Tag Archives: #scifi

Decameron 2020: Something Old

Something Old
by Nancy Bach

Kenelmcombe, Gloustershire, 21 December, 1869

 “Esme, stop squirming like a toddler, else I shall very likely stick you with a pin.”

This is a picture of a cat lying in the sun. He has nothing to do with the story. I just wanted to share because cats rule the internet.

Cooper, Lady Esmeralda Huddlestone’s once-upon-a-time nanny, then governess, and soon-to-be housekeeper, settled the Honiton lace wedding veil on her seventeen-year-old charge’s head. If Cooper had been human, instead of an automaton, Cooper reckoned her hands would be shaking.  They had been through so much to get to this day, one with real hope for the future. So, it wasn’t only Esme that had a case of the nerves today.

“I’m sorry, Cooper. I just….”  The young girl who had been in Cooper’s care almost continuously since she was an infant looked up at Cooper’s reflection in the dressing table mirror. Her eyes were wide, her face unusually pale, and Cooper could see tears sparkling on her dark lashes. “What if… what if Uncle Neville shows up?”

“Hush, now.  You know perfectly well that odious man is in Kenya. Didn’t he send a telegram to that pederast Everett Holmes, just day before yesterday?” Cooper fastened the veil onto Esme’s head with a wreath of Hellebores and viburnum, the best the garden at Harrogate Hall could offer in the middle of December. “He can’t possibly have travelled from Nairobi all the way to Gloucestershire in two days’ time.”

Esme didn’t appear soothed. “What if it was a trick? What if Uncle Neville knows we’re intercepting his telegrams? What if someone saw the wedding banns, and told him what you and Egg cooked up to save me?”

Cooper placed her hands firmly on Esme’s thin shoulders, the sensors in her copper alloy digits providing the feedback for her to calculate the right amount of pressure. “I daresay, I wouldn’t put it past him. But no. He doesn’t know. Professor Burroughs has every newsie and telegram boy in Highgate in his pocket. There is not a chance that a message could have gotten through.” From her artificial lips to God’s ear. Cooper’s features softened into a smile as she gazed at her young charge in the mirror. A smile only made possible by flexene, a patented alchemical substance that covered her copper alloy frame, created by the clever man who designed and built her, the great inventor Professor Hieronymous Burroughs. “Now look at you. Aren’t you just the picture of a lovely bride?”

Esme brushed at her tears. “But Everett’s still in England. What if Everett–”

Cooper used her stern nanny tone. “Enough of that, Esmeralda. If either your uncle or the horrid beast he tried to force you to marry show up at the church, I swear upon your mother’s grave that I will do whatever is necessary to forbid them ingress. Neither of those men will ever lay a finger on you again.”

Esme smiled, a little. “You would, wouldn’t you? Attack them, I mean.”

“Indeed I would. Professor Burroughs has recently modified my protocols to include a number of defensive and offensive maneuvers.”

Now Esme laughed. “Cooper, I adore you. You must teach me.”

There. Crisis averted. As if in response, Cooper felt a sort of loosening in her joints and cams. Had the Professor programmed that reaction the last time he tinkered with her circuits?  She didn’t remember experiencing that particular sensation before.  She made a mental note to ask him about it after the wedding.

With a small shake of her head that sent the curly tendrils of her ginger wig jiggling, she gestured at the mirror. “Now put a little rouge on those cheeks. You want to look your best for Lord Harrogate, don’t you?”

Esme’s smile faltered. “I do.  Of course, I do.”

Cooper waited for the inevitable ‘but’.

“Does Egg know, Cooper? About what Everett did to me?” Her voice caught. “The liberties he took when he would make me go riding with him?” She turned away. “I knew it was wrong, even though he told me it wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop him and now my life is ruined and–”

Cooper knelt, turned Esme to face her. “Hush now. Egg knows enough. I had to tell him some of it so that he understood the urgency of stealing you away. And you are not ruined.” Had she just told a lie? No, just an interpretation of the truth. Chadwick did not care that the girl had been compromised. It was what made this plan to have him marry her so perfect. He was the quintessential absent-minded scholar and didn’t care a fig about social proprieties. Oh, if only Esme’s Uncle Neville had not sent Cooper away, she would have stopped the perfidy before it started–with one of her knitting needles if it came to it. “Listen to me.  The important thing is that he’ll take good care of you and he’ll see to it that you regain control of your inheritance from your father. I’ve known Chadwick Eggerton longer than you’ve been alive. I was his…” She paused, considering how much of the truth she could tell. Oddly, there were no restrictions in her programming about this.  Odder still was that she had never before noticed. She finally decided on an innocuous term. “I was his housekeeper for many years before Professor Burroughs sent me to look after your mother while she and your father were in India. He is an honorable and gentle man.”

“Housekeeper? Really?” Esme raised her eyebrows, then frowned and scrunched her forehead. “I suppose as my husband, Egg will want to… um… you know…with me.” She gazed earnestly into Cooper’s green eyes. “Won’t that… I mean, I guess I’m afraid that…”

There came an odd whirring of gears in Cooper’s chest and she felt…she had no word for what she felt. Discomfort? Disquiet? Damn that crazy engineer, what had he done to her? “That’s really for the two of you to work out, but to make this marriage unassailable by your uncle, it should be consummated.”

Esme’s lip began to quiver, and Cooper stood briskly, despite her bushings being a little tight after her recent overhaul. She understood the child’s fears regarding the prospect of marital relations, all too understandable after Esme’s recent experiences with the heinous creature she had been betrothed to, but Cooper’s protocols told her it was important to help Esme focus on the future. “He’s been your teacher and mentor since you were twelve, child. You know he would never hurt you. Now come.” She took Esme’s hands and pulled the young bride to her feet. “Oh, but you are a vision, aren’t you? Your mother would be so proud.”

Esme looked at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, admiring the dress with its yards and yards of damask and lace. It was simpler in style than was the fashion, and the bustle was perhaps not as large as was currently in vogue, but it had been Esme’s mother Essylt’s dress.  ]Though Cooper had had to take it in a bit, as Essylt had been a taller, more robust woman, Esme could not have looked more stunning if the dress had been custom made for her.

“It is a lovely dress, Cooper. You are a miracle worker!”  She embraced Cooper, careful not to catch the lace on any of Cooper’s fittings. “Thank you!”

Hoping she had set Esme’s nerves to right, Cooper beamed at her charge. “Now you know the saying. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. You’ve got something borrowed, that’s the dress. Your veil is something new. You’ve–”

“I’ve got Egg.” She giggled, some of her plucky spirit returning. “He’s got to be my something old.”

Cooper gave Esme a stern look, although a glitch in her programming wouldn’t let her features hold the expression.“Child, you will be the death of me. Your something old is Lord Harrogate’s grandmother’s parure.” She gestured at the sapphire and diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that sparkled against the ivory damask and lace of Esme’s gown.

