Navigator

Writing Prompt: Corpses

navigatorpic

The hissing of an air pump. The beeping of a low oxygen warning. It was these sounds, and no others, that woke Adrian Martinez from his pleasant dream. He was watching the ocean with Mia and Scott.

There was no ocean in deep space. Deep space was where Adrian was now, and he realized that with the lazy certainty of an oxygen-starved brain. Above him, his scout ship’s canopy looked out onto the stars, a canopy with three tiny holes in it. Bullet holes.

The system sun crested the horizon on his cockpit’s left edge, and Adrian realized his silent ship was slowly spinning. He squinted through crystals of water and blood. How the hell was he still alive?

Hands that moved slowly in zero-gravity thumped his flight suit. Gloved fingers slid across his faceplate, the one that had automatically snapped shut when the enemy bullets zipped through the canopy. There were no holes in his suit, or if there were, his suit had sealed them.

The sun set on the right edge of his cockpit, and the world went dark again.

Their ship had vented to vacuum long ago. His suit’s internal oxygen had kept him alive while he slept, but he had obviously slept too long, because now it was angry at him. He needed to get them home.

Adrian sorted through blurred memories. Flight command had given him constellations to use as guides if the waypoint system malfunctioned. Those constellations would help him orient the ship. Maybe his navigator…

Shit! She hadn’t said a word since he woke up. What if she was hurt, or dying?

Adrian twisted in his chair, but the straps fought him, so he popped the straps and floated off his seat. He pushed up and started a slow twist, careful not to overdo it, and stared at the shadow in the seat behind him. Airman Shelly Hart didn’t speak, and no lights glowed on her suit.

The sun rose, illuminating Hart’s suit, and her shattered faceplate, and the staring blue eyes inside her helmet. The pale face covered in little flecks of ice. No oxygen warning was beeping inside her helmet.

Adrian watched her until the sun set.

His oxygen-starved brain refused to focus on anything but the woman who should be alive right now, but wasn’t. His partner. He tried to remember who Hart had waiting for her back on Earth. He vaguely recalled a sister, and a father. Hart’s mother died on Titan, in one of the first enemy attacks.

Adrian pushed against the canopy and back into his seat. He fumbled with his straps as the sun rose and set, squinting through droplets of Hart’s blood. Once he was strapped in again, he focused on the stars that would guide them both home. They, like his memories, were blurry now.

He couldn’t die out here, not yet, because he needed to get Hart’s body home. He knew what it felt like when someone you loved didn’t come home, because that’s where his brother was now, not home. Not dead, not prisoner, just missing, and forever. He wouldn’t do that to Hart’s family or his own.

Adrian flipped the emergency start. Nothing happened. He flipped off all the auxiliaries, counted to 10, and flipped them on again. He waited as the sun rose and set.

A single yellow button glowed inside his cockpit. That glow was joined by others, banks of tiny green lights that rapidly turned yellow or red. As glowing guidelines floated before him and a 360 threat sphere materialized above his flight stick, hope struggled to the surface of his drowning mind.

Yet as Adrian’s gloved hands wrapped around the flight stick, as his booted feet hovered above the thrust pedals, he didn’t know where to go. Navigation was one of the red lights – the destroyed systems – and while he knew the fleet had set a rendezvous point for survivors, he had no idea where it was.

Hart would have known. She could read the stars of this system better than any map. She would tell him how to spin the ship and go home, but she was now a corpse in his back seat.

Adrian focused on the briefing he barely remembered and tried not to scream. There were no constellations beyond his canopy. Just thousands of tiny blinking lights, all waiting to watch him die.

The sun rose and set again.

The sun. He would aim their ship for the sun, because the engagement map had them heading rimward from the carrier, toward the enemy. Heading coreward would take them home.

Adrian only had one thruster left, but it wasn’t like he actually had to stop. He cancelled the spin and pushed toward the sun. He had always hated how the stars didn’t move, how it felt like nothing was moving at all. With no navigation screen to track their velocity, the stillness was maddening.

He wanted to tell Hart they’d make it home. He wanted to sleep because he was very, very tired, but falling asleep was also falling dead. He couldn’t do either just yet.

“Martinez?” Hart’s voice echoed through the speakers in his helmet, barely audible.

Was he hearing things? “Hart?” He was too tired to look behind him.

“The fuck are you doing?” Her voice was weak, quiet, but it was her.

