In the last days of the Exodus, they were pulling ships out of whatever mothballs they could find, and pardoning nearly any crime to give those ships pilots. One such pairing was the Aerohosp ship Iridia and her new pilot Kirt Champen.

The Iridia had been a find, languishing in the ruins of an old Separatist compound; as a long-range medical transport, she came already equipped with a full complement of cryocells. Once those were updated and she was retrofit with Pulse drives scavenged from smaller, redundant ships, she was ready to fly.

Kirt was, himself, somewhat of a find, although less of an unexpected one. 15 years prior he’d been a thorn in the side of Alliance Security, with his profitable pirating scheme and an ability to pull physics-defying maneuvers out from his hat that earned him grudging respect from AlSec force pilots. One of those maneuvers had finally been too much, leaving Kirt to cool his heels in an off-planet incarceration facility.

They’d offered him a full amnesty and pardon in exchange for piloting an Exodus ship- assuming that he’d jump at the chance, knowing that those left behind (and there would be those left behind, there were far more people than ships) faced a death sentence. He surprised them by insisting on some conditions; that he alone chose his crew- and they also get full pardons; that no less than 40% of the cryocells be filled with children; and when they reached the new planet, he be granted land to settle on and cultivate, and never be called on to pilot a ship again.

Given the one-way nature of the Exodus, the Alliance found it easy to agree. Now he sat on the edge of the solar system, a crew of the best and brightest who had ever served him (and were still living) again at his side, in a ship filled with sleeping people, a full 53% of whom were children he’d personally tucked into their cells.

He rolled the data rod in his hand back and forth, a nervous habit from way back, waiting for the signal to proceed. Once loaded into the ship’s navigation system, it would guide them to one of several undisclosed locations. The decision had been made, in the upper echelons of the Alliance, that Exodus was best served by scattering the ships to different locations, with no one but a select few knowing where they were all going. It was “Just in case.”, they said. Just in case they were pursued, just in case they were betrayed, just in case of a dozen other potential mysterious disasters. To ensure survival they must, as one Elder put it, “Not put all their eggs in one basket.”

Kirt did know, at least, that the trip would take at least four Pulse jumps, and that even with those, the final destination was about a decade away.

The All Hail chime made him jump, and he (and everyone else on the bridge) held their breath. The voice that came over the speakers sounded as tense and edgy as he felt.

“All ships, proceed as directed, I repeat, you may proceed as directed.” There was a pause, and the voice came again, softer “And may all our Gods be with you.”

Comm shut off with a low ‘bong’, and Kirt exhaled loudly. Outside, he could see an increasing number of flashes, as the other ships left in their first Pulse.

“Get settled, people- let’s do this then.” He slid the rod into place, and the ship came alive with blinks and beeps. The Nav system piped up with “Pulse in 5….4…3…2…” and the world dissolved into a brilliant blue light.

~~~~

Douglas, an all around rascal, but the best navigator since Magellan, poked his head into the Mess where Kirt was trying to enjoy some synthesised soup.

“Nav says we’re about 15 from the next Pulse, cap.”

Kirt muttered around something that was almost a biscuit. “Be up in a few, thanks”. He washed the dry, doughy thing down with some water, and set to de-tangling his braid from the chair bolts. Again.

Six years into their trip, his hair had finally reached the knee-brushing length he’d favored before his stint in prison- it might get him some jokes about being ‘pretty’ from his crew, but he thought it looked dashing- and that just might be a bonus with the ladies when they arrived at the new planet. He felt almost his old self again, and he did admit that piloting a ship that wasn’t actively trying to hide, or avoid being shot out of the sky, was a vast improvement.

There were half hearted salutes as he walked onto the bridge and took his chair, which he discovered was warm- he gave a mock glare around the room, wondering which one of them had recently vacated his spot.

“Status?”

“Coming up on automated Pulse number 3, system will start the 5 minute countdown in…Mark.”

“Good. Any signs of the other Exodus ships?”

“Negative, cap. And no hails or comm traffic, either.”

Kirt let out a noncommittal grunt. No comm traffic wasn’t unusual, they’d been advised to keep radio silence unless it was an emergency. But to not have visual on any of the other ships, or some sensor indication of other Pulses? That was odd, given that a chunk of them were all, supposedly, headed to the same destination. Not for the first time he wondered how much of the Exodus solution had been population control, as well.

His brooding was interrupted by the Nav chirping “Pulse in 5…4…3…2…”

As the normally blue flash of Pulse became shot through with sickly green streaks, and a noise that moved straight down into his bones overwhelmed his senses, Kirt knew something had gone very, very wrong.

