Under Eden

END OF DAYS SERIES: Under Eden

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Photo by Mark Lynch

“Shite, that was close.”

From the impact, the sky had lit up so bright we could see clearly down the street with its neatly parked cars, perfectly aligned like the teeth of a zipper. But no one was out and no lights came on in any of the homes; our neighbors had all moved to the underground.

 

 

When we go we want to taste the air and see the sun going down and not have the taste of someone else’s exhale lingering in our mouths or staring up at a filament, waiting for it to extinguish and be left alone in darkness with only our fear leaning in.  The underground was not for us, but I suppose for those who have chosen to stay below, there is something to be said for not knowing or seeing the end coming.

For us above, we enjoy free rein of the big box stores and the design outlets to get all the lumber, tools, and furniture needed to build a roof deck on our flat… something I had always wanted to do for my family but never had the funds to do it.  It’s bittersweet under these circumstances, but our roof deck rocks.  We have a full working tiki-bar and a well stocked drinks cupboard up here with unobstructed views of the sunsets.  And the sunsets have been magnificent lately, even knowing the colors are fed by the ash of every living thing that was incinerated from an impact.

We have allowed our fifteen-year-old daughter, Louise, to drink alcohol along with us, enjoying these last days together as a family.  Tonight’s concoction of a drink is a Commet-Kaze, but instead of Triple Sec we used Orange Curaçao– stuff we could never afford but is now readily available at the off-license… free of charge of course.  Honestly, I hope the end comes soon because we are running out of clever drink names.   My youngest, Alec, is a space nut.  When we had a family vote to stay above or go under, he was the most vocal of staying above; he wanted to see what was coming.  For the record, it was unanimous, we all wanted to stay above.  A weird lot we are.

Ever since the announcement that Earth would pass directly into a catastrophic asteroid storm, spelling out the end for us all,  Alec has been glued to his kit of computers and monitors lined up on the dining table. Seated upon his newly acquired oversized luxury office chair with his feet dangling, he has been tracking everything coming in; it’s like having the ESA in our sitting room.  He has informed us that the impact we just saw was an 8 on the Torino Scale with a low MT potential… whatever that means.    He said if it had been a 9 we would have been okay but we would have had to remain inside for a while, but if it had been a 10, well, that would have been a bit of a damp squib.

Louise has been on a mission every day now, looking for pet stores to liberate or following the barking or meowing of dogs and cats left abandoned in their homes. When we find them,  we open the doors, cages and pet food.  We even take the freshwater fish to a freshwater canal or pond and take the saltwater fish to the sea, but we need to check in with Alec before going there in case an 8 or 9 hits off the coast creating a tsunami.

My wife, Jenny, has been a rock through all this.  Me, well, when you have loved someone for eighteen years, every day as much as the first, someone you would instinctively put your own life before theirs… well… I can’t think about that right now.  It’s been a long day.  We’re off to bed.

We were awakened by the alarms from Alec’s monitoring alerts, Jenny and I still in a tangle with the lingering scent of our lovemaking around us.   We knew the drill.  If this was going to be the one to take us out, we wanted to be together through to the end.  Jenny would gather up Louise, as I headed down the steps to the sitting room to find Alec inches away from the monitors, the screen data reflecting off his specs as he nibbled away on a biscuit from Marks & Sparks.  Now that we were directly in the path of the storm, Alec has been sleeping here on the couch under a litany of graphs and hand drawn eclipses of near misses and impacts, looking for the one that will do us in.  He never had a passion for sport or music and had always been a bit of a loner with his technical books and sci-fi pulp fiction, but this makes him happy, happier than I have ever seen him.  So be it.  The kit he put together came from the Apple Store and smaller bits and PC shops down the block.  I’m not sure of what his kit does, but he seems to know of inbounds before anyone in his circle of plusers does.  Lucky us.

“Alec.  What does your crystal ball show?” I said coming up behind him, making sure to slide my slippers on the floorboards so as not to startle him.

