Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The Last Job

We knew Trevor Cossak was going to catch up with us eventually. We knew it, but I had been hoping it would be somewhere other than in this remote and utterly godforsaken corner of the Badlands. At least there was cover. I gripped my pistol and twisted just enough to look over the top of the massive boulder Tanner and I were both currently hiding behind.

CRACK!

I swore and slammed back down. Lafayette wasn’t missing much by way of his aim. And I still wasn’t sure exactly where he was.

“Okay, now what?” I hissed the words, exchanging a glance with my brother. I was all out of ideas this time around.

Tanner just shook his head. So much for that.

The sky above was clear and blue. The world around us was silent—ominously so. If I popped my head up again there would be another rifle shot, and I had the impression that Cossak wasn’t firing warning shots. If he got a clear bead on us, it was game over. And seeing as half-second stolen glances weren’t giving us any idea where he was actually hiding, they weren’t worth the risk.

“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait,” I said.

“We can’t really do anything else,” said Tanner. “Unless you’re trying to make his job easier.”

His job, because in one sense, the man was just trying to fulfill an obligation. Cut out the part about that obligation being handed to him by a certain colony mob boss, and you almost sympathized with him.

Almost.

“His job’s going to be plenty easy if we just sit here and wait for him to work out how to get closer,” I said. But while that was true, I knew Tanner had a point. Which meant we needed another option.

I turned and looked at our surroundings for the eighth time. And for the eighth time, I came away with the same impression: this particular little pocket in the canyon wall, situated as it was behind a decently sized boulder, provided both lovely cover and no way out. There was at least a couple dozen yards of open ground surrounding us, which would give Cossak some trouble getting closer to us, but that was only the thinnest of silver linings.

At least it wasn’t going to get that much worse.

That was the last thought I had before I heard a clatter of rocks on the steep slope above us and looked up just in time to see a couple of armed gangmen taking aim at us from above.

“Tanner!”

We both turned and fired, and both gangmen came tumbling down with his own mortal wound opened up in his chest. But the damage was done. The seconds we spent dealing with them were enough for Cossak himself to break from his own hiding place and cross the precious yards of no-man’s land we had hoped would protect us.

By the time we turned back around he had already flanked us. I fired three shots, each one hitting dead on. Each one falling short against a personal shield device that I had, up until this point, thought was mostly fantasy. Tanner shot him too, but the only effect the rifle shot had was that it caused the shield to flicker. Slightly.

“Don’t suppose you’re going to let us surrender, are you?”

Cossak’s face split in a nasty grin. “Nah.”

And then he shot us both.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The New Roommate

There’s nothing fun about looking for a new roommate. The whole process can go wrong more ways than it can go right, and the stakes for it going right are higher than most. You’re looking for someone to live with, after all—it would be nice to get along, nice to tolerate each other’s company, if not enjoy it. Yet all too often you have to consider yourself lucky to just not mind sharing space.

And all it takes is one bad experience to make you twitchy about the whole thing. Sure, the statistics say you’re unlikely to ever run into someone truly dangerous. And even if you do, you want to believe you’d notice that something was off before you invite them in to live between the same four walls as you. Problem is, statistics aren’t guarantees. And once you lose that gamble once, you’re bound to make extra sure about anyone responding to your craigslist ad.

Which was how Amanda found herself sitting at the corner table of a coffee shop a few blocks from her apartment, waiting for who she hoped would turn out to be as good a roommate in reality as she was on paper. She’d gotten there early, more by accident than design, though she hoped it would give her a chance to collect her thoughts and relax. It hadn’t worked; mostly, it had given her time to remember how optimistic she’d been about Lilith when she moved in.

It had been fine at first. Lilith was nice, if a little odd. She’d was a little pale, but she’d also only gone out after dark. She seemed to eat blood sausage with every meal, but everyone had their dietary quirks. That colony of bats had moved into the walls about a week after she had moved in, but that could hardly have been her fault. Just coincidence.

Until the Incident, everything weird was easy enough to explain away. But when your roommate tries to bite your neck and only fails because you happened to have the presence of mind to fling the jar of powdered garlic at her, you end up feeling a bit paranoid.

Amanda shuddered and tried not to think about it. She also touched her hand to the small silver cross at her neck, just to reassure her subconscious that it was still there. Fortunately, any further recollections were preempted by the arrival of her potential new roommate.

She was a small woman—barely five feet tall and slight of stature—with red hair in a pixie cut and pale grey eyes. She approached the table and greeted Amanda with the most musical voice she had ever heard.

“I’m so glad you had time to meet! It’s Amanda, right?”

Amanda smiled and nodded. “And you’re Morgana.”

“I am!” said Morgana, and she laughed.

After that, the two of them just talked for a while, asking all the simple, silly questions anyone does when trying to find the first pieces of common ground on which to build an acquaintance. It went well. So well, in fact, that Amanda found herself thinking and hoping that she had found that rare gem of a person who could be both friend and roommate.

Of course, she had hoped that of Lilith, too, and not without reason.

And maybe it was extenuating circumstances that had nixed that dream, but it’s once bitten, twice shy, and Amanda had no desire to get bitten a second time. Granted, the fact that they were meeting in the daylight was a good sign, but she’d be happier if she could confirm those results with a couple of other subtle tests.

“So, what about cooking? Do you like fiddling around in the kitchen?”

Morgana’s eyes lit up for at least the twentieth time. “I love cooking! And baking. And experimenting. All of it! Do you?”

Amanda grinned back. “Absolutely. I’ve got a few go-to recipes that I stick with for the most part, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that garlic makes almost everything better.”

“Ha! Me too,” said Morgana. “If this works out, we should absolutely cook dinner together every now and then. I always like it better when I get to cook for someone else.”

Test number two, passed with flying colors. Amanda felt some of her tension bleed out of her shoulders, and she allowed herself to feel almost hopeful. It seemed unlikely that Morgana was going to be the sort of roommate who might be tempted to suck her blood.

Just to be sure, of course, there were a few more questions, a few more tests. Amanda turned the conversation to their favorite books, and was pleased to see that her mention of Dracula left Morgana unfazed. Morgana complimented her necklace and touched it without flinching when Amanda held it out to her, apparently unworried by the fact that it was both silver and a cross. Casual mentions of both wolves and bats got no response. In fact, nothing gave Amanda any cause for concern, and she felt a little silly when she arranged for a small mirror to tumble from her bag in such a way that it allowed her to check for a reflection. It was there, of course.

After that, even her most paranoid instincts were content that Morgana was likely to be a top notch roommate. She would move in at the end of the month, and they would likely be in constant contact even before that. When they went their separate ways that afternoon after enjoying almost an hour more of friendly conversation, Amanda felt more relaxed than she had in months.

“Oh!” Morgana turned back a moment after she left the table. “Before I forget, I should let you know. I have the worst reaction to anything made of pure iron. I just touch the stuff and it makes me go cold and numb all over. Just so you know!”

It wasn’t until after Morgana signed the lease and moved in that Amanda remembered that an aversion to cold iron was a known characteristic of the fae folk. And when she did, a sharp thrill of panic ran down her spine. But only the one. She’d rather live with a fairy than a vampire any day.

Fiction (Short)

Another Day in the Black

werewolfhijack

“What do you mean you haven’t found her? It’s not a big ship! What did she do, step out the airlock or something?!” The captain was snarling now, with the spittle flying from his mouth and that crazed twitch in the corner of his right eye. Ruby had served on the little pirate crew long enough to know what happened next: he would keep screaming until his voice cracked from the exertion. His face, already red, would turn purple. His vocabulary would expand to contain every known form of profanity, and several new ones besides.

It was hardly the first time it had happened. It wouldn’t be the last—assuming, of course, that this wasn’t the rant that finally sent him apoplectic.

The best thing to do was to just stay out of the way; not that poor Tomms had that luxury. It couldn’t be helped. He’d learn fast enough. She had. And sure, she liked the kid, but that didn’t mean she was going to stick her neck out for him when the captain was on the warpath. That would just be—

“Get back down there and look again!” She winced as the captain whirled on her. “And you too! Maybe together you’ll be better than useless!”

So much for that. Ruby scrambled to her feet with a hasty “yessir” and made for the door. Tomms gave her a pained and panicked look and bolted after her. Neither one said a thing until they were well beyond the bridge and out of the captain’s earshot. Neither one bothered to pull out their blasters even then. If they needed them, they could unholster them fast enough.

“I’m so sorry, Ruby,” hissed Tomms, tentatively, as if he expected her to use it as an excuse to treat him the same way the rest of the crew did.

Poor kid. Like she’d stoop that low.

She twitched a wry smile his way and shook her head. “Not your fault, Tomms. Let’s just get this over with.”

