First contact with the Sagittarians in Demeter

Aloha – We’re up to chapter 13 of Demeter.  A reminder that you can read earlier chapters in the Blog archives.  If you have a kindle membership with Amazon you can download it for free on the lending version or purchase a permanent copy of the entire book.  The hard copy version of Demeter is in editing now :o)

So what is happening?  In Chapter 13 we get introduced to an officer of the Sagittarian League who is sent to mentor Ryder on the game simulators.  Ryder’s not really sure what to think of this callus mentor… human?  machine?  All he knows is that she is perpetually stomping him on the simulations.

Chapter 13


Ryder struggled over the next four weeks. With Aster gone back to his regular duties on the surface, Ryder grappled with making further progress on the scenarios. As far as he could tell, he wasn’t improving at all. Mr. Small dropped in periodically and encouraged him, but Ryder rarely saw anyone during the day. His former teacher was reluctant to play against Ryder on the simulations. “I’m a tactician, not a strategist,” he explained. Ryder was so persistent that Mr. Small finally agreed to a battle scenario with Slick forces defending against a Per-Sian force invasion. Ryder had played a similar scenario with Aster twice, with terrible results. Mr. Small won two quick battles in the scenario, but Ryder successfully drove the Pervs out of the system in the end—with fewer forces than Mr. Small. It was easy once he established the approaches Mr. Small was taking. Ryder ultimately pulled Mr. Small into a trap with a quick flank assault that raked the Pervs in an exposed formation. His former teacher had beads of sweat on his forehead when he finally relented and withdrew. “That went well,” Mr. Small acknowledged.

“You let me win,” Ryder complained, staring at the scenario results.

“Sorry to disappoint you, but no, I didn’t,” Mr. Small replied seriously.

“But you’re a lot smarter than I am, and you know the battle plans,” Ryder said.

“Ryder, do you know why you’re here?” Mr. Small was leaning forward and looking earnest, like when he was trying to share something important.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Other than being kidnapped by rogue pirates out to dominate the universe, why am I here?”

“I have a lot of talents,” Mr. Small began. “You’re right, I’m smart. I love math and science and am good at both. I’m proficient in a fighter. I also don’t take life too seriously, which sometimes irritates Yara, but frankly I think is a talent. I’m also detail oriented. That’s one of the things that makes me good at math, science, and flying. As a tactician, I’m outstanding. I can execute a campaign; I can adjust to sudden changes; I can follow a well-organized plan. You, however, have other talents. The main one that landed you in SPC is that you are a concept thinker.”

“A concept thinker?” Ryder asked.

“A concept thinker!” Mr. Small emphasized. “You can see the big picture. You can draw conclusions with a limited amount of information. You have a combination of a good mathematical head, a love of reading, and the ability to think critically. Put together with your concept thinking approach, you have the makings of a master strategist.” Mr. Small folded his arms and sat back smugly. “And that’s one reason you’re here.”

“What other reasons are there for me being here?” Ryder inquired.

Mr. Small kept his arms folded, but got a different, almost furtive look on his face that quickly turned deadpan.

“This is ridiculous!” Ryder snapped.  “I keep running into dead ends and you’re the worst.  I want to know what’s going on.  What’s the big secret?”

“Ryder,” Mr. Small reached out and hugged his shoulder, “You are probably spending too much time here in the SPC.  You’re starting to jump at shadows.  You probably should take a day and get away from the center.”

Ryder tensed then relaxed, “You’re probably right.  I’ll be all right,” he tried to keep his voice calm.  But he was convinced there was something going on, and he was going to get to the bottom of it with or without Mr. Small’s help.

Mr. Small smiled, “By the way, do you have those letters written? I can take them with me.”


Every week, one of the homework assignments every member of the “Grubs” (as they now called themselves) was to complete was to write a letter home. Of course, the letters had to be previewed to make sure they weren’t writing something that wouldn’t make sense. Athena had been especially irritated by this. She groused about it for the first two weeks. “They’re spying on us and censoring our letters,” she said. It became clear, though, that the only thing that Mr. Small and Miss Li were interested in was making the facts add up for a trip to Earth’s Europe.

“Don’t lie,” Miss Li said, “but I’m afraid you’ll have to mislead with ambiguity. After all, you are in Europe. We must retain our secrets.”

It had bothered Ryder at first, but he found that he could be totally honest in his correspondence without revealing the secret.


Dear Mom and Dad:

You won’t believe what happened this week. Debbie got into a tutored driving program. Don’t worry, she has a great teacher. I’m afraid she’ll be ready for drivers ed before I am.




Dear Mom and Dad:

We had a great river trip a couple of hours away from where we’re staying right now. I’ve met some new friends, who are also visiting Europe. Mr. Small has been great, giving us tips on how to use the mass transit system.




