Poly Contact

Aliens arrived and offered to share their advanced technology with humanity. The secret to reaching the stars, ending wars, and suffering.

The price? Marriage. The aliens want to forge the alliance through marriage.

Bill and Anne sign up to marry one of the sexy aliens—but when it comes down to it, will they go through with it?

🚀

It was a living room. Bill’s own living room, but at that moment he saw it the way a stranger might see the room, which wasn’t too surprising considering who was coming over in, oh just any minute now. What would an alien think of the house?

The furniture mostly came from the Furniture Barn over on highway 507, a big tan microsuede reclining couch along the wall. It was the sort that reclined with the touch of a button but somehow swiveled so that the couch could be right up against the wall and still recline. Bill always thought the couch was designed by the folks that designed minivans because it had the same sort of cup holders tucked away into the arms and the central compartment that also had plenty of room for the army of remote controls.

The loveseat matched the couch, and so did the one solitary reclining chair. The piece that never fit with the rest was Bill’s own gigantic blue denim Bed-in-a-Bag and matching footstool that he’d had since college. They all called it the blob, after the monster in the old James Dean movie, because the Bed-in-a-Bag was a big mass that dominated the side of the room next to the recliner. From the big Samsung HD LCD television to the furniture, the room looked lived in. A place to play with the kids, to watch a movie with the family and, now and then, to fool around on the big couch.

Bill rubbed his hands on his blue jeans and paced across the room again. He glanced up at the quartz clock embedded in a polished slab of redwood from their California trip. Any minute now. The rest of the family looked almost as anxious.

Well, Anne did, sitting in the recliner with her Nook balanced across her knees and her feet tucked up under her as if she was still just a girl instead of a hair over thirty. Bill couldn’t sit like that, not for long, unless he wanted his knees to ache and stiffen up. He thought Anne looked beautiful, though, with her dark red hair tumbling down over her light green blouse that matched her eyes, but a couple shades lighter. Even at her age people always mistook her for younger and then they gave him that questioning look because his own short hair was now going about fifty-fifty gray. Not gray, actually, white. Especially on the sides and on his face if he let his beard grow out at all. He had let it grow for a week last winter and had thought it made him look so old that he had shaved it off.

Stretched out on the loveseat, Trinity looked like a younger version of her mother with a pixie-cut instead of long hair, and like her mother, she looked younger than her actual age, but whereas Anne enjoyed people thinking she looked younger, Trinity hated it. She didn’t look very happy about this meeting either, but she was here instead of out with friends or working an extra shift down at the library where she shelved books after school.

It was his living room and this was his family. A family that anyone could be proud of, and now they were thinking of adding another member to that family. Bill wiped his hands on his jeans again and had just looked again at the clock when the doorbell rang.

Anne looked up at Bill. Their eyes met and he remembered the first time he saw her at a crowded environmental group meeting in college. Their eyes had met then and he hadn’t been able to look away. He hadn’t even heard the speakers anymore. He had spent the rest of the meeting mostly gazing across the room into her eyes, so much so that when they finally met after the meeting it already felt like they were intimately involved.

“Prompt,” Anne said.

Trinity swung her legs off the loveseat and bounced to her feet. She smiled at Bill. “Well, Dad, let’s go meet it.”

“It? That’s not polite,” Bill said.

Trinity’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Why?”

“Ze and Zer are the correct pronouns. We want to make a good impression.”

“Fine, let’s go meet zer, then.”

“Is Rory outside?”

Trinity rolled her eyes. Rory was her Old English Sheepdog. Very friendly, but Bill didn’t want the dog all over zer for their first meeting.

“He’s out in the yard. But you know he’s going to want to come in.”

“Later.”

Anne touched Bill’s arm. She’d gotten up while they were talking. Bill patted her arm and headed toward the front door. He reached out to put his arm around Trinity’s shoulders but she took a step to the side out of his reach. Bill let his arm fall. No need to push it right now. He reached out and opened the door.

Zer stood alone on the broad wood porch and looking into those deep azure eyes with the tri-lobed pupils Bill felt like he had back in that meeting with Anne, like he didn’t want to look away. The intensity of zer gaze took his breath away. He felt his heart beat faster.

Zer spoke in a deep, smoky voice. “I am so pleased to meet you all at last. My name is Rysala.”

Bill finally managed to blink. He grinned broadly and held out his hand. Rysala’s hand slid into his and zer grip was firm, strong and dryly warm. He felt a twinge of regret when the contact ended. “Bill. We’re glad to meet you too. This is Anne —” He waited for them to shake. “And our daughter, Trinity.”

Rysala gave them all a small smile that didn’t reveal any teeth. “I am very pleased.”

Bill stepped aside and gestured for Rysala to enter. “Please, come in.”

Rysala walked past and Bill caught a scent of something, nutmeg, maybe. Rysala was everything that the videos had showed and so much more. Shorter than zer had looked, not much taller than Trinity. He hadn’t noticed looking into zer eyes but seeing zer walk with Anne and Trinity he could see it now. Of course, ze was humanoid and ze moved with an easy fluid grace that was captivating to watch. Zer features were fine without appearing overly delicate. Zer golden skin was a deep warm color like wheat fields in the sun and zer outfit revealed lots of skin, bare arms and legs, and the flowing green dress left zer back bare as well except the dark golden-brown braid that hung down zer spine. Bill thought that ze was beautiful and exotic, so much so that it made him more nervous about this whole idea.

Anne laughed at something that Rysala had said. Bill recognized that laugh and the flush that had come to Anne’s cheeks. She was also responding to Rysala. The press said that Rysala’s people were androgynous but that wasn’t really it at all. To him, Rysala looked definitely female but he knew that to Anne ze must look male. It was quickly established that—to humans—the Giselians appeared male or female depending on the gender-preference of the observer. Bill tried to see Rysala as male and just couldn’t. She was too pretty, like a model with that amazing golden skin.

“Bill?” Anne asked.

Bill nodded and followed the everyone into the living room. Anne gestured at the couch. “Would you like to sit?”

Rysala inclined zer head and went to the couch. Ze sat just like Anne had earlier with zer feet tucked up beneath zer. Ze smiled at them all. Trinity dropped onto the loveseat. Anne went back to the recliner which left Bill to sit on the couch in between them. He started to lean back but he felt much too nervous to recline against the padded back. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knees. He glanced over at Rysala.

“How was your trip down? Encounter any bad weather?”

Rysala shook zer head. Ze reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand. He felt an electric thrill and held very still beneath zer touch. Zer fingers were long, with an extra joint and an extra finger. He hadn’t noticed it until now. It should look odd but it looked pretty normal.

“I am grateful for the invitation to meet with you. I understand the complexity of what we ask. You must have questions for me?”

“I’ve got one,” Trinity said loudly.

“Trin—” Anne started to say.

Rysala raised a hand. “It’s quite alright. This affects her as well. What’s your question?”

“Why are you guys doing this? Why would you want to marry into families on Earth?”

Bill spoke up. “We’ve talked about the reasons, Trinity.”

“I’d like to answer,” Rysala said. Ze leaned forward, zer elbows on zer knees. Zer dress fell forward slightly and Bill caught a glimpse of a smooth curve of zer breast. He looked away and saw Anne’s face, staring at Rysala.

“Trinity, you’ve studied history, right?”

“Yes.”

“In your history, you’ve read about wars, right?”

Trinity nodded. Rysala smiled that warm smile of zers. “You must have read about alliances forged through marriage? People finding peace through the bonds that they forge and the children they bear?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. But this is different.”

“Certainly. It must be different. For one thing, we’re not human. And we all must wed to forge this alliance. Which of those facts bothers you?”

Trinity shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess both. What am I supposed to call you? Mom? Dad? How’s that supposed to work?”

“Rysala is fine.”

“But you’ll be my parent too?”

“That’s correct. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, to care for you and see that you live in a peaceful world.” Rysala glanced over at Bill, and then Anne. “That’s assuming we come to a decision.”

Bill found it hard to look at anyone. All of a sudden the situation seemed so surreal. What had he been thinking? A year ago the ships appeared and then the offer had been made. When all of the aliens had wed into human families then, and only then, would they share their technology and all the wonders that promised. That had caused a great deal of conflict, to put it lightly. On a planet that couldn’t even agree on humans of the same sex wedding, or on having multiple spouses, the idea of polygamous relationships with aliens was enough to enrage many people.

But who was he kidding? Bill knew exactly what he had been thinking. It wasn’t about how cool it was that dozens of starships orbited the planet, or that the aliens were already building a colony on the far side of the moon. It was when he saw the first broadcast and saw them standing on the bridge of their ship. They looked like angels. Sexy golden angels. He’d been captivated by their radiant beauty. Scientists talked about the golden ratio and suggested that for them all to be so perfect that they had to be the product of some sort of genetic engineering, but none of that mattered. He couldn’t get the image of them out of his mind. Three days after that broadcast he had guiltily masturbated while looking at pictures online.

It took time before the treaty was signed over the protests. Even so, he wouldn’t have ever dared to bring up the possibility if Anne hadn’t also seemed intrigued.

Trinity and Rysala had kept talking. Their laughter brought him out of his introspection. He smiled, very aware that he didn’t know what they’d been laughing about. Then Rysala looked at him and he was drowning again in zer azure eyes.

“Uh, so how does this work? What happens now?”

Rysala pressed zer hands together. “How does it work normally?” Ze looked over at Anne. “How did it work with the two of you? Was your marriage arranged?”

Anne laughed. “Hardly! That’s not very common here. Some places I guess.”

“I see,” Rysala said. “So you arrived at this arrangement on your own. How did that happen?”

Anne looked at him. Bill shook his head. “You tell it better.”

“Okay.” Anne took a deep breath and looked at Rysala. “It was intense. We were both in college and we thought we were determined to save the world. Our eyes met across a crowded room and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.”

“Please,” Trinity said.

“Hey!” Bill looked at his daughter. “Careful, missy.”

Anne laughed and the whole time Rysala watched them. Anne went on. “For Trin’s sake, I’ll leave out the gory details. The fact is, we fell in love.”

“What’s love?” Rysala asked.

Bill looked at zer, they all looked at zer. “What do you mean?”

Rysala’s head cocked slightly to the side. “This concept has come up often in our discussions and I admit I still find the notion mystifying. Your people talk about falling into love and out of love but no one can give us a clear answer. We’re pointed to literature, music, and poetry as much as science and none of it gives a clear answer.”

“You don’t love anyone?” Trinity asked.

“No.” Rysala smiled. “We have mutually satisfactory relationships, often with multiple individuals. It is very pleasurable and beneficial.”

“But you’re giving that up by coming here?”

“That’s correct. We all want integration with your people. It seems the best course to develop trust between our two cultures.”

Bill stood up. He smiled. “Rysala, would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“We have wine, tea, coffee, soda, water, juice or milk? I don’t know what you usually drink.”

“Water, please.”

“Okay. Anne, could you give me a hand?”

“Getting water? I think you can manage that Bill.”

“I’d like a root beer,” Trinity said.

“Funny. I’ve only got two hands.”

Anne got up. “Fine.”

Bill led the way out of the living room and into the kitchen. He went to the cupboard and started pulling down glasses. He handed one to Anne.

She looked at it. “Do you think ze wants ice?”

“If not ze can always tell us. What did you think about all of that? They don’t understand love?”

Anne put the glass under the ice dispenser. The ice maker made grinding noises and crushed ice dropped down into the glass. “I don’t understand love. Do you?”

“I know I love you, and Trinity. I don’t need to understand it. I feel it. Ze doesn’t.”

“So?” Anne moved the glass over to the water dispenser. “This could solve so many problems for us. Rysala’s income would take us up several income brackets.”

“You think we should do this for the money?”

Anne took the next glass and started filling it with ice. “People have always married for money, or alliances like ze said.”

“Maybe, but we’re talking about marrying an alien. An alien who can’t love us.”

“Actually, I heard that they’re great in the sack. Very enthusiastic.” Anne looked at him. “You should love that.”

“I’m not talking about sex.” Except he couldn’t deny thinking about it. Heat rose on his neck. “If ze doesn’t understand love, how can we trust zer?”

Anne filled another glass. “I don’t think we need to obsess on this detail right now. Why don’t we see if we even like each other? I think ze can understand liking someone.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bill said.

Except when they went back to the living room with the drinks and Anne brought it up Rysala nodded right away. “Like? Certainly. We have preferences, just as you do.” Ze lifted the glass and took a sip. “I like ice in my water. It isn’t something that we ordinarily do, but the cold is very refreshing.”

“What do you do?” Trinity asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like a job.”

Rysala shook zer head and put zer glass down in one of the cup holders on the couch. Zer moments looked graceful and smooth, like a dancer. “Whatever I find interesting. Since our arrival, I’ve been very interested in your mystery fiction. I think I might like to try writing.”

“Oh.” Trinity laughed. “Like Castle?”

Rysala laughed as well. Zer laughter sounded like a baby laughing, pure joy. “Yes! Castle! I’ve watched that show. It is very enjoyable. I understand that most mystery writers do not help the police as he does, but it makes for a most entertaining fiction.”

Anne asked, “What did you do before this?”

“I spent time working on the designs for our facility on the moon. That’s right? You refer to this planet’s natural satellite as the moon?”

“Right,” Bill said.

“Very odd, imprecise phrasing. There are many natural satellites in this system. Wouldn’t our moon be more accurate?”

“It might,” Bill answered. “I couldn’t tell you why we don’t phrase it that way.”

“So you worked as an engineer?” Anne asked.

“Yes,” Rysala answered.

“But now you want to write fiction?”

“Yes.”

“And your bosses don’t have a problem with that?”

Rysala sipped at zer water. “We do not have a hierarchal societal structure the way you do.”

Bill found that surprising. “But we’ve seen the broadcasts, isn’t Pyrny your equivalent of a President?”

“No, although that seems to be a common misconception. Most people want zer to be a President, or King, or General or some other term for one who commands others. Pyrny is simply the one that represents us in these discussions because doing so interests zer.”

“You’re socialists,” Anne said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“That wouldn’t be accurate, although I can see how it might seem that way. Our economic system is aimed at parity. One type of work isn’t valued more than another, although unpopular work may require bonuses to interest someone. Yet the basic rights of life require that everyone’s basic needs be met. There are many injustices on this world.”

“We know that,” Bill said. “But you still decided to join us. I’m surprised that you didn’t take your ships and leave.”

“That could still be the outcome,” ze said. “If we are unable to integrate into your world then we will depart.”

“You’d just leave?” Anne asked.

Rysala leaned forward and lightly touched the ends of Anne’s fingers. Bill expected her to pull back but she submitted to zer touch and even smiled. “We are a patient people. We would not leave without making every effort to make this alliance work.”

Bill watched Anne’s fingers playing with Rysala’s golden fingers and he felt a deep churning in his stomach. His throat constricted. His eyes felt moist. He rubbed his eyes and coughed into his hand. Abruptly he stood. “Excuse me.”

He left the room and went blindly into the kitchen. He coughed twice before he got there and blundered over to the sink. He turned on the water and turned his head sideways to drink out of the faucet. He straightened up with cold water dripping down his face. He grabbed a blue terry cloth dish towel — part of the set of towels his mother had given them as a gift last Christmas. He toweled off his face.

Where had that come from? He’d been sick with what? Anger? No, although that was there, it was something more. The sight of Anne’s fingers flirtatiously playing with Rysala’s had made him jealous. It didn’t happen when Rysala touched Anne. It had happened when Anne touched zer back.

“Are you okay?” Rysala asked in zer silken voice from the doorway.

Bill put the towel back. “Fine. Just something caught in my throat.”

Rysala walked into the kitchen. God, she swayed as she walked. Bill couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was ensnared by her — zer, no — her. He couldn’t see Rysala as anything except an exotic, incredibly sexy woman. Alien in a way that excited him rather than repulsed. Bill took a step back and ran into the sink.

She didn’t stop. He couldn’t move further away, it’d look ridiculous. He suddenly felt like he had at his first high school dance, standing against the wall watching Kathy Brown dance with the popular boys while wishing that he could get up the courage to just go up and ask her to dance. Chances were that she’d say yes if he could just get up the courage to ask.

Would Rysala agree to stay if he got up the courage to ask? Did he dare after that fit of jealousy?

Rysala came close and didn’t stay back. She came right up until she was almost pressed against him. She stood an inch or so taller than him. He smelled nutmeg again. Not overpowering, but it tickled his nose. She spoke, her breath warm against his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before her lips brushed his. Smooth and wet without being overly so and very warm, like kissing someone with a fever. It ignited his nerves. His hands moved up and brushed the green fabric of her dress. It felt like microsuede beneath his fingertips. Rysala pressed against him, her whole body hugging against him. He ached for her.

“Bill?” He broke the kiss, looking past Rysala to Anne standing in the doorway. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was all stiff, though, she didn’t look happy. “What are you doing?”

Rysala turned around and held out a hand to Anne. “Come here.”