“I suppose.” She gave Cooper a wink. “Maybe I should pocket them, change into my new visiting dress, and you and I can abscond to Spain. We could live quite comfortably for decades on the money this jewelry would fetch us.”

Cooper stiffened her posture. “I am going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” She gave Esme her most severe look. Her programming allowed, even encouraged, a certain hardness–one needed to be strict with children. Recently, however, accessing those protocols had become difficult, and her tone came out less gruff than desired. Reaching into the pocket of her uniform’s black skirt, she pulled out a lovely blue silk and lace handkerchief with Esme’s new monogram embroidered into the corner.  “Now, here. I’ve made this for you. You can tuck it up into your sleeve, and it will be your something blue.”

Tears welled in Esme’s eyes again. She took the handkerchief with trembling fingers. “Oh, Cooper…”

“Esmeralda Elizabeth Penbre Huddlestone! Stop that sniveling immediately.”

Esme sucked in a shuddering breath. “Sorry. You’re right. I need to pull myself together. How much time have we?”

Cooper glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes. We need to get you downstairs and ready for the carriage.” She drew the girl forward, unaccountably unable to stop herself from chattering. “The Professor wanted to replace the real horses with those clockwork monstrosities of his, but you just know they’d break down on the way to the church and you’d be late.” As much as Cooper adored her creator, it was well-known, though seldom discussed, that the majority of his inventions had flaws.

She hustled her charge out of the large, sunny bedroom and down the wide staircase into the front hall, carrying Esme’s train. “Now then, you wait here with Gregory. Don’t move or you’ll muss your dress. Mr. Livingston will see to it Chad–Lord Harrogate uses the back stairs. He mustn’t see you before you arrive at the church. Speaking of his Lordship, I must run up to see Himself. He’s requested my urgent assistance with something.”

Esme clutched at her arm. “Wait! Cooper, you can’t leave me now!”

Cooper patted Esme’s hand then gently removed it, her servos reacting sluggishly as though some part of her regretted the action. Which was stuff and nonsense. She had no programming for regret.  Putting her hands on her hips, she raised her chin and looked down at her charge. “Your mother was a Baroness, your father an Earl. You are a Lady, Esmeralda. Behave like one.”

Esme frowned, clearly not happy, but at least she didn’t burst into tears again. Cooper found her own facial features softening. Rearranging the folds of Esme’s veil, she leaned close and whispered, “You’ll be fine, love.”

Esme swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her own chin. “I will, won’t I?”

Cooper nodded and stepped back, prouder than she ought to be. The gears in her chest that produced the artificial heartbeat that had soothed Esme as an infant whirred and clicked in an unfamiliar rhythm. Proud? She knew the word, but could automatons feel pride? Satisfaction perhaps, at knowing she had done an excellent job rearing her charge. But pride? And what was that strange sensation in her chest, as though something was seizing up inside? Was there a malfunction there? So many glitches today. What had Professor Burroughs done to her when he tinkered with her the other day? She really needed to speak with him, when the opportunity presented itself.

Her gears once again ticking normally, Cooper turned and hurried up the stairs. She wasn’t sure what Chadwick wanted from her that his gentleman’s gentleman Livingston couldn’t do just as well, but he’d requested she attend him, and so she would. If for no other reason than to make sure he got to the church on time.


Livingston opened the door to Chadwick Eggerton’s private chambers and gave Cooper a harried look. “He refuses to put on his suit until he speaks with you.” The tall, lean figure stepped aside and gestured her in to the heavily paneled room. The drapes were drawn against the chill weather and Cooper crossed to the two windows on the far side of the mahogany four poster bed and flung open the curtains. “Chadwick Nigel Eggerton, you are not a mushroom. Let in some daylight.”

Eggerton sat on the upholstered bench at the end of his bed in nothing but his good silk drawers, an undervest, and stockings, all held together by suspenders and garters.

Livingston gestured again. “You see?”

Cooper let out a sigh. Her eyes had not been designed to roll in their sockets, but there were times when she wished she could mimic the action used so often by her young charge. “I will deal with him, thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

With a frustrated harumph, Livingston let himself out and latched the door behind him. Cooper then turned to Eggerton.

“What are you waiting for? You’ll be late! Chadwick, you mustn’t be late to your own wedding. It’s simply not done. Not even for you.”

He gazed at her forlornly. “I am not so sure this plan of yours is the right thing.” He reached out his hands and she took them, as she had been programmed to do, and he pulled her down onto the bench beside him. “Ruby, darling.” He used the pet name he’d given her, when she’d first been sent to him. “What will I do with a wife young enough to be my granddaughter? You and I, we’ve been,” he paused, and Cooper could see him struggle to find a word that had the proper propriety. “We’ve been together, in a, er, conjugal way for so many years, and there are expectations for a gentleman on his wedding night. He brushed a tendril of hair from her cheek. “She’s not…”

Cooper was surprised. Shocked. She had to short-circuit this argument. “She’s not what? Pure enough? We’ve discussed this–”

“No!  No, that’s not what I meant at all!”  He looked away but kept her hands in his. “No, Ruby. It’s just, she’s not you.” He clutched at her hands, and she was both comforted by the feel of his touch against her sensors and disturbed by the desperateness displayed in the way he held on. “Having … marital congress … with Esme,” he appealed to her with sincere blue eyes, “feels like I’m being unfaithful to you.”

Her circuits stalled for a brief second and she could not think. That had never happened to her before. The lapse was only momentary, and when she recovered, she knew what she had to do, to say. “First, you must not call me Ruby. Not any longer. It was a sweet name you gave me, but with Esme to become your wife, I cannot be your Ruby any longer.”

Eggerton looked down at his feet. “That is the problem. You’ve always been my Ruby and now …”

Cooper felt that odd whirring in her chest and a strange constricted feeling in all of her parts, as though the oil in her tubing was viscous and sludgy. “Now it will be different.” She gave his hands a light squeeze, careful not to press too hard and aggravate his rheumatism. “You must go through with it, Chaddy. We have had our time together. Now it’s Esme’s turn. She’s been through so much for all she is so young. Please. Be the one to give her the chance to find happiness.”

Eggerton frowned. “How can a bright young thing like that be happy with an old curmudgeon like me?”

Cooper shook her head. “It’s a place to start. A safe place for her to find her wings.”

“And when she wants to fly away?”

“Then we let her.”

He thought for a moment then gazed at Cooper with twinkling blue eyes. “You are as brilliant as you are beautiful, Ruby.”

“Cooper. Cooper to you now. And you must be Lord Harrogate to me.”  She leaned her head on his shoulder. When had his thin frame become so stooped? “At least for the next little while.”

He slipped an arm around her and they sat for a minute or two, quietly enjoying each other’s company. Finally, she pulled away and stood. “Now you must get dressed. I will not allow you to be late. Livingston would never let me forget it. You know how things are below stairs.”

Eggerton chuckled. “I thought the two of you had come to an accord.” He stood and began putting on his boiled shirt, followed by his trousers.