Dear Mom and Dad:

It’s been a quiet week. I’ve been studying hard, but don’t seem to be making a lot of headway. I’ll buckle down and make you proud. Good news this week:, Debbie hasn’t wrecked once.




After Mr. Small left, Ryder went back to trying to master the SPC simulations, but he felt a lot like he did when his dad had handed him a Greatest Games of Chess book and had helped him learn how to use it as a tutorial. Together they recreated several games. He had studied the strategies of the masters all summer. His game improved a little, but it wasn’t the same as when he was playing against a live opponent.

When writing letters home, Ryder had to remember that Demeter weeks were ten days versus the seven-day weeks of Earth. Ryder’s tenth weekend on Demeter had been a little slow. He had joined Cynthia, Debbie, and Becky for a couple of days on the beach, then went exploring on the monorail line. They’d visited a farm area that was growing corn. Then they’d gone to the other end of the line, where they were growing dewsnips.

Dewsnips were great. They originated on Cryella. They had large green and red leaves that could be turned into a salad. The part Ryder liked actually grew in the ground like a carrot. They were hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. He tried the leaves as a salad, the outer skin fried like French fries, and the soft center cooked up in a soup. They were all delicious. He thought he could live on dewsnips if all other plants died off.

Ryder’s face suddenly turned ashen.  It clicked where he had heard of dewsnips before.  His parents had mentioned dewsnips weeks before the trip.  They knew.  They had to know.  Had they been conscripted?  If so, why didn’t they tell him?  He was in a funk the rest of the weekend.

He was surprised when he arrived back in the simulation room the following week. Someone was waiting for him. She was a little shorter than Ryder, wearing a black uniform with brass buttons and silver tabs on her lapel. She introduced herself as Lieutenant H. Pinoke. She had a hook nose, penetrating gray eyes, and cropped black hair. Her skin looked like it would tan to an almost rust tone, but her pigmentation was only slightly redder than his own. Her skin showed no signs of any blemish whatsoever, except for a small scar between her chin and lower lip.

When Ryder entered the simulation room, he was excited to see someone else—anyone else—in the room. But if Director Steerman was terse, Lieutenant Pinoke was abrupt. “I am here to work with you in the simulations. Are you ready to begin?”

“Sure, I’m Ryder. Where are you from?”

“Apprentice William Ryder. I’m from SL277.”

“No, I mean where are you from? Earth? You don’t look to be from Cryella.” Ryder tried to drill down for more information.

“Shall we begin?” Lieutenant Pinoke looked down at her screen for the selected scenario.

Along with being difficult to communicate with, Lieutenant Pinoke was merciless on the simulations. Even when Aster was trashing Ryder, Ryder at least felt he was in the game. With Lieutenant Pinoke, he felt like a first grader matched against a professional football player in a battle of strength. Ryder began to wonder if Lieutenant Pinoke was even human. She did drink something between simulations, but he considered the possibility that it might be a clear oil to keep her from rusting. She ate at lunch, but chose not to sit with Ryder and Cynthia. Cynthia walked to where the lieutenant sat and tried to talk her into joining them, but she returned to their table flushed.

“Well, how did it go?” Ryder had his feet stretched out under the table while munching French fries.

“I feel like an insect that has just been examined and discarded.” Cynthia huffed. “Where is she from, anyway? Iceland?”

“She’s from SL277,” Ryder said morosely.

“Where’s that?” Cynthia sat down abruptly with her arms folded and brow furrowed.

“I really don’t know. It might be a ship. It might be the way they identify planets. I’ve asked three times, and every time it’s the same thing: SL277.” Ryder made Cynthia spurt soda out her nose as he finished in his best imitation of a mechanical voice. Returning to his normal voice, he whispered, “I’m not even sure if she’s human.”

“She’s eating a salad,” Cynthia whispered back. “I don’t think machines eat food.” She paused. “Do they?”

“I don’t have any idea.” Ryder leaned in. “She also pours liquid into her mouth, but I’m not sure what’s in the container. It might be fuel oil or something. We could leave early and go back to the lab to see what’s in that bottle she sips on all day.”

Just then, Mr. Small and Miss Li came into the cafeteria, hand in hand.

“I haven’t seen Miss Li in weeks.” Cynthia waved and caught their attention. A few minutes later, with food trays in hand, the couple joined them for lunch.

“How are things going?” Miss Li inquired as she sipped on a water.

“Great! They actually let me assist on a procedure this morning,” Cynthia said, gushing.

“I didn’t know you operated on somebody today?” Ryder said in awe.

“I really didn’t perform the operation,” Cynthia clarified. “I was assisting with some of the monitoring equipment.”

“It sounds like you are progressing extremely well.” Miss Li beamed. “I worked through the medical program when I first arrived and wasn’t able to assist until early in my second year.

