Exploring the vastness of space: The mission of the massive Starburst ships.
Chairmen Cole and Echo of the Starburst ship Star Trail get wrapped up in finding lost ancient cultures.
And in the process find far more than they ever could imagine.
Starburst takes the vast Seeders Universe and expands it yet again beyond where humans dare go.
And Allyson Longueira, my co-curator for this bundle also picked one of my novels, Starburst: A Seeders Universe Novel. As I said earlier, I have been writing science fiction for over four decades. I wrote thirty-five Star Trek novels, the only two original Men in Black novels, and a ton of other science fiction. I have over twenty-three million copies of my books in print and most of them are science fiction books. Starburst asks the old science fiction question: "What, really, is alien?" And then answers it in a very unexpected way. – Dean Wesley Smith
"ECHO, CAN'T YOU just relax a little?"
Echo glanced around at her best friend and lover, Cole Lemmon, as he followed her up the center of the deserted suburban street. The day was hot and Cole was sweating, staining his white T-shirt around the brown straps of the backpack he carried. His longish brown hair was damp where it stuck out from under his Yankee's baseball cap.
His handsome face was flushed even though they had only gone four blocks in distance.
She was hot as well, which was why she had been walking fast, trying to get them to their starting target before they stopped or the heat got them. It normally wasn't this hot in Portland, Oregon, or at least that's what some long-time residents of the area had told her earlier.
She was wearing jeans with tennis shoes, a sleeveless blue tank-top with a sports bra under it, and she had her short blonde hair under a Dodgers baseball cap. Sweat was running off her neck and down her chest and she desperately needed a drink of water.
She had her Smith and Wesson pistol in a holster on her hip and Cole had a small twenty-two saddle rifle tied to the side of his backpack. It had been years since they had gone anywhere in this city without those guns, winter or summer. They both had admitted they would feel naked without them, even though they could teleport away from any problem at an instant's notice.
But now, after three years mostly living on the surface of this planet, trying to help the residents recover from a horrid disaster, she and Cole had decided it was just easier to act like locals instead of Seeders. And locals all still carried guns, for the most part.
On both sides of the suburban street around them, the houses were like tombstones for the people who had been killed inside of them when the Big Death happened five years before. The once-green lawns where children had played were brown and had long turned to tall, dry weeds. The house windows were dirty and almost every house had drapes pulled, at least on the lower floors.
Weeds and grass had started growing in patches of dirt along the street and up through cracks in the concrete. What had been perfect lines of lawns, driveways, sidewalks, and street were now blurred as Mother Nature slowly took back the neighborhood.
Echo had seen a projection on how in fifty years a neighborhood like this would be completely overgrown, in one hundred years it would be all plants and piles of rubble, and in five hundred years it would be almost impossible to tell what had been here.
Just as Mother Nature had killed most everyone on the planet one day with a burst of electromagnetic waves from space, she now was slowly reclaiming the planet.
The Big Death had hit at a little after eight in the morning here in Portland, so most people in this neighborhood were either at work or taking kids to school or some such thing.
Cole and Echo had come to this planet as part of the Seeders reconstruction program. They had been a couple for almost fifty years. Cole was just over two hundred years old while Echo had just gone past one hundred. One of the wonderful things about being a Seeder was that you never aged.
But she was sure that this task, being on this planet, was aging them both. She knew, without a doubt, that no matter how long they lived or how many planets they visited, they would never forget this.
Seeing death every day and living in the middle of it did that to a person.
They lived together in the city of Portland, Oregon, worked together both on the local newspaper, and searching for the dead, and she couldn't imagine being without Cole through any of it.
They also had a nice apartment on their base Seeder ship, Silver Moon, but these days they seldom jumped back to that place. Here in Portland they had adopted two wonderful cats and she actually liked the home better here with the cats. When they left this assignment, she planned on taking the cats with them.
She looked around at all the empty houses. This neighborhood hadn't been cleared yet, which was the process they were sent to start.
They were to inventory the bodies in every home along the street and mark from the outside which homes had bodies so the removal crews could come and take the bodies to the new cemeteries.
And in each home she and Cole were to look for information as to who lived there and double-check it with their database, even those houses without bodies.
The ultimate goal of the Respect Project was to give everyone who died in the Big Death a proper resting place and a record of their existence for the future, including where they had lived and what they had done for work.
It was almost an impossible task, but everyone in the five now-growing new cities around the country, which included Portland, and the new national government, were committed to the task.
Both Cole and Echo thought it a wonderful task and worth every minute they spent doing it. It would be part of the rebuilding of the civilization on this planet.
"We can start anywhere, you know?" Cole said. "How about we start here, work back to the truck along both sides, then cool down and bring the truck to here and go the other direction?"
Echo stopped and glanced at an address still visible on the side of one of the homes. From what she could tell, they were about halfway along the long subdivision street. Cole's idea was a good one. They had to get out of the sun. It was only ten in the morning and this day promised to be far too hot to stay out in the sun for very long.
