Random Prompt 1
4
 Sep 5, 2016
Rules


There are a number of random prompt generators on the net, I used the one at Seventh Sanctum for this one. Take a look at the list below and pick a random prompt to write about from it. Multiple entries are permitted, but with a twist: You have to choose a different random prompt for each entry if you do write more than one.

Here are the prompts:

  • If I have to deal with any more dark gods, I'm going to kill something.
  • That herbologist will be the source of all my pain, but the truth isn't quite what some think.
  • Around here, everyone has a story about disbelief, getting old, and a starship salesperson.
  • She had never dealt with an alien plague before.
  • Once I was an explorer, now I am a rogue robot, which turned out to be a dangerous assumption.


Contest Rules
*Choose one of the topics from the list above to write about
*Include the prompt at the top of your entry. It doesn't need to be part of the story, it's just to identify which prompt you chose
* Entry Fee: Free
* Prize: Advanced Trophy
* Level: Advanced
* Character Limits: 1,500 - 3,000 words
* Submit period: 16 days
* Voting period: 3 days
* All regular Writing Deck Rules apply.

* Multiple entries are allowed in this contest.

Good luck!

Four thousand years ago, deep within the Epsilon Aquarius star system on the planet Dolat, the Dolati’s sun had started its final expansion. While it would take another twenty thousand years before their planet would become uninhabitable, the massive increase in radiation was wreaking havoc on their DNA. The best and brightest worked on methods of repairing the DNA and they became extremely good at it. The forces of the universe are not easy to beat and eventually the Dolati realized they were facing extinction.

Their leaders gathered all the leading scientists and philosophers and decided they needed to migrate to a new world. Exploratory missions were sent deep into the galaxy in search of a planet capable of supporting carbon-based lifeforms. These brave souls left their homes knowing that they were on a one-way mission. They would have enough food and fuel to explore but the vastness of space meant they would not have the resources to return. They either found a place to settle or die trying.

The Dolati were bipedal like us humans but they rather resembled an upright alligator with decidedly silver reflective skin and large round yellow eyes. Millions of years of evolution had made them a highly evolved species.

After a few hundred years the first reports started filtering back to Dolat. The universe was loaded with planets that were capable of supporting them, something they already knew. It also seemed that nearly every planet capable of supporting life was doing so. The downside was if the life was sufficiently evolved, the Dolati were not exactly welcomed guests. In their corner of the galaxy, this was not the first time an advanced species had tried to move in. In some cases, these “invasions” had been successful and those inhabitants were even more reluctant to accept new settlers. The Dolati would have to go deeper into the galaxy and find planets with life forms incapable of fighting them off.

Two thousand years into their quest, the Dolati received a message from a solar system very far away, a small blue green planet that we know as earth. Exploratory Mission 2193D reported in. “We have found a planet with a habitable climate, breathable atmosphere, abundant resources and a stable star. The plant and animal life forms are all edible. The dominant life form is still relatively primitive and numbers less than 150 million. If you have yet to find a new host planet, we strongly recommend you start the migration to the far side of the Delta Quadrant and home in on our beacon.” Shortly after they sent this message the entire team was eaten by sharks as they were scouting a lagoon for food.

What Exploratory Mission 2193D did not know was that the situation on Dolat had become increasingly dire. Their sun had been emitting more radiation than they had initially calculated and the population was dwindling. There was no way they could gather the resources to build a spaceship to move even a small percentage of their population on an 800-year journey. Knowing they were doomed, they once again gathered the leaders and scientists to discuss how they should face their final days. It was a months-long event with hundreds of long boring speeches and ludicrous proposals.

Toward the very end, after countless diatribes about leaving monuments, committing mass suicide and possibly living in old mine shafts it was time for a speech from a little known genetic researcher named Ceax Czibly. Most assumed that it would be another long dull talk on the inevitable breakdown of their chromosomes into some kind of soupy froth and the last of the species dying horrible deaths in the street. Yes, this was the inevitable outcome and most of the attendees were spending these days in a state of intoxication rather than think about the end.

Ceax began, “Fellow Dolati, I would like to offer you hope, a way for us Dolati to continue on for another 500 millennia and beyond. I would like to share my plan with you.” Thinking this would be another plan to digitize their existence until they would be rescued or build a million year monument, most of the crowd didn’t even look up.

“I have been working all my life with our DNA. At first, I built tools to repair the radiation damage to our species but as time wore on, I too saw that this effort could not stave off the inevitable. So I changed my course and I have created the ultimate Dolati chromosomes. Each contains all of our genetic diversity, the combined knowledge of all of our libraries and the skills of our finest craftsmen.”

The crowd had heard this all before, send that DNA package in hundreds of small craft throughout the universe and hope some species somewhere would rebuild them. From what they had learned, this was not likely to happen and Ceax was losing the few he had listening until he continued, “I have embedded these chromosomes into a super virus that has the ability to find a suitable host and then systematically transform that organism into one of us.” The crowd perked up and more started listening. Ceax continued, “The organism needs to be similar to us yet sufficiently primitive to not be able to figure out how to kill the virus. I believe we have found such a place as reported to us by the brave souls of Exploratory Mission 2193D. That place is called Earth.”

