The sequel to Junction, praised by Publishers Weekly, Cemetery Dance and more! A year ago, Anne Houlihan uncovered a wormhole to Junction, a patchwork planet of competing alien biomes. Now, she and Daisuke are going back to investigate "The Howling Mountain," the possible location of a wormhole into space. Her mission headed by an eccentric millionaire, Anne believes she will have a chance to learn more about the origin of Junction and its varied ecosystems. The mission has purposes beyond what she knows, however, and so does the planet. As the expedition tears its way across the alien landscape, Anne must fight to protect its lifeforms, herself, and the Earth. FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
Release date: July 20, 2021
Publisher: Flame Tree Publishing
Print pages: 256
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Daniel M. Bensen
The Bear, the Ring, and the Milky Way
Bamboo grass crunched and the mist curled away, revealing the bear.
Sunlight caught the gnats rising from its fur. Breath steamed from its black muzzle.
Its humped shoulders trembled. A plate-sized foot swung out, fringed with claws. Whuffling another plume of vapor, the animal approached.
Anne hardly dared to breathe.
“Raise your arms,” Daisuke whispered behind her ear.
Anne twitched at the voice. So did the bear. Its forepaws struck the ground and agitated gnats billowed. Black fur bristled as muscles tensed, raising that great rugged spine. Claws spread at the ends of arms as long as Anne’s legs. As long as the distance that separated the large angry carnivore from the incautious biologist.
The bear breached the surface of the mist, and the pale fur around its eyes, chin, and chest glowed as if spotlit. More display patterns. Threat displays, if Anne were any judge.
Its smell hit her, wet fur and urine, autumn leaves and rotting meat. Anger.
Anne and the bear twitched again. It was Daisuke, yelling.
Anne’s boyfriend clapped his hands and the bear grunted.
Its eyes rolled. The bear was confused now, as well as angry, and deciding whether to become afraid.
You and me both, mate.
Panic reared up under Anne. Her toes tingled in her boots, telling her to run away. Her palms itched, as if for a stick. Stupid monkey instincts. Totally inappropriate for this habitat and this species of predator. No bears in Africa.Instead, she had to think.
“Raise your arms,” Anne muttered through numb lips. “Raise your arms. Raise your arms!” Her hands shook, but she spread them out as wide as they would go.
The bear was looking at her again, breathing fast through its nose. Anne was too. Mammalian adrenal responses. Fight or flight or freeze?
She widened her stance, trying to look as large and intimidating as possible. Right, because the woman most often described as ‘dumpy’ might intimidate anyone.
Ah, there was the anger. Maybe she ought to try this threat posture on a few social media trolls.
“Get out of here!” Anne’s ribs tightened around the shout. “Shoo! Go away, bear!”
Daisuke clapped again, and Anne tried it too. She jumped up and down, swinging her arms to bring her hands together. A star jump.
She felt absolutely ridiculous, but at least nobody was looking at her besides her boyfriend and a bear. At least there were no cameras or millions of followers here to critique every choice she’d ever made. She’d left her phone in Tokyo and that horrible body-cam on an alien planet.
“Don’t you know who I am? I’m a global celebrity now!” Anne shouted. “I’m the queen of Junction! Now go away, or I’ll star jump you to death!”
Another jump-clap. The bear flinched and whuffled. It shook its head. Fur and folds of skin flapped. It thumped back onto its forelegs and Anne felt an absurd rush of accomplishment.
“Yeah! Take that, bear!”
The bear did not strike her down for her hubris. It just hunched its shoulders and shuffled away like a grumpy uncle. It was anthropomorphism, but Anne couldn’t help feeling it looked disgusted at her. As if she were much too off-putting, socially maladroit, and mediapathic to deserve a mauling.
Anne rubbed her face with trembling fingers. Daisuke’s right. I’ve been spending way too much time online.
“Ya!” he shouted from behind her, and Anne jumped, fight-or-flighting all over again.
“For the love of god, Daisuke!” She turned, hand clutching at her heart. Her parka suddenly felt stifling. Her breath smoked in the autumn morning air.
