Donner Ranch

The novel PodPooch is the first glimpse we get of Donner Ranch. The situation for the characters is grim, but the majesty of the setting cannot be underestimated. (For music aficionados, my inspiration came from the 16th century work The Sick Tune, which is often attributed to John Dowland. My theme relies on Dorian and Pentatonic modes whereas the original used simple major and minor chords.)

Enough music theory! Follow Jaya as she races across the prairie as you listen to the Donner Ranch theme.

Jaya’s shins burned as she ran downhill, grass transitioning to tufts, and then to gravel. The sharp grit worked its way down the shafts of her boots, stinging her feet, but still she ran. Up a shallow escarpment and then over a barbed wire fence. Clean over. Jaya tried to think about it, to choose where she’d go, but she tripped up each time, ankles complaining, doubling over or sideways. When she let her mind wander, her legs seemed to know where to travel. It was Grace who ran, and she didn’t need supervision.

After dashing up and down yellow-brown hills, running as if she’d catch the sky, Jaya crested one last summit. Ahead and to her right was a narrow canyon, looking like a giant talon had dipped down and gouged the earth. It stretched far to the west, slowly broadening. A familiar place. To Grace? No, to Jaya! She demanded the memory be hers.

But it was Grace’s legs who took her to the canyon edge. Jaya collapsed against a smooth boulder, panting as her sweat mixed with the grit on its surface. The rock was warmer than light from the sun, which was hustling down west.

She rolled onto her back, arching her body across the stone. The clouds above moved slowly, rounded and orange—mammatus from a far-off storm. Her thoughts of escape quieted. She angled her head to look down the canyon, its depths hidden in shadow.

Why am I here?

The question wasn’t specific to the canyon. It was also about her awakening in Port Casper, about the sight of Avo with his hopeful, determined face.

Avo. I shouldn’t have left Avo.

“Avo!” she yelled, the hushed canyon’s echo returning moments later. But he wasn’t here, of course. He’d probably gone back to the village. She wished he were here now, wished she’d persuaded him to come with her to the house. But if she had, would she have had the courage to run?

Courage. She closed her eyes and listened to the wind whip through the canyon. She’d told Avo it would be their last adventure. At the time, she’d felt confident in the beginning and end of that arc. They would travel the prairie and talk again; they’d do something good for another AI. A last run before her inevitable end. Instead, she had fled like a child caught with a trinket.

Jaya raised her arm and looked at it. It was not the sun-darkened, weathered arm she knew. The limb was too long. Too muscular. A scar along the elbow was missing. This wasn’t her body.

And it wasn’t her mind. Even now, when she thought back to her childhood, following signposts she remembered of cold lakes and the black outlines of conifers against the morning sun, they were tattered. Mixed with fragments of bull rides and stalagmites, rifles and barbed wire and the smell of bacon.

I’m dead.

I’m dead. I died two years ago.

An eagle’s shriek startled her. She searched for the bird, but it was already far down the canyon. It glided on a thermal wave, buoyant and free.

Jaya sat up, letting her legs drape across the smooth arc of the boulder. The eagle veered to the south, leaving the canyon behind. She must leave this place behind, too.

Corey OstmanPodPooch