Halloween 2020: A Night of Fright

           As the morning light was brightening in the frontier, Johnathan Davis was setting up for the first of his latest photo opportunities. Katherine Willow, having seen the high tensions in town following the World Ship changes, had organized a makeshift corn maze using leftover stalks that had been salvaged from the fields after the flood.

John arrives at the Willow Creek Corn Maze.

          In years past, the actual fields had served as the location for the maze, but since this was all they had, an artificial field would have to suffice. The harvest had been heavily impacted by the flood waters, so there had been no harvest celebration this year. Katherine had hoped this small gesture would help heal a few wounds.

           The maze had quickly drawn the attention of the town’s citizens, and many of them were flocking to the event. Meanwhile, some of the folks had setup other activities to expand on the entertainment.

The corn maze in all its glory.

           It was a great chance for John to take some candid photos of folks having fun.

           That was something that everyone sorely needed back home.

           As he was pulling his camera out of his bag, he heard a strange sound from the far side of the corn maze, like a grunting of some sort. He stepped over, and on the other side he saw Doctor Julio Jones, the town’s veterinarian, with a large truck painted black and white, and several animals scattered around him.

           “This is incredible,” John said, approaching Jones with a smile. “Where did all these animals come from?” 

John approaches Julio Jones’ vehicle.

           The veterinarian smiled warmly and held out a fuzzy creature with long arms that held tightly to his arm as he showed him off. “These are all animals from the Garden. We’re discovering new creatures out there every day!”

           “Are any of these animals dangerous?” John asked.

           “No, of course not,” Julio replied. “Everything here is completely harmless. It’s not like we’ve got George on display!”

           The doctor laughed, but John didn’t.

           He thought of Ruby, and his heart suddenly hurt. She had always talked about George, about seeing him face to face. She had talked about it a lot, like all the Explorers did.

John contemplates George, the creature in the Garden.

           George was a mysterious animal that lived in the Garden. It had been spotted here or there by at least a dozen engineers, but only in fleeting glimpses and with almost no documented evidence of its existence. The best shots anyone had were some blurry photos from when Olivia and Flynn had come out here, but those images just created more theories about what George might really be. Most folks just assumed it to be nothing more than a large reptilian animal; others surmised it might be some kind of dragon or magical beast. The recent addition of literature from the ship’s printing press hadn’t helped. Citizens were reading all kinds of fantastic fictional tales, and it was going straight to their heads.

          Still, Ruby had always played along, taking strange guesses at what the animal might be, or how she’d want to go about capturing it and keeping it as a pet. In that way, George had been something special to Ruby, and John had spent a lot of time thinking about the animal since Ruby had been lost.

           Now, as he glanced down at his camera, he had an amazing idea.

John has a great idea about capturing a photo of George.

           “Doctor Jones… I have a crazy question for you…”

           “For me?”

           “Can I borrow your truck?”

           For a moment, Jones looked hesitant, but then he seemed to shrug and reached into his pocket and handed John the keys. “Take care of it. The thing is new and Elsie Lamarr would be very upset if it gets dinged up. It’s equipped with one of the power crystals from the Upper Level, so it won’t need any fuel.”

           “I’ll be careful,” John said. “Thanks, Julio.”

John climbs into Julio’s vehicle for his mission.

           By the time he’d reached the bulkhead that led to the Garden, the day was nearly done. The Explorers allowed him through without a second thought, and he soon found himself at the small outpost set up by the Explorers to maintain a presence outside of the bulkhead. From here, they monitored everything from the air quality to the animal droppings. It was here that he decided to get out and stretch a little bit before continuing.

John takes a break at the Garden outpost.

          George was never spotted this close to the bulkhead, which was one of many reasons the outpost had remained here as long as it had. There had been Explorers sent further into the Garden on various occasions, but it appeared the wildlife grew more active at night, and the safety engineers had quickly quelled the idea of sending out any overnight campers.

          John realized he was going to have to break that rule if he intended for this to work. Thankfully, Jones had a dozen maps and markers in the back seat of his truck. John pulled one of them out and started considering his game plan when he heard a familiar voice say his name.

          He glanced to his left and saw Samantha Valentine.