That was, of course, easier said than done. For such a small ship, it was carrying a whole lot of cargo. And instead of all being packed together in one huge conglomeration in the center of the hold, dozens of containers were all separated out in various stacks. No doubt, it was all part of some grand system of organization. The fact that they created a veritable maze was just a side effect.

“There’s a million places to hide in here,” said Tomm. His voice wasn’t quite a whimper.

“And that’s just counting between those cargo containers. You can double that if this is a smuggling ship.”

He did whimper at that. It was the only sensible response.

“She can’t just hide forever.” The tremor in his voice added in the unspoken “can she?

“No,” said Ruby, with entirely more conviction than she felt. Because this was her home turf, not theirs. And while the cargo hold might look like a bloody labyrinth to them, she probably knew it like the back of her hand.

And then there was the whole question of why she had so carefully put her ship in orbit around the nearest moon instead of going for a hard burn when she’d noticed the pirate ship closing in. It was an unconventional response to say the least. One that had Ruby wondering what their target had hiding up her sleeve. Sure, scans had shown she was the only one on board, but that just meant that Ruby had more questions, not less. Even the most hubristic explorers of the void knew better than to try their luck entirely on their own.

And this particular star sailor had not seemed to be the hubristic sort.

“Tomms. Watch yourself.”

“What?”

Ruby made a face. “Be careful. I’m not sure what she’s up to.” Whatever it was, it was probably more than hiding like a scared rabbit.

Probably.

Tomms grimaced. “Why are we doing this, Ruby? It’s her ship.”

“We’re doing this because if we don’t, the captain’s going to start using us for target practice.”

After ten minutes of searching the hold, though, and turning up absolutely nothing at all, Ruby was starting to wonder. She stopped on her prowl down one of the narrow pathways between crates to groan softly and glare up at the ceiling. Over to one side, the dark side of the moon could still be seen through one of the small portholes that lined the top of the hold. An odd structural choice, though there was something to be said for a little natural light when loading the ship, she supposed.

After ten more minutes, she started wondering if the rightful owner of this particular little ship hadn’t actually found some way off. Because it was starting to seem highly unlikely that she was actually still on board. That, or Ruby and Tomms both were going to have to ask some hard questions about their ability to search a vessel. There was also the question of what their current employment said about them as people, but that was less specific to the situation. And while Ruby wasn’t looking forward to finding the answer at all, it would be slightly easier to handle when their boss wasn’t raging and pirating about one deck up.

He wasn’t going to be happy about the lack of results. Frankly, Ruby was surprised she and Tomm had been able to search undisturbed for twenty minutes. It couldn’t last.

“Tomms?” Her voice echoed through the hold, bouncing between the stacked cargo containers. “Anything?”

Silly question. She knew he hadn’t. He would have told her if he had.

Nothing.

Ruby frowned. “Tomms?”

Still nothing. A distinct chill went wandering up Ruby’s spine. Her hand slipped down to her holster, and she grabbed her blaster. And she kept moving forward, glancing side to side. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.

And then, something. She wasn’t sure what made her stop and turn, but stop and turn she did, and caught the tail end of someone’s heel disappearing around the corner.

“Hey! Stop, you!”

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t. With an eloquent command like the one she had just given, Ruby would have, quite frankly, been more surprised if they had stopped. But it was something—more than something! She broke into a run.

And tripped right over Tomms’ body as she rounded the corner. Her heart jumped up her throat and started hammering at twice its normal speed, and it didn’t even start to slow down until her fingers found his pulse. Just unconscious.

A sudden clatter of footsteps on the ramp leading to the rest of the ship pulled snapped her away, and she jumped to her feet again and started running after the noise. She barely made it ten feet before she heard a faint click and a half a dozen cargo boxes tipped over in her path.

“Stop following me! Go see to your friend!”

The voice came from up the ramp, where the ship’s owner had paused just long enough to shout the command back. Even if Ruby had wanted to shoot at her, she didn’t have a clear shot.

“I—what?!” Of all the things she’d ever had people yell at her while she chased them, this was a new one.

But the ship’s owner was already gone. And as she was running up the ramp towards the rest of the ship, it seemed unlikely that the other more bloodthirsty members of their crew were going to need their help to catch her. Going back and checking on Tomms seemed like a good idea after all.

As much as she had made quiet fun of the portholes all along the top edge of the cargo hold, the sudden influx of bright moonlight as the ship’s orbit took them around to the light side of the moon provided all the light she needed to check Tomms over for injury. Which made it that much easier to see the big goose-egg bump that had sprouted from the back of his head. Ruby got the sudden impression that maybe, just maybe, they had underestimated their opponent.

For a fleeting second, she wondered if this scrappy little star sailor might be able to get the jump on the captain and their other two crewmates. If maybe the pirates would get sent scurrying. If perhaps she might have a use for a couple of crewmembers herself: even a ship this small was easier to run with a couple pairs of extra hands.

The three-to-one odds she was facing weren’t going to make that easy. Ruby glanced down at Tomms. The poor kid was out cold. Stable, but definitely unconscious. She paused. This was a terrible idea. The sort of idea you didn’t survive. The sort of idea that would get you used as an object lesson every time a certain pirate captain hired on untested hands for years to come.

The sort of idea that might be worth it anyway, just for the tiny chance that it might work.

Ruby squeezed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath. And then she checked Tomms one last time before starting off up the ramp on what was probably a complete fool’s quest.

She didn’t get far: no more than three steps. Because before she could take step number four, a terrible howl ran through the whole ship. A bone rattling, ship shaking, void piercing howl. And all Ruby’s new-minted resolve crumbled.

And then the ship went dark.

The next minutes were horrifying. The howl gave way to shouts and blaster fire and the occasional low rumble that sounded awfully like a growl. Ruby found herself cowered against the far side of the ramp, trying to think past the terrified mob of thoughts that ran wild through her head.

What was on the ship?

What had the captain unleashed?

Was this one of those deep space terrors that wasn’t supposed to exist?

Had their erstwhile quarry run straight into something even worse than pirates? That stirred something beyond panic. If the little ship’s captain had needed help before, she needed it more now. And she wasn’t going to get it from anyone else. Not with Tomms out cold and the rest of their crew being what it was.

Ruby’s throat was dry. Time to keep moving, then.

Somehow, she couldn’t manage it until a more pragmatic corner of her brain pointed out that hiding wasn’t going to fix anything, and would probably just mean that Whatever It Was would find her anyway when there was no one else to help. If she was going to survive this herself, going now was her best chance.

So she went. It disgusted her that she needed such selfish logic to motivate her, but motivate her it did. And she might as well make the most of it.

Halfway up the ramp, the ship went silent too. Ruby’s mouth was dry, but she tried to swallow anyway. It didn’t help. She still felt as terrified as ever, which was perhaps why it took her a few moments to realize that the sudden silence had not, in fact, been preceded by screams of agony. Which was a good sign. She hoped.

Somehow, she kept moving. Despite her best efforts, every step sounded like a gong on the metal ramp. A soft, muffled gong, but to her ears, a gong nonetheless. The blaster in her hand seemed like it wasn’t going to be much in the way of protection, should it come down to it. But just reholstering would have been worse, so she kept holding it in her cold, sweaty hand.

Halfway up the ramp, she got the feeling that someone—something was watching her, and her heart jumped, impossibly, even farther up her throat. She stopped. The ship creaked around her. The ship’s systems beeped and hummed, distantly.

This was ridiculous. She kept going.

At the top of the ramp, the feeling became certainty. She heard someone. Something. Breathing. Ahead of her. Above her, in the dark.

She should turn around. Going forward was insane. Going forward would get her killed. Or worse. Or—

Before she had a chance to go forward or turn back around, something came down on her head and dropped her like a sack of stones. But it didn’t knock her into unconsciousness. That would have been a mercy. Instead, stunned, she felt impossibly huge, impossibly hairy hands (or were those claws?) close around her ankles and drag her towards the bridge. She heard someone kick her blaster and send it skittering away, well out of reach. She saw, as they came out of the dark corridor and onto the moonlit bridge, three still forms lain out in a row next to each other. And she became the fourth.

That touched some primal mote of terror deep inside. So much for pretending to be unconscious and hoping for the best. She yelped and flailed and made to break away. She stopped as soon as her captor stepped into the moonlight.

It was huge. Eight feet tall, at least, and that was standing hunched. It was hairy. Wolf-shaped. Wolf-toothed. And its eyes reflected the moonlight and seemed to glow with evil intent. Ruby’s yelp became a whimper.

And the thing stopped. It bent down, bringing its muzzle within inches of Ruby’s own nose. It smelled like a sweaty dog, and its breath was terrible. Ruby flinched. She didn’t mean to. She just couldn’t help it. But the thing just watched her for three long seconds. Four. Five. And then it gave a low growl.

Ruby closed her eyes and shook.

And she stayed that way for half an hour.