Daisuke twitched his head and blinked at her. Hair mussed from sleep, red-faced and puffing from bear-scaring, he still looked absolutely fucking gorgeous. Oh, that sweat on his brow. Oh, the way the lower edges of his eyes scrunched up when he squinted into the mist. Those lips set in that firm line, as if to say Once I’ve taken care of the forest creatures, I’ll take care of my woman. And then, all the rest of the world’s problems! Slap that face on a jewel case, and you’d sell a million DVDs. Which was exactly what Daisuke Matsumori had done in his persona of ‘the Iron Man of Survival’.
Daisuke had happened to be filming in New Guinea when Anne had found out about the wormhole just over the border in Indonesian Papua. She hadn’t known it was a wormhole exactly, but she’d taken photos of it and sent them to everyone she knew. A couple of days later, Daisuke had been surviving a whole different kind of wilderness. And saving Anne’s life.
“The bear.” He gestured as if to direct the attention of a confused audience. “He might come back. He might still be curious.”
Anne supposed Daisuke would know. She hadn’t yet watched all of his old videos, but she recalled seeing a couple of bears in there.
“We should make more noise when we take walks in the morning.” The Iron Man of Survival lifted his chin and squinted into the diffuse sunlight. “I’m sorry,” he added.
“You’re handsome is what you are. Look at you, with your hands on your hips and your jaw out like that.” Anne put her arms around him, as if to stop him from running away. “You tell those bears, Dice.”
Daisuke hugged her back. “Are you okay? Are you scared?”
She was, but not of anything in this nature park. It was just the outside world, all the outside worlds.
“Naw,” she said, snuggling in under his chin. If the glory of nature and the fear of death wasn’t enough to distract her from her stupid problems, maybe sex would work. Anne rubbed her hands up Daisuke’s back. “Thank you for saving me from wild beasts.”
“I’ll catch breakfast for you too.” Daisuke broke their embrace and leaned to pick up their fishing poles from where they had dropped them in the bamboo grass.
Anne considered, then grabbed him again and wrestled him back upright. “Breakfast can wait,” she said. “Let’s go where a bear can’t find us.”
A chuckle under her cheek. “I think you don’t mean Sapporo?”
“Jesus Christ, no.” She squeezed his ass. It resisted her fingers delightfully. “No civilization.”
“No clothes either.”
“Yes. I got it.”
By the time Anne left their tent for the second time that morning, the sun had burned off the mist. The Ishikari Mountains loomed to the east like an autumnal wall.
She let Daisuke fuss with breakfast while she looked east. Light green deciduous trees shaded to red and orange as they climbed, giving flame-colored borders to the dusty-dark green of conifers. These broke up into huddled islands against the tan of alpine meadows, which shaded into gray rock, and, just at the top, snow. It hadn’t been there the night before.
“Are you okay?” Daisuke asked.
Anne shook her head. “Of course I’m okay. I’ve got my wilderness, haven’t I? My gorgeous mountains, my boyfriend who’s grilling the fish he caught….” Words failed her, but Daisuke understood, the empathetic bastard.
“You’re thinking that our camping trip is over. The dream is ending.”
“I wouldn’t put it like that, but I suppose so,” she said. “We had a wonderfully uncivilized experience these last four days, but tomorrow we’ll be back in Sapporo. And the day after that….”
The day after that they’d be back in Tokyo. The cars and buildings and people, the apartment, the internet, the whole massive, crushing rest of the real world.
And all the other worlds beyond it.
Daisuke smiled slyly over the fish. “I have a plan. I’ll tell you later. Tonight.”
“Yeah? What’s special about tonight?”
“It will be very romantic,” he promised.
Daisuke resolved to save Anne from bears more often. What a glorious day he’d spent, cooking for her, protecting her, making love to her. And what a romantic way he had to cap it all off. Daisuke had planned out everything.
He had seated her facing east, so she could look out at the forested skirts of the mountains. The stream was close enough for them to hear its burbling under the evening birdsong, and the breeze was picking up. Soon it would be the perfect temperature for cuddling.
Daisuke knelt on the picnic blanket and held up the little black velvet box. If Anne’s face was the camera, he should tilt the box so the light from the setting sun would catch the diamond on the ring. Like so.
“Oh no,” she said.
“Anne Houlihan,” said Daisuke, “will you marry me?”
She burst into tears.
Daisuke’s first thought was that he’d positioned the ring incorrectly. Then, that she thought sunset was an unlucky time of day to propose. Or had Anne been expecting the custom of the ring in the champagne glass? He had thought about that, but wouldn’t packing champagne on a camping trip tip her off?