“It is a tenuous truce predicated on my performing my housekeeping duties to his nearly impossibly high expectations.” She handed him articles of clothing, watched him struggle the same way she’d watched Esme struggle with her first pinafore as a child, fighting back the urge to help. “I’ll fetch him now, and he can do what he does best. I never could manage a bow tie.”

“Of course you can. You can manage anything you want, Ruby Cooper.”

He smiled and suddenly her artificial heartbeat sped up, and her oil sounded as though it were rushing through her tubes like a river. What was going on? It wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was just odd. She was reminded suddenly of a penny dreadful she’d caught Esme reading, and the heroine in it, who when confronted with the wicked smile of the handsome and dashing hero, had heard her blood pounding in her ears.

That was ridiculous. She really should have a conversation with Professor Burroughs. She must find time for that. She must. And yet….

There came a pounding on the door, and Cooper spun, gears whirring in her chest cavity.

“Egg! Egg, man, are you decent?”

Cooper expelled a gust of air, her hand pressed to her madly ticking heart.  Professor Burroughs.  She’d recognize that bellow anywhere. She flung the door open before he dented the heavy wood.  “Professor, please. A bit of decorum.”

Hieronymous Burroughs, Inventor to the Queen, and one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, bustled into the room and swept Cooper up in a bear hug. “My dear Cooper! You look stunning as always. Haven’t aged a day!” He chortled at his own joke, the same joke he’d been using for years.

“Professor, you saw me just last night after supper.”

He released her. “Remind me to adjust your humor settings, Cooper.”

Cooper shook her head. “I’ll make a note of it, sir.”

Burroughs swung around to face his friend. “What are you doing, old boy?  ou’re only half dressed!”  Then he cast a sly look at Cooper. “One last hour of passion, is it?”

Cooper stiffened. “It most certainly is not!”

“Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a twist, Cooper. It’s what I built you for, after all.”

Eggerton interrupted. “Originally perhaps, Hy, but she’s proven herself to be supremely adaptable to nearly anything. She is your most brilliant creation.”

Burroughs, nattily dressed in a morning coat, with his wreath of fluffy white hair and his well-trimmed beard, beamed at Cooper like a smartly turned-out Father Christmas. “Well. If I do say so myself.  Ahem.” He turned again to Eggerton. “Shouldn’t we be on our way to the church? I mean,” he pulled out his pocket watch, “It’s almost nine o’clock.”

Cooper inched her way to the door. “I’ll go and fetch Livingston. And remember, Professor, you gentlemen must take the back stairs. No one can see the bride before the wedding.”

“Yes, yes, Livingston will keep us on the straight and narrow.” Professor Burroughs chortled.  “Because no one is as straight and narrow as he is! Haha!”

Cooper quickly escaped and found Livingston waiting in the hall. “He needs your assistance now, Mr. Livingston.”

“Indeed.” He moved to the open door then paused and faced Cooper. “This…” He swept a hand around. “You have done a most excellent job arranging all of this, Cooper. I commend you.”

Cooper stood silent for a moment, thunderstruck. “I… Thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

He nodded at her curtly then brushed past her into his master’s room. She heard him sigh heavily as he snatched the bow tie from Burrough’s hands.

Knowing both Chadwick and the professor were in capable hands, Cooper hurried off. She needed to see to her own brief toilette before making sure Esme got into her carriage without any further damage to her dress than she had undoubtedly already caused.


The service took place in the little village church, a place of stone and ancient beams and well-worn wooden pews, tastefully decorated with winter flowers and greenery. Attendance had been kept to a minimum, despite the fact that the whole of the village had wanted to come. They adored Chadwick and the men would be downing pints of ale that night at the pub, in Chadwick’s and Esme’s honor. The bill for the impromptu fete would be footed by Chaddy himself, although the happy couple would not be in attendance. Chadwick knew which side his bread was buttered was on.

The bride and groom, the professor, Cooper and the household staff were present, along with the Reverend Wyeth, his wife and his eldest daughter, but that was all. The fewer people, Cooper had decided, then the less chance of anyone making an objection. She knew that despite having reassured Esme that there was no way her uncle could have found out about the wedding and do anything to stop it, his learning about their plan wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

The vows were spoken, and Chadwick slipped the ring that had been his mother’s on Esme’s slim finger. Cooper bit her lip as she saw Esme’s hand shake. Then at last, the vicar, who was a school mate of Chadwick’s and had been in the village since Cooper had first come to Kenelmcombe, pronounced the couple man and wife. Cooper felt her whole structure sag, as though her batteries had run down. Next to her, the professor grabbed her arm.

“All right there, Cooper?” Burroughs peered at her curiously, his pink cherub’s mouth curled up in an odd smile.

She gripped the pew in front of her until the weakness passed. “Yes. Thank you, Professor, I’m fine.”

But she wasn’t. As she watched Esme and Chadwick sign the parish register, and the other household staff gather round the bride and groom, Cooper knew something wasn’t right. She considered the many glitches she’d felt during the morning – and come to think of it all of the previous day – and knew that something was happening to her. If she had to put a name to it, she’d say she was ‘feeling’ things. Emotions. But that was impossible. She was an automaton, and her programming did not allow for emotions.

And yet as she watched Professor Burroughs pump Chadwick’s hand in congratulations then kiss Esme on the cheek, her heart stuttered in its beating and she felt a surge of energy in her circuits that caused a hundred different memories of her and Chadwick over the last thirty years to flood her awareness. They had been together, then apart when she went to do for Esme’s mother, then together again when Esme’s uncle had sent her away. Yet despite all of that they had always still been what they were to each other. Now… now things would never be the same between them. And that knowledge made her heart seize and her cams feel loose and the gears in her chest feel tight.

It was sadness. Or what she presumed sadness felt like.

And that was so very wrong.

It was her turn to greet the newly wedded couple. She pushed aside the wrongness and hugged Esme tight. “Such a beautiful bride. Your mother would be so happy for you.”

Esme had tears in her eyes, but tears of joy now, not of fear or shame or hopelessness. “Thank you, Cooper. You’ve given me back my life.”

Cooper smiled down at her charge. “It was my pleasure, my Lady.”

Esme batted her shoulder.  “Oh, stop that.  None of that ‘my Lady’ folderol.”  She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Cooper’s ear.  “And you don’t have to call Egg Lord Harrogate, either.  He’ll always be your Chaddy, even if he’s legally my husband.”

Cooper gasped.  “What…”

Esme slipped her arm through her husband’s and pulled him into the conversation. “Cooper, I’ve known you all my life, and I am neither stupid nor unobservant. Do you think I don’t know about the two of you? I think you’re adorable together. So don’t let this marriage interfere with what you have.”

“I…we…” Cooper was aware her mouth was gaping open. She felt as though her circuits had shorted.

Chadwick too could do little more than stare open-mouthed.

“Oh, Cooper, you silly git.” Esme kissed her on the cheek. “I love you madly, you know. Now pull yourself together and help me with my train. Livingston will be livid if we don’t get back to the house in time for our wedding luncheon.”