“Daddy, you should see this one. It’s big.  A 10 with a high MT.” he said not turning away from the screens.

I stooped over his shoulder, trying to see what he was seeing, but all I could make out was a ball of multicolored elastics knowing somewhere beneath it all was Earth.

“Hmmmm….” was the most meaningful response I could come up with.

“This is the one,” he said without the slightest doubt and proud that his forecasts have always proved to be spot on.

I palmed the mop of his hair, thankful he got the hair gene from his mum. “Let’s get up on the roof then,” and I helped him into his pullover hoodie with the phrase, Waiting For The Asteroid, written in front.

“I’m very proud of you, Alec.”  I said reaching down to zip him up, tucking the hoodie around his ears to keep out the chill.  When we got to the roof, Jenny had the mushroom heaters going and a hot tea for me in hand.   We sat close together on the outdoor furniture, our overly fluffy slippers up on the ottomans while passing the tin of peanut butter shortbreads, from Luigi Zuck.  This was our routine; no one should have to go out without the finest shortbreads at hand.

“See it!” Alec said jumping up and almost losing his glasses.

It started as a white dash in the night, elongating and brightening as it raced toward us.

“It’s traveling at 24.360 Kilometers per second,” Alec said.  He moved to the edge of the deck, leaning over with his hands on the rail, then looked back at us with a child’s innocence.

I reached over and pat Jenny on the knee.  “He’s right about this one.”  And stood up to join my son at the railing, my arm draped around his tiny shoulders, pulling him tight.  I was proud of him and he knew it. Jenny led Louise to the railing, standing beside me as I reached for her hand and felt the wedding ring I had slipped onto her finger eighteen years ago.  We looked up at the dash in the sky, its cobalt blue tail under a gown of white forming a cone.  It was beautiful, I had to admit, like a slow moving shuttlecock entering the atmosphere.  Then from the tip of the cone, the object projected outward, a second stage, plunging into the lower atmosphere and growing brighter, affording us a clear look down the entire block of flats as if it were daybreak.

“Shades down everyone.” And I helped Alec with his before my own.  It was bright, even through the welding goggles we were wearing. I knew Jenny was looking over at me and I turned to see her smile beneath the dark lenses.

“Don’t think you’re getting your back scratched, tonight,” she said as a statement of relief.

I laughed. “It’s been wonderful, Jen.” and I leaned in for a kiss, her head tilting to the side, her lips slightly parted and I knew her love for me and I for her would never dim.  As we kissed, we drew in Alec and Louise.  There is something to be said for the human spirit, something that feels it will never extinguish, even where it can’t exist.

Author’s Note:  This third short was inspired by a fellow G+’er, Mark Lynch (Lynchy), who lives in London and posted a beautiful sunset of his street. It moved me and I knew the story to come with it belonged here. Thanks Mark for the image and please extend a thanks to your  lovely wife for the ‘squib’ reference… I’m still laughing……

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View From My Kitchen

END OF DAYS SERIES: View From My Kitchen

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Image by Ann Swanson

They said it would come, that it would start with a sunset of such unbelievable beauty it would bring tears to your eyes.  They were right. It was quiet. Eerily quiet.  No bird chirps or the whine of motorboats speeding across the lake. No one in their back yards, no joyous shrieks of children chasing fireflies, no smell of fire-pits and no sound of car tires rolling down the crushed stone roads, eager to get to their weekend camps.  Everyone was down in their last-minute shelters with not enough supplies to outlast what was about to unfold.

My children, grand children, friends and neighbors begged me to come with them into the town’s shelter.  But why miss the last sunset one would ever see.  Where was there to go?  Nowhere.  It would take ten-thousand years just for the fires to burn out, and the only reason they would extinguish would be due to the absence of oxygen left on Earth.
I know it might seem selfish–that I should spend the end of days surrounded by family and friends–but I just wanted to spend it in my kitchen, overlooking the lake where I can see the memories of my grandchildren out on the dock, their silhouettes with fishing poles matching the paintings in my home .  So here I stand, glass of Chardonnay in hand and raising it to the sky, thankful I was given this sliver of time to see and experience this magnificent world and hoping my next journey will be as spectacular. Cheers.