“You’re alive!” Had he imagined the cracks in her faceplate?

“No shit.” Her familiar snark cut through the blanket of disorientation infesting his brain. “Is that why you’re trying to kill us?”

“I’m not trying to kill us.”

“On this vector you are. The Slingshot’s 40 degrees off port.”

The Slingshot! Adrian saw it then, the constellation, just where Hart said it would be. “Hot damn.”

“Turn the ship, you idiot.”

Adrian oriented their nose toward the constellation. “Done. What’s next?”

“Straight up from the Slingshot, 20 degrees.”

Right. That’s what Captain Fallon said in the briefing, up 20 degrees. Thank God for Hart’s clear head.

“Now right 15,” she whispered. “Right 15.”

Adrian turned the ship. He fired the thruster, burned the last of their fuel, and grinned wide. “Hey, think we’ll get a medal for this?”

“Just get us home, pilot,” Hart whispered inside his helmet.

That ended the small talk, because they both needed air to live. Yet they were headed in the right direction now. Rescuers would find them, alive or not, so no matter what, their families wouldn’t wonder.

Adrian eventually lost his fight with sleep, but a loud pop shattered that peaceful black. He blinked bloodshot eyes as a plastic mask crushed his face, as oxygen fought its way back into his lungs. Even though the blur, he recognized the blocky lines of the carrier’s launch bay. Medals for everyone.

He struggled as medics in red jumpsuits pulled him from a ship filled with holes. As they settled him on a stretcher, holding the mask over his face, he tried to ask them about Hart. He couldn’t, but that was okay. They’d find her and save her, too, and they’d have one hell of a story to tell.

He slept again.

Adrian woke once more in a soft bed. Captain Fallon sat beside him. The sight of his commanding officer caused one arm to stiffen instinctively, but Fallon said “at ease” before he could try, and fail, to salute her. He nodded instead, and then he asked her the first question to enter his head.

“Did Hart make it?”

“No, and I’m sorry.” Fallon squeezed Adrian’s shoulder, but her comfort felt cold in the face of her words. “There was nothing we could do for her.”

Adrian felt a heavy weight settle in his chest.

“Even so,” Fallon said, “you got her home. You got the both of you home, and that’s something.”

Adrian sat back. “It was Hart who got us home, sir.”

Fallon narrowed her eyes. “How’s that?”

“I blacked out after we took three rounds to the canopy. After I woke up, Hart told me how to orient the ship. She remembered the constellations, sir.”

Fallon was quiet for a moment. “Hart told you how to get home?”

“Yes sir. It should be on the tapes, sir.”

“The only voice on those tapes is you, Martinez, and your vitals are clear. Hart died the moment those bullets penetrated. It wasn’t your fault.”

Nausea blossomed as Adrian remembered Hart’s pale face and staring eyes. “She was alive, sir.”

“The tapes say otherwise.”

“Then the tapes are wrong, sir.”

Fallon watched him for a moment. “Airman Hart guided you home, correct?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then that’s what I’ll report.” Fallon stood. “That’s what I’ll tell her family.”

Adrian relaxed. “Thank you, sir.”

“Get some rest.”

Adrian tried to make sense of things after Fallon left. He knew he’d heard Hart’s voice in his helmet, her whispers directing their ship. The tapes were wrong. The tapes had to be wrong.

But even if they weren’t, his navigator had guided them both home.

THE END

About the Story:

I actually struggled with this theme and it took me a good while to come up with anything. While our theme was corpses, the corpse had to be entirely mundane (no zombies or other supernatural elements) which immediately blocked off 90% of my ideas (though this was good, as it forced me to be creative).

Anyway, it was down to the wire, maybe five days left, and I watched an episode of Robotech (it is now on Netflix!) where Lisa Hayes was flying in a two-person fighter with her pilot. They get in a dogfight and her pilot gets killed, so now she’s (briefly) in a Veritech with a corpse in a seat behind her. I thought that was incredibly creepy, being trapped in a damaged fighter with a dead guy, unable to fly (Lisa isn’t a pilot, so I flipped the idea to be a pilot who doesn’t know here to go).

That was part one of coming up with the story.

Part two was old ghost stories, particularly involving downed flights. I remembered a ghost story from decades ago regarding the crew of a doomed flight that went down in the Florida Everglades. The pilots crashed because there was a malfunctioning height warning or something, and they (and everyone on board) were killed.