She had never dealt with an alien plague before, in fact, she had never intended to become a doctor. Of course, she was completely unaware this was an alien virus. Drafted at the tender age of eighteen by the Global Healthcare Initiative, Sarah had been trained, all her life, to fight global epidemics. She had traveled the world and been at the forefront of much pain and suffering. Sure she had been financially well compensated, saved thousands of lives and received some of the highest awards but she was not one bit happy with her life.

As a little girl, she dreamed of owning a bookstore and maybe doing a little writing. She wanted a little ranch in the suburbs, white picket fence, loving husband, two kids and a dog. Now just three weeks shy of her 35th birthday, she felt as if she had been cheated out of her youth. Seven years in training followed by ten years of running around the world, fighting disease and saving lives. There was still a tiny sliver of hope. Her conscription would be fulfilled on that fateful 35th birthday and she would be free to pursue the life she still dreamed of.

The residents of Christmas Island never saw the beacon. It had long since blended into the background before mankind ever reached it. Exploratory Mission 2193D had chosen that location specifically for its remoteness. The landing pad for their probes, as well as the probes themselves, had long since eroded away.
The sound of the crashing spacecraft was noticed by the tourists staying at a nearby resort but they chalked it up to blasting at the phosphate mines. They didn’t notice the fog and they sure didn't notice the tiny invaders entering their bodies.

Three years later, the first signs of the epidemic showed up on Australia’s eastern coastline. The victim's skin would flake off and their bones became tumorous and misshapen. The medical community was baffled. Toxicologists first suspected that there was a poison in the ocean but as the number of cases rose from a few dozen to a few thousand, suspicion was turned toward an infectious agent.

Sarah was part of the first team to arrive. She dutifully took blood samples and made notes. Over the months the cases rose to the tens of thousands. It was invariably fatal with victims horribly contorted and screaming with pain. The world was starting to panic as cases began showing up all over the world. No one knew what it was or how to stop it but it was certain to cause a horrible agonizing death.

Al Bali Research Clinic in Morocco discovered the Human Al Bali Morpho (HABMV) virus, as it was now called and it was unlike any virus ever seen. HABMV was mega-sized with a huge mysterious DNA payload. It was so large so that it had been missed on early scans. Once identified, the medical researchers started looking for a way to defeat it and found that its large size made it an easy target for a modified version of an existing anti-viral medication, AH. We still had no idea how the virus worked but we did have a way to prevent it from spreading.

The Global Health Initiative was predicted that half the world’s population will succumb to HABMV within three months. They weren't wrong. The problem was, despite a worldwide effort, the supply of AH was not enough to protect everyone. If you became infected it was too late to stop it. Sarah worked triage of sorts. If you were found to be free of HABMV you were given a 90 day supply of AH but if you were found to be already infected, you were given pain killers and told to get you final business in order. This was the worst thing Sarah had had to do since starting with Global Health Initiative. She counted the days until she was out and cried herself to sleep every night.

Sarah occasionally had a patient that did not come to see her about HABMV but more normal kinds of human health complaints. Maybe a little scaly skin, some hair loss, clothes didn’t fit as well they should. Stanger still, it was always a little scaly skin, some hair loss and clothes didn’t fit as well they should. This happened more and more, eventually, nearly all of her patients had similar complaints and HABMV seemed to claiming the last of its victims. Sarah didn’t find these complaints odd at all, she was just relieved she no longer was spending her days telling people there was no hope for them.

The whole world had changed just a little. Food trends had changed, fashions had changed and we were a little more nocturnal than we had been. The analysts said this was normal after coming out of a devastating plague. People needed a change to help them forget the ordeal they had just been through.

The fateful day finally arrived and Sarah found herself being processed out of the Global Health Initiative. She could finally pursue her dream of finding a good mate and settling down to a quiet country life. Her end of service bonus would buy her both a house and the bookstore; with the population cut in half, property was inexpensive and easy to find.

Sarah wasted no time and went online and made a date right away. After all, she had been waiting for this all of her life. On the way out the door, she quickly checked her makeup, just needs a dash of powder to cover that chrome spot on her snout and quick eyeliner to bring out her big round yellow eyes.

She had never dealt with an alien plague before.

Sarah Mendelsohn sighed. She was no closer to determining what had wiped out the Argaliak civilization of Orh'neon Prime then she was when the scientific colony landed on the planet over a year ago. Happily the other part of her job, mission doctor, had been uneventful, the team was well trained and young, and hadn't had any accidents or illnesses to speak of.

The Argaliak were an interesting species. They had been race of humanoid aliens with poisonous spines on their backs, which appeared, if the team had translated the ancient documents correctly, to eat only one meal a day. They also achieved space flight, and had been to most of the other planets in their solar system before the collapse of their civilization, and the extinction of their species. From the documents, the two events had happened in rather quick succession, maddeningly, the documents failed to mention what the cause of it was, at least as far as they could determine to date.

She put the document down she had been working on; it was pretty much another dead end anyway, when Patry Scolee, one of the explorers, entered the room, carrying what looked like a fuzzy green egg.

