NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 30: The Element of Surprise

Another NaNo has come and gone. And while I’m looking forward to relax a little from the marathon, I’m mostly excited because it looks like this might have actually given me the jumpstart I was hoping for to get me writing a lot and regularly once again. It’s a lovely feeling.

I’m also inordinately proud of myself for blowing my previous NaNo wordcount record out of the water. My final count for the month is just over 75k words, which means that I completed 150% of the official NaNoWriMo goal. Tanner and Miranda are nothing if not fun to write. As always, it’s all incredibly rough and unpolished, not to mentioned only barely structured at best, but it’s a whole lot of grist for the editing mill, and I’m so excited to get to working on it.

So, here’s a last (for NaNoWriMo 2018) snippet of the adventures of a couple of siblings who don’t know how to stay out of trouble. Thanks for reading!


There were two bandits in the doorway. There might be more in the ship behind them, but we couldn’t see them, and we couldn’t hear more than the two we could see. Decent enough odds to make us think that they were the only ones there right at the moment. Well. Some people might think they were good odds. If it was the difference between surviving and not surviving this mission, it might be more ideal to wait until we had a better idea of what was going on, but as they say, time is of the essence, and this was about as good as it was probably going to get. And right now, the door was unlocked. And open.

Tanner and I exchanged a look, took deep breaths, and charged.

Now, these two were probably entirely deserving of whatever justice we might mete out on them during this whole crazy backwards heist. But there was more at stake than just their just deserts, and frankly, unless it was blatant self defense, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about killing anyone and getting that on my conscience. Self defense is one thing. Going in, guns blazing, is entirely another. And while it’s got its time and its place, and I’ve done it before, I didn’t have to right now and I was absolutely fine with that.

So instead, we charged straight forward, fired several shots into the hull above their heads, then broke off to the sides and didn’t let ourselves run in a straight enough line to let them get a bead on us. Frankly, it probably shouldn’t have worked. I mean, it really, really shouldn’t have worked. And yet, it did. The two guards panicked and ducked and fired off a couple of crazy shots into the air above our heads. They missed us entirely and wasted a couple of moments that were more than enough for us to cover the ground between us and them.

And we tackled them. Shoulders down, wrapping our arms around their waists, driving them to the ground. Tanner took the one of the left, I took the one on the right who stood a little further back. Just one of the benefits of being smaller. You can sneak through spaces that wouldn’t be big enough for a lot of people. And it doesn’t meant that you’re not strong enough to go after anyone. As evidenced by the fact that the fellow I tackled went down, and went down hard, despite having about fifty pounds and half a foot on me.

Thank God for the element of surprise and a low center of gravity.

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 26: My kind of job

I don’t know quite where I’m going with this. But I think it’s going to be fun.


This was my kind of job. The kind that had gotten me into this field in the first place. Both literally, in the sense that Tanner and I were currently crouched in a sage-brush filled field a little way outside of Dalton, and also in the sense you thought I was talking about first. It was the kind rife with adventure and mayhem, and, just as importantly, it was the kind that promised a healthy payout at the end of it.

We just had to finish the job and get back to the client in one piece. Easier said than done, of course, but that’s where the fun comes in.

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 23: The Solo Jobs intro

The whole point in my moving out to the absolute end of nowhere that is Verdant is the fact that instead of doing this notoriously dangerous freelancing job solo, I’d get to do it with Tanner watching my back. And I’d be able to watch his. And in the process, both of our life expectancies would jump straight through the roof. Simple.

Of course, when you’re a freelancer, you don’t exactly have the luxury of being super picky about the jobs you take. Well. Not always. And even if you’d like to be picky, there’s always that pesky fact of paying the rent and buying food that reminds you that downtime itself is a luxury, and one that most of us can’t afford all that often. And sometimes, the only jobs available are the ones that only call for one freelancer. And try as you might, they have no interest in hiring the two of you, even at a discount rate. Cheapskates.

As you might have guessed, this would be exactly how Tanner and I found ourselves working different jobs at opposite ends of the colony just a few months after my arrival. Both of them were simple. Well. Were supposed to be simple, but you know as well as anyone else by now how that usually goes. Still, even while keeping in mind that these jobs would inevitably go sideways, one half-way competent freelancer should be able to handle either of them, and I like to think that Tanner and I are more than halfway competent. So while the whole thing was annoying, we took it. It wasn’t like it was the first time either of us had worked alone, of course.

