Appaloosa Plains was a quiet town where nothing ever happened.
Its residents, hardworking and gregarious during the day, were long asleep by the time a single bolt of lighting struck down in an empty field one night. There was no rain and no thunder to accompany it.
Only this. A metallic object, faintly reminiscent of a giant claw, gleaming mysteriously in the headlights of the van that arrived what seemed like moments later.
Men in yellow coveralls swarmed out of the vehicle, converged on the foreign object and loaded it into the back of their van with practiced motions. The whole process took mere minutes. No trace was left behind.
Early the next morning, a sleepy farmer would inspect his fields, finding absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
Hazel was happy to finally be back home again. University had been a good experience, but she'd missed the delightfully simple life in her hometown.
Her sister Huxley was less enthused to be back.
She’d been in front of the mirror for close to an hour now, trying on and discarding several outfits and fussing with her hair. It wasn’t like she’d missed him, because the word itself implied a lack of something. Huxley had always been proud of being above such things; a complete person in her own right.
But now here she was, inexplicably nervous about seeing him again.
“Get your shit together,” she finally mouthed at her reflection, grabbed a random shirt off of the ground and took off.
During the girls' absence, Scout's puppies had grown into two large, rambunctious dogs and were now decidedly too much for the family to handle.
Thankfully, Theo had agreed to take one of them off their hands and so the official reason for this meeting was giving over the pet and some supplies. Finn had taken an instant liking his new owner, wagging his tail and licking Theo's face excitedly. Hux stood by awkwardly, her own less enthusiastic greeting put to shame by the excited young dog.
She watched Theo as he brushed Finn gently, murmuring quiet words of reassurance to the animal.
"Are you mad at me?"
Theo let a few moments pass before replying, "For leaving without saying a single word to me?" He turned to look at her, his expression neutral. Huxley flinched, and Theo sighed, "No Hux, I'm not mad at you. I was surprised, yes, and maybe a little hurt. But I do understand. I wish I could have gone to college to study music, but I never had the grades or the money."
Huxley frowned. "Well, it's not like I got a degree, so it was a waste of time in the end."
"I'm proud of you anyway," Theo said, finally smiling at her again the way she was used to, "though I'm glad you're back."
Things were back to normal between the two of the, more or less. Their friendship had always been an uncomplicated one, which was one of the things Hux valued most about it.
The roller coaster ride did nothing to ease the queasy feeling in Hux' stomach tough.
After they exited the cart, Theo surprised Huxley by suddenly pulling her close. "I missed you," he whispered softly.
The feeling in her stomach intensified, but she willed it down. "I..." Huxley's voice broke and she cleared her throat. "I missed you too," she admitted.
Too much sweetness! Time to cleanse the palate with some cotton candy.
Grace had made a habit of paying daily visits to her father while her girls had been away at college. Freddie still missed Charity, but Grace's company seemed to cheer him.
"Stu surprise," he beamed when Grace served dinner, "My favorite! Mom always used to cook it for us. I used to prefer hot dogs, but I kind of lost my taste for them after the one time I ate some cold ones. Did I ever tell you that story?”
Yes, he had. Many times. It was a ludicrous tale of magical lamps and corrupted wishes that culminated in the birth of Grace's younger brother Gene. As a teenager, Grace had been terribly annoyed at her father's insistence that this bizarre story was the truth, but now Grace smiled indulgently and said, "Hmm, I'm not sure if I heard that one yet. Why don't you tell me, Dad?"
Later, after her father had retreated upstairs to go to bed, Grace did the dishes and made her way home.
Freddie passed away peacefully in his sleep that night.
Scout still barely left master's side, though his old bones made it more difficult each day. At this point, no one shooed him off the couch anymore, on the rare occasions he managed to jump up onto it.
Instead the humans all petted and hugged him often, wondering silently how much longer he was going to be around.
Adam, who had raised Scout since he'd been a puppy, was probably the most saddened by the graying fur on his companion's brow.
But life was strange and manifold, sometimes even verging on the miraculous. And as someone working so closely with the earth, one learned to accept death as a part of life.
Adam was glad that Huxley was back, and made sure to tell her so with a tight hug in front of the stable one morning. "I know we keep praising Hazel, but I want you to know that I'm so proud of you for having tried," he said, "It's so good to have you back home."
Grinning, Hux asked, "Is it because I'm the only one that helps you with the horse?"
"That too," Adam laughed.
Jumper was a difficult horse, it was true. No one besides Adam had ever attempted to ride him, but Huxley didn't mind helping out with the stallion's daily care. She brushed his coat until it gleamed in the sunlight and then went on to clean his hooves, which would have been nothing short of reckless for most other sims to attempt. Jumper liked to bite and kick, suddenly and without warning.
Perhaps it was due to this similarity in character that there was a sense of kinship between these two.
Meanwhile, Adam cleaned out the stable. He had never regretted his decision to leave the city to become a farmer, but some chores would never become pleasurable.
Still, they were necessary, and these menial tasks gave Adam time to reflect and philosophize. What was waste now would soon become the basis for life again: horse manure was the best fertilizer any horticulturist could ask for.