Sarah looked at it curiously. "OK, what's that?"

"Haven't the foggiest, we were hoping you could tell us, but they're fun to hold!"

"You don't know what it is, it might be organic, and you're holding it in your bare hands. Are you nuts?"

"Um, well," Patry started, "I didn't think about it, but they are fun to hold," he said putting it down on the counter. "Anyway, no harm done," he concluded lamely, while quickly finding somewhere else to be.

Sarah frowned at the object. Patry was usually pretty careful, explorers didn't live long if they weren't, and this was out of character for him. She used a mechanical arm to move the object to her workstation so she could analyze it. Spectral analysis indicated it was solid, and it didn't have any organic composition despite the "fuzz" which appeared to be a crystalline construct of some sort. It definitely wasn't cellular, she couldn't rule out it being a life form though. She started some longer running tests, and decided it was time for lunch. She took one last look at the object, and then left the lab for the lunchroom.

It was time for bi-monthly full mission meeting, so pretty much all the teams were on base, and the lunchroom was pretty packed. Sarah frowned as she noticed there were also a good number of fuzzy green eggs present, all being handled by various team members. She spied Teve Bellee, the mission security officer at one of the tables, and went over to talk to him.

"Teve, a lot of people here seem to be breaking the rules, did you OK it?" Sarah asked.

"What do you mean doctor?"

"I didn't clear those green egg-looking things, and they are clearly alien artifacts. Did you do it?"

"Well no, but it doesn't seem to be harming anything. I have one of those things myself, they're fun to hold."

Sarah looked at him for a moment, then took out her communicator and pressed the panic button. The base immediately went into lock-down mode. Everybody looked up startled at the lights flashing and alarms sounding.

"That was hardly necessary," Teve said.

"The fact that you are saying that tells me it was more necessary than I knew," Sarah replied.

Just then her phone sounded, it was Danio Prookson, the mission director. "Report?" Daio demanded.

"Sir, I believe we have a major medical security breach, and Teve is affected." Sarah replied.

"Where is he?"

"Right here."

"Put him on the line."

Sarah handed Teve the phone.

"Report"

"Ah, the good doctor is just over-reacting to something silly," Teve replied.

"Meeting, my office, now, mandatory attendance, all supervisors," Danio barked.

Teve handed Sarah back her communicator, then got up and started sauntering to the director's office. "A lot of excitement over nothing," he laughed at Sarah. She looked worriedly around the room, and then followed quickly after him.

When she arrived at Danio's office all the other mission officers were already there, and she looked them over closely. There was a general look of worry on all their faces except for Teve and Gery Scoley, the head of the exploration division. He was gazing up at the ceiling with a stupid grin on his face. Sarah had a seat across from the director.

"What can you tell us doctor?" Danio asked.

"Not much sir. I first noticed something was wrong when Patry came to my office with a green fuzzy egg shape artifact. He looked like he was petting it. He's never exhibited that kind of behavior before, he's usually very security conscious. I asked him about it and he gave me an answer that worried me, it was if he didn't understand the dangers.

"Have you analyzed the artifact yet?"

"I started on it, I know it's not organic, at least in any way we are used to, it is crystalline in nature, not cellular. I can't rule out it not being a form of life yet though. I started some longer running tests, and then went to the lunchroom, where I noticed a number of them being handled. I asked Teve about it, and got the same type of answer I had gotten from Patry. That's when I hit the panic button."

Danio drummed his fingers on the table. "OK, I want all the explorer teams pulled; let's get all personnel back on base. Gery, I want you to… Gery, are you listening?" he said, noticing his head of exploration wasn't really paying attention.

"Did you ever notice the pattern the lights from the computer make on the ceiling?" Gery asked with a silly smile on his face.

"Right, Gery, Teve, report to quarantine," Danio barked, as he summoned a couple of security people to escort them. "Round up Patry too, and anybody handling one of those artifacts. I want all the artifacts secured in a safe location and guarded."

He paused as security took over and removed Gery and Teve. "Doctor do you think they are contagious?" he asked Sarah.

"I don't even know what we are dealing with yet, so I have no idea. We probably should round up all the people that have been handling those artifacts too though."

Danio barked a couple more orders into his computer. "Any other suggestions?"

Sarah thought. "Is anybody else noticing anything unusual going on in the last week? And I just mean anything out of the ordinary, not necessarily bizarre behavior."

"Food consumption has dropped over the last week," Bevel Emans, the director of supplies said.

"Down, how much?" Sarah asked.

"I was going to bring it up at our meeting this afternoon, but for some people it has dropped quite a bit. It's almost like they are eating only one meal a day."

"Just like the Argaliak's," was Sarah's immediate thought. The race was warm blooded;
Sarah always wondered how they could survive on that little. "Is there any particular group of people involved?"

"Yes, all of Explorer Team 2," Bevel replied.

"The team Patry was on," Sarah surmised. "It might be communicable. Better round all them up, and find out who they were in contact with," she said to Danio.

"Got it," the director said.

Two hours later Sarah was back in her lab. Atrip Homoor, her assistant had completed the tests she had started in her absence.