Mr. Small looked impressed, then he turned to Ryder. “And how about you? I understand you got a new partner today.”

“I’m not sure. See that black uniform over there?” Ryder pointed with his eyes.

Mr. Small smiled. “Yes, I know her, Lieutenant Pinoke. I believe she’s aboard the SL277. I served with her on my second tour with the Slicks.”

Cynthia and Ryder bent down close to the table and simultaneously asked in a whisper, “Is she human?”

Miss Li snorted, and Mr. Small laughed so hard he fell off his chair. He tried to get back up, but every time he looked at Cynthia and Ryder with their confused look he doubled over and started laughing again. Miss Li started chiding him. “Roger, stop that. Roger, you’re making a scene.” That only seemed to make matters worse, which resulted in Cynthia and Ryder starting to laugh. Then Miss Li couldn’t contain herself and started laughing as well. By the time Mr. Small was able to rise back to his chair, Lieutenant Pinoke had disappeared.

“What makes you think Lieutenant Pinoke is not”—Mr. Small started giggling again—“human?”

“She crushes me in the simulations and doesn’t talk, except like a robot,” Ryder replied.

Mr. Small tried to get a serious look on his face, but was failing miserably.

“So you think she’s not human because she beats you at the simulations?” Miss Li asked.

“No, that’s not it. Aster beat me all the time. But she crushes me. She never laughs, or teases me. And, and…she talks like a robot.”

Miss Li smiled again, but didn’t laugh. “I believe Lieutenant Pinoke is what we would call human. I know her genetic structure is as close to yours as mine is.”

Ryder stared at Miss Li suspiciously.

“I’m human,” she defended. “And furthermore, I’m Terran. Same gene pool and everything. Lieutenant Pinoke is from the Sagittarius arm. I’m not sure which planet. Do you know, Roger?”

Mr. Small looked up, holding his face with his hands, and shook his head negatively.

Miss Li gave Mr. Small an exasperated look and punched him in the arm. “She is trained military personnel in the officer corps. With the Slicks, that means she is likely from a multi-generational military family. It’s sometimes hard for us to understand, but they have been at war since before we inhabited Earth. It makes them hard in so many ways.”

“She’s also a probe,” Mr. Small added, trying to hold a straight face.

“A probe?” Cynthia asked.

“I never had the interest for being a probe,” Mr. Small confided. “I’m too much of a people person. Probes are kind of like scouts. They take small ships out and monitor space and systems. They’re often out for weeks at a time, with nothing but a machine to talk to. It’s a tough job, and even the Slicks lose a lot of personnel in the probes.”

“Shot down?” Ryder asked.

“Oh, a few are found out and shot down or captured, but more of them just snap.” Mr. Small snapped his fingers loudly, and both Cynthia and Ryder jumped. “They go crazy. I actually saw one fly his probe right into a star. He’d been out for four weeks by himself. We were in the system to pick him up. When we entered, he put the pedal to the metal, and we couldn’t catch him. He was convinced that we were Pervs. We couldn’t talk him down.”

“Do you think Lieutenant Pinoke went bonkers?” Cynthia asked, leaning forward.

“No, she’s in good standing. I actually asked for her help.” Mr. Small smiled. “The fleet is still here on maneuvers for the next several months. I wanted a top strategist to help you, Ryder. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“It would be nice if she could laugh once in a while, or at least talk.” Ryder scowled.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Mr. Small chided. “Besides, she’s one of the three best strategists in the fleet, outside of senior officers. She’s actually on the fleet commander’s strategy team. I had to pull strings to get her loose.”

Cynthia spoke up. “Well, probe or not, strategist or not, she still looked at me like I was a bug when I invited her to join us.”

Miss Li gave Cynthia a sympathetic grimace. “That is real. The Slicks don’t really think of people of Earth, or Cryellians for that matter, as real people. The best comparison I can come up with would be if a chimpanzee invited you to eat bananas with her. We are sort of human, but not quite. We’re more of caretakers for the Slick’s needs.”

“Well that makes me feel special,” Cynthia said, pouting.

Mr. Small cut Miss Li off. “It’s a common misconception. Deep down, they know we’re from the same ancestry, but we—how do I say it?—lost our way and devolved. We might be salvageable in a millennia or two, if they feed and care for us sufficiently”

“If they didn’t need us, they’d probably forget about us. But we’re so well placed to help defend Demeter that they make exception,” Miss Li pointed out.

“That doesn’t make sense. Either we’re capable or we’re not. They can’t have it both ways.” Cynthia’s voice rose dangerously.

“Not everyone believes that,” Mr. Small continued, “but many do. Perhaps the relationship is more like India in the nineteenth century. Indian’s were capable of serving in the British army, but not commanding. Yes, that’s a better parallel, or perhaps the African-Americans who served in the Civil War. We’re actually beyond that. The Senior Director for Demeter was the first person from Earth commissioned as an officer in the Slick force. His son was also commissioned. Since then, let’s see, I was the forty-seventh person from Earth commissioned in the Slick military. So over forty years, we are now averaging about one a year.”

