Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Frozen Garden

by Rick Grehan


"I have to leave in a bit, dear heart. You should go to bed."

"Leave?" Emalei asked. "Where are you going, Poppa?"

"Down to the town. I have to talk to some people there so you and I can take a trip."

"A trip?" Emalei asked with excitement. "When? Where are we going?"

Poppa chuckled. Emalei sensed something different in his gentle laugh, but could not decide what it might mean. "Soon," he said. "And where? Well, that will be a surprise. Now, go to bed. While I'm gone and you're asleep, you can play in the garden."

"Yes, Poppa."

Her father placed her pillow on the bed, and Emalei lay down and closed her eyes. He walked softly to the door, switched off the light and left the room, closing the door. In a few moments, Emalei was asleep. Another few moments, and a breeze began to move among the grasses and flowers. She rose, walked toward the fronds that towered above her head, pushed the grass and flower stems aside, and stepped through the wall into the garden.

####

The groundcar rounded a row of trees. Kara gasped.

"Yeah," Stan, the vehicle's driver, agreed. "Impressive, isn't it?"

She nodded. The house was impressive, not because of its size, but how it fit its surroundings. Tiered terraces, outlined by walls of sculpted rock, rose to a wide front porch. High stone fences, covered here and there by tumbling vines, stretched to the left and right of the home's facade, reaching across the hillside like wings. Behind the house, the land sloped gently upward to woods that rose still higher into a dark green distance.

"Sad, when you think about it," Stan said as he brought the car to a halt. "But it should make a good base camp for you."

"Absolutely," Kara answered as she climbed out of the car, her eyes exploring the terraces' plants. Though most were flowering ground cover, weeds had sprouted throughout, and in some areas had taken over entirely.

The home's front was all glass. Kara turned to survey the view the windows faced. The hillside dropped down and away to the treetops of wooded dales; these cascaded further to a distant bay lying steel blue in late afternoon light.

She shook her head. The location was enchanting. And Stan was right: it was so sad ... so sad.

Kara turned back to the car, opened the cargo hatch, and began unloading her gear. Stan, who had been watching her silently, suddenly moved to help. He grabbed one of the duffles.

"You know," he said, "I could stay this evening if it would make you feel safer. The new meteorological hardware isn't due to arrive from Centerport until tomorrow afternoon. So, see, there isn't much I have to do right now."

From the corner of her eye, Kara saw his hopeful grin.

"Thanks, Stan, but no. I only have a week here. I'll be busy preparing tonight so I can start first thing in the morning." She withdrew a case from the hatch, placed it in the growing pile of equipment, and looked up at him. "I can get all this unloaded. You said you would turn the power on. Why don't you go do that?"

"Ok," he sighed, his hope dissolving. He withdrew two more duffles from the car. "I'll take these up to the porch on my way in. And at least let me show you around the place before I go, OK?"

Kara smiled. "That would be great. Thanks, Stan."

He turned and climbed the steps.

It took Kara several trips to move all her equipment to the porch. At the end of the fourth trip, she saw that the interior lights were on. The front door slid open at her approach, and Stan emerged.

"Should be good," he said. "I disabled the security system so you can come and go as you need. But, that means," he added suggestively, "so can anyone else."

Kara sighed inwardly at this renewed attempt. She found it difficult to blame him, though. It must be tough, she thought to herself... part of a ten-man crew, closest other people are at least two hundred kilometers away at Centerport, and then I show up. Still...

"You told me you and your crew haven't seen anyone else in the four weeks you've been at the weather station," she reminded him.

"Yes, but there's ten of us. We stay together, and we're armed. Loners aren't going to bother us. What I'm really afraid of, though, is dogs. As far as I know, there never were many on Jardin, but the guys at a station to the south had to shoot a feral pack a couple of weeks ago."

She decided it was best to simply ignore his attempts. "You can show me how to disable the doors' automatics before you go," she said. "Now, help me put everything inside, and you can give me a quick tour."

He sighed again, hefted two equipment cases, and led the way into the house.

####

Stan suggested the den as the best place for Kara to work. When she saw its spaciousness, she agreed. They carried her duffles and equipment inside, stacking them in a corner beside a sofa. Also in the room was a pair of high-backed chairs, a desk, and a long sideboard table.

Kara tingled with unease as she looked around. She knew the house was deserted -- all on this planet were. But the houses and buildings she'd been in elsewhere on Jardin had been emptied of keepsakes and expensive furnishings, their previous owners having removed anything worthwhile before leaving. Here, pictures hung on the walls, and just inside the entry was a shelf display of small statues, framed photos, and unidentifiable mementos. This house had apparently been abandoned suddenly.

"Whose house was this?" she asked. "It's different from the others I've seen. It looks like the owners were expecting to return."

"You're right about that," Stan answered, depositing another duffle. "It was owned by retired scientist, name of Jasson, I skimmed the town records when I was looking for a place for you. He was in robotics and AI. Killed on one of the first evacuation waves about six months ago -- hit by a transport truck or something -- freak accident. That's why the place still has all its furniture and things. He had a wife and daughter, but they had died years back -- before he came to Jardin. I guess when he moved here he was trying to leave some memories behind. Lots of people used to retire to Jardin for reasons like that." Stan shrugged, then continued. "I'm just guessing, but I don't think he had quite gotten over losing his daughter. There's a room here that --"

While Stan talked, Kara had picked up a photo tablet on the desk, and it activated at her touch. It began displaying a series of pictures and moviettes of what she guessed were Jasson's wife and daughter. Here, they waved from a balcony lit by bright sunshine. Next, the daughter smiled up from a blanket spread on an unknown beach. Next, the wife sat beaming on a rock outcropping framed against a wide blue sky. The tablet delivered scene after scene of smiling faces, of mother and daughter waving, walking, swimming, hugging. Kara lay the tablet face down on the desktop. She looked up. Stan had stopped talking and was staring at her, his brow knotted.

"You okay?" he asked.

She took a breath; blew it out. "Yes, fine," she replied. "Show me the rest. Then I have to start unpacking."

####

She followed Stan from the den into a combined kitchen and dining room. Two chairs faced one another from opposite ends of a small, rectangular table. Nearby, a pair of stools stood by a counter. Large windows along the back looked out onto a patio surrounded by overgrown flower gardens.

A hallway led from the kitchen to a pair of rooms. The first was the master bedroom with its adjoining bath. Kara avoided the bed, even though it appeared freshly made. She had already made up her mind to use the couch in the den as her bed. She stepped into the bathroom, touched the sink's faucet, and a gentle flow of water streamed out.

"I've tested the water," Stan told her. "It fine for drinking. And there's hot water if you want a shower. I haven't looked into the food storage systems, though, so I'd stay out of them if I were you. They might be OK, but ..." He shrugged.