~~~

Darkness. That was all Kirt was first aware of, and it suited him just fine. Anything to avoid the green lightning flashes that had seared themselves onto his retinas. It was quiet, too. Also fine, because his bones were still vibrating from that indescribable noise. As other senses began to return, he could feel a heavy weight on his legs, and the iron-salt tang of blood in his mouth. Where were the others?

“Report!” he tried to shout, but it came out a strained croak. He coughed a few times, swallowed, and hollered again. “Report, dammit! Where are you people?!”

The weight lifted from his legs as someone move the panel he was stuck under, and the dim emergency lighting hit his eyes. Blinking he saw Cellen kneeling over him.

“Take it easy, boss.” she cautioned him, as he pulled himself up. “Your face is pretty banged up- the side view panel gave way and tried to flatten you.” She dabbed his face with some med cream, then pulled on his bottom lip and doctored a cut along the inside of his mouth.

“What’s our status? Who’s still standing?” He eased himself into his chair, which was still standing, if canted a bit sideways. He could see other crew members digging out or bent over instruments. Douglas stood up from his console and grimaced.

“No crew casualties. We might have lost a bank of cells. Not,” he held up a hand to forestall Kirt’s question “Not  any of the kids. Jules is headed down to check. Margo went to look at the engines as soon as she could move.”

Kirt nodded, and winced as that stretched a cut on his neck. “Any idea what happened? Where are we?”

Douglas glared at his Nav console before answering “I have no clue where we are. Nothing I’m seeing shows up on the charts, and the automated Pulse left no data behind as to where it was aiming. So I can’t even tell you if we’re anywhere close to where we were supposed to be.”

“As for what happened, the best I can parse out is that one of the drives was out of sync with the others, and it threw off the whole Pulse. But pre-Pulse diagnostics should have caught that, even for an automated run.”

“We’re on the ground, that much we can tell.” Cellen piped up, waving one arm at the bridge window, the view from which was clearly blocked by grey, rocky, debris. “And we’ve got basic life support running, with no major hull breaches, but internal comm is shot.”

“Well, that’s something, at least. We’ll know more once Margo gets back on the bridge. You keep bandaging people up, Cel. I’m going to suit up and take a peek outside.”

Making his way carefully to the port airlock, he found it sealed with all the alarm lights blinking frantically. Damaged then, and vacuum on the outside. Starboard seemed intact, so he peeled on his suit, locked down his helmet, and cycled himself outside.

Grey. Light grey, dark grey, almost black in places, almost white in others, but generally a lifeless, empty grey. Not featureless- there were craters all over the place, but so very, very lifeless.  As he stepped away from the ship, his gut roiled at just how close they’d come to being a smear of rubble.

The ship was resting-nose and part of the port side wedged deep into the ground- on the very rim of a vast, deep crater. Even enhancing his helmet vision, Kirt couldn’t see the other side.  A few to the left, and they would have gone over and in, instead of driving like a stake into the ground beside the edge. He walked his way around the ship, not seeing any external damage, other than the crumpled and buried nose. Taking a few pictures for reference, he headed back inside.

Margo and Jules were back on the bridge, and they both looked like someone had kicked them in the gut. Kirt frowned. “Tell me we didn’t lose any of the kids.”

Jules shook his head, while Margo looked at her hands.

