Dad said the whole mission was a waste, that there was no point in where they’d been sent, “just a waste of funding.” When I was around, he didn’t bother to watch his language -- “this is total bullshit” -- because I was fifteen, and if I was going to swear, I wasn’t going to do it in front of him. He didn’t change it in front of Mom, either -- she was usually the one he was arguing with, about how much longer in the contract and should we re-up in a year -- but in front of Alex, my five-year-old cousin-turned-sister, he changed his tune.
“It’s, b -- ah -- a boondoggle,” he said, correcting himself as Mom cleared her throat and gave him a pointed look, tilting her head toward Alex. “A total boondoggle.”
I knew what it meant, but Alex didn’t. I wasn’t sure she paid attention, until she asked me about it later: “Charlie, what’s a dune boggle?”
“A boondoggle,” I said. “It’s, uh -- why we’re here.” I wondered how to explain it to her, bureaucracy and the Space Corps and everything that went along with it.
“Dune boggles,” she said, her face scrunched in the way that meant she was thinking. “We’re here to find one?”
At fifteen, I didn’t know how to deal with her. She’d been with us less than a year, ever since my aunt, Dad’s sister, had died in a mining accident. No one knew where my uncle was -- he’d bounced the system before she was born -- so Dad had adopted her, and Mom and I were left to cope with it.
“Yeah, we’re here to find one, okay?”
“Okay.” Just like that, she went back to play with her dolls. I breathed a sigh of relief and slunk away.
Taking Alex in had been Dad’s idea. I’d like to think that he’d at least run it by Mom, before he sprung it on me, but the look on her face when he told me let me know that it was news to her, too.
Dad was a geologist, and Mom did something with planet species I didn’t understand. Both of them were in the terraforming wing of the Space Corps. They’d joined up right out of high school, the way a lot of people did, and met each other in their third year of training, during the survival class that everyone was required to take. Apparently Mom brought Dad water, after his filter broke, and from then on they were fast friends. They started dating a few months later, and got married after that. By the time I came along, they were established in their careers and taking assignments all throughout the sector.
Mostly we were on ships. Their work involved performing tests on samples to determine habitability, among other things, and it was rare that we went to the surface. This suited me fine: there were plenty of things to do onboard, and I lived a more or less normal life, attending school with the other engineers’ kids, playing in the green pods and generally staying out of the way while still managing to enjoy myself.
Our last assignment on the surface had been when I was in grade 5. We’d gone to the surface for a summer, so Mom could take me camping -- real camping, not in one of the green pods, with zero danger -- and I could find out what being planetside was like, since I hadn’t been in years.
We spent the summer living out of a tent, catching bugs and finding interesting plants, and performing the kind of basic analysis that Mom said I’d be doing in school the next year. I loved it, but I was excited to return to the ship, too.
When Alex came to stay with us, Mom might have been blindsided, but she sprung immediately into action -- enrolling her in school, and, upon finding out that she’d been planetside most of her life, parked on a small planet where her mom worked as a mining engineer. She’d been enrolled in some kind of childcare there, and had friends and a life that we knew nothing about, and which no one had bothered to inform us of. The Space Corps was like that, a bit -- all efficiency, with zero time for frills. When Alex was orphaned, or good as, they didn’t stop to think, hmmm, maybe we should tell her family what her situation was. They asked Dad if he would take her, gave him a deadline to make a decision, and when he said yes, they dumped her on us. That’s not me being unkind, either -- it was literally a handoff, as though she was a piece of baggage instead of a kid.
Mom had been the one to do the digging, finding out where she was from and consulting with a child psychologist across the sector about how to help make the transition from living with her mother to living with us easier. One of the things that came up was environment -- the shipside environment was radically different from where she’d been, and it was a lot to adjust to at once. Mom consulted with Dad (and me -- though not to the same extent), and they put in for a posting planetside. Which was how we’d ended up in what Dad privately called “Bumfuck Egypt”, whenever Mom and Alex were out of listening range.
“You understand, don’t you, Charlie-girl?”
