Friday, October 24, 2014

Fluffin and the Owl

Fluffin knew what an owl was, and he knew the owl that lay before him.  This was the great clawed bird that had swooped from the sky to snatch up the young rabbit's dear sister and only friend, Mari.  It had happened just after twilight as the pair hopped towards the raised tuft of grass that marked their burrow.  Mari had been behind Fluffin.  Just a swoosh and a shriek later, and the tawny little doe was hanging limp from hooks that soared impossible miles above.  Fluffin gave chase but could not keep up with the shadow of the snowy white bird as it glided over the plains and vanished in the murky woods. 

The rabbit returned home alone and remained so, despite the attempts of his brothers and mother to comfort him.  When someone is truly lost, everything they were and did and everything they could be is gone with them, swept up and away.  Worse than that, everything they felt and thought is also vanished forever.  Fluffin had spent his days in play with Mari and his nights snuggled against her soft belly.  He was Mari's favorite thing.  The feeling of being someone's favorite is not so easily replaced.  Fluffin's mother and brothers may have felt a sorrow, but they could not have felt his sorrow.  They had lost one of many, while Fluffin had lost his only. 

All of that had happened the previous Fall, and Fluffin had since grown faster and stronger.  A lone rabbit has to be fast and strong because a lone rabbit is always afraid.

The white owl lay on her side, one great speckled wing stretched beneath her like a downy mat and the other bent awkwardly behind.  Fluffin could see that the owl had also broken a leg in her descent down through the thick tree limbs above, or perhaps in what must have been a very hard landing.  He knew the bird had fallen because there were broken branches and leaves scattered about.  The weary bird's chest began heaving rapidly when she realized she was not alone and Fluffin could see a tiny dark and glistening spot just at the base of her neck.

"Who's there?  I'll eat you up!"  The owl coughed fine crimson spray onto her quivering wing.

Fluffin had been watching the wounded murderess for a while and was certain she could not move.  He crept towards her, stopping a few hops shy of her hooked beak.  "I am Fluffin, I am going to kill you, owl", the brown rabbit stood as tall as he could and puffed out his chest.  His shoulders were barely the height of the owl's body laying down, but Fluffin felt that under the circumstances he must still be very imposing to the helpless beast. 

This time the crimson spray hit Fluffin square in the face as the owl let out a laugh that ended with another strangled cough.  "Oh little rabbit, why should you want to kill me?  What a good joke!  I'm already nearly dead, and rabbits do not eat owls.  Though it would be just my luck today to meet one who does!"  A red rivulet ran from the tiny dark spot on the owl's neck.  "Please go away and let me die in peace, rabbit.  I haven't much time left and you've had your fun."

"I don't want to eat you!" shouted Fluffin, his dander up.  "You killed my sister!  You murdered her and so now I am going to murder you!" Fluffin hopped back and forth menacingly, his tiny chest still puffed and his teeth bared.

"Oh", sighed the owl, settling back down.  "I am sorry for that, if it was me and it may well have been.  But you see", she continued, "I eat rabbits.  I spot a tuft of fur on the ground and I dive as fast as a falling rock."  The owl's eyes widened and her voice quickened with pride.  "With these powerful claws you see here," she clenched her unbroken foot for Fluffin, "I grab my prey and then I beat my great white wings until I'm soaring near the clouds!  I am careful to kill quickly, though, so you can rest assured that if it was I who ate your sister she did not suffer.  I am no sadist."

Fluffin had been expecting an escalation of tempers and was confused by the owl's almost pleasantly conversational response.  The little brown rabbit moved back a few hops to reevaluate.  "You could have taken me instead!", he finally burst out, eyes wide and wild.  "You didn't have to take her, she was smaller, surely I'd have been a better meal!" 

"Well now little rabbit I cannot remember you or your sister, but I promise you this; if I took her it was because she was the easier prey.  Now if you'll permit me, I rarely have the opportunity to speak with your kind.  I'm near the end of my time and I am curious."  The owl's voice was barely above a whispery gasp, but it rang with the easy authority of a victorious predator and her unblinking eyes gripped the young rabbit as tightly as one of her gnarled claws might have.  Fluffin found himself nodding his assent.