Anne crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think we should just go back to the living room and talk more.”

She left without another word. Rysala put a hand on Bill’s chest. “It will be okay. I will talk to her. Why don’t you stay here?”

Bill worried about Anne’s reaction but that was a small part of his concern. Mostly he wanted to hold Rysala again. He’d never felt anything so strong. And the thought of her going to Anne — he couldn’t even think about that.

“Stay here,” Rysala said.

Bill couldn’t find any words as she turned and walked with that incredible sway towards the door. He found himself watching the way her braid hung down her bare back. Trinity showed up in the doorway just as Rysala reached it. Rysala touched her arm lightly and went on through. Seeing Trinity compelled Bill into motion. He went around the kitchen island, around the bar to the dining room and sat down at the table. He put his hands flat on the surface of the table. Trinity came over and sat down across from him.

“Dad, what’s going on? Mom came back into the room looking all pissed. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her. But he never lied to his daughter. He glanced at her face and only saw concern. “Not much, anyway. Rysala kissed me and your mother saw.”

Trinity looked down at her own hands. “Isn’t that part of this whole thing? I mean, you and mom are talking about marrying zer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s one thing to talk about it and another to do it.”

“So you’re not going to marry zer?”

Bill shook his head. “We just need to work through some of this first. Rysala is going to talk to your mother. I think we’ll work it out. What do you think of her?”

“Mom?”

“No, I meant zer, of Rysala?”

Trinity grinned. “Ze is sort of cool. Ze reminds me of Orlando Bloom, except sometimes ze seems more like Angelina Jolie too. It’s strange, but it seems to depend on whether or not ze is focused on you or on mom.”

“Tell me about it!” Bill laughed. “I can’t picture zer as a guy. It’s all very weird.”

“As weird as polygamy? I mean, wasn’t it all illegal until the aliens showed up?”

“Yes, but there was already a movement to get government out of the business of regulating marriage. The Giselians tipped the scale with their offer. No one wanted them to just up and leave. We need their help.”

“The whole thing is crazy.” Trinity shook her head. “I mean, ze already said that ze doesn’t know what love is.”

Bill thought back to the kiss. “Maybe not, but they still know what buttons to push.”

“Dad!”

He held up his hands. “Come on, I’m not going into details. I’m just saying, they may not think of things quite the same way but that doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not sure Rory feels things the same way we do, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Rory loves me, how can you say that?”

“I’m just saying that he’s a dog. He’s affectionate and loyal but how can we know if he feels love the same way as we do?”

“Because I know.”

“Maybe. Dogs evolved on Earth, I can see that other animals would be wired the same as us. But Rysala isn’t from Earth. It sounds like they just don’t understand love at all.”

“Maybe it’s just because they’re only learning the language.”

“Maybe.” Bill rapped his knuckles gently on the table. “What about you? How are you doing with all of this? Do you want another parent around?”

Trinity shrugged. “I’m happy with you and mom and I’ll be going off to college soon. It doesn’t change how I feel about you guys. It’d be weird, but I still love you.”

“That’s good.”

Trinity glanced over at the door to the living room. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Bill stood up. “Let’s go rejoin the party.”

He held out his hand and his daughter took it. It made him feel much better. Stronger. He could face whatever was happening in the other room. They went to the living room together. He half expected to see Rysala and Anne kissing or something and was relieved that they were just sitting on the couch, facing each other with mirrored postures. Both had one leg up on the couch and one extended down to the floor. Anne looked up as they entered and smiled. Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Sorry about that Bill, it just caught me by surprise.”

Bill shook his head. “Me too.”

Rysala turned slightly so that ze could see them. “Come sit down, Anne and I have been having a nice conversation.”

Bill went to his big blob chair and dropped into the comforting softness. Trinity went over to the recliner and sat down there. “So we’re good?”

Anne nodded.

“I am enjoying your company,” Rysala said. “I believe that I’d like to pursue these relationships further if you all consent?”

Bill looked at Anne and she gave a slight nod. Trinity shrugged and gave him a big grin. “Go for it. Why not?”

Bill took a deep breath and looked at the two women and the alien in his life. It felt like stepping out of a spacecraft high above the Earth but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

Rysala laughed, a deep infectious laugh. Soon they all started laughing and Bill couldn’t even say why they were laughing but it bled the tension out of the room that had been there since they first opened the door. He felt more comfortable after laughing than he had all night. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“So, what would everyone like for dinner? Chinese? Thai?”

Trinity and Anne both looked at Rysala. Ze smiled and looked at Bill. “If it is okay I’d like to try pizza. It sounds very interesting.”

“Okay, pizza it is.”

He flicked through his contacts and picked the place. If ze wanted pizza he had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine.

🚀

4,636 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 84th short story release, written in October 2010.

There’s a lot of debate about marriages and relationships these days. Some want to define marriage as only being between a man and woman and deny it to others who love one another. Historically marriages have sealed treaties, patched relationships, and have bound families together. What if aliens showed up and didn’t just want to trade, but wanted to marry into our families? Would we do it to gain access to their advanced technology? I think it’s a fascinating concept, one I might return to again later on.

At least the Giselians are attractive to both sexes, they could have been something very different.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, This Book is Haunted.

Journey to Emberland

Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.

Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.

Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!

🚀

Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.

Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.

Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.

“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”

Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”

“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”

“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”

Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”

Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”

A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.

Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”

A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.

It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.

Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?

He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.

The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.

Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.

He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.

🚀

A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.

Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”

Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”

Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”

“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.

“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.

“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”

“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”

Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.

“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”

Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”

Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”

Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”

“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.

He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.

“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked.

Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”

Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.

“There it is, Emberland.”

She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.

“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.

There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”

“Are there plants?”

Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”

“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”

“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”

Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”

“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”

Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”

“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”

Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.

Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”

“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.

At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?

Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”

“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”

Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”

“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.

“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.

For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.

“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.

Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.

🚀

By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.

“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”

Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”

“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”

Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.

Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”

“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”

Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.

On the screen, a storage error message appeared.

Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.

The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”

“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”

“What?”

Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”

“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”

“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”

Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”

Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.

“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”

When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.

She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.

Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.

Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?

🚀

1,898 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Poly Contact.

Daily Thoughts 23

Author's selfieIt’s been a great day! Everyone woke up before me, and woke me up, which is quite a reversal! Usually, I’m the first person up. Not today.

I did take a short nap this afternoon, but I’m still tired. I also didn’t get in my walk today. Tomorrow, I plan to get back into walking.

The Elm Street shirt was a gift from my sweet wife, who knows me better than anyone. I’m also fortunate that I enjoyed a day with my loving family. Best wishes to everyone!

Happy Holidays!

Turn the lights out for this present from Ridley Scott.

The Aliens franchise remains a favorite. Looking forward to May! This looks like a good movie to go see in celebration for finishing my last semester of classes for my MLIS (I’ll finish up with my portfolio project in the Fall semester).

Writing/Art Progress

Unlike yesterday, I didn’t have a chance to write or practice drawing this morning. Instead, I waited until this evening and slipped away for a little bit to write and draw.

Daily words: 431 words
Monthly words: 2,0866 words
Writing streak: 6 days
Drawing time: 15 minutes
Drawing Streak: 6 days

Shore Leave

Having the greatest job in the universe didn’t mean that Chrystal Eagle wanted to work on her vacation. She put in for shore leave while the Elegant Slipstream received needed repairs.

Only toilet problems happened—even on the paradise planet Ceti Alpha 5!

Except this time it wasn’t her responsibility to solve the problem. Unless she wanted to make sure it got handled right. Once a starship plumber, always a starship plumber!

🚀

The one thing that Chrystal Eagle didn’t want to do on this vacation was think about work. Especially her work on the Elegant Slipstream, a superluminal passenger liner currently in orbit somewhere above the auroras dancing above her head.

Blurp. The noise came from her suite, through the open door behind her. Chrystal ignored it. She was on vacation, not on the ship.

Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, first class. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but Chrystal preferred starship plumber. That’s what she told people, humanoid and otherwise.

On the ship, she worried about Yelephant monks trying out the humanoid facilities, which for some reason fascinated them, or, the odd semi-form that looked like a blue-skinned handsome man right up until the point when he lost cohesion and ended up flushing himself. And then had the nerve to dump her for a jellyfish. Worst part about the job, the passengers.

Down here on Ceti Alpha 5 she was the passenger. She had a suite in one of the finest hotels on the planet, situated on a bluff overlooking the azure seas. On evenings like this, she could sit out on her spacious balcony, seemingly suspended in mid-air, and watch the sparkling lights of the fish in the water as they mimicked the shimmering colors of the auroras above. The pretty lights couldn’t compare with the cascading relativistic auroras of a ship’s CrunchBang drive as it re-entered normal space, but that was just physics. Down there in the azure seas, thousands of fish flashed back colors in quick response to the auroras above. They’d even evolved long eyes on stalks that rose above the water to watch the auroras. The fact that the whole display was biological made it all the more impressive.

Chrystal picked up a tall fluted glass filled with Wing Wine, a beverage fermented from the discarded wings of the Ceti Alpha 5 fairies. It was a translucent bluish color that glowed with its own dim light. Supposedly a potent aphrodisiac, not that she had found anyone to share it with. Not yet at least. The Wing Wine smelled like blueberries warmed in the sun but had an almost orangey tang to it that disguised the rumored kick. She could be drinking orange juice for all she could tell from the taste, but the guide books had warned her not to drink too much. In addition to the intoxicating effects, Wing Wine was also reported to have hallucinogenic properties.

She took another taste, letting it roll around on her tongue. It almost tasted fizzy, as if weakly carbonated. She swallowed, and the fizzy continued down her throat, then spread out along her limbs all the way to her fingers. Chrystal giggled and took another drink. Maybe that was the hallucinogenic property she had read about.

Out on the horizon, above the azure seas shining with the mirror fish, a bright light appeared and climbed rapidly up from the horizon. Shuttle launch from the look of it. Ceti Alpha 5 was a popular tourist destination.

In the suite behind her something went blurb. Then gurgled. And let out a pop.

Chrystal knocked back the rest of her drink. She made herself smile. She was on vacation, just like the passengers on the Elegant Slipstream. She picked up her cell and tapped her activation. It took two tries.

“Housekeeping,” she told it. “Get them.”

“Right away,” the cell answered smoothly.

On the horizon, the shuttle vanished behind distant clouds. The mirror fish continued mimicking the auroras flashing across the sky, and in the suite something went chug, chug.

Chrystal put the glass down on the table. She could take a look. It didn’t mean that she had to touch anything. And when housekeeping did arrive then she could direct them straight to the problem.

Blurb. Chug, chug.

She was on her feet and back in the apartment before the last chug finished. It came from the bathroom; she was sure of it. Chrystal moved across the slick shell stone, translucent tiles with rich cobalt veins running through it like the neurons of a brain. Shell stone tiles were highly prized off-world, the Elegant Slipstream even had a view V.P. suites finished in the tiles. That was one of the reasons that she had decided to vacation on Ceti Alpha 5.

She was in the spacious hallway where the walls shifted and pulsed with recorded images of the auroras when she heard the sound again. Blurb. Chug. CHUG.

Splashing.

Right then tones chimed behind her at the front door. She heard something like a wet towel flap against the floor. Whatever was going on in the bathroom, it wasn’t just a plumbing issue. Chrystal backed up and went to the front door.

A man in a uniform stood outside. He was eye-to-eye with her, with short gray hair and a strong jaw. Nice shoulders beneath the blue coverall.

He flashed white teeth in a brilliant smile. “Housekeeping. Is there something —”

Blurb. Chug. CHUG. More splashing. His eyes — a nice green color like fresh spring leaves — widened.

“What’s that?”

Chrystal shook her head. “I thought at first there was some gas build-up, or maybe a pressure clog, but this sounds like something else.”

He looked at her again, up and down as if trying to reconcile her words and the loose black evening gown she was wearing. “It sounds like you have some experience with plumbing problems?”

“Starship plumber, off the Elegant Slipstream.” Chrystal held out her hand. “Chrystal Eagle.”

There were more flapping noises coming from the bathroom.

“Brandon Hughes.” He took her hand. His grip was firm, dry and strong.

Chrystal reluctantly let go. “Want to take a look?”

He nodded and stepped into the room. A sled with long mechanical arms floated around the corner after him. Two clusters of glowing red eyes looked up at her.

“That’s Lowell,” Brandon said. “Don’t mind him; he doesn’t talk.”

“My kind of robot,” Chrystal said.

She started walking toward the bathroom, and Brandon walked beside her. Lowell trailed along after them. Ahead the flapping noises continued. Brandon glanced at her.

“Um, first time on Ceti Alpha 5?”

“Why? Does this happen a lot?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, I’ve been here ten years, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Ten years and nothing like this?”

Brandon moved past her to the other side of the door. He took out a swipe card and poised it over the door’s panel. “No. Ready?”

Chrystal looked at Lowell. “Why not send in the robot first?”

Lowell drifted backward.

“Where’s it going?”

Brandon chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lowell. I’m not going to send you first.” He looked at Chrystal, giving her a sheepish smile. “Lowell’s a bit of a cowardly robot. I can’t send him in first.”

Chrystal shook her head. “You’re a nicer plumber than me. I’ve flushed my droids.”

Lowell let out an electronic squeak of dismay.

“On three,” Brandon said. “Three. Two. One.”

He swiped the card across the panel.

“That was on one,” Chrystal said.

Brandon shrugged and shoved the door open. A smell wafted out. A low-tide, briny sort of smell. The wet flapping increased in urgency. Brandon started in but stopped just inside the door.

“What the—?”

Chrystal couldn’t see past him. She rose up on her toes and put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and couldn’t help but notice how firm his shoulder felt. Not overly big, but strong and well-muscled. Then she saw what was in the bathroom and felt ill.

It was like an octopi party had happened in her toilet. Dozens of long plum red tentacles ran out of her toilet and flapped limply onto the polished coral floor. That was the sound that they had heard. The skin on each tentacle was wet and glistening. There was a sort of upper ridge running down the center of each of the tentacles, lined with tiny bumps that opened and closed revealing hard yellow marble things inside. She got the impression that the yellow things were watching them. She couldn’t see what the tentacles connected to; they vanished into the toilet.

“Are those eyes?”

Brandon reached back and his hand found her waist. Chrystal was glad of the touch. “I think so. It feels like it is watching us.”

Chrystal heard a clunking sort of noise in the hallway and looked back. Lowell had bumped into the wall trying to turn around. “Your robot is leaving.”

“Uh, Chrystal. You might want to see this?”

Chrystal looked back into the bathroom. Three of the tentacles closest to them were rising up like snakes and the ends had flattened out, revealing long, narrow, teeth-lined mouths on the underside.

Chrystal stepped back, pulling Brandon with her. “Come on! Your robot has the right idea!”

Brandon didn’t move. She looked at him but his strong jaw had gone slack. He stared at the creature in a vacant, dreamy sort of way.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “It hypnotized you?  That thing?”

Glancing into the room, she saw that the tentacles had risen higher in the air. Vicious sharp teeth ground together, but it was the eyes that really caught her attention. They were blinking in complex sequences like the yellow color was streaming along the tentacles in patterns —

Chrystal tore her gaze away by burying her face against Brandon’s chest. That got her attention. The man was ripped! She ran her hand up his chest, feeling great muscle definition without too much bulk. Just the way she liked it.

Only not when there was some sort of weird alien octopi about to bite them from the toilet. Chrystal shoved against Brandon’s chest with both hands. He barely even wobbled. It was like pushing on a tree.

“Oh, come on!” She glanced back at the tentacles. They were rising even higher. The pattern of yellow flashes had gotten more complex. She tore her gaze away and looked up at Brandon’s vacant face. “Sorry about this.”

She slapped him. The crack of her palm against his cheek sounded loud in the small space.

Brandon’s head rocked a bit to the side but that was it. More tentacles were rising into the air, mouth’s chewing, chewing and the yellow eye-bumps flashing their hypnotic pattern. Chrystal thought about slipping out past Brandon but she wasn’t just going to leave the guy to his fate. Not that easily.

She reached up and put her hands over his eyes. He still didn’t respond. Impulsively she kissed him. For a second his lips pressed against hers with all the responsiveness of a fish, but then his mouth moved and his lips parted. She felt his hand encircle her waist. At that moment Chrystal hooked her leg around the back of his knee, dropped her hands from Brandon’s face and shoved hard on his chest.

He toppled back, catching her on top of him. Chrystal heard a loud crack and looked back to see two of the tentacles flat out on the floor, their mouth’s chewing angrily at the coral tiles right where they’d been standing. She looked down at Brandon.

“Are you okay?”

He looked up at her, right into her eyes. It was a very intimate look. His eyes were really lovely. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that same sort of pale, fresh spring green color. Lines appeared at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

“I’m okay. Why’d you tackle me? What’s in the bathroom?”

Chrystal put a hand on his cheek when he tried to lift his head and look past her. “Don’t look.”

“Why not?”

