“Pardon?” I gestured. “Could you say that again?”
Miss Sanderson reached out and tapped the translation device on the table, then picked it up and fiddled with its settings. She was the ugliest female of her species I’d ever seen– obscenely symmetrical features, pale hair and complexion, long limbs–and yet forever twirling a finger in her hair like she was trying to proposition me.
by Dan Campbell
“It all began with the chicken in the end of the road,” she said.
“Pardon?” I gestured. “Could you say that again?”
Miss Sanderson reached out and tapped the translation device on the
table, then picked it up and fiddled with its settings. She was the
ugliest female of her species I’d ever seen– obscenely symmetrical
features, pale hair and complexion, long limbs–and yet forever
twirling a finger in her hair like she was trying to proposition me.
I picked up a fourth cigarette with my theta appendage, lit one end
with the lighter still held by kappa, and pulled a drag through the
closest nostril. All four fags lit up, and I savored the burn and
prickle as the smoke absorbed into my underskin.
Remembering my manners, I held up another cigarette, offering it to my
client, but she shook her head, not deigning to wave a hand in
refusal. I shrugged, lit the cigarette and popped it into a fifth
nostril. This was going to be a trying appointment, I could tell
She set the translator down and sat back, then said, “It all began
with the chicken at the end of the road.”
I blinked–all eight eyes. She didn’t grasp the insult underlying my
confusion, but dug in her bag and brought out a picture. She set it in
front of me, then sat back, doing that damn twirl again.
I loomed over the picture, adjusting four of my eyes with two
appendages and did my best to interpret what I saw. These
“threee-deee” holographic images give me no end of trouble. Binary
species have no idea how easy they have it–nor, I suppose, what
they’re missing, but that’s beside the point. As I manipulated my
focus on it, though, I could make out the parallel rails and
perpendicular cross-ties of railway track. The rails ran from the left
across a desert landscape at night, lit by an unseen moon. Dark
mountains filled the background, providing a contrast with the pale
desert crossed by the railroad. The rails ended at right-center of the
picture, just in front of…
“Ma’am,” I gestured, adding the honorific cephalic bob without
thinking. She looked away at that, shutting her eyes and covering her
mouth with one hand. I controlled myself this time, and started over.
“Ma’am, with all due respect, do you expect me to take this
seriously?” I pointed to the picture. “This looks like a ‘Net hoax.”
In truth, I was glad of the cigarette smoke, and craving a sixth.
Bipeds never seem to have developed a sense of smell, but I was
terrified and exuding it from every pore.
“Oh, it’s real all right, Mister Bob. Haven’t you ever heard of Eden?” she said.
“Eden? As in, ‘Garden of…’?”
“No, the world Eden–”
I quivered all over. I couldn’t help myself. It really was from
another world! Maybe… And then I deflated after she swallowed
visibly and continued.
“The planet Eden, I mean, in the Fomalhaut system.”
I kept forgetting these vertebrate bipeds had recently mastered
quantum gates–useless, as far as I was concerned, but a hell of a
breakthrough for a species that had spent most of its history trapped
on one planet.
“So,” I gestured, pointing a trembling appendage at the picture, “is
this ‘chicken’ native to Eden?”
‘Chicken,’ indeed! ‘Terror bird,’ more like, if I’d had the choice of
words. If the railroad tracks were normal size, the bird was huge, and
with that wickedly sharp beak… Miss Sanderson and her associates may
have dubbed it a ‘chicken’ because of the comb and wattle on the head,
but it reminded me most of the wading birds that stalked the nursery
pools when I was a marshling.
“No! That’s the problem,” Sanderson said. “Nothing is supposed to live
on Eden, not even bacteria. Gaia Corporation can’t go through with the
Project if those things keep popping up.”
“Why come to me, then, Ma’am? I don’t see much mystery here. Why not
just remove it and start terraforming?”
“‘Cause that’s only the first one. There’ve been two more.” She
reached into her bag, pulling out more photos. They showed the same
kind of scene: barren landscape, night time, railroad, terror bird at
the end of the tracks.
“Okay. It still sounds like you need a xenobiologist.”