There were ghost stories (supposedly confirmed by flight crew, if you believe the Internet) of the ghosts of the pilots of that flight returning to warn future flights and crews of problems. For instance, supposedly the captain of the flight’s ghost appeared to flight crew on another flight and said “There’s going to be a fire” before vanishing. It turned out the airplane’s stove had a short or something, and would have caught fire in case they hadn’t checked it. So, I loved the idea of the ghost of a pilot reappearing on other flights to try to warn other flight crews of danger.

Finally, I remembered the scene in Gravity where George Clooney helps Sandra Bullock’s character (or does he?) and decided to add that as the final element. So the question in this story is the same. People who believe in ghosts can assume that Shelly Hart’s ghost manifested to help her co-pilot navigate home. People who don’t believe in ghosts can assume that Martinez’s oxygen-starved mind caused him to hallucinate something he subconsciously remembered (he did see the star charts, he just didn’t remember them).

I never say either way, and leave the conclusion up to the reader.

photo credit: X-Nergal-X <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/135887904@N06/30903320800″>Yela</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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Everything in Frame

Writing Prompt: Dystopia

MineShaft

As the two clean-suited enforcers marched me through from the exit pod into the magnificent bright, I considered my inevitable death. I’d never seen the sun before — none of us had, other than in videos the director showed on weekends — and I had never seen anything so bright or beautiful. I couldn’t even look at it, not directly, and I longed to feel its heat on my skin. Assuming Gurney was right.

Stalks of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen swayed in the gentle wind, rising to my thighs. They brushed against the legs of my clean-suit as they brushed the round, rusted domes of the exit pod. That pod and the long elevator shaft inside it was the only link between Sanctuary Twelve and the surface world.

I took a long look at the world the Overseer had assured me would kill me, the world his oldest and most trusted servant, Gurney Maynard, had assured me would not. I had to act shocked, because this world did not match the dead plains the Overseer showed us so often below. I felt one enforcer push his staff into the small of my back.

“Move,” the enforcer said.

“Or what?” The head part of my clean-suit wouldn’t turn to look back at him, but I didn’t need to look back to express my disdain. “You’ll execute me twice?

A holo screen flashed in front of me. It was a recording of my son, now thirteen and wiry, as he worked beside the others dredging energy fragments out of the deep shafts. The enforcer made it disappear.

The threat was obvious, and I walked without another push from the enforcer’s staff. I’d already taken steps to ensure the Overseer could never punish Matty for what I was about to do, but I couldn’t let him know that. I had to act like another outspoken problem marching to my inevitable comeuppance.

The outside world was poison without a suit — the sun, the grass, the air — and questioning that was the only way one escaped the drudgery of the crystal mines. We were safe in the mines, the Overseer assured us. We lived by his grace, his generosity. Everyone outside Sanctuary Twelve was doomed.

Soon the enforcers marched me to a clearing, a down swept field of brown stalks crushed beneath dozens of robotic feet, likely less than a day ago. After they poisoned the grass. That streak of death sat in stark contrast to the simple beauty around us. It was a naked, pus-filled scar on a glistening grass plain, but that was the advantage of a narrow camera lens. You could focus on so little and block out so much.

The Overseer had constructed a fake exit pod at the top of the descending plain of dead grass, and I recognized that pod and the dead field from the videos I had seen of the others who dared question the Overseer. People who insisted the world above was alive and safe, like me. Murdered people.

The enforcers would force me inside that dome and strip me of my clean-suit, with dire warnings of what would happen if I went outside. When they were ready for me to make my entrance, they would pump the pod full of something noxious – tear gas? Toxic fumes? – until my heaving gut and shriveled lungs forced me to stumble out of the front door, into the camera frame.

Then I would die. Then my fellow miners would watch as I shrieked, and burst into flame, and melted. They would watch my seared bones pop, my body brutalized by the poisonous world above.

“The outside world is death,” the Overseer would repeat, as those below averted their faces from my melting body. “The claims of Worker 542 are as false as all those before them. Only I protect you.”

They marched me inside the dome, just like Gurney had said they would, and they stripped off my clean-suit, just like Gurney had said they would. All I wore now was my light gray mining jumpsuit, and the air inside the rusting pod was stagnant. I longed to feel the sun on my skin, a cool breeze on my face.