It was only when someone (someone! Not something!) touched her shoulder that she dared open them. And there, staring down at her with a look of mixed wariness and vague amusement, was the little ship’s captain.

“You’re alright!” Ruby’s voice came out as a croak, but the other woman seemed to understand it well enough.

“Of course I did. I thought I told you not to follow me.”

“I wasn’t going to—but the howl, the growling, the other pirates… I thought you might need help.”

The other woman laughed. It was a barking, gleeful sound. And that was when Ruby noticed that her teeth seemed somewhat longer and sharper than those of most humans. And there was a certain wildness to her eyes. And…

“Oh. Oh no. Oh no.”

Ruby jumped away as the woman—the werewolf—brought her hand down on Ruby’s shoulder.

“What, you didn’t think it strange that I was out here in the black all by myself?”

Ruby managed a nod.

The woman grinned, showing those too-sharp teeth again. “The name’s Captain Marie Lupine. I knew you looked smarter than the rest of these idiots.” She gestured at the three pirates that lay to the side, and Ruby noticed for the first time that they were all tied up. And also all still breathing, though a few sported a few new, long scratches.

“Where’s Tomms?” Ruby’s voice was still entirely too dry for her liking.

“Your friend in the cargo bay? Still down there. I think I rang his bell pretty good. He should be alright, though.”

Ruby nodded.

Captain Lupine dropped down into a crouch and looked her up and down. “So, the way I see it, we have a couple of options here. One, I turn you and Tomms in to the authorities with the rest of these numbskulls.”

Ruby shook her head as violently as she dared. Captain Lupine grinned again.

“That’s what I thought. Or, two, I let you and him take that ship you jumped me with, and you get to keep pirating around. Problem for you is, of course, that the ship would be tagged as a pirate vessel, and I don’t much fancy your chances of survival for very long.”

Ruby looked uncomfortable.

“Or, three.” Captain Lupine eyed Ruby. “You and Tomms stay here on my crew. I turn in these three and the ship to the authorities, and I say that you’re both crew I picked up at the last space station. I write you up proper contracts of employment and you don’t have to attack innocent passers-by or watch your blood pressure spike when you get within hailing range of law enforcement anymore.”

Captain Lupine grinned one last time. “It’s your choice.”

And that was how Ruby and Tomms started working for a werewolf running cargo runs in the deep black. All in all, it was probably the best choice either of them had ever made.

Fiction (Short), Musings

[Short] Miranda and the Derelict Wreck

It wasn’t like Tanner to go it alone. Not usually. Not unless my brother was feeling like a white knight, at any rate, and there was nothing about an old wrecked ship that should have been attracting that particular part of his personality to the fore. Which was why I was confused. And curious. And concerned for Tanner’s wellbeing, of course.

But also kinda hoping that he had gotten himself into the sort of trouble that would give me teasing rights for the next month after saving his butt.

I was still a little surprised we’d been asked to investigate the wreck. Even on a colony as young as Verdant, crashed ships were hardly uncommon. It was a little odd that no one had any idea what ship it was, sure, but between the wildcatters and the outlaws, there were a lot of possibilities for an unregistered ship. The weirdest thing about it was that the flyover scan that turned the thing up had suggested that the ship was old– seventy five years old. Old enough that there was no way it should be on this side of the galaxy.

And that’s when everyone with a ghost story to tell crawled out of the woodwork. Serves me right for talking about it while Tanner and I were goofing off in the big common room at Teddy’s.

“You know they say there was a mutiny aboard an armadillo-class like that one back in ’43. Its last transmission was cut off right after her captain started cursing the traitors with some sort of old world hocus pocus.”

“I heard they’d tried uploading an honest-to-god AI to a private freighter back when all the big corps were still messing around with thinking and feeling computers. Could be a real ghost in the machine, you know?”

“Galaxy’s a big place. Could be aliens.”

And those were the most well-thought-out theories presented by our fellow denizens at Teddy’s: stuff and nonsense everyone one. Which made the fact that I found myself actually a little spooked as I started out for the coordinates of the wreck on my own all the more annoying. When I found Tanner, he was going to get a piece of my mind.

If I’d thought it would be better as soon as I got to the coordinates, I was wrong. Wrecks are always a little creepy, especially once you get to thinking about how they used to be functional, beautiful vessels– some of them, at least. Or, maybe, a home. Or maybe just a place that used to see living, breathing humans every day. Seeing empty ships like that just felt wrong, like a graveyard without the bodies.

I stopped just outside the wreck and gave a disgusted snort. Now I was creeping myself out.

Not that the remains of the ship in front of me were making that hard. Of all the derelicts I’d ever seen, this one might have been the most derelict. The hull was worn through in a dozen different places, and the sand and the sort of scrappy vegetation common on Verdant were sneaking their way inside. The hatch had fallen open what must have been decades ago, and while I suspected I could probably find it in the dirt below my feet if I dug long enough, I wasn’t about to put in the effort. So instead, the hatch just stared at me with a sort of death’s head grin, and I stared back and tried to remind myself that I was a stone-cold badass of a freelancer, and I shouldn’t be scared of some old empty ship.

And I had almost managed to convince myself when I heard someone behind me…


Happy Halloween! Looks like they still celebrate the holiday all the way out on Verdant, much to Miranda’s probable chagrin. Not much else to report, save that I’m equal parts excited and terrified for NaNo to start, since I’m not sure how my personal goal of 100,000 words is going to treat me. We shall see!

Anyway, good luck to everyone participating next month! May your writing be swift and your editing minimal!

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

1:38 AM

My little boy’s ragged wail split the walls, clawing its way above the howling blizzard and ripping me from my bed. He coughed and spluttered, choking on his own wet phlegm and mucus as I stumbled to his room. He didn’t stop crying when I pulled him into my arms, didn’t stop coughing when I tried to soothe him. His tiny chest heaved and fluttered with every breath.

Smells of sick and sweat swam in the air, stifling his room. The dim glow of his nightlight showed red on his flushed face. I put my hand to his forehead beneath his sticky hair and smoothed it away. He burned. His cheeks were dry and chapped, his eyes glazed and vacant as he whimpered and stared straight past me.

I managed to get him to sleep again with water and medicine and luck; he curled up his fitful little body and trembled beneath sweat-damp blankets, and I left the room. His father lay in bed where I left him, still snoring, still drooling, unmoved and oblivious. I had to shake him before he finally woke up enough for me to tell him his son was sick.

He mumbled half-witted excuses and rolled over. “He’ll feel better in the morning. Go to sleep.” He followed his own advice before I could argue and left me alone. I waited. The dark room tugged at my eyelids. I drowned in a silence broken only by the angry, thrashing wind.

A few moments passed before I let myself believe that maybe he was right. Maybe his fever would fade with the night and the storm. Maybe his pain would recede and creep away. Maybe he would stop hurting and wailing and shaking. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. I slunk beneath the covers.

I closed my eyes, but I did not sleep. Ice and snow snarled just outside. The house creaked and whined. I heard my child’s howl every time the branches shrieked against the window.

The storm had blown in this afternoon, all low sky and whirling, bitter flurries. I should have noticed it sooner. I should have seen the clouds, the wind, the drenched thickness and the clinging mist. I should have heard and stopped and acted–

No.

I told him. I told him not to take his son outside. I told him it was too cold, too wet. I told him the frozen air would be too much too soon. I told him, and he didn’t listen.

He smiled instead. He patronized. He kissed me to ignore every word I said. His son wanted to go outside; the rest didn’t matter. Just a little while. An hour, maybe two. Let him play. Let him smile. Let him live.

I let him go because I had no choice. Never mind the wind that tugged and twisted in the tops of the pines. Never mind the iron hues that colored the clouds. His little boy laughed when they pulled their coats and hats and mittens from the closet and threw them to the floor in a pile of hissing nylon.

When they finally finished, finally tromped back inside, they came in giggling, giddy at the edge of the storm. My little boy stopped to cough while he tried to tell me everything he’d just done with Daddy, but Daddy didn’t care. Daddy just encouraged him. Daddy laughed with him and told Mommy to make them both hot chocolate.

They drank it and they chattered. They wiped their runny noses on their sleeves or ignored it altogether. His cough grew wetter every moment. Wet, rough, messy, until his laughter broke and the smile fell off his rosy, flushing cheeks and his father finally noticed that his little buddy was in pain.

I said we should put him to bed. Let him sleep before his cough got worse and the sickness sank down to his lungs. Protect him so that–

He brushed off every word. He painted me villain, tyrant, panic-ridden fool. He pushed and cajoled. He chose just what he wanted and demanded that he get it and denied any kind of consequence. Bully. Selfish. Coward.

And now he’s lying next to me. Sleeping. Snoring. He’s got his body curled beneath the covers. His chest rises, falls with easy breaths. He’s not wheezing. Not coughing. Not hurting. His face is lineless, careless. He’s sleeping like a baby.

