Aphelion Issue 221, Volume 21
September 2017
 
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Neil's Touchstone

by C.E. Gee




“Coffee?” asked the servingbot.

“Please,” replied Neil.

After breakfast Neil strolled across the parking lot to the motel. There weren’t many motels in the town of John Day. Neil figured this motel was probably as good as any.

Neil entered the motel, walked to the counter. Addressing the clerkbot, Neil said, “I’d like a room.”

“Certainly,” replied the clerkbot. “Will you be staying long?”

“Not sure,” replied Neil. “If I’m here over a weekend I’ll probably go on home for a bit. I’ll need to keep my gear in my room though. I assume that’s permissible?”

The clerkbot said, “Of course. However, we’ll need a deposit. Please present your iCard.” The clerkbot grabbed a scanner off the counter.

Neil asked, “Will you take a purchase order from my company?”

“It needs to be approved by our manager,” answered the clerkbot as it placed the scanner back on the counter.

Neil heard a chime sound in the room behind the counter. A middle-aged woman walked out.

The clerkbot said, “Our guest needs approval for a purchase order.”

The woman grabbed the scanner, pointed it at Neil. She asked, “The purchase order is on your iCard?”

Neil held aloft his iCard, said, “Fire away.”

The manager scanned the card, said, “It’ll take a coupla minutes for my secretarybot to access your references and such. You’re in town on business?”

Neil replied, “I’m a geologist. I’ve been contracted by the Solarian Bureau of Land Management to analyze the rock formations out at the fossil beds to see if there’s any danger of collapse of the cliff or bluff faces. Also, I’ve got the latest in downward looking radar and other such gear, so the Solarian Bureau of Land Management also wants me to look for buried fossils. Paleontologists have pretty much cleaned out the obvious ones and Paleontologists are usually not as technically adept or familiar with geology as someone like me.”

The clerkbot, connected to the secretarybot via the motel’s botnet, announced to the manager, “Our guest’s purchase order is okay. Our guest’s last purchase order was presented on Mars.”

“Really?” said the manager while turning to face Neil.” “I’ve always wanted to vacation on Mars. I’m curious. What were you doing on Mars?”

“Well,” answered Neil, “you’ve heard on the news about that collapsed cavern in an extinct volcano on Mars where the metal plate with Norse writing and the dead Viking were found?”

“Sure.”

Neil could not hide his smug smile. He said, “I was the geologist the Solarian Guard contracted with to figure out how to investigate the part of the tunnel behind the rubble of the collapsed section.”

After some polite conversation with the manager, Neil went out his rental car. The car recognized him approaching, opened the passenger door. “Take me to the fossil beds,” ordered Neil.”

The car asked, “Which unit?”

“Painted Hills.

*****


There were few other vehicles in the Painted Hills parking lot.

Neil told the car to open its trunk. Neil went to the trunk, looked at all his gear, figured his field gauge boson detector was not suitable given the time it took to resolve images using natural sources for the bosons.

Neil grabbed the ground penetrating radar unit, his backpack and canteen. He spoke to the car via the trunk’s audio transducer. “After you close the trunk lid, button up. Put yourself at the highest level of security. If you have any trouble call my cell. When you see me approach, open the trunk.”

“Got it.”

Neil began hiking up Leaf Hill Trail. He figured he’d climb to the end of the trail, then search for fossils and assess the bluff and cliff faces on the way back, making circular searches off to the sides of the trail until he tired.

The ground penetrating radar unit was the newest model, was relatively light. Unfortunately for Neil, his recent trip to Mars had weakened him. The planet’s low gravity had atrophied his muscles noticeably.

By the time Neil reached the end of the trail he was gasping for air, needed a break.

Neil sat on a large rock, took sips of water. It was several minutes before Neil felt rested enough to go to work.

He deployed the ground searching radar, slowly walked off the trail toward the face of a nearby bluff.

The John Day Fossil Bed was aptly named. The ground searching radar resolved a fossil within a short time.

Neil pulled his phone from a thigh pocket. Using the phone’s map feature he expanded its image of the area, then marked to location of the fossil, uploaded the image of it from the radar unit, which Neil then referenced it to the map location.

Neil worked his way to the base of the nearest bluff, finding more fossils. He carefully studied the bluff for his report. He then started back to the trail. At the trail Neil took a moment to transmit his findings to his office computer for a backup in case something happened to his phone.

After another sip of water, Neil made a loop in the opposite direction, found more fossils.