“No, the cells are all intact. The crumpling didn’t reach that far inward. Took out a bunch of cargo… but…”

“But” Margo took over “The Pulse drives are dead. Seriously and completely dead. I couldn’t even get them back up if I was in the best Alliance shipyard with all the shiny new toys.”

Kirts frown deepened “So, that means…what?”

“It means that even if we can figure out digging the nose of the ship out enough to fly, we’re not flying far. It’d  be barely doable for inner system close flight, we’d never manage anything extrasolar.”

“Ok, so we’re stuck local. Doug, you happen to have any habitable spots in range?”

“Nothing yet, boss. And I’m trying.”

“So we keep looking, and hang tight for a while while we…”

“Boss, “ Jules interrupted, “It gets worse. Some of the primary systems were fried right along side the Pulses… We’re on backup power and life support, and those aren’t meant for long term use.”

Kirt tried to rub out the crease that was threatening to cement itself across his brow. “How long do we have?”

Cellen punched in some numbers to her portable “Well, if we keep systems to minimal, and only use specific..”

“How. Long?”

She shrank into herself against the weight of his anger. “Maintaining support for crew and cryocells… about 3 days.”

“And if we turn the cells off?”

“About two weeks.”

~~~

     All those pretty stars and planets out there, and not a damn one we can use. Kirt snarled to himself, sitting in his suit on a rock outside the ship.

He knew everyone was waiting inside for him to make a decision, even though he’d told them to all get some sleep, they’d talk about it later. He almost wished he could just pop open his helmet and let someone else have to make the hard choices. Turn off the cells, and give Doug more time to find a habitable planet they could get to- but what would be the point if all the refugees were dead. Or leave them on, and have only 3 days until they were all dead anyhow.

     Star-cursed Exodus. How many of them made that third Pulse without trouble? All of them? A Few? Did it really matter? These were the refugees he’d been in charge of, the kids he’d tucked into their cells, promising them they’d have a new home when they woke up. These are the ones he cared about…and now they were going to die, and so was he. He didn’t mind himself dying, it was the innocents that made him so angry. Like his sisters…

     “Damn you! Stupid, absent, miserable Gods! I didn’t believe in you then, and I still don’t, but what kind of monsters let a ship full of sleeping kids die! I HATE you!”

He grabbed a rock off the ground and flung it into space, heedless of inertia pushing him off his perch onto the ground. The rock flew up higher, higher, until it seemed to blend with a bright blue-white star…and then he realize the star was growing larger. It came closer and closer, until it was a bright glowing globe over his head, then it split into five independent pieces that elongated into beams, almost twice as tall as he, surrounding him.

     What are you? What are you? Why are you?  The words seemed to explode into his brain, and he gasped in pain. “Stop…hurts…stop…” he whimpered.

     Ahhh. The voices said We understand. You are in pain. You are afraid. Let us see. 

He started to answer them, but felt a soft brush against his forehead, like someone gently pushing his hair away from his face, and a warmth spread through him. Everything about the wreck, the Exodus, even prison and pirating seemed to be pulled through his thoughts and drained away. Further back, to school, and the accident, and his mother brushing his hair from his face in just that same way.

     Sleep. Sleep, you who are called human. And we will make it whole.

Kirt didn’t understand. Tried to explain that he needed to be in the ship to sleep, but a lassitude spread across his limbs faster than he could speak, and he drifted off.

He dreamed. He was on his family’s farm- picket fence and all, long before he became a pilot and a pirate. He was content to run around in fields, fish in the river, and settle down at home. He spent his summer days fixing machinery with his father, or baking pies with his mother, and tormenting his two twins sisters who had braids down to their knees. The sunlight was a golden glow, the air a shimmery blue that only happened in summer evenings. That sun grew, and grew, until it engulfed him and he knew nothing but that warm embrace.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Brightness. It seemed dim after the golden light he’d been swimming in, but it seeped under his eyelids until he opened them, to see the five beams of light hovering around him still.