"How is it that this one particular meal of mine vexes you so?  I have been alive for six summers and I have killed once a day and sometimes more.  I have eaten rabbits, mice, even kittens.  I have raised my young on carcasses and taught them to hunt and kill to live when their time neared to leave me.  Through all of that, I never imagined I could cause such dismay."  The owl looked at Fluffin with what appeared to be genuine sadness.

Fluffin felt softness rising in him but choked it down.  "My sister was different.  She was no meal!  She loved me, she looked after me, and I looked after her.  We belonged to each other and now, because of you," Fluffin's small voice broke here, "I am alone." 

With that, the rabbit sat heavily on a fallen limb, his fight had reached its limit and was now as broken as his voice.  Fluffin had been more sad than angry, after all, though it's very easy to confuse the two.  Rabbits don't have much call to become talented with darker things like rage and vengeance, and so those things were unfamiliar though tempting territories for Fluffin. 

 A bitter quiet sank down around the rabbit and owl and filled the air between them.

"Today," began the owl in a soft voice after the two had been sitting in silence for some time, "I was carrying a succulent mouse to my babies when I was knocked from the sky by a boy with a rock.  He didn't want to eat me, or use me to feed his young, or to wreak vengeance on me for some past slight.  He didn't want my mouse, and knew nothing of my nest and waiting children.  And now I am alone and will die, and my babies are alone and will also die.  You may kill me, if you like, rabbit.  It will be quicker than waiting and I will not heal." 

Fluffin looked up slowly.  The owl's eyes were closed now and her breathing was more relaxed than it had been.  The snow white feathers around the hole in her neck were matted with a deep and growing red dampness.  The mighty claw she'd flexed for him earlier lay limp, this powerful killing tool the owl had taken such pride in now looked more like a little pile of arthritic twigs.  Fluffin felt smaller too.  The shadows were getting longer and the air was getting cooler.  It was time to go.

"I am sorry but I cannot kill you," Fluffin answered.  "I will leave you as I found you, because rabbits do not eat owls."




Friday, October 17, 2014

Fluffin and the Broken Dog

Fluffin rarely fought with his mother.  Timidity is not an unusual characteristic for a rabbit, but Fluffin had been graced with a very high amount.  While his brothers and sisters wandered their field practicing their sniffing and running and jumping, Fluffin could usually be found within ten yards of their gentle dam.  "Dam" is only what we call rabbit mothers.  Because Fluffin wasn't a zoologist or a scientist, he called her "Mama".

Mama and Fluffin's fight hadn't been a big one but it was made worse by the mockery of the young rabbit's siblings.  The fight began when Mama suggested Fluffin join the others in the field.

Fluffin was stricken by the suggestion.  "What do you mean?  I thought you liked my company, Mama!" the small brown rabbit cried.

"Of course I do, Fluffin, but I'm worried for you.  I won't always be here to care for you", she chided in her sweetest voice.  "You will have to learn to find your own food and you will have to be fast and strong, like your brothers and sisters".

This was Fluffin's sibling's cue to chime in.  They'd crept up when their trained little noses had smelled trouble brewing.  Although his siblings were far more adventurous and independent, they all coveted the favor Fluffin enjoyed through being a constant at his mother's side.

"Mama's little bunny boy Mama's little bunny boy" they chanted.  Mama sighed wearily and Fluffin puffed up his tiny chest and flared his inexperienced nostrils.

"I am not Mama's boy!", he cried indignantly.  "I'm not afraid of anything and I can go further than any of you!", Fluffin spat the last out before dashing into the brush.

"Let him go", whispered Mama to his brothers who tried to follow.  She started after him herself.  But Fluffin had flown through the bushes and crossed the beaver's new dam in his high state of chagrin.  The beaver howled and chattered as his hard work was shaken loose and flowed downstream, and Mama watched helplessly as her timid baby's small white tail disappeared into the tall grass on the other side.

Fluffin hadn't gone far before his chagrin turned to fear, and the young rabbit hadn't gotten much further than that before his fear had changed into hunger.  He was a growing rabbit, after all.  If he hadn't left his field, his Mama would have shown him where to forage for the best roots and most delicious grasses.  Fluffin lifted his tiny nose and sniffed.