"I brought what I need," she said as they returned to the hall. "What's this other room?"

"That's the room I was about to tell you about. Have a look."

Kara stepped through the doorway, and for the second time that day, she gasped. Beneath her feet lay a carpet tinged green, like a field of gentle moss. The windowless walls glowed with the scene of an oversized, fairy-tale garden landscape.

A landscape that was alive.

Head-high grasses and giant flowers waved in unfelt breezes. Butterflies as big as birds danced from bloom to bloom. Kara fancied she could reach out and brush the grass aside, but knew that her fingers would meet solid wall. She looked up at the ceiling, and saw snowy-white clouds crossing a pale blue sky.

A single piece of furniture -- a small bed -- was in a corner of the room. One of the larger flowers stood behind it, its head drooping downward, almost protectively. The bed had no covers, but at its head lay an oval, green pillow, embroidered with blooms that Kara recognized as pansies.

"It's a little girl's room," Kara said. She turned to Stan. "But I thought you said the owner's family -- oh." She stopped. Her eyes widened.

"Yeah," Stan nodded. "That's what I figure. Kind of a shrine." He surveyed the room, shaking his head.

They left.

Kara followed Stan downstairs to a series of utility and storage rooms. One housed the air conditioning, circulation units, and water system. Another was apparently Jasson's workroom. Unrecognizable electronic equipment covered the table in the room's center. More equipment was stacked on shelves. Against one wall stood what Kara recognized as a state-of-the-art computer processing system; the sort one ordinarily found in research labs. It was running.

"That thing is on," she said, pointing.

Stan nodded. "It's hooked straight into the power system so it came on when I switched the power on. I wouldn't worry, though. It's wired into the house, but not into any of the critical systems like water and air. I'm pretty sure it runs that show up in the kid's room."

The last room was the power closet. A standard, self-contained domestic reactor system hummed pleasantly at the closet's rear. The control panel of the security system hung darkened and inactive on the wall just inside the door. Stan indicated the bypass he had installed, and which Kara could disable to turn the security system back on if she wished.

####

Back upstairs, Stan paused at the doorway. "Eight days, okay? That's when the flier to Centerport gets to the town. We need to be on that when it leaves, or we miss the transport. And, if that happens -- "

"I know," Kara said. "Next ship scheduled to visit this planet is a research boat in twenty months."

"And even that's a maybe. The only people left here will be the meteorological stations' monitoring crew. I don't want to be stuck here with them, and neither do you. And by then ..." He looked out at the diminishing light. "By then, who knows what it'll be like here."

He turned to leave, then stopped himself. "Before I forget." He reached into his pocket, pulled out a phone, and handed it to her. "Take this. The phone system still works. So, if you run into trouble, you can call me. In fact, it wouldn't hurt if you checked in each day just so I can be sure you're OK."

"Thanks, Stan," she accepted the phone with a faint smile.

He walked down the steps to the ground car. Over his shoulder he called: "Eight days! I'll be here before noon!" Stan climbed into the car, started the engine, and drove off.

####

When the first explorers had arrived on Jardin, they found a climate ranging from temperate to tropical. Winter weather was restricted to within a few degrees of the poles. Thanks to the planet's mild axial tilt, polar ice was seasonal, sometimes never forming for several consecutive years. Though water was plentiful, Jardin had no planet-spanning oceans. Instead, it was speckled with thousands of lakes, only three large enough to be called seas.

Animals were few; mainly fish, insects, invertebrates, and small amphibians. Jardin's forests and grasslands stretched unbroken from pole to pole.

Terraforming Jardin was, by all standards, simple. Plants and animals were quickly designed to complement and balance the planet's indigenous species. Local varieties were enhanced and improved, and in some cases cross-bred with imported variants to broaden the genetic diversity. Jardin was ready for unrestricted settlement in less than a decade. And, not long after the first settlers arrived, they had discovered that the planet's climate, water supply, and engineered ecologies made it agricultural heaven.

The planet's fecundity attracted farming organizations whose cultivated fields soon covered land areas the size of continents. Ships left Jardin daily, filled with produce prized for parsecs around. Jardin-bred and -grown flowers, trees, and decorative grasses achieved widespread fame.

Simultaneously, thanks to its agreeable climate and celebrated flora, Jardin became famous as a destination for wealthy vacationers and retirees. Vast tracts of land became parks and resorts. Equally vast retirement communities sprouted in Jardin's endless forests, fields, and gardens.

Then came the change. Polar ice began persisting through summer. Snow storms, originally confined to a few degrees of the poles, ventured father and farther south each winter. The weather stations' data showed a steadily accelerating downward trend in planet-wide temperatures.

Climatologists and planetary scientists were called, arrived, gathered data, analyzed it, reported the unhappy news, and fled.

Their unanimous conclusion: not only was Jardin's sun slumping into a "quiet phase" of diminished output -- a phase it was not expected to emerge from for at least three centuries -- but the entire Jardinian system had entered the outer boundaries of a heretofore uncharted dust cloud. It was not a dense cloud, and under ordinary circumstances the solar winds would have blown the system clear. But, circumstances were not ordinary -- so even the most optimistic models showed Jardin sliding quickly into a planetwide ice-age lasting several hundred years. The duration was uncertain, but the intensity was not. Before the present century was half over, most of the planet's lakes would be frozen year round -- many frozen solid to the bottom.

Once the news was out, events moved swiftly. Tourist resorts, retirement homes, vacation mansions -- all property, really -- became worthless overnight. Jardin was so recently colonized that there were few native-born adults so attached to their home world to be willing to ride out the coming ice-age. The costs to rebuild and retro-fit homes, towns, cities, roads -- the planet's entire infrastructure -- to withstand the coming freeze were staggering. Had Jardin possessed even a modest mining industry, some may have considered it worth staying on. But ...

A planetary evacuation ensued.

The wealthy booked their outbound transportation, gathered the valuables they could afford to pay freightage for, said farewell to otherwise fully-furnished homes, and left. The less wealthy did the same, though carrying little more than themselves and a trunk or two. Jardin's agricultural operations packed up whatever equipment they deemed worth the transport cost, and dispersed those assets to divisions on other planets. Other corporations sold what they could at any price they could get. Chartered spacecraft did a booming business for months.

Ultimately, the only inhabitants left were crews manning meteorological outposts that would monitor Jardin's descent into frozen death. When Kara arrived, those outposts were being automated. So ultimately, the meteorological crews would be reduced to a handful of technicians left behind to maintain the equipment and relay data back to the few scientific organizations interested in such things.