That was certainly true enough. Already Cooper could feel the valet’s eagle eyes on her, as though he could push her to move faster simply by staring. She scooped up Esme’s train, arranging it over her charge’s arm, then followed the couple down the aisle of the modest stone church and out the doors, where the rest of the household waited to throw rice at the happy couple. The intense constriction of the gears in her chest eased and her joints felt fluid again.

As the two entered the waiting carriage, together now, as man and wife, Cooper could hear Chadwick chattering to his bride about their honeymoon trip.  “Now, I have arranged for us to start our Grand Tour in Copenhagen.  You’ll absolutely adore the National Museum of Denmark.  It’s run by my old friend Jens and has one of the finest collections of iron age artifacts in the world, outside of the British Museum.  We can test your ability to date iron age pot shards with more than the few samples I have available.”

Cooper smiled indulgently.  Chadwick was in teacher mode again, and Esme was nodding like a good student.  They might be husband and wife but had quickly slipped back into the roles most comfortable to them.

Chadwick continued as Cooper tucked Esme’s train into the carriage and closed the door. The girl had the audacity to wink at Cooper before returning her attention to her husband, who remained blithely unaware. “At some point, perhaps after Austria and Greece, we’ll go to Cairo, where I’ll introduce you to Mssr. Mariette. I know we’re not supposed to be friends with the French, but really, the work he’s been doing in Abydos is remarkable.”

He was still lecturing as the carriage trundled off down the lane.

Cooper turned to go but found Professor Burroughs at her elbow. He was regarding her curiously again, his head slightly canted to one side. “Are you sure you’re feeling quite well, Cooper?”

She paused for just a fraction of a second. She knew that if she told him of her glitches, of the experiences that she was likening to emotions, he could fix her. It was what he was best at – making sure she ran according to her protocols.

She glanced at the carriage, receding into the distance, thinking of the days of hope and happiness that stretched before her, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I feel quite well, Professor, thank you for your concern.”

“Cooper!” Livingston rescued her from any additional queries. “Quickly now! Lunch isn’t going to serve itself.”

She dipped her head at the professor then hurried after Livingston and the cart that would take the household staff back to the Hall. She was aware, for the briefest of instants, that Burroughs was smiling and nodding to himself.

Then protocol kicked in and she focused on the tasks at hand. Always best to look to the future, her programming said, which today, thankfully, looked bright indeed.

Decameron 2020: Queeg the Insidious

Queeg the Insidious
by Art Cerf

This is a pretty yellow flower I shot on the forest floor of Rib Mountain in Wisconsin. It has nothing to do with the story. I just thought it was pretty and eye-catching.

Far beyond our view in a space ship cloaked by Neptune, an alien race looked down upon earth. Its atmosphere was perfect, its temperatures were moderate and it seemed to have abundant water…ideal for colonizing.

Of course, there was the problem with the humans, billions in number.  It would cost the aliens oceans of green blood and who knows how many slotniks to fund an invasion.

And so the generals argued back and forth on the best approach. Finally, a lowly aide said there could be one way to conquer earth without the cost of a single slotnik. He spoke out of turn but the generals decided to hear him out.

He said, “Send one of our most toxic viruses to earth and target just one individual in some crowded city. Let him wander through town for days before he gets sick. In that time, he will have infected many others.  By the time local officials notice this, they’ll be busy denying there’s a problem and will try to cover it up.  But finally, the government will step in but also tell the world that it’s nothing too serious.”

“And the plague will spread around the world, poor countries rich countries…even the richest. And the leader of that country will downplay it and delay, allowing the virus to spread. Finally, a quarantine will be put in place but after weeks or months, people will demand to be released and the virus will spread anew.”

“By that time, the world will be so weary and weakened that conquest will be easy.”

The generals looked at each other before one finally spoke out.

“You should have been a philosopher, Queeq. You certainly aren’t a soldier. You may leave the room.”

Then the generals, again, took up plans for their attack.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for this awesome story. It was my ultimate favorite of your submissions. For those of you following this blog, this will likely be the last Decameron 2020 post for about a month. I will be back with more come mid- to late July. Hopefully, we can talk my mom into some stories for the summer. She, too, is a professional writer with more magazine credits than I can count.

Decameron 2020: The Taste of Brown

The Taste of Brown
By Nancy Bach

This White-Breasted Nuthatch in its tree-hole nest has nothing to do with the story. Stories just seem to get more attention with photos.

Crouched in the humid, smothering darkness, Magda Zeller examined the dead thing. It lay buried in a shallow trench at the base of the newly set foundation wall of the administration building. Or what would be Admin when her crew finished construction.

It was a windem, one of the tree-like, tribal, semi-intelligent beings that inhabited this world, and its presence on site made acid churn in Magda’s stomach. It would likely mean a delay. A delay could mean no bonus and no bonus meant a late loan payment to the Garicola brothers. Her palms sweat. Would they just kill her, or torture her first?

In the east, an alien god brushed fat fingers across the horizon, painting dawn’s purplish blush across the bottom of the sky. Compared to that, and the glow of a trio of moons, the stabbing, slashing beam of her flashlight felt heretical. Magda shrugged off the transgression. She had bigger problems. Besides, it wasn’t her god.

She squatted by the foundation and scowled at the thing in the trench, while her crew chief, Jared Montgomery, paced behind her. The windem had been interred so close to the foam-crete that it had become partially encased in it as the foam hardened overnight. Seeing it here, stuck in her wall, Magda relived the argument she’d had with the site surveyor about the wisdom of building a settlement this close to the forest. From everything Magda read before accepting this job, relations with the windem had been benign. That was in part, Magda thought, because the Governor was a smart man, keeping human activity to the broad, grassy plains that covered great swaths of Baeder IV.

This new intrusion butted up against the shore of the purple, leafy ocean of a forest that washed in rolling, hilly waves over the top third of Baeder’s one enormous continent. The activity could be construed by the indigenous creatures as a move into windem territory. Magda reasoned that although the windem had shown no signs of violent behavior over the thirty or so years Baeder had been colonized, it didn’t mean they weren’t capable of it.

The first day the crew started digging, a handful of the windem showed up. They stood at a distance, in a cluster like a miniature wooded glade, watching. Sometimes they gestured with their branch-arms, although whether to the workers or to each other was anyone’s guess. Each successive morning, more appeared at the edge of the forest. Just standing. They never stayed long. Magda would look up from some task and they’d be gone.

She peered down at the thing melded into her foundation, a scant ten centimeters from her maker’s mark, a small seashell from Earth she placed in the foundation of one structure in every colony she’d helped build. The shell was a tradition, started by her father, and continued after she’d taken over the family business upon his retirement. A little piece of her, a little piece of the place where humanity started, now resided on every far-flung outpost Magda worked on.

She hissed out a breath. Hell’s bells.