I’m still lying wide awake. I’m still listening to the howling, rushing ice and snow. I’m still waiting for my baby’s voice to pierce the night again because he would never hear it. There’s too much wind and howling. Too much shrieking, scratching crying. The panes and casings tremble in the gusts. How could he hear a child above the roar?

As sudden roar hurls the storm against the house. Everything creaks. The branches shriek and scream. A chill finds a crack and breaks inside. A shred of moonlight cuts the clouds and pierces the room. I stare–and while I stare the bed beside me moves. I roll over–the man is gone. The wind goes quiet. I hear a baby-wail for just a moment, and then that quiets too.


I originally wrote this story back in 2012, but I recently rediscovered it and was actually pretty happy with it– so here it is! Enjoy and let me know what you think!

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.

Fiction (Short)

Aruri

FRONTIERSTATION

It was something about the way the girl moved. She was human, as were at least a third of the other passengers that the latest transport ship had deposited on Whitehorse Station, but despite the fact that she shuffled along towards the security check like all the rest of the travel weary crowd with her head down and her shoulders slumped, Taylor watched her and waited for her to do something that would explain the wary feeling nesting in his chest. She looked young, no more than eight or nine years old. She was thin, too, and wiry, though most children who grew up in space were the same. A mane of thin brown hair reached just below her shoulders, and a loose hair-tie could only do so much to keep it out of her eyes. She followed close behind a young couple wearing the sort of sturdy clothes favored by colonists, and Taylor almost convinced himself that he was reacting to nothing. Colony kids always seemed to be a little different.

But then she disappeared.

She looked at him first, glancing up from her feet and staring at him long and slow out of the corner of her eye. Taylor’s first impulse was to look away, though whether that was out of some irrational fear or to keep from spooking her he couldn’t say, so he kept on watching. Or rather, he did until some disturbance farther down the line stole his attention for a split second, and when he looked back she was gone.

He muttered something under his breath and looked twice all through the line. The young couple was still there, as was the scattering of other humans and aliens of a dozen different species— everyone except the girl with the wolfish eyes.

He tapped the comm in his ear, and it clicked softly as the line connected. “Lumyan, keep an eye out for a girl trying to get into the station proper. Human, not even ten years old. You’ll know it if you see her.”

Understood.” There was a pause, then his partner’s voice hummed in his ear again, this time with laughter barely held beneath the surface. “Anything else I should know? Is she the next big mob boss or something?

“Heck if I know. I’ve got a feeling is all. Just let me know if you see her and try to keep her from running off.”

Sure thing.” Lumyan paused again, then: “Want me to search for any puppies or kittens while I’m at it?” He didn’t need to see her grin to know it was there.

“Only if you want to. Taylor out.”

He hadn’t expected her to, but the girl had not reappeared. The young couple she had been following was still there, still looking tired and travel-worn just not like the parents of a child that had gone missing. He approached them anyway.

“Excuse me,” he said, and the two broke off a quiet conversation and looked at him. “Could I speak with you both for a moment? Are you traveling with a daughter?”

They were not. They had no children at all, let alone a girl almost ten years old. Taylor thanked them for their time and moved on again, scanning the crowd for the twentieth time in the vain hope of catching sight of her again, though he wasn’t at all certain she was still there at all. He just didn’t know where else she could be or how she had gotten there.

He had a better idea about five minutes later when the young couple caught his eye and broke away from the line to approach him and report that the bag that had contained their papers, currency, and a few valuables was well and truly missing. Taylor directed them towards the office that specialized in helping with that sort of thing and started for the front of the line. A clever adult would be able to come up with several ways to use the pilfered items to get inside. A clever child would have an even easier time of it. He tapped his comm again as he moved.

“Lum, she got her hands on some papers. Have you seen her yet?”

There was a pause of a few seconds the reply came, and Taylor grimaced at the delay. If the checkpoint was that busy, the girl might not have even needed the benefit of the papers to sneak right through.

Sorry, Taylor. We just got swamped over here with a couple of clowns who don’t think the rules apply to them. If she’s come through I haven’t— oh, hell. I think that’s her. She just snuck through with another family.

Taylor broke into a run. Colony papers didn’t have the built-in checks and safeguards the ones issued on the central worlds did. It was fiddly technology at the best of times, especially with the older printers that would be available on fledgling planets. The scanners would only be checking to make sure the numbers of people matched the numbers of passes.

As he approached, Lumyan looked up long enough to point and wave him on in the direction the girl had gone. “Towards the markets. Go! I’ll have Sarge send Rofik down to help me here!”

Taylor gave a grateful nod and bolted through. The wide hallway was busy, full of humans, feathered avings, four-legged xentou, and all the others who had just made their way through security and into the expansive rings of the station beyond the docks. The thirty seconds it had taken for him to get there was more than enough time for the girl to vanish in the crowd. And if— when— she made it to the markets, the haystack would get that much bigger.

He held out hope that he’d find her before she they reached the markets until the corridor spilled out into the massive, noisy, stall-filled room that was the markets. If futility ever needed a physical representation, this was it. It didn’t matter how long he spent winding his way through the bickering, bartering members of species from every corner of the galaxy. His chances of finding the girl were beyond poor.

After a few steps more he slowed, stopped and raised his eyes to the ceiling in a look that expressed his frustration better than words ever could. Then, he commed back to Lumyan.

“She made it to the markets. Nothing I can do for now. Might as well tell Rofik he can go back to napping in the precinct. I’m putting in an alert and heading back to you.”

The rest of the passengers passed through security without further incident, or at least without anything out of the ordinary. There were a few lost bags, a few complaints about the level of service they had received on board the transport ship, a few red-eyed travelers who weren’t certain where they were supposed to go next, but all that was to be expected. It took less than an hour to empty the rest of the line, and when the last of the exhausted passengers made it through and stumbled off towards the residential rings and the rest of the station, Taylor and Lumyan followed.

A single main passageway led through the entirety of the docking ring. Turning right would take them down to the markets, and Taylor stopped for a moment and looked off that way until Lumyan slugged his shoulder.

“Won’t do any good, mate. Well. It might make you feel better, but there’s no way you’re finding her in there.” She winked. “Your words, more or less.”

Taylor grumbled, but he turned and followed Lumyan to the left and the precinct office. It was a small room, just large enough to hold a pair of desks and four chairs and still be comfortable. Taylor sank into his seat and woke his console with the intention of updating the alert to something more detailed than “Human girl, brown hair, 1.5m tall, approx. 10yrs old. Contact security if seen.” If nothing else, pulling her image from the security cameras in the docking bay and attaching it might keep would-be do-gooders from trying to turn in any of the brown-haired ten-year-olds who actually belonged on the station. He had just found and added what he needed when the door hummed and slid open to admit a pair of g’keyli.

Taylor’s stomach turned upside down and slid back against his spine. He was ashamed to admit it, but of all the alien species humanity had encountered since taking to the stars, the g’keyli unsettled him the most. They looked, to human eyes, like massive, bipedal canines. The smallest he had ever seen was nearly two meters tall, and the pair that loomed above his desk now, staring at him, were bigger. The fur that covered their bodies was long, braided and beaded in places and dyed with dark colors in others. They wore little in the way of clothing beyond belts with pouches and pockets and what little their culture asked for modesty’s sake, and while the end result was both practical and sensible, it also seemed a little wild.

The smaller of the two, relatively speaking, took a slow, deep breath, then twisted her tongue around human, English words that fit so poorly in her mouth that they came out with a rough, growling lilt.

“Do you have a moment, Packprotector—officer? I am Niumra, this is my mate, Grumyu. We would speak with you, if you have the time.”

She crouched down so that her golden eyes were level with Taylor’s brown ones. It was a sign of respect. That was what some quiet memory desperately said again and again in the back of his head. He just found that hard to remember when a mouth full of long, white teeth dipped that much closer to his neck, even when that same mouth was saying such civil words. His own mouth was uncomfortably dry, and he had to swallow before responding.

“Of course. How can I help you?”

“The transport ship that is docked here now, is that the Azdatses?”

Taylor nodded. “It is. Do you need to board her?” He forced himself to match and keep the g’keyli’s sharp, bright gaze.

“No, thank you, Packprotector. We have our own vessel, but we believe that one of our own was aboard the big transport. A young one named Aruri. She rode the transport here, and we must find her before she gets herself lost any further. Will you assist us?”

Taylor swallowed again, a little more easily than before. Though not by much. “We’d be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’re the first g’keyli we’ve seen on the station in months. You’re certain she was aboard the Azdatses?”

Niumra turned to Grumyu, and they spoke a few words in their own tongue before she looked back to Taylor and nodded once, pointedly. “Quite certain.” She was about to continue when Grumyu touched her arm with one of his heavy, paw-like hands and tilted his head in query.

