Fiction, Fiction (Short)

Candle in the Window

When we discovered Redfall Gap, hope and excitement ran high, and while most paid lip service to caution and cold wisdom, it was hard to lend too much focus to the dangers and unknowns. And when the probes sent back their first readings, confirming that this glittering, undulating anomaly was just as much a passage to another galaxy as we had imagined, wariness seemed like an unnecessary precaution.

We knew better, of course. Every one of us had seen enough things go wrong when they should have gone right that thoroughness and triple checking were worked into our bones. And we also knew that no matter how much care you put into anything, there’s no such thing as a guarantee. Not really.

So when my best friend volunteered to pilot the ship for the first manned expedition, I met the announcement with mingled envy and dread as well as giddy exultation. If I couldn’t go myself, this was at least the next best thing.

And she deserved it. She, who’d been a pilot longer than I’d been a scientist. She, who’d dreamed of taking the best ships to the strangest places since we were both kids. She, who knew the risks and laughed at them while I followed a more careful path.

If anyone had the skills and experience to be prepared for this, it was her. And her handpicked crew of three.

Preparations took a month. More tests. More readings. More specialized equipment for the Distant Horizon, the vessel that would take them through. More training. More time for this mad venture to become normal. More time to deafen us to the nervous mutterings in the backs of all our minds.

Launch Day came. The Horizon detached from its dock on Platform One, our tiny station home. She brought up power and glided towards the Gap and all the unknown beyond it. Away from us.

And then they entered and were gone.

We received one message, reporting safe passage and transmitting their initial scans from the other side. We received a second six hours later, and a third six hours after that.

Then, nothing.

The next scheduled check-in passed in silence. And the one after that. And every one following.

Our optimism faded like a dream, replaced by sickened knots in the pits of our stomachs. I told myself that she knew what she was doing, that there were a thousand ultimately harmless reasons they might have missed their check-ins. We checked our arrays and our systems. We tested our sensors and our communications rigs.

We geared up another probe and sent it through the Gap, just in case. It went through safe and sound, its connection never faltered. But it found no trace of the Horizon.

Some talked about outfitting a second ship, though we knew it would never happen. You don’t throw good money after bad. You don’t send a second ship when you don’t know what silenced the first. So all we could do was to find some way to make it safe enough to try again.

But that was easier said than done. We’d done everything we could think of before we sent the Horizon through—now we had to find new things, new holes, new possibilities when we had already exhausted every obvious avenue. And we had to do it with grief hanging over us instead of thrilled excitement.

We tried. Hard. But the exploration corps that funded our project lost interest once the Horizon vanished. After three weeks, they informed us apologetically that they were not in a position to continue paying for a dormant expedition. We were welcome to keep the platform and the equipment; it was ours. They just couldn’t justify the cost of additional supplies and living stipends.

After that, everything shut down. The support staff left. The techs left. Physicists, astronomers, engineers—everyone went in a steady stream that turned into a flood, until finally only four of us remained. We crept around the emptied platform like ghosts, stretching our rations, funding ourselves out of our own savings, scraping all we could from what we had and dragging it out until there was nothing left.

Then we gave up too, with nothing gained for all our begged and borrowed time.

We’d boosted all our sensors, all our comms, cobbling them together from bits and pieces we stole from things we counted less important. We accomplished technological feats. Our station’s eyes and ears reached farther then they ever had before with fewer needs. Maybe it wasn’t an elegant system or the most resilient, but the vast distances its signals crossed was something we could be proud of.

For all the good it did. We found nothing. No stray transmissions. No sensor ghosts. No drifting hulls. Nothing that gave us the slightest indication that the Horizon was there at all, or ever had been. If we hadn’t had the logs from those three precious check-ins, we might have convinced ourselves that they’d never happened at all. And I might have found some other way to explain the loss of my best friend.

After that, we abandoned the station too, out of hope and out of ideas, sixteen weeks, four days, and three hours from the time the Horizon went missing. We left a comm buoy behind on the far side of the Gap, programmed to broadcast its message on repeat: Platform One to research vessel Distant Horizon, all attempts to contact you have failed. We have run out of supplies and are forced to abandon station. We haven’t forgotten about you. We’ll be back in one year to come looking for you again. Message recorded 2619.04.13.14.30. End of recording.

And that was that. The best we could do, useless as it was. And no matter how I tried to avoid it, I knew our project had collapsed with a sigh and a whimper. I knew my best friend was gone forever.

We loaded the few supplies we still had on the one remaining jumpship. We checked the sensors one last time, more out of habit than hope. Then, finding nothing, we left.

Afterwards, we didn’t stay in contact. Or I didn’t. The others might have, but I, in my sorrow, kept to myself. I found some job on some station and used it to feed myself and put a bed beneath my bones. I made acquaintances, never friends. I let my pain grow dull. Numb. I forced myself to heal, or maybe just to scar. Either way the bleeding stopped.

And all the while I kept track of the days, the weeks, the months.

The year passed. I shook myself from my fog of unmanaged grief long enough to hire a jumpship and to contact the others. One I couldn’t find. Another couldn’t take the time to make the trip. The third promised to meet me at the same station we had all set out from together so long ago, and we could go the final leg together.