The sun wouldn’t melt my skin, and the grass wouldn’t melt my jumpsuit, and breathing this wonderful air would not shrink and ruin my lungs. Those horrors would instead be caused by the weapons of the Overseer, hidden out of frame. Microwaves. Heat rays. Infrared. I did not know what those words meant, what Gurney had envisioned when he said them, but I knew they offered invisible death.

I waited until the Overseer’s voice echoed through the rusty pod. His voice was pumped up to the surface so the enforcers could hear it, so they could pump in the gas at the proper time. The Overseer was speaking, now, which meant the feed was “live”, as Gurney had called it. Time for me to die.

I burst out of the front of the rusting pod.

That was the difference between me and the other victims, you see — Gurney’s betrayal of the Overseer, the clarity provided by a cancer no Overseer medicine could cure, and the death of the Overseer’s leverage. Gurney’s daughter. Those events conspired to make my death different.

The enforcers had done this a dozen times before. Place the victim in the rusting pod, set up the weapons and the camera, check the camera angle, and then, and only then, pump in the gas. All happened only after the Overseer set the stage, said a few haunting words for this poor deluded fool.

No miner raised as I’d been would voluntarily burst from their safe haven, but I had, before anyone planning to murder me was ready. The outside world felt wonderful. For the first time I felt the gentle heat of the sun on my skin, a cool breeze rushing over my cheeks. Nothing melted. Nothing burned.

That was the other thing victims of the Overseer couldn’t do — run — because when your lungs were full of tear gas you made a very slow, very easy target. I was no easy target. I zigzagged down that field of dead grass toward the small, round ball sitting at its end. Toward what I knew was the camera.

I saw the now panicked overseers struggling to set their weapons up, to bring them to bear — they were mounted, I saw now, on complicated tripods which were still being arranged — and for a moment, I pondered grabbing a weapon. Yet I was not here to kill anyone, and any overseer was easily replaced. I reached the round black dome as the first overseer grounded his tripod and readied his weapon.

“Look at me!” I shouted into the camera. “I’m alive! The world above isn’t killing me! They are!”

I struggled to rip the camera from its mount, but it remained stuck tight. I heard a loud hum and then I felt heat that seared my skin and bubbled my eyeballs. The air was so hot I couldn’t even scream, yet I didn’t die — not immediately — and my rage gave me the strength to turn the lens, not up and out of the ground, as I planned, but sideways. Toward the green fields and the enforcers with their weapons.

Even as invisible death set my skin afire I heard the Overseer shouting over the speakers, not to his enforcers, but to those below. His desperate explanations fell on deaf ears. Gurney had whispered to those below as well, and all they needed to start their riot was proof. My death was that proof.

The boiling heat ended at last, perhaps because the enforcer knew better than to waste power, or perhaps because he heard the masses rioting below and knew that running was better than facing those he’d help imprison. None of it made any difference to me. I drank in the feel of that cool breeze.

I wished I could see the sun and touch the grass, stroke my son’s face one last time, but I was too busy dying. Had I succeeded? Gurney’s crackly voice echoed over the Overseer’s intercom.

“We did it!” Gurney shouted, as my people cheered. “You gave us the truth! You gave us the whole world! We’re free now, all of us!” The cacophony faded as Gurney faded, as he called for silence.

“Thank you,” he said, voice trembling over the speakers. “We’re coming up. We’ll see you soon.”

They wouldn’t. No one would reach me in time to save me, but I didn’t mind. Matty would grow up breathing this clean air, living beneath this warm sun, sleeping in this soft grass. After decades of slavery, it seemed absurd that our freedom required nothing more than a camera, twisted sideways, but that was the beauty of it.

All it took to free us was one traitor. One sacrifice. And one perfect camera angle, everything in frame.

 

About the Story:

Initially, I struggled with the dystopia prompt. I’ve read so many good dystopias that I had trouble thinking of anything that didn’t feel derivative, and nothing initially jumped out at me. Oddly enough, this rather dark story was partly inspired by a much lighter (but similarly dystopian) story – the ending of Portal 2, or one small element of it.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 Follow)

At the end of Portal 2, GLADOS releases you, her test subject, back into the “real world”. You ride an elevator (serenaded by singing turrets, of course) up to the surface, a seeming paradise filled with tall, flowing grass. You enter that paradise all alone, with no civilization in sight, and the ending is a bit melancholy in that respect.