Author’s Note: This short was inspired by a friend’s profile picture update on Facebook (Ann).  Although my interpretation is a bit dark and not what she intended.  Thanks, Ann….  it is a beautiful image.  Then I thought about building a collection of shorts based upon the End Of Days told through the eyes of the people who wrote them.    Enjoy.

 

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23 Skidoo

23_SkidooThis was originally entered as a sci-fi Friday competition on Wattpad.  It had to be no more than 1500 words and the lead in was this:  A dating site inadvertently paired up androids with humans, and we had to take it from there.  Needless to say, I did not even platform under the honorable mention section… LOL, but that did not stop me from writing, in my style.

A Note about the title.    This was a play on a couple of things.  The term, 23 Skidoo, came about from 20th century slang originating in the Flatiron District in NYC, specifically 23rd street.  With the combination of building design (flat Irons) and how the avenues and streets intersect, it created some interesting wind patterns.  During lunch hours, when the women workforce would be out on the streets under the scrutiny of the construction workers and their cat calls, guys would wait for the women knowing the winds can gust quickly, hiking up their skirts.  The cops would come along and say to them,   ‘come’on… Skidoo.’

Secondly, this is a dedication to friends and my in-laws, Maurice & Harriet Holt  (God rest their souls) and to the wonderful times we had and still have in LBI NJ, where the place to be is 22nd street.    I wanted to call this work 22 Skidoo, but realized only a few would be in on the play of title and I would have most likely received a lot of feedback correcting me with 23 skidoo…. so there you have it.  Enjoy.

23 SKIDOO

The guy smelled like urine and sunscreen. Oddly, the combination wasn’t unpleasant.

“Alexa. Note to self. Urine and sunscreen.”

“Urine and sunscreen saved to self,” repeated Alexa.  Alexa was his internal symbiont. All androids these days had one.

He scrunched the pockets on the guy’s fly-fishing vest, but pocket after pocket seemed filled with every possession the guy ever owned.

“This is going to take a while,” he said to no one and rolled him onto his side so he could turn out the collar and see the label. “Alexa, add Simms vest to my shopping list.”

“Simms vest added to your shopping list.” she repeated.

He continued to search and moved onto the cargo pants. “Shit… more F’ing pockets… I can sure pick’em.” Finally he found what he was looking for and popped the double snaps to fish out a wallet, worn and scratched along the edges and bound with a crucifix and tie wraps.

“Christ,” he said, then caught his pun and started to laugh. The sun would be rising over the ocean any minute and he was running out of time. Reaching under his shirt sleeve he removed the arcKnife strapped to his tricep and hot cut through the tie wraps leaving singe marks along the leather. He fished out the guy’s plexi and inserted it into his reader.

“Benny Larson,” he said. “You look like a Benny,” he added and laughed at his own pun of how the island locals called their day trippers, bennies; a term that originated from the letters of the train stations on the Jersey Shore line: (B)ayonne, (E)lizabeth , (N)ewark & (N)ew (Y)ork.  The locals, as much as they needed the seasonal revenue, felt the bennies messed up everything between Memorial day and Labor day:   He loved puns. Puns were a sign of intelligence and therefore… he was intelligent.

The corpse in the dunes beside him had a face frozen in time. Eyes and mouth opened with a look of surprise. He noted the coagulation of blood on the sand; it looked like a raspberry snow cone had been dropped there.

“Alexa, note to self. Blood on sand. Snow cone.”

“Blood on sand. Snow cone saved to self.” echoed Alexa.