After a few rewarding searches in both directions off the trail that Neil found something unusual.Near the base of the nearby bluff, Neil’s ground penetrating radar resolved a buried body.

The body was in the fetal position, had not yet rotted away into a skeleton. The body was small. Neil figured it had been a child.

Neil put down the radar, his backpack and canteen.

Neil had a friend who had served his mandatory public service to the masses by joining the Solarian Guard. This friend had once stolen an entrenching tool from an Air Force transport, eventually gave the entrenching tool to Neil.

Neil pulled the entrenching tool out of his backpack, started digging.

After uncovering the body, Neil saw it was completely clothed in a silver-colored jumpsuit. The jumpsuit had an attached hood, gloves and boots. Oddly enough, the gloves each had only three fingers.

The three fingers were a giveaway. Neil immediately realized he was dealing with an off-worlder body, though he didn’t know from which system.

Neil pulled the body from the grave, laid the body on its back. Neil knelt down, stared into the body’s eyes, realized the eyes were large and oddly shaped lenses. Neil bent down even closer, stared into one lens, saw a skull.

There was no zipper or buttons or a seam on the front of the jumpsuit. Neil rolled the body over to access the jumpsuit’s backside. Neil saw nothing helpful.

From one of his pockets, Neil pulled out a Swiss Army knife. Using the knife, Neil attempted to cut his way into the body’s jumpsuit. The blade could not penetrate the fabric.

Neil sat back on his heels, pondered a moment. He realized the next steps would be either use a laser to slice through the fabric, or use a lab quality boson detector that had its own boson source to peer through the fabric.

In his office Neil had a powerful laser used for cutting open rocks, also a gauge boson detector that was far superior and faster in resolving images than his field unit since it had its own boson emitter.

After strapping on his backpack and canteen, Neil slung the body over one shoulder, picked up the radar unit. Neil began walking down the trail toward the packing lot.

*****


As Neil neared the parking lot, looking down the slope he saw a couple at the trunk of their car, which was parked very near Neil’s.

Neil was in a hurry, didn’t want to wait for the couple to walk off, so he folded the legs and arms in against the body so it looked like bundle.

Neil then casually strode down to his car. As he passed by the couple the man said, “Howdy.”

Neil jauntily replied, “Good day.”

As previously ordered, the car opened the trunk. When Neil placed the body in the trunk the arms and legs unfolded.

Neil didn’t look at the couple, thinking that his looking would be a tell.

Neil told the car to take him home without stopping at the motel. The car asked for Neil’s home address, then started off.

*****


Hours later, at his house, which also held his office and lab, Neil hauled the body into the lab, placed it on a table.

While was deploying his phase boson detector Neil heard a noise from outside. Neil went to the window, saw a triangular aircraft –- the type that flew by using strong cryogenically cooled electromagnets to repulse against the Earth’s magnetic lines of force.

The craft landed on the lawn. Two men dressed in black jumpsuits and with holstered pistols emerged, walked to Neil’s front door.

Neil’s housebot was standing in one corner of his lab. The housebot, which was connected to the home’s botnet, announced “The security system has detected two people approaching! Now they’re standing on the porch.”

As he left the room, Neil commanded the housebot, “Make sure the security system is recording.”

Neil went to the front door, opened it.

One of the men asked, “I assume you’re Neil the geologist?”

Neil nodded.

The man said, “This is formal notification that you are in violation of Solarian laws.”

“You are accused of a misdemeanor. You have stolen governmental property from BLM land.” At trial you will likely receive the punishment of paying a fine.”

“You are also accused of possessing the body of an off-worlder. The body may possess substantial historical value. At trial you will likely receive the punishment of imprisonment.”

“Because of your skills as a geologist, I suspect you’ll be sent to a labor camp on or near one of the outer planets. Be aware that few humans ever return from those camps.”

The man, who had a stern expression, shifted to a smile. Neil was amused at the man’s difficulty in smiling.

The man then said, “You are being recorded by our cams. If you peacefully hand over the alien and if you tell me you’ll not mention this incident to anyone or anything, I’ll recommend leniency to the prosecutor. You will be free to go until notification from the prosecutor. Of course, your movements will be monitored.”

“I will comply with your orders,” replied Neil. “Follow me.”

Neil took the agents to his lab, handed over the alien’s body. The agents left.

Neil went to the window, watched the agents enter their craft. The aircraft lifted off, flew to the North.

Neil was shaking, needed to calm himself. He went to the media room, grabbed a Martian beer from the cooler. After plopping down on his favorite chair, Neil switched on the 3-D array, tuned it to a news channel.