Samantha Valentine visits the Garden.

          She looked just as confused to see him out here as he looked to see her. He waited as she approached the vehicle, and gave a hesitant wave to greet her.

          “That is you!” she said, smiling. “What are you doing out here?”

          “Photography,” John replied casually. “What about you?”

          “Me? I’m here for the sunset,” she said, gesturing to the golden ball slowly fading away. “I come to see it every chance I get. It’s… entrancing.”

          He looked at it with her for a moment, and he knew she was right.  The artificial sunset had an yellow hue as it lowered beyond the tall trees that grew in the distance. Unlike the other sections of the World Ship, the Garden had a true day and night cycle, with a rising and setting sun, which appeared to be controlled by some kind of advanced optics embedded in the structural cylinder that encompassed the long stretch of wilderness.

Samantha and John watch the setting sun in the Garden.

          Jonathan Davis had never seen it with his own eyes. It was beautiful, and he wished he could have shared it with Ruby.

          “So, what are you planning to take a picture of, anyway?”

          “George,” he said flatly. “I’m here to capture real evidence of George.”

          “You can’t be serious,” she said. “You’ve heard the stories, right?”

          John nodded. “I’ve heard the stories alright. I’ve documented every sighting, every photo or anecdotal description, and I’ve been triangulating the animal’s whereabouts thanks to a few other energetic Explorers. I just never had the guts to come out here and take the picture… until I saw Doctor Jones’ vehicle. With this baby, I think I can be near George’s territory in an hour or two.”

          “You’re kidding, right? Like, you can’t seriously want to hunt down a monstrous creature?”

          “I do,” he assured her. “I want a picture, and I’m going to get one.”

John explains his plan to Samantha.

          She looked at him for a long time, and he waited for a judgemental response about his safety or some other lecture that he wasn’t interested in hearing, but when she did say something, it wasn’t what he expected at all.

          “Got room for one more?” she asked.

          “What?”

          “I’ll do whatever you tell me. I’m quiet. I’m experienced at sneaking around, remember?”

          John did remember, but he had put that part of their time in the past. He thought about refusing her, pointing out how dangerous it might be, and how the town needed her… and then he realized he would be the one giving lectures.

          “Okay,” he said. “Sure. Hop in the back.”

          She looked around for a second, then back at him. “You have a campsite set up?”

Samantha looks toward the outpost where they should camp at night.

          “No campsite,” he said. “I’m not staying here tonight.”

          “Wait. What? You’re going out there now?!”

          “I am. Are you still interested?”

          Samantha didn’t hesitate. She stepped around the vehicle and climbed in the back door. She looked at the supplies and gear in the truck, then around at the other Explorers working at the outpost. “They’ll come after us,” she pointed out.

          “In the morning,” John clarified. “They aren’t allowed out after dark. We’ll be back before they can even organize a search party.”

          He shifted the car into drive, and slammed the gas. The force of the acceleration caught both of them off guard, as neither of them had driven a vehicle powered by the Upper Level crystals. They shot across the warning line put up by the Explorers and out into the untamed wilds before most of the others even noticed that they had left.

          In his rearview mirror, John saw a few folks waving wildly for him to stop.

          He pressed harder on the accelerator, and the dust kicked up by the vehicle soon obscured the view behind him, freeing him from the nagging folks back home.

John and Samantha head deeper into the Garden.

          An hour later, John pulled the safari vehicle into a small rocky area under a flowing waterfall, and started fishing around for Doctor Jones’ maps. The vehicle, as it ran on the powery crystal energy, didn’t have a rumbling engine or any other major noises. Once they flipped off the lights, they were as dark and shaded as any other object in the Garden.

John parks the vehicle in a secluded area of the Garden.

          After climbing into the vehicle’s back seat, swapping with Samantha so she could sit up front, he used a small flashlight to check his estimated coordinates and compare those to the marked locations where other Engineers had spotted George in the past. He had used Ruby’s own Explorer maps to do most of his research on George, and since they were the same maps that Jones had used, it was simple enough to remember.

          “This is creepy,” Samantha said, mostly obscured in the dark, a vague silhouette at the edge of John’s flashlight. “This is creepy and crazy.”