Rolling him onto his back, he pat Benny Larson on the chest like he was saying goodbye to an old friend. “Travel well, amigo.” He stood and brushed the sand from his knees and looked out over the ocean, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the bulk of the sun’s rays.  Stepping gingerly alongside the drag marks and footsteps leading back to the beach, he was careful not to step on the dune grasses. The posted signs indicated the dunes were off-limits to people and pets and the grasses were a protected species. Violators would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  He protected things, that’s what he did, and now he would protect dune grasses.

The night’s rain had formed a thin coffee-colored crust on the sand, making it easy for him to follow the footsteps that exposed the white grains below. They led him south along the beach toward 23rd street where a foot path lined with dune fence trailed out toward the road. He passed a bench at the bottom of the path inscribed with, In Memory of Harriet and Maurice Holt, and stopped to empty the sand from his topsiders when a yellow Lab puppy, whose feet were as large as spatulas, came bounding toward him.

“Come on boy… oooh what a good doggie.” he called out and watched the puppy pick up speed with its tongue and tail wagging, almost knocking him off the edge of the bench when it collided. He held the puppy’s ears between his thumb and forefingers to keep it from jumping and smoothed its brows until it settled down. Looking up over his shoulder, he could see the dog’s owner, his date, rising over the crest of the path. She was right on cue and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and dark glasses that were a little too large for her face. She was athletic, shapely and carrying a surfboard under her arm. Her neoprene silky was flowered and wrapped down to her naval but still well above the bikini bottom.

“Roxy…. come’ear gal.” she called out.

Roxy had been under his spell, letting out a groan with each soothing stroke until he stood, leaving Roxy motionless and in denial the smoothing had ended.

“Roxy!” she called out a bit more commanding. Roxy’s front paws dug into the sand and she let out a bark to continue.

“Rox-eeee!” she repeated. “Don’t you even think about it!

“Roxy loves people,” she said approaching him. There was no embarrassment in her voice. “I hope you like dogs,” she added.

He looked down at Roxy who was now on her back and sweeping out a dog’s version of a snow angel.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had one.” He was looking down, amused by Roxy’s antics.

She had been studying his features, his hair was dusty brown and tight against his scalp.  He looked just like his profile image–a rarity these days on dating sites.  At least he had that going for him.

He sensed her stare and looked directly into her glasses. He liked to look into a human’s eyes. The eyes told him everything about a person. He guessed she was in her late 30’s or early 40’s. No one younger cared about protecting their skin.

“I love a west wind in the morning,” she said a bit unnerved by his focus and brushed the dark hair away from her face and turned her attention to the water behind him. “I knew last night’s storm would kick up some swell.”

He turned to see where she was looking. The off shore breeze added a finish to the water, like hammered brass, and the crests of the waves were transparent with the sun behind them as they peeled left along the outer shoals.

He knew nothing of the surf or surfing. “Are those good waves?”

She let out a slight, huh? “You’re not up here checking out the surf, are you?” she asked. “Where’s your board?”

“No. I don’t do the ocean. Too many things larger than me that I can’t see coming.”

He was taller than average and looked like he could handle anything life could throw at him. “Toeachisown,” she said as a single word and began to walk around him.  So much for this date.

“What was that?” he said abruptly and raised his arm slightly to halt her.

“What?” she replied and little on guard. He looked taut as a bow.

“What you just said…in Italian… that thing you just said.”

She was confused and dropped the tail of her board into the sand. Roxy caught the subtle tension and came to her side, staring keenly into his eyes.

“Italian?” she questioned.

“Yes… I heard that somewhere but could never find its meaning.  I never knew what it meant. Repeat what you just said.

She reached up and pushed her glasses down her nose. Her grey eyes were striking. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

He dropped his arm to his side when he noticed Roxy’s widened stance and jowls releasing puffs of silent barks. “Seriously,” he said softly. “Repeat the last words you said to me.”

“Toeachisown?” she guessed.

“Yes! That’s it. What does that mean?”

She looked to her sides thinking she was being punked. “Are you serious?”

“Yes… what does that mean, toeachizone,” he tried to repeat with an Italian accent.

She started to laugh. It was clear to her now. “To… each… his… own….” she pronounced clearly.