Kara had been sent by her company, AgriWay, to collect samples of whatever interesting native plant life she could gather before access to Jardin was impossible. AgriWay owned a large library of botanical species, and ran a research and development business that modified popular plants for farming and terraforming. Though much of the plant life on Jardin was patented, AgriWay had decided that -- given the planet's fame -- enough native, unpatented species might be found to warrant sending Kara to collect what she could in what little time remained.

####

Kara cleared the desk, putting its items into drawers without examination. She was particularly careful to keep the photo album face down.

She brought her two specimen storage units to the desk. She connected one unit to a power outlet, then touched a faintly glowing rectangle near the unit's top. The rectangle flashed a bright green, indicating that the stasis system was operating properly. She did the same with the other unit.

From another case, she withdrew her data tablet and unfolded it on the desk. The tablet's screen illuminated, and she tapped the keyboard. Maps and aerial photos of the area appeared, sprinkled with icons to indicate locations she had annotated as being likely sources of specimens. Kara pulled a chair to the desk and sat down to review her plans for the week.

Much later, satisfied, she closed the tablet, went to the bathroom and washed her face. On her way back to the den, she noticed that the door of the child's room was ajar, apparently having been left open from earlier in the day. She pushed it wider and looked within.

Moonlight bathed faintly glowing cloud-puffs that drifted across a star-strewn sky. In the pale illumination, Kara saw that the flower above the bed had closed -- in fact, all the flowers were closed. Nighttime insects chirped and buzzed in a dreamy distance. She closed the door and returned to the den.

After the door had closed, two sets of grass-stalks were pulled slowly apart, and a tiny face looked out from the wall.

####

The chronometer's alarm buzzed. Kara rolled over on the couch, touched the wrist-band to silence the alarm, and bolted upright with a cry.

A little girl stood in the den's doorway. She was wearing a floral-patterned nightgown, and staring quietly but intently at Kara. At Kara's start, the girl stepped back quickly, then leaned forward and looked around the room.

"Where's Poppa?" she asked.

"Poppa?" Kara echoed, her mind pinwheeling. In that instant, she realized two things. First, the little girl was not a little girl at all. She was a projection hologram. An excellent hologram; in fact, the best Kara had seen. Second, the hologram was of the little girl in the picture tablet: Dr. Jasson's daughter.

Kara relaxed. Stan, it seems, had been correct about Jasson. This hologram was obviously an animated scrapbook of the memories of his daughter. Kara felt a momentary pang of pity for the man.

"Poppa's not here. Can you turn yourself off?" Kara asked as she climbed out of her sleeping bag.

"I know he's not here, I looked," the girl replied, ignoring Kara's request. "Where is he? He said he'd be back when I woke up."

Kara sat on the couch, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She sighed. She didn't need this distraction, not today, not this week.

"It's going to take him longer than he expected. How does he turn you off?"

The little girl's brow crinkled. "Turn me off? What do you mean?"

Kara remembered the bedroom. "He puts you to bed, right? Is that it? Please go to bed." She tried to make her last sentence sound like a command, hoping the AI would respond to the tone of her voice.

"But, I don't want to go to bed. I just got up. It's daytime. Please tell me: when will Poppa be back?" As she asked this, the little girl entered the room. Kara was struck again by the quality of the image. Also, she knew the projectors must be somewhere, but they were so skillfully installed that -- though she looked all about the room -- she could not find them. The audio was exceptional, too; the voice was correctly localized with the hologram. It was a top-quality simulation.

Maybe the AI would respond to the girl's name, Kara thought. She asked, "What's your name, sweetheart?"

At this, the little girl brightened. "Emalei. What's yours?"

"Emalei, go to bed," Kara ordered.

"I told you, I just got up. I don't want to go to bed. Please tell me your name, I told you mine."

Kara sighed, standing up and rubbing her eyes again. She was getting nowhere, and she had a long day ahead. Hopefully, the hologram was harmless. Perhaps it was best to simply play along with it.

"My name is Kara, Emalei. Now, if you don't mind, I am going to go take a shower, then have breakfast. I have a lot of work to do today." She headed for the door.

"Kara, did Poppa say when he would be home?"

At the sound and tremor in Emalei's voice, Kara turned. She saw that the little girl appeared to be on the verge of tears. Inwardly, Kara sighed again. A holographic girl crying day and night? For a moment, Kara considered either shutting down the power system, or relocating to another house. But her equipment would need the power system to remain charged, and she had already planned her week using this house as a base.

Kara sat down on the floor in front of the hologram. She thought quickly.

"Emalei, your Poppa is working with some people in the town. He told me that it would take several days -- seven or eight -- so he needed someone to watch you while he was gone. I had some work to do in the woods and fields around your house anyway, so I told him I would be happy to be here. Now, I'll be away from the house most of the day, but I'll be here all night, and he said that would be fine. He said you could keep yourself busy while I'm not here. Okay?"

Though her eyes were filling with tears, Emalei nodded quickly.

"Now, after I take my shower, I'm going to have breakfast. Would you like to join me for breakfast?" The instant it was out of her mouth, Kara regretted the stupidity of her question. How would a hologram have breakfast?

But Emalei wiped her eyes, and produced a wide smile.

"Oh, yes, please!" she said excitedly. "I'll go wait for you at the table. I must have been sleeping a l-o-n-g time -- I'm very hungry!" Emalei darted past her and into the kitchen.

####

When Kara entered the dining area, she found Emalei standing beside the counter. Still dressed in her nightgown, Emalei was holding what appeared to be a cereal bowl.

"Can you pull a stool up to the counter for me, Kara?" Emalei asked. "I'm not strong enough yet."

Kara approached, slid one of the stools close to the counter, and marveled as the little girl placed the holographic bowl on the counter's top, then climbed the stool making little-child straining sounds as she pulled herself up -- and sat down.

"Aren't you going to have breakfast?" Emalei queried. "You said you would."

"Oh, yes. You're right." Kara left for the den, shaking her head in wonder. She returned with a meal package and a juice cylinder. She pulled the other stool up to the counter and sat down. Still fascinated by the quality of the simulation, Kara watched as Emalei ate her breakfast.

"While we eat," Emalei said, "let's ask each other questions, ok? You go first."

"All right." Kara was still off balance, so she could only think of the most obvious question: "How old are you?"

"Five," Emalei replied quickly. "I'll be six soon, but I don't know when exactly. Poppa knows my birthday, I always forget it. Ok, now it's my turn."

Kara stopped eating and braced herself. She was certain Emalei would ask about her father. Mentally, Kara began assembling the elements of a story she could tell. The trick was going to be keeping the story's parts consistent. After all, she was dealing with a machine that might easily spot conflicts in her answers.