Samantha sits in the front seat while John looks for his maps in the back.

          “It’s fine. We’re safe in the vehicle. Doctor Jones said most animals work on scent, and since we’re in here, our smell isn’t spreading out there, so we shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves. If anything, we’ll probably scare off any other predators.”

          “Predators,” Samantha mumbled, looking out the windshield. “I don’t like that word.”

          “Sure,” John said.

          “How far is the Great Lake?” she inquired next.

          “Not super far,” he answered, checking the map. “I’d say we’re about three or four hours away from there now.”

          “I guess when you are in Explorer Two it’s a lot easier to get there.”

          “I’m sure William Everett will have a railroad running there in no time,” John said, chuckling to himself.

          “SummerVille,” Samantha added, laughing briefly. “You’re probably right.”

          John laughed, continuing his work.

          “Listen, John, I know you’ve probably heard it a thousand times before, and I know I’m not one of your closest friends… I just… I’m sorry about Ruby.”

          He stopped his research long enough to look at Samantha. “I just drove into the pitch black, hunting a monster, so I’d rather not talk about my emotional feelings in regards to Ruby.”

          “Sure, sorry. I was just trying to express my condolences.”

          “No, you’re not,” he grumbled. “You’re worried I’m losing it out here, spending the night in the Garden and hunting an animal when I should be at home, sleeping soundly in my bed.”

          Samantha held her hands up in mock surrender. “Guilty as charged.”

          “So then why are you out here?” he pressed. “Maybe I’m mourning, or maybe I’m just losing it, but what does that say about you?”

          “Hopelessness,” she answered flatly. “My aspirations for being on the town council are ruined, most of the veteran citizens don’t trust me or my opinions, and the new ones are being trained to be suspicious of everything I say. Brian, the friend I considered myself closest to, never really forgave me for everything that went down… so coming with you on a dangerous mission to take a picture of a rare and mysterious creature? What do I have to lose?”

          John was floored. 

          He was about to try talking about it when the vehicle vibrated.

          They both foze.

          For a moment, there was silence, then they both felt it again.

          The pair ducked down, and Samantha looked at John with panic in her eyes. He knew how she felt. Everything he had considered, calculated, planned… he hadn’t actually expected to see George. None of the other engineers had ever accomplished it!

Samantha ducks after they feel vibrations growing stronger.

          They scanned the darkness beyond the vehicle, too scared to move a muscle, but there were no signs of movement. The vibrations were getting stronger. They weren’t thunderous steps, or anything that would give away a lumbering giant, but they were deep, like they could be felt from a great distance away.

          “He might not be that close,” Samantha proposed.

          “Yeah,” John said in a whispered response.

          Then they heard a branch crack, a rustling in the underbrush, and their heads snapped to their right. There was still nothing but black inky darkness all around them, but there was something else too.

          “Oh… oh no.”

          There was terror in Samantha’s words. John looked where she was looking and saw nothing… just another wall of black… until he saw the slight glint of yellow that was seemingly floating up in the air. It had to have been at least twenty feet high.

          It flickered… gone and then back.

          “What is that?” Samantha asked in an urgent whisper.

          “I think…”

The massive creature, known as George, looming in the darkness.

          John didn’t get to finish, as the object shifted, and the black wall of darkness suddenly shifted too. They felt the vibration again, stronger this time, and they both refused to risk breathing as the creature revealed itself, stepping into a clearing where the starry sky above cast just enough light to give them a solid outline.

          He was looking at a reptile alright, with thick leathery skin, a massive head with rows of teeth jutting out of its mouth. It had two small forelimbs, and two thick legs, with a tail that was easily the thickness of a tree trunk. The animal seemingly balanced on its massive back feet, taking another careful step in the darkness and swaying its head back and forth.

          “How is it so quiet?” Samantha asked.

          John had wondered the same thing. The creature looked absolutely massive, but aside from the vibrations that shook them when he stepped, the animal seemed to be shockingly quiet in how it moved.

          “John,” Samantha asked. “Are we going to die?”

          “We’re going to be fine,” John said. “We’ll just sit here and wait for him to move on.”