I found my job first. Or I should say, my job found me first.

By this time, Tanner and I were both decently well established throughout the colony. We had reputations. Good ones, for the most part, and our names were starting to come up regularly when folks started looking for “reliable” and “affordable”.All in all, not a bad place to be. Plus, even though we usually worked side by side, we’d managed to set up separate reputations for ourselves as well. You had a sticky situation that required careful wording and a deft touch? Get Tanner. Got a situation where someone was being stubborn and a couple of heads might need knocking? Tanner would probably manage it, but everyone knew I had a certain flair for it, and you’d get results fast. Tanner’s methods tended to keep him on the right side of the Marshals better than mine did, but even mine usually didn’t land me in that much hot water. Because by the time someone was asking for me by name, the heads that needed bashing were probably so far on the wrong side of the law that they’d probably getit coming to them one way or another. And I didn’t leave a trail of bodies.

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 16: Gold!

“It could be gold,” I said. The sun was high above us, and far too hot for comfort. Our only solace was the fact that the boys’ tracks were particularly easy to follow at the moment, almost as if they’d stopped trying to hide where they were going. That was our theory on why the tracks were so weird for our first couple of days on the trail. It didn’t make any sense if you were looking at it like it was a couple of treasure hunters actively looking for new treasure. But if you assumed they’d already found something and were trying to make it look like they hadn’t, it got closer. It wasn’t perfect, but nothing is, and if you wanted to assume that they didn’t necessarily know how to lay a misleading trail, everything matched up pretty close.

Hence my assessment that they had found a whole vein of pretty, yellow metal.

Tanner snorted. “Gold?”

I nodded. “Gold. It could happen.”

“Have they even discovered gold on this planet?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. Probably?” What can I say. I’m many things, but a geologist is absolutely not one of them. It all looks like rocks to me, with the only variations that I can usually pick out being substantial changes in color.

“Yeah. Sure. And gold is pretty, but it’s not that good for much these days. Diamonds, on the other hand. Those are useful. Expensive, too. I could see how one of the underworld bosses might try to kill someone to make sure he got to keep them all for himself.”

“Could be a particularly large one,” I said. “A fabled diamond, larger than any ever found on earth. A previous treasure hunter caught a glimpse of it but had to leave before he could grab it. The story’s gotten around, these two actually found it, and your underworld boss found out that they knew.” I paused and thought about it for a moment. “That could be it.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You started it.”

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 14: Conflict!

I finally reached that point where the characters are starting to do things I don’t expect them to. I’m not sure if this means I’ve reached a new writing zen or if it’s just another sign that the monkeys now run the circus. Check back next time to see if I’ve figured it out, or if I’ve just gotten more confused!


“Tann. You want to stop for the night?”

I stopped walking and waited for my brother to do the same. I hadn’t noticed it while my legs were still moving, but a weary tingling throbbed in my calves and thighs. It was probably going to turn to a dull ache before the night was through, though if I admitted that to myself or anyone else, I’d also have to admit that I’d been taking it too easy and relying too much on mechanized transportation for the last few months. Somehow, it hurt even more than yesterday, which I had hoped wasn’t going to be possible.

“Tann,” I said again when it looked like he hadn’t heard me. “We’re not going to find them tonight. And I’m tired.”

He took a few more steps but his pace had slowed, and he turned a moment later. “Yeah,” he said. “We can stop.” He sounded tired.

“You okay?” I asked.

He shrugged once and nodded. “Yeah. Just tired.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Just tired and also annoyed that this isn’t as easy as you thought it would be?”

“No.”

“Really?” I asked. “Because I’m pretty sure you thought this was going to go quicker than it is. You were going all white knight and everything.”

“I wasn’t. Come on, Miranda. I’ve been doing this for years. I know how search and rescue jobs go. Probably better than you do, honestly.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You do. And even I know that this is par for the course. So what’s eating you?” I waved my arms more expressively than I needed to. “This is normal!”

“It’s not!”

“How so?” He was shouting. I was yelling. Our voices echoed off the canyon walls, and any plans we’d had for being subtle were straight up gone.

“The trail is wrong. Too obvious, not natural enough, too old.”

“Seriously, Tanner? They’re a couple of lost treasure hunters, not mob triggermen.”