I did, kind of. The posting we’d been given was remote. We weren’t alone -- there were three other families that were also on the base -- but there weren’t any other kids my age. Alex was lucky, in that respect -- there was a family with a six-year-old boy across the quad from us, but the nearest kid in age to me was eleven, too little to be interesting (and even if I had been interested in talking to him, he’d made it pretty clear how he felt about girls, blowing a raspberry at me and Alex when we tried to say hello).
I didn’t really understand what the adults were supposed to be doing. Dad mumbled something about mineral analysis whenever I asked, and I took it that it meant something about mining. I knew Mom’s job wasn’t using her skillset: the entire planet was a desert, devoid of life or much of anything that wasn’t sand dunes and boulders. Alex and I were allowed to go out and explore, but there was nothing to see, so we usually didn’t.
I offered to take Alex on walks sometimes, but she always smiled up at me and said no. “No thank you, Charlie.”
Mostly, she played with Lee, our neighbor’s kid. They had a definitive perimeter they were allowed to play in, and I was supposed to keep an eye on them. I did, kind of -- I split my time between watching them out the window, and frantically utilizing our spotty internet connection to keep up with my friends for the half-hour in the afternoon messages were guaranteed to go through -- but they never went anywhere or did anything alarming.
After Dad hit a snag with his project -- once he really had to watch his language around Alex, she began talking about dune boggles a lot. She’d gotten the idea, somewhere, that they were some kind of small creature that lived in the dunes, and that Mom and Dad were studying them.
I heard her tell Lee about them: “They’re small and they have feathers and scales and they can run real fast. You have to be patient and wait for them to come out, or you won’t see one.”
They had some kind of game they played -- I didn’t understand the rules of it. Something about running out to the big dune on the back side of the housing units, then back again, giggling the entire time.
I asked, once, what they were playing. “We’re hunting dune boggles.”
“Yes,” Alex said, as if I were being deliberately obtuse. “We’re hunting them.”
I wrote this off as little kid games and didn’t ask any further questions.
Mom and Dad’s work started winding down, and we began discussing what would happen next. Mom was hoping for a posting on a different planet in the system, while Dad wanted to go shipside again. Alex was settling in -- she’d stopped calling Mom and Dad “auntie” and “uncle” -- and her friend Lee’s family was hoping for a shipside posting as well. I had my fingers crossed that we’d all end up in the same location, so that she could stay adjusted, and I could get back to my normal life.
Mom asked Alex what she wanted. “We’re nearly done here -- where would you like to go?” I thought this was pointless -- Alex was too little to understand the differences between shipside and here -- and she didn’t respond in the way that I expected.
“Have you found the dune boggles?”
Mom sighed. “Not yet, kiddo, but we’re almost done anyway.”
“I can bring you one,” she offered. “Lee and I found them. They’re real nice.”
“They’re really nice,” Mom corrected. “Dune, uh, boggles are fine and all, but -- Alex, honey, we want to know where you want to live. Remember what Dad said about the ship? You and Lee would have a lot of friends!”
“Daddy says there’s no sky there.”
Mom sighed. “There is, but it’s not like here. It’s…” She gave me a look, one that I knew to mean come help me. “Charlie can tell you about the pods and everything, right Charlie?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” I launched into an explanation of what the green pods were and how it wasn’t the real sky but it was still pretty and you could play, and there was more room to run around than here, and more to see.
“But Charlie,” said Alex, her eyes wide. “What about the dune boggles? Are there dune boggles there?”
I held back a sigh. “No, Alex, there aren’t any dune boggles on the ship. Not unless you bring one.”
“I can bring one?”
I realized, quickly, the error of what I’d said. “Uh, yeah -- but you have to show Mom and Dad first, okay?”
“Oh!” She looked thoughtful. “Okay.”
“Any other questions?”
“No. Thank you, Charlie.”
“Um. Yup. Go play with Lee now, I guess.”
She got up and ran off, and I sighed and went to warn Mom to be prepared, Alex is going to show you her imaginary friends and you should be supportive, not that I think you won’t but just in case…
Our last few weeks on the planet slid by. Lee’s family got a posting, officially shipside. Mom and Dad got their offers, too: one planetside, in a different part of the system (though not the posting Mom had hoped for), and one shipside, not on the same ship as Lee’s family, but close enough in the system to make real-time video a possibility, with none of the lag that interstellar communications were subject to.