The windem in the trench was an old one from the look of the patchy gray, bark-like skin. The young ones were green, with limbs like vines, moving through the canopy of the forest like excitable monkeys. As the windem aged, they grew stiff, more earth-bound and sedentary. Cal Martinez, one of the team’s explorers, said he’d seen some that were rooted to the ground, like real trees. This one, the one in her foundation, had root-like growths at the base of its six lower limbs to which clung dirt and dead leaves, like it had been uprooted before being brought here.

Behind her, Montgomery cleared his throat. “Is it dead?”

Magda held her breath and gently poked the thing, fully expecting to be grabbed. The body felt cold, but she’d never touched a windem before. Maybe they were always cold. When there was no reaction, she laid her hand on the creature’s bark-covered torso, felt for a heartbeat or signs of breathing. Did windem even have hearts?  Probably not.

The thing didn’t stir, and it hadn’t moved since being placed here, or it wouldn’t have gotten trapped like a bug in amber when the foam-crete hardened.

She frowned up at Montgomery. “I sure as hell hope so. If it’s alive, I have no idea how we’ll excavate it without hurting it.” She played her light over the form, looking for some sign of how it had come here and who had brought it. Other than her and Montgomery’s boot prints in the ocher-colored soil, she saw nothing. “This is how you found him?”

“Yep. He was covered over some with dirt and a bunch of leaves. I cleared a little away so’s I could figure out what it was. When I saw it was one of them, I called you.” He ran a shaky hand across his closely shaven head. “What should we do?”

Magda stood. “Rouse the crew. Get Halloran and Coretti to stand guard here. Issue them weapons but keep it quiet. Then question everyone.” If it were some fool’s idea of a practical joke, Magda would have their ass sent to the worst job site she could think of, and she knew some real hell holes. “I want to know if anyone saw or knows anything about this.” 

“On it, boss.”

 Montgomery loped away towards their camp, a cluster of habidomes situated on a small rise a couple hundred yards from the construction site. He’d be glad, she thought, that she hadn’t assigned him to stand watch. The faceless windem gave him the willies.

The first rays of a ruddy sun spilled across the denuded, dun-colored ground, setting off sparks of light from the mica-like flakes bound into the substrate. Beauty wasted, Magda thought, on aliens who had no eyes.

The trials of the day ahead made her head throb. She’d need to call Dr. Ramanujan, the local Exo-Anthropologist, stationed in Rewey on the far side of the planet. Magda had studied all the lit about the indigenous lifeforms on Baeder before accepting this job, but nothing she read told her why a dead windem was lying in a trench on her building site. She didn’t have much faith that the Exo-Anth would know, either, but that was the logical place to start untangling this mess. And it needed to be untangled, fast. She had two weeks to get the priority structures built. It wasn’t just her reputation on the line, although that was critical to getting future jobs. Her bonus hung on that accelerated timeline, too. Without that payment, the financing partners–okay, call a spade a spade, the loan sharks–who had helped her replace her outdated and glitchy diggers and material synthesizers, wouldn’t get paid.

In the growing heat and humidity of the morning, Magda shivered. Then she tapped her com, calculated what time it was in Rewey, and hoped Indira Ramanujan wasn’t doing anything with her night she didn’t mind having interrupted.


“What do you mean you can’t get over here?” Magda paced the yellow-brown ground, cupping one hand over her ear to silence the whistle of the wind in the earpiece implanted there. “I have a dead alien in a hole and about three dozen of the live variety standing a dozen meters away watching me jackhammer the dead one out of a foundation.” She smeared dirt across her sweaty forehead as she pushed up her short bangs.

The anthropologist huffed in what sounded like frustration. “Well, this is great timing.” There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “I doubt they will do anything but watch you, Ms. Zeller. In the thirty years we’ve been here, they’ve never done anything else.”

It had taken Magda two hours to get hold of the Exo-Anthropologist. Meanwhile, she’d re-questioned everyone on her crew after Montgomery had finished with them, slammed back two strong cups of coffee and a pain reliever for a burgeoning migraine, and arranged for a work crew to start breaking down the section of foundation so they could repour the foam-crete. Now she stood and supervised while they carefully excavated the windem’s body from its concrete cocoon. The air, as thick with humidity as a milkshake, tasted tangy and sour when she sucked in a breath. “And if they do?”

“Do what, Ms. Zeller?”

She flung a hand up. “How the hell should I know? You’re the bloody alien expert!”

She winced at a squelch of interference. Mankind had been traveling the stars for ten generations but somehow still couldn’t get intra-planetary communications to work. “Listen, I’m desperate to come out there, but I have one shot to meet with someone who’s only passing through the system. My grant, the money that will help us learn more about the creatures, depends on me keeping that appointment.”

Money, Magda thought, it always came down to money, no matter who you were.

There was more background noise, some distant, tinny announcement, and Ramanujan continued, puffing a little as though she were out of breath. “I’m sorry, I have to go. My flight Upstation is boarding. Document the incident and call me if anything changes. I’ll be back in a few days.”

God damn it, the woman was leaving the planet. “Wait! You can’t go. This is–”

She nearly ripped out the earpiece, and to hell with the nanofiber circuitry, when she realized Ramanujan had hung up. She spun, wishing she had something to throw, nearly ran into the tall, rangy form of Montgomery.



“It’s done. Had to use a hammer and chisel at the end there. Can’t get any closer to the thing without taking off bits of him. It. What do we do with it now?”

Magda frowned down at the dead windem, then across to the live ones, standing in their silent, motionless vigil. “How heavy is it?”

“Not very. Probably weighs about what you do. It feels sorta, I don’t know.” Montgomery shrugged. “Dried out. Like maybe it’s been dead for a while.”

Weirder and weirder. She cursed the Exo-Anth and climbed down the slope. “Good job,” she told her crew. “Montgomery, you take the roots, I’ll get the, uh, arms.” She gestured at the six ropey side appendages.

Montgomery looked like she’d just asked him to roll in a pit of fire ants.

She narrowed her eyes. “Just do it, Monty.”

He swallowed, stared down at the windem. “And then what?”

She gripped the body underneath the branches that she equated with arms and hefted it. If she had to, she figured she could just drag it herself, but it felt disrespectful to do so. “Do you like your job, Monty?”

His lips twitched. “Most of the time.”

“Then grab its legs and help me carry it. We’re gonna give it back to them.”

Montgomery’s eyes widened like a frightened horse. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, boss.”

“Fine. Guess you don’t need a paycheck.” She tugged the body backwards a few feet and Montgomery finally picked up his end.

They moved toward the group of windem. Magda’s plan was to place the dead creature close its live brethren and back off. As they neared the windem, reflux acid burned her throat.

“Lower it to the ground, Monty. Carefully. Don’t just drop it.”

Montgomery followed her lead. Then with his eyes glued to the aliens, he murmured, “Now we go back, right?”

She sighed. “Yes, go. I’ll be right behind you.”

His heavy boots thudded against the ground as he ran back the way they’d come. Magda stood her ground however, wondering how to make eye contact with a creature who had no eyes. She inhaled more buttermilk air. “I’m sorry about your, um, elder here. I don’t know how he died, but we can’t have him in our site.”