She rolled off him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. There were more flapping noises from the bathroom. He tried to look but she put her hand up again on his face, stopping him. “Stop looking, okay?” He looked at her. “What do you remember?”

Brandon shrugged. “We were opening the door and you tackled me?”

Chrystal shook her head. “We opened the door, saw the thing in there and you got all mesmerized by its flashing yellow eyes.”

“It has flashing yellow eyes?”

“And a bunch of tentacles that end in some very nasty looking teeth, all coming up out of the toilet like it’s a planter or something. Any idea what that might be?”

“No. It doesn’t sound familiar.”

Down at the end of the hallway, Lowell’s eye-stalks eased around the corner. The robot warbled and floated out into the entry way. Chrystal pointed at the robot. “I’m assuming that can relay video?”

“Yes.”

“Great. This time we’re sending it in to get some scans. We’ve got to identify this thing and find out how to get rid of it.”

Brandon grinned. “Too bad we can’t just flush it.”

“Funny guy. I like that. And not a bad kisser, either.” Chrystal walked away down the hall.

“Wait, when did we kiss?” Brandon asked, following her.

Chrystal ignored the question. When she got to the end of the hall Lowell drifted back away from her. She snapped her  fingers. “Enough of that! We’ve got a job to do and you’re going to help unless you want to risk that thing eating your boss?”

Lowell’s eye-stalks drooped and it gave out a mournful tone.

“That’s what I thought.” Chrystal scooped up one of her tablets. “Give me access to your video feed.”

“Here.” Brandon took the tablet. His fingers danced across the surface, flicking commands as they came up. In a couple seconds, the tablet showed what Lowell was seeing. Brandon handed the tablet back to her.

Chrystal turned it around. Good resolution, she dragged down the robot’s command functions. A decent suite of analytical capabilities. But the view on the screen still showed her and Brandon, standing beside one another, Brandon looking over her shoulder.

“Go on then,” she told Lowell. “Just go as far as the doorway and look in. We need to get a good look at this thing without being mesmerized. And if we can analyze its respiration gasses and other biometric data, maybe we can determine where it came from.”

Lowell floated a meter closer to the hallway but stopped again. His eyes stalks swiveled back around to look at them again.

“Lowell,” Brandon said. “Go on and do what she said. We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

Lowell moved off again at a decidedly sluggish pace. She could still hear the alien flapping against the floor. Soon enough the robot’s eye stalks peered around the corner into the bathroom.

Most of the tentacles had dropped down to the floor again as if it took too much effort to hold them up. The ends flapped against the tile, reminding her of someone tapping their feet with impatience. It must have seen Lowell peeking because one of the tentacles started rising and the pattern of yellow eyes changed. That only lasted a second or two and then the thing seemed to recognize that Lowell wasn’t going to be hypnotized. Or prove edible. Or maybe both. Whatever the case was, it went back to tapping the ends of its tentacles against the floor.

“Move in closer,” Chrystal said. “Get some decent readings and then come on out.”

Lowell drifted on into the open doorway, closer to the alien. The screen segmented, dividing into quadrants that showed various gas concentrations measured by Lowell’s sensors. Brandon pointed to the screen.

“Look at that, it’s giving off methane and carbon dioxide.”

“Like a lot of warm-blooded species,” Chrystal said.

“But look at the concentrations. That’s not Ceti Alpha 5 biology, not by a long shot.”

“So it’s not from here.”

Brandon waved his hand at the screen. “Maybe somebodies’ pet?”

“If I was on the ship I’d consider the chance that this might be a guest,” Chrystal said. “You must have a registry that includes environmental needs of your guests. We should compare these readings to your system. See if this is a match?”

On the screen, Lowell was still keeping his distance but suddenly all the tentacles shot out and wrapped around anything close by, the towel rack, cupboard handles, shower curtain rod, and hand grips for the differently abled. The remaining tentacles that didn’t have something to grab onto braced themselves against the floor. Chrystal didn’t need Lowell’s microphones to make out the sucking sound as the creature pulled and pushed, trying to free itself from the toilet.

A loud squelching noise was followed by a rush of water spilling out of the toilet. Lowell warbled in alarm and drifted back into the hallway. The alien wasn’t free, not yet, but it had gained a couple inches like a particularly difficult bowel movement.

“It’s straining to get free,” she told Brandon.

His fingers flew across the screen of his tablet, flicking aside results that didn’t match. “We don’t have the best data to go on.”

“I’d rather deal with it where it’s at now than if it gets out. Maybe we should just go ahead and call security now.”

Brandon shook his head, causing his hair to fall forward around his face. Chrystal found herself noticing again what a nice face he had, strong jawline, and she liked the way the muscle near his ear tightened as he concentrated.

He blew out his breath and tossed the tablet down on the table. “No match!”

Chrystal reached over and took his hand. Strong, rough skin, and warm. Hands that knew work, like her own, and he didn’t pull away. He knew what she did — intimately — and wasn’t repulsed by it. Always a plus in a guy.

From the bathroom came another electronic warble. On screen, she could see the alien straining again. The tentacles quivered with the effort.

She squeezed his hand. “So good news. It isn’t a guest then, right? If the biometrics don’t match it must be something else. Try the medical database. Maybe this is some sort of parasite that one of your guests evacuated into your system.”

“You think?”

Chrystal shrugged. “Ask me to tell you sometime about the Nosferan tapeworm that ended up in our system.”

“A tapeworm? Aren’t those pretty small…” His voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes. She loved his eyes. “I guess not.”

She smiled. “Yeah, but let’s focus on this. Parasite? Something else? I don’t know —”

Another loud squelch and more water pattered down on the floor. Lowell had backed as far into the hallway as he could and still keep his cameras trained on the bathroom. The creature had tightened its grips but was resting, no doubt gathering itself for one final push.

“This is going to take time,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of data to shift through.”

Chrystal stood up and pulled out her cell. “Keep looking, I’m going to try something else before that thing crawls out here.”

Leaving him to do his search, Chrystal walked over to the entrance to the hallway. Lowell turned one camera stalk in her direction and let out a questioning beep.

“Not yet. Stay there.”

The robot gave a hiss of static.

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she warned it. “Or I’ll shove you inside with the alien and close the door.”

On her cell, she called the service desk.

“Room service, this is May. How might I help you today?” May sounded perky, and human from her voice.

“Hi, this is Chrystal Eagle.” Chrystal gave May her room number, then went on. “I’ve got Brandon here trying to help me out but I don’t think that’s going to do it. Do you happen to have any translation devices down there?”

“Of course we do. Humanoid or non-humanoid?”

“Definitely non-humanoid.”

“Would you like that in a ring, collar, strap, disc or clamp?” May’s voice didn’t show any hesitation at all.

Chrystal thought for a moment. “How about a strap? That’s probably going to be the easiest to get on this thing.”

“I’ll have someone bring that right up! Thank you so much for calling!”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.” Chrystal pocketed the cell and looked back at Brandon. “Any luck in the medical databases?”

He shook his head. “No, it keeps asking me for more information and then says that it can’t find a match!”

“I’ve got another idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Chrystal took a deep breath, and then looked in his green eyes and told him her plan while they waited for the translation strap to arrive.

Room service was fast. It only took a few minutes before the door chimed cheerfully. Chrystal answered it. A young Ashian male — she could tell because of the golden sheen in his chitin — held the strap in his mandibles. A translation disc embedded in his carapace flashed when he spoke.

“Here is the translation strap you requested. It should automatically configure itself to your guest’s neural activity.”

The strap itself looked like a leather belt, made from a reddish, woven material. The fastener was simple, two interlocking electro-magnetic clasps. Just what she wanted.

A loud squelching noise came from the bathroom. The Ashian’s antennae wiggled in that direction.

“Is there anything else that you require?”

“No thanks, not right now, but we’ll let you know.”

“Very good.” With a quick harmonic leg scrape, the Ashian left.

Chrystal closed the door. Brandon came over and looked at the strap and while he did his hand touched the small of her back. Chrystal liked it, but more water splashing noises from the bathroom reminded her of the current problem.

She lifted the strap. “Let’s give this one last try, if it doesn’t work then we can call security and let them sort it out.”

“If you’re right and this thing is intelligent, then this should work.”

“Let’s go find out.”

Chrystal held out her hand. Brandon took it and together they walked down the hallway to the bathroom. She was thinking about the alien, and the risk they were running by facing it and risking the chance that it would hypnotize them both, but that was only a tiny part of her mind. The rest of her attention was on the man beside her, and the feel of his hand in hers.

Lowell floated around to face them when they reached the bathroom. His eyestalks quivered. Brandon held out a hand.

“Hey, buddy, it’s okay. We’ll take care of it now. But if anything goes wrong, I want you to call security. Understand?”

Lowell gave an affirmative beep.

“Okay. Let’s do this. On three. Two. One!” Chrystal burst through the door.

“That was one!” Brandon said.

She didn’t have time to comment. The alien had nearly escaped from the toilet. Its body was long and thick, constricted down into the toilet. It must have been squeezing through for some time. The tentacles still gripped the same points but had coiled around and around each spot. The yellow eyes or bumps tried to flash, but the pattern was chaotic and disorganized.

Chrystal went for the nearest tentacle, one wrapped around the towel rack. It’d gotten toilet water all over her clean towels! Something else for room service to take care of later. She swung the strap down at the tentacle.

With the loud crack of a belt hitting a bare bottom, the strap whipped around the tentacle and the clasp snicked into place.

Chrystal immediately turned away and ran right into Brandon. She looked at his face, afraid he’d been hypnotized again, but this time he was looking at her. She smiled. “We’d better back up.”

A new voice spoke up. “Oh, just my luck! I come out in the honeymoon suite?”

Still pressed against Brandon’s chest, his face in her hair, Chrystal forced herself to talk to the alien. “What are you doing in my toilet?”

“Trying to get out.” More squelching noises. “Look, give me a hand. I’ll go on my way, and no one has to say anything about this to anyone.”

“Why were you in there to start with?” Brandon asked.

“I got myself into a jam. A mess with the local authorities. No big deal, I thought I’d flush my problems away, that’s all. Like I said. Give me a break and I’m gone.”

Chrystal laughed into Brandon’s chest. “Let’s call security now, okay?” She traced his muscles through his shirt. “And maybe after you can tell me when you get off work?”

Brandon kissed the top of her head. “I think I can manage that.”

Arms around each other, they walked out of the bathroom. “Come on, you can’t —”

Brandon pulled the door shut, cutting off the alien’s protest. Lowell gave a relieved warble.

🚀

4,171 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 78th short story release, written in October 2011, and follows my earlier Chrystal Eagle stories, the Greatest Gig and Love, [unprounceable].

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Next Question.

Love, [unpronounceable]

With the greatest gig in the unviverse, comes great responsibility to make sure the toilets function— for both humanoid species and those otherwise equipped passengers aboard the Elegant Slipstream.

The job let Chrystal Eagle see the universe but it also had one main drawback — the passengers. Including those that with, shall we say, different social behaviors?

With both toilets and passengers one rule applied—expect the unexpected!

🚀

Until recently Chrystal felt that her life on the Elegant Slipstream lacked for nothing. The greatest gig in the universe, being a starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, First Class, according to the starship crew manifest. She preferred starship plumber, much easier to say and most species understood what she meant. As the First Technician she only got her hands dirty if she wanted to, she got to see the sights, and she rarely had to deal with the passengers.

Life was good right up until Prince Harris, heir to a planetary dynasty on Epsilon Fortis, dumped her for a jellyfish. He said that he couldn’t be himself with her since he preferred the gelatinous unformed state he’d been in when she first found him clogging up one of the humanoid stalls on board. Okay, he didn’t leave her for a Terran jellyfish, but the species was aquatic and luminescent.

Now even watching the cascading relativistic auras as the Elegant Slipstream’s CrunchBang drive coughed them back up into normal space, a sight worshiped by some species and admired by most, failed to engage her. Chrystal sipped her champagne in her favorite lounge as the auras spread in frenzied fractal patterns, across colors her human eyes couldn’t even fully appreciate. Some called it a birth-of-a-universe moment, only the Elegant Slipstream was the universe reforming itself from nothing into something again. Chrystal didn’t pretend to understand how the CrunchBang drive worked, but she figured the trick was not thinking about the crunch part.

First class passengers mingled in the lounge, humanoid and not, imbibing, eating, ingesting, speaking and signing as the auras reached a peak of activity and then without warning the auras vanished. A group of seven Cantorian scientists, looking like a school group of six-year-olds with canary-yellow scales, raised their voices in song. It soared up on thin, high voices as they threw their heads back and funneled their lips up toward the arching windows above. As the pitch rose Chrystal winced and put her glass down on a passing service droid. It had been a mistake coming up to the lounge to watch their arrival. Three seconds passed and the only disruption came from a Yelephant monk’s cyanide-scented fart on the other side of the lounge. Nearby passengers edged away but no one dared leave yet. In a blinding wash of activity, colors flared across the windows and brought a burst of flavors to her mouth as her brain attempted to make sense of what it was seeing. The wash swept over the ship leaving them in quite normal space with a blue and green planet below. The Cantorians continued singing and the rest of the passengers vacated the vicinity of the Yelephant monk.

Turning to leave she nearly ran right into a passenger. Quadruped, covered in long brown wavy fur, with a thick muscled neck and a long wolfish snout. It wore a bright blue carry sack across its back and a shiny translation collar around its neck. Bright yellow eyes looked at her calmly and blinked in sequence, all three of them. The passenger rocked back into a sitting up position and stuck out one forelimb. What had looked like a black hoof unrolled into three fingers and a thumb.

The passenger mumbled something, and in the curling of its lips Chrystal caught glimpses of shark-like teeth. “Greetings!” Said the translation collar in a cheerful man’s voice. “I am —” the voice switched to a dull genderless monotone “— [unpronounceable].” Then the voice switched back to the cheerful male voice again. “I didn’t catch your name?”

“I didn’t say.” While the collar translated her words into mumbles, Chrystal reluctantly accepted the handshake. The alien’s hand felt hard, like bone, and lacked any warmth. Even worse, he squeezed fairly hard. She winced and pulled her hand free.

“Apologies, did I perform the greeting incorrectly?” He said, his mumbling words translated by the cheerful collar.

Chrystal didn’t know the species, hardly unusual in on a galactic passenger liner. She found it best to get right to the point with passengers. Limiting the scope of her interaction with them made her day better.

“Do you need a steward? I work in sanitation.”

The passenger’s wide nostrils flared. “Oh yes! Delightful aroma. So complex and multidimensional. It is what I noticed first about you.”

“My smell?” Chrystal sniffed her shoulder. She smelled the sharp antiseptic chemical scent of cleansers, but she hadn’t gotten into any messes today.

His nostrils flared again and he inhaled deeply. A shudder shook his shaggy body. “Oh yes! Very nice, very nice indeed.” His mouth fell open showing rows of sharp shark teeth. A smile? “I wondered if I could buy you dinner?”

“Dinner?”

“Your pick, any tier one establishment, my treat. You’re not a —” the translation collar changed tones again. “— [unpronounceable]?”

Even though he looked like a shaggy brown dog crossed with a giant meerkat Chrystal found herself tempted by the offer. Ordinarily, the only time she got to tier one was to fix some issue with the plumbing in one of the exclusive suites reserved only for the richest of rich. The sentients that stayed on those levels had bathrooms as large as this entire lounge. Larry, the ship’s A.I., wouldn’t even let her into tier one without a work order. Or an invitation. Dinner there probably cost more than she made in a year.

Chrystal hated it, but she had to ask. “Why are you asking me? I don’t think we’re compatible, if you understand what I mean?”

She waited for the translation collar to finish mumbling all of that. He inhaled deeply and shuddered again. Then his fur parted between his legs and Chrystal took a step back, shaking her head.

“No, sorry. I can’t. Thanks, all the same.” She didn’t wait for an answer. She turned and headed quickly away from him. Her cheeks burned at the memory. Passengers!

She heard hard raps behind her and looked back. He was trotting after her on four legs! Chrystal called out. “Larry?”

The passenger was gaining on her and there wasn’t any answer from the ship’s A.I. “Larry!”

The smooth tones of the A.I. came through her earpiece. “We have discussed the need to stick to protocol when addressing me, First Technician.”

“Right, sorry. You just sound like a Larry to me.” She picked up her pace and the passenger loped right along after her with effortless grace. She had the impression that he could catch her at any point and his mouth was opening showing those teeth. “I need security here! Now! I’m being chased!”

“What did you do this time?”

“Nothing!” Chrystal reached the unobtrusive door marked ‘Crew Only’ and palmed through.

As the door closed she turned and saw the passenger slow to a stop, then he turned as two squat, egg-shaped security droids hovered into the lounge. Then the door closed, leaving her alone in the access corridor. Chrystal leaned against the corridor wall. She looked up at the ceiling.

“Thanks, Larry. What is he anyway?”

