For all my griping about how ebooks just don’t match up to paper ones in my books (ha, ha), there’s one aspect I don’t think I’ve fully realized until more recently. And that’s their size. Or rather, the fact that outside of a number on the bottom of the screen telling you how many pages a particular book has and/or how long it thinks it’s going to take you to read said book, there is absolutely nothing differentiating a tiny little novella from some behemoth that has designs on all your free time for the next two weeks.
Now, I grant you, this has its perks. For one thing, if you’re the sort of person who might balk at some eight hundred plus page epic, if you don’t happen to notice just how long it is until you’ve been well and truly hooked, you might end up reading something wonderful that you otherwise would have assumed you didn’t have time for. That being said, if you’re the sort of person who is usually reading several books all at the same time, and you happen to pick up an ebook copy of some brick of a high fantasy novel that you assumed was something like four or five hundred pages long and is, instead, twice that length, you might have to adjust your schedule or accept that your library loan is going to run out before you finish.
At least with a paper book you’ll know what you’re getting into.
Now, don’t mind me, I have to go read another couple chapters of The Priory of the Orange Tree.
Emia stood at the edge of the field and pretended she wasn’t shaking. It only worked because no one was there to see her. It was obscene. All of this. The fear. The anger. The dread. It had been an accident, a mistake. The sort of thing that could always happen when you tried to train a creature like Dilyku, no matter how careful you were and how many precautions you took.
A twinge of pain shot down her arm. Phantom pain, it had to be. The healer had promised that her wounds were all fully knitted back together. But the healer was only trained in treating the body, and Emia suspected her injuries ran deeper.
The easiest thing to do would be to turn around and walk away. The safest thing would be to pack her few belongings and begin the long trek back to her village, her family, her friends. She wouldn’t be the first. She wouldn’t be the last. It took almost as much luck as it did skill to complete the training, and no one expected her to stay. Better to accept failure and live than to try and try until she died in the attempt.
What if one more try was all it took? They had been so close, she’d felt it. She’d met Dilyku’s golden hawklike gaze and held it, held him, connected with him, and he had let her. He had bent his neck, and she had run her hands down the soft, long feathers, had traced the curve of his beak with her fingers. And then—
Then, disaster. Or so they told her; her own mind still refused to release those memories to the rest of her, though they bled through in her dreams. Too much noise, too much panic. A flurry of wings, claws, feathers. A gryphon’s fear takes on a deadly shape. Though, why Dilyku was afraid they couldn’t say.
Yet she had survived. And she had healed. And there was nothing in the world to stop her from trying again, save perhaps a nascent sense of self preservation. Because there was no reason to believe she would be so lucky if it happened again. And neither was there any certainty that it wouldn’t happen again.
And so she stood at the edge of the field, the one that stretched between her and Dilyku’s cave, and she trembled. A minute passed. Or ten. Or twenty.
The question rattled in the back of her mind.
Why are you doing this?
Her own thoughts stood in accusation. There were so many she’d left behind to come here, so many who were waiting for her to return. So many who would tell her she had tried hard enough, more than hard enough. So many who would welcome her back with open arms.
So many to whom she owed so much.
That was almost what decided her. Her life was not her own– not just her own. If the only thing driving her back across that field was her own pride, her own stubborn will, then that was not enough. It would never be enough. It never could be.
Yet even then she couldn’t just turn and walk away, because that would have been terrible, too. Maybe it was Dilyku’s claws and beak that had come so close to ripping her away from this would and flinging her into the next. That was just one, terrible thing, and there were other moments. So many other moments. Enough that she could never just leave, not without trying one last time.
She lifted her fingers to her lips and whistled, three long, clear notes. It was a request, she realized. A petition for Dilyku to grant her passage into his realm. He had only ever granted it with some amount of grudging impatience, a clacked beak, a thrash of his lion’s tail, as if he had better things to do with his time but couldn’t be bothered to drive her off.