Sure enough, Emalei asked, "How do you know my Poppa?"

Kara fought to keep her response casual. "Actually, I don't know him. Like I said, I met him in town. I think he said he was arranging for a trip, do you know anything about that?"

"Oh, yes!" the little girl said brightly. "He said we were going to take a trip soon, but he never said where. Do you know where?"

Inwardly, Kara cheered her luck. "I'm sorry, no. He didn't tell me that. Anyway, I'm a scientist like he is, only I study plants -- mostly flowers. He said I could stay here while I gather some of the flowers that grow in the woods and hills around your house."

"Gather flowers? What are you going to do with them -- put them in a big vase?"

Kara felt a wave of relief as the subject moved away from Emalei's father. "No, not exactly. I'm going to put them to sleep, and carry them back to my planet, where there's a place that can make lots more flowers. Whole fields of flowers from just one plant, in fact."

"Whole fields from one plant?" Emalei gasped.

"Yes."

"That sounds wonderful! I wish I could see that place. Do you have any pictures of it?"

Emalei was smiling, and Kara suddenly realized that she was smiling, too. And she had begun leaning forward over the little girl, her arm moving to embrace the tiny shoulders. She drew back, and began gathering her empty breakfast packages.

"No, not just now -- " she paused, tried to remind herself that she was dealing with a machine, then said, "I have to get to work. But, I do have a tablet, so maybe tonight we can look at some pictures." She stood up to leave.

Emalei lowered her head over her cereal bowl. "I wish I could come with you, but Poppa says I can't leave the house." She looked up.

Kara saw the expression in Emalei's upturned face and turned quickly away, silently reminding herself that whatever emotion she saw was a carefully coded algorithm somewhere in that processor in the basement. "I won't be far, Emalei," she said over her shoulder. "Really, just walking through the woods around the house. You'll be fine. We'll talk more tonight."

Kara left the dining area and returned to the den. She stuffed specimen containers into the space remaining in her already partially filled backpack, strapped on her toolbelt, and walked swiftly to the front door.

Once outside, she descended the steps and marched rapidly across the driveway, all the while commanding herself not to look back. Past the driveway, a few yards down the slope, she succumbed. Just a quick glance over her shoulder ... and there -- in the window to the left of the doorway -- the faint outline of a little girl, watching.

####

Kara squatted in a small clearing, miniature trowel in hand, carefully digging around the roots of the plant she had found. It was a Blue Diamond, a flowering plant prized as ground cover. Its watery-blue blossoms grew reflective scales at the petals' base, so that a carpet of the flowers, seen with sunlight at one's back, glittered like a pond of periwinkle gems. Though Kara was relatively sure specimens of Jardinian Blue Diamond were already in AgriWay's seed banks, the plant was popular enough that taking a sample would be worthwhile; it might have marketable gene variations.

Kara separated out the healthiest growth, brushed most of the dirt from the root tendrils, and slipped the plant into a specimen container. She touched the stasis activation button on the container's base, pushed it into her storage bandoleer, and logged the entry in her comm tablet. Then, she sat back against the trunk of the nearest tree, and surveyed the surrounding woods.

Kara took a deep breath and held it. She closed her eyes, tried to concentrate on the sounds around her, forcing herself to breathe lightly. After nearly a minute, she opened her eyes and breathed normally. She'd done this several times this morning, and the result had been the same. She had heard nothing. Not a sound.

There was no wind, so she should have heard animal movements among the trees and underbrush. She knew that song-birds had been successfully integrated into the Jardinian ecology, as well as several predatory bird species, rodents, and small mammals. And there should be insects in the air. With Jardin's sun shining through a cloudless sky, it was certainly warm enough for insects.

It was as though the animals had also left the planet.

She turned her attention to the plants on the forest floor beside her: grasses, some tiny ferns, a ground-vine. Examining selected leaves closely, she saw widespread, though minute indications of distress: silvery edges on new growth, here and there a curled sprout that should have been leafing, all early signs of a changing climate that the plants were unaccustomed to.

Kara stood, hefted her pack, and moved deeper into the woods.

For the remainder of that day, she circled the house at a distance of about 400 meters. Traveling slowly, she sometimes dropped to hands and knees to examine the ground closely, hoping to find other samples of the same variety as the blue diamond. And always, she looked for animal life.

Ultimately, she did find a few insects. Once she saw an ant-like creature carrying bits of leaves or other plant matter to some unknown destination, and several times she uncovered a sort of beetle whose favorite foraging site was the base of certain ferns. Another time, she came across mostly decomposed skat of what was probably a small mammal. There was no way to tell how old it might be -- days, maybe weeks.

It was after she had collected her tenth sample that she became aware of the time of day. The sky had been cloudless, so she had grown used to the shifting splashes of sunlight as she moved through the trees. Now, Jardin's sun was low in the sky, and its light made pale gold patches on the trunks and leaves. Kara shivered. Though there was no wind, a chill had begun to spread quietly and evenly through the air.

Once more, she shrugged her equipment pack onto her back. She took note of the sun's position, and her mind's internal compass -- tuned by years of field-work -- indicated instantly the house's direction. She set off through the brush.

After three paces, she froze. Somewhere down the hillside behind her, muffled through the trees and underbrush, something had made a rustling sound. It stopped the instant she had halted. She peered down the slope through the bands of afternoon sunlight and shadow, searching for a shape or a movement. She judged from the sound that whatever had made it was smaller than a human; possibly a dog. She shivered again as she recalled Stan's reminder of wild dogs, and felt the side of her pack for her handgun. It was resting at the bottom. She considered removing her pack and fishing the weapon out, but after a time of listening and hearing nothing, she convinced herself that the sound had been only the echo of her own footsteps.

She resumed her trek toward the house, occasionally stopping to listen, always hearing nothing. As she crested the slope before the driveway -- retracing the same path she had taken away from the house that morning -- she looked up to see the figure of Emalei in the window, unmoved from where she had been in when Kara had left.

####

"Did you see Poppa while you were out?" Emalei asked.

Kara was in the den, pulling off her backpack. Emalei had followed her. Kara tried to ignore the anxious tone evident in the little girl's voice. "No, as I told you, I spent all day in the woods around the house. I didn't go into town."

"Poppa used to walk in the woods," Emalei said, "and he would take me with him. But, that was before we came here. Now, I'm not strong enough to leave the house. If I want to go outside, I can only go on the patio, and only after it starts getting dark." She walked over to the couch and sat down. In the corner of her eye, Kara could see the little girl swinging her feet nervously. "I'm starting to worry about Poppa. He's never been gone so long." Her voice faded.