     Come, human.

He stood up, expecting the bulk of his suit, and open space- instead he cracked his bare head on the interior of the crumpled port airlock.

“What the…?”

     Come, human. 

The light-beings floated in a line through the open airlock door, and down into darkness. He gaped at the door, spacer instincts screaming at him that without his suit he’d be dead any…second…now… But he was breathing, he was fine, not boiling in vacuum, so it must be alright.

Cautiously, he followed, finding himself in a tunnel sloping downward, seemingly made of the same grey rock as outside, but the walls were smooth, almost polished. The Lights floated along ahead of him, giving him just enough light to see by, but staying out of reach. Several times he tried to talk to them, with no answer.

How long they’d been in this tunnel, he couldn’t say. He felt like he’d been walking steadily downward for quite a distance, but he was strangely not worn out. He was about to start another round of questions, on the off chance that this time they might answer, when the light ahead grew brighter. Not the cold blue glow of the lights, either, but a warm, natural light. Kirt rushed ahead, and stepped out of the tunnel into a wonder.

A glade on the edge of a forest, trees reaching overhead to a brilliant blue sky, leaves whispering in a soft breeze. Too confused for words, he walked forward into the grass, then turned to look behind him.

There, floating quietly near the tunnel entrance, hovered the Lights, softly illuminating the stark, nearly vertical wall of the grey crater. They floated upwards, and his eyes were drawn to follow, up along the wall, up to the rim where his battered ship would be, up along the curve of a domed sky lit with a sun he knew couldn’t be there, and then back down, to float in front of him once more.

“How… how did you DO this? Why?”

     Life is a rare thing here in this particular universe. It should not be ended by mistake or malice. You have the will and the strength to carry forward, so you should.

Kirt felt the responsibility of this lay on his shoulders, and yet it wasn’t an uncomfortable weight, just one to be adjusted to. Maybe he’d always been ready for this.  He turned to start the climb back up through the tunnel.

“My crew, I need to go get them, there’s so much we’ll need to do.”

     No need, human. All is made ready

The Lights gathered around him, lifting him gently in arms he couldn’t see. They flew through the air, towards what must be the center of the crater. From this high up, he could see the whole of the forest, and rolling hills, vast grassy plains and a deep blue river tumbling over multicolored rocks. In the distance, he could see dryer, arid land with towering mesas, and a snow-capped mountain- places that brushed against memories of family trips as a child. A whole ecosystem was spread out before him, and he seemed to know it all by heart already.

Their flight slowed, and Kirt saw they were approaching what looked to be a small town. Almost painfully familiar, he saw buildings ready for for housing, and simple businesses. All the equipment for basic farming was already lined up beside silos and barns. The only unusual feature was a long building to one side, and a spire of many-faceted crystal in the middle of the town.

Setting him down by this spire, the Lights arrayed themselves around it.

     Your people await in there. 

One of the Lights glinted in the direction of the long building. Entering through the wide double door that was standing ajar, Kirt saw they were telling the truth. Rows of beds along the walls held sleeping men, women and children. A set of beds closer to the doors held his crew- Cellen snoring away, Jules with one leg sprawled out of the blanket, the rest tucked in snug like they’d been sleeping for hours.

There were long rows of tables down the middle of the hall, and he could see through a half wall into an kitchen. The arrangement made perfect sense, dormitory and mess while they sorted out who would live where, communal hall once things settled down. It was exactly the way he would have done it.

Stepping back outside, he wandered around exploring, his mind occupied with making plans, organizing in his head how the colony would work the best.

     Huh. Colony. He thought to himself. I guess we really are one now, aren’t we? 