“We don’t know that.”

I glared at him. “You’re kidding me. Did you drink enough today? Because right now it sounds like you got a little too much sun.”

“I’m fine. And I mean it. This doesn’t make sense. The whole trail is too cold. We should be gaining on them, not just barely keeping pace. It’s like they tried to leave the tracks we expected to see, but they’re moving just as fast as we are. It doesn’t make sense. Tell me I’m wrong.”

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 9: Not a Subtle Person

WHISKEYHILL

Current word count: just over 20K. Writing is going weirdly well from a word count standpoint, and I’m slowly, slowly learning to accept that the first draft is terrible no matter what, and that’s okay. Most of it is currently filled with plotholes and outright plot changes halfway through, but I’ve got a lot of good stuff to work with, and I’m excited to see what happens when I get to edit in December.

Also! I just “finished” the first story that’ll be part of the finished project, and I’m getting more of an idea for an overarching arc. So overall, not too bad for nine days into NaNoWriMo.

Amos Masters is many things. An idiot isn’t often one of them, as much as I wish I could say it was. He was up to something, and while he couldn’t be sure that I knew exactly what it was, he had every reason to believe that I knew something. Combine that with the fact that I was clearly baiting him, it wouldn’t take a genius to realize that I was working an angle. What can I say? I’m not a subtle person.

But I can work to my strengths. Maybe I can’t trick someone into betraying their intentions without them realizing it. But I can definitely piss someone off enough that they do it anyways. Especially if that someone is a hothead like good old Amos.

“I’m warning you, girl. Get out of here before I do something you regret.”

I kept grinning. All he was missing was the long, waxed mustache and the ten gallon hat and he could’ve been a villain out of any old Western. He already had the growling drawl and the nasty sneer down pat. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, friend. I don’t regret half the stupid things I do. You might manage to annoy me, or maybe even irritated me, but regret it?” I shrugged and spread my arms expansively. “Nah.”

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 5

WHISKEYHILL

It’s already Day 5 of NaNo, and I’m a little ahead of schedule. So far, this feels way different than any NaNo I’ve done in the past. The words are coming easier, though it feels like there’s an absolute ton of chaff I’ll be sorting through once this is over. Okay, so that part’s normal enough. Anyway! Enjoy another snippet down below.

The first indication that things weren’t going to go the way we expected them to was the fact that we woke up the next morning to the sound of rain. Lots of it. Normally, that would have been a good thing. Despite the name, Verdant is usually anything but—at least, our little corner of it. And while mining and a burgeoning manufacturing business based on the stuff that gets taken out of the ground provide the basis for most of the economy here, there’s also a fair amount of agriculture that goes on as well, since that’s the only way you’re going to be able to feed everyone unless you want to ship in food from another planet. That might have worked back when the colony was smaller, but now that there’s a good half dozen towns with more than ten thousand people in them, it’s just not feasible anymore.

Hence, agriculture. And anytime you’ve got agriculture, you need water. I mean, anytime you’ve got people anywhere you need water, but step that up a notch to water the animals and the plants you’re using to feed the people and things jump into a new realm really fast. But you’re not here to listen to me and my uneducated views on economics and ecosystems. So let me get back to the point.

While rain in the general sense is a great thing for the colony at large, it’s not the best thing for a twenty mile hike with a bunch of cows over the course of two days that’s going to involve some sort of camping. In fact, it’s probably about the worst sort of weather you could have.

Fine. Not the worst. That would be snow. Or maybe record breaking heat. But rain’s not great either, and while it was bad enough for the cows and the horses and the people who were going to be herding them east to Move, it was going to be even worse for the jeep. And by worse, I mean that it was a deal breaker. The road between Orsmith and Move, while it exists, is mostly dirt and occasionally gravel. Which means that when it rains, it becomes mud. Thick, nasty mud of the sort that sucks wheels down to the axles and doesn’t let go. There’s a centuries old joke about the difference between a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a rental vehicle being that you can take the rental everywhere. The jeep might have been both, but when physics itself starts conspiring against you, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

NaNo18

[NaNo18] Day 1

WHISKEYHILL

Day 1! It took me a while to get into the swing of writing, especially since this is the first time I’ve done NaNo with characters as well established as Tanner and Miranda. The tone was a little… off for the first thousand words or so, but I started getting the feel for things after that. There’s not a whole lot story-wise for today, just an excerpt that I like well enough. Enjoy it below!