Kara summoned a smile and turned to face Emalei. "Emalei, I'm sure your Poppa is fine. Remember? I told you he said he would be in town for several days. Now, how would you like to help me with the plants I gathered today?"

As Kara had hoped, Emalei's face lit with happiness. She hopped off the couch and darted to Kara's side. "Oh, yes! Did you find any flowers?"

Kara felt her own manufactured smile become genuine. "I did," she replied, activating the desk lamp over her work area. "In my pack you'll see something that looks like a belt with pockets that hold little bottles, bring that over here and I'll show you."

Kara opened one of the stasis units and turned to Emalei, expecting the little girl to be holding her specimen bandolier. Instead, Emalei was staring sadly down at the backpack, arms at her sides. Damn! Kara chided herself inwardly. She's so real!

Kara knelt down in front of the hologram. "I'm sorry Emalei, I forgot you're not strong enough yet. Let me get it, you can watch, ok?"

That did the trick. "Ok!" Emalei brightened once again and she bounced to the side of the desk.

The two spent the better part of an hour unpacking the specimens and moving them into the stasis units. Emalei would ask questions about each -- where Kara had been when she found it, how big it would grow, how many flowers would be on one plant. Kara answered cheerfully, finding herself enjoying Emalei's limitless curiosity.

Once Emalei asked to see a plant up close, and Kara held the phial up to her face. Emalei strained to peer into the glass. Abruptly, Kara started, realization striking her again that the little girl was a hologram; surely her optical system was not nearly accurate enough to resolve the specimen in its phial. Or was it? Kara blinked, and nearly dropped the specimen.

"What's wrong?" Emalei asked.

"Nothing," Kara lied, returning the phial to its receptacle. As she did so, she looked outside and saw that twilight was giving way to darkness. Kara realized that she had not called Stan, and if he decided to make the call himself, Emalei would hear the phone and --

"Listen, Emalei," Kara said, "I've been out in the woods all day. I need a shower. After that, we can have dinner. Can you go do something in your room until I come out?"

Emalei turned and skipped noiselessly over to the couch, climbing atop Kara's sleeping bag. "Can I wait here?" she asked. "I promise I won't touch anything."

"That's fine," Kara said as she pulled clothes and a towel from one of her duffles. "You can look, but don't touch. I need to be sure I get all the flowers I've found back to my company." As she talked, she slipped the phone Stan had given her from her backpack and slid it quickly between folds in the towel. She stooped low over the pack as she did this, hoping that she had blocked Emalei's vision system.

"I'll be done soon. Just stay there." Kara left the den, passed through the bedroom -- closing its door on the way through -- then entered the bathroom and closed that door as well. Quickly, she turned on both sink and shower. She was counting on Jasson's bathroom being the one place in the house where Emalei's systems had no coverage. Hopefully, his bedroom was the same, and would put an additional room between her and Emalei.

She pulled the phone from the towel, touched its activation pad, and put it to her ear. The call tone sounded twice, then she heard Stan say: "Hello? Kara?"

"Yes, Stan," she said softly, "It's me. I'm just checking in. Everything's fine."

"Ok." He paused. "What's that sound I hear? Is that water running?" Suddenly, he began laughing, "Are you taking a bath?"

"No!" she hissed, her eyes rolling. "I'm just ... I'm just soaking my feet right now. I hiked all day."

He continued laughing. "Of course you did. You know, we're still waiting for equipment down here. I can be up there in about twenty minutes. Keep the water hot and I'll join you."

Kara closed her eyes and shook her head. "Stan," she said, "stop the talk of coming to keep me company. I'm not -- " Kara stopped herself. It occurred to her that, after all, he was her transportation back to Centerport. And he had obviously shown concern for her safety. She sighed. "Look, Stan. I appreciate the help ... and the thought. It's just ... it's just that I'm very busy, and now is not a good time."

There was a long silence on the phone. Finally, Stan said, "Sure, Kara. I understand. Just keep in touch."

"Thanks, Stan. I really am grateful. I'll check in tomorrow night." She broke the connection, and powered down the phone so there was no chance of an incoming call.

Kara showered quickly, dried her hair and put on a change of clothes. She left the bathroom, passed through the bedroom, opened the bedroom door, and gave a small yelp.

Emalei was standing directly in front of the bedroom door, and Kara had almost walked into her -- almost walked through her.

"Who were you talking to?" the little girl asked.

"Emalei, you scared me!"

Emalei ignored her. "Who were you talking to? I heard you talking to someone."

"Listening to someone while they're in the bathroom isn't polite!" Kara felt herself becoming angry. "Didn't your Poppa ever teach you about privacy?" She walked around the girl and returned to the den to stow away her clothes.

"I didn't mean to," Emalei protested, following her. "I hear things really, really well. Please, Kara, who were you talking to? I heard a man's voice. Was it Poppa?"

That Emalei could hear Stan's voice on the phone told Kara that Emalei's aural system was exceedingly powerful. Kara decided she would have to call Stan from outside of the house in the future.

But Kara was still angry, and decided to let it become apparent. If Emalei's programming responded to an angry adult, it might give Kara greater control over her. "It's none of your business who I was talking to," she steamed.

"It sounded like a man."

Kara thought quickly. "It wasn't. It was my diary system. I can call it from my phone and record what I do each day. I've programmed it to sound like a man."

"You mean, sort of like a real person, but not a real person?"

"Yes, just like that."

Emalei became suddenly quiet. She stood just inside the den, looking down at her feet, apparently deep in thought. Kara packed away her clothes. When she had finished, she turned to find Emalei unmoved, still staring at the floor.

"Emalei?" Kara approached, knelt down in front of the little girl. "Emalei? Hey, how about dinner?"

At that, Emalei looked up. A smile exploded on her face. "Oh, yes! I'm hungry!' And she darted into the kitchen.

Kara sighed with relief. She stood, and went to fetch a meal from one of her duffles.

####

After dinner, Kara asked Emalei what she did before bedtime.

"Poppa reads to me," Emalei said. "There are books in the den, old books from old Earth. Poppa says they're called fairy tales." Emalei led Kara into the den, and to a bookshelf in the corner. On the middle shelf sat three bound paper-leafed books, the likes of which Kara had seen only in museums. One was the collected works of someone named Baum, another was labeled Andersen's Fairy Tales, and Emalei's favorite: Grimm's Fairy Tales.

"I really like the story about the princess who is put to sleep for a hundred years. But, I don't like the ogre queen mother. Poppa says ogres were ugly, but my mommy wasn't ugly."

The two returned to the couch. Kara curled herself into one corner with the book in her lap, and Emalei sat silently nearby. Emalei kept her eyes fixed on Kara as she read the story of the princess who slept for a hundred years. The little girl rested her chin atop her knees, and hugged her legs to her chest. Whenever the queen ogre appeared in the story, Emalei would bury her face behind her knees, and tighten her grip on her legs so that her knuckles stood out white.