“Tried that already. They don’t know what it is or how it got there.
That’s where you come in.”
“How did it get there?”
“You tell me!” She held up a hand and started ticking off fingers as
she spoke. “No tracks. No way it can fly. No sign of a struggle. No
quantum signature. No way it could have got there.” She laid her hands
back in her lap. “And no sign of life. Dead as a doughnut.”
I reached over and adjusted one of the translator’s dials, then mashed
the Replay button. It gestured: “-ign of life. Dead as a doorknob.” I
still didn’t understand the idiom, but decided it wasn’t worth asking
about just then.
“So,” I gestured. “You want me to find out how the ‘chickens’ are
getting there and where they’re coming from?”
“Has one of these been left undisturbed?”
“A fourth one showed up last night. We can send you straight
there–that is, if you’ll take the investigation?”
“How many other investigators have you tried?”
“Only two,” she said, looking away from me and twirling her finger in
her hair. From that gesture, I was sure she was lying, though I
couldn’t tell if that meant ‘none’ or ‘ten.’ I suspected ‘none.’ I
kept a steady stream of work coming in by having cheap rates. With the
Eden Project on the verge of final implementation, Gaia Corp. was
probably strapped for cash.
“I’ll take it. When can you port me over?” I failed to repress a
resigned flatulence from my pores.
She wrinkled her nose in a gesture I didn’t comprehend and said,
“Right now. Mister Lenkiewicz will meet you on the other side.” She
paused and coughed several times. “Just… just give this to the
reception desk at the Gaia Corporation office.” She laid a chit on the
table and left in a hurry.
I hate sand–dry sand, that is. It clogs up my mucus like you wouldn’t
believe. Slipping through the gate, I instantly regretted taking this
But then I took my first breath on the planet. Nostalgia roiled
through me as I inhaled a sulfuric aroma wafting in and out of the
dry, flat air of Eden. It smelled like home, exactly like home. Not
even Kawah Ijen came this close. Overcome, I allowed myself a few
moments shuddering sadness, trying to ignore the grit biting into my
foot. Then scent faded away. I wished I was back in the fens, where
the sand was always wet.
Something poked me. I recoiled from it and opened my eyes. Mister
Lenkiewicz, wearing a forcefield lung to process Eden’s atmosphere,
jumped back and pointed to a translator on the ground in front of me.
He half-bowed in that nervous way his kind have of showing apology.
“–o sorry,” he was saying. “It’s just over this way. If you’ll follow
“Certainly,” I gestured. Picking up the translator, he led the way to
a set of railroad tracks not far from the gate. Swelling myself
against the discomfort of the grit, I followed.
The track ran straight across a flat plain, illuminated by a low,
yellowish moon. On the opposite horizon, the first tentacles of dawn
were waving. Reaching the tracks, we went along parallel to them.
Ahead, I could see the bulk of the terror bird. But my eyes were drawn
above it, to a blue-white star that outshone the others in the sky. In
spite of ingrained years of disappointment, I began to hope.
Lenkiewicz stopped a few meters away from the bird and set the
translator down. I only noticed this with one eye, as I was much more
intent on the star and the railroad. I extruded myself out over the
rails, looking down the way we had come while also gazing over the
bird’s head at the star. The alignment could be just right, I was
thinking when I saw Lenkiewicz had been telling me something.
“–which is why we think it may have been a dual suicidal jingle
combat,” he finished.
I looked at him, holding all of my eyes open in what I hoped would be
understood as an uncomprehending blank stare. Lenkiewicz squirmed and
stepped back. At least he didn’t run screaming. The translators of the
last century are a godsend, faulty though they are.
“Pardon?” I gestured. “Could you repeat that?”
He stooped and pressed the Replay button, then adjusted a few dials
when it said, “The wounds reminded Henson of fencing. They’re in the
right places–if one were a large bird–for scoring points in a
fencing match, which is why we think it may have been a dual suicidal
Standing up, he said, speaking with care, “Sorry, that should have
been ‘a duel–judicial single combat’ there at the end. Like they have
on Deneb’s Stump: honor, satisfaction, saving face, that sort of
“Sword-wielding terror birds?”