"There is no indication it could be a life form, and it doesn't seem to have any direct effect on the human thought process," he reported.

"Then why do they like to pet it?" Sarah asked.

Atrip handed her his report to read. "It appears to stimulate a pleasant nerve response but has no other effect. I don't think it has anything to do with our current problems, it just appeared at the same time as them."

"I don't believe in co-incidences, so why did all these get found at the same time the behavioral problems showed up."

Atrip shrugged. "I can't answer that. Our explorers never would have picked them up though if something else hadn't affected them. They've never picked up any other artifact without taking the proper precautions. And there is nothing native in these that would cause it."

"OK, I want you to run tests on Explorer Team 2 personnel next. I want to know if you can determine what the contamination agent is," Sarah ordered.

"I'll get right on that," Attrip replied, "anything else?"

"Not for now. I'm going to check in with Juda to see if she can gleam anything about Team 2's last exploration report."

Juda Coopatt was the mission's linguist, she was in charge of translating the Argaliakian documents. Sarah found her in her office, working on one that had come from Team 2's last mission.

"Anything useful there?" Sarah asked.

"Yes, very. It looks like the ruins Team 2 was working on was where the last stand took place," Juda said without looking up.

"Last stand? No other documents indicated anything was wrong, these do?"

"Yes, they do. Given our current situation it isn't good news."

"Why is that?"

Juda looked up, putting the document down. "What killed the race off was apathy."

"I don't understand."

"Neither did they. At least they never figured out what caused it. The race was striving for the stars, they were one step away from the hyperdrive. Then one of their exploration teams came back from one of the remote planets with a strange dysfunction: They didn't care anymore."

"How's that?"

"They stopped caring. They came back with no ambition. They finished their lives without accomplishing anything more."

"OK, so how did that destroy their civilization?"

"According to this, it spread to the rest of the population. People stopped doing any work, mechanics stopped fixing anything, farmers stopped farming, Argaliaks stopped doing anything."

"So they starved to death?"

"No, food production was automated, same as ours is. And their equipment was good, by our calculations it ran for another 200 years after they became extinct before it finally shut down entirely."

"So how did it end?"

"These documents don't say exactly, though my bet is the Argaliaks who wrote them also became infected and simply stopped writing. Our infected personnel are also down to doing pretty much nothing. I doubt you'll see any final security reports out of Teve for example."

Sarah frowned. "Anything about those green-egg like things?"

"They were apparently a popular children's toy at the time of the collapse."

"Children?"

"They stopped having them. Too much work."

"Wait a minute, what you're telling me is…"

"Yeah, the civilization became extinct because they didn't create the next generation. It was too much work. They stopped reproducing."

Sarah swore. "But that's a biological urge! Are you telling me they stopped having…"

Juda half smiled. "It doesn't say. But, yes, reading between the lines that is exactly what happened. That apparently was too much work also."

Sarah was dumfounded. "That takes lazy to a whole new level. So did they any idea how the disease is passed along?"

"No, they were never able to find it. These documents do tell of the final efforts to determine what it was. They knew for example it wasn't biological in nature, but it could be caught from an infected person. They had no idea how it was transmitted."

"You're right, that doesn't bode well for us."

"Well, we are in a little better position. I checked the records; both Gery and Teve had visited the site, so infections at this point are limited to personnel who were there. Just because it transmitted from individual to individual with the Argaliaks does not mean it is going to do it with us."

"Until it does…"

"Exactly, we should probably warn Earth now though not to send anybody else, nor allow us back until we do figure out if it transmits and how."

Sarah caught up with Attrip that afternoon. "Any progress on figuring out what happened?"
"Brain patterns have definitely changed, the brain itself does not show any abnormalities, the thought processes definitely do. No signs of foreign contagions. No sign of unusual chemicals or proteins. No sign of unusual electrical impulses."

"In other words, everything is functioning except it isn't"

"That sums it up."

"Any other ideas?"

"No, I'll need to sleep on it."

The next day Sarah got the answer she didn't want. Attrip didn't show up for work, so she went to look for him. She found him, still in bed, staring up at the ceiling.

"Have you ever noticed the interplay between shadows and light?" he asked.

"No, and we have work to do. So let's get going."

"They are really quite interesting," Attrip continued, ignoring her.

"Crap," thought Sarah, and backed out of the room. She called for security to quarantine her assistant, then got on the communicator with Juda.

"We have our answer," she said.

"We have several of them," Juda agreed. "Three others have it, including Danio."

"We're running out of time," Sarah said.

"I sent off the communication to command central warning them. They are monitoring us. We are not to leave the planet."

"If we all catch it I don't see any reason why we would."

"I think it would be more of people who haven't caught it yet trying to get off."

"Which may be how it reached Orh'neon Prime to start with."

"Possibly, I take it you still don't have any idea what it is?"

"I know what it isn't, it isn't physical. I did some more research after getting Attrip's report last night. What we are dealing with is some kind of field. I have no idea what produces it."