Niumra’s ears flicked backwards, almost pinning, and the two canids held another hurried conference in their own language. It seemed more combative than before, and Taylor put his hands below the table to hide the fact that they were shaking. He had almost regained his composure a few seconds later when the comm station in the corner of the room chimed, and both he and Lumyan rose on instinct. She waved him back into his seat with a wink and an impish expression. He paused, but there was nothing to do but drop back down and attempt to calm his hands once more as Lumyan transferred the call to her own comm before stepping outside to answer it.

It only took the g’keyli a moment or two to finish, and Niumra turned back to him with an almost sheepish expression. “Forgive us. My mate and I disagree—”

But whatever she was about to say slipped away as Lumyan burst back in and called across the room.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Taylor, but someone saw the girl. She’s still in the markets, apparently trying to steal herself some dinner. Stall A-34. They think she’s still close. Go! I’ll cover here.”

Taylor was up and on his feet in half a second, and halfway to the door in one more. He was about to apologize when both of the g’keyli started after him, and Niumra’s paw brushed his shoulder.

“Wait, Packprotector. We will help you hunt.”

She phrased it like a statement, but the question was clear. Taylor hesitated, and fear twisted another knot into his stomach. But there was no time. Taylor gave a quick nod.

“It’s a human child, somewhere in the markets. ” He reached back and turned his console screen so that the two g’keyli could see the picture taken from the security footage. “She looks like this.”

Grumyu gave a short, sudden bark and followed it with a wild pattering of words in his own language. Niumra stopped him with a paw on his chest before whirling back to Taylor. “We understand.” There was a wild look in her golden eyes.

“She’s just a child. Be gentle!”

“We understand! We go!”

And they went. Rushing the the door, flying down the corridor. The g’keyli let Taylor keep the lead, but their mere presence was enough to keep the halls clear for their passage. Only idiots stood in front of a loping g’keyli. The effect was less noticeable once they reached the markets themselves, but even then they made their way through the crowds in half the time it would have taken Taylor alone. He also got the distinct impression, once they reached stall A-34, that the aving merchant was a great deal more polite than he might have been otherwise.

“I appreciate your coming so quickly,” he said. “It’s good to have some sign that you humans do care about the security of your station. Too bad you couldn’t stop the little wretch before she savaged my wares.”

The attempted raid was evidenced by the various meats and breads still spilled all across the floor beside the stand.

“Where is she now?” Taylor felt impatience rising up the back of his throat, and he fought it back down beneath a show of professional calm. It got harder as the merchant began to let loose a flood of complaints, none of which gave any hint as to which way the girl had gone.

“…and I demand reimbursement from the station for… failing… to…”

Taylor frowned in confusion and was about to ask what was troubling the merchant when he noticed that the aving’s eyes were focused over his shoulder. He glanced in the same direction and found the answer on his own: Niumra’s muzzle was wrinkled in annoyance, showing almost an inch of her long, white teeth. It was all he could do to keep his knees from giving out. His voice was husky when he spoke.

“Which way?”

The aving pointed further down the row of stalls.

He muttered a quick thanks, and the three of them were off again, moving quickly down the opening in the crowd provided by the presence of the huge canids. Even as they went, Taylor felt a rising certainty that it was all in vain. It didn’t matter how close they got without catching her, not when she could vanish into the crowd or between stalls at a moment’s notice. But perhaps if they split up.

“Niumra.” He stopped and turned around to look at her, and his whole heart jumped up into his throat. She and Grumyu were both just behind him, both standing at their full height. He forced his words out over a dry tongue. “We won’t find her this way. We need to cover more of the markets.”

“Of course, Packprotecter. I was about to suggest the same.” She was about to translate for Grumyu when Taylor forced himself to speak again.

“But one more thing. The girl, she’s human. She’s not as strong as you. Don’t hurt her.”

Niumra clamped her mouth shut and flicked her ears back. A chill tumbled down Taylor’s spine that grew a thousand times worse when something that sounded too much like a growl escaped the g’keyli’s throat.

“We are not fools, Packprotector,” was all she said. Then she exchanged a few words with her mate, and the two big creatures stalked off in opposite directions through the crowd, leaving Taylor to continue in the direction they had been going.

His progress was not as quick without the g’keyli to clear the way, but if it had been he might have missed the upturned container that drew his attention to a small space between two stalls. And if he had not seen that, he would not have seen a pair of hazel eyes staring back at him when he peered inside. He also wouldn’t have suffered a surprisingly heavy blow to the head when the girl hit him with a length of aluminum pipe she had clutched in both her hands.

She hurtled past him while he was still reeling and sprinted wildly through the crowd of milling shoppers. Taylor scrambled to his feet.

“Station Security! Stop her!”

No one did. A few tried, but the girl was too fast, too agile, too wiry. She slipped out of their hands or between their legs, and Taylor knew she was getting away all over again.

And then Grumyu appeared from around the corner of a stall, just ahead of where the girl was running. He barked something fierce and forceful in the g’keyli language, and the girl stopped and dropped to the floor. The big g’keyli stepped forward until he stood just beside her, towering above her tiny form and growling low.

“Grumyu, wait!” Taylor’s knees were weak again. The g’keyli didn’t understand any human tongues. He could only hope the alien would hear and understand his name.

If he did, Grumyu gave no sign. Instead, he bent down over the girl, still growling, and placed one enormous paw on her thin chest.

“Grumyu!” Taylor started running forward, horrified by the images provided by his own mind of what was about to happen. “Grumyu! No!”

He was still yards away when something caught his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. It was Niumra. Taylor yelped and shrieked like a child.

“Hush, Packprotector. The girl is fine. You are fine. Stop your fear.”

Taylor went quiet. He couldn’t tell if it was because he had regained control or because he was too scared to make a sound. For the moment, he didn’t care.

A few yards away, Grumyu’s low, rumbling voice continued speaking. It was joined a moment later by a second voice, a tiny, thin, and piping voice that answered inexplicably with g’keyli words.

“Our pup,” said Niumra. “Our Aruri.” She lifted her paw from Taylor’s shoulder, tentatively at first and then more freely when he didn’t run. “She is curious and rebellious, and she found her way onto the transport ship. We did not realize until too late.”

It took some time for Taylor to find the courage to speak. When he did, a question came out first. “Your pup?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Niumra. “Our pup, since we rescued her from the broken ship where her blood parents died. She was tiny and very weak, but we helped her and raised her, and she is ours.”

“Ah,” said Taylor, and he nodded.

Niumra made a chuffing sound that might have been a laugh. “You are surprised?”

He paused and considered, then nodded again. “I think I am.”

“That’s alright,” she said. “Many are.”

Fiction (Short)

The Farewell

OURFAREWELL

It was late, and we were loud, but for tonight, that was alright. Tabby had told us hours ago to not worry about it. The corner table at the pub was ours as late as we wanted it. And so far, no one had seemed inclined to complain anyway. The only looks that came our way were smiles and nods, and Reuben and I didn’t end up paying for any more than a third of our drinks. The rest were covered by our friends, and a couple of rounds appeared at our table, courtesy of grateful, generous strangers. The other members of the crew were probably doing the same thing with their own friends in some other bar.

We tried not to call it a suicide mission. It might have been. Probably was, really, but on the off chance that it wasn’t, we promised each other that we wouldn’t count ourselves out until our ship was blowing up around us. Either way, we were leaving the next morning. Our ship was already prepped and ready, and it waited at the launching grounds at the edge of town with the course out to another system and another planet somewhere beyond colonized space already programmed into its computer.

But that was tomorrow. Tonight, we were still here.

“So, Erin.” Reuben’s dark eyes glittered wickedly at me from across the table, and even the fuzz left by my last beer wasn’t enough to dull the feeling of sudden dread.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said.

“Think about what?” His grin showed more teeth than it ever did when his motives were good.

I grinned right back at him. “The same thing you’ve been hounding me about since it happened.”

“Come on, Erin. It might be our last chance. Everyone wants to know the old tractor story.”

A general clamor in Reuben’s favor went up from our friends, encouraged as much by his sly fox smile as my pretended scowl of disapproval.

“You’ve got to tell it now!”

“Cat’s half out anyway.”

“One to remember you by!”

“You’re a bloody cheater, Reuben,” I said, but there was nothing believable about my frown.

“So, will you tell it or will I?”

“You.” I balled up a napkin and threw it at him before he could start. “But not until your sister gets here, because she’s been demanding the details since it happened and she’ll kill me if everyone else finds out before she does.”

His smile faltered. “I’m not sure she’s coming.”

I gave him a quizzical look, but he waved it off and I didn’t push. I just paused for a moment, playing along with the game before giving the answer everyone knew I’d give. And I still smiled when they cheered. Our joviality was fragile, but it was enough.