At Emalei's request, Kara stopped just as the prince was about to kiss the sleeping beauty and awaken her.

"You don't like this part?" Kara asked.

"Oh, no it's my favorite. I just want to save it for later. Maybe tomorrow night?"

Kara checked her wrist chronometer. "That's a good idea. In fact, I think it's time for another beauty to go to sleep."

Emalei's eyes flashed wide.

"Emalei? What is it?"

"That's what Poppa always says when we read that story!" At this, Emalei's face darkened.

Kara, realizing Emalei's changed emotion, stood quickly. "Well, time for bed, Emalei. Lead the way."

Once again, the little girl's frown turned instantly into a smile. She leaped off the couch and skipped out of the den toward the hall, calling "You can tuck me in!" over her shoulder.

And how might that be done? Kara thought to herself as she followed. She passed through the door, and ...

... Emalei's room was the nighttime fantasy garden that Kara had seen the evening before. However, the bed was now covered in holographic sheets and blankets. Emalei had already climbed in bed, propped against a dark green holographic bolster that appeared to be shot through with tiny, moving firefly lights.

"You can sit down," Emalei said.

Kara hesitated, then approached, easing herself onto the bed beside the little girl. She watched, fascinated, as the holographic surface projected on the bed contorted in response to her weight. Her gaze moved to the waving grass and flower blossoms along the walls.

"Emalei," she said, "you have a wonderful room."

"My garden? Do you really like it? Poppa made it. I wish you could see all of it."

"All of it? There's more?"

"Oh, yes," Emalei pointed to one section of the wall. "Go through there and you come to a path. The path is made of little, flat stones that shine light blue at night but are silver during the day. It leads to a stream, and over that stream is a bridge. Cross the bridge and that's my favorite spot." Emalei hugged her knees again and continued. "A big, big tree, taller than any tree anywhere. And there's a bench for sitting under it, and at night all the leaves shine gold. Not so bright that you can't see the stars, but bright enough so you can see every flower and blade of grass and clover leaf. That's usually where I go at night, and watch the stars go by and the fireflies play in the gardens."

"I .. I really wish I could see it," Kara whispered. "It must be beautiful. But, you said that's where you go at night?"

"Uhm hmm," Emalei nodded, then said, "Hug goodnight?"

"I ... " Kara lifted her arms awkwardly, lowered them.

"Oh, I'm not strong enough to hug like real people yet," Emalei said. From behind the bolster she pulled a holographic pillow. Kara recognized it as a duplicate of the real pillow embroidered with pansies that lay next to where Emalei sat. "Poppa and I have matching pillows. I hug mine, and Poppa hugs his."

"Will you?..." Emalei asked, pointing to the real pillow.

Kara reached slowly down, feeling as though she was entering a place she did not belong. But, as she watched, Emalei wrapped her arms around the holographic pillow and lowered her head so her hair tumbled down over the pansies. Kara pulled the real pillow to her chest, folded its small, oval shape into her arms and, tucking it under her chin, closed her eyes.

"That was a good hug," Emalei said a moment later. Kara's eye flew open. The little girl's face was inches from her own, so close that Kara could see the shapes on the wall through Emalei's translucent skin. And yet, in those unreal, translucent eyes, Kara saw genuine gratitude, happiness, and --

Quickly, Kara returned the pillow to the bed and stood.

"I should go to bed, too, Emalei. Good night." She turned to leave.

"Kara --"

Kara stopped, but did not turn around. She cleared her voice. "Yes?"

"Thank you."

Kara took a deep breath, bit her lower lip. "You're welcome," she said quickly, then left.

Later, on the couch, Kara lay awake, thinking she should go downstairs and shut off the processing system that created Emalei. After all, Stan had said it wasn't wired into any of the house's important systems. Even if she couldn't figure out how to turn it off gracefully, she could always trace the power lines and simply cut them. She convinced herself that it would be the best thing to do. She didn't need the distraction of the little girl -- the simulated little girl -- an artificial creation from the tortured mind of a now-deceased father.

For some reason, she never went downstairs, but fell asleep, dreaming of Emalei sitting beneath a firefly-covered tree beneath a nighttime sky full of stars that drifted slowly through the tree's upper branches ...

####

Kara and Emalei fell quickly into a daily routine. Kara would get up just after sunrise, dress, and join Emalei for breakfast at the dining counter. As they ate, Emalei would ask Kara where she would be exploring that day, and what plants she hoped to find. Kara would put her tablet on the counter between them, call up an aerial view of the land around the house, trace her intended hike, and describe she expected to encounter along her route.

After breakfast, Kara would gather her equipment, strap on her backpack, and leave the house. Emalei watched from the front window, and -- before she was out of sight -- Kara would wave goodbye.

Kara began calling Stan at midday, always making sure she was far from the house when she placed the call. She told him it was the only point in her day that she had any spare time. Fortunately, Stan was busy, too, and anxious to keep the calls brief. The meteorological equipment had arrived, and he and the crew were working long shifts, installing and calibrating.

Late each afternoon, when Kara came in sight of the house, she would see Emalei at her spot in the window. The little girl would wave violently at Kara's appearance, run to meet her at the door, and flood her with questions of where she had gone, what she had seen, what plants she had found. In the den, Kara would take out her specimen phials and hold each up for Emalei to see. As the little girl spouted more questions, Kara would transfer the specimen to the stasis unit and record it in her tablet.

The job of storing and cataloging the day's finds complete, the two would return to their stools at the counter where their conversations of gardens, plants, and flowers carried them through dinner. After dinner, Kara would shower, and go to the den to find Emalei perched on the couch, eyes alive with expectation. Out came the book of fairy tales, and Emalei would select the story. Then she would climb to the back of the couch, where she could watch over Kara's shoulder.

If the story was short, Emalei would always ask that Kara read the fairy tale of the sleeping princess, and always stop the story just before the princess was awakened, saying they would finish it the next night (though they never did).

Then, Emalei would hop noiselessly from the couch, and lead the way down the hall to her room. By that time, her room would have become a nighttime garden of head-high grasses, huge blossoms closed for the evening, and thin luminescent clouds moving swiftly through a sea of stars.

Already in her bed, Emalei would pick up her ghostly pillow. Kara would sit down beside her, and pick up the real pillow. Each would press their pillow to their chest, squeezing and squeezing. Once Emalei gave a little snort and shook from side to side. When Kara did the same, both broke into uncontrolled laughter.

"That was a good hug!" Emalei laughed.