          “Why isn’t he moving on?” she asked.

          “I don’t know.”

          The creature, surely George, had stopped walking. It moved its massive head back and forth, its large eyes glowing yellow when the starlight reflected off them. It was closer to them now, close enough that when he exhaled they could hear the air move.

          “Does it know we’re here?” she asked.

          “I don’t think so,” John replied. “I don’t know!”

          George lingered there for what felt like hours.

          It moved its body, the tail swaying behind it as it turned, acting as a counterbalance to the creature’s large head. John was mildly captivated, but he was aware now that he had not considered how intelligent George might be. If they really were in George’s territory, it was not impossible to think that the sudden appearance of a large exploration truck might not sit well with the animal.

          George seemingly agreed.

George approaches over the vehicle.

          The animal opened its mouth and let out a massive roar, causing Samantha to cover her ears while John tried his best to stay frozen in place. The yellow eyes were locked on them now, and it was clear that it did know they were there.

          Still, they didn’t move.

          George tilted its head, as though it was surprised its roar hadn’t worked. It took a step closer to them, and the ground definitely shook this time. George brought its head in close, touching it against the side of the truck, then nudging it again with more force.

          “Don’t move,” John whispered.

          “Right,” Samantha replied through clenched teeth.

George roars at John and Samantha in their vehicle.

          John was still laying in the back seat. Samantha was in the passenger seat. The keys were in the ignition, the vehicle was primed to escape. The problem was, John would have to jump up to the driver’s seat to get them out of here, and right now George’s yellow eye was about level with the side window.

          He kept hoping George would get bored and move along, but when the creature hit its head against the side of the truck this time, John heard glass cracking. He knew they couldn’t stay still, or George was going to crush the truck. It made sense, after all. George had discovered an intruder in its home, and it was going to remove it.

          Then, John saw his camera, sitting in the floorboard with a massive flash attachment connected to the top. The yellow eye had returned to the driver’s window, and Samantha was as still as a statue as the animal outside grunted and growled.

George lifts the vehicle as it continues to be aggressive.

          “I’m about to do something crazy,” John said. “We can’t stay here.”

          “Okay,” Samantha mumbled, trying not to move her lips. “What do you have planned?”

          “I’m about to take a picture. When I do, you need to drive. Fast.”

          “No way,” she said. “Nope.”

          “Okay, then you swap and I drive.”

          “Fine,” she said, still frozen in place.

          John reached down, picked up the camera, and pulled it over the seat so that the flash attachment was near the glass, no more than ten inches from the yellow eye. He pressed the shutter, and the blinding flash of light erupted.

John blasts George with a bright flash of light from his camera.

          George was completely caught off guard. It reeled back, letting out a half-baked roar and attempted to regain its footing.

          John didn’t waste a second. He scrambled back into the driver’s seat and put the vehicle in reverse. They shot backward and John turned on their headlights, fully exposing George in the process. The creature was massive, and it looked surprisingly angry.

          Samantha lifted John’s camera and snapped a few pictures as they reversed.

          “Got you a few,” she said, laughing in the face of danger. “Mission accomplished.”

Samantha captures pictures of George as they flee.

          He didn’t respond. George roared once more, then started toward them.

          He spun the vehicle around, then floored it, driving as fast as he could in the direction they had come. They heard the thundering footsteps now. George was no longer walking… he was running, and he was catching up with them.

John and Samantha flee from George.

          John twisted the vehicle this way and that, trying to cut close to trees and bushes, but not daring to push through any overgrowth that he thought might trap their vehicle.

          He dared to look in the side view mirror, and there was nothing.

          “Where’d it go?” he asked.

          As if on cue, George stepped out in front of them, its mouth coming down in time to bite down on the top of the truck. Their speed was enough to pull away from the creature, but George took a good chunk out of them too.

George bites down on the vehicle as John and Samantha flee.

          “You have to turn the lights off!” Samantha shouted. “It is using them to follow us!”

          “I can’t see without the lights,” John replied.

          He kept driving, dodging and swerving, but George cut them off again, just missing a chance to get another bite on them as John pulled to the right of the creature’s massive jaws.

          “I told you,” Samantha shouted. “Come on!”