Sarah had plenty of subjects to gather data from, what she was running out of was time, whatever it was it spread through the colony with breakneck speed. Since quarantine didn't help any, they stopped bothering, the infected people did not get in the way, they simply stopped doing anything useful. Thankfully they still fed themselves and used the facilities. Actually they acted like normal human beings with no ambition.

Sarah was also able to get a reading on the brainwave changes while they were happening on a couple of subjects. It appeared to happen more easily with males, but the female members of the team were also coming down to it. A week later, Juda and she were the only still functioning humans.

The two poured over the data. "It appears to be a four dimensional field that is doing it, I still can't figure out what the origin is," Sarah said.

"We probably never will figure it out, it would require a trip to the planet where it originated, and we don't have the means to do that anymore." Juda sighed. "Well, we've done all we can today, I'm heading to bed. If I'm still functional in the morning we'll tackle it again."

Sarah knew what she meant. She was ready for bed too. She sent off her report for the day to mission control on Earth. From the responses she had been getting there would be no more missions to this solar system, which would probably be marked "Do not touch!" on the galactic map.

Sleep came fitfully, and while she was dozing off, a dream came to her. She realized a vague form was trying to communicate.

"We are the T'Thriga," the voice said. "We are the cause of the mental changes; it is a defense mechanism against races that would destroy our way of life. The only way to stop you is to remove your desire to harm us."

"We mean you no harm," Sarah protested.

"Some individuals yes, some no. As a race though, you are dangerous, just as the Argaliak were, which is why we stopped them."

"So that gives you the right to kill us off?"

"We have killed nobody, you will live out your normal life span free of pain and hunger. All we have removed is your desire to harm us."

"The Argaliak became extinct," Sarah shouted in her dream.

"That was an unfortunate side effect with them yes; it was the only way to stop them from occupying the whole solar system. Your race has no desire to do that. We have done all we needed to do to keep you from coming. It is not our desire to change your destiny as a species. It does not conflict with ours the way the Argaliak's did. We owed you this explanation so your mind could be at peace."

"But…," Sarah stopped. Actually further argument was pointless anyway, so she settled off to sleep.

When morning came, she was amazed at how the light and shadow interacted on her ceiling. She decided she was hungry after a while, and went to the lunch room, taking a moment to pick up one of the green fuzzy orbs to handle.
3rd place
  6.667

If I have to deal with any more dark gods, I'm going to kill something.

I don’t know if Darx is really a god; I guess it depends on who you ask. The first time I ever visited his temple, was when I was hiding from the sheriff. They really take poaching seriously around here.

My name is Jason. No not that Jason; he’s a hero for finding a piece of wool, I’m just a thief because I was hungry and killed a rabbit. I have to admit I have had my share of adventures though, and this one was a big one.

Normally you don’t expect to hear from a god, but while hiding in Darx’s temple, a voice spoke to me. There did not appear to be anyone else there (and I checked the place out), so I had to assume it was at least possible that it was actually Darx that was doing the speaking. But since there was no one else there, maybe he wasn’t talking to me per se, but it was telepathy.

At any rate, he seemed like a nice enough god, and apparently wanted to help me out. Maybe not too many people worshipped this guy anymore; I mean the place was run down (in shambles, really), and so he was willing to help anyone that walked (or slunk) in.

“As you can see,” the voice in my head said, “my home is in an, um, neglected state. People don’t realize now important I am in their lives.”

“Uh, so why haven’t I heard of you before?” I asked (aloud).

“It’s always that way,” came back the voice. “You are well aware of Sol, because he gives you those nice pleasant days, but mention the god of dark…”

“Whoa,” I exclaimed, “you are the god of darkness? I’m out of here.”

“Not darkness, dark, you fool,” came back the voice. “Night kind of dark. Shadow kind of dark. You can’t have light without dark, but who thinks about it that much, when all you people think about night is that it is time to sleep, and shade from a tree is a respite from the sun. But of course you remember Sol. Sheesh! Anyway, I doubt you would be in trouble with the sheriff, if you were royalty, right?”

“Well, Duh,” was all I could think to utter.

“I might be able to help you out with that,” replied the voice, continuing as though I had said nothing. “In case you weren’t aware, the king has no male heir. Next year his daughter will be sixteen, and he needs a husband for her, to take over the throne when he steps down.”

“The king is going to step down?” I asked. “Why? How do you know?”

“Look,” the voice came back, “I know things, okay? Now, if you want my help…”

The voice then proceeded to tell me what steps would need to be taken, and the only thing asked in return was that if/when I succeeded, I would make sure Drax’s temple was restored, so that people might come again.

. . . . .

The plan seemed sort of convoluted, and I didn’t raise my hopes up that I could even complete the first part of it without winding up in jail or dungeon. I dismissed the bad thoughts from my mind and headed for the castle. The first stop was the treasure room.

Sneaking in was no problem at all. Drax had told me there was an entryway of sorts hidden in a section of cliff that would actually take me into that room. I wouldn’t have called it an entryway, as it seemed to be more of a sewer, that insured the castle never flooded in heavy rains. There were many pathways, but following his directions, I came up in a depressed corner of the treasure room.