His look of excitement turned to surprise then borderline horror. He burst out laughing, repeating the phrase over and over. “To… Each… His… Own… toeachhisown… toeachizone… Oh my… for the last five years, I thought it was some Italian phrase.” He was bent over, palms resting on his knees, shaking his head. Then he stood up straight. “Thank you.”

“Ahhh… You’re welcome.” she said pushing her glasses back into position. “Really.. you’ve never heard that phrase?” she asked doubting him.

“Obviously I have heard it over and over, but never made the connection.” He laughed again… “toeachizone.”

His weirdness began to weigh on her and she tucked the board back under her arm and continued around him. “Come on Roxy.” Roxy rolled over and onto her feet, then after a good shake, zigzagged with her nose along the sand. “It was nice meeting you,” she added with a quick smile and followed Roxy toward the water.

He turned to look at her. The stripes of her bikini formed a heart shape along her bottom. He called out, “Hey… One more thing.”

She turned without stopping.

“If you’re heading north as far as 13th street, you might want to keep Roxy away from the dunes. There’s a dead body up there.”

That stopped her.

He turned and walked up the path to where the wooden walkway began, trying not to add any more sand in his shoes.

“Alexa, note to self. 23rd street, dog, bikini.”

“23rd street, dog, bikini added to self” she repeated.

November Seed now available on Offworlders.com for FREE

OffWorlders_NovemberSeedjpgI am very excited to announce that November Seed is now available on www.OffWorlders.com  for FREE.  Click on the image below.

OffWorlders_siteI selected www.OffWorlders.com to make my novella, November Seed, available to Sci-Fi readers everywhere.  I love this innovative and content rich site and what the folks at OffWorlders are doing here–putting authors in close contact with their readers.  This is more than just a distribution point for authors.  I see great things happening here at OffWorlders, so follow along where I, and other authors, will be posting some short sci-fi in the near future.OffWorlders_Feature_David_Nadas

The Future was and can be.

ford-gyronThis was a two wheel Gyro car. A 1954 Ford Gyron, dreamed up by futurist Sydney Mead, who later went on to work with major studios on such films as: as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, followed by Blade Runner, Tron, 2010, Short Circuit, Aliens, Timecop, Johnny Mnemonic and Mission: Impossible III. (wiki)

 

I have said this often, but the 1950’s was a time of forward thinking, people looking out through the windshield instead of the rear view mirror.

So get out there and write, writer’s of Sci-Fi! Let’s lay off the dystopian past and get back to designing for the future…. But please don’t cancel the Walking Dead series…… LOL

The release of From Europa With Love

I am pleased to announce the release of my new novelette:  From Europa With Love – Kindle version available for download on OffWordlers.com (Free) and Amazon (.99 cents)

Shuttle Captain Kulcin Black follows a distress signal back to Europa but there is no one there to pick up. On return, he discovers he is not alone.

When events in space go from bad ot worse. This is not a love story.

A new scifi from the author of, November Seed

 

 

The future is here–I have seen it!

FutureWIKIIf the game of golf has been said, ‘as being a beautiful walk, interrupted.’ then the isomerism can be said about surfing the internet ‘as being a walk beautifully interrupted.

I was conducting research for my Work In Progress (Silversides) and found a wiki post that was exactly what I was looking for (artificial gills), but something was off;  I was reading a post taking place in the future and It freaked me out. I looked up at the URL and saw I was on a site called wikia (future).  Wow!  This was so cool and my mind was racing–so weird because my yahoo horoscope for the day(Gemini) predicted this would happen.

GeminiHoroscope

 

I had all these ideas pitching by me, so many it was like trying to grab at dandelion seeds in a breeze, where reaching toward them provided their evasiveness and at the end of it, I was left with nothing in my hands and only ideas.