“A paying passenger,” the A.I. responded, not rising to her taunt. “The crew is expected to handle incidents with a degree of decorum, not racing across a viewing lounge.”

Chrystal pushed away from the wall and walked over to a stack of waiting rail sleds in the red zone. She pulled one down, stepped on and kicked off. The sled picked up speed as she increased the throttle, chasing the red alert lights that pulsed ahead along the red zone lines to inform anyone coming that there was a sled heading toward them. On a ship the size of the Elegant Slipstream, a rail sled was essential to getting around quickly. The ship was helix-shaped, with crew and passenger compartments twining around one another, connected by access corridors and supports. Now that they’d arrived in planetary orbit she could get busy on the repair schedule and stay away from any additional contact with the passengers. Just thinking back at what she had seen, when his hair parted, made her blush. She pushed the thought aside, after all, she’d never see him again anyway.

🚀

Four hours later Chrystal was on tier five, waist deep in a bulkhead trying to locate a water line leak. This was the fourth time she had crawled into a bulkhead along this line trying to find the source of the leak the sensors had detected and already she could tell she was wasting her time. On top of that, she was in a public corridor so she had to worry about passengers stepping on her feet, and she could smell the spicy meat smell coming from the Paleo restaurant across the way. She licked her lips but they were as dry as the compartment.

“This one is as dry as the last. If there was a leak wouldn’t there be water on the floor? Maybe some spraying out of the pipes?”

In front of her two silver egg-shaped droids, each as large as an eggplant hovered inches above the floor. Their red scanning lights moved back and forth across the chamber. Huey gave out a low despondent buzz.

“I know, right?” Chrystal rolled onto her back. “La — Ship Mind?”

“Yes, First Technician?”

“We’re not seeing any water down here. All of these compartments are dry.” She felt a tickle in her nose. “And dusty.”

“My logs show a drop in pressure equivalent to one gallon of water leaking. Flow volume monitors show the same drop. My analysis and diagnostics indicate that the water level did drop by that amount.”

Dewey gave a querulous beep.

“I don’t know,” Chrystal said. “That much water, we should have seen it but there isn’t anything that I see in here. What else can you tell me about the water loss?”

“I can forward you the data if you’d like to review it yourself.” If she didn’t imagine it, the ship’s A.I. actually sounded a bit offended that she didn’t trust his analysis.

“That’d be great.”

“I have transferred the data to your tablet.”

Chrystal dug the tablet out of her cargo pocket and thumb-flicked it on. Charts and numbers filled the screen along with a flow volume graph. “Thanks, Larry.”

She was dragging the graph when someone tapped on her knee, and then mumbled something unintelligible. Chrystal groaned.

“There you are!” A cheerful voice rang out. “I’ve tried tracking your scent all over this ship, I wasn’t sure I’d find you, but here you are!”

A long snout shoved into the bulkhead beside her knees and yellow eyes blinked at her. “Remember me? I’m — [unpronounceable] — we met earlier in the lounge?”

Chrystal like lying on her back with this passenger by her legs. “Back up. I’ll come out.”

The passenger withdrew his snout. Chrystal turned her head and looked right into Huey’s red light. “Go through it again and signal me in two minutes whether or not you find anything. Got it?”

Huey chirruped happily.

“Are you stuck?” The passenger asked.

“No.” Chrystal wiggled out of the bulkhead and sat up.

The passenger sat in front of her showing off his shark-like teeth. Chrystal stood up and brushed off her coverall. “Look, I don’t think we’re communicating. Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. Okay? I’m sure you can find all sorts of females willing to have dinner with you.”

His mouth snapped closed and a rumbling growl came from deep in his throat. Chrystal stepped back but she hit the wall. She glanced down at her toolbox. Could she grab a wrench fast enough to fend off an attack?

The passenger mumbled something and a moment later the collar translated, still in that same cheerful tone. “I want you to reconsider. You are quite exotic and I would greatly appreciate — [unpronounceable] — with you.”

“Right now I’m trying to track down a leak, understand? I’m working. I’m not a passenger on this ship, I actually have a job to do. Why don’t you try going planetside?”

“I understand. I tried to buy your contract, but the ship’s mind declined the offer. I don’t see why dinner and — [unpronounceable] — is too much to ask.”

“For one thing your collar isn’t translating everything, so I don’t even understand what all you want. Why don’t you go have that looked at and we’ll talk after I get off work?”

“This is a top of the line translation collar!”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t translate everything, even your name.”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“See, just then? Did you hear how the voice changed? Each time it does that it’s because it couldn’t translate what you said.”

Chrystal felt something bump her leg and looked down at Huey. He beeped twice. She looked back at the passenger. “I really need to get back to work.”

The passenger mumbled briefly and dropped down on all fours. “I’ll be back!”

He trotted away into the crowd and Chrystal sighed. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? This was exactly why she didn’t like dealing with passengers. Huey beeped at her again.

“What is it?” Her tablet flashed in her hand.

ANOMALY DETECTED.

Chrystal tapped replay and a video took over the screen. A droid-camera view of the crawlspace in the bulkhead. Huey floating along next to the waterline. The pipe was smooth, except for one spot where a mound of whitish material stuck out of the pipe as if it had developed a pimple. Chrystal froze the video. “What is that?”

Huey beeped sadly.

“I guess I’d better take a look.” Chrystal pocketed the tablet and got back down on the floor, then wiggled into the bulkhead.

It took some contortions to get her head back into the space behind the pipe. Her neck protested the unnatural angle, but she could see the material. It was translucent, whitish and looked very organic. She squeezed her arm up and tapped at the material with her fingernail. Hard, and dry to the touch. Chrystal started to move when she heard something bang against the pipe.

“Huey? Dewey? Was that you?”

Two negative buzzes answered her from the droids.

“Well, something just hit the pipe. Huey, work your way forward. Dewey, head back. Find it.” Chrystal slid on down until her head rested on the floor and her neck wasn’t bent. She pulled out her tablet and tapped into the droids’ visual feeds, displaying them split-screen. Both showed essentially the same view as the droids floated along the pipe.

“First Technician,” Larry’s voice came through her earpiece. “I’m detecting another drop in pressure near your position.”

“I’m working on it. I heard something. The droids are tracking the problem down now.”

On the screen, the view hadn’t changed on Huey’s display but Dewey’s showed something hanging from the pipe ahead.

“Move faster Dewey!”

The droid raced along the pipe closer to whatever it was and then Dewey was close enough that she could see it clearly. An animal with a funnel mouth clamped to the pipe. The long throat swelled and a lump moved down as the creature swallowed. Not an animal, Chrystal realized. The creature wore a green hooded tunic, the hood folded back, and a small pack lay on the floor beside it. The body was very rotund, with skinny little arms and legs kicking in the air as it swallowed straight from the pipe. Dark eyes like raisins in oatmeal rolled to look at the approaching droid. The creature’s arms and legs kicked frantically and the lips peeled back from the pipe. Chrystal caught a glimpse of a hard bony fang-like protrusion piercing the pipe before the creature sneezed a glob of whitish muck onto the pipe, right over the hole, as it fell away. Not a drop of water leaked. The creature snatched up its bag and turned to flee.

“Grab him!” Chrystal shouted.

Dewey extended manipulators and flew after the creature, which was waddling. Chrystal laughed. No way it could out run Dewey.

Evidently, the creature realized that too. It turned and sneezed at Dewey. The image vanished from the tablet and she heard a wail of distress echo through the bulkhead. Chrystal swore and scrambled out of the bulkhead. A tall willowy passenger blinked big black eyes at her as she popped out and then strode quickly away on four thin legs. Chrystal ran along the bulkhead toward the section Dewey had reached.

“Larry! I need security here. Dewey found the cause of the pressure drop.”

“First Technician, why do you persist in using —”

“Security, Larry! We’ve got a stowaway.” As if she didn’t have enough trouble with passengers, now a stowaway too?

“I find that unlikely,” Larry said. “However, I have dispatched security droids to your location.”

Chrystal reached the bulkhead and swiped her id on the access lock. Bolts disengaged and the panel popped free. Dewey lay on the floor, snot gluing him in place. She looked for the stowaway and saw it waddling through the next section.

“Hey! Get back here!”

The stowaway turned and its head drew back. Chrystal recognized the movement and jerked out of the bulkhead. A glob of snot hit the floor in front of her and immediately hardened. “That’s so gross.”

She heard the wail of the approaching security droids and crawled over to the next access lock. She looked up as two massive security droids — Dewey’s giant cousins — glided up to here. “He’s in here. Ready? Watch out for the snot.”

Chrystal swiped the access lock and the panel popped free. She caught the panel and pulled it away, giving the droids access while shielding herself. One of the droids glided forward, extending manipulators into the bulkhead. She heard another explosive sneeze and ducked behind the panel. A glob of snot hit the droid’s visual scanner and hardened. Unfortunately for the stowaway, the droid was undeterred and snatched it out of the bulkhead with a many-tentacled manipulator. The stowaway went limp in the droids grip except for drops of water that welled up from its eyes and pattered down on the deck. Was it crying?

Putting the panel back into place, Chrystal rose and faced the droids and their captive. “Can you understand us?”

The stowaway went into a frenzy of fruitless squirming and then sneezed a huge glob of snot at Chrystal. She barely managed to turn, only enough that the glob hit the side of her head and immediately hardened in her hair, plastering her hair down over her ear.

“Oh, that’s so nasty!” She gingerly probed at her hair but the mass of hardened snot was as hard as the glob plugging the waterline.

Larry’s voice sounded in her earpiece, but was addressing the droids. “Take our unwelcome guest to holding and escort the First Technician down to the medical tier to see what they can do to help.”

Huey floated out of the bulkhead and let out a low mournful beep.

“Someone will come help Dewey and work on repairing the damage caused by that rat,” Chrystal promised. “You stay put to help out.”

Huey beeped affirmatively as she followed the security droids away. Their captive hung limply, but Chrystal stayed back out of range of any more attacks. As they walked past the Paleo restaurant the smells set her stomach rumbling. Stupid stowaway, for the first time she’d found something worse than passengers.

🚀

Two hours later, sporting a new Mohawk hairstyle that she actually sort of liked, Chrystal returned to the spot where the stowaway had hidden. All the panels were back in place. Miguel Stacks, her second-in-command, had already reported in that the repairs were complete. It wasn’t the waterline that brought her back, but the Paleo restaurant. Her stomach growled as she headed for the open doors and breathed in the spicy meat smells coming from inside.

Stepping into the dim interior she saw a waiting area and a human hostess dressed in a skin bikini waiting beside the reception desk. A shaggy shape heaved itself up from the waiting bench.

“At last!” A voice exclaimed.

Chrystal’s heart sank. She didn’t want to deal with this lovesick passenger, she wanted food. Meat that she could sink her teeth in. She raised her hands. “What are you doing here?”

As her eyes adjusted to the lighting she saw the shark-toothed passenger clearer. The thick collar he’d worn was gone, replaced by a thin silver model. He didn’t mumble this time before the collar spoke.

“I took your advice and replaced my translation device with a thought-controlled device. Much more efficient, and I’ve been assured that the translation matrix is more accurate.”

“But how did you find me again?”

Shark-like teeth flashed. “The ship mind told me that you planned to dine here after your appointment.”

That was to get back at her for calling him Larry all the time. He must have been listening when she was leaving the clinic and told the technician that she planned on coming back here.

“Larry, shouldn’t have done that,” Chrystal said, expecting that Larry was listening.

“Perhaps you’d like to dine with me? My treat?” The passenger looked around the waiting area. “Although we could find better on the first tier.”

Chrystal sighed. “I want to eat here. Just tell me one thing with your new translator, what’s your name?”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“Of course it is. Let’s eat.” Chrystal marched up to the hostess. “A table for two.”

🚀

Bill, as Chrystal thought of the passenger with the unpronounceable name, departed the ship at the next stop but in the two weeks until then Chrystal accompanied him to over a dozen different restaurants, including three first tier establishments. At one she had a chocolate dessert that defied description, but it haunted her dreams for three straight nights. She made it clear that, although she was happy to dine with him, their relationship wasn’t going to turn romantic.

A month after he departed she received a brief message, forwarded to her tablet. Bill grinned with his shark teeth on the screen. “Dear Chrystal Eagle, I wanted to let you know I have found someone for — [unpronounceable] — and hereby release my claim on you. Love, — [unpronounceable].”

Claim? Chrystal flicked the message away. Being a starship plumber was the greatest gig in the universe, too bad she had to deal with passengers.

🚀

3,794 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 77th short story release, written in February 2011, and follows my earlier story The Greatest Gig.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Shore Leave, which follows the further adventures of Chrystal Eagle.

Chew, Chew

A leaky toilet might not be the worst problem in the world.

Ask Cody Bateman and he’ll tell you that finding a job, dealing with the apartment manager over late rent, or fending off debt collectors rank as bigger problems than the toilet.

Problems, like time, are relative.

And Cody’s problems just got a whole lot worse!

🚀

The funny thing about disasters is that you never expect them to happen to you. Even in the center of tornado alley, it’s always someone else’s trailer that gets shredded in the cosmic blender of fate.

A half-hour ago Cody Bateman never would have pegged his apartment complex in Lacey, Washington, as the site of a disaster. It was easy enough to put aside thoughts of Mt. Rainier erupting in a mega-explosion. He rarely considered the possibility of a major 9.0 quake hitting the region—even though that was a historical reality.

Thirty minutes ago, it was the toilet that had him feeling dizzy and sick.

Not because it was gross or anything, but the damn thing was leaking. He shoved another towel beneath the dripping hose at the back of the toilet — or was it the tank dripping? He couldn’t tell. It was wet. He twisted the shut-off valve, and it spun. The water didn’t stop.

Cody rocked back on his heels. As disasters went, this wasn’t really a big deal. Heck, as a renter all he had to do was go over to the office and tell the manager and it’d get fixed.

It wasn’t about the toilet at all. It was the past due rent. The credit card bills. His student loan late notices. And the silent phone that never rang. No calls for interviews. Nothing in the fridge except a few slices of American cheese and day-old bread that he used for dry-grilled cheese sandwiches.

If he called the manager, the rent would come up, and an eviction notice would probably follow. He shoved the towels back beneath the water, ignoring the faint smell of piss that clung to the toilet no matter how many times he cleaned it. Cleaning it, that had jiggled the tank and started this mini-tsunami of misfortune.

That wasn’t even the real disaster. That didn’t start until fifteen minutes later, after he got the brilliant idea to flush the toilet, drain all the water in the tank and use the handle of the scrub brush to prop up the valve inside the tank so that it wouldn’t refill.

Flooding averted, for now, Cody had taken a break, washed his hands, filled a clean glass with tap water, and had gone out to the living room to read. Library books at least still didn’t cost anything, as long as he got them back on time.

He had five minutes of thrilling space opera courtesy Kevin J. Anderson when there was a loud crash right outside his apartment.

Cody jerked at the bang and sloshed water onto the library book.

“Shit! No, no!” He grabbed a couch pillow and used it to wipe at the book. Shit. Would the library charge for that?

What was that crash? A car accident? He stood the book up on the end table, put the glass on the coffee table, then went and looked out the windows. Across the lawn, past the sidewalk, were the covered carports. The center of the carport was bowed inward, and sunlight streamed through a massive hole in the roof.

“Holy shit,” Cody said to the empty apartment.

He went around to the front door and hurried outside for a closer look.

The carport was all smashed in, the metal twisted and pointing down at the car beneath, and that was also smashed in. Like something from up above had come crashing down and punched right through the carport and the car beneath. All the windows in the car were shattered, and the glass glinted around the car.

Meteor! Or was it an asteroid? Metroid? Cody ran his hands back through his hair. Whatever it was called, something had come crashing down.

Or it could have been a toilet from a passing airplane because apparently those did fall out sometimes.

He looked up, searching the sky and didn’t see any planes but there was a smoke trail that spiraled down right toward the apartment complex! It petered out some distance up, but it was there!

Other people were coming out now too. All of the day-timers that didn’t have jobs or school to get to were coming out and gaping at the carport. Some of them had phones out and were taking pictures, live streaming, and chattering with excitement.

Cody slapped at his pockets. Shit. He’d forgotten his phone. It was still inside. Screw it, he wanted to get a look at the rock or whatever.

The big curly-haired woman that lived in the ground-floor apartment on the other side of the parking lot was out clutching her fat pug in one hand and a phone in the other as she shuffled closer. She had bunny slippers on her feet and a purple bathrobe over pink pajamas.

The pug whimpered and buried its squashed face in the woman’s cleavage.

There were at least half-dozen other people out, getting closer. Someone asked loudly what had happened.

“Meteor,” Cody said, grinning. “Hope that’s not your car.”

The tall guy that had asked shook his head. “Right.”

A warm breeze stirred the trees along the edge of the property. Sirens sounded in the distance. Someone had called 9-1-1.