She nodded. "Good plan."
"Thank you," Cole said, stopping and taking off his pack, letting it drop to the concrete in the middle of the street.
They had been going out four mornings a week to catalog houses and bodies in the vast subdivisions that surrounded Portland. It had bothered her some at first, nosing into people's personal homes, but then she had grown numb to it. After all, the people they were investigating were all dead.
The thing she could never look at were the children's bodies, often in cribs. Every time they found a home with a child, Cole took that house on his own, even though they had clear orders to always stay together. Not that there was anything dangerous in these old subdivisions besides slowly rotting wood.
This subdivision had lots of signs that children lived in these homes, from swing sets visible in the backyards, to small bikes and other toys left near the front doors.
She really never wanted children and Seeders seldom had children, actually. Cole had no desire for children either. But that didn't mean she could stomach seeing a dead child. There were some things she would draw the line at.
She took a long drink of semi-cold water that tasted wonderful and then handed the bottle to Cole, who took a drink and sighed. Around them a slight breeze kicked up filling the air with faint noises of houses creaking and dry brush rustling. The sounds did nothing to break the death silence of the subdivision.
"Let's go get snoopy into people's lives," he said, handing her back the bottle of water.
"That one first," she said, pointing to a light blue house on her right. "Let's do two on that side, then two on the other side, as we work back to the truck."
"Sounds perfect," he said, smiling at her and picking up his pack.
She loved everything about him, his dark eyes, his solid build, and his strong arms. But mostly she just loved that smile.
Somehow, over all the years of living now in the middle of death, that smile of his had kept her sane.
They headed up the front sidewalk of the two-story home that must have been very nice in its day for this time in this planet's history. The drapes were pulled and more than likely the front door was locked. Both of them had been trained before they started this job to pick a lock. Cole was slightly faster at it than she was, but only by a second or so. They hadn't found a lock so far that had stopped them.
The people in charge of the Respect Project wanted all the homes to be respected, if possible, even though eventually they would all just rot away. Echo was fine with that as well.
Cole left his pack on the front step and took out his rifle, slinging it over his shoulder before bending down and picking the front door locks. Thirty seconds later he stood and pushed the door open.
The smell of mold and dust and something with a slight tang greeted them and they both stepped back out of the smell and pulled out their cloth masks and tied them over their mouths and noses. That smell with a bite meant there was a body in the building.
They always wore masks when a body was in the building.
The masks also helped them with the dust. They went through about a dozen of the masks a day, maybe more on a hot day like today.
Even though there was some light filtering through the drapes and from a back window in the kitchen beyond the living room, they both clicked on flashlights. When they first started out doing this job, they had both tripped over various things in homes that they just hadn't seen in dim light. So they took no chances now.
Echo panned her flashlight around the living room. More of a formal room that didn't look much used. A layer of gray dust dulled down all colors in the room.
Moving slowly to not kick up too much dust from five years of no one moving around in here, they headed for the kitchen and the family room beyond.
Echo was relieved to see no sign of children's toys around the family room.
Cole slowly opened some drawers near the family dining area. Often families left personal information in drawers near a kitchen table.
While he was doing that, she turned and opened the back door leading into a two-car garage. There was one car there. And a spot for a second one. Tools were in their places on the walls.
Nothing else of interest.
"One car left," she said as she went past Cole and toward the rooms to the right of the big living room. One looked like a guest bedroom and was as sterile as the living room. Whoever lived in this house believed in keeping everything in its place. Even after sitting abandoned for five years and layers of gray dust making everything pale, that feeling of "in its place" was clear in this home.
It made her wonder what the residents of this home had been like. Clearly different than her and Cole. Their large apartment in a building in the downtown area was always awash with clutter of various types, mostly books. They were both just comfortable in that.
And their apartment on board Silver Moon was the same way. Cluttered and comfortable.
She would not have been comfortable in this place. It felt sterile and even more dead than most homes she had been in, as if this home had been dead before the Big Death hit.
"Anything?" she asked.
Cole shook his head. "Nothing. Drawers in perfect order, but no bills, no letters, nothing. More than likely all that is in a study someplace from the looks of all this."
With Cole leading, they headed upstairs.
The light was brighter upstairs as most of the back windows in the home had the blinds open. They all looked out over a lush backyard that had held a pool. Echo had no doubt it had been beautiful in its day. And from the looks of the house, the lawn would have been mowed perfectly and the pool more than likely cleaned twice a week.
At the top of the stairs a hallway lead the length of the house. It had a number of closed doors. Echo had a hunch behind one of those doors would be the body they knew was in here from the faint musty smell. The smell had a slight tang to it after five years, but it wasn't a smell that was easy to miss.
And now that they were upstairs, the smell was thick.
And even though it was still fairly early, this upper area of the house was already heating up. Any body they did find would be well mummified in this kind of heat.