The only thing I would have changed would have been to have Luca there with us.

 

 

An hour passed. Another one followed it. The late night grew later, and we grew sleepier and even a littler quieter. The pub’s other patrons left, one by one. So did a couple of our friends, citing the years they had gained since we’d first met. They promised to see us at the launching tomorrow as they went.

Luca never came, and it didn’t need to surprise me to hurt. I’d sent her a handful of messages throughout the evening, surreptitiously touching my fingers to my commphone’s controls to activate the contact display and tap out the words I wanted. Reuben caught the telltale, electric glimmer across my eye the second time I did it, but he didn’t say anything, just offered a quiet, sympathetic smile and looked away before anyone else noticed. I’d tried to be as present as I could the rest of the time, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded. It was hard when I was waiting for a response that didn’t come.

At least, it didn’t come until the night was over and last few of us were finally admitting that we should sleep. My contact display lit up, and I jumped despite myself. The message was short and simple, but it said everything it needed to.

I’m out by the launch field.

It took me less than a second to get up from the table. I grabbed my jacket, apologizing as coherently as my midnight-addled tongue could manage and confirming that I would see them all for last goodbyes before we left. Reuben gave me a look that I returned as best I could, and then I took off. I broke into a jog before I was five steps out the door.

I found Luca leaning back against the wall of the maintenance bay, staring towards the dark outline of our ship where it waited in the field. She turned her head as I approached.

“We missed you tonight,” I said. I think I said it without letting it sound like an accusation. I didn’t mean it to be.

“I’m sorry,” said Luca. She paused before saying something about being at the launch tomorrow.

“For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it,” I said. “Reuben will too.”

She didn’t respond, quickly or otherwise. I’m usually comfortable with silences. The stretch of wordless seconds that clings to the edge of a conversation has always just been another way to enjoy a friend’s company. Nothing more, nothing less. But this one wasn’t like that.

I forced a laugh. “Hey, if we get ourselves killed, at least you won’t have to worry about keeping us out of trouble anymore.”

“What the hell, Erin?” She jerked away from the wall. “Seriously?”

An apology slipped off my tongue, and I followed her out into the field, into the deeper shadows where the hull of our ship blocked the light of the moon. An excuse or two stuck in the back of my throat, whispers and mumbles about coping mechanisms and an attempt to lighten the mood. But Luca kept talking before I made anything worse.

“I wanted to sabotage this thing, you know.” She was looking up at the hull. “To find a way to break it enough that it would never get you to deep space.”

My stomach tightened. Only the fact that she kept talking kept me from making some stupid inquiry after the state of the ship.

She shrugged, or that’s what it looked like. “I might have actually done it if I thought it could have stopped you.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Keep us behind, safe and sound. That’ll work great until the bad guys come and kill us here instead.”

Luca snorted in disgust. “There’s every chance they’ll do that anyway.”

“No! Not every chance. If this works they never get past Relfa.”

“If!” She hissed the word through gritted teeth. “’If’ means nothing! ‘If’ means we’re down to dreams and delusions!”

“’If’ means that some of us haven’t given up just yet!” I shouted, and my words echoed out across the field. They faded without interruption.

Her response came slowly, cold and delayed. “Or maybe it means you’re just going to die in denial.”

“Better that than whatever it is you’re doing.”

Her hand moved in the darkness, and I braced myself for a blow that never landed. Her fists jerked at the air above her head instead, threatening to beat her own skull. A ragged scream wedged and died in her throat. “How can you say that? You! Of all people! I’ve been in every meeting you have, come up with dozen insane schemes of my own—I lost my husband to one of them and it never stopped me!”

“It broke you when Aaron died!” There was a moment, just a moment when I could have kept from going further. “If he was alive he would have been the first to volunteer”

I thought she was going to hit me. I’d have deserved it. If I’d been her I probably would have. The dead silence was worse, and it remained unbroken even when she left half a minute later, leaving me alone to justify myself to the snarling in my head. It was a lost cause, and I gave it up after the barest handful of seconds.

I woke early the next morning, well before my alarm and only five or six hours after I’d finally collapsed into bed. I should have been able to fall back asleep. Exhaustion squatted on my chest, and I didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that my eyes were bloodshot. Another hour of rest would have smoothed the roughest edges if nothing else. I knew without trying that I’d never manage it. A resigned curse escaped through my teeth, and I dropped my feet to the floor.

Not that I had much to do before the launch. My bag was packed and skulking by the door. My uniform hung over the back of my chair, waiting for me to pull it on. A pile of letters sat on my desk, filled with sentiments I’d already said out loud to the recipients, though perhaps not so eloquently as when I put pen to paper. Actual paper. It was old-fashioned, perhaps, but it seemed fitting. It would be something to hold onto if things turned out the way we feared the most.

One of them was for Luca. It was one of a dozen, but when I looked at the stack it was the only one that mattered. Fortunately, I’d written it before last night, and the things inside were things I meant, things that I wanted her to know and remember. If she decided to read it instead of burning it, it might bring her a little peace.

A twisting in my gut told me that I was still angry. Of course I was. I would be until we made up, and unless Luca felt like seeing me in the next few hours, I was just going to have to live with it. Or die with it. One or the other. I gave a snort. It was as close to a laugh as I could manage.

It didn’t take me long to get dressed and ready. My uniform went on easily, comfortably. I dragged a comb through my hair until it was vaguely presentable and able to be tied back in a tight braid. I tossed my dirty clothes in a laundry basket. I made my bed. I yanked my boots onto my feet and laced them up. Within fifteen minutes, I was out the door with my bag slung over my shoulder and the packet of letters clutched in my hand.

The colony was quiet. The streets weren’t quite empty, but the few of us who walked them were more inclined to enjoy the silence and the solitude than to strike up a conversation. We exchanged civil nods when we passed and little else. When I reached the little shop that operated as a post office of sorts, I dropped off my letters with a minimum of talking. Old Man Rufus who ran the place did the same, though he offered his well-wishes and only charged me half price for sending the letters. I smiled and thanked him and left.

I wandered the streets after that. I still had hours before launch, hours even before the crew had to be there for our early checks, and I wasn’t about to spend the last of my free time aboard the same beast of tech and metal that I would be tied to for the next weeks. My bag wasn’t all that heavy, and I took simple comfort in its weight against my back as I said my goodbyes to the colony.

I was halfway to Luca’s house before I realized where my steps were taking me. I stopped walking. The urge to turn and go back the way I had come thrummed in my chest. I could put aside the argument from last night. I could make myself believe it didn’t matter. I could bury it deep and let it fester until the mission was done or I was gone. Just not if we came back for round two now.

But if we didn’t, there was no way we were going to reconcile. The odds weren’t good for any encounter turning out that way, but it wasn’t as if I was paying much heed to probabilities these days anyway. I started for her house again with a sigh and a muttered prayer.

Of course, everything hinged on her actually being home and willing to open the door. I’m not sure which one of those wasn’t true, but I imagine that in the end it doesn’t really matter. After the fifth time I knocked only to be met by silence, I admitted defeat and wandered back the way I’d come.

I passed the rest of my time in one way or another. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Half an hour saying goodbye to the hollow in the corner of the park where I’d always hidden when I wanted to get away. Forty-five minutes getting lunch and coffee at my favorite cafe. Seconds and minutes and hours that I used to make sure I remembered.

Finally, I made my way back towards the launch field. We still had an hour to go before the crew was scheduled to gather for our final checks and any last updates on the mission, but it was close enough, and I was ready to not be alone anymore. I wouldn’t be the only one of the crew already feeling drawn to the ship.

I didn’t expect to find Luca there, but as I emerged onto the launch field I saw her there, standing next to Reuben. She saw me too, said something to her brother, and started making her way across the field to meet me. As soon as she got close enough for me to see it, the dark look on her face made me hesitate.

“You were out of line,” she said. “Tell me you know that.”

I didn’t want to. I did know it, but the words shriveled on my tongue and others to describe her own faults grew in their place. I choked them back and said nothing instead.

But Luca didn’t say anything else either, just kept staring me down even as I dropped my gaze. I tried again.

“I went too far.” It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It was lame, and it wasn’t what I should have said. I hoped it was closer than anything else I’d come up with.

“I’m supposed to say it’s all okay now. That it was nothing,” said Luca

“Yeah,” I said. “But neither one of us believes that.”

“At least you’ve got that right.”

I felt the words of an apology trying to form just behind my teeth, but I couldn’t tell if they were sincere or self-serving. I could express remorse without taking blame, voice regret without admitting error. Smooth our feathers. Steal goodwill for an hour.

I could. I didn’t. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” I said. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

If Luca was surprised she didn’t show it. If she accepted my apology I couldn’t tell, and the time that passed before she said anything at all left deep dread in the pit of my stomach. When she spoke, her words came slow and with a terrible deliberation.