In the end, we reached the silent, abandoned station two days before the time we’d promised. But that was alright. We could wait. And while we waited, we took comfort in each other’s presence. We barely spoke; there was nothing to say. Instead, we spent the time restarting all the platform’s systems. To our mild surprise, only the link to the probe had gone down, battered by some stray asteroid and unnoticed by the cannibalized systems. It took less than a day to complete the handful of repairs.

I was the one to bring them back online. My hand hesitated above the command-board, wavering as buried emotions came hurtling back, ripping through the cloud I’d wrapped myself in. For a moment, my fears spun all around me. I knew better than to hope. This was more for closure than for rescue. More for us than them.

Something like shame washed over me. We’d spent all this time and all these resources on something that couldn’t be. It was idiotic.

But we’d promised.

And so my hand keyed the commands and started all the systems. They came up, one by one, humming, chirping, reaching out to see the universe. And there it was, the probe we’d left behind with our message for the Horizon. Now the message was for us.

Distant Horizon to Platform One: we ran into a little trouble, but we’re alright. Took some damage and had to find a place to land. Found a way to get your message from the ground. Coordinates are 152.777.459 from point of entry. Watch that gravity well a few hours in. That’s what got us. Looking forward to coming home. Message recorded 2619.07.21.19.37. End of recording.

I sat for a second, stunned. My cheeks went numb. My hands tingled. My heart beat faster than it should have, and I couldn’t breathe. But only for a moment. Then I ran for my companion. We had work to do.

Originally published as part of the 2021 Tenth Anniversary Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

The Derelict

SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.25.15.43.15
entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)

We found the derelict exactly where Crand told us to look for it. Always nice when the client is telling the truth. I’m sending Wolfe and Perez in to do the initial sweep, and we’ll go in for the real work tomorrow. It’s a big ship, but we should be able to clear it out of anything worthwhile in two, three days at the most. Add in four days to get back to Epsilon, and that comes out to a week before we pull in the best haul we’ve had in years. Assuming Crand holds up his end of the bargain. But what the hey. I’m feeling optimistic. Might as well enjoy the feeling until someone proves me wrong.

SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.26.06.18.40
entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)

Early start today. Initial sweep found the cargo bays intact, and it looks like the ship itself is in decent shape. No bodies, but it looks like a few of their escape pods were launched. Don’t know who would have picked them up this far out, but that’s not our problem. I’m just glad we don’t have to worry about the gore. Plus, with everything they left behind, this is a really good haul. Even if Crand tries to hold out on us, we’re going home rich from this one. Our biggest problem is going to be how we fit it all in our own hold.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.26.11.37.46

Haul is going well. The six of us have been doing this long enough that we’re nothing if not efficient. But we’ve also been doing this long enough that we’ve heard every ghost story out there, and they’re all set on a ship exactly like this one. The crew is hiding it, but I know they’re jumpy. Hopefully the feeling wears off with time. Because it looks like it’s going to take us the full three days.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.26.17.22.32

There was… an incident. Wolfe was in the hold prepping the salvage. She was working alone, so we’ve only got her word on what happened. Problem is, she’s saying there was a ghost. Not in so many words. The woman is too steady-minded for that. But she may as well have spelled it straight out for the affect it’s had on the rest of the crew. And on me, though I have to hide it. Because if Wolfe thought she saw a ghost, my first instinct is to believe that she saw a ghost.

What she actually said was that she thinks there’s still some crew onboard, because someone jumped her in the hold. And we can’t really argue with that, because she’s got the bruises to prove it. Apparently it happened when she started prying open one of the secure boxes to see if it was worth our time. She said the temperature dropped by ten degrees and someone came out of nowhere to clock her across the back of the skull. By the time she got back up she was alone, and the box had slammed back shut.

Avery tried to suggest that it was just a malfunction in the ventilation system, but he couldn’t get the words out. Not with Wolfe sitting there with a bleeding head wound. I sent them both back to the Hyena to get her patched up while the rest of us shut things down for the night. I’d been planning on working later, but I didn’t need to get my crew any more spooked than they already were. We’ll get an early start tomorrow to make up for lost time.

SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.27.07.44.11
entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)

Wolfe said she isn’t going back to the ship. She said she’d coordinate things from the Hyena, but she won’t step foot on the derelict again. She never said so, but I could tell the woman was terrified, which worried me more than anything else. With the new day I’d convinced myself that the “ghost” was the product of a dark hold and a quiet, unfamiliar ship. It was harder to stick to that story when I could see the fear in Wolfe’s eyes. I’d never known her to be scared of anything.

I told her she could stay behind.

CREW LOG >> 2348.10.27.08.13.01
entry by WOLFE, REBEKKAH

I didn’t think she was going to let me stay on the Hyena. I know they don’t believe me, and I don’t blame them. But I know we scanned for biological signatures when we arrived and didn’t find any. And I saw the logs from the derelict. The last one was dated more than five years ago. There’s no survivors on that ship, and I don’t like where that leaves us. And if Avery tries to tell me it was the ventilation system going wonky, I’ll show him wonky. Idiot. At least he knows how to patch someone up.