Daisuke had called Anne’s friends and family and asked them what sort of proposal she would like. Responses had ranged from, “Not a clue, mate. Sorry,” to “Oh, whatever you think is best, love,” “Didn’t you already propose?” and “What’s the point of marriage anyway?”
Maybe Anne belonged to the last camp. Shouldn’t Daisuke already know it if so? How could he so precisely predict the needs and desires of his audience, his director, his producers and fans, but not the woman he loved? Or was he being needy again? No, but he was performing. There were no cameras here. If only the sun wasn’t in his eyes, he’d be able to see her expression.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. A blind grope in the dark.
“Oh, nothing!” She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. Curls whipped. “It’s just the whole world is crashing down on my head. Tomorrow it’s Sapporo, then Tokyo the next day, and there will be all these emails waiting for me because you wouldn’t let me bring my smartphone…and…just…!” Anne flailed her arms, hands like bats against the salmon and tangerine clouds.
Daisuke shifted his weight. This pose was becoming uncomfortable, and now he was wondering if it had been a good idea to keep the second phase of their trip a secret. Tears were not in the script he had prepared, and neither were emails. Maybe that was the problem. Anne had said she wanted him to be more spontaneous. He would speak from the heart, like she did.
“I don’t like it that you’re talking about email,” he said. “I just proposed to you.”
“I know! I’m sorry. I know you worked so hard to make this whole thing happen.” She waved at the cooling landscape. “I wanted to play it right for you, but now all I can think of is that the scene is over and we have to pack up and go back to real life and I just can’t!”
“Scene?” said Daisuke, but she wasn’t wrong. “You knew I was planning this?”
“Well, yeah, Dice. It wasn’t too hard to figure out.”
Daisuke closed down his expression, trying to think. If she’d known all along, then what had her plan been? What was the purpose of this crying now? What could Anne be doing but telling him no?
“No, don’t do the blank mask thing again. Don’t….” Her shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry.” She dropped onto the cloth in front of him as if she’d taken an arrow to the chest. “I’m just totally at a loss here, Daisuke. We were having such a good time. Catching fish. Having sex. You saved me from a bear! I’ve been looking forward to accepting your proposal for months! But then the time comes and I just fall apart! What the hell is wrong with me?”
Daisuke dropped his bitterness and grabbed at the question. “I think the answer is fame,” he said. “Fame is wrong with you.”
Daisuke had already been something of a celebrity in Japan before he became the face of the first expedition to Junction, and he had had a hard enough time adjusting to the increased public scrutiny. Anne’s experience had been even more extreme.
She had been working on her first post-doctoral project when the Nun people, the local Papuan highlanders, had shown her the interplanetary wormhole in their back yard. Beyond the wormhole: Junction, the center of a web of yet more life-bearing planets.
A great deal of trouble had resulted, but Anne had survived for more than a week in Junction’s patchwork wilderness, saved several lives (including Daisuke’s), unmasked a murderer, foiled a military coup, and held up through the interrogations that had followed their rescue.
It was only when they’d come back to civilization that Anne had begun to flounder. Sleepless nights. Panic attacks. Delayed reaction? Useless boyfriend?
As he had learned to do on wilderness shoots, Daisuke suppressed his fear and uncertainty. He put his arms around Anne, and she turned and snuggled her back into his chest.
“This is nice,” she said. “I wish we could do this all the time.”
“We can do it all the time,” Daisuke assured her.
“In Tokyo? Come on. Some days you wake up at 4am. Some nights you stay up until 4am. And you have to. There’s always a party or a presentation or something else of Earth-shattering importance.” She shook her head, sending curls flying. “And I just can’t. Do you get it?”
More scared than he’d ever been sticking his hand into any hole the ground, Daisuke said, “No.”
Anne thought for a moment. “I wake up and – wham!” She flailed her arm. “I reach for the cell phone, I turn off my alarm, and then I look at that screen.”
“And I think, ‘What’s it going to be today, the food pellet or the electric shock?’”
That took some thinking before the reference clicked. “Mm. Like a rat in a cage.”
“Yeah. I’m like, ‘Oh I was invited to give the keynote at a sustainability conference.’ And someone called in a bomb threat because of something I said on Twitter. Or it’s, ‘Hurrah, you’re invited to this fellowship.’ But that one got defunded because the English department took offense at something else I said.”