“I’m still mourning Aaron, and you used him just to make a point.”

She looked me in the eye, and I kept her gaze, barely, as she continued.

“Maybe I should be able to let it go. Maybe it was only thoughtless words spoken in the heat of the moment. And maybe you’re right. Maybe if he was here he’d have volunteered right along with you and Reuben, and I’d be watching the three people I love most climb onto a deathtrap instead of just the two I’ve got left.”

She paused and shook her head, and her mouth opened and closed as she hunted for the right words. “But the fact that you’d use him against me without thinking hurts deep. And I can’t just forget it and I can’t just let it go. Even if maybe I should.”

I set my jaw and nodded once. Before I managed a single word she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.

“But I forgive you.”

Her hard look cracked just long enough for me to see a whisper of a smile. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug, and as she did the same a weight I’d tried ignoring slipped off my shoulders.

“We’ll need to talk about it,” she said. “When you get back.”

I nodded, still hugging her. “Then I’ll make sure we come back.”

“You’d better.” If her words were an act to make me feel better, then I couldn’t tell. We stepped apart and she smiled again, and this time it lasted a little longer. “And you’d better tell me the tractor story before you go.”

Fiction (Short)

Grey Dog Inn

GREYDOGINN

It was winter, and the Prince’s men were far away. Under the low roof of the North Forest Inn, Revi moved back and forth between her cooking fire and a few woodsmen who had braved the cold evening and the driving snow, bringing them hot stew and wooden mugs full of her best brewed ale. They responded with cheers and toasts to her health, and the sound of their talk and laughter filled the low, smoky room.

“Here’s to Revi, queen among innkeepers!”

“May her barrels never go empty and her stew never grow cold.”

The woman grinned over her shoulder, flinging back her still dark hair as she danced back towards the kitchen. “Keep bringing me wood for my fire and silver for my coffer, Bram, and you know they never will!”

They met her words with shouts of approval, raising their mugs and high before setting to with a will. For just an instant, the room was quiet. Flames snapped in the hearth. Spoons scraped on bowls. Someone called out at the door.

If the sound had come at any other time, it would have drowned beneath the roars of merriment. It was a quiet noise, a small noise, just a low call that wavered in the cold. Revi stopped on her way and turned back to look at the door.

“Boys, did you leave someone outside?”

The oldest of the woodsmen paused and shook his head. “No, marm. It was just the four of us today.” He lowered his mug to the table. “You heard someone?”

“I heard something,” said Revi.

All the woodsmen grew quiet, glancing to the door and burying themselves in their food, leaning in over the table as if to wall themselves away. Revi pulled a heavy stick from its place on the wall as she continued toward the door and gripped it with one hand as she reached for the latch with her other.

Cold air and powdered snow fell inside as soon as the door swung open, and the innkeeper frowned into the night and white storm. She found nothing there she had imagined. No ghosts, no monsters, no soldiers waiting for half an excuse. Nothing at all, she thought, until she looked a little farther and saw the dark figure fallen on the path just beyond the light that spilled past her and into the night. It was already half buried in falling snow.

“Bram! Lucas! Get over here and help me! Some poor fool was out traveling tonight.”

Chair legs scraped on the floor. Rough voices muttered wariness. The two men she called joined her at the door and ventured into the cold with her, towards the still and snowbound visitor.

It was a man, wrapped in a woolen cloak that was stiff with cold. His brown hair stuck to his face and his eyes were mostly shut. He barely shivered, barely had a voice to lend to his words as he whispered his thanks again and again while Bram and Lucas hoisted him upwards and draped his arms over their shoulders. Revi went ahead and chased the others away from the fire, pulling an empty chair close and ordering the men to bring their burden forward.

“Set him there. Get him some strew. Quickly!” She cleared the way. “Roosh, go to the back and fetch my cloak from my room. The one on the end!”

They all obeyed. The half frozen stranger sank into the chair, leaning heavily on his rescuers. He made no argument as his icy cloak was pulled from his shoulders or his snowy boots from his feet. His hands shook more violently than before and closed around an offered bowl full of hot food. It took him several seconds more before he could wrap his fingers around the spoon and lift it to his blue lips and hungry mouth.

Roosh returned with the demanded cloak and Revi snatched it from him and warmed it by the fire for just a moment, just enough to heat it above the temperature of the room before she draped it around the stranger. He shuddered as sudden heat returned to his bones, and he groaned quietly.

“There,” said Revi. “Good. Eat that and then you can tell us who you are.”

The stranger nodded and managed to swallow a spoonful of stew. It was enough to satisfy Revi for the time being, and she breathed out a quiet sigh before smiling her thanks to the woodsmen and waving them gently away so that the visitor might have a moment to himself. They went, returning to their bowls at the table nearest the fire and sliding them to its far side so that they could sit and still watch the newcomer.

If he noticed or minded his audience, he gave no indication. Instead, he focused on his bowl and all the little movements required to lift each bite to his mouth. It seemed to grow easier for him after a while, requiring less effort to keep from spilling until the simple movements came to him naturally and easily once again.

Revi gave a short, satisfied nod. “That’s a bit better,” she said. “You look less like death, my friend.”

The stranger paused and managed a wry smile. “I feel less like death,” he said. His voice cracked and rasped. “Thank you.”

“Consider it our pleasure,” said Revi, and her own face wrinkled with warmth and welcome. “That being said, now that you’re a bit warmer, perhaps you’ll tell us who it is we’ve rescued? I can’t imagine a man could travel far in this weather.”

Another wry grin. “Ah, yes,” he said. “A man would have trouble with it, that’s certain.”

Revi waited for him to continue, and a pointed look glimmered in her eyes until the visitor continued speaking.

“No hiding for the traveler here, then.” He pronounced the words lightly, though they fell from his lips with a certain seriousness.

Bram and his companions looked over from their own table again and allowed their curiosity to trail across their faces. The stranger chuckled when he saw them.

“You can try, certainly,” said Revi, “but I hope you won’t. We’re friendly folk here, and I think there’s no need.”

The stranger laughed again, low and gravely in his throat, and he paused before speaking. “I won’t, then,” he said, slowly, “though it’s nothing so remarkable. I’m Eriat, just a traveler who misjudged the road north.” He shrugged and spooned another bite into his mouth, chewing it and savoring it longer than he needed to before swallowing it down.

“Just a traveler?” asked Revi as the quiet began to stretch on a little.

The man smiled again and nodded. “Just a traveler.”

A careful glint flashed in his eyes, though it faded quickly. Revi saw it, but there was nothing she could do with it. And the man seemed simple enough. Just a traveler. Just a guest caught in the cold and half frozen to death. She filled his bowl again when he finished, and he thanked her warmly and profusely.

 

He stayed at the inn for several days, helping where he could and keeping out of the way when he couldn’t, always keeping one eye on the door. The harsher weather that had caught him days before let up, bit by bit, until the grey sky hung less heavy and the falling snow eased and stopped. More guests visited the inn. Shepherds and woodsmen, a few travelers whose business took them along the long North Road despite the season. Revi served hot food to those who came and prepared warm beds to those who stayed, and short, cold days passed.

On the fourth day after Eriat’s arrival, on an evening that saw no guests, Revi joined the stranger in front of the fire. They sat together for a while, Revi sighing and leaning back and resting her feet, Eriat staring into the low, orange flames and watching as they flickered on a half burned log.

“So, my friend,” said Revi. “What was it that brought you here?”

Eriat kept looking at the fire for a while, and its light reflected in his eyes. Finally, he glanced over at Revi. “I was traveling,” he said. “Just traveling.”

“You don’t seem anxious to be on your way again,” said Revi. Her words were gentle, and instead of looking at the man she stared into the fire as well.

“The weather is still cold,” he said. “I can finish my journey once the way is a little more hospitable.”

“Most would have waited for that before starting.”

Eriat laughed, faintly. “My business was urgent.”

Revi turned to him with a quick grin. “Not so urgent as that, I think.”

The stranger grunted. “Perhaps not.”

They let the conversation lull for a while, listening instead to the dying cracks of the fire and the hiss of the wind through the needles of the dark evergreens. Revi chuckled.

“We could sit here for many more nights than this before you told me where you’ve actually come from.”

“Ah, perhaps,” said Eriat, and he paused for a while before continuing with a clever grin. “Or perhaps I’m exactly what I’ve said I am. Just a traveler who made a poor decision regarding the timing of his journey.”

Revi snorted.

Eriat’s grin remained. “You can believe it or not. It won’t make it any more or less true.”

“No, I suppose not,” said Revi. “But then, that cuts both ways, doesn’t it?”

The next days continued in much the same way. A trickle of visitors, more or less steady, kept them busy much of the time, and chores filled most of their remaining time. Their routine was simple and pleasant, and Revi appreciated the company almost as much as she did the help, and it remained so for almost two weeks.