“You mean the bird was wielding a weapon?”
“Yes–er, I mean, the bird was the weapon. Look at its beak!”
I had been trying not to. The beak was remarkably long and tapered–to
the point that it resembled a proboscis. Terror squirmed against hope
within me. The bird was almost certainly one of the stalkers I
remembered from my infant years: they could get at you no matter how
deep a crevice you shrank into.
Repressing the terror and hope both, I took out my haptolfactory
recorder and slid around the bird, logging my observations. Subject is
avian in appearance, estimated to be three meters tall, with vestigial
wings and powerful legs. Head features a long, proboscis-like beak,
prominent wattles and a comb. Neck is not proportionate to length of
legs. Subject is aligned approximately north-south, facing south down
railroad tracks. Subject’s position–I turned off the recorder and
extruded my eyes to a position directly above the carcass–Subject’s
position is at the epicenter of at least three–no, five–celestial
alignments, including the prominent blue pole star in the northern
sky. Alignments are spaced evenly around Subject, approximately
seventy-two degrees apart from each other. Client’s assertion that
Subject shows no sign of having walked or flown to present location is
verified. Subject is dead and presents five wounds: in the body, feet,
and–I lifted one wing for a closer inspection–wings.
Extending appendages into each wound, as well as the mouth and anus, I
continued my observations, noting its last meal, blood type,
mitochondrial decay, trace molecules in the lungs, and other important
details. As my mantle brushed the bird’s feathers, nostalgia overcame
me once more. The sulphuric flavor I had associated with Eden’s
atmosphere was intense, concentrated in the filaments of feather. I
could have given myself over to day-dreaming about the brown marshes
of my youth, the exquisitely bitter flavor of grubs dug out of the
Lenkiewicz, however, snapped me out of the reverie just as I began
salivating. He stumbled several steps away from me and fell to his
knees. Concerned, I withdrew my appendages from the bird, meaning to
go to him. He fell forward onto his hands and expelled a long stream
of fluid from his mouth. Fortunately, I recognized this as a sign of
illness for his species and kept my distance rather than leaning
forward to sample the aroma.
After a few minutes, he glanced back my way and pushed himself to his feet.
“Are you all right?” I gestured.
He grimaced and turned to one side, holding a hand over his mouth.
“Sorry,” he said a moment later. “Weak stomach. Must have been
something I ate.” He offered a wan smile–another way of showing
apology. “Please, carry on. I’ll just wait over here.”
I turned back to the terror bird and re-examined its wounds. Subject’s
wounds are minor, though deep. Client’s theory of a duel between two
such birds is supported by the length and width of the wounds, which
correspond to the size and shape of the beak. However, no single wound
is lethal, nor has there been sufficient blood loss to account for
Subject’s death. Based on chemical analysis of the lungs and arterial
blood, asphyxiation appears to be the cause of death–most likely,
upon arrival on Eden. I turned off the recorder and withdrew into
myself, pondering the circumstances.
Death upon arrival. Body found at end of railroad…
I gestured to Lenkiewicz, “Why does the railroad end here?”
“We’re building all five simultaneously, from south to north. Once
finished, the rails will deliver the seed chemicals to start the
terraforming. This is just where Team Four stopped work yesterday.”
“Thank you,” I gestured and continued cogitating. Death upon arrival.
Body found at end of railroad. Tracks aligned with pole star. Location
of death sited at intersection of five equidistant stellar alignments.
Ritually wounded… Could the stalkers have found some means to breach
the membranes between worlds–and to pass through? Could they have
discovered what my kin tried and failed to do after we arrived in this
world, so many cycles ago?
I struggled to keep the tremor of excitement from showing in my
gestures. There were too many unknowns to allow myself hope–yet. “I
believe I have the answer.”
“You do!” Lenkiewicz said. “Excelle– I mean: So soon?”
“Not quite. A test is in order to confirm my hypothesis.” I glanced at
the sky above, noting fading stars. “What time is sundown here, in
“About 22:30, I believe.”
“Can you arrange gates to take us to each of the railroad construction
sites this evening? I need to check the celestial alignments of each
“Celestial…?” he began, then shook his head. “Yes, certainly. I’ll
book time with the quantum generator.”
