Writing Prompts

[Blog] Writing Prompts Round 1

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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.

“Kosky…”

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!”

“When!?”

“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.

A fox!

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!

Fiction (Short)

The Verdant Wildlife

WHISKEYHILL

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

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

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

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

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

“Are they still worried about us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miranda Griff!”

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

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

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

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

He giggled. “Man, I missed you.”

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

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

“What time is it?”

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

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

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

“I’m pretty sure I hate you.”

“I know.”

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

“Heads up.”

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

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

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

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

I made a face. “Of course it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I whispered.

“Not sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it changed its mind and charged us.

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

“Climb! Tanner! Climb!”

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

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

We disagree on what happened next.

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

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

“Tann, how bad is it?”

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

“Broken?”

“Don’t think so.”

“That’s something. Can you walk?”

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

“Yeah, okay. Sit down.”

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

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

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

Fiction (Short)

Aruri

FRONTIERSTATION

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

But then she disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only if you want to. Taylor out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. How can I help you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s just a child. Be gentle!”

“We understand! We go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which way?”

The aving pointed further down the row of stalls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Station Security! Stop her!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” said Taylor, and he nodded.

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

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

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

Fiction (Short)

The Farewell

OURFAREWELL

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

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

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

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

“Don’t even think about it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“You’ve got to tell it now!”

“Cat’s half out anyway.”

“One to remember you by!”

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

“So, will you tell it or will I?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

I’m out by the launch field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least you’ve got that right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I forgive you.”

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

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

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

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