“Wow,” I thought. “I could just take what I want and live happily ever after in some other kingdom.” But Drax’s words came to mind: “Remember, take only the pendant, the glass containing the flower and enough small change to buy the other necessities. If you succeed in your quest, this will all eventually be yours anyway.”

I forced down the temptation to take more, and left by the way I came, but curiosity got the better of me, as I wondered if another of the pathways led to where I might get a glimpse of the princess. After all, if I was going to do all this in order to marry her, it would be nice to know what she looked like. I figured it wouldn’t be hard finding my way out again; just keep heading down.

Many turns later, I found myself in the corner of a garden. A garden inside a castle, who knew? It made me want to explore the whole place. What other wonders might be there. And then I saw the wonder that really mattered. I assumed it must be the princess as she was attended by a few other girls. She was indeed beautiful, and only the fear of getting caught there, was enough to drag me away and back to business. But I left with a huge smile on my face!

. . . . .

The next part required an accomplice. I found a willing kid to “play a joke” on some knights. We tried out our lines a few times, and then just relaxed and waited for Sir Frank and Sir George to arrive at a favorite eating establishment. They were seated at their usual place by a window and we waited until they had been served before starting our charade, walking under that window.

“Hey, did you see those shiny knights on those big horses?” I prodded my accomplice. “They didn’t look like any of the knights I‘ve seen around here before. They were too pretty.”

“I overheard that really big one call the fanciest one prince,” answered the accomplice, “and that prince one asked him if he had found a guide yet.”

“A guide to what?” I responded.

“One of the others said something about how the prince was going to present the king with a dragon’s head for his wall, in order to win the hand of his daughter,” Came back the accomplice. “I wonder if it has anything to do with the princess’ birthday party?”

“Oh yeah, Now I remember reading that proclamation,” I added, “about how the one that presents the best gift gets to wed the princess. But that’s a long way off, and I bet there are better gifts than that.”

“Not according to what Jim overheard,” said the accomplice. “He said he overheard the king talking to the sheriff about how he wished that dragon were no more. Hey, you think we can follow them and watch how a dragon gets slayed?”

“Yeah let’s go,” I answered, giving the hand signal for us to run off.

If the knights at the window looked out, they might have seen the accomplice just make it into the trees, but they didn’t see me, as I waited around the corner of the building for a couple minutes, then snuck back under the window to listen and see if they had taken the bait.

They had. They were busy making plans on slaying that dragon themselves, but then started arguing about which would get to marry the princess. They finally settled on Frank marrying and George getting half the treasury. I didn’t care about any of that. The only thing that mattered was the presentation of the dragon’s head.

. . . . .

I will not go into details on what took place throughout my travels. They will provide me with something to write when I no longer have the urge to adventure. For this manuscript I will simply stick to the pertinent aspects.

It took me over a month to reach the base of the mountain holding the next part of the plan. High up on that mountain the last of the Rocs had a nest. It was an arduous climb, but I finally came upon the creature. It was obvious that of the two of us, I was the only nervous one.

“Before I eat you,” said the Roc, “would you like to tell me why you have come here?”

Now I had to really take my faith in Drax, as I said what he had told me: “Oh great Roc, I have come here not to do harm, but to offer you something that will make you even more majestic. I have here an emerald in gold pendant that matches your bright eyes, and will compliment your beautiful satiny black plumage. All I ask in return is a single small feather. Here, try it on, look at your reflection, and if you agree that your presence is even more magnificent, then let us trade. If you think it does not help, then I gladly make myself a sacrifice.”

I have no idea how I managed to make that speech without stuttering or passing out; the look the Roc had been giving me the whole time, didn’t seem to bode well. After I placed the pendant around its neck and it admired its reflection, the look from the eyes remained the same, but it answered: “you are right. I look even more majestic with this contrast. We have a deal. Here is a feather. Now leave before I change my mind and eat you anyway.”

I put the feather in the glass case on the run!

. . . . .

The final outward leg of my journey took an additional four months. I then came upon the mountain of the sun, thus named for its height, since the summit is too high to be seen. Cloud layers abound, starting less than halfway up.

Of course I never made it to the summit, as it was not necessary and I would not be able to breathe there at any rate. Following Drax’s directions, I still had to climb through multiple cloud layers, which at least saved me from vertigo, as you could not see how high you really were.

At last I came upon a small cave entrance, barely large enough for me to crawl into. I have no idea how deep into the mountain I crawled, but eventually it opened to a glorious cavern. There in the middle stood a stalagmite that was formed in such a manner that the top resembled a throne. There was no stalactite above it which seemed to me rather odd, but I had no more time to conjecture when: “Why have you come to my home?” resounded at me from the throne.

“I come in search of the Phoenix,” I answered, though I saw no living creature. “I wish to do a trade.”

“What could you possibly have that I would want?” came the answer, “And what could I possibly have to give you?”

Once more I resorted to Drax’s words: “I have a chance to wed a beautiful lass, but in order to do so, I must present her father with the best gift. I would like to give him one of your feathers, and I have brought you a beautiful feather of a Roc to grace the spot vacated by your feather. I can assure you that the contrast will please you.”

“If I were to pluck a feather for you,” Came the reply, “you would be blinded by its brilliance, and you would never see your beautiful lass again.”