Ryder didn’t say anything, but he was mad. Cynthia was definitely mad, spitting tacks mad. Ryder knew one thing, and that was that he was going to show Lieutenant Pinoke that people from Earth were not inferior. He would beat her at the simulations.

“I wish I knew something more about her at least.” Ryder let out an exasperated sigh.

Mr. Small smiled again. “Has she told you her first name?”

“I assume that it is H,” Ryder replied.

Mr. Small swelled up didactically. “Even in Slick vernacular, which is very diverse, her first name is odd. I’m not surprised she didn’t share it, as it does bother her a bit. It took me six months to find out what it was when I was serving with her.”

“What is it?” Ryder and Cynthia were both suddenly interested.

Mr. Small bent forward conspiratorially. “Heliotrope.”

“Heliotrope?” Ryder looked quizzical. “What kind of name is that?”

Cynthia started giggling to his side, then burst out laughing in loud guffaws. Ryder was actually shocked. He’d seen Cynthia laugh before, but never like this. Gasping for air, Cynthia finally got out, “Violet,” and started laughing hysterically. Miss Li was chuckling, and Mr. Small looked like he was about to roll on the floor again.

“Okay, okay. What’s the joke?” Ryder asked perplexed.

Wiping a tear from her eye, Cynthia managed to get out, “Heliotrope is a shade of….violet…associated with dainty flowers.” Then she did fall off her chair on the floor.

“Violet? Dainty flowers?” Ryder said, then he started to laugh as well.

Ryder was determined that somehow he was going to beat Lieutenant Heliotrope Pinoke at the scenarios. Unfortunately it wasn’t going to be the first week. She continued to crush him in every simulation. Like a bug, he thought. With his best efforts, he was still zero for thirty by the end of the week.

The next week his letter home was even shorter than usual:

Dear Mom and Dad:

Hard to believe we’ve been here seventeen weeks already. I got a new study partner this week. She’s really challenging me. I’ve got to run.




When you could walk from the Earth to the Moon

Latest theory on the history of the Earth and the Moon, is that a Mars size planet called Theia ran a red light and T-boned the Earth, resulting in the Earth and the Moon relationship we have today.  So at one time, Sea of Tranquility was mere footsteps away from Central Park, while Machu Pichu in Peru is actually remains from Theia for example.

One thing I’m curious about, is how, after such a collision the Earth and Moon (theorized to be two separate pieces of the collision that came back together) turned out to be relatively round.  Gravity fields working the debris field back into a ball?

There are lessons to be learned from such theories.  For example, if this is correct, then there may be hope for the GOP.  For example, Theia (in this case Donald Trump) comes in and shatters the party.  Natural gravity draws the party back into a new whole with Donald Trump merely being drawn in a path that allows him to moon the GOP every night.  Just trying to get a takeaway from the theory :o)



Black America Calls Foul at the Academy Awards

Aloha – No Black nominees for acting awards at this year’s Oscars.  Will Smith’s wife cries foul.  It is an interesting accusation that is legitimately skewed by demographics.  But if anyone should be calling foul it is neither the Black population, nor the White population; it is the relatively silent Hispanic population.  The Hispanic population has a much better case of crying about not being nominated for major awards.  And what about the Asian-American population, zero wins.  Since 2004, I count 28 major award nominations and seven wins for Black nominees in key categories.  That is slightly under the population representation of the country, but within the margin of error.  Granted, their have been no nominations for Black actors in 2014 or 2015.  But in 2013 there was a nominee for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, a win for Best Supporting Actress, and a very rare nomination for a Black Director.

It is hard not to believe this is Jada making a very public tantrum for and behalf of her husband who did a nominee worthy performance in his latest movie.  So what?  There were dozens of other actors:  Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, and probably Native American as well who were not nominated.  It is the luck of the draw.

I love Will Smith roles, almost always.  He certainly deserved a nomination in 2006 (and he got it).  But turning his missed opportunity this year into a battle cry of racism is a poor choice.




A new 9th planet and its not Pluto

Aloha – After a slow couple of months in the far expanses of space it looks like astronomers believe there is a hidden 9th planet.  In 1969 the British cinema came up with the same notion, except in that case it was a planet with an orbit exactly opposite the Earth on the opposite side of the Sun.  This one is probably a bit chillier than the one identified in that movie that predates most of my readers.  Mathematicians and astronomers are excited about the likelihood that there is a full-sized planet sitting out in the Kuiper Belt.  Let’s consider the options:

  1. a Death Star on it’s way to kill the Earth.  This notion has already been brought up and discarded;
  2. a frozen snow cone (not that unlikely… only question what flavor)
  3. an Earth-like rock that we could drag into an orbit in the Goldilocks zone and begin terra forming (maybe… but if we want to do that we other options nearer to Earth… Ceres and Ganymede for example)
  4. there’s nothing out there… that would certainly be disappointing.