So. The babysitting job. Getting a group of about twenty colonists from Orsmith out to Move, twenty miles away. You’d think it would be simple, right? Even without much infrastructure, there’s still roads enough to get you through, and like I said, both Orsmith and Move are more or less central to the whole Verdant colony. They’re a little rustic, but hardly the uncivilized, wild edge.

Which would lead you to wonder why a group of twenty able-bodied folk felt the need to hire a pair of bounty hunter/mercenaries to get them there. Or it should. Should have raised up red flags for me and Tanner, too, but I was too busy laughing at the silly little colonists, and Tanner was too happy to have found something that wouldn’t bust up his leg any worse than the sheep-thing had already done.


Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The Dog

WHISKEYHILL

“I want to keep her.”

I glanced across the room at Tanner and raised an eyebrow. We were still living in the one and only boarding house in town, and while I hadn’t heard if they had a pet policy or not, I somehow doubted that it would be favorable towards the canine my brother was holding on his lap. At least, that’s what I said. It was a lot easier than looking both Tanner and the dog in the face and saying that I didn’t want to have her around.

She looked like a mutt of sorts, and at the moment she was stuck in the awkward stage between puppy and full-grown, which mostly meant that her legs and her body had begun to lengthen and she had started to get bigger, but by the same fluke that hounded every dog, her paws had grown even faster and she wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Judging by her look and her proclivity for nipping at things when Tanner wasn’t looking, I figured she was part shepherd of some sort, a guess that was borne out by her brown and black coloring.

“One night. And then we’ll discuss it in the morning.”

And you know, it’s not like she hadn’t already won then. I knew it. Tanner knew it. The puppy eyes made it look like she was completely innocent, but the dog knew it too. Or maybe she didn’t. But when we went to bed that night, she curled up by Tanner’s feet and started snoring.

I didn’t have to like the idea of having a dog to realize that she was cute.

I almost reconsidered even that conclusion when I woke up a couple hours later to her low growl. I was about to tell her to put a sock in it when I heard a scraping at the door, like someone was trying to coerce the lock into giving way. That was when the adrenaline hit like a ton of bricks, and I grabbed my sidearm and rolled out of bed.

My bare feet hit the rough floor without a sound, and I crept towards the door, stopping at Tanner’s bed just long enough to shake him awake and reach out a tentative hand to quiet the puppy. In retrospect, it was probably a dumb move, as she was just as likely to respond to my touch by barking or biting me as she was to actually quiet down, but by the grace of God, she did just that, shoving her cold, wet nose into my palm as I withdrew and continued towards the door.

Tanner joined me a few seconds later, just in time for both of us to hear the lock click and see the door swing open on hinges that sounded suspiciously like they’d been oiled.

At least the amateurs got one thing right. But just the one.

Tanner and I kept back behind the corner of the room’s sad little dresser, just in case the intruder was the sort to shoot when scared. All things considered equal, that seemed more likely than not, and the two of us did know what we were doing. Mostly.

“Is there a reason you didn’t knock?” I asked.

Our visitor made a noise halfway between a curse and a yelp, fired off a shot that shattered the room’s only window, and started scrambling away. He didn’t get very far. As soon as he turned around, Tanner jumped from our hiding place and tackled him to the ground, tossing the man’s weapon out of reach as soon as he could get his hands on it, and it was all over.

In the end, I’ve got to give the idiot points for bravery and initiative. He never did tell us who hired him or if the whole thing was his idea, even after the sheriff hauled him off to the jail. But that’s life. It’s not the first time someone’s come after us, and it won’t be the last. Probably won’t be the last one we don’t figure out, either.

As for the puppy, Tanner won. Or maybe the puppy won. Or maybe we all won. God only knows how much we could use an extra set of eyes and ears watching out for us. We named her Pup.

Fiction (Short)

The Verdant Wildlife

WHISKEYHILL

I was still groggy when the shuttle dropped through the atmosphere towards Verdant and touched down in the big landing field outside of Coville. That was normal enough after eight months in coldsleep, but it meant that I didn’t see Tanner until a split second before he wrapped me in a massive bear hug.

“Hey, sis. Took you long enough to get here.”

I tried to punch him without letting go of the hug. “Stuff it.”

He squeezed me one more time and tousled my hair. “How are Mom and Dad?”