One of the creatures was taller and grayer than the others. It had something around what could roughly be called shoulders, something like a necklace of vining blossoms. Maybe it just grew there, part of its body, she couldn’t tell from this distance. None of the others had a similar decoration, so she addressed her next comments to him. “We don’t mean you any harm. In fact, we’d like to be friends. Okay?”

The change occurred without warning. A grey-green haze, like murky contact lens, colored her vision. Her stomach lurched and she couldn’t catch her breath. The pond-scum air grew thicker, hotter. Her heart stuttered, memories of childhood panic attacks flooding her with the need to run and hide. Every cell in her body screamed, this is wrong, the world is wrong.

The creatures at the tree line hadn’t moved, yet she felt them swarming her, closing around her, and the world tilted. The ground beneath her feet seemed to shift and lurch, sending her to her knees.

Then it was lights out.


She came to in the chill air of the med dome. Taking a deep breath that for a change wasn’t like sucking air through a straw, she pushed herself up from the cot Montgomery had dropped her on. “What happened?”

Gail Wu, their medic, shoved her back down. “You passed out. Montgomery said the aliens did something to you.” Wu gave Montgomery the side-eye. “Can you verify that, Magda?”

Magda considered. “Probably just the heat.” She didn’t believe that, but better to lose face than try to explain something she didn’t herself understand. She glared at Montgomery, jabbed a finger at him. “You don’t repeat that, Monty.”

He winked. “Repeat what, boss? I didn’t hear a thing.”

Wu stuck a couple of sensors on Magda’s temple and chest, consulted her comp. “Elevated adrenaline levels, heart rate. O2’s a little low.” She passed Magda a suck tube of clear liquid. “Drink that. It will help balance your electrolytes. I’d tell you to take the day and rest, but I’d be wasting my breath.”

When Wu backed off, Magda sat up. The world swam and sparkled. She closed her eyes, forced down the sweet-salty liquid. When the dizzy glitter cleared, she climbed to her feet. Montgomery’s doleful brown eyes studied her, lips downturned. She waved off his concern. “What happened after I passed out?”

Her crew chief shrugged. “I ran back, carried you off. Put the crew to work on the foundation again.”

“And the windem?”

He frowned. “I didn’t see, but I assumed they disappeared back into the forest.”

“Did they take the old one with them?”

“The what?”

“The body, Monty, the body.”

“Hell if I know. Kinda had my hands full lugging you back here.” He smirked. “Might wanna lay off the sausage and biscuits, boss.”

Typical Montgomery. Snark aside, he’d missed the real point. The corpse of the windem was important. Magda didn’t know why, but she knew to rely on her instincts about things.

She swung her legs off the cot. Montgomery was a great crew chief and an expert at dome construction, but what he had in site smarts, he utterly lacked in imagination. Like always, Magda was the only one thinking ahead. Ahead to their schedule, their bonus, and what this interruption might mean to both. She pushed past Montgomery and out of the med dome. The sense of unease she felt before she fainted still squirmed inside her.

By the time she’d hiked back to the site and reached the spot where she’d left the body of the windem, the sun sweltered directly overhead and the crew had broken for lunch. A flattened section of tall grass between the bare earth of the construction site and the edge of the forest remained the only indication of their encounter.

She searched the trees, looking for any of the watchers, but the deep purplish-black and magenta foliage of the forest had swallowed them up.

Her skin crawled. Something felt wrong, she could taste it. Sour, gritty, murky grey. None of those things were feelings, and yet those were the only words she knew to describe the way she felt.

She shook her head, marched back to camp, hustled her work crew through their meal and back to the site. They had to make up the time they’d lost. She didn’t care what the tree-creatures did with their withered corpse, just so long as they didn’t get in her way again.

She pushed her crew hard, offering double time to work past dark. By the time the second moon had risen, they’d repaired the damage and even gotten a start on the foundations of three other buildings. While Montgomery supervised the pouring of the foam-crete, Magda worked on her own, installing the ribbing for the plasti-steel dome walls on the Admin Center, a job she could do with her eyes closed.

Still, money and loyalty only bought so much extra work. After the last rib had been welded in place, and before the grumbling started in earnest, Magda called it a night. Even she had run out of steam, despite the specter of having various body parts irreparably damaged by her creditors. Trudging back to her sleeping carrel, she stripped off her sweat-soaked jumpsuit, dumped it in the cleaner then collapsed onto her cot and into oblivion.


A flutter of cool touched Magda’s face. Someone had entered her sleep carrel. Her eyes snapped open to dim lighting indicating early morning and she rolled into a sitting position, swinging her legs over the edge of the cot. “What?  What is it?” She groped for her jumpsuit at the end of the bed, remembered she’d put it in the cleaner the night before.

Montgomery stood in the entryway, arms crossed, a little “v” between his eyes. “Sorry, boss, but you gotta see this.”

Magda fetched her jumpsuit from the cleaner, pulled it on, zipped up. She’d been looking forward to a long session in the sonic shower followed by a hearty breakfast and several cups of coffee made from the real coffee beans she’d brought with her. Yeah, those kinds of pipe dreams never came true. She didn’t notice Montgomery’s side arm, clipped to his belt, until she was shoving her feet into her work boots.


“Happens.” Montgomery’s lips quirked up. “Especially to us.”

She pushed out a breath. “Talk while we walk.”

He did.

The windem corpse had shown up again sometime during the night, tucked into the foundation of one of the new buildings, the commissary this time.

Magda scrambled down into the foundation pit. Two of the work crew hustled to install electrical conduits and plumbing pipes, studiously avoiding the dead windem, which rested just under what would be the entryway to the dome.

Montgomery stayed on higher ground, peering down. His hand hovered near his weapon, as though he expected the corpse to leap up and attack. Magda knelt on one knee and examined the thing. It lay on its side, facing the foundation, but not touching it, so it hadn’t gotten stuck in like the other one had.

“Not the same one,” she called up to Montgomery. “No concrete on it.” She eased the body onto its back. Gasped. A daisy chain adorned the thing’s torso, the same green viny, blossom-bedecked necklace she had seen on the elder windem she’d addressed the day before. She had no way to tell if this was the same individual or another who wore similar decoration. She shuddered. Surely, they hadn’t killed the elder and placed him here. And if they had, why? A threat of some kind? Some other kind of message? Damn it, this was a problem for the resident Exo-Anth, not Magda.

She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to feel the tightening in her head which was prelude to yet another of the migraines she’d been plagued with since arriving on this hot house planet. Oddly however, the pain didn’t come. In fact, sitting here, her hand resting lightly on the sinuous, braided branches that formed one of the windem’s arms, she felt calm. Peaceful. All her problems dissolved in a single intake of breath. Gone was the gray-green feeling, replaced by a cheerful blue one, like the color of a still lake reflecting clear, blue skies back home. Skies she hadn’t seen in decades. She sighed. Maybe it was time for a trip back to Earth. Maybe when she’d settled this mess with the Garicola brothers, her debts paid and the monkey off her back, she’d take some time.