A mummified body was a lot better as far as Echo was concerned than a body torn up from animals. Not all animals had survived the electromagnetic pulse. Dogs and rats and mice had been killed, but cats had survived. And with a cat trapped in a home with a dead human, they ate the dead human when they got hungry enough.
There were no signs this home had cats, so the body would be mummified and look moderately human even after five years.
The first two doors were to small bedrooms with no occupants. The rooms had been furnished with small single beds and just left. One room was painted pink, one blue.
Clearly the rooms had been meant for future children that had not arrived yet.
And now never would.
The third door was to an empty bathroom and the next door was to a master bedroom and bath, also empty. The bed was made perfectly.
There was nothing out of place in this entire house. Echo found that amazing and very closed up and creepy.
The next door on the other side of the hall was to a study with a big desk.
"Got it," Cole said, moving to the desk and file cabinet that would let them know who had lived here.
There was one more door at the end of the hall and that meant it had the body in it.
Echo went to it and opened it slowly, making sure to not stir up any dust as she did so.
The blinds were open in the room and it was a fairly large family room that also did not look used in any way. This room had a large screen television, a number of couches, a game table, and plush carpet.
It had been designed to be comfortable, but clearly not made comfortable.
Everything again was in perfect position. Nothing was used. It was as if the people living in this house had just existed in it and never really lived in it.
There was a door off the family room that was closed. More than likely that was where the body was. They had found many bodies, since they started this job, in various stages of bathroom routines.
Cole came in behind her. "This is the home of Ben and Cathy Freeman. He worked at a pharmacy downtown and she was an RN."
Cole held up his digital pad. "We already recovered his body when they cleaned the downtown area."
"This place sure looks like they were planning for kids," Echo said. "Clearly didn't get the chance."
Cole glanced around and nodded. Then he pointed to the door. "You want me to look and see who is in there?"
"We both will," she said.
Slowly she opened the bathroom door to keep the dust from swirling while both of them shined their flashlights into the small bathroom.
What she saw stunned her and took her a moment for her mind to wrap around.
What had been a fairly attractive, thin, brown-haired woman lay in the bathtub face up. She had mummified, but she still looked pretty good, with her long brown hair fanned out on the back of the tub over her.
And her face was calm in death. Very calm.
What had really surprised Echo was that the tub water when it evaporated had left an ugly brown stain.
It took her a moment to see why. Both of the woman's wrists that were crossed over her chest had been slashed.
A razor blade lay on a napkin on the edge of the tub.
"Now that's a first," Cole said beside Echo in the bathroom door. "More than likely she cut her wrists right before the Big Death hit."
On the counter was a note card standing up with the name "Ben" on it.
Echo looked at it, then glanced at Cole. Clearly that was Cathy Freeman's suicide note.
Cole shrugged, meaning she could read it or not. Up to her.
Echo wasn't sure if she wanted to read it, but at this point she felt she had no choice.
She picked up the note and opened it. Then read it aloud as Cole held his flashlight so she could see.
I am so sorry for the mess I have left you. I have tried to keep this clean and simple and plan this in a bathroom we seldom use.
I am so sorry that I cannot bring the children into the world we so hoped to have. I could no longer look at the deadness in your eyes and the disappointment I felt every time we made love. My passing here will allow you to move on, to find a new wife, to be happy, and finally have and raise the children you so wanted.
Please don't be mad at me, love. This is for the best. Remember me to your children when they are old enough to understand. Have a wonderful life.
Echo carefully replaced the suicide note on the counter.
"Let's get out of here," Cole said, gently touching her elbow. "We got all we need from here."
Somehow Echo nodded and turned and followed Cole out of the family room and down the hall past the future children's bedrooms, then down the stairs and out into the hot air of the dead subdivision.
Cole marked the house, picked up his pack, stuck his rifle back in it, and led the way to the street.
She pulled off her mask and tucked it in her pocket, letting the warm air work to clear her mind.
They stopped in the middle of the street, both with their backs to the house they had just been in.
After a moment, Cole gently touched her arm. "You all right?"
"Honestly," she said, turning to look into his worried dark-blue eyes. "I think I'm done for the day."
"I agree," Cole said. "Too hot anyway. So what are you thinking?"
She looked into the eyes of the man she loved, the man that had helped her survive more death than she ever wanted to think about. "I am thinking about a long cold shower in our air-conditioned apartment."
"We are on the same track with that," Cole said, smiling.
"Then maybe a few hours in bed making love to you."
At that, his eyebrows went up and he looked at her, clearly puzzled.
"After all this death," she said, sweeping her arm around to indicate the dead neighborhood, "I just want to feel close to you, to be alive."
He smiled bigger than she had remembered him smiling in a very long time. "Perfect, just perfect."
She kissed him, then took his arm and together they headed up the hot street of the dead subdivision.
It would be a day she would never forget.
And this assignment on this mostly dead planet would also never be forgotten. No matter how long she lived.