“They’re good,” I said. All around us, the hum of other reunions filled the air. “Mom keeps talking about going out to one of the older colonies, but you know how Dad is. I promised we’d send pictures. And that we’d try to stay safe out here.”

“Are they still worried about us?”

I gave him a look. “Of course they are. But it’s not any worse than the last three years. They’ll be alright.”

There was a heavy clank behind us as the shuttle crew disengaged the locks that held my and the other passengers’ luggage secure during the short trip down from the big starliner still hanging somewhere up in orbit. The buzz of greetings broke off for a moment as the small crowd moved closer and waited for their names to be called as their baggage was handed down. Tanner and I hung back, keeping just outside the tightest part of the chaotic press.

“By the way, did you find any work for us?” I asked.

“Nah, I thought I’d leave that to you. Figured I’d done enough on my own for the last five weeks, you know?” He grinned.

I glared at him and gouged his ribs with my elbow. “Jerk. What do we have?”

“Something nice and easy, just for you.” He dodged away as I went to elbow him again. “One of the automated planes they’re using to map the Outlands went down in a canyon and they’re having trouble finding it. I thought you’d appreciate getting to know the area without getting shot at, so I said we’d be happy to hike out and see if we can find the thing.”

I grimaced. “When you say hiking, you mean actual hiking, don’t you?”

“More or less.” He grinned. “Someone might have a couple of horses we can borrow, but the terrain can be rough enough it might not be worth the trouble.”

I was about to mutter that horses were never worth the trouble when the shuttle crew came to my bag.

“Miranda Griff!”

A couple of the closer passengers reached up to grab my big, black duffel and pass it back to me, and then Tanner and I were on our way. We trekked back across the dusty expanse of the landing field, towards the boarding house on the edge of town where Tanner had a room. I handed him my bag and made him carry it before we made it halfway there.

“So, when are we heading out?” I asked.

He slung the strap of my bag over his shoulder. “Well, I was going to let you get a little rest first, but since I’m carrying all your stuff now we might as well go now.”

I punched him in the shoulder. It was a cheap shot, especially since my bag was the only reason he couldn’t avoid it, but I didn’t feel too bad about it.

He giggled. “Man, I missed you.”

In the end, we decided to wait until the next morning to head out. Or rather, Tanner strung me along until finally admitting that he’d planned it that way all along, I punched him again, then enjoyed a long shower and a quick nap while he stepped out to handle a few last minute details. We had a light dinner and turned in early, and I slept until he shook me awake the next morning with the sort of gleeful grin I’d learned to hate when we were kids.

“Rise and shine, Miranda!” The whole mattress shook as he took it by the corners and bounced it up and down. “No freeloading for you. Time to earn your keep.” He shook the mattress again and moved just far enough to the side that my poorly aimed kick met with nothing but air. The room was still fairly dark, lit by nothing more than a dim lamp in the far corner and a few shreds of pale sunlight that came through the thin curtains hanging over the room’s one window.

“What time is it?”

“Time to get up.” He was still grinning. “I thought that was obvious enough.”

I raised a hand and one finger. “Not what I meant.”

“It’s six AM, give or take a couple minutes. I let you sleep in.”

“I’m pretty sure I hate you.”

“I know.”

I sat up, slowly, jamming the heels of my palms against my eyes in a vain attempt to rub the worst of the sleep away. They’d told me that lag from coldsleep would take a while to wear off, but somehow hearing about it from a nurse and actually having to contend with the fact that my body didn’t want to have anything to do with consciousness were two entirely different things.

“Heads up.”

Tanner tossed me a ration bar from across the room. Sluggish as I was, I missed it as it flew past my head and bounced off the wall behind me to land on the floor. It took me a moment to do more than stare at it.

“Oh, you’re going to be fun today,” said Tanner. He was grinning again.

“It’s just the lag. I’ll be fine once I get going.” I leaned back and reached down for the ration bar. “Coffee would help, though. You got any to go with this?” I retrieved the bar and waved it back and forth in the air.

“Nah. They haven’t gotten coffee to grow here yet, and the stuff they import is too expensive.”

I made a face. “Of course it is.”