Cody walked closer, the cool grass tickling his bare feet because he hadn’t stopped to get his shoes before coming out. Which wasn’t really as bad as coming out in bunny slippers.

A guy and a girl from upstairs came down laughing and hanging on each other until the guy saw what everyone was looking at. He pushed the girl off his arm.

“What the hell?” He came forward, fists clenching. “What the fuck?”

The other guy said, “Meteor hit your car, dude. Punched right through it.”

“What the fuck?” The guy said and ran past Cody to the carport.

Cody and everyone else sort of followed him closer. The car was just an old Jetta, nothing in great shape but Cody sympathized given his own financial straight-jacket. Did insurance cover meteors squashing your car? Probably not his basic insurance.

“I just heard a crash,” the woman with the pug said, her voice high-pitched and almost a giggle. “I grabbed Mr. Pugsworth, and we came right out.”

“It left a trail,” Cody said, pointing at the spiral smoke trail still visible in the air above the complex. The breeze hadn’t blown it away yet.

Several people turned phones skyward.

It was right at about that moment when the next one came down, and the disaster picked up steam.

Somebody shouted and pointed at another spot in the sky. Cody looked, and there was another spiral shape forming in the sky with something dark at the center plummeting to the earth. The spiral narrowed as it came until it was just spinning in place. He kept expecting it to slow down or something —

— It smashed right through the roof of Building F! Debris and smoke vomited into the sky, and every window in the building exploded outward in shotgun blasts of broken glass. People screamed. Those closer to the building screamed from pain, the others from fright.

The curly-headed woman screamed. Mr. Pugsworth barked.

“What the fuck?” Repeated the guy with the smashed car, rising from an instinctive crouch.

Cody replayed it in his mind. The dark shape spinning and then slammed right into the roof and punched down inside the building. Somebody in the building was screaming. It was high-pitched, panting screams that just told you some horrible shit had happened.

Some people from the other buildings started running toward Building F, but most of the day-timers that had come out held back. Those that had fallen helping each other up. The sirens grew louder, and so were the worried voices of the crowd.

A couple kids came into the parking lot from the sidewalk on their bikes. One of the kids fixed Cody in his gaze. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah,” Cody said. “It went right through the building.”

He looked up, and he suddenly understood what people meant when they said their hearts stopped. He couldn’t breathe. There were at least six more spiral trails spinning down toward the complex. He pointed up.

“Look out!”

One of the kids screamed, whipped his bike around and took off out of the parking lot. He shot straight out into the street. A horn sounded, and brakes squealed as a Ford Expedition skidded to a stop just shy of flattening the kid who never slowed.

Cody looked back up. The meteors fell like a missile barrage toward the complex. Maybe they were missiles — they hardly looked like flaming rocks.

Wham. Wham. Crash. Bang. Wham. Thunk.

One right after another the meteors or whatever they were hit buildings. They hit another car. The mailboxes — which blew apart in a shrapnel haze of shredded boxes and confetti letters. The last one punched right into the dumpster corral and the wood fences flew apart.

People screamed and ran. Mr. Pugsworth took off as fast as his little legs could carry him, chased by his wailing owner.

Cody’s limbs shook. This was crazy. Things like this didn’t happen. Not—

A loud screech of tortured metal came from the first car. The Jetta’s owner stepped back from his car.

“What the fuck?” He said sadly.

The sound quieted a bunch of people. It looked like all of the day-timers were out. Some of them going to the buildings hit to try and help, others still standing around taking pictures and filming. A crowd had gathered around the destroyed mailbox, while others had their cameras pointed upward to film the spiral trails left by the meteors.

Police and fire cars pulled up alongside the complex and came in the drive, whooping sirens, and spilling out first responders.

More twisted metal sounds came from the car as if it was trying to unbend itself. Snap. Snap. Snap. Electric cracking noises, followed by more crunching metal.

Cody watched the guy take a step closer.

A loud crunch made the guy jump back. His girlfriend grabbed his arm and tried to pull him away. He shook her off.

Police officers and the firefighters were trying to get people to move out of the way and find out what was going on and they all had several people talking at them.

Cody was more concerned with what was making the noises in the car. Part of the car dropped, crashing to the ground.

The girl screamed.

That got the attention of several police officers who shouted and ran toward the carport. Cody stayed on the grass, watching, feeling more useless by the minute. This was really happening. Like something weird going on, strange meteors crashing down into his complex and he wasn’t doing anything. Not even filming it to put it up on YouTube.

Nothing.

Thirty minutes ago he was worried about the toilet leaking and now he was on the lawn while something inside the Jetta crunched and cracked and made the whole car shake.

Police officers reached the couple. The girlfriend threw herself into the arms of one of the officers, sobbing into his shoulder. Others tried to pull the guy back, but he pulled free.

“No! That’s my fucking car! What’s in there? What’s doing that?”

“Move back! Move back now!”

With a loud thunk, three spikes burst through the side of the driver’s door. Metal cried as the spikes cut the door into thin strips, crumpling the plastic and metal into bits that were pulled back inside.

There was more crunching, chewing noises coming from the car.

Cody eased closer. He hadn’t done anything, ever. School, graduation, a pile of debt and nothing else to show for it. No job. No girlfriend. This was real, and something was eating that guy’s car. Something that had fallen from above.

Like from space.

It wasn’t just a meteor in there crunching and chewing away. The officers were busy pulling the guy back, but he struggled and cursed them.

No one was paying any attention to Cody.

He came at the car from the passenger side and just walked right up to it even though his mouth was tacky and his heart hammered in his chest like he was running a race instead of crossing the lawn. Small bits of glass pricked at his feet, but he ignored that and moved closer.

Whatever had fallen through the carport had completely caved in the roof of the Jetta. The inside looked like someone had turned on a blender. Shredded car parts rotated around the center. The seats were gutted, along with the console and the lower portion of the steering wheel. A pile of small pieces moved and rotated slowly around the interior, and the chewing and grinding noises continued.

The center funneled down, to something Cody couldn’t make out. Whatever it was, it sat at the bottom of the pile and was moving, spinning, shredding the interior.

“You! Get away from there!”

Cody looked back.

A police officer motioned him away from the car, one hand on his weapon. “Get back!”

The car jerked and shook. Metal screamed. Cody smelled burning plastic and fabric. Electrical crackling noises snapped the air and added an ozone odor.

Yeah, maybe they had a point. Cody moved back from beneath the carport. He backed up until he reached the police officer’s side. Cody brushed bits of glass that were stuck to his feet, but nothing had cut him. His feet were tough enough from going barefoot as much as possible.

“What did you see?” The officer said.

“There’s something in there, chewing it up,” Cody said.

A woman came over, and there were other people with her holding cameras and equipment. “KANA News, I’m Anita Kay. You said chewing?”

“Yes,” Cody said. “These chewers, they fell from the sky, and now one of them is chewing up that guy’s car.”

He pointed out the guy that the officers had pushed back behind their line.

A loud bang and the whole mid-section of the car collapsed as if its spine had been broken. The front of the car lurched and was pulled back into the body. Then the rear followed as if it was all being sucked into the center.

The sides caved in.

The destruction of the car went faster now. Police were keeping everyone back from the carport. More sirens were coming. A helicopter buzzed past overhead.

The reporter had taken a step away and was talking to the camera.

“This is Anita Kay, I’m at the Azure Downs apartment complex where several objects have plummeted from the sky, hitting buildings and vehicles. An eyewitness called these things chewers, and I’m here with him now.”

The reporter moved closer to Cody. “Sir, what was your name?”

Cody realized she was talking to him and glanced away from the disintegrating car. “Cody Bateman.”

“You’re a resident here? You saw what happened?”

“Yes, I did. I thought these were meteors at first. This one —” he pointed at the crumbling car. “— It was the first.”

“You called it a chewer.”

“Right, because it’s chewing up that guy’s car.”

A loud crash and bang made them all jump. It wasn’t the car — a section of the first building hit collapsed. There was a growing noise from the building competing with the car.

It was the same thing. Cody pressed his hands together. The chewers were devouring the building just like the one was eating the car.

“Uh, look,” Cody said to the reporter. “We should get out of here.”

The police and firefighters were moving people back from the buildings, vehicles and the dumpster. It looked like they were moving to evacuate the whole area.

Anita Kay’s lips pressed together. She nodded and motioned at the cameraman to follow.

Cody slipped past and hurried across the lawn. He ignored the reporter’s cry to wait. In the distance, more sirens sounded. He ran. He sprinted across the grass, past his apartment and headed up the stairs between apartments. He pushed past two middle-aged women at the second floor and continued running up.

At the top, on the fourth floor, he leaned against the railing and looked out. It wasn’t only the complex. As far as he could see, spiral trails left smoky paths. Several thick columns of smoke rose skyward from fires.

It wasn’t only here.

He gripped the railing. Forget the toilet. The student loans. Finding a job. None of that mattered now. Maybe it never had.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 76th short story release, written in April 2014. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll decide whether or not to take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, [Love, unpronounceable].

Forgotten Opportunity

Nightflayers attacked ships and colonies. They took survivors for experimentation and study. They ignored all attempts to communicate.

Humanity fought back. With greater numbers and equivalent technology humankind fought without understanding what the nightflayers wanted.

It took Coordinator Tevyan, the sole Survivor and former nightflayer prisoner many years to understand the war.

Returning to Ilivian gave him the chance to make a difference.

🚀

Coordinator Tevyan did his best to hide his feelings during the shuttle descent to the Kepler station on Ilivian. His weathered reflection — somehow an old man now, with what hair he had remaining buzzed close to his scalp and white — stared back at him. The overhead lights cast shadows across his face like craters on an airless body. His cheeks were deep depressions and his eyes nothing but a glint like polar ice at the bottom of the craters. His wrinkles, a tortured landscape shaped by major impact events.

He had never planned to return to Kepler in his lifetime, but here he was, riding on a stomach-twisting grav shuttle to the surface. Grav drives in gravity wells; the competing forces always upset his stomach. Had way back when he was still a young man going through basic. Back before the War, before Kepler, when he was nothing. Just one more cell in the multi-trillion body mass of humanity spreading out, engulfing one star after another.

Not the Survivor. Or the Prisoner. Or Coordinator.

Nothing.

A simple life then, with this future unimaginable. Unbelievable. Humanity fractured, wounded, the entire mass of humankind grieving still for lost limbs amputated during the war. The body survived but seriously scarred, scared and unbalanced. Bitter over its losses and struggling to find any meaning in a universe turned dark and hostile. The war was over, but the whole of humanity suffered from post-traumatic stress.

And somehow this ceremony was supposed to help start the healing process. The socioanalysts planned to spread holorecordings of the event across the entire spiral arm. They claimed this one thing, this one event, could somehow tip the scales. A butterfly effect that would turn into a hurricane of healing across the worlds.

Tevyan agreed, but not for the reasons that they thought. His plan differed from their plan.

“Sir, we will touch down in a moment.” The voice was smooth, pleasant, genderless. Artificially combined to suggest child and mother both.

Tevyan glanced over at the floating silvery orb in the aisle. The attendant for this flight was featureless, but a dim nimbus of blue surrounded it, an ionizing effect of its displacement drive. It wouldn’t be long now before the grav drives shut down and the shuttles displacement drives took over now that they were low enough in the Ilivian atmosphere. He anticipated the switch-over with longing.

“Thank you,” Tevyan said so the thing would go away.

Through his reflection, the world came into view. Ilivian’s blackened landscape at first looked charred and burned, the surface of a planetary disaster but it was actually the vegetation. Black sticky stuff that got into everything. Gum trees, Tar trees, Tar Babies, slink weed, choke vine and all the rest of the nastiest stuff any of them had ever seen. Landing on Kepler had been like landing in a tar pit.

Exactly like that, and like a dinosaur they had all met their deaths on this blasted planet hurtling too close around its star. All except him. The Survivor.

Coordinator Tevyan sighed. He was old and tired and resenting this whole affair but underneath that he felt a tingling, a surging in his pulse, an excitement he hadn’t felt since the first time he laid eyes on Ilivian.

Beside him his aide, a young woman with lovely brown hair that made a straight line down her slender back. He didn’t bother with her name or any of their names. She leaned close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her. Not perfume, no one wore perfume anymore. Her’s was the scent of a person carefully washed clean of any offense.

“Coordinator?” Her voice was pitched just right, soft and clear. “Are you in need of refreshment?”

Tevyan reached over and patted her arm. A bony little thing. “Stay away from the slink weed. That stuff creeps up on you. I saw it strangle a bunk mate once.”

Her perfectly composed face barely twitched at that comment. “As you say, sir. You will let me know if you require my aid?”

“Of course. Of course.” Tevyan looked back out the window.

The shuttle bounced at the switchover. Well, vibrated a tiny amount, but Tevyan recognized that shiver, like the feeling when someone walked over your grave. No one else gave any indication of feeling it.

Beneath them, a bright spot appeared ahead among the frothy black hills. Kepler station, right on time, looking like a raft among the black Ilivian vegetation. The first time he had come down in among the deployment to create the station there was nothing there except the bright reflections from the lake and what looked like a black sand beach. Muck weed was a low-growing plant with a sharp thorn at the heart of the tangled mass. What seemed like a smooth bed of vegetation was actually like walking on a bed of needles. And like many of the Ilivian plants, the muck weed could move and strike out in defense with its needles. The plant killed unwary animals, which rotted into the muck it favored along lakes and ponds.

These days Kepler station was a whole city unto itself with skyscrapers shooting up into the sky, their surfaces an unappealing gray to mute out the intense reflections from the Ilivian star. It gave the station the look of a prison.

But then, it was that too, for a time.

Landing went as expected. Tevyan made sure to keep control of his personal bag, although long habit and attitude ensured that no one would lay hands on the bag. Not unless he gave them a reason or requested help, which he wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t dare. Just as he couldn’t dare allow anyone to see his arm tremble at lifting the bag. His bag, immune to any scans or searches or measurements. The shuttle systems would have recorded the combined weight of passengers and luggage but only for use in calculations involving energy expenditure and allocation. In days past no one, not even him, would have gotten on board without a thorough examination and the weight of his bag would have triggered numerous alarms. Not to mention the added cost of those excess kilograms.

Today none of that applied. Humanity won the war, but humanity itself was the survivor, the prisoner that now struggled with the trauma of its injuries. Growth had stalled. Humanity didn’t reach for new stars any longer. People spoke about returning to Sol as if humanity’s origin could contain and support them any longer. It was ridiculous. Even as wounded as they were, they encompassed hundreds of systems, not even counting the quarantined systems, on which humankind might survive in some nightmarish fashion.

And still, people flooded Sol with pilgrims and refugees. The First Colonies worlds were likewise inundated with the tide of retreat. It was as if all humankind was going to curl in on itself, retreat into the corner to die a slow and painful death from its wounds. Victor in the war, but still to expire from its injuries.

Against that, the socioanalysts worked to promote healing and encourage more growth. Humanity could regrow and expand around the amputated areas. Those wounds were contained and carefully monitored lest the cancer ever spread again. In all of their plans, he was one small part. One small jolt of hope and strength to stir his fellow humanity.

They still didn’t understand what happened. The socioanalysts today weren’t even born back during the war when he was taken prisoner.

Striding toward the reception in the main terminal, he didn’t recognize the place. The ceremony was supposed to take place right outside the front of the terminal building. All of this had looked different back then. A temporary base, a staging area, burned out of the stick Ilivian landscape and built with prefab components. None of it back then had been designed to last. Half of it was charred and melted when the night-flayers descended.

Nightflayers, an unfortunate name for a people that humanity had never understood. The result of sensationalism dating back to the beginning of the war after prisoner remains were discovered flayed among the ruins of a nightflayer mobile base. A combination of nightmare and flayer, it put a name on an enemy that until that point hadn’t had a name. At least none that humanity had identified. No one succeeded at decoding nightflayer computer systems, or even understanding how they functioned. Apparently quantum computers, but with a solid matrix that resisted any attempts to analyze. Any scans done caused the system to fuse and become lifeless. Any functioning systems captured ceased to function as soon as humans came within the vicinity. Robots didn’t have any better luck. In one operation microscopic drones infiltrated a nightflayer base merely to observe and not interact. Before any useful information could be extracted the drones were all simultaneously destroyed by some sort of pulse.

The nightflayers became a mystery, a source of terror. Ships that appeared out of nowhere to eradicate any sign of humans whether found on a ship, asteroid or planet. Military or civilian, it made no difference. Once nightflayers appeared in a system they began randomly destroying targets. One habitat would be utterly destroyed, and then the nightflayers would appear somewhere else in the system to attack another.

No negotiations. No response to any communication attempts.

All of that was bad enough, but the nightflayers took prisoners. Most were never seen again, but what humanity did find in the ruins of captured and disabled nightflayer ships sent waves of terror through the colonies. Not only torture and death but biological modification.

People gathered around Coordinator Tevyan. They clapped, but the sound hardly registered. People talked, but he didn’t pay them any attention. None of it mattered.