And so when his call, shrill and fierce as any bird of prey’s, warm and friendly as the response of an old companion echoed back across the field, it was the last thing she expected. And when Dilyku himself leaped from the mouth of his cave and into the warm sunlight to look for her, she hardly expected that either. And she knew. For at least a little while longer, she had to stay. Because she had already left this other friend alone too long.
It was a scent in the air, blowing in off the hayfields hidden behind the trees. It was the harmony of birdsong and insect chatter, all chorusing together. It was the way the wind brushed her skin; in all the years she’d been gone, in all the places she had traveled, she had never felt a breeze like the ones here.
And now she was back. Almost. The main road had taken her as close as it could. The last leg would take her down the narrow path that appeared now, branching away into the woods.
She touched the reins. Her horse stopped. A thought grew from some crack in the darkest corners of her mind: it wasn’t too late. She could turn around and ride away. No one needed to know how close she had come to returning home. No one needed to know she wasn’t just one of the nameless missing.
A soft laugh broke loose from somewhere deep inside, a sound that she knew to be frantic and desperate and a truer window to the state of her soul than she would have admitted to anyone but her own self. She should feel like a hero. That was what everyone had said. The comrades-in-arms whose lives she had saved. The commander who had presented her with the ornate and beautiful sword that hung, even now, from the scabbard at her left hip. Even the king when he had offered her a place at his side.
Perhaps she should have accepted it. Perhaps her polite refusal, born of the lurking, rotting feeling that she did not, could not belong in such circles, was not so based in reality as she had made herself believe. It could hardly have made her feel any more alien and uncomfortable than she did now, standing here at the edge of what should have been the most familiar place in all the worlds.
She hadn’t felt this way through all the long journey back. Not as the small group of those she had traveled with split off in ones and twos and threes as they each reached their own homes. Not as the mountains shrank into the distances and the hills grew softer and greener and ever more gentle. Not even as some of the others had, in the quiet and thoughtful moments that gathered around their campfire in the dark, wondered if they would recognize the places they returned to, and if those places in turn would recognize them.
They weren’t the sort of questions that had wanted answers.
She had been grateful, in her own quiet arrogance, that these were not the thoughts that plagued her own mind when it was meant to be at rest. Perhaps she had just been better than her companions at avoiding the silence that allowed them to grow. Until now.
And so, here she was. Caught alone with the things that prowled in the darkest, emptiest corners of her own soul. Listening as they whispered, reminding her that all could never be just as it was.
Her horse whickered and shifted his weight from leg to leg. Impatient. She reached down and patted his neck, offering this poor substitute for a stall and good hay to buy a few more moments to indulge her own fears. He accepted the bribe.
It was strange. She couldn’t say what it was she was afraid of. It wasn’t that she didn’t know; would that it were so easy. Would that she couldn’t tell that the answer was there, buried carefully and hidden away with all the other things she couldn’t bring herself to examine—like why she had been so quick to leave in the first place.
A thirst for adventure. That was the most flattering way to explain it. The most acceptable, to herself, to her family, to those she met along the way. And yet it would have been just as accurate, or even more so, to use a different phrase instead. A fear of the mundane.
She snorted, despite herself. A sudden sound, startling both to her and her horse; he grunted and threw his head up high, tossing his mane and taking a few steps further down the path. She touched the reins again and whispered soothing words to buy herself a few minutes more.
For all the good it would do.
She cursed, once, a single word hissed under her breath. Temptation welled up in her chest, urging her to keep to the main road, to travel on and bow to the deceptive simplicity of that choice. All she had to do was touch her heels to her horse’s sides. She didn’t know what would happen after that. She didn’t know, and that was the allure.
Strange, that she could say the same of what would happen if instead she turned her horse’s head down that familiar, narrow road. Strange how much easier it was to face the untouched and unfamiliar than it was to return to what might have changed. Strange how she had thought, until that moment, that she had known what courage was.
So she waited. She breathed. She felt the beating of her heart and the thrumming of the world. And when her horse next pawed the ground in his grumpy, fitful way, she made her choice.