The young rabbit's keen though unpracticed senses eventually led him to a large farmed field.  He remembered his Mama warning him away from farmer's fields, she'd told Fluffin and his brothers and sisters to avoid anything with a fence.  Fences meant farmers.  But he was so hungry, and while Fluffin wasn't exactly sure what a farmer was, there didn't appear to be any of them about.  Fluffin scurried past the great gap in a split log fence and began to eat.  The timid brown rabbit was in rapture with the largest and tastiest orange root he'd ever seen when he was interrupted by the baying of a hound.  Of course Fluffin had never heard a hound before, but an animal's instincts being what they are, he knew to run.  So run he did.

The hound was a large yellowy white beast with dark rimmed eyes and the most giant teeth the young rabbit had seen, even bigger than his uncle Ezra's teeth when he'd gotten too old to chew them down.  And the hound's teeth were pointed like giant claws.  Fluffin could feel the earth shaking with each pound of the great gnarled paws behind him.  Even a timid and unpracticed rabbit, though, can beat an old dog in a race.  The small brown bunny was a blur and made it past the split rail fence in no time.  In fact, it took the rabbit a few moments to realize the dog hadn't crossed the fence himself.  Instead, the dog bayed and whimpered on the opposite side, though there was more than enough room for him to climb between the rails.

Fluffin was relieved, but puzzled.  The young rabbit was timid but he was no coward and he was a victim of the curious nature that strikes most young things harder than is good for them.  He headed back for a look at the dog, who appeared to be held back by an invisible hand.

The dog's whimpering grew as the rabbit approached the edge of the bushes just beyond the fence.  "Oh go away, rabbit, just go away, please!" he howled, but made no effort to cross over, instead running from side to side in a well worn groove just beyond the posts.  Fluffin remained partially hidden.  "I can see you!", barked the dog, "Just go away!"

The young rabbit's voice called from the bushes, "Great beast, pardon me for asking, but are you stuck?", Fluffin was seriously considering this great mystery.  He'd met very few non-rabbits in his young life and was struck with a mixture of pity and wonder at the apparent helplessness of the giant creature.

"I'm not stuck, I'm broken!" growled the hound proudly.  "I don't go out, and you don't get in!"

Fluffin puzzled for a moment.  The hound didn't appear to be broken, he looked to be in good health, as far as the rabbit knew.  This monster was bigger than anything Fluffin had seen and though he had worn patches on his fur that showed his age, ample muscles rippled under his short summer coat.

"You don't look broken," the rabbit replied, emboldened by the hound's assertion that it would not leave the fence, "you seem fine to me!"

The hound laughed at the rabbit's naivete.  "I'm as strong as I was at two summers of age, little thief, by broken I mean I have a job to do.  I don't leave this fence, or I may be lost.  I chase rabbits and birds from the garden and at the end of the day I get stew.  That is what broken means"

Fluffin thought for a moment.  "But how did you get broken?"

"Well," said the dog, who while not used to company was learning to appreciate it, "The farmer took me to the fence and when I crossed, he beat me.  When I returned, he scratched me behind my ears and patted my belly and gave me treats.  And so I learned that to cross the fence is bad, and to stay inside is good."

"But you want to cross the fence?", asked Fluffin.

"Oh, with all of my heart, little rabbit.  I would love to shake you back and forth in my jaws until the light leaves your eyes and nudge you along the ground with my nose until your fur is filled with garden dirt, and then leave you on the steps of the famer's house as a gift", the hound replied in a matter of fact voice.

"But you can't?", Fluffin asked again, suddenly unsure of his position.

"Oh no, I wish I could, and if I could I would, believe me, you're as juicy a prize as I've seen, the fault doesn't lie with you.  But I am thoroughly broken.  I shouldn't even be talking to you, but it's been so long since I've talked to anyone."

Fluffin thought again and said knowingly, "A little while ago my Mama told me to go explore and practice.  She was trying to bend and then break me, but instead I left.", Fluffin casually patted the ground with his large furry foot, paws behind his back.