The sun was starting to set (he paused a moment to wonder how it was doing that, when there wasn’t actually a star out there…) so he walked reverently back over to the spire where the Lights waited. Now that he looked closely at it, the base of stone seemed to rise straight from the ground, and what he thought was a single crystal, was five delicate ones, intertwined. It glinted and sparkled in the fading light, giving him a chill of awe that he’d never really experienced before.

“Are you… are you the Gods?”

    No, we are not what your kind think of as such. We are Guardians. We heard your voice, and took you into our care.

The five beams seemed to shimmer, and started to draw back together. Kirt threw out his hands in dismay.

“Wait! How do I wake them up? Are they all alright? What if we need you again?”

The Lights grew into the glowing blue star that Kirt first saw, shivering and glinting, almost as if it was laughing.

     When your Sun next rises, they will awake whole and well. If you remember us, and truly need us, we will hear. 

The star of Light scintillated and glistened, drawing itself into the crystal spire until it refracted rainbows throughout the town; and then it shot up in a brilliant beam through the surface of the dome, and out of sight.

Kirt was left alone in his new town, on his new world, sitting on a bench under a familiar, impossible moon- waiting for the new day to begin.

I lived and worked in a town where ‘horse sense’ was still a commonly used and understood phrase. People still sat out in front of a store that was still called Nelson’s Mercantile, “Ayup” was an accepted answer, and most discussion about town residents involved a short genealogy report along with the news.

It suited me fine. After the ugly and well publicized divorce (You’ve not truly felt like a slug until you’ve heard Nancy Grace sneer your name…), the fiasco that was the Jonsenberg case, and the equally publicized drunken soiree though Macy’s, I wanted nothing to do with cities, or anything remotely resembling them. So I’d sold off everything, packed my bags, and relocated (eventually) to Monville, KY. While it was named after the founder of the nearby sawmill, one Willhelm Mondowski, I liked to spell it “MONville” in my head, for Middle Of Nowhere-ville.

Monville sported the aforementioned mercantile, an honest-to-God one room schoolhouse, a joint doctor and dentist office, three churches of indeterminate denomination, a small beauty parlour (“Marleen’s Hair n’ Nails”) attached to Dylan’s Auto Body, and the town newspaper, where I held sway.

Like I said, it suited me.

I’d stumbled across the “Newspaper Business For Sale” advertisement in the regional paper while driving aimlessly cross country trying to escape. I’d pulled over at the next pay phone (having tossed my phone into the Hudson), and bought it on the spot. Now I lived in the apartments upstairs, and printed out a small weekly newspaper on the ancient printing press in the back room. Nothing too fancy; birth and deaths and weddings as they happened, news from the few other towns in the area, a smattering of sporting events, and the ever popular gossip and advice column, written by the mysterious ‘Ms. X’.

Mostly Ms. X’s bits were gleaned from the latest chatter from outside Nelson’s, or from a cordial discussion with Marleen while her husband Dylan was occupied fixing some beater. The usual small town gossip; ‘So-and-so had been seen talking with that person.’, ‘Unnamed someone had special ordered fancy French perfume from New York.’, ‘Young man & girl spotted holding hands.’. Nothing shocking, although I occasionally had the urge to inflict full NYC style society page drivel on my readers.

My usual routine involved walking out in the afternoon, making a slow circuit around town, down one of the dusty lanes a ways, then back into town where I’d filter through the chatter for next Sunday’s column over a bottle of soda. Same old, but comforting. I’d developed the routine of making up little stories about the scenery I passed- That gnarled old oak by the Henson place was really a portal to the underworld, and that’s why Mr. Henson was such a cranky bastard…The boarded up Jones’ place was a secret mob hideout… That big brown stallion over off of Main wanted to eat me (I could tell by the way he looked at me.)…

I’d been out for my usual walk, pondering the mystery of ‘shoes hanging on the power line’-Why is there always some hanging off the wires, no matter where you go? Urban wisdom was that they marked the location of drug houses, but out here that was unlikely. Maybe there was a story in there somewhere…, when it came to me that there was a lot more noise in town than usual. Coming out of my budding novelist fog, I hurried over to Nelson’s, where a respectable sized crowd had gathered around a breathlessly hysterical Maureen.