“Coordinator?” His aide, right in front of him. Concern on her young, unlined face. “Are you alright? Do you need to rest before the ceremony?”

No. “No,” Tevyan said aloud in a firm, strong voice. He couldn’t show weakness. Not now. “Let’s get on with it.”

His aide looked doubtful. Caryn, that was her name. Not that it mattered now. He straightened his spine and walked purposefully toward the podium where some official was making an introduction. Seeing the Coordinator coming that official quickly wrapped up whatever he was saying and stepped back out of Tevyan’s way.

Tevyan placed his case on the podium in front of everyone. An air of hushed expectation came over the crowd. So many people standing here, but even among these hopeful he could see the aura of defeat and fatalism that had gripped humanity.

Won the war? Perhaps, but humanity was fatally wounded itself. If he did nothing, then humanity would shrink back and shrink back, more and more worlds becoming isolated while others closer to Sol became over-run and collapsed under the mass of humankind.

The body of humanity stood on the brink of suicide. Traumatized and sick of the war. Terrified of the dark spaces between the stars. Doubting in the possibility of a higher purpose.

Tevyan flipped the catches on the small black case. The silence grew longer. Uncomfortable whispers spread among the crowd. Some of those in the front edged back slightly, probably unaware of what they were doing.

The night-flayers weren’t traumatized, even though they had lost the war. At least according to some, never considering that theirs had been a calculated retreat designed to draw humanity out, but humanity lacked the drive anymore and took the nightflayer’s retreat as an admission of defeat. It was on that basis that humanity declared itself the victor in the conflict.

Tevyan knew better. The nightflayers hadn’t given up. They were smart, fanatical and just as technologically savvy as humanity. But they lacked the numbers. If humanity was a wounded animal, it was like a great bear going back to its cave to nurse its wounds. The nightflayers were a wolverine who wasn’t going to tolerate the bear’s presence in its territory. They had retreated in a calculated effort to rest, rebuild and let the toils of the war further sap the strength of humanity. They’d wait until humanity slumbered, then strike again. If humanity hadn’t died of its wounds already, it would the next time the night-flayers came at them.

Unless he stopped them.

The case opened, and the crowd tensed. He saw the almost universal tightening of their features. The way they flinched back, trying to hide it. A crowd of people fearful because an old man opened a case. They knew! On some level they saw something in his manner that suggested the danger. A look, maybe, in his eyes. It was that bit of awareness that he needed. He wanted it.

In the wings, he saw security personnel moving around the edges of the crowd. They didn’t know that it was already too late. It had always been too late.

Coordinator Tevyan smiled. An almost inaudible sigh passed through the crowd. It’s okay, his smile said. He was the Survivor. The one prisoner in the long war that came out of a nightflayer lab at least somewhat intact. Luck and happenstance, only. If one little thing had gone wrong, history would have looked very different.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice picked up and amplified to the room. Sound shapers made it sound like he was speaking to each member of the crowd individually, and he used that conversational voice that they all knew so well.

“Forgive an old man momentarily overwhelmed to be back here again. I never thought to step foot on Ilivian again. For those of you making a home here, forgive me, because I saw nothing of the beauty that I’m sure this world must hold.”

He coughed. Continued. “We landed in a field of scorched slink weed that smelled like burning rubber. We cleared muck weed from the lakeshore with flame throwers, fighting a daily battle to hold this one tiny piece of inhospitable ground so that we could build a foothold against the night-flayers. On this world wrapped in blackness, we fought to blaze a new hope for humanity!”

The crowd cheered and clapped. This was what they had come for, what the socioanalysts wanted. A message of hope to spread across the worlds. They didn’t realize that hope was the poison inflicted by the nightflayer claws.

“And we succeeded. We built our base. Then the nightflayers came. They descended out of the dark like javelins thrown by gods. Their initial assault was meticulously planned to wipe out our defensive capabilities while leaving as many of our soldiers alive as possible.

Security had relaxed. Holorecordings in the wings showed views of the way things were, and simulations of what he was saying. He didn’t care or control any of that.

“What happened then?” Tevyan looked down at the case. It held a large metallic egg-shaped object, but black and non-reflective. The surface gave nothing back, broken only by three lines around the perimeter, tiny grooves.

He took the object out of the case. The crowd now reassured, pressed closer to try and see what he held, but he kept it close to his body. Holding it but not drawing more attention to it just yet.

“Many have spoken about the nightflayers’ victims found in destroyed ships or cracked open asteroid habitats that they favor. You hear of talk of biological modification, but the full truth never spreads. Why is that? What do those in charge fear would happen if that were the case?”

More unsettled murmurs spread around the crowd. This wasn’t what they had come to hear. Tevyan lifted his weathered left hand, wrinkled with age but unmistakably half what it should have been. His outer two fingers and a good portion of the hand was missing. An outward sign of the mutilation and abuse he had sustained. A collective gasp went out from the crowd, even though they all knew of his injuries.

“In all of the battles, the victories we have won, no other person ever emerged alive from the night-flayer holdings. Or so you’ve been told. I’ve been the sole survivor, the prisoner that single-handedly managed to destroy a nightflayer base and then stayed alive among the rubble until rescued.”

Clapping rose up. Tevyan waved it down.

“Thank you, but your applause is unnecessary, my escape was staged by the nightflayers themselves.” Tevyan twisted the first segment of the device. A faint green glow filled the bottom groove. The crowd grew more agitated, and security was watching him more carefully. It must worry them, hearing his words, not knowing what he held.

“It took me too long to realize their purpose. I was debriefed many, many times when I got back. It wasn’t until the years piled into decades that I realized their intent.”

Tevyan twisted the second segment. Now people were drawing back again, but panic hadn’t yet set in. Security remained uncertain.

“They let me free to generate hope in humanity. That’s right. The night-flayers wanted you to hope. It took them a long time to understand hope; it isn’t something that they are wired to understand. They don’t hope, they do or don’t do things. But their quantum computing technology has prescient capabilities, and it determined that our hopefulness would weaken us, make us hesitate, and draw back hoping for a different outcome.”

They were listening. It didn’t matter now, but he couldn’t do this and not explain.

“They sent me as an instrument of hope, to make humanity doubt and question. Many of you don’t remember that there were those at that time calling for a full-out attempt at genocide, to wipe out the night-flayers who had proved impossible to communicate with or reason with. That movement would have gained more strength if yet another base was discovered overrun with no survivors. Without any attempt at subverting me, the nightflayers made me their weapon. Humanity saw me survive and hoped for a different outcome.”

Tevyan twisted the last segment and returned the device to the case. The crowd relaxed further, though their faces betrayed their confusion and doubt at his words. Tevyan leaned on the podium. There wasn’t much time left.

“Be very clear. Our hope for peace, for an end to the war, was fed by that one small act. By a survivor. A prisoner who could convincingly believe that he had escaped, destroying the night-flayer base in the process through means of accessing the self-destruct. The one time in our history that a human accessed any night-flayer system! Don’t you see? Just as the socioanalysts planned to use this reception to reignite hope in humanity, the nightflayers sent me out to ignite hope at a time when we needed to take a different path.”

Silence ruled the room. The device was active. Nothing could stop it now. His words meant nothing, but he felt compelled all the same to speak before the end, as so many others had given their last words.

“We had an opportunity to decide to wipe them out. Those that cried out against that course failed to understand that the nightflayers intend exactly that. They will wipe us out, fighting to the last. Any retreat only serves their benefit. They let the poison inflicting humanity to grow and weaken us.”

Tevyan placed a hand on the device. “Some of you might recognize this device, deemed harmless. A laboratory experiment that proved time could be manipulated on a quantum level, a device without practical application until now.”

Murmurings rose out of the crowd. Any moment now it wouldn’t matter. Tevyan pushed forward, eager to finish before the end.

“I’ve set it for one very specific task. Reach back and flip a question asked of the nightflayer computers. Should I live or die? Would a survivor help the nightflayer cause? Last time it said yes. This time, it will say no and I’ll die with the rest of my squad. I don’t know if it will be enough, but I hope that humanity, outraged by the atrocities committed here will rise in a never-ending fury that will burn the nightflayers from existence once and for all!”

Tevyan swung his hand down at the podium.

The blow didn’t land. Where he had stood wasn’t there, never had been. Kepler didn’t exist, hadn’t except for one brief period many years ago. A tar baby, one of the native inhabitants of Ilivian, wandered through the spot where the terminal had stood, snuffling through the slink weed. Acidic saliva dissolved the tarry black coating on the slink weed and gave the tar baby a chance to consume the plant within. Slink weed tar coated its bare, hairless body. The tar baby didn’t care anything about the affairs of the humans and night-flayers that had battled over this ground. It knew nothing of the spikes of metal that rose up, half-covered by slink weed and gossamer webs.

The tar baby trundled on, blissfully unaware of the forgotten opportunities in that place near the lake shore coated with muck weed.

🚀

3,472 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 74th weekly short story release, written in February 2012. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully, I’ll catch up soon. Next up is my story, Killing Bennie.

The Greatest Gig

Tourists from many worlds enjoy cruises on the Elegant Slipstream for all the amenities and the cascading relativistic auras that surround the ship when it reemerges into normal space.

First Technician Chrystal Eagle never tired of the show. First Technician, she preferred starship plumber. Much better title. People — no matter the species, humanoid or not — expected sanitation systems to work invisibly.

The worst part of the job wasn’t the systems. It was the passengers. Still, greatest gig in the galaxy.

A story for those who enjoy big, bold, fun science fiction universes.

🚀

Coughed up into normal space, the Elegant Slipstream, rolled in the light of a cold blue Sun, giving the passengers, and one First Technician, a show worth dying for – of cascading relativistic auras. While the rest of the crew busied themselves with transition mechanics Chrystal enjoyed a forward lounge with a drink in her hand and a plate of genuine Terran truffles. Unless one of the Yelephant monks decided to use the humanoid facilities again she didn’t have anything to do except watch the passengers and the show outside.

Greatest gig in the galaxy, starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, but plumber worked and was less of a mouthful.

Speaking of mouthfuls, another truffle was in order. Studying the plate, her light suddenly was blocked. Chrystal looked up. Great. One of the passengers. She didn’t even know the species on this one. Humanoid, mostly. The cluster of wiggly blue, red and tan tentacles at the top of the shoulders didn’t exactly count as a head. The tentacles started out tan in the outer-most ring, longer and rougher looking. The red made up the innermost ring and looked almost pornographic. Were the black dots at the ends of the blue tentacles eyes? Who knew?

“Yes?” she asked, not knowing if the being would understand.

A translation bracelet on its disturbingly human-looking arm spoke up. Thought-controlled? Or was it making noises outside her range of hearing? “Pardon me. Are you a member of the crew?”

As if the blue coveralls and embroidered name didn’t give it away. But with so many species one couldn’t always tell what counted as fancy dress. She’d seen beings that thought wearing still-dripping bloody skins was the height of fashion.

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

“Excuse me, you are broken? Do you require medical assistance? Should I call the Steward?”

The volume of the bracelet needed to be dialed down. “Jeez. Keep it down.”

Chrystal stood up and stepped closer, smelling something like ginger. Not bad. Too bad she couldn’t tell where to look at this being. She was taller than it and looking at the absence of a head was too disturbing. She focused on the intricate weave of its textured black shirt. Looked like some sort of artificial polymer.

“Look, what is it that you need?”

“I was using the facilities back there for the purpose of defecation –”

“That’s what it’s for.”

“– and something odd happened.” The passenger interlaced its hands together. It appeared to be waiting.

“I need a little more than that. What do you mean something odd happened?” She raised a hand. “Without getting too gross. I see enough shit as it is. I don’t need that kind of detail. And if this is a medical odd-thing, then I’m not the one you should be talking to.”

The bracelet sounded distressed. “I am in perfect health and do not appreciate the insinuation that my condition would be otherwise.”

“Jeez, I wasn’t saying that. Sorry. What was the problem?” Passengers. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but sometimes the passengers could be the greatest pain in the arse. And she was missing the show outside. Any moment now the relativistic cascade would surge and then the backwash would pass over the ship. She didn’t want to miss it.

“The disposal mechanism appeared to be jammed. It did not function properly.”

“Okay, great. I’ll fix it. You did the right thing reporting it.” She pointed at the huge transparent lounge wall. “But watch this, okay?”

The relativistic auras increased in activity. Fractal patterns exploded into view, spread, multiplied, spanned colors only seen in dreams. It became so bright that many beings looked away even though the screens wouldn’t allow any harmful radiation through. It was a birth-of-a-universe moment, only in this case the Elegant Slipstream was the universe. The CrunchBang drive collapsed the ship and everyone aboard at the departure point only to explode out at the destination point. Chrystal understood plumbing, not the drive, but she appreciated this moment when the ship was reborn in normal space. The trick? Don’t think about the “crunch” part.

At the moment the auras became their most intense the entire show vanished. For a long three seconds those that could hold their breath did. The passenger beside her didn’t twitch a tentacle where its head should be. Then a blinding wash of activity appeared and swept over the ship.

Chrystal popped a truffle into her mouth, chewed and washed it down. “We’re back. I’ll fix the loo. Enjoy the truffles, if you can.”

🚀

Chrystal waved into the facilities, the auto-servicing lockout triggering right away. The light panels above all of the stalls looked green indicating everything in good functioning order and unoccupied. The place smelled of antiseptic and cleansers. Even with the ventilation filters. But it could be, and had been on other cruises, worse. After the Yelephant monks had used the humanoid facilities she’d had to suit up in full bio-hazard gear before Larry, the Ship AI, even let her inside. That was the trouble with a cyanide-excreting species.

The first stall looked just as it should, like a complicated medical device with so many hoses and armatures that most new passengers needed an hour long orientation just to understand how to use the thing. Giving them plenty to eat and drink during the orientation help ensure that any initial hesitation would be overcome. Designed to function for nearly a hundred know species, the stall worked for all and wasn’t comfortable for any. Chrystal moved down the line, banging open each door. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. A bit of something on the floor there not cleaned up yet, but nothing to prevent a species from using the stall. Or, if exceptionally fastidious, any of the other stalls. Nothing. Visual inspection turned up exactly squat.

Maybe she should go back out and drag that passenger in here by his tentacles and ask him again exactly what his problem had been. But that ran the risk of being interpreted as a sexual advance. Rules stood very clear on that point. Avoid all reasonable risk of any behaviors that might be construed as sexual in nature. Grabbing some passenger’s tentacles? Yeah, that could be bad.

“Larry?” Chrystal called out. “I could use some help here.”

The smooth tones of the Ship AI came through her ear-piece. “Technician, why do you insist on using that nomenclature to address me?”

Just to see if I can piss you off. Fortunately Larry didn’t have telepathic capabilities. Too expensive. “You sound like a Larry to me. A passenger reported one of the stalls in here had jammed. Do you have any record of the event?”

“I do not record the private activities of passengers.”

“Never? Not even to study how biological intelligences behave behind closed doors?”

“Never.” Larry’s voice never varied. No emotions.

And yet she believed that Larry had emotions. There’d been hints over the years. Sooner or later she’d get a response out of him.

“What about the logs from the stalls? Any sensors detect any anomalous readings? Any interruptions in service?”

One of the stall lights switched to amber. Fourth down the row. “The indicated stall picked up an overload thirty-three minutes ago. Distribution fans in the initial capture chamber shut down to prevent damage. However the blockage appears to be clear now.”

“Clear? How could it clear if the fans shut down? Without fans there’s no airflow, no suction. Nothing to move material further down the system.”

“Nevertheless,” Larry said. “The system appears clear now on all sensors.”

“So I’m supposed to accept that it is clear? Based on a reading that could be faulty? I don’t think so. I do that and more passengers complain then I have a problem with the Captain. Shut it down. Send out the droids. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“As you wish, Technician.”

The amber light switched to red. In the wall opposite the stalls a panel slid up. Three squat egg-shaped chrome droids hovered into view, each about the side of her fist. The red sensor lights on their pointy ends traveled back and forth. All three hovered over and lined up in front of her.

“Okay, boys. We’ve got a passenger complaining of a jam in that stall. I need a volunteer to take a look inside the initial capture chamber.”

The two left-most droids floated back away several inches. The other one dipped briefly to the floor in defeat.

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

She walked over to the indicated stall and pushed open the door. Huey floated right up to the door and stopped. Chrystal snapped her fingers. “Come on Huey, take the plunge!”

Huey let out a raspberry of protest and rose up to the seat. The droid position itself right above the seat and turned to face her. The red sensor light dimmed. It gave a small whistle of despair. “Sorry Huey. Gotta flush you.”

She pulled the release lever hit the override button to open the capture chamber seal. Huey hung for a moment above the open capture chamber and then dropped out of sight. Chrystal pulled her tablet out of her pocket and with a couple flicks pulled up Huey’s feed.

The capture chamber walls rose up around Huey, gleaming with the red light from his sensor beam. The upper part of the chamber looked perfectly clean without out any trace of what the chamber was used for or any sign of problem. Huey let out a questioning warble.