The hound chuckled again.  "Little rabbit, I had a Mama once too.  She taught me to sniff everything, to follow my curiosity no matter where it took me.  She rejoiced in my comfort and laughed at my mistakes.  That is not breaking, that is love!"  The dog's laughter raked across Fluffin's fur, for by now the young rabbit had moved very close to the fence.

"Well, what about when everyone chimes in and wants to tell you what to do, is that breaking?" asked Fluffin, somewhat chagrined again.

"That's what we call encouragement around here", answered the hound.  "Though the only ones left are the farmer and his family, my mother and my brothers were given away.  My sister lives in a few farms over and she bears pups now and then."  The old dog laid down and sighed, "Look, rabbit, breaking is breaking and loving is loving.  The two are as different as whipping and licking."

"Well what is the value of being broken?" asked the confused rabbit.

"When I am broken, I know what my purpose is.  I know what I am for.  I know where my good lies, I understand my job.", answered the hound, proud once more.

"So when you're broken, you're helpless?" asked the rabbit, confused again.

"No," the hound answered.  "When you're done loving you're done loving.  When you're broken, that means you're done choosing."

The rabbit hopped back towards home.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Doctor Snake and the Rabbit

Doctor Snake lay coiled around Fluffin, who wept silently, nervously stroking his brown velvet ears.  "But why do I need it?", Fluffin whined, for the fourth time.

Doctor Snake sighed wearily.  "Little friend, if i give you a nip now, you'll be strong enough to survive a real bite.  Now Fluffin I don't want to rush you, but I do have other patients to see", Doctor Snake flexed his long belly around the young brown rabbit and shook his rattly tail.  "Relax, little rabbit, it won't hurt a bit"

The snake aimed carefully and with lightning quickness, struck towards Fluffin.  The terrified brown rabbit was faster, though, and so the snake's sharp hollow teeth pierced his own long cool back instead of soft warm skin.  Doctor Snake shrieked.  His powerful tail jerked in one direction and his head in the other and the end result was an upset physician with a broken tooth.

"You said it wouldn't hurt!" sobbed a very betrayed Fluffin.

"Anything worth having hurts, rabbit!", hissed the bleeding and agitated snake, his back flexing rhythmically to loosen the sharp half tooth that had lodged under a shiny black scale.  "Nothing is free in this life!"

Fluffin puffed up his small tan chest, "That's not true, Doctor Snake", he hopped nearer, "love doesn't hurt, my mother is worth having and she doesn't hurt, a warm burrow and sunshine don't cost anything!"

The old snake chuckled, his temper relieved.  "You're very young, Fluffin, you haven't had to pay.  Love is loss, yours or another's, it makes no difference.  You will lose your mother one day, or she will lose you, and pain will cover the debt.  A warm burrow is labor, and a the exposure of a bright day is a risky thing for delicious little balls of fluff and meat", The old snake winked.  "You'll long for a tougher hide when you begin paying your own way, I can thicken it now if you like?"

"But if I have to pay eventually, wouldn't it be better to wait?  Why pay twice?  Why hurt twice?"  But the little rabbit had begun to doubt his resolve, Doctor Snake spoke with the authority of maturity, and Fluffin had been raised to respect his elders.  He was horrified that he'd caused the snake to bite himself and chip a tooth, and relieved that the old snake didn't seem to be too upset over the loss.  Fluffin hopped closer and offered to help remove the half tooth.

"Yes, thank you, Fluffin, that would be most appreciated"  The snake grinned broadly, his remaining white tooth glinting in the sun as its broken twin dripped yellowy liquid onto his curled lower lip.  "Just be careful", he warned.  "There is still venom in the tooth."

Fluffin began to work the sharp white shard back and forth while Doctor Snake grunted lightly through the pain.  "Can't you die from your bite?" he asked and then thought better, "But I suppose you can't be hurt by your own poison."

The old snake shook his head.  "At this moment, the venon is streaking through my blood and weakening me.  But I am too strong, I'm much larger than you, and while my own poison can certainly kill me, it is very good poison after all, it would take far more than that pitiful dose.  What is in that half tooth would barely be enough for you."

The rabbit removed his paws from the tooth and looked at it much more appreciatively.  "I will be careful."