          “We’ll crash!” John said.

          “We’re gonna get munched if we don’t do something!”

          John cursed and shut off the headlights. He slowed considerably to try and keep them from slamming into something,

          Suddenly, the thundering footsteps started to fade, and John heard Samantha offer a victorious laugh. John didn’t have time to celebrate. He was too worried about hitting a rock or some other debris.

          “I think we lost it,” she added.

          “I don’t know if we—”

          George moved into their path faster than John could react. For what it was worth, it didn’t seem like the animal had been aware of them, either. John spun the wheel in a desperate attempt to avoid the creature, and George planted its feet in preparation for the impact.

John crosses paths with George in the dark.

          John realized they were going to miss the legs, but the massive tail was already swinging their way.

          “Duck!” he shouted.

          Samantha did as he said, and the two bent down just in time for the tail to smash through the windshield, ripping along the vehicle and shearing the roof off like it had been nothing at all.

The vehicle is heavily damaged after colliding with George’s tail.

          George roared as the vehicle charged ahead.

          “We’ve got to keep going!” Samantha shouted.

          “I can’t see anything!”

          “Don’t you dare turn on those headlights!”

          John had gotten turned around in the panic from the tail swipe, and he wasn’t even sure they were going the right way. He wasn’t sure if George was still following, but his heart was pounding in his chest and he wasn’t ready to die.

          He knew that now. 

          He wasn’t ready to give up.

          That was the moment he saw the slight change in the terrain straight ahead.

          The cliff.

          “John!” Samantha shouted, seeing it too.

          He slammed the brakes, but the vehicle was going too fast, or maybe the brakes had just gone out, either way it didn’t matter. The vehicle slid over the edge, and thankfully landed wheels down on a steep decline rather than a straight drop.

John and Samantha drive their vehicle over a cliff.

          John had no control by now, so he just closed his eyes and hoped for the best.

          They turned sideways, the tires popped as they were dragged against their will down the hill, and as the wheels dug into the ground the vehicle began to slow, until finally, it came to a complete stop.

On the embankment, the vehicle finally stops.

          John and Samantha sat there for a moment in shocked silence.

          “Do you think it’s still following us?” she asked.

          “I have no idea.”

          There was a distant roar, and the pair jumped from the vehicle to run on foot.

          “Ouch,” Samantha said, collapsing just outside the truck. “My foot!”

          John rushed to her, holding her in the dark. He saw a cut on her ankle, likely from the shattered glass windshield, and helped her stand. He knew George would probably come this way, at least to check the wreckage, so they couldn’t just sit here.

          Then, he saw a large tree not far from where they had crashed. He wasn’t sure either of them could climb that high, or even if George couldn’t just tear down the tree to get them, but this was their best chance at survival, so he pulled at Samantha and she limped over with him.

John helps an injured Samantha find higher ground in a tree.

          “Up we go,” he told her, reaching the first branches.

          “Seriously?” she asked.

          George roared again, louder this time.

          “Seriously,” he replied. “Quietly.”

          “Right. Okay, here we go.”

          “I’m sorry about the ankle. It looks like a bad cut. Try to go easy on it,” he added.

          “Uh huh,” she said, grimacing.

          John looked back at the car and thought about the camera. He looked at Samantha again and she was already up on the fourth branch, at least fifteen feet high. She would be safe up there, and he would be too… after he got his gear.

          “Where are you going?” she asked, sounding hysterical. “Get back here!”

Samantha watches as John returns to the vehicle.

          “I have to do this,” he said. “For the camera.”

          “John!”

          He didn’t hear her. He had already started running back to the wreckage. He started fishing around on the floorboard until he found what he was looking for. The camera, while slightly crunched, didn’t look compromised. He pulled on it and it pulled back, the neckstrap was caught on something. He cursed and started working at it, trying to get it free, and that was when he heard Samantha scream.

          He looked up the way they had slid down, and he saw the yellow eyes in the night, the massive creature looming no more than fifty feet away. He knew he couldn’t get away, not now. So he made a few final pulls on the strap to get it free, then pressed himself against the side of the vehicle, trying to dig under the chassis.

George catches up to them.