“Nope. Look down, Huey. Let’s assume that any problem would be lower.”

Huey screeched like a horny Moh’bunian. Then the droid rotated around its center of gravity until it could see the bottom of the capture chamber. There. Past the vents and fans, some sort of glistening blue shape in the bottom of the capture chamber. The blue whatever it was reflected the light from the droid, giving it a sort of purplish cast. The shape shrank back away from the droid.

Huey beeped and started to float up away from the substance. The blue stuff swelled out of the bottom of the capture chamber. Chrystal knocked the release lever back up. The top of the capture chamber rotated shut. Huey’s beeps became more frantic. The droid bumped against the top of the chamber with a dull thunk and still the substance rose into the space. She couldn’t see many details with only Huey’s light in the chamber.

“Larry! Can you get the scoop on whatever is in that capture chamber?”

“Sensors do not detect anything in the capture chamber.”

Chrystal looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah. What about Huey?”

Huey clanked against the top of the capture chamber again. The droid’s muffled beeps came faster. The other two droids floated into the stall and took up positions on either side of the unit.

“The sensors in the capture unit are designed to detect the presence of waste products. Not cleaning and maintenance droids.”

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

More thunks on the lid of the capture chamber. On her screen she could see that the bluish substance now filled at least half of the chamber. Huey hardly had room to stay above it. In the dim red light she couldn’t make out many details. Whatever it was didn’t look liquid.

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

“Great.” Huey banged against the lid repeatedly. The droid’s beeps merged into a continuous sound of distress. “Alert the crew. There may be a hazardous substance in the waste disposal system. I’m going to try flushing it to composting and processing. Maybe I can clear it out.”

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

“Sorry Huey.” Chrystal waved her hand in front of the flush panel. An override prompt appeared on her tablet. She thumbed it. “We’ll get you out.”

One of the droids at her feet gave out a hiss of static. She faked a kick at it. “We’ll get him out. Really.”

The system fans kicked in creating a powerful suction. Fans in the capture chamber started to move. Huey’s distress signal cut off as the droid made a dizzying dive down to avoid the fans. The blue substance shrank back down into the drain. Huey dropped after it. The droid spun about, pointy end pointing up at the closed top of the capture chamber. Weak anti-gravs struggled to hold the egg-shaped droid out of the drain but soon proved no match for the suction. Huey spun around and with a loud sucking noise followed the blue gunk down the drain. Down, into the pipes and through the system.

Chrystal pocketed the tablet. “Let’s go get him, boys.”

🚀

Using the tablet Chrystal tracked Huey’s progress through the system. Now that the system had sucked whatever it was through the pipes, Huey dove after it in pursuit with cleaning brushes extended. With the other two droids trailing on her heels like a pair of baby ducklings she ran out of the facilities back into the lounge area. She turned and went through an unobtrusive door discreetly marked ‘Crew Only’. Behind the scenes she could really run. She grabbed a rail sled, pulled it down, stepped on and kicked off. The droid right behind her managed to get up on the sled and grabbed the front with an extruded manipulator. The other missed the jump as the sled shot off down the corridor. She twisted the throttle full up. The sled sped down the corridor at high speed. The rail guide lights flashed red ahead to alert anyone in the corridor of the oncoming sled.

The ship resembled a giant strand of DNA, a double-helix with a passenger side and a crew side. The sled reached the main crew strand and spiraled down to the lower processing levels, just one level up above the engines. She slowed right at the main access hatch and expertly stepped down. The sled snapped up. Faster than the droid which hadn’t relaxed its grip yet. A plaintive wail came from behind the sled. Chrystal pulled it down. The droid rolled out and bounced across the floor. The red sensor light dead. Chrystal walked over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot. A small spark of red appeared.

“Yeah, I know you’re not dead, Dewey. Come on.”

The light came on and moved back and forth over the pointed end of the droid as it rose from the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Chrystal looked at the tablet. Huey had nearly reached this level. “Let’s go give an evacuation route.”

Through the hatch, droid close on her heels. This was on one of the cross chambers connecting the two strands of the ship. Massive and full of all sorts of equipment, the facility was capable of processing waste from over a hundred known species with up to ten thousand different passengers and crew at any given time. Crew technicians of many races in white coveralls walked with purpose. Every phase had to be monitored. With so many species waste handling could be a big deal. Even so they snapped to attention as she came through the corridor. Her blue coveralls announced her presence as a First Technician, top of the slop. Head of Biological Waste and Recycling on board the Elegant Slipstream.

“Don’t hold your noses now, get in there!” She waved them back to work. She ran down the corridor towards the central command center. A fat bead strung between the crew and passenger strands the C Prime coordinated all the waste handling on board. She came at the transparent doors fast enough that they barely slid open enough for her to get through. The doors snapped shut behind her. Dewey crashed into the door.

Miguel Stacks bounced up out of the command chair, his tan coveralls showing his rank as Second Technician. “Chief!”

Chrystal gave him a nod and dropped into the chair. Still warm. “Can somebody get me some iced tea?”

A junior tech appeared at her elbow with a steel, black-capped thermos of iced tea. Chrystal took it. Dewey managed to get through the door and hovered over to her chair.

“Miguel, there’s a blockage coming down the system. Tap into Huey’s feeds. I want it diverted into an empty and clean holding tank.”

“We’re at capacity. To free a tank we’ll have to shift waste. We might have to vent the excess.”

“And have the Captain deduct the cost of the organics from our budget? I don’t think so. If you need to bag and store it. We can reintroduce it into the system after I’m done.”

Miguel started shouting orders to the technicians. Droids and techs spun to work. Dewey waited beside her foot. She sipped her iced tea. Dewey whined. “I told you, we’ll get him out of there. Besides you volunteered him for this mission.”

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

“How long until Huey and the blockage reaches the chamber?”

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

“I have not informed her of the matter at this time since it has not threatened the integrity of the ship or passengers.”

“Good. Keep it that way. I’ll report after I have a chance to figure out what’s going on.” Chrystal got up, slipping the thermos into one of her pockets. “Come on Dewey. You’re in this with me. Miguel! I’ll be at the tank.”

“It’ll be ready when you get there,” Miguel said. “We’ve bagged the excess and stored it.”

Right. Back out of C Prime, down the corridor back to the main Crew strand. She followed the directions on her tablet to the tank, one of thousands of blisters sticking off the main strand. She waved a hand at the access hatch. It turned green and the hatch opened.

“Go on,” she told Dewey, nudging the droid in.

Dewey beeped in protest.

The tank looked pristine. The smell of bleach hung strong in the air. Given the turnaround time, not bad. She pulled her tablet and checked the feed. Huey whistled joyfully and plunged after the bluish blockage. She felt the breeze from the air being pumped out of the pipes leading into the blister. All other paths had been blocked off. Whatever it was, it was coming in here.

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

The droid chirruped and darted around her when the door opened. She let the chamber seal behind her and turned the wall transparent. Just in time. A mass off blue doughy material appeared in the pipe. It oozed out down towards the floor. More and more poured out. With a last pop it fell free and landed on the floor. It immediately rose back up, moving. Three blobs appeared along the topside. Two lengthened and narrowed. The rest of the material rose up higher, then the lower section split into two trunks. It’d taken on a vague, doughy humanoid shape.

“Who’s that shit-head?” Chrystal asked.

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

“Let’s find out.” Chrystal waved open the chamber. “Larry, kill the fans.”

The door opened and Huey fell out of the pipe in the ceiling. The droid hit the blue person-thing, bounced off and managed to come to a rest an inch above the floor. Manipulators retracted leaving the droid a smooth egg-shape again. Both Huey and Dewey turned sensors towards the figure at the center of the chamber.

The shape continued to change and become more humanoid. In fact she could see now definite signs of maleness. The creature firmed up. Details began to take shape, features in the blue head. Right before her eyes the substance changed from a doughy caricature of a person to a gorgeous muscled guy with beautiful sky-blue skin and a sunny smile. Navy blue hair hung down to his shoulders.

“Hello there,” he said, clearly happy to see her.

Chrystal shuddered. “Okay. Icky. Do you know what you just came out of up there? You need a shower before you touch anything. Then, you need to explain what you were doing clogging up my pipes.”

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

Chrystal waited near the door to the finest restaurant on the Elegant Slipstream wearing a tiny black dress. She felt very exposed without her coveralls. But it wasn’t every day that the Prince of a planetary dynasty asked to take her to dinner for saving him from the complexities of the waste management system. It turned out he had attended the orientation for the humanoid facilities but had to revert to his unformed state to expel waste. He should have been in the non-humanoid facilities. Anyone could make that sort of mistake.

Prince Harris, as he asked to be called, walked into view. Dressed now in a fine black tuxedo, with his blue skin he looked exotic and lovely. And, he had assured her, entirely clean. He had promised that he had washed everything, not just his hands, before dinner. The Captain was pleased that her quick action had prevented some sort of diplomatic incident, which could have happened had the Prince been cooked, chopped and composted.

Watching him walk towards her with such easy grace Chrystal thought she’d gotten the best end of the deal. Starship plumber. Greatest gig in the galaxy.

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 72nd weekly short story release, written in April 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Discards.

Witness to Dust

The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.

She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.

🚀

Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.

Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.

So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.

But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.

Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.

Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.

Except for the house overlooking the river.

Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.

If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.

Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.

She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.

A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.

She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.

The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.

Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!

Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.

Trapped.

She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.

Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.

She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.

Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.

“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.

Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.

The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.

She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.

A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.

“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”

The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.

“Okay. Where am I?”

“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”

A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.

“You’re a Witness.”

“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”

“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”

Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.

“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”

Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”

Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…

 

A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.

 

Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.

She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.

But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.

Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.

The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.

The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.

“Can you give me the card, there?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”

She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”

Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.

“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”

“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room.  A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”

Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”

“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”

Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”

He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.

And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.

That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.

She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”

“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”

“So I don’t have any choice?”

Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”

Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”

Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”

Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.

🚀

When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.

She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.

But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?

Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.

Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.

She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.

She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.

Impossible.

She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.

Pain!

It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.

She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.

Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.

Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.

“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”

He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.

“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”

“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.

Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.

She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.

Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.

At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.

She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”

Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off.  Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”

Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.

Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.

She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.

“What happened after that?”

“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”

Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.

In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.

She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.

Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.

She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.

Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.

Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Space Lot

Darren and his friends loved playing in the bio-dome. Almost like being outside.

Down below the station the planet promised endless open spaces if humans and Nivelaxians figured out a way to share. It didn’t make sense. Kl’ct didn’t understand it either.

When an unexpected attack threatens the station Darren and the others find themselves trapped in the bio-dome with older kids, no way out, and no time.

🚀

The whole station shuddered like the rabbits back in the biolabs. Darren noticed but Kl’ct twisted around one of the bio-dome trees and hissed from his perch on the branch above. Lex grabbed onto Mike’s left wing and pulled.

Mike yelled and swung at Lex’s arm. “Let go!”

“What was that?” Darren said.

Kl’ct curled around the branch even higher, pushing his iridescent face through the leaves to peer down at the rest of them. “Chase?”

Mike pulled free from Lex but the left wing was out of alignment in the harness. He twisted, trying to see the shimmery feathers. “If you broke this I’m going to break your arm!”

“You’re not,” Lex said.

“Stop!” Darren said. “Listen!”

“Chase,” Kl’ct said.

There was a loud whistling noise. The station shook again. A loud siren sounded through the dome. They all noticed that. Kl’ct’s antenna rose and spread as he reared up from the branch.

“Alert. Alert.”

“We hear it,” Darren said.

Augmented warnings popped up from the corners of his eyes. Depressurization, destabilization, compartmentalization procedures in force, whatever those meant.

“Shit,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”

Darren said, “Call home.”

An augmented warning popped up in front of him. Systems error. Please try again.

He did and it still didn’t work. The other guys were doing the same thing, trying to call out without any luck.

“Come on, call home!” Lex’s voice rose.

Mike hit the releases on his wing harness and swung the broad wings free. “I’m going to fix this and then get out of here.”

Kl’ct’s beads rattled as he spiraled down out of the tree to the ground. “Disconnected. Disaster.”

Darren waved away his own error messages. They dissolved in a drift of smoke and were gone. He reached out and tapped Lex’s arm.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Lex nodded. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go.”

“Wait!” Mike said. He had realigned his wing and was pulling on the harness. “I’m coming too!”

Lex was already running. He wasn’t waiting. The red lights flashed and reflected on his bouncing blond hair.

Mike finished strapping on his wings and activated them. Responding directly to his thoughts — the wings were an expensive gift from his Earth-bound father — Mike launched himself into the air.

Darren started running after the others. Mike flew faster than any of them could run.

The whistling noise started fading. Darren looked around, noticed shadows moving on the ground and looked up. Hundreds of fist-sized repair drots swarmed over the face of the dome spraying sealant over holes punched through a section of the dome.

“Look!” He jabbed a finger up at the drots.

Kl’ct and Lex stopped to look up.

Kl’ct’s external display flashed on his face. “Structural failures!”

“We’ve been hit,” Lex said. “Meteorite impact?”

Mike swooped down and circled over their heads. “The hatches are sealed!”

“What?” Three voices asked at once.

Darren clenched his fists and looked toward the exit hatches, but the plants were in the way. He couldn’t see the way out. The biodome had two primary exits at each end, it was a like a swollen bead on the string of the station’s main body. It was one of four similar domes spaced around the station, each designed for different sorts of environmental conditions. This one was a temperate forest environment, although it contained species from a half-dozen different worlds. They’d learned about all of them in their lessons.

“I’m gonna check it out,” Mike said. He flapped off over the tops of a Broken Pearl tree. The canopy of broad leaves formed a complicated pattern of pearlescent leaves around the central trunk.

“We should go help,” Darren said.

Up above it looked like the drots had a handle on sealing the holes. At least for the moment it didn’t look like they were going to depressurize.

Darren took off running again, this time getting in front. Lex’s feet slapped the path behind him. Kl’ct’s pointed prods sounded like someone drumming their fingers against the path to make a sort of galloping sound.

They rounded the planter that held the Broken Pearl tree among the thicker undergrowth and could finally see the closed hatches ahead. Both the inner and outer hatches were shut, with red lights tracing the edges.

Mike had landed, his wings folded down his back as he tried the hatch controls. It kept throwing up a red warning message each time he tried before Darren got there.

Mike looked down at him. “It’s not working. The hatches won’t open!”

Lex and Kl’ct arrived. Kl’ct lifted his upper body from the ground and swayed back and forth.

“Trapped. No way out?”

“We can try the other side of the dome,” Lex said.

Darren shook his head. “It’s probably closed.”

“But we don’t know that,” Lex said. “What if it’s not?”

“I could go check it,” Mike said. “I can get there faster than anyone.”

Kl’ct’s probs tapped on the controls and a second later the display showed a schematic of the station complete with read highlighted sections.

“Areas damaged,” Kl’ct said. “Hatches reported closed, sealing off sections.”

Darren joined him and flicked through the reports. It was true. There was damage to the station in sections on both sides of this dome. They’d taken the worst of the impact.

“Still unidentified?” Lex said, peering over Darren’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“They don’t know what hit us,” Darren said.

“Not meteorites?” Lex said.

Darren stepped back from the panel. “It doesn’t say.”

Which was very frustrating. Wouldn’t it say if there had been a meteorite impact?

Mike’s wings spread and folded back up. “So I shouldn’t go?”

Darren shook his head. “Stay here. We shouldn’t get separated, and we’re already at this hatch. Someone will come.”

Just then there were voices. Lex and Mike rushed to the hatch doors.

“We’re in here!”

Mike pounded on the glass.

“Stop it,” Darren said. “Stop!”

Both of the guys turned around. Darren pointed off into the dome. “The voices came from out there. Someone else is in here.”

Sure enough, two big kids came around the corner. They were both a lot taller, almost as big as adults, and human. One of the guys had wavy black hair and was holding a broken drot in his hands, the legs dangling around his fingers. The other kid was a red-head, with hair a deep rusty red-brown and a spray of freckles across his pale skin.

The guy with the drot sneered when he saw them. “Shit, we’re stuck in here with a bunch of squirts!”

The red-head nudged the guy and pointed at Kl’ct. “But look, there’s a Milliroach with them.”

Kl’ct hissed softly and scuttled backward around Lex.

“I’ll bet it’s a spy,” the one holding the drot said. “Sent here to scout out the station before the attack.”

“Attack?” Lex said.

“Yeah, squirt. Me and McQueen here saw ‘em. Milliroach ships fired on the station. Looks like the war finally started, alright.”

War. Darren’s stomach shrank. Dad had talked about the chance that there was going to be a war. The disagreement with the Nivelaxians — Milliroach was a bad word — over the colony planet below was all his parents talked about some days. It didn’t make much sense. It was a whole planet! There should have been room for everyone, but the Nivelaxians were there first and weren’t looking for neighbors on the surface.

