Something a little different– this was my entry for the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. I ended up receiving an Honorable Mention in my category (the piece had to be drama, show people eating seafood, and contain the word “rest”), which wasn’t enough to advance me to the next round, but was a solid showing regardless. Here it is in its entirety!
Kathryn’s fork pierced the salmon and clicked against the plate, but she didn’t bring the food to her mouth. It would have no taste, and the fish was too good to waste on an unappreciative palate. The woman sitting opposite her had no such trouble; she was already chewing a piece of shrimp and pasta. But Afton had never been able to resist seafood.
It had been so many years. More than it should have been. Enough that writing the email and sending it to an address she hoped was current was almost too much. Yet she had done it. And a week later she’d gotten the reply: three impersonal lines. But she agreed to meet.
And now they sat together in heavy silence. No words exchanged since the mandatory greetings. Kathryn said more to the waiter than to Afton. Afton barely met her eyes. Instead they hid beneath the quiet restaurant hum.
The quiet, restless voice in the back of her mind whispered that this was a mistake. A sleeping dog she should have let lie. A can of worms she shouldn’t have opened. A burned bridge that wasn’t worth rebuilding. All the excuses that let the years pile up. All the excuses that rang hollow now more than ever.
She forced herself to take the bite. She chewed it. She swallowed it. She took a sip of water, just to buy another moment.
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.
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.
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!
Three days left! And after a quick writing session this morning, my current wordcount for this Camp NaNo event is sitting just above 42k. My sister and I have exchanged fourteen different prompts, so I have fourteen different stories in various stages of being written, and while most of them are terrifyingly rough, I really, really like the ideas, and I can’t wait to start polishing.
At the risk of jinxing myself, I think I might actually be making this goal, and I’m very excited. I am also looking forward to the time next month to start working on Tanner and Miranda in earnest again, this time with the rust knocked off and a writing habit formed again!
How about you guys? Anyone reading who’s also doing Camp NaNo? How are you feeling about your projects?
Well… I don’t want to jinx it… but this might be the time I break my Camp failure curse! At any rate, I’ve already written more by this point in July than I have in any of my other attempts in their entirety.
It’s not a guarantee, of course, and this is all in the middle of starting a crazy new schedule at work, but I’m feeling excited! It definitely helps that my sister has been choosing some awesome prompts, too.
They’re not in anything like a presentable state yet, of course, but I’m really happy with the bones of all of them so far. And if all goes as planned, you’ll be seeing some of the finished products in the next few months.
What about you guys? Anyone else participating in this Camp NaNo? How’s it going for you?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?”
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.
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!