I’m rooting for option 3, with plenty of mineral deposits and vast stores of potable water.  Now all we have to do is figure out how to drag in into a closer orbit :o)





Alien Star Killers?

That bizarre-looking star just got a lot weirder — and yes, it could be aliens


Aloha – Star killer?  Are we in an episode of Star Wars?  Nope, we have a fascinating disturbance in the force that has scientists baffled.  The source of the mystery ties to the wild fluctuations in light from star KIC8462852, maybe we should call it Enigma for short.

Trying to explain the light fluctuations, some scientists are suggesting a swarm of comets, but that would require a concentration of over half a million comets the size of Rhode Island.

There are some theorists tossing out the idea of a massive superstructure created by an alien culture that is blocking or absorbing light from the Sun.  Perhaps the culture has set up the largest solar panel in the Universe :o)

For a while it was thought that we might be able to determine if the blockage was of natural or alien origin, but I’m beginning to have doubts about that one.  If you’d like to read the rest of the story, go to


Jupiter and Mars on Agenda for 2016


It’s kind of hard to top last year.  We had the trip to Pluto and Ceres all packed into one year and two missions.  This year we still have some pretty great stuff going on.  First, is the Juno mission to Jupiter.  It actually launched in 2011, but will arrive on Independence Day and spend 20 months studying the gravity and magnetic fields.  A big question it will attempt to answer is whether or not Jupiter has a solid core.

Meanwhile we also have the Mars Insight probe launching in March.  It should land sometime in September with the express purpose of drilling a hole, about 16 feet deep to study heat flow and thermal history.  It might even provide insights into the wobbling orbit of the planet.



Demeter – Chapter 12

Aloha – Ryder is making new friends, including Cryellians on Demeter.  What do you do for fun inside a rock the size of Ceres?  Find out.  A reminder, the earlier chapters are all available in the flog archives, and the book is available on Amazon :o) Doc

Chapter 12

Shimmer’s Head

Debbie was explaining some geography concepts she had learned over the past week while flying. “They really don’t have north, east, south, and west here, as the gravity shifts both up and down. We have the near side, which is the side that Europe is located on. The far side is the opposite side, and houses the Slick headquarters. It’s a no fly zone. They actually had three hoppers escort me out of their air space.”

“You’ve already told us that story. We’re more interested in the canyons,” Ryder interjected.

“Well it sounded like they would shoot me down or something. Isn’t that right, Becky?”

Becky gave Debbie a long look, and then simply added, “Yes, I think they might have shot us down, especially after the second time you tried to buzz around them.”

“Well, anyway, the canyons,” Debbie said, suddenly returning to the topic, “if you follow the vertical rock face up about a mile, it sort of levels to a hilly region that spreads for several miles in some areas. That’s referred to as the highlands. Most of the livestock are raised there. The mountains continue to rise for another mile or so and are covered in orchards and forests. Then there is a steep drop that is almost sheer in some places and falls as much as two thousand feet. Waterfalls dot the course of the river, which runs from Europe all the way to Kuu’Aali Falls at the other end. I haven’t been there yet, but I hear the falls are unbelievable.”

They had been flying for about twenty minute at a gentle incline. Aster was piloting, and Ensign Steerman was serving as co-pilot. Steerman had been very clear that neither Becky nor Debbie were invited into the control cabin. Becky had taken it in stride, but Debbie argued with Steerman all the way to the door, and had continued arguing with the door after Steerman shut and locked it. Aster had winked at Cynthia and Ryder when he came aboard, but had remained silent during Steerman’s tirade about babysitting grubs.

The hopper was headed to Shimmer’s Head, which was about two hours from Europe and was an access point for the Ashiijin River. Ryder was again frustrated by the lack of portholes when traveling in the hopper, and wished he could see outside.

Disembarking from the transport at Shimmer’s Head, Ryder noticed that there were only two landing pads. The pads were in good repair, but the grass surrounding the site was tall and unkempt. Looking up he saw two towering canyon walls. The two faces of the canyon were quite different. The side they were located on looked like polished granite and rose almost perpendicular several hundred feet into the air. They were in an alcove of this sheer rock face that was perhaps two hundred yards deep. The mountain rising on the far side of the river was steep and rugged, but Ryder could imagine climbing it. He wasn’t sure if he would want to, though, as the rock looked to be a combination of sharp-edged quartz mixed with various other ores.