And he was.  In a very short time, the little brown rabbit had removed the tooth and held it gingerly in his paw, unsure of how to proceed.

"It is better to pay ahead of time," the snake told the young rabbit, who had already forgotten what he'd asked.  "If you build up a tolerance for pain, you pay less for each struggle and loss over time", the patient doctor explained.

"But why hurt at all?", the snake's response had reminded the young rabbit of his central point.  "Why should I get used to loss?  Why should I get used to pain?  Why not avoid them both altogether?"  Fluffin's chest puffed out once more, he had the old rattlesnake over a barrel this time!

The snake smiled sadly again, "Oh young Fluffin.  You'll run towards pain.  Your fast little legs will rush you towards comfort, and love, and the warmth of the sun, the most costly things won't have to find you.  You will find them."

Fluffin thought for a moment, and then lightly scraped his own hyde with the small poison tooth.

History of the Universe 5: AAA3794

By the 60th century the mostly alien advances in space travel and the invention of human friendly breather bugs and Berring suits had made discovering habitable planets fairly simple.  While finding these liveable worlds was relatively easy, legally claiming them remained a costly and time consuming venture.  The paperwork alone to acquire an entire planet could take a competent team of lawyers up 5 years to forge.  Once owned, the taxes on these enormous private residences were phenomenal.  These mostly cold and empty worlds were an expensive but popular vanity purchase for financial mogules, entertainers, politicians, and professional athletes.

The newly purchased worlds were always initially vast money pits.  Each planet was different, most were devoid of life although some of them came with native flora or fauna bordering on the sentient.  The worlds had different build capacities, different solar and lunar schedules, some had a convenient abundance of water, and some were covered with a lacework of highly acidic poison rivers.  The most costly aspect of purchasing a vacant planet was the bribing of inspectors.

It was the job of inspectors to decide whether or not a planet could be safely used by people.  There were lots of reasons why a planet might be considered unusable.  These planet inspectors went over each world with a fine toothed comb making natural studies of resources, plant and animal life, geography, geology, and every other factor that may come into play down the road in a dangerous way if the planet was to be used for any human purpose.

This is because after the initial costly acquisition of a planet, they all were used by humanity at large.  Even the smallest planets are very big places with plenty of room for the private lives of the rich and famous, and a little commerce on the side.  They all become way stations among the stars, restocking and refueling areas.  Some of them, depending on the financial straits of the owner, even become tourist vacation destinations.  A passing planet inspection score was crucial.  The more deadly the planet, the higher the bribe, and the bigger the bribe, the better the score.  Inspectors were eager to be thorough and purchasers were eager to pay through the nose in order to recoup the most possible cash from their investment.

Lee Aaron was one of the most sought after planet inspectors.  This is because he was known in the business as one of the cheapest planet inspectors.  Lee had suffered through a gambling addiction in his youth that had caused him to take obscenely small bribes for several years in a bid to keep business steady.  One of these bribes had notoriously resulted in the brutal murder of an entire 5 generation high wealth banking family by an intelligent tribal society of dog like creatures that had been marked "harmless indigenous beasts" by Lee's inspection.  The entire planet had to be exterminated after it was determined that the encounter had left these harmless indigenous beasts incompatible with interstellar traffic.  The planet reverted back into the public domain and was snapped up by the Gold Star Cruise and Resort Company.

As it often goes in the financial world, the greater impression was made by the money saving possibilities of dealing with Lee Aarons than by the slaughter of the hapless family and the annihilation of the several billion alien species that had dwelt on the planet prior to purchase.  Lee's bold, dirt cheap, and deadly inspection had made his career.  He never had to worry about getting work again, so long as he kept his bribe rates relatively low.

The final casualty of Lee's most famous inspection was his gambling addiction.  He found himself unwilling, maybe even unable, to rely on chance for excitement or gain.  Lee Aaron paid off his bookies and filled the void left by his old friend and menace with newer and more reliable medicinal companions.

Planet inspectors were not permitted to wear Berring suits or breather bugs, those advantages would have compromised their senses and impaired results.  Despite the fact that anyone purchasing a planet would undoubtedly own those things, the inspection was meant to determine livability for even the lowest common denominator.  Specifically, the poor.