So here is how I see this spectacular site useful to sci-fi writers: 1) Research for your sci-fi writing; 2) A one-stop-site to park new terms, ideas & concepts for sci-fi writers to create the future by using, in their works, this library–why invent terms if a good one already exists; 3) Like wiki, your posts can be the forward or a snippet of your story (making sure it adheres to the guidelines and does not read like a self-promotional ad), yet promotes your work; 4) That the concept of this site would make for a great sci-fi itself, where a destitute protagonist stumbles across a URL somewhere between the intra and dark net of tomorrow’s news (modern take on the protagonist finding a newspaper of tomorrow’s news, with a twist–this automata is self-aware).

I’m sure you all can add to this–I need to get these ideas spinning through my head down on digital before my muse steps over the threshold of my consciousness.

To enter the future, click here: http://future.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page

 

1.5 billion pixels – compliments of Hubble

Video

 

 

Even as a writer of Sci-Fi, I am overwhelmed by the detail of this image (Andromeda).  I got so use to seeing a galaxy as an object, that I forgot just how much ‘star stuff’ it takes to make that galaxy.   But looking at this image has brought me so much closer to my current writing, as if I get to travel to where my story takes place.  Sweet.

November Seed

Available now on Amazon.com (Click here)

Cover_ns

Two field biologists from N.J. Fish & Wildlife discover a pair of waterfowl clinging to a metal cleat with twig-like growths protruding from their skulls and have traced the contagion to a common marsh grass called Phragmites. Shortly after their reporting to the CDC, the contagion has found a human host, then another and another. In less than 24 hours, Phragmites will release their seed to the world, carrying the contagion with it. The event happens quickly and is known among those who study this grass as, November Seed.

 

This novella began as a warm up exercise for my upcoming Sci-Fi novel, Silversides.  Word by word, this idea began to grow with encouragement from family and friends who persuaded me to publish it and I’m glad they did.

Every November, in the northeast, when the air is crisp and strong gusts sweep against a quilted sky,  Phragmites will jettison their seed in one spectacular and wondrous event that can easily be mistaken for the first flurries of the season.  But their legions are once again on the move, quietly increasing their ranks.

When I write, l listen to music.  It inspires and guides me along the way. Below are the two  pieces I listened to when I wrote this.  Enjoy.

Excerpt:

“Shit!” Matt said under his breath as he reached blindly into the dark, his fingers almost knocking the chirping phone from the nightstand.  Swiping the screen cast a dim light into the bedroom and connected to a voice on the far end that spoke rapidly.

“Whoa!” Matt cut in, trying to rub the haze from his eyes. “Dan? Is that you?” He asked recognizing the voice.

“Of course it’s me! Who else would I be?”

Dan’s alertness was pulling Matt from his sleep. “What time is it?”

“I don’t know,” Dan responded.   “That’s not important right now.”

Laurie, Matt’s wife, began to stir at his side. She was half asleep with her cheek buried into the pillow, her voice sounding like the vocal fry of so many young girls these days.

“Who is that?”

Matt held the phone away from his ear but could still hear Dan’s frantic voice.

“It’s Jake.  From State Farm.”

“You’re such an asshole,” she half laughed. “It’s Dan, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Is he okay?”

“He’s sounds frantic, but I think so.  Go back to sleep,” he whispered, and returned the phone to his ear.

“Dan! I haven’t been listening to a word you were saying. Slow down.” Matt sat up and draped his legs over the side of the bed where the crisp November air was dense at his feet.  Laurie liked to sleep with the window cracked open, but on Matt’s side of the bed.  The murderer’s side she called it, the side closest to the door. It was freezing, so he pulled the duvet cover up along his shoulders and squinted his eyes, finally able to see the time on his phone.

“It’s three in the morning Dan!  This can’t wait a few hours?”

“Matt, you need to get to the President of the United States!” Dan shouted into the phone.

Laurie rose up on her elbows. “Is it really three o’clock?”

Matt pushed the phone into his lap to muffle the volume.

“Yes, but try and go back to sleep.  If it’s important, I’ll wake you.”  Content, she sank beneath the covers with only a tuft of blond hair poking out.