"It was," Kara agreed. "Good night, Emalei." Kara returned her pillow to the bed, placing it next to Emalei's head as the little girl wriggled under the blankets.

"Thank you, Kara," Emalei smiled, then closed her eyes and pushed her head deeper into her pillow.

"Thank you, too, sweetheart," Kara said softly, and tiptoed out of the room.

####

On the morning of the seventh day, Kara lay on the couch, the book of fairy tales spread open across her chest. Stan would return to pick her up tomorrow. And Emalei? What if she and Stan encountered each other? What if she asked Stan about her father? No, Kara thought, that isn't the problem. The problem is, what happens when we start packing my gear in Stan's car ... and then drive away ...?

She decided to leave that morning as quickly as she could manage. Outside and away from the house she could think. She rose and dressed briskly.

Emalei appeared, and Kara explained that breakfast would have to be brief -- she had a long day ahead. She rushed through the meal, all the while filling the air with a one-sided conversation so that Emalei had no chance to slow her down with questions.

Moments later she had filled her backpack, given Emalei a clipped goodbye, and hustled out the door. Down the steps, she was quickly out of sight of the house. A bit farther on, she realized that she had not waved goodbye to Emalei.

It was fortunate that she'd left early. She had not been five minutes from the house when her phone warbled. It was Stan. He told her that she would need to be ready to leave at first light tomorrow. A storm would be moving into the area tomorrow before noon. Temperatures would be dropping, so it would probably turn into a snowstorm. He wanted to be on his way to Centerport before the weather made travel difficult. She had no choice but to agree.

That day, Kara followed a circuit that took her farther from the house than she'd ever been. She climbed the hills behind the estate, and was soon on a high, grassy ridge. Below her were the forests, the road that wound through the woods to the house, beyond that more woods, and in the distance the bright silver tongue of the bay. The sky was clear and blue, the air mild -- almost warm -- with no hint of the approaching storm.

Kara removed her backpack and sat down in the grass. Though it was already mid-morning, she had collected nothing. She realized she would probably return with empty specimen bottles that evening. She had not been searching ... she had been walking and thinking.

Her eyes found one section of the home's flanking stone wall far below. She thought of a little girl -- no, the dream of a little girl. And where would that dream be tomorrow, when Kara was on the transport to Centerport? And, a day later, when Kara was aboard a ship leaving the planet? Snow would be falling, and this whole world would begin slipping into a cold, lonely, thousand-year slumber.

Kara spent the day wandering the ridge, always keeping some part of the home or its yard in sight; the driveway, a section of stone wall, a corner of the roof. She searched the horizons for any sign of the oncoming storm. But the sky remained mockingly clear.

The day moved swiftly into afternoon, the afternoon passed to early twilight. Kara was descending the ridge and had re-entered the woods when evening's approach became apparent. She angled back toward the house, moving through increasingly dense underbrush and deepening shadows.

She realized she was being followed when she was about 150 meters from the house. Kara stopped, looked back through the trees. The rustling of her pursuer slowed, stepped more cautiously. She turned and continued, walking more briskly, frequently looking over her shoulder. She swung her backpack around and felt through its sides for the handgun.

Kara passed through a clearing, reentered the woods on its opposite side. Concealing herself behind a tree, she turned and watched. The sight of the creature that loped out of the forest sent an electric shock of fear through her.

It was some kind dog, a very large dog. In the failing light its height was hard to measure, but Kara estimated it must stand at least a meter and a half at its shoulders. Though it had obviously lost a lot of weight, it had the look of an animal willing to do anything -- to attack anything -- for a meal. There was still enough muscle on its body to tell Kara that it would not hesitate to try to make her that meal.

It's dark grey and black fur was mottled with mange, its sides blotched with exposed patches of unhealthy pink and white flesh. The dog's head bobbed and waved. The animal stopped, and glistening onyx eyes sunken in dark sockets looked directly at her.

Kara turned and ran. The dog gave a coughing growl, trotted across the clearing, and plunged after her. As she ran, she yanked items out of her backpack, lobbing them over her shoulder in the hope that something would catch the animal's interest and slow it down. Each time she reached in for the next object, she prayed that it would be the gun. Behind her, the animal paused to tear at a glove, and then resumed the chase.

Suddenly, Kara broke out of the trees. She was in the yard behind the house. Ahead was the covered patio and the back door. Her heart sank; the door was closed. From the scampering sounds behind her, the dog would surely overtake her before she could get the door opened. Kara quickened her pace, reached the patio, heard a snarl right at her heels ...

... and the door flashed open. Before Kara realized what had happened, Emalei had darted through the door, onto the patio, and past her, screaming and waving her arms. Kara tried to stop, tripped, and fell sprawling through the doorway. The contents of her backpack sprayed across the floor. Just protruding from the pack's opening was the handgun's butt.

Kara twisted around and saw that the dog had skidded to a halt, baffled by the shrieking apparition before it. This lasted only a heartbeat. The animal gathered itself, crouched, bared its teeth, and lunged forward.

"Emalei!" Kara yelled, snatching the gun out of the backpack. Emalei whirled -- Kara was pointing the weapon directly at her. In the next instant, the dog passed through the hologram. Kara fired. The blast knocked the animal sideways, its body slamming into the wall beside the door to collapse and lay still on the patio.

Emalei had vanished.

####

Kara closed the door and activated its lock. A quick glance through one of the nearby windows verified that the dog's body had not moved.

She gathered her backpack and its scattered contents, taking inventory of the discarded items in the process. She decided that she had lost nothing worth the trouble of retrieving. It was then that she found she was trembling; she made her way to the den, and collapsed weakly onto the couch. She lay for several minutes in the semi-darkness before her shaking subsided.

The sound of crying drifted down the hall.

"Emalei?"

Kara rose unsteadily, walked slowly down the hall to stand just outside Emalei's bedroom. Its door was open only a crack.

She pushed the door wider and called softly: "Emalei?" The weeping was still distant. She stepped into the room.

Above, clouds obscured the usually star-filled sky. A ghostly blue light from an unidentifiable source played faintly on their undersides. In the dimness, the tall grasses and flowers were silhouettes, and Kara could barely make out the bed. It was empty. The weeping came from far beyond the wall.

Kara approached the wall, laid her hand upon it.

"Emalei!" she called.

There was no response. The weeping continued.

"Please, Emalei ... I can't come to you. I'm not ... I'm not strong enough..."

The weeping stopped. Kara heard the sound of small feet stepping cautiously through grass. She backed away from the wall as the fronds in front of her were drawn apart. Emalei stood in the dimness. Even in the weak light, Kara could see that her eyes were swollen and red. The little girl was quivering.

Kara knelt.