Then, a shift in the weather brought a warmer wind and the roads that had been difficult to pass opened once again. With them came more visitors to the inn, and the quiet hum of three or four voices on the busiest of evenings was replaced by the songs and enthusiastic roar of a full dozen guests.

The soldiers came later, well after sundown.

The sound of their marching tramp on the road gave them away before they could be seen, but that seemed to be their intention. It seized the attention of the merrymakers in the inn, silencing their songs and their laughter. Those who ate hunched over their plates. Those who drank clutched their mugs closer to their chests. Every eye lowered. Every back turned. Eriat was with Revi in the kitchen, and in the instant before the soldiers came through the door, she saw that his face blanched pale and his calm frame went rigid.

There were four of them, all armed and draped in the Prince’s blue and silver. Revi felt a a familiar, uneasy twist make its home in her gut, coiling and sliding and waiting for inevitable trouble. She stepped out to greet them anyway.

“Good evening, sirs,” she said. “You look like you’ve traveled some way. Find a seat by the fire and I’ll bring you meat and drink to warm you.”

The leader of the soldiers stopped in front of Revi. “No, thank you, goodwife. We are not here for your food.”

He motioned for the three who followed him to move throughout the room, which they did, looking at the faces of each of the guests as they passed. The knot in Revi’s stomach twisted again.

“We’re here looking for a traitor to the Prince, a man called Taire. Have you seen him? He’s a man of about your age, mousy haired, dark eyed. He fled from us at Kedon about two weeks ago after we attempted to arrest him for stirring up the Prince’s subjects.”

“I don’t know of any men named Taire,” said Revi. She did not move as the soldiers continued to make their way around the room, and they were forced to step around her. She remembered the frightened look that had rushed across Eriat’s face, and she kept herself from even glancing in his direction. The description was vague enough. It could be him. It could be almost anyone.

“He might have called himself by a different name,” said the soldiers’ leader, a cold-eyed sergeant. “Do you remember seeing anyone who might be the man we’re looking for?”

“You’ll forgive me, sir, but over the case of any given week I’m sure I see four or five men that might match that description.”

Behind her, Revi heard the soldiers’ boots still crossing the floor. Tromping past the tables. Moving towards the kitchen.

“Anyone you’ve never seen before? A stranger, perhaps?”

Revi opened her mouth and cast about for an answer. She never had a chance to give it. A shout came from behind as one of the soldiers caught sight of Eriat in the kitchen and gave a cry. The soldiers all rushed to the back. Their leader pushed Revi aside as he joined them. A terrible crash and splatter and clang shattered through the room as Eriat grabbed the big cooking pot, still half full of broth and meat and hurled it at the soldiers advancing towards him.

It bought him an instant. And instant was all he needed. He rushed past his attackers, shoving them violently aside, narrowly missing the blades that slipped from their sheaths to hunt for his flesh. He bolted past the tables, flung himself towards the door, out and away to vanish in the night and snow. The soldiers gave chase, rushing back out after him and leaving the aftermath to the inn.

Within a moment, all of Revi’s guests were gone. Some muttered apologies. Others offered looks of sympathy. Every one of them rose and slipped out through the door and away from the inn. The soldiers would return. The soldiers always would return. But perhaps they had not noticed them, had not marked their faces. So it was that Revi found herself alone, sitting in an empty inn and waiting to see if fate meant to come calling.

It did not come. Not that night. The soldiers came back, empty handed and asking a thousand questions and breathing threats, but they did not act on them. When they left, she bolted her door and went to her bed and fell asleep, leaving the dishes and the cleaning until the morning.

The next day was quiet, devoid of guests and company. She cleaned and set the inn back in order. The day after that was much the same, and she gathered wood and made a little food in case someone should brave the winter and the danger of the Prince’s men. No one did.

On the third day, a few visitors came creeping back. Bram was the first, faithful if sheepish, though he did not stay long. Others came after, and each successive day brought more and returned things to the normalcy that had been before.

On the ninth day, the soldiers came back, asking more questions that could not be answered, and the cycle started over once again. The same happened six days after that, and then eleven days after that, and on and on. The shepherds and trappers and woodsmen who frequented the inn learned the pattern, such as it was, and most stopped avoiding the North Forest Inn in the days following such a visit.

There was the dog, too. It was a big creature, shaggy and grey and a little dirty. Revi found it on the steps leading up to the inn door almost a month after the soldiers’ first visit. She paused a moment and looked at it, eyeing the lanky canine before leaving it alone. It was still there when Bram arrived that night, and if a few scraps of food made their way outside, it might not have been by accident.

And the dog stayed. “I think he thinks he’s guarding you,” said Bram, chuckling a little to himself.

Revi grimaced. “He looks to me like he’s mostly just sleeping his days away,” she said, but giblets and dry bread crusts and other scraps continued to make their way to the porch. After a while, she wasn’t sure when, she even caught herself reaching down to scratch behind the animal’s ears when she passed by. And on a particularly cold night, she let the dog inside to sleep beside the fire.

“You seem to have warmed to him,” said Bram.

“Hush, you,” said Revi.

 

So it continued until the snow began to melt and the air began to warm. Almost two weeks had passed since the last visit by the soldiers, and Revi almost allowed herself to believe that things might return to the way they had been before. Bram came by less often, busy as he now was with traps and hunting, but when he did return he brought fresh meat and Revi welcomed him with open arms.

The dog had begun to look almost respectable, or at least as respectable as a shaggy canine could. He had no name; Revi only called him the Dog. Even without a name, visitors to the inn knew to expect him, and a few seemed to visit specifically to see him.

He would vanish now and again, disappearing for most of a day or even several days at a time. No one ever saw him go, and when Bram once tried to track him out of curiosity, he lost the trail before it led anywhere in particular. But he always came back, and it seemed wisest to consider it more a mystery than a puzzle.

Revi was outside the last time he returned. It was a warm day, the warmest yet that spring, and she had a tub of wash to hang up to dry. She had emptied half of it when the dog trotted up, bumping her hand with his nose as he went by and slipped inside the open inn door as if to hide inside.

The soldiers arrived only half an hour later. There were five of them marching in line behind the same sergeant who had led the first group during the winter. His eyes were still cold.

“Did you miss me, goodwife?”

Revi frowned. “No, I’m afraid I can’t say that I did. But what can I get for you?”

“The same thing I asked for the first time I was here, perhaps? You know where the man called Taire is.”

Revi stiffened as a chill spun its way down her spine. “I don’t, sir.”

The sergeant took a step towards her, and she only held her ground through a fierce act of will.

“I’m sure you do,” he said. “We’ve tracked him here.”

She swallowed once. “That can’t be possible. No one has come here since last night, and I know each of those men. None of them are called Taire.”

The sergeant stepped forward again until he fairly towered above her. “I’m not talking about last night, woman. He was in Kedon this morning, wreaking his havoc.”

“And I’m telling you that no one has arrived here today, not from Kedon or anywhere else,” said Revi. Her heart thumped and leaped in her throat, but she reached out to push past the man anyway.

He caught her her wrist in a tight grip. “I wonder,” he said. “Are you perhaps a sympathizer with his rebellion?”

She yanked her hand away and stepped back. “I know nothing of any rebellion,” she said.

The sergeant moved to follow her, only to stop as a sudden, deep bark sounded out from the door of the inn. The dog stood there, hackles raised and teeth bared, staring down at the soldiers with a ferocity in his eyes too intelligent to be only animal.

“A skin-changer,” hissed the sergeant, and he cursed. “Kill him!”

The five soldiers following him jumped forward, their blades out, bearing down on the single, shaggy creature. The dog barked again, then a third time, and he snarled and growled. He charged between the legs of the nearest man just as one of the swords flashed down towards him. He bounded back and forth, always keeping just inches away from death. He broke from the gang surrounding him and charged at the sergeant, gathering himself and leaping and bearing the man to the ground before snapping at the man’s neck with his teeth and bolting back down the path and vanishing down the road.

Three of the soldiers gave chase. Two stopped to help their fallen leader, taking him inside the inn and demanding that Revi render aid. She did so, enough to stop the bleeding and keep him alive until a more skilled healer could see to his needs. They took him away before the end of the day, commandeering a cart from a nearby farm so that they could take him back to Kedon more easily.

Revi never saw him again She never saw Eriat or the big dog again either, but months later a nameless traveler heading north spent the night at the inn and handed a folded letter to the innkeeper without more than a word or two of explanation. She read it later and exchanged a word or two with Bram the next night, and though neither one spoke of it after that, they would share a smile from time to time. Revi changed the name of the inn as well, though she never gave an explanation. Those who had frequented the inn during that winter, though, could guess why the sign that hung above the door was repainted with the image of a shaggy grey canine.