Lee Aarons lived in his ship.  While his self medicating habits ate a significant portion of his earnings, his expenditures were far less than they had been with that old whore, lady luck.  His ship was state of the art.  Lee had no wife, no children, no home, no pets.  No obligations, nowhere to be, and no when to get there.  Every 12 hours the solar vitamin D light in his quarters would gently shift into a soft simulation of moonlight, and that was the solo spaceman's cue to begin dosing and singing.

Lee didn't have an impressive vocal range, but he was not tone deaf.  There were a few songs he favored while drinking, others while smoking, and a mixture of song snippets he liked to shriek while over stimulated via non drinking or smoking methods.

The night he got the call to inspect a planet in the Harker system, he had been drinking rum and singing a song his grandmother had hummed when he was a freshly orphaned boy to ease him through his many nightmares.  Lee's parents had been killed by a cracked furnace seal as they slept.  Lee had lived because he loved the sulfur smell after a rain and had fallen asleep with his window open.  His younger sister wasn't so lucky, she'd had a nightmare of her own and was sleeping between his parents.

"My youngest son came home today, his friends marched with him all the way, the fife and drums beat out the time, while in his box of polished pine, like dead meat on a butcher's tray, they brought my young son home today"

He'd had to look up the words in order to learn the song that had soothed him through so many bad dreams.  Lee was not surprised his grandmother had only hummed the melody.

The call went straight to text, which is what Lee preferred.  He didn't need a prospective client catching him injecting, snorting, drinking, or smoking anything while singing raucously.  Lee wasn't famous for his professional decorum but he was an incredibly private man.

"Planet in Harker System.  Previous Injector Bissing.  Mush Job.  Setting Gay Gay Gay 3 7 9 4.  Replete That's Alpha Alpha Alpha 3 7 9 4"

Lee never failed to get a kick out of his ship's call system voice to text errors.  Previous injector bissing could only mean previous inspector missing, however, and that wasn't a laughing matter.  That meant that this planet might house hostiles of any kind.  Natives, beasts, germs, weather situations, the danger might be myriad or singular but it certainly existed.  Not too different than any other job, Lee mused, and he could certainly appreciate the narrowing down of chance's role.  He would know to be even more wary than usual, and that was not a terrible thing to know in advance.  Lee sent his job confirmation code and set his ship to AAA3794.

"A man he would have lived and died, til by a bullet sanctified, now he's a saint or so they say, they brought their young saint home today"

AAA3794, or Gaygaygay, as Lee had taken to calling it in his head, was a stunningly beautiful planet.  The smokey outer atmosphere blended metallic purples oranges and blues like oil on the surface of a puddle.  Once on the planet, the gentle light from three small suns wafted through this shifting ethereal filter and kissed everything it touched with a deep and perfect warmth.  There was a slight breeze when Lee landed.  His instruments indicated the air was thin but breathable, no small  miracle when considering the unique requirements of human survival and the vastness of the universe.  Tall maroon trees swayed back and forth along the edge of an ocean so clear that Lee at first thought the creatures swimming under the surface were floating along on currents of air.

The sea animals themselves were things of intense beauty.  Schools of fish with metallic shimmering skin to match the sky and long ribbon-like fins darted here and there in a meticulously orchestrated ballet.  Large amorphous creatures drifted more slowly below, every now and then upsetting a small cloud of gold sand that shimmered as it slid down their bright velvet backs to return gently into the still bosom of the sea bed.

It looked like an advertisement Lee had seen as a child for a faux fish tank.  All of the soothing comfort of a pet, none of the inconvenience or sadness that caring for a life might bring.  Perfect little brightly colored solar powered fish swam back and forth while bubbles streamed from the clean sandy tank bottom in gently swaying rows.  This was better.  Lee could see larger sea creatures further out, a pod of whale like animals crested at once in the distance, spraying the air with a fine mist of droplets that caught some blue from the sky and reflected it like a tiny patch of Earth twilight.  Lee felt a sharp pang of homesickness, his first in years.