“Boss? You okay?”

The blue, happy feeling slid away. She forced herself to pull her hand from the windem’s body. “Yeah, fine.” Standing, she shaded her eyes and squinted up at Montgomery, silhouetted by the ruddy sun. “Come on, let’s move him.”

Montgomery’s jaw clenched. “Why me?”

“Because I pay you the big bucks.”

He groused a bit, but ten minutes later they placed the corpse in the grass in front of a new assemblage of windem. Again, Magda tried speaking to them, this time focusing on one that had a crown of blossoms on what Magda thought had to be its head. “I’m sorry to disturb your elder’s rest, but we really can’t have his remains in our building site. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The creatures just stood there, the long line of them. Silent. Motionless. There had to be forty or so of the things.

Magda turned to go. This time, when the ground beneath her feet lurched, she was braced for it. Sensations swarmed her. Deep-rooted unease. Wrongness. Mental world-tilting, like the sky was down and the ground was up. That same, murky gray-green. She swam in it, was filled with it.

“Ah, shit,” she heard Montgomery say.

She groped for his arm, found it, steadied herself. A few seconds went by and the sensations slowly subsided. She opened eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed. “I’m good, it’s okay.”

“You don’t look good.”

The world righted itself, the ground back where it belonged. She sucked in air, regretted it. Thick, sour, like rancid milk. “God, I want off this rock.” A glance over her shoulder revealed the windem had gone, every one of them, the dead one included. She shook off Montgomery’s hand and directed her steps towards the construction site. “Come on, let’s get this job done.”

For a change, Montgomery offered no argument.


Sore muscles, a pounding headache, and incipient nausea accompanied her into the sonic cleaner after chow that night. Her cot called to her, but damn if she’d go another night without removing the sweat and grime. She yearned for a long shower under stinging hot water, but their temporary habidomes weren’t equipped for it. That much water was just too expensive a luxury right now. Soon though, she consoled herself. Soon, they’d finish this damn job and get the hell off-planet.

Sitting naked and blessedly cool on her cot, she grabbed her com unit, found a message waiting for her. Hoping for a response from Ramanujan, who she’d been trying to reach all day, she played it.

A high-pitched, weaselly voice enunciated each word in her ear. “Ms. Zeller. Your payment is due in fifteen standard days. Please remit to your account by midnight, Earth UTM. We hope you can continue to enjoy your stay on Baeder.”

She tossed the com onto her cot and put her head in her hands. She began to shake, and a wave of nausea swept over her. They knew where she was. Of course, they did.

Damn it, she needed this bonus. Pulling herself together, she grabbed her com unit again and attempted to reach Ramanujan for the sixth or seventh time that day. The woman answered just as Magda prepared to hang up.

“What is it now, Ms. Zeller?” Her clipped, central hub accent grated, even more terse than usual.

“We’ve had another run-in with the windem. I tried to get hold of you yesterday, left you messages. They left another corpse in our construction site.”

A pause ensued, longer than the delay warranted by the distance between. “Another one?” She made a musing noise. “Are they burying them?”

“The first one was covered over in dirt and leaves. The second was just there, at the base of the foundation.”

The annoying pause again as Ramanujan’s response traveled back from Upstation. “Were there any grave goods?”


More waiting. Then, “Tell me you took vid or at least stills. Are they still in situ?”

“No, and no. I gave it back, just like the last one.”

The pause was extra-long this time. A snort finally ensued. “Damn it. I told you to document. How could you not at least have taken pictures? We’ve never seen a windem burial. If it happens again, I want full documentation. And keep the body.” A shorter pause. “What happened when you gave the remains back?”

Magda shrugged. “They took it and vanished back into the forest.”

Seconds ticked past. “That’s all?”

It was Magda’s turn to take her time. Should she tell the Exo about her fainting spell? It didn’t seem relevant, and Wu seemed to think was probably heat-related, coupled with the number of hours Magda had been working. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“They didn’t try to communicate in any way? We’ve seen them touching branches with each other sometimes, especially the lower limbs that look like roots. They may use mycorrhizal communication, the way plant life on earth does.”

“Nothing like that.” She sighed, figuring she’d regret things either way. “I did feel a little woozy both times.”

More waiting. Magda had time to rearrange the small holo-cube containing family pictures, and her e-reader into a more balanced and pleasing arrangement on the small shelf near her cot. It was suddenly important, that balance. Things in the right place.

There was some background noise, a clinking sound and a man’s voice murmuring something Magda couldn’t make out. Was the woman out to dinner? Ramanujan spoke over the noise. “That happens to a lot of newcomers on Baeder. Should have been a note about it in your planet brief. Some people report dizziness, fainting and some free-floating anxiety. It should pass in a few weeks.” A much shorter pause followed. “Damn it, I can’t get downside for another forty-eight hours, but if another incident with a windem body happens, I need you to leave the body in situ and contact me immediately.”

Oh, hell no. “Sorry, Doctor, but I’m on a tight schedule here. We lay floors on all buildings tomorrow, once electrical and plumbing are in place. Walls go up on the domes the day after that.”

“Ms. Zeller, this is important! Your floors will have to wait. This is unprecedented contact. I need you to be my eyes and ears.”

A part of Magda wanted to help, but the part that valued having intact arms and legs won out. “Nope. I have express instructions from the governor that this site needs to be ready for occupation on the 15th. If I don’t get floors down and walls up, that won’t happen.”

“Then I’ll speak to the governor myself.”

Magda chuckled. Good luck with that. “Feel free.” She’d be doing the same, right after she got off with Ramanujan, reminding the man just how much that delay would cost, not only in labor, but in their agreed on bonus fee structure, not to mention the cost of housing all those colonists who were arriving on planet to occupy the site. The governor, unlike the Exo-Anth, was no idiot. “Any words of wisdom beyond that, Doctor?”

Waiting, waiting. “I’ll be back on planet in two days. Please, just wait for me.”

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough. The woman never should have left. “Sorry, I think we’re losing the connection. Can’t hear you.”

She didn’t wait for the sputtering reply, just ended the call and immediately contacted the governor’s office. People in Rewey would just be waking up. For once, somebody’s god, probably not hers, made the com-sat link work and in five minutes she had the permission she needed to carry on, so long as the windem weren’t interfered with. She fell asleep with a smug smile on her face.


The comp on her shelf read 3:33 a.m. when that weirdly soothing blue happy feeling roused her from a dream about balancing precariously on a wooden plank atop a beach ball done up to look like planet earth. The gray-green sensation which had dogged her since her encounter with the windem the previous morning lifted as she blinked blearily. She felt peaceful. Energized, even.

Knowing that she’d be getting up in a couple of hours anyway, she rolled out of bed, dressed and slipped out of the sleeping dome. Grabbing a couple of ration bars, a to-go container of coffee from the commissary, and a flashlight, she headed out to the construction site.