“The planet is an ice planet,” Mom winced. “We’d be in the only temperate zone, but it’s still below freezing at night. I think we’re going shipside.”
Dad was pleased by this. He, more than Mom, had missed access to all of his instruments. I was relieved, too -- it wasn’t the same ship, but one of my friends had moved to it six standard months earlier, and it would be nice to see her again.
“We’re going on a ship!” he told Alex.
She tilted her head and looked at him. “Can I bring a dune boggle?”
“Good,” she said, very seriously. “I’ll have to catch one first, though.”
“I’m sure Lee will help you,” Dad humored her.
She nodded, and went into the kitchen. I could hear her ask Mom for peanut butter and raisins, “because the dune boggles love them”. It was close to snacktime anyway, so Mom shrugged and gave it to her.
“Charlie,” she said, coming to me a few minutes later, her little hands full of the peelable containers of peanut butter and a few sachets of raisins. “I need to borrow something from your room.”
“One of your reusable tubs, please.”
I sighed. The boxes were made of acrylic, with heavy-duty lids that snapped firmly into place. Lightweight and strong, they were ideal for storing stuff -- or for moving from system to system. I could already envision what Alex would do to it. I saw peanut-butter covered clothes in my future. “Okay, but try not to get it too dirty, please.”
Alex looked as scandalized as any five-year-old could. “Of course not, Charlie. I’ll tell the dune boggle to keep it clean.”
“Just don’t get peanut butter on it.”
“Okay.” I paused. “Do you need help?”
“I got it, Charlie.” She disappeared into my room and came back a moment later with one of the smallest tubs, her peanut butter packets and raisins stacked on top. “I’m gonna go find Lee.”
“Okay -- don’t go out past the big dune! You know you’re not allowed.”
“I know, Charlie.”
She disappeared out the door. I watched her go across the quad to Lee’s house. He joined her, and they walked out to the edge of where they were allowed to play. I could see them from the window as they busily set up the box with peanut butter and raisins (Alex being very careful to peel the peanut butter packets back and place them face-up inside the box). They sat and waited, and after a few minutes, I quit watching them. Both of them had GPS on, in the form of the tags that we pinned to their shirts each morning, and there was no hostile wildlife or dangerous terrain -- nothing but dunes, more dunes, and some rocks. The tags monitored their biosigns, and if there was anything out of the ordinary, they’d ping Mom and Dad.
I let Mom know what they were doing, and then I went back to my bedroom and read the latest installment in the webseries I’d been downloading.
I got caught up in what I was reading -- the commissioner for the moon base outside of EMX3 was being held hostage by hostiles, and her heroic friends were planning a rescue that would see her brought back with no casualties -- and I lost track of time.
“Charlie,” Dad yelled, from the kitchenette. “Have you seen Alex?”
“Not since, uh.” I checked the time. “Not in three hours.”
He frowned. “It’s dinnertime. She knows to be home by now.”
I walked out to the sitting area and looked outside. “I don’t see them -- they’re not in their usual play area.”
Dad tossed me one of the tablets used for tracing our signals. “Go find her. It’s dinnertime.”
“Does it have to be me? Mom’s not busy, and I’m kind of in the middle of something --”
I heard the no-nonsense tone to Dad’s voice, and it was my turn to frown. “Okay, okay.” I booted the tablet. “Oh -- they’re just on the other side of the big dune. I won’t be gone long.”
I darted out the door, the tracker tablet in my hand, and ran across the sand to find them.
I didn’t usually venture out of doors much -- I hated the feeling of sand under my feet, how it had a tendency to give, your feet sliding as you tried to walk across it, making everything take twice as long. I hadn’t gone to the big dune almost since we moved here -- not since Alex had made friends with Lee.
I called for both of them. “Alex? Lee?”
“Alex, it’s dinnertime!”
“We caught a dune boggle, Charlie!”
This was more or less what I’d expected -- that there would be nothing in the container but that they would claim they’d found one. “Okay. Well. Let’s bring it back to the house, okay?”