“Thank you. I’ll see you at sundown, then.”
“Here.” I handed Lenkiewicz a data chit while we waited at the end of
the fifth line. “If I’m right, this will explain everything.”
“Won’t you be providing a full report after the investigation?”
“That is my report–if I’m right. I’m giving it to you now as I hope
not to be here after midnight.”
“Wait and see, wait and see, Mister Lenkiewicz.” I was so excited I
could have squelched. Home! Home, after so long! I knew I should have
withheld judgment until all the evidence was available, but in my
three hearts, I was already convinced.
Lenkiewicz took out a reader and inserted the chit. We had visited the
first three rail lines, where I found similar stellar alignments as at
the fourth. The alignments also existed here, at the end of the fifth
line, where today’s track laying ceased: a conduit of iron fixed upon
the pole star and ending at just the spot designated by the other four
Partway through reading my report, Lenkiewicz asked, “What is this?”
“Pages from the Liber Filis Monasticarum Infinituus. They describe a
ritual to escape death and live eternally in a heaven of one’s own
“Oh, it’s complete poppycock. I should know: my grandfather made up
most of the tome. But that ritual should be effective, given just the
right conditions. It’s all in my report.”
I watched the stars, impatient for the moment of perfect alignment.
Unable to restrain myself, I let a giggle of joy roll around my
mantle. Lenkiewicz stepped away from me and looked more closely at the
report. To think that it would all come together on another planet! If
only I had considered the possibility before!
“Reconstruct the rail lines?” Lenkiewicz said. “But that would–”
“It’s coming!” I writhed with anticipation and slid closer to the end
of the tracks, leaning towards the auroral shimmer emerging before us.
Slivers of rainbow wriggled out from the light. I smelled autumn on
the air, tasted the ripeness of the algal birthing pools. Home. Home!
The rainbow shards peeled back, opening to reveal the slit of the
portal, the bright-white pupil of eternity, the membrane between the
worlds. Like mucus separating into strands, the light of the portal
striated as the edges pulled apart, widened the opening. A wind rushed
from the portal and increased in intensity.
The smell became unbearable. Sulfur suffused my nostrils, coated the
taste buds on my skin. I reached out, savoring the flavors. I slid
forward into the gap. Too soon.
A shadow blocked the light. Pain sheared through my ventral mantle. I
recoiled, remembered to shrink to one side. The terror bird stepped
through. I shuddered and excreted in fear, just like a juvenile. The
bird was a stalker.
I had forgotten Lenkiewicz. Oozing with pain, I saw the avian
nightmare fixate on the man. It cocked its head to one side. Blood
dripped from marks on each leg and on the wing I could see. The bird
Lenkiewicz jumped to one side, tripped and fell. The bird raised its
head for a second strike, feathers ruffling in the wind blown out from
I oscillated, stretched between my longing for home and my duty to my
client. With three eyes, I could see the portal reach its final,
yawning depth. My first sight of home since my youth began to expand
from the center. Through my other five eyes, I saw Lenkiewicz scramble
to get up and run, then fall over himself in terror.
The bird stabbed downward. Its beak missed Lenkiewicz’s torso,
skewered the thigh of his right leg.
I whipped my torso forward and latched onto the bird with several
appendages. Some only tore out feathers, but enough grasped hold of a
leg to pull the bird off balance. It stumbled, then kicked. I released
it, shrinking back.
The bird stared at me. Transfixed by the sight of its beak, I froze.
Feathers shaking in the wind, the bird stepped towards me and raised
its head. The motion spurred me to act. As the bird’s head shot down,
I rolled back on myself, losing sight of my adversary but feeling the
shock of its strike through the ground. Upright again, I reached to
one side while preparing to roll the opposite way. The bird moved to
follow my feint, but intuited my intent just as I committed to the
roll. The bird reared back to strike, but not before the wind calmed.
I had forgotten how the other birds had died. The one before me
lurched and gagged as it took its first full breath of Eden’s air. As
one, the bird and I turned to the portal. Already, it was fading,
evaporating into mirage haze. The bird staggered towards it, passed
through, and collapsed on the sand as the last light from another
world, from my home, vanished.
