tube and capped them. He then turned to Jim. “This could take a few days to go through. Nothing on this vessel, screams research or intelligence vessel.”

“We have some time, until we figure out its next move,” Jim replied.

Its next move? Eric looked up. He was probably slack-jawed. “Pardon, Jim?”

Jim smiled.

The young captain continued. “This is not our first run-in with the artifact.”

Eric was suddenly awake. His stupor broken. Adrenaline poured down his legs like he was a faucet. “We were not told this!” His voice was still weak, an angry stammer.

The captain was undaunted by the outburst. “Stephens knew, he was the only who needed to know, but you are now our point man. Apparently. For the all good it will do us.”

“What?” Eric stood up.

The young captain stood in response. He was taller, Eric could only stare at the captain’s decorated chest.

Eric’s adrenaline failed him, tremors weakened his knees.

Not worthy.

Eric collapsed into his chair.

The captain kneeled over Eric in his chair. “What did you see? Those men who died out there—” he pressed into Eric’s chest with an index finger—“for you, got you further into that construct then any squad before.” The captain twisted his head to meet Eric’s downturned eyes. To Eric, it almost looked like the captain had a serpent-like neck. “What did you see?”

Not worthy.

Eric matched eyes with the captain. His voice was weak, but he said, “Death.”

“Captain Holland, that is enough.” Jim’s quiet, stern voice broke through the tension. “We have all the data we can collect. We will add it to our current library of knowledge.”

Captain Holland stood at attention with a hiss at the word “data”.

“Which isn’t much,” quipped the captain.

“You speak out of turn, captain,” Jim continued.

Captain Holland’s body went rigid at the realization. “Apologies, President Marsen.”

Jim took a breath and nodded to the captain. “At ease.” He gazed around the room. “It is too soon. Dr. Eric Lancer will need some time to recuperate from the experience before we can continue. Everyone is dismissed, except Eric.”

Eric watched as everyone left. The other corporate president eyed locked eyes with Marsen, an accusing glance. The officers stood abruptly and walked passed Eric, the heads held high above him, eyes full of cold disdain. Two gentle taps on his shoulder from the lieutenant behind him was his only connection with humanity in the room before even she left. Marsen remained, tapping his fingers on the back of his chair until the door slid closed. Then the room was silent for an unbearably, yet short, time. Marsen breathed and walked over to Eric and sat on the table. He looked at the repeating images in the center of the table and snapped his fingers. The images went dark.

Eric managed a chuckle. “No need for the snap, Jim. The neural connections of your contacts also connect with the computer systems of the ship and—”

Jim laid a hand on Eric. “I know. I still like a little spectacle. A little flair. Little too stuffy on these vessels.” Jim passed his eyes over the briefing room. “I still miss it sometimes, though.”

Eric chuckled again. “I never knew you then. Good thing, probably. So, this debriefing, your idea, a quick gauge of my fitness? Or was this someone else’s idea?”

Jim looked at his friend in sincere earnest. “No, this whole scenario has made them all anxious. And now with the Curtani involved . . .” Jim shrugged. “Eric, you know why I asked for you?”

“Not certain, because I’m so damn brilliant.”

“Yes, but minus the sarcasm.”

Eric managed a weak smile.

“You are an enthusiastic discoverer. That is the job you chose. You have traveled to dead worlds and found evidence of past life, past civilizations. The blowhards here are looking for a new threat, my fellow presidents—and even I—are looking for another paycheck.”

“You, chasing after money, never.”

Jim raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I’m simple. Profit is my nature. But not you, your lust lies in discovery. I know how you work, what can you tell me that the data lenses that just left this room cannot?”

Eric casts his eyes at the carpeted floor. “Not much. The motivations behind that artifact are inscrutable. It could be an old device still following some directives given to it by an extinct race or it is some sort of first contact probe. That is all anyone knows. I don’t even know how the Curtani got it opened.”

Not worthy.

“What has got you so somber?”

“Wasn’t expecting a firefight and to lose everyone that was out to help me.”

Jim stood and walked back across the room. “Risks of the trade.”

“Not my trade. Firefights have never been in my line of work.” Eric’s eyes narrowed. “What about the other times? The other times you’ve encountered this probe?”

Jim looked up and leaned his hands on the table.

“You still in this?”

Eric leaned back, his shock beginning to subside. “Depends? Do I get to know everything Lieutenant Stephens knew? I can’t move forward with only a piece of the story.”

Jim smiled. “Indeed.”

© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.

Inscrutable

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Weathered By Time

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Usually when we think of something as weathered, we see it as being old, worn out, a relic of some past greatness. Maybe, in some ways, this is true, but if you look at the natural world, weathering is a simple another process that connects many aspects of the world. It’s one more process or piece of the earth system. The picture above I took while traveling across the country. I was heading from Virginia to Oregon. I did this for many reasons: an old friend was there, I was going to talk to a professor about a research project, and I just needed to clear my head from life’s small difficulties. I was deep in graduate work and the stress was building. I had made an ill-advised attempt at romance as well. So, I was mentally weathered as well and looking to bleed out my frustration. Driving across that country was that remedy.

The picture was taken from a rest stop in the mountains of Utah. The rugged, carved layers of rock you see are undergoing physical weathering eroded by the high winds that blow through the dry region. You can also see bands of broken debris and even sand or dirt, where the eroded material is deposited. Here the ground is soft and has enough nutrients and water for the small shrubbery to grow there. Over time the root systems of these shrubs dig into the cracks in the rock and further weather the mountain by breaking the rock into soil. They are carving a home for themselves right into the rock. Over time, more plants and animals will begin to call the place home as the mountain is weathered.

Who knows what this place could look like many millions of years from now. The mountains and shrubs will change. The landscape could be vastly different all because of natural weathering processes. The identity of the entire landscape could be altered. Clues will be left behind in the strata of its geological history, but some of it could also be washed away and eroded by climatic changes or suddenly. The point is through all of this changing, these weathering processes, the land doesn’t look back. It can only move forward bound to the relentless forward pace of time.

I am also a time traveler and also bound to only one direction: forward. Time weathers us all, but it is an inevitable process and the desire to fight this process is not worth the pain of your assured failure. In some ways, the influences here are different. The mountain is weathered through natural external forces, while I typically feel mentally weathered due to some connection my mind has with an old memory or a past event, using those moments to define me. Time and age make me feel less weathered than when my mind is filled with perceived failures, past and future. I cannot define myself by a series of past moments and attempt to predict the moments ahead of me. Change doesn’t, thankfully, always bend to my ill-informed will. It just changes. So, I will flow with it. After all, we are but a series of moments connected together by neurons in the brain to make some semblance of a whole. The whole, the self, may even be an illusion, a way for the mind to interpolate a series of events as a linear life to make sense of the complexity. While this may not give many great comfort, it does work for me. So, when I look at something weathered, I see a sense of the fading past, the present, and the possible future. Something new always seems to rise out of the rubble of a mountain. That is a wonder of this world and our short lives.

Weathered

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