They rounded the dune, carrying the box Alex had borrowed between them. I could see the peanut butter in the bottom, and smeared up the sides. I sighed, and was about to say something, when --
“Oh, he’s worried,” said Alex, as there was a faint “pop”, and a dun-colored creature, the size of Alex’s fist, fluffed itself in the bottom of the box. “He doesn’t become visible unless he’s upset.”
“Alex,” I said, my voice as even as I could make it. “What is that?”
She beamed. “It’s a dune boggle, Charlie!”
“Uh.” I stared at the ball of -- it looked like feathers, with too many legs and too-large, too-bright black eyes -- in the bottom of the box. “Let’s show Mom and Dad, okay? They’ll be impressed.”
I walked to the house first, to give Dad and Mom a warning as to what was about to happen.
“Alex caught a dune boggle.”
Dad shook his head. “Help me set the table?”
“No, like -- it’s an actual creature.”
“There’s no native wildlife here,” said Dad. “Nothing beyond microbes and some algae species in the temperate zones, where it’s more moist. Definitely nothing ‘catchable’.”
“You can say that, but --”
“Dad!” Alex came into the house, tugging the acrylic packing box behind her. “Look what I caught!”
Dad looked into the peanut-butter smeared box, noting the small, ruffled creature in the bottom of it, then looked at me and Alex.
“Where did you find this?”
“Out on the dunes,” said Alex happily. “His name is Jeff and he’s a dune boggle, just like you were looking for!”
Dad looked at the crate, stunned, then looked at me. “Go get your Mom.”
Mom and Dad ended up using the emergency comms system to reach out to the nearest ship in the system. They wired over photos and videos of “Jeff”, and had Alex explain how she found him.
“He likes peanut butter,” she said. “All of them do. Lee’s mom or Charlie would make us snacks with peanut butter and raisins and we would go eat them on the dune, only Jeff would steal them and take them back to his family.”
Analysis revealed that the “dune boggle” was an unknown species of indeterminate origin. Alex was able to lead us to where they lived, which is how we found out that they were masters of camouflage, capable of hiding themselves in the dunes. Because of their ability to match their body temperature to their surroundings, we’d never found them on our thermal scans.
The Space Corps dispatched a xenobiology team planetside to study them. Mom and Dad were given the option to stay, but since neither of them had expertise, they declined -- it made more sense for personnel who were equipped to perform field studies to remain, and as housing was limited, that meant we had to go.
Mom and Dad talked a lot with Alex, about what this meant for her and for Jeff. To their surprise, once they explained that Jeff had a family, and would not want to be taken away from them, she immediately agreed that he needed to stay.
“I don’t want him to be sad,” she said. “Not like I was sad, before I came here.”
We moved to the ship. I shared a bunk with Alex, and I helped introduce her to everyone on board. My friend Emilie had a little sister, Steph, and she and Alex became fast friends. Alex told her stories about the dune boggles, and Steph taught her about life on the ship, showing her the green pods and all the places they were allowed to go.
I settled back in pretty quickly and made friends of my own, and Mom and Dad were happy to get back to real work.
Six months or so after going shipside, the xenobiology team formally announced the existence of the dune boggles.. A paper, highlighting their discovery and crediting Alex, was published on the ‘net, and one of the little quarterly blurbs that the Space Corps produced interviewed her to ask about how she’d found them.
The team also gave them a proper, scientific name, but to us (and everyone else who saw Alex’s interview on the ‘net), they were dune boggles, always and forever.
Alex is eight now. She hasn’t discovered any other species, but she’s happy shipside, and extremely excited with my decision to defer enlisting in favor of continuing to take learning modules about art and writing.
Mom and Dad are looking at a posting planetside again, this time somewhere more inhabited. If they go, I’ll go with them, and attend the local university in person.
Alex is excited. She’s decided that she wants to be a biologist, maybe, or else learn to be a writer, like me. She’s torn between wanting to find more new species (“Like Jeff!”), and wanting to write about them, the way the people who interviewed her did.
She calls me her sister now. If I go planetside, I’ve already promised her, I’ll take her to the Natural History Museum.
I think we’re both looking forward to it.