He decided to search first for the previous inspector's ship.  If there was information that had been gathered and cataloged already, that could save him an exorbitant amount of time.  He boarded his ship and sent out a local distress call.  If the missing inspector's ship hadn't been disabled, it would respond to the distress call from his ship automatically with a location.  This worked, and within minutes Lee had navigated his ship down next to a shimmering late model compact Star-Fly.

This ship was far smaller than Lee's, indicating that the occupying inspector had a base home and only needed the ship for commuting and work purposes.  The hatch was open and the food stores had all been removed.  This was worth noting, and may have meant that advanced beasts or even aware beings were lurking in the forest waiting to ransack Lee's own stores.  There was no sign of a struggle, however.  Lee's detail oriented mind made note of the fact that items were missing which might only have been taken by someone (or something) familiar with their use.  The small silver medi-bag, water purifier, basic survival equipment, all of it had been stripped carefully from the ship.  Shinier looking and certainly more interesting electronic equipment had been left behind.  Lee wasn't there to figure out what had happened to the missing inspector, he filed all of it away under "interesting" and moved on.

He found what he was after in the flight seat, the previous inspector's completed planet report.

"AAA3794: Designation Uninhabitable", Lee sat heavily in the captain's chair and read on.  "Three suns prone to radioactive bursts, overheated environment, unsufficient to sustain life beyond plants.  Toxic plants in abundance, moss and bacteria laden mold in abundance."  There was more, but Lee stopped there.  Maybe the purchaser hadn't offered enough of a bribe?  The assessment was not harmonious with Lee's own brief initial notes.  The differences were so jarring, Lee wondered if the previous inspector might not have had a personal gripe with the purchaser.

This could all wait until the morning, however.  While the three suns outside shone as beautifully as they had upon his arrival, Lee's wristwatch told him that dusk was setting in aboard his own ship.  With the amount of traveling to different worlds that Lee accomplished so frequently, one of the measured luxuries he allowed himself was a set sleeping schedule.  If he landed on a world that enjoyed an opposing schedule to his own, he might stay up a little later or get up earlier to take advantage of natural light, but overall, he never altered his body's basic understanding of day and night as dictated by his own ship and home.

It might seem as though even a former gambler would enjoy living in the moment, but gamblers by nature are superstitious animals.  Superstition and habit are old friends.  Lee boarded his own ship just as the moon rose on the sky simulator that covered the ceiling, lit a bowl, and began to sing.

"And the moon rose over an open field.  Kathy I'm lost I said, though I knew she was sleeping.  I'm empty and aching and I don't know why-y-y, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all come to look for America", Lee's smooth breathy tenor filled the cabin and almost drowned out the low melody coming from just beyond the hatch.  Lee paused, took another puff, and turned on the viewer.

His Grandmother stood on the steps of his ship, her smiling lips pursed with the humming that came through the door and her hand absently stroking the air where a sleeping boy's head might have lain had there been a bed in front of her.

"Grandma?  Meme?"  Meme had been his name for her when he was a boy, May-may, it was pronounced.  His grandmother's father had been from real Earth France and she was very proud of having spoken old Earth French in the home.  He could remember her telling him about the rose bush she took such meticulous care of, "The original clipping was from Versailles, it was brought over more than nine hundred years ago.  This is the same plant, regrowing again and again, you'll have it when I pass"  Lee hadn't taken the plant, it had died when his Grandmother fell ill and became unable to care for it any longer.

His grandmother didn't answer, and instead walked humming off into the maroon woods at the edge of the clearing.  Lee put down his pipe, put on his shoes, grabbed some safety equipment, and went after.  He'd brought his stunner, a device capable of laying a powerful electrical shock on anyone or anything within thirty yards that wasn't heavily grounded.  He'd also turned on his recorder, all planet inspectors have recording equipment installed directly in their iris for the sake of convenience.  When activated, everything they see is recorded and sent back to their ship where they can later review the content for the sake of accuracy.

Although the woods were not dark, Lee lost his Grandmother almost immediately.  He kept on towards other light voices that lilted towards him, a woman's laughter?  After a short while Lee came out on the other side of the woods and found a man and young girl sitting on the beach he'd landed near.  The man wore modern clothes, like Lee's, the mousey haired and plain girl was dressed in a school uniform that Lee recognized from his days on New Earth.  The girl turned, smiled at Lee, and began to hum, "My youngest son came home today..."