“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” said Miss Sanderson, as
she stood to go. “What did you mean when you told Mister Lenkiewicz
that you hoped not to be there after midnight?”
“I’d rather not talk about it, Miss Sanderson,” I gestured, lighting
yet another cigarette. “Is Project Eden back on track?”
She shrugged, letting her question go. “You were exactly right, though
I still don’t understand where the chickens came from. Engineering
ripped up the last mile of each railroad and re-built them, just like
you said: two degrees off the north-south axis. Not a problem since
then. The trains should be rolling in another couple weeks.” She set a
credit chit on the table. “Here’s the rest of your payment, as
promised. Gaia Corporation thanks you for your excellent service.”
“You’re welcome, Miss Sanderson. It was a pleasure to be of
assistance. Please call again should the need arise.”
She stood and walked out, leaving me to sulk while I waited for the
next client to seek my services. I dragged on the cigarettes and
absorbed a little more of the whiskey tonic my secretary had brought
me before showing Miss Sanderson in. I swelled and sighed, jetting
smoke out into the room. Had it been possible, I would have begged
Gaia Corp. to build a sixth railroad, or to try re-doing one of the
other five. But the fifth had been the last chance: it would be
another millennia before Eden was in the right alignment.
A knock announced the next client far sooner than I had expected. He
poked his head around the door, started, and said, “Mister Blo–, uh,
I nictated in annoyance at the unconscious insult. Sooner or later, it
seems, every client makes that mistake. It did nothing to improve my
mood, already well past the thirteen-cigarette mark.
“Yes?” I gestured. My new client popped back behind the door, then
peered slowly ’round again.
“You, uh… You specialize in solving the unsolvable? Seeing the
unseen? Knowing the unknown?” I recognized my client as an immature
member of Miss Sanderson’s species. He had the speckled complexion and
impaired eyesight of that stage in their life cycle.
“Yes,” I gestured. “That’s what’s engraved on the door, isn’t it?”
“S– s– sorry, Mister B- Mister Bob. I just wanted to be s– I mean, you–”
“–aren’t what you expected,” I finished for him. “It’s all right;
most folks feel that way the first time. Please, have a seat? What can
I do for you today?” This gesture of hospitality, minus my usual offer
of a cigarette, seemed to put him at ease.
He sat. “It’s about my mom, er, my mother’s, ah…” He trailed off,
then swallowed. “Cat.”
“Yes?” I gestured.
The boy fidgeted: interweaving the fingers of his hands, pulling them
apart, scratching his nose, shoving his hands between his knees, and
so forth. It was fascinating. I’d never seen one of his ilk be so
expressive. Too bad I had no idea what he was communicating with the
“She… She’s gone missing–the cat, I mean, not my mother.”
“When did this happen?”
“Three, uh, three weeks ago, la- last Tuesday.”
“Was she at home before she went missing?”
Both hands gripped on another. “My mo- my mother? Oh, no! No! She was
“I thought we were talking about the cat?”
“Oh, right! So- sorry, Mister B-” He gulped again. “Sorry.”
“Or is it your mother that’s missing?”
“Yes–I mean, no. That is…” He trailed off. He cracked his knuckles.
One hand rubbed his face. “My mother is the cat.”
When he didn’t continue, I tried prompting him. “You have a cat for a mother?”
“No! Of course no–! That is, she turned into a cat.”
“Ah! Please continue.”
“We were visiting Stonehenge.”
“As part of a tour?”
“Uh, no. We…” He scratched his nose. “Actually, we snuck in, at night.”
“At night? When?”
“Midnight on the winter solstice–like I said, three weeks ago.”
I couldn’t resist leaning forward. “Did you happen to see any strange
lights? Rainbow colors?” In my excitement, I dropped five of the
His eyes widened. “Oh! Ah… Yeah, actually. Like the Northern Lights.
I was just getting to that.”
“I’ll take the investigation,” I gestured. “Just let me get a few more
Twabble by unreliable narrator
To save money my girlfriend bought cheap toilet paper, but it was a bad decision and now we've got a real mess on our hands.