Daisuke tried to think of some useful advice. He really only had the one line, the same one he’d told her back when they’d met by the terraforming pools north of the village the Nun people had built on Junction. Tonight, he tried to put the message in different words. “It’s not important what fools think. Don’t pay attention to trolls on the internet.”
Her sigh steamed, a pale flag in the dark air. “It’s not the internet, Dice. It’s everyone, every day. It’s the human race, it’s the planet Earth. It’s running as fast as you can just to stay still, and I’m failing.” She choked. Gasped. Forced more words out. “I’m the rat that gets a shock with every food pellet. So it just falls apart. Sits there shuddering in the corner of the cage.”
Daisuke fought his own sense of panic. How had things gotten this bad? Should he contact a psychiatrist? Why hadn’t he known? He was supposed to be the sensitive one. “No,” he told her. “You can’t look at it that way.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t help,” she said. “I can’t lie to myself, Dice. I’m not cut out for fame, like you. You can handle it, but I just can’t.” She pressed her back against him as if trying to push him over. “I should be a little worker bee humming away in the field, counting birds of paradise. Instead I’m the queen of Junction! And everyone wants a piece of me. Hurry up and fix the world’s problems, Anne. Quick, before it’s too late! Oops, it is too late! They burned down that forest and it’s your fault for not stopping it.”
Daisuke tried to get control of them both. He held her, and they rocked together on the picnic blanket.
“It’s okay,” he said, gathering up his courage again. This was hard to say. “It’s okay. I love you.”
She sniffed and turned her head so she could press her cheek against his shoulder. Daisuke’s ears were starting to freeze, but the woman in his arms was warm. Infinitely precious. “I love you too. I’m sorry, Daisuke.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
The shadows of the trees reached out to swallow them and now it was night. Crickets sang their slow autumn song.
“I like this,” Anne said. “I like it out here. We can just focus on day-to-day survival. Running away from bears and sleeping together in a tent under the stars….”
That we was a big relief. “It reminds me of what you love,” Daisuke said.
“Yeah. And it isn’t people.” She jerked in his arms. “Oh, Dice! I’m sorry! I had this whole stupid nervous breakdown after you proposed to me! I shouldn’t have let myself get sidetracked like…hang on. Didn’t you already propose to me? Wasn’t that the thing with the vacuum-spinner in the helicopter?”
The Nun had given him the enigmatic alien specimen, and he’d given it to Anne right after the American helicopter had rescued them. Anne had been so impatient to get the interrogations over with so she could get back to studying it. And the things she had discovered!
“The vacuum-spinner wasn’t official,” said Daisuke.
“You must have thought I was looking for excuses not to marry you,” said Anne. “Oh, shit, Dice, I’m sorry.”
She still hadn’t said ‘yes’ yet, but Daisuke didn’t tell her so. That would be tantamount to demanding that she say yes, and then what would the word even mean? Anne only said what she believed to be true, and Daisuke would no more dam up that authenticity than he would pour concrete into a mountain spring.
So he held her, enjoying her warmth and the starlight reflected in her hair, controlling his urge to rush into things.
The clouds were gone, and the Milky Way hung above them. With the sun behind the Earth and the lights of civilization far away, enough darkness had grown to make the galaxy visible. Between the brightest stars, more stars shone. Between them, yet more, and that was only the beginning.
“Just think,” he said. “Those stars are all places.”
Anne shifted in his arms. She was looking up too.
“Christ, that’s lovely,” she said. “I’m going to miss this.”
All right, this was the time. “You don’t have to miss it,” Daisuke declared. “Let’s go back to Junction!”
Anne went still. “But, they won’t give us permission.”
She was trying to convince herself that she didn’t deserve to be happy. That meant Daisuke was on the right track. “You’re the queen of Junction. Of course you’ll have permission.”
“I’ve seen the photos though. The army has destroyed so much. Are any of the biomes we explored still even there?”
Daisuke tried to remember the idiom. “There’s only one way to find out.”
She laughed. “God, Junction.” Her hand found his, and clasped around it. “Can we stay there this time?”
“Yes,” he said.
They kissed until the jewel box snapped closed on his thumb.
“Well, give that over here.” Anne took the box. “Now I can climb on top of you.”
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