According to the scientists, there was little nocturnal activity on Baeder. No night bird-type creatures sang, no frog-type things croaked. No scary predators stalked. A few weeks ago, she’d found the silence and the emptiness eerie, but tonight, that buoyant, blue mood had her whistling as she climbed down into the foundation of one of the three dorm units. By the light of all three moons and a huge work light, she pulled a little storage box from her jumpsuit pocket and selected a peachy-orange scallop-shaped shell from the mix within. This she placed in the still-hardening foundation to replace the one that had been destroyed, and blueness washed over her. With a smile she couldn’t repress, she began to assemble the struts that would brace the flooring. The familiar, repetitive work soothed her, and a cool breeze wafted over her as she schlepped equipment and fitted connections. She’d nearly completed the grid of struts and was contemplating whether to try hefting the floor sections into place by herself when she heard a shuffling sound behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

Straightening, she turned slowly.

They stood, three of them, above her. One had a crown of blooms and she knew with certainty it was the same windem she’d seen that morning.

Blue came the feeling, barreling into her like an excited puppy, yellow nipping on blue’s heels. A ruddy yellow, a yellow tinged with orange, like the light of Baeder’s sun. It made her feel warm. Hugged. Secure.

The creatures’ root-like lower limbs twisted and undulated like a deep river flowing as they descended the earthen ramp built to haul construction material in and out of the foundation pit. She’d never seen a windem move before. She thought they’d scuttle, insect-like. Instead the three windem rippled towards her, single file. They each helped carry the horizontal form of another of their kind.

Another body.

Magda took a step back, hit a strut with her shoulder blade, stopped.

The windem bent their trunk-like bodies as though they were made of rubber, not bark or wood, and streamed along beneath the floor grid to deposit their burden at the base of the foundation just beneath where the door would eventually be. Right next to her seashell. They turned towards Magda again.

Their root-feet undulated, touched one another’s. Some form of communication, Magda thought, like Ramanujan had talked about. She’d give almost anything to know what they were saying.

Blue. Yellow-orange. Solid earth beneath her feet, no tilting.

They were speaking to her. Those colors, those feelings, they were messages.

They shifted and the one with the crown of blossoms gestured with one of its vine-like branches toward the corpse. It was in the shadow of the foundation wall, shrouded by darkness. Magda took a tentative step toward it and when nothing except more blue happened, she got closer. Using her flashlight, she examined it.

The body had to be extremely old. The bark was gray and crumbling, covered with something like lichen. Ocher-colored earth clung in places, caked between patchy sections of bark. Something hung around the “neck” of the corpse, a withered, desiccated garland of braided vine upon which hung a circular object with a hole in its center. Stone maybe? No, she thought, not stone, coral. The amulet was a piece of faded blue coral.

She shone her light onto the ornament, the center of which was filled with ochre soil. A rich, leafy smell wafted up from the corpse. It must have been reclining in some deep part of the forest, like a fallen tree. The idea of the windem disturbing that repose, bringing it here, like some kind of offering, staggered her.

Magda’s emotions were a swirl of colors. Deep emerald green spun through her, along with the sky blue and orangey-yellow. Happy. Contented. Peaceful, peaceful. Calm. In balance.

Blue. Balance.


She thought of her seashell. A piece of her, of her home world. Something she brought with her to make this place her own. Humanity’s own.

She turned to face the windem, a glimmer of understanding twinkling firefly-like in her mind. She thought about how she had felt when she’d returned the other bodies. That sickly gray-green color/feeling. Wrongness. Illness. The sense that the world was shifting beneath her feet, that dizziness and the inability to regain her balance.

Magda smiled. She had no idea if the windem could recognize a smile, but she hoped they didn’t find it threatening. In her mind, she conjured the feeling of blueness. Happiness. Balance. “You’re trying to fix our intrusion into your world, aren’t you?  Trying to balance our presence with something of your own.” She glanced toward the body, now sure that this body was someone who had been revered. They’d been upping their game with each body they’d brought, bringing a more important, maybe even more sacred member of their tribe to the construction site to counterbalance the intrusive human presence.


She felt a flash of white, biting, stinging, fearful, as Montgomery appeared over the lip of the eastern foundation wall. She raised a hand as the beam of his flashlight played over her and the three windem. In a calm tone, she said, “Stay where you are, Monty. It’s okay.”

She saw him reach for his sidearm. White swirled around her like a blizzard. “Monty, no!” She threw herself in front of the aliens. White, snow, ice, fear, death, horror, bowled her over. She tumbled into the windem, fully expecting to feel the searing pain of a bullet.

Arms caught her, steadied her. Embraced her. Blue slid over her, and emerald green, coating her like a second skin. The world was aqua, streaked with sunny yellow-orange. Happy, safe, balanced. Through, behind, beyond the colors, Montgomery stood with the unfired weapon in his trembling hands, his mouth agape.

Respectfully, gently, she pushed away the braided vine-arms, murmuring her thanks. She strode toward the wall. Hoisting herself up onto one of the sturdy struts, she pulled herself over the lip of the foundation wall and onto solid ground, projecting blueness as she went. “It’s okay, Monty. Put down the gun.”

His rigid stance eased. “They grabbed you. God, I nearly shot you. What did they do to you?”

She stopped in front of him. “Nothing, just helped me up when I fell. Really. It’s okay.”

He didn’t look convinced. “You sound funny.”

She laughed. “And you look funny, but I’ve never held it against you.” Beyond him, at the bottom of the layer-cake horizon, the sky glowed deep purple. “I’m all right.” And she was. Calm, peaceful, happy. She was in balance. The site was in balance, the gray-green intrusion healed.

“I thought they were going to kill you.” He gestured with the sidearm.

Calmly, bluely, she reached for the weapon, took it away from him before he shot his damned foot off. “Nope. We were just having a conversation.” She looked back toward the windem.

They were gone. Gone as though they’d never been there.

Montgomery pointed his flashlight into the foundation. The beam caught the body of the ancient windem elder in its sweep. “Shit. They left another corpse.”

Magda nodded. “And we’re going to leave it there.”

“What? Why?” He shuddered. “The crew isn’t gonna like this.”

“I’ll explain it all over breakfast. Then we need to call the Governor, and Ramanujan. They need to understand what’s going on here too.” I hope she got her grant. She was going to need it now.

He holstered his weapon. “You’re the boss.”

“That I am. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll share a cup of my real coffee with you.”

He grinned.

“But only,” she cautioned, “if you let me get through the story without interrupting.” She could afford to be generous. She’d be able to afford more of those rare beans now that they’d get their bonus. Hell, with the information she now had on how to communicate with the windem, she might get an extra spiff.

Montgomery grunted in appreciation and followed her back toward camp.

Walking into the lavender morning, giving the little box of seashells in her pocket a pat, Magda imagined the flavor of her freshly ground coffee, one of life’s true pleasures. Rich, acidic, soothing.

It tasted brown.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read and learn more about Nancy Bach on her website: http://www.nancybach.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyBachAuthor/. Be sure to give her a “like.”