Several of the books I’ve read most recently have reminded me of something that I already knew– namely that I really enjoy stories with an interesting, creative setting. You know. In case my preoccupation with science fiction and fantasy hadn’t already given it away. I also can’t remember if I’ve written about this in the blog already or not, so please bear with me if it starts sounding like I’m just rewriting an earlier post.
Anyway! Consider this another entry in my continuing quest to figure out why certain stories grab me and refuse to let go. Because I’m pretty sure this is part of it.
To some extent, I suspect this is why most fans of sci-fi and fantasy enjoy it the way we do. There’s a reason those of us who grew up with it spent so many hours daydreaming of ways to get ourselves to Narnia. And also why we have discussions about which Hogwarts House we would belong to, and why those “who would you be in X fictional world” quizzes are so popular.
I imagine it also helps that when something is well-known, the fact that we can talk about them (giddily) with other like-minded fans only feeds our enjoyment. But then there’s the stories that are not as widely known, or with a less rabid fanbase, that– for me– result in the same level of borderline-obsessive focus.
Like, for instance, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The books are definitely fun, particularly the earlier ones, and though I know he’s written more in the same setting beyond the ones that focus around the titular character, I haven’t gotten to them yet. Unlike some of the other stories I’ll mention in this post, Weber does enjoy a pretty decent following. Probably because there’s a lot of us who think that “female Horatio Hornblower in space” is a whole lot of fun. That being said, the books, fun as they are, also aren’t the masterpieces that, say, The Lord of the Rings or Red Rising are. The stories and the characters are fun, but there’s a reason this little gem makes so many of Mr. Weber’s fans laughing.
Then you’ve got stories like Andrea K. Höst‘s brilliant Touchstone series, which I just reread and got a forcible reminder of why I should really look up more of her work. The writing is lovely, and while I know some people don’t particularly like the journal format that the books use, I think it works very well for the nerdy, comforting story she’s telling.
And for all these two series are very different, I found that they have something in common. They captured my imagination. Completely. It’s stuck. Not going anywhere. In Weber’s case, it means that I will happily read for hours on end about the technological advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s missiles, and how it changes the way their massive space battles play out. In Touchstone, it means I will read everything about Cassandra Devlin and the Setari and the spaces that I can get my hands on.
And in both cases, that is in large part thanks to the worldbuilding. These authors succeeded in creating worlds so compelling that I am happy to visit them again and again and that I think about them randomly even when I’m not reading their stories. J.S. Morin does a bit of the same, especially with the way magic works in his various Black Ocean series. Fringe does it in the way it creates a world so similar to our own, just with weird science causing all manner of mayhem.
Perhaps all of this is just outing me as an escapist, though even that’s hardly as damning a truth as some people make it out to be. But whatever way you want to slice it, the fact remains that some authors do a remarkably good job at creating strange, new worlds, and it’s a particular pleasure of mine to go exploring them for a while.
HaHA! I did it! Fifty thousand words in July! And now I’ve got sixteen stories in various stages of presentability, and I’ve already started working on the edits for the first one. Actually, technically, I’ve just got fifteen to edit, since I had one of them pull double duty and act as my entry for the recent contest over at The Write Practice, so it’s actually in good shape and I’ll share it with you all here in about ninety days, once the rights revert back to me. In the meantime, you can go check it out here!
Other than that, since I don’t have much else to share, I can share the list of current titles for the various stories I was working on last month:
The Shadowed The Day We Lost The Hartwood Faeries Wolf Road Candle in the Window* Caer Modnaan The Secret Wood** Aeternatus Runner To the Horizon*** We Went Home A Page Worse Than Death The Windbringer The Lost Ones The Willow Book The Smallest Messenger
Most of these are (surprise, surprise) science fiction and fantasy. Which ones sound the most exciting to you? (Or in other words, which ones do you want to see me finish first?) And feel free to ask questions in the comments below!
* This is the one that’s already finished!