Captain says it’ll take us two more days to finish up here, and she’s usually right about that sort of thing. I wish she wasn’t. It’s going to be a tough two days. I could make it go faster if I joined them over there again, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe tomorrow. If nothing happens today.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.13.01.18

I hate being this jumpy. I hate being scared. Eight years in the black and nothing’s ever made me wild like this before. It’s been hours since I’ve heard from the rest of them, and my mind is bent on supplying me with mental images of all the worst scenarios. Sudden, catastrophic life support failure. Toxic miasma inside some compartment we hadn’t opened yet. Undetected hull breach. Ghosts.

At least I’m not worried about getting jumped by something here on the Hyena. Small blessings. I’d comm them and check, but I don’t need them thinking I’m more anxious than they already do. It’s only been a couple of hours. They’re not even overdue. It’s just that I’ve run out of ways to organize the hold to make sure we can fit everything.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.15.14.51

Still nothing from the others. I tried comming them ten minutes ago but the system spat out a connection error, which means that either their comms are off or the signal’s blocked by something. The latter makes sense if they’re somewhere deep in the ship. That’s probably what it is. No need to panic.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.16.52.14

It’s been six and a half hours since I’ve heard from the others. I’m trying their comms every ten minutes now, and nothing’s going through. I can’t even get a connection. The Captain said she’d check in by 1700 at the latest. That’s eight minutes away. I can hope, but I already know it’s not going to happen. I don’t know why they haven’t checked in. I’m worried.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.17.31.03

They’re officially half an hour overdue. Something happened. I still can’t get through. I think I need to go looking for them.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.18.12.30

I can’t do this. I got as far as the airlock and I froze up. Couldn’t get myself to put one foot in front of the other. Because as soon as I tried the wound on the back of my skull screamed and throbbed and my mouth went dry and my hands tingled. No feeling but blind terror. If my legs had worked I would have run, but my knees were so weak I just stumbled away. If they need help it’s going to have to come from someone other than me.

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.19.04.55

They’re still not back. I still haven’t gotten the comms to go through. Right after I froze up I went up to the cockpit and did a scan for bio signs. The good news was that they all showed up, Our scanners aren’t good enough to do any kind of pinpoint work, but at least I know they’re alive. That’s good enough, right?

ADDENDUM >> 2348.10.27.19.13.21

I have to go find them. I have to try. I don’t know if I can, but it’s not going to happen if I stay here sitting on my butt. Time to suck it up.

SHIP LOG >> 2348.10.28.12.00.00
entry by AUTOMATED

SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> SIX BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE

SHIP LOG>> 2348.10.29.12.00.00
entry by AUTOMATED

SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> EIGHT BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> LINKED SHIP LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM OPERATIONAL, ALL OTHER SYSTEMS IN FAILURE

SHIP LOG>> 2348.10.30.12.00.00
entry by AUTOMATED

SHIP NOT PLACED IN STANDBY MODE: DEFAULTING TO AUTOMATED LOGS>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON BOARD>> ALL SYSTEMS OPERATIONAL>> NO BIO SIGNS DETECTED ON LINKED SHIP>> ALL LINKED SHIP SYSTEMS IN FAILURE

SHIP LOG>> 2348.10.31.04.32.19
entry by UNKOWN

01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001001 01001110 01010100 01010010 01010101 01000100 01000101 01010010 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000 01001000 01000101 01001100 01010000

SHIP LOG>> 2348.10.31.18.52.13
entry by VOSS, AMELIE (CAPTAIN)

Never again. I don’t know how we got out. Wolfe came in after us when we didn’t come back, but she’s not the one who got us out, because she was just as stuck as the rest of us. The doors just opened up again and we ran for it. Don’t know why. Don’t care why. And I don’t care how much Crand is paying, it’s not worth dying on some cursed ghost ship. He’ll have to make do with what we already grabbed. I gave the order to blow the derelict. No one else needs to deal with that thing. Hopefully the client doesn’t mind too. Too bad if he does.

SHIP LOG>> 2348.10.31.11.59.59
entry by UNKNOWN

01001101 01111001 00100000 01110011 01101000 01101001 01110000 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110111 00101110 00100000 01000110 01110010 01100101 01100101 01100100 01101111 01101101 00101110 00100000 01000110 01110010 01100101 01100101 01100100 01101111 01101101 00101110 00100000 01000110 01110010 01100101 01100101 01100100 01101111 01101101 00101110

Fiction, Fiction (Short)

We Said Goodbye

The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.

My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.

My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?

“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”

Or ever. But we both knew that.

Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.

And we mourned.

We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.

Close the gate. Save the galaxy.

Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.

I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.

But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.

My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.

Alice.

I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”

I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.

“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.

It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.

Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.

“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”

“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”

It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.

“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”

“So we find another way,” said Gray.

“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”

We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.

A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.

We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.

Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.

I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.

Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.

In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.

We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.

“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”

And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”

And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.

Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.

We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.

“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”

Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”

And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.


Originally published as part of the 2020 Fall Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.

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.