The river was running wide and quiet near the landing pad, although they could hear thundering water upstream. A hardened gravel surface provided a landing to the water that was perhaps forty feet wide, and inclined very slightly for ten to fifteen yards. Adjacent to the landing was a broad, low shed. The only other structure was a pueblo-style building that Ryder knew was the lodge. They were going to run the river today, then spend the night at the facilities.

Sitting in an old rocking chair on the front porch of the stone building was a stout man in jeans and a flannel shirt. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, which seemed unnecessary since there was no bright sun to be shielded from, but it was drawn over his eyes, and he appeared to be sleeping. He looked old, and his hands were hard and calloused. He didn’t move as the group clamored past him and entered the lodge.

Inside the dwelling there were a variety of fish that looked almost plastic hanging on the walls. The largest was over three feet long. Ryder actually recognized some of the smaller fish as trout. He had been fishing several times with his father, with mixed results. They were always fishing for trout, but seemed more likely to catch perch, or bluegills, or nothing at all most of the time. The room apparently served as the dining room and was outfitted with an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture. Ryder counted six tables and twenty chairs all together.

From another room that Ryder’s nose identified as the kitchen, a middle-aged woman emerged with a cotton apron and gingham dress. Ryder thought he must have entered the set for a Western movie. “Hi, I’m Maggie. You must be the Freeport party,” the woman spoke in a friendly voice. She had salt and pepper hair pulled back in a bun. She was of average height and looked a bit dowdy. But her eyes were sharp. Maggie continued smiling. “We weren’t expecting you for another hour. You can take your bags to your rooms down that far hallway. I’ve tacked your names on the doors so that you know where to drop your gear. Hondo will be ready for you in a few minutes.”

The passage to the quarters was rather narrow, and combined stone and logs. The floor was of the same gravel composite as the landing. There wasn’t much light, but it was still easy to pick out the notebook paper tacked to the door with their names written in clear block letters.

Ryder was sharing a room with Randy and Joel. He was a little disappointed in their room in comparison to the other accommodations he had on Demeter. There was a set of bunk beds and a sofa that could be pulled out into a third bed. The mattresses looked old and worn. He had the pullout bed, and he could imagine how thin the mattress was going to be. The room smelled musty, and it was dark.

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Joel asked.

“Yeah, isn’t that a nest over in the corner of the room on the floor?” Randy muttered.

Looking to the corner, there was certainly a clump of something that could be a nest. “I’m not sure,” Ryder answered tentatively.

“About the place or the nest?” Joel perked up.

“Either…neither,” Ryder responded. “Let’s go outside.”

From the look on the girls’ faces, Ryder suspected their accommodations hadn’t been much better. But Aster and Steerman emerged in a good mood. Ryder wondered if this was some sort of practical joke as the two Cryellians sauntered ahead, passed through the dining room, and stepped outside ahead of the rest of them.

The old man who had been sitting in the rocking chair was apparently Hondo. He was pulling a huge purple inflatable raft from the shed to the water’s edge. As Ryder approached the vessel, he saw two long oars in the raft, along with a number of very small paddles.

“All right, I’ll only say this once,” a gravelly baritone voice began. “I’m Hondo, and my wife is Margaret. You’ve already met her. I’ll be taking you on this run. You will wear these,” he stated with authority, pointing at what were obviously life jackets. “I’ll run the oars in the center of the boat. You will use those”—he pointed at tennis-racket sized paddles—“when and only when I tell you to. If I say left, you paddle like crazy on the left side. If I yell out right, you do the same on the right side.”

Hondo spent the next few minutes getting everyone into their seating arrangements. Ryder was happy to see that he was sitting next to Cynthia. Debbie was sitting next to Steerman, and Steerman looked none too happy. Ryder whispered to Aster, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Aster laughed. “Hondo is supposed to be the best rafter on the river since his chief competitor, Jake Silverman, drowned last year.”

“Drowned?” Cynthia asked. She looked a little green.

Aster nodded solemnly. “Yup, power failed on a run just like this one. Jake and the ten people he had with him all wound up as fuel for the power plant, or the fish.”

“What kind of fish are in the river?” Debbie asked.

“Big ’uns. Some could swallow you whole.” Hondo laughed with a deep rumble.

Debbie shrank back a bit from the edge of the raft, and Steerman laughed sarcastically.

That won a glare from Debbie, and Ryder knew there was trouble brewing for Steerman if he didn’t watch out.

As they floated quietly away from the landing, Ryder could see the bottom of the river clearly. It was only two or three feet deep here, and he saw a variety of trout-like fish lolling back and forth along the bottom. They looked like they were big enough to take a good bite out of someone’s arm, but not big enough to swallow anyone. The minutes glided by, and first Aster, then Steerman, then everyone else peeled off layers of clothing. Ryder couldn’t help noticing how nice Cynthia’s legs looked in cutoffs. Her swimsuit top looked good too.