“I’m telling you, he’s gone!” Maureen was screeching “And if he’s not over at that…that… blonde hussy’s house, then where is he?!”

‘That blonde hussy’ was Annabelle Taylor, Maureen’s arch rival. They’d been in competition for darn near everything since they both flounced into kindergarten- from who got to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, to who was class president, to homecoming queen, coming to a head in the five years they were eligible for the Miss Monroe County crown, which Annabelle won 3 years, and Maureen 2. Maureen had her revenge by romancing Dylan right out from Annabelle’s nose. Local scuttlebutt had it that Dylan had never quite taken to married life, and dallied with Annabelle on a regular basis, although no one had ever been able to prove it, really.

Miss Annabelle, for her part, was sitting over on a chair someone had pulled out of Nelson’s, sobbing denials, and holding a rag to the nasty nail scratches down her face. A small gaggle of supporters were clustered around her, glaring at Maureen.

Maureen had paused in her diatribe, and blew her nose noisily into a hankie as I approached. I followed up her honk with a throat clearing of my own, and everyone turned to look at me.

“I hesitate to bring it up, but I did do some investigative work before I arrived here. Perhaps if someone could bring me up to speed, we could figure out what’s happened?”

I waited a bit, while the assembled translated city talk into local, and Maureen waved the hankie at me in distress.

“Dylan, well, he’s been comin’ home late all week long. Says he’s been working on Bobby’s roadster, but everyone knows he runs off to be with her, right under my nose, I don’t know why I put up with it!” she started to sob again, and I had to prompt her to keep going.

“Well, last night we finally had words about it, yellin’ back and forth. He grabbed his keys, and I said if he walked out that door to go soothe hisself on that woman’s shoulder, he might as well forget ever coming back in that door! He stomped out anyhow, and I heard him rev his truck engine and take off down the road! And now no one can find him!”

I turned to Joe Roy, the closest thing town had for a sheriff. He shrugged “Maureen called me this morning; she’d marched over to Annabelle’s to demand her husband back, but they weren’t there. She she figured they were in town, so when she got to Nelson’s and Annabelle was there, they got into a cat fight. But Annabelle says she doesn’t know where Dylan is, either. And his truck isn’t in town. As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably just gone for a long drive to get over being hen-pecked.” He gave Maureen a Look. Joe’s always been in the Annabelle camp.

I patted Maureen awkwardly on the shoulder. “He probably did go for a drive to cool down some, Maureen. You know how men get sometimes, we need our space.”

She snorted loudly into her hankie and nodded. Figuring the whole thing was settled, but the work day pretty much shot, I grabbed a beer from Nelson’s and decided I needed some space, myself.

So I set off down Crabapple Lane, figuring that I’d walk by Dylan & Maureen’s place; and if I took that route, and maybe I’d see Dylan driving back. It was a nice walk, scenic in that way that only random country lanes can be. There was even a pair of sneakers hanging off the wires, a worn pair with a big logo on the side, so I could get back to my wondering about the phenomenon. About ten minutes later, the penny dropped and I stopped in the middle of the road, trying to parse the detail my brain had just noticed.

Confused, I jogged back to where the shoes dangled off the middle of the power line, and just stared at them. Sure enough, they were a pair of standard issue high-top sneakers, nothing special. What was different, was the logo patch on the side of one of the shoes. Not the shoe brand, but a custom patch reading “DYLAN’S AUTO BODY-MONVILLE”.

What the hell were Dylan’s shoes doing hanging off of a power line? And if his shoes where there, where was Dylan? He didn’t seem the type to go driving an old truck barefoot.

The question dogged me all the way back to town, and was still bugging me when I saw Joe outside Nelson’s. This gave me an idea.

“Hey Joe?” I called at him.