“I have a case, that covered, will protect me from that, and when I present it to the father, I will do so with a warning to only ever lift the cover a slit to use to lighten up his residence on the darkest nights.” I have no idea why Drax was specific about not naming the king. Maybe the Phoenix has something against royalty.

“Place the case on this throne and leave,” the Phoenix answered. “Return in an hour. You will either be allowed to retrieve the covered glass, or you will pay with your life.”

I did as instructed, and found the covered glass. As I was preparing to enter the cave again to depart, there came another statement from the Phoenix: “You were correct. The contrast is lovely. I hope the father enjoys your gift to him, and you and your lass have a long and happy life together. Remember never to let that cover up more than a slit. Farewell.”

“Thank you,” was all I could think to say as I left.

. . . . .

Five months later I made it back home, and went to Drax’s temple before departing for the castle. “I did as you said,” I spoke to the air, “and am ready to go claim my bride.” There was no answer. “Hmph,” I thought, “he must be busy,” and off I went to the castle.

I hoped that when I got there, at least one of the knights would have already showed his gift of the dragon head, and I wasn’t disappointed. There on the floor in front of everyone was a dragon’s head mounted on a plaque. And the king was busily shouting at the knights: “You idiots! What you did is insane. She was our guardian. She made sure no evil creatures lurked in the darkness to endanger our population. Guards, take these fools to the dungeon. I will decide upon their punishment later. Who’s next?”

Luckily (or not), there were a few other suitors that went before me. This gave me time to calm down, but also gave me time to think about how I would introduce my gift. The king was not an easily impressed man, and I feared the dungeon was becoming overpopulated.

When it was finally my turn, I started: “Your highness, I heard rumor that someone was going to present you with a dragon’s head for a gift. I didn’t realize if this was a good gift or not, but I thought that either way, you could use something to keep the dark at bay. So I went to the ends of the world and procured for you this gift.” I pulled the covered glass case from under my cloak. “This is a Phoenix feather. It will light your castle in the darkest nights. Just be cautious never to lift the cover more than a slit, which is enough to lighten the whole place.” I lifted the cover a slit exposing the vast chamber to light as though it were noon, and to the gasps from all in attendance. I then lowered the cover and smiling, presented the gift to the king.

My smile didn’t last long as the scowl on the king’s face told me something was amiss. “My kingdom is awash in idiots,” exclaimed the king. “Did you not realize that the Phoenix is the earthly form of Sol, and can not return from the ashes of its death if it is not complete? And that means if the Phoenix is to perish while that feather is here, that the world will turn dark, never to see the light of day again? Guards throw this fool into the dungeon now! We will get the information out of him as to where we can return this feather, and then, well, we shall see.”

Obviously the king got this straightened out, or I wouldn’t be able to write this. But those proceedings as well as my other adventures will have to wait to be told at a later date, as I have run out of parchment here in this dungeon.

Around here, everyone has a story about disbelief, getting old, and a starship salesperson.

Why is it all the weird cases wind up on my desk? I know I’m not the Captain’s favorite. Maybe I should stop dating his daughter. Nah, that can’t be the reason.

My name is Joe; Sergeant Joseph Peeple if you want to be formal, and I have been a Sergeant for longer than most here have been on the force. I’m not saying I’m old, but retirement keeps looking like a good idea. Hmm, maybe that’s why I was given this case…

I’d never heard of the Galaxy Retirement Center until this missing person’s report came in. Maybe the Captain thinks I can turn up missing too. And I’m a homicide detective, not a babysitter. Next thing you know I’ll be looking for lost pets. Maybe they ARE trying to put me out to pasture.

Anyway, some guy named Fred Goldstone never came back from a round of golf, so naturally the first thing they do is call the cops. Well, not exactly. They did search the course first, where they did find his clubs next to the 13th green. But they did not wait the requisite 24 hours, before which we deem a person legally missing, before requesting assistance.

I was not impressed with the ornate entry gate (the columns resembled rocket ships, the overhead arch shooting stars and GALAXY in raised text on the gate itself in the form of what I took to be an UFO). The fence that stretched away to the sides as far as could be seen at least looked normal – for a reclusive millionaire’s mansion that is.

The long drive up to the main building was through beautiful landscaping. It was actually a shame when the building came into view, not because it took away from the surroundings because of a gaudy gothic architecture or anything like that, but because it looked like the top part of a flying saucer that had crash landed. It made me wonder if the architect had been drunk (or senile) when designing it.

At least the entrance was vertical instead of leaning with the design, and was wheelchair accessible, which made me think that maybe we wouldn’t be walking on sloping floors inside. There were symbols surrounding the entry doors that were either hieroglyphs, Klingon or just fancy scribbling. Entry and Exit signs on the doors were in English, anyway.

My partner Stew held the door for me to enter, and I shot him a look that warned him that I wasn’t that much older than him, and to not even think about making any smart aleck remark.

Before we had completely entered, we were greeted by an elderly woman with a nametag that read Edith. “Welcome to the Galaxy, are you gentlemen looking to stay with us?” she asked, concluding the statement with a smile and a wink.