Despite my protestations, it wasn’t all that bad once I actually got moving. Food helped, as did the fact that Tanner’s preparations meant that all we really had to do was grab our packs and head out to the depot where he’d arranged transportation for us with a rancher heading in the direction we wanted to go. It wasn’t glamorous— we climbed into the back of his jeep and made ourselves as comfortable as we could— but it worked, with the biggest downside being that the day was half gone by the time we reached the mouth of the canyon.

I can’t say that tramping through an alien wilderness looking for wreckage was my idea of the best job ever, but I was more than happy to admit that Tanner could have done a lot worse. The snatches of the planet’s surface that I’d seen during the shuttle’s descent the day before had given me a the impression that this corner of it looked a bit like the old American Southwest, complete with sagebrush and tumbleweed, or whatever they called the equivalent here. So, while it still might have been something of a desert, at least it wasn’t the sandy kind, and once we entered the canyon it wasn’t even all that hot.

And it’s fair to say that I was feeling optimistic. It wasn’t that nothing could go wrong on a job like this, but compared to what we were both used to, it wouldn’t be anything we didn’t know how to handle. Neither of us were going to complain about that.

If anything, it was all almost too easy. Or too simple, at any rate. Doing private security work back in Sol and Centauri, I’d gotten used to getting shot at, or at least used to the idea of getting shot at. I’d also gotten used to things rarely being what they seemed, large numbers of ulterior motives, and even the occasional double-cross. Here, the only thing we needed to worry about was keeping an eye out for bits of broken drone and making sure we didn’t lose our way as we made our way through the canyon. Given that it only branched every now and then, neither of those were going to be particularly difficult.

So, we talked. Even not counting the eight months we’d both lost to coldsleep, it had been a long time since we’d had the chance to just spend hours in each other’s company. I don’t know if Tanner meant to give us the chance to catch up, and knowing him it probably hadn’t crossed his mind except as an afterthought, but he couldn’t have done it better if he’d tried. I told him about everything I could think of from the past three years. Or, if not everything, then everything that hadn’t been important enough to work into the occasional datapackets we’d exchanged but still loomed large in my memory. There were clients with more money than sense, a couple with more sense than money, and too many without much of either. There was the time I got paid to stand at a door and look imposing, which, being five-foot-six and female was a little easier said than done, though I managed well enough. There were a few close friendships, a couple of ill-fated romances, and not nearly enough trips back home to visit our parents. And there was convincing them that going out to this tiny little system on the edge of civilized space was a good idea.

“Did you try to get them to come out here too?” asked Tanner.

“I hinted once or twice. We might be able to convince Mom, but you remember how hard it was for her to get Dad to even go as far as Centauri, and that was just for a visit. He just kept saying we both needed to move back closer to home before they get too old, though sooner would be better.”

Tanner laughed. “He still hasn’t retired, has he?”

“Neither of them have. They’re hoping to within the next couple of years, though, I think. They’re talking about it, at least.”

It was getting to be late afternoon, and the sun had dropped low enough that the canyon walls blocked the best of the light. The sky above our head was still a pale blue, and the shadows weren’t so deep that we couldn’t continue searching, but it wouldn’t be that much longer before we started running into the very real possibility of walking right past what we were looking for. As if that wasn’t enough, both of our stomachs were starting to growl, and we were quickly finding ourselves less interested in looking for debris than a likely spot to make camp for the night.

We found the latter in the form of a shallow cave near a bend in the canyon and a small stream that trickled down from a crack in the walls and into a small, clear pool ringed by a few trees and more greenery than we’d seen all day. Dead branches provided more than enough kindling for a small fire, and all in all, it looked like we were going to be able to sleep in far more comfort than either of us had expected. Well. Comfort being a relative term. The fire would keep us warm, the water meant we weren’t going to have to ration ourselves quite so carefully, and the cave was a nice bonus in case the weather decided to turn funny. Sleeping on the ground and eating ration bars for dinner just came with the territory, and you could even say that it added to the charm of it all. Tanner did say so, which was why I threw the empty wrapper of my ration bar at him.

After that, we talked for a while longer in the dying light of our fire before unrolling our sleeping bags and heading off to bed. Well, I went to bed. Tanner stayed up a little longer to watch the fire as it burned down and to keep watch a little longer. It hardly seemed necessary. We hadn’t seen any wildlife the entire day, and by all reports most of the nastier critters indiginous to the planet lived elsewhere. Still, old habits die hard, and if I hadn’t still been so tired from the interstellar trip, I would have done the same thing. But I was exhausted, and so I was more than happy to let him take that particular bullet while I fell into a deeper sleep than I would have expected to find given the circumstances.