He waved, and started towards me. “Ayup?”

“Do you know how they get shoes off the power line around here?”

He skritched his beard while thinking about it. “Well, over by the city, they get one of the power trucks out to do it. But ‘round here, I’m thinking Manny does it with his cherry picker. Manny’s a bit of an odd duck, hmm?”

“MMhmm. Thanks, Joe”

Manny was an odd duck, about as odd as this city boy out in the middle of farmland, but he made me look fairly normal. Reclusive, skittish, lots of odd deliveries. I suspected some sort of PTSD. Something was making my Spidey Sense twitch, though- so I was off to talk to him.

Manny’s place was about a mile outta town, and I was walked out for the day, so I hopped in my car and headed over. Despite him being a recluse, you couldn’t miss the place if you tried. He’d managed to get broadband cable wired out this far, and he had a couple satellite dishes in the yard. Add in a few HAM radio antennae, and the place looked more like a bunker than a farmhouse. Then again, if it was PTSD, that might not be far off.

I parked just outside the gate, got out of the car, and hollered. “Hellooo the house! Hey Manny!”

A balding guy with glasses poked his head out of the door, looking startled at having a visitor. At least he wasn’t aiming a gun at me. That could happen out here, if you didn’t introduce yourself to homeowners properly.

“Oh! Hi! Come on in!” Manny chirped, and his head disappeared back inside. Figuring that was as much welcome as I was going to get, I slipped passed the gate, and into the house.

It was not what I was expecting. The front room seemed normal enough- sofa, coffee table, tv, a couple of lamps; but Manny hollered “I’m in here!” from another room, and that room was…different. It looked like a scene from The X-Files. You know, the episode with the Lone Gunmen, and the charts on the wall and all? Yeah, like that. There were maps of the area with pins, and string from those to newspaper clippings, and file folders stacked on everything. Manny was hunched over a computer, typitytyping away at the keyboard. He completely ignored me for a minute, until he hit ‘ENTER’ with a decisive click, and turned to face me.

“Sorry about that, I really needed to get the scope configured for the night, otherwise I’ll get all distracted and the data will be full of holes.” He lead me back out to the living room as he spoke, and flopped in a chair, sending up a small cloud of dust. “Now, what can I do for you?”

I sat more gingerly in my chair, not wanting to send up my own cloud, and noting that this room really didn’t get used much.

“Joe said you’re the one who collects shoes from the power lines around here. You work for the power company or something?”

Manny cocked his head to one side, looking like a bald puppy. “No, nothing like that. I just…think things look nicer without them hanging there.” He narrowed his eyes, now looking like a slightly suspicious bald puppy. “Why, did you find some?”

I nodded “As a matter of fact, I did. Just over on Crabapple.”

He jumped from his seat, all out of proportion to an announcement about lost shoes

“Crabapple?! Crabapple! Really?”

He raced back to his…operations… room. By the time I got there he was frantically ruffling through papers.

“There was a spike in the gravity field last night, but I couldn’t localize it! Crabapple! Why, that means it might have happened right in front of me, and I wasn’t watching!” He let out a dismayed groan, and spun around to look at me. “I have to get those shoes!”

He dashed back past me, and out a side door, grabbing a set of keys on the way. I went out the front door to my own car, and when I saw the old cherry picker pull out of a side driveway, I pulled in front of it, and drove to where I’d seen the shoes.

Pulling over to the side of the road, I watched as he parked the picker, pulled on what looked like a hazmat suit of all things, and loaded a wooden, rubber tipped pole into the basket. The with the remote in one hand, and the pole in the other, he raised the basket to the level of the shoes- and carefully, slowly, lifted the shoes from the high-voltage wire. I resisted the urge to shot “Be careful!” at him. He’d obviously done this before, even if it would make any real lineman scream in horror.

The basket lowered, and he hopped out. Lowering the hood of his suit, he stared at me accusingly. “These are Dylan’s shoes!”, like he was sure I’d put them up there myself.

“Yeah, they are. And he’s missing.”

“You’d better come back to the house and tell me everything.”