“Madam,” I replied, without a smile or wink, “we are from the police. I am Sergeant Peeple and this is my partner Officer Stewart. We are here because someone reported a missing person. Would that be you?”

“Oh, you must mean Mr. Goldstone,” she answered. “At least I think he is the latest one…” She had stopped talking and was just standing there with a confused look on her face.

Stew and I looked at each other, and before I had the chance, he asked: “Latest? You mean he isn’t the only one missing?”

“Oh dear no,” Edith said. “Let’s see, there was Ernie, and Bill, and Thomas, and…” She continued talking but had dropped to a whisper and was walking away from us, so I couldn’t catch it all.

Stew and I again looked at each other as Edith was walking away mumbling. “Is this a retirement home or an asylum?” I asked.

He shrugged, but before Stew could answer, another woman showed up. This one was a young beauty though, who was many, many years away from even contemplating retirement. Both Stew and myself did the obvious sucking in of the gut when seeing her.

“Hello,” she greeted, “I’m Shirley Tremble, assistant superintendent here. I’m the one that phoned in the missing person report. You are the police, aren’t you?

“That’s right miss,” hoping I got the title correct (I may be old – but I’m not dead). “Can you tell us about what happened? Apparently, according to Edith (I pointed her way), there is more than one missing person?”

“Oh, well Edith may be right. I wouldn’t know, as I have only been working at this station a little over a year, and Fred Goldstone is the first to go missing on my watch.”

“Station?” jumped in Stew. “There are more Galaxy Retirement Centers?

“Oh yes,” replied Shirley, “many more. But I have never LOST a patient, er, resident, at any of them I have worked at.”

Two things stood out in her statement, but I let it slide for the time being. “Right, what can you tell us about this missing Fred Goldstone. All we were told was that a search found his golf clubs. This is a huge estate, did you search the whole place?”

“Oh, well” she said. “Ryan, he’s one of the groundskeepers, noticed the clubs laying near the 13th green, but there was no one around. It was getting late, so he just brought them back to the clubhouse. He saw they belonged to Mr. Goldstone, and looked for him at dinner, to let him know he had found them. When he couldn’t find Fred, he came and told me. We checked out the home, but it was already too dark to go outside, so we had to wait for morning to conduct a search. After the search proved fruitless, I made the call to the police.”

“All right,” I said, “we need to know who he was golfing with, and talk to them. I’m sure they will be able to tell us what happened, and we’ll get this straightened out fast. He probably made a poor shot, the others ribbed him about it, and he skulked off ashamed. Stew, check out his quarters, to see if he snuck back in during the night and is hiding there, too ashamed to face everyone.”

As we were walking toward the clubhouse, Shirley explained that it was possible Fred had been playing solo. “He didn’t seem to associate much with the others,” she said.

Passing a table where a couple old guys were playing chess, we overheard them talking. “I hear that old Goldstone went missing out at green 13,” said the first.

“Well number 13 always has been a mean one,” responded the second. “It’s been known not to wait til dark to feed. No great loss though, Who’s goin’ to miss that old used starship salesman.” They both started laughing.

“Uh, friendly place you have her,” I told Shirley. “Those old coots think the golf course could have eaten him? And what’s this starship stuff. Was Goldstone a used car salesman per chance, before retiring?”

“Oh, they don’t think the golf course ate him,” came back Shirley. “That would just be silly. It is only the greens that feed at night. And I have no idea what Fred did for a living, but it should be in his application to join here. We can check it out after the clubhouse, if you like.”

She had said it so casually like, that it almost slipped past me. “The greens eat people? I AM in an asylum, and you’re just a patient, aren’t you?”

Before she could respond, Stew came running up. “Hey boss, Goldstone wasn’t in his room, but look what I found there.” He held up what looked like a bankbook and a brochure.

“Our Mr. Fred Goldstone’s rich, like made out of gold,” exclaimed Stew. “According to this, he has more money than most countries. He must be one helluva conman. This brochure is for something right out of Star Trek. I don’t know who’d be gullible enough to buy a spaceship, but whoever it is might be responsible for his being missing. And that someone might have no qualms about murdering the one that scalped him.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You’d have to be one helluva salesman to sell a spaceship, and according to those gentlemen over there (I pointed at the chess players), Fred was selling used ones.” I started to laugh, but then I remembered that before Stew had showed up I had been having a weird conversation with Shirley. As I looked back over at her, she held her head down and was shuffling her feet, like she was ashamed of something.

“Shirley,” I said, “is there something you want to say? Like about this place for instance? And who you really are?

“Oh," she spoke back,"this really is a retirement center, not an asylum, and I am the assistant superintendent. But there IS something I didn’t mention, and you might not have been aware of…”

“Go on,” I prodded.

“Well you see, a stipulation of membership to Galaxy, is that you get ten years of luxury living, and then you are fed to the owners. The ‘greens’ are how they appear during the day. You’d be scared to death if you saw how they really look. I think maybe Mr. Goldstone might have tried to sell them a starship, so they could return to their own planet, and maybe they found out it was a scam, and… Uh, can we just forget about the missing person report?”