** I’m almost certainly going to change the title on this one. The story sorta got away from me…
*** This one… I never really figured out where this was going. But I like the title. We’ll see what happens!
In case you haven’t noticed, I like science fiction and fantasy. (If you hadn’t, allow me to point you to the rest of my blog.) Now, for the longest time, I thought the two were roughly the same thing, just in different settings. And to some extent, that’s probably true. There’s certainly a reason they often get lumped together on bookstore shelves and are usually said together in the same breath. Yet as I’ve thought more about why I like both so much, and as I’ve had more time to focus on the worldbuilding side of my own various projects, I’ve come to the conclusion that the two really do have different strengths and are certainly different enough to warrant the distinction.
First, fantasy. My first love, mostly thanks to the fact that such stories can and often do involve things like dragons, unicorns, and grumpy wizards. Growing up, that usually meant that I was giddily excited by anything that fell under the swords and sorcery category. Lord of the Rings? Loved it. Anything to do with King Arthur? Sign me up. Wanna watch Dragonheart? I’ll be right there.
These days, while I still have a fond appreciation for all the stories mentioned above, I’ve also found myself branching out a bit. For instance, anything that involves magic in what might otherwise look like our world today tends to at least pique my interest. For instance, I really enjoyed watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And playing Shadowrun.
And for all the differences between these various stories, there are also a lot of similarities. For one thing, ancient evils crop up with a worrisome consistency. Magic is old. Our heroes find themselves caught up in traditions that have existed for ages. As a gross generalization, fantasy stories are full of wonder at the old, whether that looks like a medieval fantasy or a modern one that finds itself uncovering those things that happened long, long ago. There’s a reason fairy tales start with the words “once upon a time”.
For me, when I find that some story idea or another seems to want to turn itself into a fantasy story, that usually means that it has something to do with the past, at least in my head. Maybe it’s just a chance to re-imagine the parts of history that are so much fun to romanticize, or to interact with a so-called simpler world. Or maybe it’s a way to come to terms with the past.
Either way, it boils down to a focus on what once was, with perhaps a nod to how that affects things today.
Science fiction, on the other hand, looks to the future. Maybe these stories are just ways to imagine what we might be able to figure out someday. Or maybe they act as a warning for what might happen if we don’t mend our ways. Or maybe they give us something to strive for. But whatever way you look at it, the science fiction genre is as much about the future as fantasy is about the past.
Are there exception to this? Oh, absolutely. But Star Trek (all of them) is very purposely imagining what humanity might be able to do in a utopian setting (whether you agree with them or not on the methods chosen to get there). Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series takes place in a solar system that is nearly unrecognizable after the advancements humanity has made, and while not all of the advancements are good, it’s hard to deny that they’ve got some really, really cool things going on. Science fiction stories have a remarkable ability to provide a space to imagine what might be, and so to imagine some of the things we’ll have to think about if and when we get there.
Of course, it’s not all black and white. Of the top of my head I can name off several fictional worlds that have some distinct elements that I’ve argued belonged to either science fiction or fantasy. For example, Star Wars. The fact that it both involves spaceships and is set “a long time ago” with a bunch of knights running around is evidence enough of that. And then you’ve got Stargate, which has the humans of Earth finding ways to make these fantastic technological leaps… in order to fight old false gods. Or you’ve got J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean books that just say to heck with it and do both. Because they can.
In other words, like I said before, there’s definitely a reason they get pushed together so often. And there’s certainly nothing that says a story can’t look both to the future and the past at the same time. In fact, I think a lot of good ones do just that. But if you’re looking to imagine something about the future, that’s what science fiction is meant to do. And if you’re looking to engage with the past, fantasy stories have all sorts of things to say about that.
Way back in high school, we had a unit where we studied American literary regionalism. (Click here for the Wikipedia article, if you’re curious!) I remember it being interesting, and our teacher tied it in with the idea that the setting of a story, when properly done, can be as much a character as any of the ones walking around on two legs. At the time, I thought it was a fascinating idea, but didn’t quite get it– certainly not enough to be able to articulate it all that well.