"That was a dog, wasn't it?" Emalei whispered.

Kara nodded. "Yes. Yes, I think so."

"Why did it try to hurt you?" Emalei sniffed, rubbing one eye with her small hand.

"I don't know, sweetheart. It was sick, I think."

"Did you ... did you..." Emalei began sobbing.

"Oh, Emalei--" Kara tried to blink away the tears welling in her own eyes. "I had to -- I didn't have any choice. I couldn't let it live like that --"

Emalei's sobbing intensified. Her knotted fist ground furiously at her eye.

Kara choked back a sob of her own, and -- without thinking -- stretched out her arms.

Emalei darted out of the wall, stood between Kara's arms, then dropped suddenly to the floor, wailing. "I can't!" she cried. "I can't ... I can't ..."

Kara bent forward, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. She lay her hand on the floor as close to Emalei's face as she dared. Emalei, still crying, reached out, and placed a ghostly hand atop Kara's. Closing her eyes, Kara willed herself to feel it ... to feel something.

Some time later, Emalei's crying lessened, becoming sobs. Finally, she was able to speak, and said weakly, "Kara ... something's wrong. That dog shouldn't have been sick like that. And .... and ..... where's Poppa?"

The question was a painful stab, like an invisible needle in Kara's chest. She inhaled sharply. And in that instant a sudden, cold resolve solidified. Kara drew her hand away, stood up. She wiped the tears from her face.

"Emalei," she said. "Your Poppa's coming home. I'm going to go get him tonight." Her voice had begun to tremble. She paused, inhaled, and willed steadiness into her next words. "He told me to tell you to go wait for him ... go wait for him under your tree."

The last of Emalei's sobbing evaporated. She sat up. "Really? You mean ... now?"

Kara nodded. Give no sign, she told herself. Then, aloud: "Yes, now. I'm going to go get him now."

"Where is he?" Emalei grew excited.

"I'm going to call someone for a transport. They'll come pick me up, and then we'll go get your Poppa. Go wait under your tree, and he'll call you when he gets here."

Emalei hesitated. She opened her mouth to ask another question.

"Now, Emalei." Kara said, cutting her off, and doing her best to sound as though she were passing along instructions. "Your Poppa said to wait for him under your tree. Do what he told you to do."

Emalei stepped quickly into the wall. She turned. "Kara, will you be here when Poppa gets back?"

Give no sign! Kara ordered herself. Out loud, Kara answered quickly, "Of course I will, Emalei. Now, go wait by the tree."

Emalei's face broke into its irresistibly bright smile, and the sky was suddenly tinged with the pale golden glow of a distant sunrise. Above, the clouds were quickly tearing apart to reveal swaths of multicolored stars. A swarm of fireflies swept above the flowers. Emalei vanished, her footfalls scampering away into the distance.

Kara turned and left the room, closing the door behind herself. She strode down the hall to the stairway that led to the lower level. She was chewing the inside of her lower lip ferociously, holding back the sob that fought to come out. Emalei's aural systems were throughout the house, and if Emalei suspected anything was wrong ...

Kara went down the stairs, and found her way quickly to the workroom. Against one wall hummed the computer system that she had seen the first day.

She had begun to tremble again. She went to the machine and pulled it away from the wall. Stan had said that it was connected directly into the power systems and, sure enough, cables led from the back and into a pair of utility boxes mounted on the wall behind it. One was a bundle of wires apparently tied to the holographic, audio, and other control systems that made Emalei's existence possible; the other was obviously the power cable.

Kara examined that cable's connection to the utility box and to the back of the system. She decided that the connection to the computer was the weaker of the two, designed for easy installation and removal. Kara sat down on the floor behind the system, grabbed the cable with both hands, planted both feet on the back of the system, inhaled, and yanked.

The coupling came away easily, and the system's humming died instantly. Kara held her breath, listening for any alarm that might indicate the activation of a back-up power system. She had hoped that any auxiliary power would be on the home side of the connection, not within the computer itself. After several seconds, she decided that her hopes were confirmed, and she slumped back against the wall, exhaustion pouring over her.

"I had to, sweetheart," she whispered. "I couldn't let you live like that ..."

The sobbing finally escaped, and quickly became a steady weeping.

####

When Stan arrived the next morning, he found Kara on the front porch, just outside the door. He climbed the steps. Her equipment and duffles were lined up along the wall, all apparently packed and ready for loading. Kara sat beside them, watching the sky darkening with the lowering of grey clouds.

"Well," he said, obviously impressed. "Looks like you're ready to go. Is this everything?"

Kara rose wearily from the patio floor, nodding.

"Are you feeling ok? You look really tired."

"I'm fine," she said curtly. She picked up a duffle, hoisted it onto her back and started down the stairs. "Come on, let's get this stuff loaded."

"Ok," he said, heading for the door. "I'll just go in any make sure everything's shut down."

Kara whirled. "No!" she yelled.

Stan stopped, turned. "What in -- ?"

Kara was a quivering mixture of fear and anger. She took a long breath, forced the emotions away. Her face relaxed. "No, please ... I've already turned everything off. Let's just go, Stan ... please?" She pointed to the sky. "Besides .... the weather? ..."

He looked up at the thickening clouds, back at the house. He shrugged. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter even if the power is left on, does it?" He grabbed an equipment case and a duffle, and headed down the stairs. He didn't see the wave of emotion that had passed across Kara's face.

They loaded the car quickly. Neither talked. Kara placed her backpack on the floor in front of her seat, climbed in, and Stan started the vehicle. As it pulled away, she turned and watched the house, staring at the front windows -- one in particular-- until the building was out of sight. Then, she relaxed into the seat.

Stan finally broke the silence. "Are you sure you're ok? That was quite an outburst..."

Kara managed a weak smile. "I'm sorry. Just tired, I think ... up late getting everything packed."

"I had thought maybe the house had gotten to you or something. Must have been a bit strange all by yourself in an abandoned place like that." He glanced at her. She was looking out the window. She said nothing.

"Not up for conversation this morning?"

"No," she said simply, still looking out the window. Then, "If you don't mind, Stan, I'd like to rest a bit on the way into town. Long night, like I said ..."

Stan nodded. "Ok ... sure, I understand..." He turned his attention to the road.

Kara reached down to her backpack, opened it, and withdrew a pillow. A round pillow, embroidered with pansies. She pushed it between herself and the wall of the vehicle, laid her cheek against it, and looked out the window. Outside, a dark forest slid past, colorless in the failing lights. Kara held the pillow in both hands, squeezed it gently.

The first snowflakes began to fall.

THE END


© 2012 Rick Grehan

Bio: Rick Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here:
Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's. This is his first foray into science fiction.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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