          He waited there, holding his breath, trying to slow his rapidly beating heart.

          He felt the vibrations, and then he saw George’s foot come down next to the crashed truck and knew he was toast. George lowered its head and started nosing the vehicle, moving it slightly and causing the frame to press down. He hadn’t considered George simply squishing him under the truck, but in an instant it seemed like a distinct possibility.

          Until he heard a limb snap somewhere away from the vehicle.

          George heard it too. 

          The animal lifted up, turning toward the noise, and slowly sauntered in that direction.

          John couldn’t see or hear anything anymore, and he wondered what he should do next. George might come back to mess with the wreckage, but if he hadn’t wandered very far, John wouldn’t have enough time to escape.

George begins to wander away from John and the vehicle.

          He weighed his options, and decided to wait.

          He’d rather get stepped on than eaten. That was his decision.

          George wandered around the area for a long time. John felt the vibrations, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but always close enough to remind him that he was in grave danger. His heart had been racing for hours now, and as the danger around him became a known constant. He finally felt brave enough to continue digging out a hiding place under the vehicle chassis, and eventually he was able to slide under it without difficulty.

          Exhaustion was setting in by the time he got comfortable under the truck. He knew he wasn’t really very safe. George might show up and simply push the truck out from over him, but he was simply too tired to look for a better solution. He was tired, he was hungry, and he wasn’t even sure they could be rescued.

          His mind grew fuzzy, and he fell asleep wondering if he might wake up staring at those yellow eyes…


          When John was finally torn awake, it wasn’t because of George.

          Instead, he opened his eyes to see Samantha looking down at him with a smile.

          “Thank goodness,” she said, sounding genuinely relieved. “I can’t believe it.”

Samantha pulls John out from the vehicle in the morning.

          John saw that she had pulled him partially out from under the wrecked truck, so he pushed with his legs to fully free himself. The sun had risen, and he could see now that they had slid down an embankment last night after losing control of the vehicle.

          “I thought I was done for sure,” he said.

          “I threw some dead branches from my tree,” Samantha explained. “George eventually got bored of investigating each new sound. He wandered off after a while, before the sun came up, but I was too scared to come down until now. I think I heard the sound of the Explorer helicopter, so I was hoping the truck might have a flare gun or something.”

          “That’s great news,” John said as he sat up. “Hopefully that’s the case.”

          The two searched the wreckage for a bit, and eventually Samantha did locate the flare gun, standard issue for the Explorer missions, and she handed it to John. “Do you know how to use this?”

          “I mean… point and click, right?”

          He held the weapon up and fired.

John fires the flare gun to signal for rescue.

          The glowing orange light shot up above the trees and high into the sky.

          A few minutes later, the familiar Explorers Group helicopter was hovering over the crash site and preparing to pick them up.

          “Now this’ll be a story to tell,” Samantha said, looking at him for a long moment.

          “Agreed,” he replied. “I don’t think Doctor Jones is going to be happy with the news about his exploration truck. He told me not to get a ding in it.”

          “Maybe not,” she said. “Of course, he might like one of these nice shiny teeth…”

          She reached down and plucked a white tooth from the ground near the wreckage and handed it to John. He looked it over for a moment, then smiled. “Yeah, maybe.”

          Behind them, the helicopter touched down and Flynn Brickshelm himself climbed out from the side door. “Alright people, let’s move! We know what’s out here. Go go go!”

Flynn Brickshelm directs John and Samantha to quickly board the helicopter.

          The next day, after Caleb had doctored both Samantha’s and John’s wounds, the town was already abuzz about their story. They were excited to hear about the creature known as George. At Mission Control, the pair sat together, waiting for Elsie’s judgement.

          When she showed up, she wore her trademark sunglasses, and she looked as angry as they expected she might be. When she reached them, she took the large lenses off, and her eyes revealed some real anger.

Elsie Lamarr approaches John and Samantha at Mission Control.

          “You two are a real piece of work,” she said firmly.

          “In my defence—” Samantha started.

          “Nope. No defence. You two disobeyed direct mandates from both the town council and the Explorer Group. It’s unforgivable. Samantha your decision making is already out the window, but John? I’m extremely disappointed in you. I know you’re sad you lost Ruby. Damn, we all are. That doesn’t mean you get to just run off like that.”