If I’m honest, that might still be true today, though I’m certainly closer than I was. At the very least, I’m close enough to start coming up with some theories of my own. In particular, considering how it relates to the ubiquitous advice to “write what you know”.
Now, as you can imagine, us science fiction and fantasy authors have a harder time applying that advice in its most boring sense. I’ve never been a freelancer on a distant planet, but that’s not stopping me from writing about a couple of siblings who do, so some folks might suggest that I’m not taking that advice to heart. That being said, I am one of several siblings, and I can guarantee that I’ve got the sibling banter thing down pat, so in that sense I am writing what I know.
Now, imagine you’ve got a locale you’re particularly familiar with. For me, that could be the Palouse area of Idaho and Washington: farming country, with lots of hills and fertile soil and not so many people. Next, add in the fantasy, magic, and adventure that I particularly enjoy writing about. Combine the two, and and you’re going to get a modern fantasy story set in the hills I grew up in. Probably involving werewolves.
Or, for those of you who watch Angel, you’ve got the same sort of thing with Los Angeles. It’s definitely set in LA… there’s just vampires and demons as well.
Basically, using a region that you’re familiar with is a fantastic way to write what you know– because as poor as that advice is when applied badly, you can’t get around the fact that it does have some truth to it. If you know something, you’re going to be able to write about it better. If, like me, you’re more the type who likes writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s probably going to look more like writing about relationships between friends and family than the the mundane adventures of a twenty-something-year-old. But it can also mean setting those same stories about the relationships you know in the places you know. Because it’ll make the story that much more real.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
So, last week I asked you guys for writing prompts and promised flash fiction in return. You all rocked your side of the bargain; here’s the stories!
That can’t possibly be what it looks like…
“Nah, thank you. I’m just glad the old place is going to get some use.” Harold helped us load the last of our gear into the back of his pickup. My own car was good enough for city driving, but the roads up to the old cabin were a bit more rugged. I’d been willing to chance it, but the old man had just shook his head and tossed me the keys to the blue Ford. “You’ll find firewood under the porch, and the well’s out back. Also, don’t mind Ranger. He’s just up there to scare away the poachers, and he’s more bark than bite anyway. He’ll be fine once he recognizes the truck.”
That was all well and good, but it was the moments before he recognized it that were almost enough to make us give up on our weekend getaway. Because what we saw when we rounded the last bend and came up the drive towards the cabin was not the massive dog we assumed we’d find, but a huge, scaly monstrosity that had draped itself over the roof of the house and eyed us menacingly with a look that suggested we’d best apologize for interrupting its nap.
I swallowed once. “That’s funny,” I said. “I didn’t think dragons were real.”
But before we had a chance to ask anything of the mythological guardbeast, he appraised our vehicle, snorted once, and went back to sleep. Which was more than could be said for us.
Don’t worry, I’ve done this 100s of times.
Even the smallest of starships use the most sophisticated technology we’ve managed to develop. It’s all streamlined to the point that pretty much anyone can use it, but the fact that remains is this: most of us really don’t understand the first thing about the mechanisms keeping us alive and in one piece as we travel the vast, empty distances between the stars. So when you’re only halfway to the next star system and there’s a loud and ominous “CLUNK” from the rear of the ship, followed immediately by the distinctive sound of the failsafes kicking in and dropping you back down to sublight speeds, it’s understandable that you might feel a bit… anxious. Especially once you remember just how inefficient your life support systems are without the engine running and feeding them power. And double especially when every light on the HUD starts blinking red.
Now, imagine the scenario outlined above, and then add that you’re flying with a new mechanic. You know, the sort who’s still so young they’re wet behind the ears, giddy at the prospect of outer space, and completely, absolutely, one hundred percent unproven. If you’re starting to feel a little queasy and uncomfortable, congratulations, I did too. And it only got worse when Kosky (my aforementioned so-green-he-might-actually-be-a-tadpole flight mechanic) had the audacity to soothe my fears with the phrase “it’ll be fine”.