“Are you leering, boy?” Hondo asked him in a loud voice, then guffawed. “Knew I should have paired you with your sister.”

Ryder sank into his seat as everyone laughed, including Cynthia. He wondered if he could crawl out of the boat and provide a snack for the trout. Maybe there was one big enough to swallow him whole.

“No, I like him right here,” Cynthia retorted. “I admire his pecks.”

Ryder, recovering, leaned over and whispered to Cynthia, “Thanks.”

She whispered back, “It was all I could think of. I’m glad you think I look good in cutoffs.” She winked.

He wanted to continue the conversation, but it was getting noisy. He glanced ahead and saw that the river was starting to churn, and he could see outcroppings of rock that were mostly along the banks of the river.

“All right boys and girls, time to earn your keep.” Hondo raised his voice and turned the raft with the large oar on the right. “Things will get a bit more interesting in a few minutes.” Ryder thought things were interesting already.

He saw Hondo pulling first one oar then another to try to keep them in the channel as the raft started moving faster and faster. Every now and then, Hondo would shout, “You, on the left, paddle! Harder, you fools!” The noise continued to get louder. Then it was their turn on the right. “Harder, you fools!” seemed to end nearly every sentence that Hondo shouted.

Ahead, Ryder saw a white swirling mass in the middle of the river. He looked to either side and couldn’t see a safe passage. About this time, Hondo yelled, “Pull those paddles out, OUT of the water!” Then added, “Hang on,” and chortled.

For the next ten minutes Ryder wasn’t sure if he was going to fall overboard, fly out, or just get beaten to death by the raft. They actually flew out of the river at one point like a killer whale breaching out of the ocean and slapping back into the water. That was when he was sure things were going to end badly. Even Cynthia grabbing him didn’t really help his mind clear away from the thought, I’m going to die. I’m going to die.

Abruptly the raft emerged from the chutes, and the waters calmed back down. They were gliding through shallows again. Ryder was relieved that the river once more widened and slowed. The canyon walls on the right were still sheer, and they were passing a small alcove and beach similar to the landing at Shimmer’s Head. The left side showed signs of numerous rock slides, and Ryder thought he spotted some movement in one of the rubble-laden piles of rock. He wondered if the movement had been from a gopher or rabbit, or some totally foreign creature. They were floating leisurely for several minutes, and then he started to hear the river thundering ahead again. The cycle of cataracts and calm water continued over and over for the next four hours. After a particularly rough ride traversing what Hondo referred to as Devil’s Gate, they pulled ashore on a narrow beach to eat a quiet lunch.

Randy, Joel, and Ryder were drafted to carry three boxes that were strapped to the raft behind Hondo. Lunch was comprised of sandwiches on homemade bread, and water. Everyone devoured their first sandwich without so much as a word. By his third sandwich, Joel commented that it was the best meal that he had ever eaten, and Randy and Ryder quickly agreed.

Hondo gave Joel a not so gentle jab. “Those are just chicken sandwiches and jelly sandwiches.” He laughed. “Although I admit that Margaret makes great homemade breads and jellies. Just wait ’til dinner. You’re in for a real treat then.”

Turning toward Becky, Hondo asked, “What do you think of them?”

Surprised at the attention, Becky faltered, but responded that the sandwiches were delicious.

“So how are things back on Earth?” Hondo sidled up next to Becky

“They’re fine,” Becky responded, somewhat embarrassed.

“And your family, how are they taking all this?” Hondo leaned forward with his hands on his knees, almost staring at Becky’s face.

“They don’t know. They think I’m in Europe.” Becky stared down at her water bottle. “Well, you know, the Europe on Earth.”

“That devil, Steve! Still supporting kidnapping, eh?” Having finished a couple of sandwiches and two bottled waters, Hondo got up and walked to a small rock overhang and was immediately asleep. Ryder was tired, but not that tired.

Aster and Steerman joined Cynthia and Ryder. “Better than you thought?” Aster inquired.

“Depends on whether dying is fun?” Ryder sighed. “I could have sworn I was dead meat for the fish every time we went through those rapids.”

“Yeah, Hondo is kind of crazy. I think he’s the only one that is willing to run this part of the river,” Aster replied.

“Who is he, anyway? He doesn’t seem to fit here,” Ryder continued.

“Hondo?” He’s from Earth. I’m not sure what his real name is. I know he used to go back and forth to Earth on the cycles. He was some mucky muck in the DDF and that he retired five or six years ago. He has a fondness for old movies and some guy named The Duke. We’ll probably watch some old celluloid films tonight. Hondo has his own projector he sets up in the dining room.”

“So you’ve been here before?” Cynthia asked.

Steerman nodded. “A couple of times.”