“Dan!  Dan!” Matt’s harsh whisper silencing him for the moment.  “You woke Laurie.”

“Tell Laurie I’m sorry, but you need to get to the President, Matt!  We don’t have much time. I checked the weather; we have a day, two at best.  It might already be too late.“

“Too late for what? What are you talking about? I don’t think being a field manager qualifies me to get in touch with the President of the United States.  Are you stoned?”

“Matt!  The Phragmites!” Dan shouted through the phone.

“Oh Christ,” Matt yawned. “You woke me at three in the morning to tell me about your alien invasion? Dan, it was funny two nights ago and you almost had me there,” Matt whispered, cupping his hand around the phone.  “But we were both stoned and it’s not funny right now.”

“No, no, no. It’s not what I originally thought!  It’s different.  I’ve got new data.  It’s more than–” Dan managed to say before Matt swiped the phone, disconnecting the call.  He sat there, shaking his head in disbelief, then threw the phone back onto the nightstand, his jellyfish screen saver rippling a dull green throughout the room.  Matt plucked his feet from the cold and slid them beneath the crisp cotton sheets; his eyes were wide open, his head resting on the palms of his hands behind him.  He almost started to laugh. Two nights ago, Dan pulled out a vaporizer and some Mango Krush— “medicinal”, Dan contended and began to spin his hypothesis that Phragmites was not brought to the US from Europe, as early botanists had thought, but was an aggressive alien species spreading along brackish waters of every shoreline in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, working its way inland.  Dan’s basis was that Phragmites was seeded by a distantly traveled probe terraforming Earth ahead of an invading entity.

Matt’s phone began to chirp, and the trill of the MP3 told him it was Dan calling back. Groaning, he sprang up in time to answer on the second loop.

“Dan! I’m up now. So is Laurie.  I am going to get dressed and will be there in half an hour.  Have some fresh coffee for me–I mean that!” He ended the call before Dan could say another word.

Laurie was sitting with her knees drawn up under the covers.  There was concern in her voice. “Is it serious?”

Matt’s chuckle eased her concern. “I can’t think of the last time Fish & Wildlife of South Jersey was ever serious, but when he gets excited like this, my phone will keep ringing. I promise to call you if it’s anything to worry about.  Now please, go back to sleep.  No reason both of us need to be up right now,” he said through a yawn.  “You still have four hours, so enjoy it.” He leaned over and placed his dry lips against hers. She purred and slid beneath the covers then peeked back at him with a smile, his screen saver shutting off, plunging them both into darkness.  Sliding once more to the edge of the bed, he threw back the duvet and placed his feet onto the floorboards.  They were cold. He rushed toward the bathroom, his naked body in full isometrics, his arms crossed in front of his chest.  Colder still were the bathroom tiles as he flipped on the light switch expecting to see his breath.

Matt and his wife Laurie lived in a bungalow on the south end of Ocean City, NJ, where the view every morning of Corson’s Inlet was a welcome site.   But the night’s freezing rain, like a heavy tablecloth, had weighted the bayberry branches to the ground and the sound of frozen sand crunching beneath his feet made for an unwelcome walk to his truck. It took some effort to open the frozen door and then start the engine before getting on his way. Backing out of his driveway he drove up West Avenue, hunched forward with knots in his back and the cold air from the vents stabbing at him, but grateful the traffic lights were in winter mode, giving him a clear run without having to stop every hundred yards. Ten minutes later he was merging onto the Parkway North. There were no taillights to follow and no headlights approaching from the southbound lanes.  The temperature outside of his vintage Land Rover was 21 degrees, while the heater inside continued to blow cool air and the frost from his breath fogged the windshield.   Even the sign for Exit 29 seemed a wish for the day’s high as he veered off and followed the ramp, the left blinker dimming as he slowed.  He stopped, looked both ways and felt the solitude before turning left onto May’s Landing Road.  A few minutes later he arrived at Somerset Cove Marina where a sign hung on rusted chains, stenciled with NJ Fish & Wildlife, Tuckahoe Branch Lab.  Matt turned right onto the gravel road, the tires picking up anything they could to assault the wheel wells.