The man rose and turned menacingly, placing the still humming and smiling girl behind him.  Lee recognized him as a fellow inspector.  While he couldn't recall his name, theirs was a lonely job not given to professional comradery, he recalled the short old man from trade meetings as a friendly and nearly retired chatterbox.

"Look old timer, I was called in to finish your job here, I don't care what you have going with that kid, I'll get paid whether you're missing or found, relax"

The girl rose and took the old man's hand in hers, rubbing it gently, "don't fight my love, I can be for him too, you're only two, you're only two, mon cher",  she murmured sweetly into his ear loudly enough for me  to hear.  The old man looked at her as if she'd struck him.

The girls words did soften the man and he allowed Lee to come near enough to speak in normal tones.  "I'm Arnold Scarber, and this is Lottie Scarber, my wife!" the man said proudly by way of introduction, once it became clear to him that on a planet of three he could not escape Lee's acquaintance.

"Oh I know, I'm too old for her now, but I wasn't always.  My sweet Lotte died 55 years ago.  I don't know how she's here, but she's here, and it's a miracle, my miracle!"  The plain girl looked at him sadly and squeezed his gnarled hand gently with her short soft fingers.  "Not yours, ours", she chided him gently, waving her hand towards me.  Arnold's face fell wearily.

Lee was able to get the story from them slowly.  As it turned out, much of the workings of this "miracle" were unknown to Arnold himself.  He had been so thrilled to have his only love back that he hadn't asked very many questions.  Arnold was old enough and dumb enough to know not to ask questions for which he might not like the answer.  Maybe Lee had been enchanted enough to forget himself and chase his grandmother through an alien forest, but there are different kinds of love and each kind of love has a different kind of longing.  Lee wanted answers, he was fascinated but he had seen nothing worth a man's life and livelihood.  Lee had never thought of himself as a sentimental man, he was the solo starman.

Eventually Lee left the couple for the evening and went back to his ship, having stayed awake through his artificial night for the first time in his 35yr career as a planet inspector.  He slept like a baby under the warm simulated vitamin D soaked sun.  He dreamed of his parents and sister as he'd found them that morning so many years before in their bed.  This time, in this dream, they all woke up.  His sister Deirdre's small and cold gray face and sunken eyes filled in and she ran to jump onto him for a piggy ride, her little soft hands clutched his wrinkled pajama top and her body warmed his back.  Lee's father ruffled his hair and his mother made him mouse ear pancakes.  And all of it under a colorful oily metallic sky.

Lee watched the replay of his evening with the Scarbers when he arose, more refreshed than he had been in years.  And more keenly aware of his loneliness than he had been since he'd ridden as a new orphan in the police ship to his grandmother's house.  Waking up can be cold and warm at the same time.  Lee was experiencing a resurrection of more than lost people.  He was waking up in the bed with his parents and sister, he was awake enough now to mourn his family and regret his life spent quietly as though any movement or noise might disturb their rest.

On the tape Lee had recorded, the old man chattered away proudly as a large silver worm suckled at his ear like a newborn baby on a mother's breast.  Lee remembered the conversation, here when the man turned towards the worm, he was talking about their first meeting.  Arnold had been too shy to ask Lotte out on a date, but some girls had arranged a cruel prank and sent him a note that convinced him to go to her house in a suit with a carnation.  The cruel girls didn't realize the sweet and shy couple needed that nudge, and their prank led to a whirlwind romance and young but happy marriage.  This had been Arnold's only love.

Lee's long dead Mother had been there rubbing his head when he awoke.  She watched the tape with him there in his ship, her hands more gentle than he remembered.  She gave him a bath, and brushed his hair, and helped him get dressed.  He reminded her that he wasn't a little boy anymore and didn't need any help, and she reminded him that she had missed him growing up.  He let her make him breakfast, mouse ear pancakes like his dream.  And then he turned on his iris cam and looked in the mirror.  A beautiful silver shimmering worm was attached to his neck and face.  Lee touched the worm, and his mother smiled behind him, gently rubbing his shoulder.

Lee Aarons changed the name on the Scarber report to his own, and sent it in.