An hour later, they were back at it again. Although the rapids weren’t quite as intimidating, Ryder noticed his arms were throbbing when Hondo yelled out, “Right! Right! Harder, you fools!” After the third set of rapids of the afternoon, Ryder fell back exhausted. Cynthia joined him, leaning with her back to the raft, and confirmed his own thinking. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I think my arms are going to fall off,” she said. Ryder looked around the raft. Debbie wasn’t glaring at Steerman. Randy and Athena looked like they were ready to fall asleep. Joel was dozing in the inside corner at the back. Even Aster and Steerman looked ready to call it a day.

“Just one more to go,” Hondo encouraged. “Then it’s fly away home time.”

Ryder was relieved, but noticed a cagey grin on Aster’s face, and Steerman was absolutely leering. He poked Cynthia. “Something’s amiss,” He whispered.

“You’ve got that right. I think I’ve dislocated my entire body,” she complained.

Ryder found himself rubbing Cynthia’s shoulders and ignoring a whistle aimed his way from across the raft. A few minutes later, they could hear the rapids as they approached a bend. “Okay, one more time.” Ryder heard himself breath as he rose back to his knees and his paddle.

Before they turned the bend in the river, Hondo yelled out, “Time to secure! See those cords? There’s a hook for each of you. I suggest y’all hook them to your life preservers.”

Ryder complied, as did everyone else in the raft. For the first time, Ryder noticed that Hondo didn’t even have a life jacket on. He wondered what would happen if Hondo fell out of the raft.

The swirling mass of white water quickly took his mind off Hondo, as he complied with the command to “Paddle, you fools!” The raft was taken by the river and buffeted around and across rocks. At one point they were caught in a whirlpool, and Ryder could not imagine how Hondo pulled them out, but he did. Hondo reminded Ryder of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick. The noise continued to get louder, although they seemed to be getting better control as they sped through the channel. The worst of the rapids seemed to be thinning, and the channel cleared, but the raft was accelerating. As the mists of the rapids began to fall behind them, the noise grew into a booming thunder. Ryder looked ahead, and fear gripped him. Less than a hundred yards ahead, he could see the river cascading over a fall. He could not see how deep the water fell, but in the distance he could see the river continuing on, and it was at least two hundred feet below them. We’re all going to die, he thought, but this time rather than being scared, he was convinced.

As they plunged over the edge, Ryder couldn’t help feeling time stand still. He didn’t even notice the high-pitched shrieks from some of his companions. He thought his life would pass before his eyes, but all he thought about instead was his disappointment at not doing some of the things he wanted to do. He wanted to beat Aster at the strategy game. He wanted to see his family again. He wanted to tell Debbie…well maybe not. He certainly regretted passing on the chance to kiss Cynthia in the maze. Now it was all gone. He wondered if he had already died, but he could feel Cynthia’s hand squeezing his own. It was as if they were floating. Then he realized they were still horizontal. Shouldn’t the raft be in a vertical dive by now? he thought. But they did not seem to be getting closer to the bottom. They seemed to be hanging above the river.

As Ryder’s mind came back to the present, he heard Hondo bellow a hardy laugh, one filled with life. “I’ll never get over the first time you guys hit the Juu’ Juu Falls.” Aster and Steerman laughed too. “The first time I went over, I was glad I was soaking wet, because I know I wet myself,” Aster said.

The craft was apparently more than a raft. It was floating like a hot air balloon. Ryder could see the river continuing on for miles ahead like a milky turquoise ribbon cutting through the rugged, rocky terrain. They were still several hundred feet below the top of the canyon, and perhaps two hundred feet above the river itself. The canyons ahead were even less inviting than Shimmer’s Head, with little vegetation and no trees for miles.

“Well, time to get home. Everyone settle back. This baby will take us back up the river in about two hours.” Hondo pushed a small handle forward on his left and pulled the one on his right toward him. The air ship banked until it turned back toward Shimmer’s Head, then Hondo leveled the craft and set his course back up the river. He kept the vessel about two hundred feet above the canyon floor, and everyone lay back against their respective spots on the raft and delighted that they were still alive.

Two hours later, the vessel descended and settled onto landing pad two. As they left the purple raft, Debbie blurted out, “Can we do it again tomorrow?”

Hondo laughed. “You might have your grandma’s gumption, but this old man ain’t got another trip to Juu’Juu in him for a couple of days. Even Margaret’s dinner wouldn’t revive me enough to get back out there tomorrow. Speaking of dinner, I think I can smell roast chicken and sweet potato fries.”

Ryder concurred that dinner must be ready. He could smell the chicken himself, and was starting to drool.  He stopped, then turned suddenly to Hondo, “You knew my grandmother?”

Hondo actually blushed, dumbfounded, “Just a figure of speech,” he muttered awkwardly.

Maggie quickly changed the subject, “Hondo, can you come in and pull the chicken out of that antique stove?”