“We ought to take him prisoner,” McQueen said. “Right, Rod?”

The other kid, apparently Rod, nodded. “I think so. We could be heroes when we get out of here.”

“Not a spy,” Kl’ct said. “Exchange student.”

“Right.” Rod laughed. “Like anyone believed that! You wanted to spy on us.”

McQueen said. “Want to tie him up or something?”

Darren stepped forward. “He’s not a spy. He takes lessons with us. Just leave him alone.”

Rod stepped up and loomed over Darren. “You telling me what to do, squirt?”

Darren squeezed his hands into fists. There were four of them, even if they were smaller. “Yes. You can’t do anything to Kl’ct, he’s not —”

There was a blur and something smacked Darren’s face. It was loud and hurt! He staggered and his whole face smarted. Tears stung his eyes.

Rod had hit him!

Darren wiped the tears away just as Rod stepped closer and gave him a two-handed shove. Darren flew back like a leaf caught in wind.

McQueen was laughing, his voice high-pitched and gasping.

“That’s what I can do, squirt,” Rod said. He pointed at each of them in turn. “Don’t the rest of you think about trying anything unless you want more of the same.”

Darren picked himself up. Lex and Mike stood together in front of Kl’ct. It wasn’t fair, and Darren couldn’t let it go. It didn’t matter what happened, he wasn’t about to let Rod pick on anyone else.

“You’re pretty tough,” Darren said.

Rod looked at him. “What did you say?”

“You’re tough.” Darren walked in front of the others. “Big guy, you can pick on someone half your size. Makes you pretty tough, I guess.”

McQueen’s eyes bulged and he covered his giggles with one hand.

Darren gestured at McQueen. “Even your buddy thinks that’s pretty funny.”

Rod turned and when he saw McQueen trying not to laugh he glared. That made McQueen lose it. The kid started laughing great big belly busters.

Rod shoved McQueen’s shoulders. “Cut it out! It’s not funny!”

“Yes it is,” Darren said. “It’s hilarious.”

Rod pointed a finger at Darren. “You’d better stop.”

McQueen laughed harder.

Rod chucked the broken drot at McQueen. It hit McQueen in the chest, then fell with a dull clank to the floor.

“Ow!” McQueen rubbed the spot. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” Rod said. “Now help me get this Milliroach.”

McQueen kicked the broken drot aside. “Come on kids, don’t give him any excuses.”

Darren stayed where he was and tried not to shake. He lifted his arms and made two fists. “I’m not letting you do anything to Kl’ct. He doesn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

“It was them!” Rod said. “We saw the ship!”

“You saw them?” Lex stepped up. “What sort of ship did you see? Can you describe it?”

“It wasn’t human,” Rod said. “We know that. No one has ships like that one.”

Mike spoke up. “How do you know it wasn’t some other species?”

“It looked like a giant bug,” McQueen said. “Some sort of beetle.”

Kl’ct’s body rose up, rocking back onto his rear prods. “Ships not like a beetle.”

Rod sneered and tried to step around Darren. “Like we’d believe you.”

Darren moved in front of the big kid. “He’s telling the truth!”

“Their ships look like spheres,” Lex said. “We studied them in class. They’re like giant balls.”

Which wasn’t telling the bigger kids that the reason they studied it was because of the report that Kl’ct did in front of the class when he joined their lesson group.

Rod said, “So what other aliens could it be? It’s the Milliroaches that don’t want to share the planet.”

“I don’t know,” Darren said. “But it wasn’t them. And even if it was, it’s not up to you. Help will come, they’ll know what to do.”

“What if the dome depressurizes?” Lex asked.

Rod shoved a hand back through his wavy hair. “The drots are sealing the domes. It’s fine, kid.”

He was actually right. It wasn’t easy to see from here, but it looked like the drots were crawling down the face of the dome. There was a dull, darker spot where they had applied the patch.

Mike picked up the broken drot that Rod had thrown at McQueen. It’s legs dangled limply around his hand. “What happened to this one?”

“It fell,” McQueen said. “Lots its grip up there and fell all the way down. We saw it, give it over.”

Mike threw it back at McQueen. The bigger boy simply reached out and caught it. McQueen laughed, tossed the drot into the air and caught it again.

Rod tapped his arm. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“The other side of the dome,” Rod’s tone suggested that McQueen’s question was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. “While these squirts are sitting around here waiting for this hatch to open, we’re going to see if the other way out is open.”

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said.

“Yeah?” Rod said, sneering. “Like I’m going to listen to a Milliroach. We’ll go check it out on our own.”

Rod was already walking away. McQueen hesitated for a moment, tossed the drot up, caught it and then he started whistling as he followed Rod away.

Darren finally relaxed and turned back to face his friends.

“That was insane,” he said.

“Do you think they’ll get out?” Lex said.

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said. “No leaving.”

Now that the immediate danger was past Darren felt his excited rise. “Did you hear what they said, though? About the ships? Not human or Nivelaxian — that means there’s some other alien species here.”

The science lessons said that it was unlikely for two civilizations to be spreading around the same portion of the galaxy at the same time. Most went extinct before gaining the ability to travel between solar systems. There’d been plenty of ruins found on alien worlds in the past hundred or so years.

“Great,” Lex said. “And they took a shot at us because they’re the big kids?”

“I could fly up and see what those guys are doing,” Mike said.

“They probably wouldn’t like it if they saw you,” Darren said. “We should stick together.”

“They can’t do anything if I’m flying above them.”

“Throw rocks?” Kl’ct said.

Mike’s wings flexed and folded. “Maybe, but they probably couldn’t hit me.”

“How long do you think it’ll take before someone comes for us?” Lex said. “I’m getting hungry.”

It was almost lunch time. That introduced a new wrinkle to the whole experience. What were they supposed to do about food? Most of the edible plants grown on the station were in the hydroponics bay. The bio-domes were parks, places for people to get out even under the black sky.

“It probably won’t take too much longer,” Darren said. “Let’s check the panel.”

He went over to the panel beside the hatch. Kl’ct reared up beside him but kept his prods to himself. Darren swiped through the screens but it was only displaying the same information as before. The areas on both sides of the bio-dome showed sealed sections and damage. Portions of the station had been vented by the damage but the interior seals were holding.

“Nothing new,” Kl’ct said, dropping back down to the ground.

“He’s right,” Darren added.

Lex made a frustrated noise. “I can’t connect! How’s that even possible?”

Darren activated his augmentation layer and right away was alerted that the only viable connections were his friends — and the two older kids that had gone off. Nothing outside the dome.

He waved away the interface. “I guess we just wait.”

“Other ways out?” Kl’ct said.

“I don’t think so,” Lex said. “Unless you can override the security on the hatch.”

“Is that even safe?” Mike said. “If sections are depressurized, doesn’t that mean we couldn’t breathe? We might vent the whole dome.”

Darren remembered something on the schematics as he was viewing the damage to the station. He pulled that back up and found what he was looking for.

“There,” he said, spreading his fingers to zoom in on the area. “What about the supply shaft?”

“What’s that?” Kl’ct said.

It was a radial arm that ran from the hub out to the bio-dome. The passage was small on the schematics, but it had to have room for all of the air, water and power supplies to the bio-dome. But there should also be room for them. It was used for maintenance after all.

“Supply shaft straight out to the hub ring,” Darren said. “If we can get in, we can get all the way to the hub ring. There’s no damage reported there, only out here.”

“Let’s do it,” Mike said. “Better than sitting around here.”

Lex nodded. “Sure okay.”

“Sure okay,” Kl’ct said.

The fact that they all agreed surprised Darren but there wasn’t anything else to do except go check it out.

As they set out along the paths Lex and Mike hurried to the front. He let them. Maybe they wouldn’t have any luck opening the supply shaft, but he felt better about it than sitting and doing nothing. Seeing the damaged sections on the panel, all he could picture was his parents caught in one of the depressurized section. Logically, there wasn’t any reason for his parents to be in those areas — they were both supervisors that worked in parts of the hub. No reason for them to be out in the main ring at this time.

Except sometimes they had to for their jobs, but the station was a big place. What were the chances?

It didn’t matter. He’d be happier when they were all safe in the hub and there were grown-ups around to tell them what was going on. Plus, even though the drots had patched the damage to the dome he didn’t quite trust the patch. What if it failed? Or the ships came back. The hub would be safer.

It wasn’t easy to find the supply shaft hatch. The path was almost covered by long trailing ferns. Kl’ct spotted it, but then he was ambling along on his prods much lower than the rest of them.

“Here, here!”

Darren pushed through first, followed by the other guys. Past the ferns the path opened up into a firm path with an almost rubberized feel to it, even though it was designed to look like gravel. At the end, not that far, was the dome wall and a plain metallic hatch with a bright red and yellow bar across the middle.

EMERGENCY ACCESS ONLY. NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS.

“I think this counts as an emergency,” Darren said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Open it.”

“Is it going to sound an alarm?”

“Likely result,” Kl’ct said.

Darren grabbed the big red lever in the hatch. There were arrows showing that the lever needed to be lifted and rotated around to face the other way, counter-clockwise. He wrapped both hands around it and pulled.

It didn’t move.

“Come on,” Lex said. “What’s wrong?”

“It won’t move,” Darren said.

Mike shoved Lex out of the way. “Let me try.”

Darren and Lex got out of his way, but the wings still hit Darren’s arm. Mike liked to act like he was a big guy, but he really wasn’t. Darren crossed his arms and waited.

Mike strained to move the handle with both hands and it refused to budge.

“Give up?” Lex said. “Maybe Kl’ct should try?”

“Unnecessary,” Kl’ct said.

“No,” Mike said. He glanced back. “Stand back.”

“What are you doing?” Darren said.

Mike’s wings spread out on either side. He wrapped his hands around the handle, crouched and then jumped into the air. His wings swept down and he swung up and crashed into the hatch.

He yelled and fell down, landing on hands and knees.

He climbed up onto his feet and his wings folded back into place. “It’s busted. We’re stuck.”

“Larger humans help?” Kl’ct said.

They all looked at him and Darren saw that they all had the same opinion of Kl’ct’s idea. Ask the older boys for help? Darren didn’t want to see them again, but it might be the only way to get out.

“No way,” Lex said. “You saw what he did to Darren.”

“Right,” Mike said. “We’ll wait until a rescue team gets to us.”

Darren said, “No. Let’s ask them.”

“Really?” Lex said.

Darren took a deep breath and it didn’t feel right. Thin. He hadn’t noticed before, but the air seemed thinner. And there was a faint whistling noise.

“Yes,” he said. “I think the drots’ patch isn’t holding. We need to get out of here into a sealed section.”

“I can check it out,” Mike said.

He stepped away and spread his wings.

“Be careful,” Kl’ct said. “Thinner air, harder to fly.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll be careful. Thanks.”

Darren started up the path. “We’ll go on foot. You can help us find them.”

“Right!” Mike said.

Mike jumped into the air and his wings swept down. Leaves blew around them as he flapped up into the air over the ferns and bushes. Soon he was nearly out of sight over the trees.

Darren ran up the path with Lex and Kl’ct running with him. He turned left and headed down the path in the direction of the other side of the dome because that’s where the older boys said they were going.

None of the paths in the bio-dome went straight. They twisted and went up and down the small hills in the bio-dome. Across a wood footbridge over the stream. It was almost fun except Darren realized that he was breathing heavier than normal.

Mike swooped back over them. “Turn at the next split — they’re heading back.”

Darren shouted, “Okay.”

Up ahead the path split beneath a big tree that curved and made almost a tunnel of branches. It was a favorite spot of theirs because it was easy to climb the tree. Mike dropped down and landed on the thick branches.

“They’re just up ahead.”

Darren ran on through the branches tunnel and coming up the next rise. He sucked air and bent over, hands on his knees. The big kids were just up ahead at the top of the next rise. As Lex and Kl’ct caught up, and Mike hoped down onto the trail, McQueen saw them. He tapped Rod’s arm.

Rod turned around. “What are you doing?”

Darren straightened and ran down the hill towards the bigger boys. They stayed where they were until he got there.

“The air’s leaking,” Darren said, breathing hard.

The guys caught up.

“The drots fixed it,” McQueen said.

Darren shook his head. “It didn’t hold. Listen, you can hear the whistling.”

Everyone was quiet and the whistling was like a distant tea kettle. Rod’s eyes widened.

“We have to get one of those hatches open,” he said. He looked down at them. “You’ll have to keep up.”

He was already turning and Darren grabbed his arm. “Wait.”

Rod scowled and yanked his arm away. “We can’t wait unless you squirts want to be sucking vacuum.”

“There’s another hatch, to the access shaft,” Darren said. “We couldn’t lift the lever, but maybe you can.”

“Okay,” Rod said. “Where?”

“You’re not listening to them, are you?” McQueen said.

“Why not?” Rod looked down at Darren. “He seems tougher and smarter than you.”

Darren pointed back down the path. “This way.”

They all ran, even Mike. He tried to take off but didn’t get much lift from his wings. Darren took the lead with the bigger boys behind him, and the rest of the group following. The air was getting thinner. His lungs were burning by the time they got to the access hatchway.

Rod immediately grabbed the lever and tried to move it. It moved a little, but then he stopped and looked at McQueen.

“Don’t be dumb, help me!”

McQueen crowded in beside Rod and put his hands beneath the end. Rod grabbed it from the top. With McQueen pushing and Rod pulling the lever moved up. As they forced it vertical they switched their grips and pulled it the rest of the way down.

Rod pushed on the hatch and it didn’t move.

Darren went to the panel and looked at the readout. “There’s more pressure on the other side — it’s pushing the hatch shut!”

“Everyone!” Rod said.

He planted his back against the hatch. McQueen did the same thing. The rest of the kids crowed around them and Kl’ct went between the big kid’s legs to reach the hatch.

Darren was pressed against Lex, both of their hands on the hatch. “Push!”

They all pushed. At first Darren didn’t think it was going to work. He was heaving lungfuls of thin air but they weren’t making progress. Then a breeze blew in his face. He realized after a second that it was air escaping around the hatch into the dome.

“Keep pushing!”

A centimeter at a time they pushed the hatch inward into the access tunnel. The breeze became a wind blowing in their faces but it was at least easier to breathe. Soon they had the hatch shoved wide open and kept pushing until it was fully open. Even then the wind threatened to shove it close.

“Get out of the way on three,” Rod said.

“One. Two. Three!”

Darren darted into the tunnel. Lex was with him. Kl’ct scurried past on his prods. Mike stumbled as McQueen shoved him forward. Rod was still on the door, legs planted to try and hold the hatch but he was sliding. Then he rolled away from the hatch into the shaft.

The hatch slammed shut with a loud bang and the wind stopped. Rod slowly picked himself up. Darren walked over and held out his hand. Rod hesitated for a moment and then shook it.

“You’re a weird kid, but sorry about smacking you around.”

Darren noticed the pinched look in Rod’s face. The older boy really was sorry. It suddenly occurred to Darren that Rod had been reacting out of fear from the attack.

“It’s Kl’ct that deserves the apology,” Darren said. “He didn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

Kl’ct lifted his front section up from the floor. “We would never attack you, physical confrontation, very distasteful.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Rod said.

He brushed past them. The access shaft curved sharply just ahead and there was a ladder leading up. The whole station rotated to simulate gravity. To get up to the hub they were going to have to climb up the access shaft.

“Come on,” Rod called. “We shouldn’t stay here.”

Mike flexed his wings but the tips quickly hit the sides of the narrow shaft. “Too bad. If this was bigger I could fly up.”

Rod was disappearing up the ladder, with McQueen behind him.

Darren motioned to the others. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

He waited until all the others had gone first and then followed. It was hard to climb the ladder at first. The shaft was narrow, surrounded by pipes and wiring that extended through the access shaft. The further they climbed the easier it became until they were all making good time. Kl’ct looked like he was running along tracks instead of climbing.

When the hatch smoothly opened at the far end, they climbed out and were quickly surrounded by excited and relieved adults.

The crowd parted and Darren’s parents came through the crowd. Darren threw himself into his dad’s arms and hugged him tight.

“We were so scared!” His mother said. “We didn’t know where you were, but we knew the bio-dome was failing.”

Darren pulled back. “Who attacked the station?”

“We don’t know,” his father said. “But between the Nivelaxians ships and our own, we’ve driven them away. We’re safe now.”

For now. But the aliens could come back. Darren squirmed down from his father’s grasp.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Darren said. “I’m fine.”

This time. But what about the next time? If the aliens came back, he needed to be better prepared. Rod had hit him and knocked him down, but he was nothing but a scared bully. That didn’t mean there weren’t bigger threats out there in the dark. For the first time he realized that he could have died and shivered.

He had to be better. Plan better. Know more about what to do and be ready to deal with whatever happened. He couldn’t grow up faster, but he also couldn’t wait. It was a big universe after all.

He had to be ready for it.

🚀

4,690 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 67th weekly short story release, written a couple years ago in May 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.