~~~

Over a pot of very nice pu erh tea we chatted. I filled him in on the drama of the morning, he filled me in on the purpose of all his equipment. Or, well, he tried to fill me in- he quickly got far too technical for me; but what I gathered was that he was a UFO hunter (he did glare at me when I’d gone “What? Like the X-Files?”), and he’d been trying to prove a connection between electromagnetic disturbances and UFO sightings and/or abductions.

“So where…”I asked around a sip of tea “…do the shoes come in?”

He pulled up a map on his laptop. “I don’t know, actually. Dylan’s shoes are the first time I’ve been able to prove a pair of shoes, found at the sight of a geomagnetic fluctuation, also belong to someone that’s gone missing.” He turned the screen towards me “But here’s where, in this county alone, there’s been pairs of shoes found near the site of unusual activity.”

I peered at the screen, there were ten bright red pins on the map. “All these had shoes hanging off the power lines?”

He shook his head and jabbed his finger at the screen. “Only these four. The other six the shoe, or shoes, were just laying on the ground.” His fingers typed out a rapid tattoo of commands, and another set of pins appeared on the map, some of these with bright blue arrows pointing to the red pins. “And here’s disappearances, and their distance to shoe-and-anomaly locations of the same gender.”

I pondered this new set of data. As weird as it all sounded, there were several shoes and missing person pairings. “Have you ever talked to the authorities about this?”

Suddenly, his cup of tea was very interesting, and he stared at it. I waited patiently until he looked up and said “Once. I did once. When a pair of shoes showed up right around the time that girl from Lee Junior High went missing. The shoes were hers, her parents ID’ed them. I said I’d found them on the wires.  But then she showed up dead, all those weird marks on her body, and suddenly everyone really wanted to know where I’d really found the shoes, and no one believed me that I was just watching for anomalies…” he grew very silent again “…they couldn’t prove anything, so they let me go. I don’t ask for help from the police, anymore.”

Well, I suppose being a UFO hunter and being accused of murder would make one a recluse, so the mystery of Manny was solved, but not the mystery of Dylan. Wracking my brain for possibilities, I lit on something that might be useful. “Manny, you said you couldn’t prove a connection between the shoes and the disappearances, right?”

“That’s right.”

“And you can’t go asking for help identifying the shoe owners, because that would be risking police involvement?”

“Ayup. I’d rather not sit in a cell for weeks on end again, thank you very much.”

“No doubt. But Manny, do you still have those shoes?”

He did, and they were all carefully ziplocked individually with dates, times and GPS coordinates on them. After much persuading, he let me take the box home with me- where I photographed each bag for continuity, rebagged them with generic ID numbers, and packed them carefully for shipment to NYC.

Three weeks later, my buddy George called… “Maaannn, I do not know where you got those shoes, but I ran DNA on all of them like you asked- get this, all but two of them are from people in Kentucky who went missing. Three of those people have never been found, but five of them? Those five people all were found, anywhere from days to months later, and all of them claim to have been abducted by aliens. What the heck are you sitting on, dude?”

“Hang tight George, and you’ll see.” I chuckled as I hung up the phone.

Now… Manny is famous. Seems an anonymous story went out on the wire about the mysterious connection between found shoes, and stories of alien abduction, and the fearless researcher who pursued the Truth, even in the face of false accusations of murder. TV crews came out, interviews were done, even that Ancient Aliens guy with the Babylon 5 Centauri haircut got in on the act. All sorts of weird theories are going around about why abductees lose their shoes as they are beamed up into the spaceship- my favorite has to do with rubber’s natural affinity for Mother Earth and thus it has spiritual resistance to the force of the beam. Or some such BS.

Oh, and the mystery of Dylan? Not abducted by aliens, more’s the pity. He’d gone and pulled his sneakers off in a fit of pique and chucked them at the sky, because they’d been a present from Maureen- only to be unable to find them on the ground, because they never made it there. Not the brightest crayon, our Dylan.

He actually had driven barefoot over to Hamston, gotten rip-roaring drunk, tried to drive home but ended up in a ditch. He was too damn embarrassed to walk barefoot all the way home, so he’d just passed out there in the field and slept for 18 hours. Joe Roy found him and dragged his sorry ass back to town.

George sent me a bottle of 20 year old whisky and begged me to come back to New York. I told him no way in hell, life was much more interesting in the Middle of Nowhere.