*****


Nearly an hour passed before Neil felt like going back to work. He went to the lab, stored the gauge boson detector.

Neil then heard a familiar noise from outside. Kathy, his neighbor to the East, had her mowerbot outside, trimming her front lawn. Kathy herself was outside too, watering flower beds.

Neil ordered his housebot to mop the lab, then went outside to talk to Kathy.

As Neil approached, Kathy exclaimed, “Neil, haven’t talked to you since you got back from Mars!”

Her eyes were bright, her smile was warm and genuine. She shut off, then dropped, the hose.

“Been busy,” said Neil. “Took a BLM contract to survey the John Day Fossil Beds. Probably going to take me another week, maybe two.”

Kathy looked downward as if eyeing her lawn. Kathy, who lived alone, asked, her voice trembling slightly, “Maybe you’d like to have dinner at my place? My housebot just uploaded the latest cooking program.”

“I’ll one-up you” replied Neil. “There’s a hotel at the amusement park on the moon. It belongs to the same chain as the hotel I booked on Mars. They have free breakfasts, an in-house lounge. Wanna go?”

Kathy couldn’t look at Neil, shifting her gaze slightly downward and to her left. She bit her lower lip for a moment as if pondering the question.

She then flushed deep red as she replied, “Sure. I think I’d like that.”

“Great,” said Neil. “I’ll call you before leaving John Day.”

Kathy nodded, then said, “I was at my kitchen window when I saw your visitors arrive. I was in the garage when I heard them take off.”

“Yeah,” said Neil. He then lied, ”They needed to take my rock samples to their lab right away. We geologists, we have a saying. It takes many forms, but my favorite is ‘every rock has its story.’”

“Well, I gotta get back to work,” announced Neil.

Neil was sensitive enough to know the moment was right. He took a step forward, kissed Kathy on the cheek, stepped back.

Kathy’s knees buckled to the point to where she half-stooped. She clasped both hands over her mouth as she giggled. She then stood straight, said, “Oh Neil, you’re so naughty.”

Neil replied, “I’ll take that as a complement. Besides, I feel it’s time for us to get something straight between us.”

Kathy raised her right hand, made the “V” sign as she said, “Go in piece Neil.” Kathy again giggled.

Amused, Neil said, “See you.” He went back his house.

From the front porch, Neil heard Kathy singing to herself. Neil turned, saw Kathy joyfully dancing from flower bed to flower bed, watering each in turn.

Neil smiled as he watched.

*****


Neil gave his housebot its instructions, packed clean clothing.

In the garage Neil said to the car, “Let’s go back to the motel.”

On the freeway Neil napped most of the way.

Much later, at the Arlington, Oregon exit, the car took the access road, headed toward John Day. The road had numerous curves. The car swaying on the curves woke Neil. His phone beeped.

Neil answered. The Solarian agent who had seized the alien appeared on the phone’s screen. Without preliminary greeting the agent said, “Well Neil, you’re off the hook. I explained your situation to our prosecutor. She said that because of your sterling service on Mars, and because you are currently under contract to the BLM, she’s not going to prosecute.”

Neil felt as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He said, “Many thanks.”

The agent replied with, “Keep your nose clean, we’ll be monitoring your actions. And for your information, the alien had its skull crushed from behind. Probably from an Aboriginal American war club.”

Neil replied, “I understand. Namaste.”

“Namaste,” said the agent before logging off.

*****


Neil completed his contract in less than two weeks.

After uploading his findings to a BLM clerkbot, the agencies’ clerkbot said, “Data looks good. You may expect our payment within 90 days.”

Neil loaded his gear into the car, called Kathy to let her know he was on his way. He then checked out, headed to the tube station in the little town of Arlington, Oregon.

*****


Neil was relatively well off financially, was able to afford a long stay on the moon.

After returning to Earth, Kathy moved in with Neil, and rented her house to her sister.


THE END


2017 C.E. Gee

Bio: Born near the peak of the post World War II baby boom (1947), C.E. "Chuck" Gee misspent his youth at various backwater locales within the states of Oregon and Alaska.

During adulthood Chuck answered many callings, including that of logger, factory worker, infantryman (Vietnam war draftee), telecommunications technician, volunteer fireman and EMT, light show roadie, businessperson, sysop (commercial BBS), webmaster.

Retired from the telecommunications/electronics industries and also a disabled veteran, Chuck now writes Science Fiction.

E-mail: C.E. Gee

Blog: C.E. Gee

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