Dan could see Matt heading toward the lab as the headlights from his truck bounced along the ruts and potholes.

When Matt pulled into the lab parking lot, Dan yanked open the passenger side door and jumped in, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He looked terrible, with dark circles under his bloodshot eyes and his sparse facial hair giving him a Fu Manchu look.

“Dude! You look like shit.” Matt remarked.

Matt, it’s incredible.  You have to see this!”

“Can we get out of the truck? I’m freezing.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Dan said, nodding with thought as he bolted from the passenger side, leaving the door open for the cold to take his place.  Dan was back in the lab before Matt could turn off the key and wait for the engine to cough out a few misfires in protest. He grabbed his pack, circled the truck to shut the passenger door and climbed the stairs.  He was glad to see Dan had stacked some wood outside the door and could smell the burning oak in the air.  Inside was paradise; the wood stove glowing in the corner next to the tattered leather couch he often studied on and the smell of freshly ground coffee was worth the early ride in.

“Fresh ground Sumatra, half & half poured first, coffee second, right?” Dan recited, handing Matt his first cup.  Guilt quickly set in as Matt put things in perspective. He would never want another partner or be in need of a better friend.  They were college pals from Stockton in South Jersey; MARS majors taking a surf break between classes when they met on an empty street in the north end of Atlantic City back in the late nineties.  It was a November day just like this, west wind, ebbing tide and shoulder high barrels peeling off the jetty.  Matt and Dan had arrived at the same time, racing to pull on their wetsuits, when a squad of police cars flooded onto the street, the officers jumping out, guns drawn, running toward them.  Matt and Dan faced off, reasoning the other was the cause, only to see the officers rush between them and up the stoop into the building, shots firing.  They grabbed their boards and coolly walked to the beach, like this happened every day, neither willing to show they were scared shitless.   By the time they hit the water they were the best of friends.

Back in the lab, Dan led Matt to the negative pressure hoods with several glass slides scattered about.

“I need you to check this out.  I’ve got a live culture going, but have no idea what I’m looking at.  I’m hoping you’ve seen this before.” Dan said as he ushered Matt to the scope.

“How long have you been here?” Matt asked, reluctant to surrender the warmth of the mug as he placed it onto the table; his hands were just starting to warm.

“Oh, I don’t know, Saturday morning?” Dan responded, not sure himself.  All Matt could do was gesture with a nod and peer into the eyepiece.  He was confused by what lay before him.  Highly magnified were parallel rows of crystalline structures, resembling marine plankton.  Unlike plankton, these intricate structures were replicating with agility and no sign of mitosis; the way a 3-D printer forms something, layer by layer. Lifting away from the eyepiece, Matt looked at the magnification setting.  The structures were just under 1 mm wide. He returned to the scope and observed the elongated horns of the crystals locked into one another like an Escher drawing. There was a latticework of filaments weaving through the hollow cavities, as if they were nerves passing through vertebra. Matt pulled away from the eyepiece to look at Dan.

“Dude, I have never seen anything like this?  Where did this come from and what’s the petri medium?  It looks like blood!”

Dan handed Matt a pair of gloves and a mask. “Here, put these on. And it is blood.”  That got Matt’s attention.  He led Matt to the far section of the lab and walked him through the necropsy of a pair of American Bitterns, common along the estuaries of the east coast.  They were splayed out on dissecting trays under a set of hoods.  Each bittern had a twig-like growth, attached to the base of the cranium, just below the occipital plate.  Each twig curved outward along the skull, then shot straight up, like antenna with elaborate branching, each unique.  Dan pointed out the small bladders at each bifurcation of the twigs.  He had carefully cut away one of the skulls to reveal the growth inside.  There was no mistaking that the twigs had punctured the cranial cavity, from the inside out, while a chord of tendrils had branched into specific areas of the brain.