Surprisingly, Grace's words for her daughter much the same as her husband's - she was proud of Huxley for having gone to college and fully respected her decision not to pursue a degree.
Huxley could only stare. How come her mother wasn't being more pushy, as usual?
Maybe this laid-back attitude was due to Grace's new hobby. In her daughters' absence she had taken up painting and would now often spend hours at her easel while Adam sat beside her with a book.
Sometimes though, Adam was distracted from his reading by his wife's choice of subject. "What are you painting there, love?" he couldn't help but ask one day.
"It's our house, of course!"
"That's nice... uhm, why is it on fire?"
"Huh, what?" Grace stepped back from the canvas and tilted her head, examining it. "Oh, that! No, that's not fire, silly! It's a tree!"
Well, practice makes perfect, or something...
Getting newly renovated rooms as a gift was becoming something of a tradition with Adam. Still, Hazel and Aidan thought that he had outdone himself with the new home laboratory he presented them with after their return.
It helped Aidan cement his decision not to pursue employment at a science facility like Hazel had. His qualifications made him a desirable asset to many employers, but Aidan valued his freedom too much to embrace a life ruled by the nine-to-five grind.
That didn't mean that Aidan was not as passionate about science as his girlfriend was. He had several ongoing projects, but his latest fascination was with reptiles and how the process of shedding their skin almost seemed to rejuvenate them. If the chemicals that triggered their molting were to be be recreated and modified, Aidan hypothesized, the resulting possibilities could be spectacular.
He was always sure to release his test subjects after studying them though.
Soon he was ready to experiment on more complex life forms.
Scout was distracted by this new room with its many unusual smells, but he wagged his tail regardless and looked at the human expectantly, waiting for the treat he had been promised.
This was not like any treat Scout had ever seen.
A strange mix of sensations assaulted the old dog: At first there was a moment of shock, similar to when the humans insisted on pouring water over him in the large white bowl. But then it quickly became warm and comfortable, like an afternoon spent napping in the sun or being curled up on the rug in front of the fireplace.
And then there was another sensation, one that Scout hadn't felt in a long time. All the little aches and pains he'd gotten used to were suddenly gone. Even his sight was clearer and his hearing more acute.
Scout looked at the human in confusion. He was still owed that treat.
Unlike Aidan, Hazel valued structure, and so had jumped at the opportunity to accept a job at Appaloosa Plains' only science lab.
She'd been to Wolfson's Hospital and Research Facility once before, on a high school field trip a long time ago. Today she entered the familiar building as an employee.
She was greeted in the foyer by her new boss, Angela Wolfson, and together they took an elevator down to one of the several basement levels.
“Yes, it was founded by my great-great-great-grandfather,” Angela Wolfson explained, “back when Appaloosa Plains was still nothing but a fleck on the map. That’s why we’re sharing facilities with the hospital. The medical facilities have taken over the upper floors, and we've expanded downward. But as for the name - no, my family hasn’t owned this place for generations. I just happen to work here."
As they walked down a long hallway, Ms Wolfson continued, "Wolfson’s Research Facility is civic property and relies entirely on government funding. I’m constantly butting heads with the mayor over budget issues.”
Hazel tried to keep pace, resisting the urge to stop and stare into every room they passed by. This place was amazing! They certainly had not visited this area on their high school field trip.
Finally, at the end of the hallway, the two women came to a halt at a closed door with a keypad. Ms Wolfson turned to face Hazel and spoke on, “But budget aside, we’re more than capable of doing exceptional work here. We’ve made great strides in fertilizer analyzation, genetic resequencing and biochemistry, robotics, researching Laganaphyllis Simnovorii—“
“Cow plants?" Hazel interrupted, "Really? I thought they were a hoax.”
“Unfortunately not,” Angela Wolfson sighed, “I’ve been pushing to have the project abandoned for years - there’s just nothing scientifically valid to be gained from hybridizing bovines with Venus flytraps - but that brings us to the tired money issue again. I may be in charge of this facility, but the government always has the last word.” She frowned, then turned to type a code into the keypad.
“Anyway, that’s not what you’ll be working on," she continued more merrily, "That would be a waste of a brilliant mind if I ever saw one." The door slid open and she walked though it, Hazel on her heels. "No, the project I brought you in for is…"
Hazel gaped. They had entered a large room, filled to the brim with state-of-the-art equipment. In every corner there were scientists in lab coats, all intensely focused on their various tasks.
But what captured Hazel's attention was the thing that this entire room clearly centered around: On a pedestal within a large containment chamber stood a metallic object, consisting of four elegantly curved prongs, about the height of a sim. It looked simple, almost plain, but nonetheless decidedly alien.
“What… is it?” Hazel finally choked out.
“That’s what I want you to find out,” Ms Wolfson smiled, “What do you say, Miz Cardwell, are you interested?”
Hazel was ecstatic.
When I noticed that Scout's age bar was full, I got into a bit of a frenzy to acquire enough LTH points to buy him a Young Again potion. Ugh. I'm going to have to ban myself from using those in the future unless there's a really good story-related reason. Two dogs plus a horse are a lot to handle! But oh well. Yay for Aidan's amazing discovery (and my pseudo-scientific explanation, lol. Brace yourselves for a lot of those in this generation)!