“Sure,” I said, “as long as someone answers our distress signal before we freeze or suffocate.”
“No, I can fix this,” he said. And he was already climbing out of his flight harness and slipping back towards the engine compartment.
I’m not a flight mechanic, but I’m good enough to take care of the easy fixes. I’m also good enough to know when it’s not going to be an easy fix. Like when the engine goes clunk and the HUD turns into a light show.
He was already in the back and fiddling and hammering at something. If I’d thought he could make the problem worse, I would’ve stopped him.
“Don’t worry! I’ve done this hundreds of times!”
“In the simulators! They ran us through worst case scenarios to see if we could figure them out. I was really good at it.”
And apparently, he was. Because my little simulator-trained tadpole had us back up and running again in about an hour, and we finished our run to the next system in record time.
Siblings, goats, dogs, sheep.
Most kids would have asked for a puppy. And one of mine did after that day in the park when we got to meet a lovely lab named Ravioli and her three young pups. And after making sure that it wouldn’t be an absolutely horrible idea to adopt a dog into the family, we answered an ad at a nearby farm for free puppies and went on a family excursion to bring one home with us.
What we failed to realize was that it wasn’t just baby dogs we’d find, but baby goats and sheep as well. And we also failed to realize that while my daughter was more than happy with a dog, my two sons found the lambs and kids far more interesting. I blame it on the fact that the farmer let them help him bottle feed them.
We didn’t go home with anything more than a puppy that day. We just ended up buying a farm of our own a year later.
The first night I saw the fox, I didn’t think anything of it. I lived on the edge of town and take walks most evenings, so she was hardly the first one I’d ever seen, though perhaps her tail was a bit bushier and her coat a deeper shade of russet-red. It wasn’t until I realized that she was looking straight at me with a wily smirk that I began to consider the possibility that she was something more than the run-of-the-mill vulpine.
I saw her every night that week as I went out for my habitual stroll through my neighborhood, and every night she greeted me with the same placid, knowing smile. And before I knew it, I was looking forward to seeing her.
So perhaps you can understand why I decided to follow her down the path through the park instead of sticking to my usual route. And that was when it happened. The small, tame trees turned into centuries old oaks in an instant. The paved road beneath my feet turned became a dirt track. The air smelled thick with magic.
The only thing that remained the same was the fox herself. She sat a few yards away, still smirking, and as I stared at her she winked, then turned and dashed away. I hardly had a choice: I ran after her, following the flick of her tail and the twists of the wooded path until my chest heaved and my heart beat hard in my ears.
Just when I thought I could go no further, she vanished, leaving me well and truly lost and utterly alone. But before I could panic, a soft voice spoke from just behind me. I whirled, and she was there, sitting and waiting for me to notice her.
“You run well, my friend,” she said. “Thank you for playing my game.”
And then she grinned and all the world changed again, and I stood once more in the park at the edge of my neighborhood, quite astonished at what had just happened.
A meteorite has just crashed near a small town. The locals have since noticed strange lights in the forest at night. A couple of kids go out to investigate, against their parents’ commands.
We all assumed that Mom and Dad were just saying what all parents say: don’t take the shortcut through the bull’s pasture, don’t run with scissors, don’t go out in the middle of the night to look for the weird lights where the meteor hit. The bull wasn’t a problem if we put a pile of apples on the other side of the pasture, none of us had killed ourselves running with scissors yet, and we figured that our parents had more against us being out and unsupervised at two in the morning than the fact that we were looking for the meteor.
Of course, that was before me and my brother actually found it.
It wasn’t a meteor. Or I guess, it wasn’t just a random space rock burning up in our atmosphere. It was an alien spaceship that lost control trying to land. Also, it turns out that Mom and Dad are way more exciting than we gave them credit for. And that they got into way more trouble before settling down in this little nowhere town in Idaho than we ever thought possible. We figured that out after they rescued us from a couple of desperate alien criminals with too many eyes and not enough sense.
And that’s it for this round! Thanks again to everyone who submitted prompts!