I don’t know how long I’d been asleep when Tanner shook me awake for the second time that day. The fire was out, save for a few red embers, and the better part of the light that allowed us to see anything at all came from the big, pale halfmoon that hung high in the sky and managed to spill its light down into the canyon. It was enough for me to see three or four dark forms moving along the edge of the pool.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Not sure.”

He had his sidearm drawn, and he handed me mine as soon as I brought myself up to a crouch.

“Human or animal?” I thought it was the latter, but I wasn’t certain. Tanner wasn’t either.

Whatever they were, they moved together, and they were getting closer. They weren’t being overtly threatening, but I wasn’t convinced that that made anything better. At least then we’d know where we stood.

“We’re sure there’s no aliens here, right?”

Even in the darkness, I’m pretty sure I saw Tanner give me a look. “No such thing,” he said. “Not the kind you’re thinking of, anyway.”

A second later, we were both pretty sure they weren’t human. As to what they actually were, we were still at a loss. Tanner crept a little closer to the pool to get a closer look. He didn’t move far and he didn’t move fast, and he was quiet about it, but his foot caught on a rock and sent it tumbling softly across the ground. The nearest and biggest of the creatures looked up with a snort and snapped its head towards us. My stomach lurched up into my throat.

For just a moment I thought that we’d be wildly lucky, and the whole thing would end there. The creature gave a sharp, bleating bark. The other three responded in kind and wheeled, bolting back into the canyon with a thunder and rumble of what sounded like hooves. The first one looked like it was about to follow suit.

And then it changed its mind and charged us.

The thing was fast. Tanner and I barely had time to dive out of the way before it was on top of us, careening through our cave and scattering the remnants of our fire all around. We scrambled away and sprinted for the trees as soon as we could get to our feet.

“Climb! Tanner! Climb!”

“What the hell do you think I’m doing!?”

I made it up into the branches of the nearest tree first, and I braced myself against the trunk as I reached down to give Tanner my hand. The animal turned and charged us again before I could haul him out of the way.

We disagree on what happened next.

If you ask him, Tanner will say I dropped him just as he was getting up onto the branch, and that the animal took a bite out of his leg as he fell. He’ll also say that if it weren’t for his presence of mind and incredible aim, the thing would have mauled him within an inch of his life. What actually happened was more like this: my brother, with all the grace of a drunken, lamed muskox, failed to pull himself up and out of the way and expected me to get his fat ass to safety, and while I was doing my very best to do just that, the creature jumped. Like a jackrabbit. It sank four fangs that had no business in the mouth of any herbivore (as I later found out it was) and pulled, dragging Tanner back down to the ground with it. And then, if it weren’t for my presence of mind and incredible aim, it would have mauled him some more.

Either way, when the dust settled Tanner was on the ground with a bite missing from his leg, and the critter that had done the deed was down next to him with a clean shot through its skull. My clean shot, but I digress. I dropped down from the tree and landed beside him.

“Tann, how bad is it?”

“Bad enough.” He sucked in a sharp breath as I reached for his leg.

“Broken?”

“Don’t think so.”

“That’s something. Can you walk?”

He shifted around until he could test the limb with a little weight, and then when that worked, he pulled himself to his feet. “Yes. Ow. I’ll make it work.”

“Yeah, okay. Sit down.”

I jogged back over to our cave and groped around until I found one of our packs and the flashlight and first aid kit inside. It took a little doing, but we managed to get his wound cleaned and bound up, and then he slept the rest of the night while I kept watch. Once the sun finally rose again, we took the time to take a closer look at the dead animal.

It looked like a sheep. Sort of. It had shaggy fur that seemed a bit like wool, and it had cloven hooves. Its face was long and narrow, but its jaw was heavy and clearly strong, probably so it could make better use of the four massive fangs that protruded from its mouth. We built another fire and cooked a little of its meat for breakfast and found that it wasn’t half bad, though that could have just been the sweet taste of revenge. I’m pretty sure Tanner enjoyed it more than me.

And then we started back toward the mouth of the canyon, limping and slow and trying not to think too hard about the fact that we had just failed our first job together on Verdant because of a bloodthirsty ovine. But that was okay. The story alone made it all worth it.