Author: John McLaughlin

Pillars of flame smothered the Trac’s windows as it descended swiftly through outer atmosphere. The craft’s accommodations were quite decadent: cushioned seats, masseuses, and gleaming trays of food and liquor crowded to the edges of the heat-blasted view screen. In the main concourse, passengers mingled and drank, occasionally glancing out at the massive carbon chainlinks pulling them to the surface.

Yuma turned to his son with an upheld hand. “Shiro, watch a trick.” He pumped his bionic-assisted grip twice, taking pleasure in the child’s wide-eyed amazement. The gloved hand rotated palms-up and revealed a paper crane, cradled by fingers of titanium spindle.

“Again! Again!” the boy cried.

A nearby man had noticed the scene and rose from his seat.

“Hello, little traveler,” he began, stooped over the boy, “what brings you through these parts?”

Yuma smiled in return. “Just taking my son along on some university business.”

“Ah, an academic!” He extended a hand. “The name is Kor-tel.”

“It looks like you’re packing some serious hardware,” Yuma said, nodding towards his black weapon sack.

The man’s smile widened. “Oh, the native stock can be quite dangerous, even capable of some primitive tool use. Although I’m sure you’re already familiar.” He pulled a flask from an inside pocket and took a swig. “They have a natural talent for slinging projectiles.”

“Well, I don’t expect any surprises,” Yuma said, lifting his son onto the seat beside him, “just a boring research trip. And what’s your business here?”

“Me? I intend to track a buck, an alpha male.” Kor-tel pantomimed raising a rifle with his right arm, eagerly taking aim down invisible crosshairs and activating the trigger with his free hand. “A good challenge for a man my age.”

Yuma whistled, impressed. “A private leisure license! It must have set you back. But personally, I’d pass on the hunt.”

Kor-tel was preparing to mount a defense when their discussion was tabled by an approaching servant.

“Would you gentlemen like anything else before we dock at the surface?” Her voice was friendly enough but an octave higher than standard due to vocal mods.

Kor-tel raised a hand. “No thank you, dear. I’ll need my full wits about me soon.” Yuma also declined.

The woman bowed slightly. “Very well.”

As the ragged surface rose to greet them, passengers began milling back to their seats to collect luggage. Yuma had forgotten the incredible speed of the Carbon-Trac system–only a few hours drive down from orbit. It was an expensive trip for a private citizen, but of course, the university had covered his costs. One of the many perks of the scientific life.

“Professor, I bid you farewell,” Kor-tel chimed, swinging his sack over a shoulder. “Next time surface-side, you must visit my quarters. And bring the little one too.” He winked goodbye to Shiro.

“That would be lovely.”

Yuma retrieved his own bag and stood the boy beside himself on the landing platform, hand held tight. “Ready, Shi?”

They stepped off the iron grate and set foot on Earth. The docking crater’s pulverized gravel crunched pleasantly under his boot as Yuma turned his gaze skyward. Those grey clouds of fallout had thinned noticeably since his last trip; a hopeful sign for the native H. sapiens he had spent his career studying. Shiro tugged on the fabric stretched taut across his father’s thigh.

“Is this where the bad thing happened?” he asked, his eyes moist little orbs.

Yuma knelt and cupped his gloves gently around the boy’s shoulders.

“Yes. We make mistakes, but then we fix them. It’s only human.”