          “I did help rob a bank once,” John reminded Elsie. “I’m not an innocent snowflake.”

Elsie lectures John and Samantha about their behavior.

          “Is that how you want to play this, Davis?” she asked, her voice rising. “Do you understand how much fuel we used to organize our search for you two? Do you realize the hours you pulled capable workers away from our relief efforts here?”

          John had, in fact, not considered that. He lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”

          “An apology is a fair start, but it’s not really something I want to hear,” Elsie grumbled.

          “Are we to be punished?” Samantha inquired, ignoring Elsie’s rage.

          Elsie was practically shooting daggers through her eyes. “If I had my way, Valentine, you most certainly would be removed from the Lower Level…”

          “I detect a ‘but’ in there, right?” Samantha pressed.

          Elsie sighed. “The town council, and no doubt most citizens, understand that John has been under an extraordinary amount of pressure. While I might not be ready for an apology, I also see nothing to gain from trying to lock you two up in the bank vault or sending you packing to Winter Village or the Hub.”

          “Thank you,” John said. “I mean it.”

          “You had better mean it,” Elsie grumbled. “In the middle of everything that has happened and continues to unfold in our town, you two had the audacity to go out there trying to get a photo-shoot with George. In a time when I need everyone at their best, you go and do something like this… it’s just disappointing.”

          John felt a pang of guilt.

          “Regardless,” she added, allowing a moment of calm to sweep over her demeanor. “I had a chance to look at the camera that you gave us, John, and to be frank… it’s good. I thought you might want to see these.”

          Elsie pulled out her communicator and held it for the John and Samantha to see. The screen displayed several photos of George. The shots were clear as day, and it made John’s heart swell with pride. Samantha grinned and slapped his arm. “I did it,” she said cheerily. “I got you that sweet photographic evidence!”

Elsie shows John and Samantha their photos of George.

          There was a washed out photo of the creature’s eyeball, then several more shots, all taken by Samantha as John drove away. Looking at the photos, John suddenly felt a slight disappointment. Those images would give people a tangible picture of what George really looked like. The mysteries would be put to rest, and the fun that Ruby had speculating would be gone. He wondered now if he had made a tragic mistake.

          “Unfortunately, for the time being, these photos will remain under lock and key,” Elsie said, looking at them both. “The citizens have far too much to worry about, and while I respect the new ideas for transparency when it comes to issues that affect our town, George is no such example. Sharing these pictures and spreading gossip about your event will only make people feel anxious, and it’s anxiety that we don’t need. George is contained in the Garden, has been for ages, and there’s no reason to remind citizens that we have twenty foot carnivores running around out there.”

          John nodded slowly. “I agree.”

          “Really?” Samantha and Elsie asked.

          “I do,” he said. “The photos will be released, but only when the time is right.”

          “That feels a bit lackluster,” Samantha said. “My work might never be appreciated.”

          “How unfortunate,” Elsie said sarcastically, pointing toward the exit of Mission Control and putting her sunglasses back on. “You two are free to go. So, be on your way, and don’t you dare do something so reckless again. Do you understand?”

          “Understood,” John and Samantha said in unison.

John and Samantha leave Mission Control.

          Outside, as they stood looking out at the town, John felt a new surge of life and energy flowing within. He had done it. He had taken the first photos of George and lived to tell the tale. He had created a legacy, and he was ready to do more than that.

          “So, what next?” she asked.

          “I think I’m going to run for mayor,” John said, realizing the idea as he spoke.

John tells Samantha he’s going to run for mayor.

          Samantha grinned. “Okay, sure. I meant, like, do you wanna grab lunch?”

          “Oh,” he replied. “Uh, sure, that sounds good. I’m starving.”

          As the pair headed across the street to the diner, John thought of George once more, and he wondered what the creature was up to out there, living alone in the Garden.

          Was it even alone at all?

          Were there whole herds of Georges out there?

          John shuddered just thinking about it, and instead focused on the burger he would order from the local diner…

John and Samantha head toward the town diner.

To be continued…

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