(Spoilers for Portal 2 End)

Although it is never explicitly stated, the implication of both Portal games is that whatever happened to damage the Aperture Science laboratories also did great damage to the world. Either the vast majority of humanity was wiped out, or have vanished entirely. On the positive side, in the years that followed the world has been “reborn”, having returned to the pristine state in which it existed before industrialization.

The idea of someone who had been below ground for a long time emerging on the surface of an empty, pristine inspired this story. From there, all I had to develop was a protagonist, an antagonist, and their conflict, as well as creating a suitably dystopian situation for my protagonist to struggle against.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/40243520@N02/11230150485″>Empire Mine Shaft</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Adrift

Writing Prompt: Young Love

AdriftCover

Rava Carristo had been called many things in her sixteen years scraping out a living inside third ring. Ringrat. Beggar. Thief. What no one had ever dared call her, until today, was “you bloody idiot”.

No matter what else happened today, she was going to prove Grace Tano wrong.

Rava’s EVA suit charge displayed inside her helmet. 5% after twenty minutes charging on solar wind. The suit showed she needed at least 10% before her ion thrusters could cancel, then reverse, her steady drift. By that time, the interlocking rings of Horizon Station might be just another glittering star.

The only home Rava had ever known was now the size of a protein cake, and that cake was shrinking like her air gauge. Slowly, but inevitably. Stretched out below her, Jupiter remained brain-numbingly huge. Rava had stared down at that massive gas ball since she could climb to third ring’s hand-width windows, but out here, in this void, it just felt so maddeningly enormous.

Of course, this was her first spacewalk. The first time she had managed to nick an EVA suit from a maintenance locker. That had been Grace’s idea, Grace’s fault. These things were always Grace’s fault.

It was Grace who teased her, infuriated her. Grace who outpaced her across the cables of third ring and never let her forget it. Grace who took a knife for her when a greaseboy from second ring decided he didn’t like Rava’s “attitude”.

Rava would never see Grace again if she didn’t do something, and her suit popped a window that warned of rising heart rate. It bothered Rava that her last words to Grace had been a slew of Martian obscenities. She didn’t want Grace to remember her like that.

Should she burn this 5% to slow her drift, hope it bought her time to charge the other 5%? Her yellow air gauge showed two hours. If only she hadn’t spent the last two unconscious.

Rava wasn’t as terrified as she’d expected. She had heard CO2 poisoning was peaceful – you got sleepy, then you went away – but there was still so much she wanted to do first.  That included smacking Grace, repeatedly. No one else was dumb enough to walk across a dissipation port right before it irised open.

The last sound to pipe over their suitlink, just before the suit’s induced catatonia violently shoved Rava forward in time, was Grace shrieking like the day that greaseboy stabbed her. Grace flailing and trying to restore her suit’s maglock on the station hull. Grace shouting “You bloody idiot!”

Grace had been flailing because Rava had shoved her off the opening dissipation port, of course. As Rava recalled the terror in her friend’s voice, she felt unwelcome guilt. This was all Grace’s fault, so why did she have to feel guilty about it? She hadn’t done anything wrong!

The intense heat of the venting had challenged her suit’s regulators. To overload its cooling system it had to cut life support to dangerous levels, levels a conscious human couldn’t survive, and Rava couldn’t fault her suit for knocking her out. Still, two hours in an unconscious drift had put her a long way out.

A hyperventilation warning joined her heart rate. A hiss filled Rava’s ears as her suit pumped in airborne drugs to dull her panic. She decided right then to fire her thrusters, and when her burn ended she had stopped drifting. At least, almost stopped. It was so damn hard to tell out here.

The word “Charging… 0%” blinked as Rava’s hyperventilation and heart rate warnings faded. The suit’s drugs calmed her as her worried mind could not. Now she just had waiting ahead – thirty minutes? Forty five? – and the hope that the air left when her thrusters charged would get her back to Horizon Station.

There was nothing to do out here in the void – no vids to watch or games to play – so Rava focused on her best memories. The day Grace snagged a full pack of QuickHeat soup from an unattended cart heading to first ring, and they feasted for a week. The day Rava came across the last season of Atlas Peaks in a bargain bin – on thumbdrive, no less – and traded her best boltcutter away.

Grace had given her so much grief for that, of course – a boltcutter was so much more useful on third ring than a season of Grace’s favorite cancelled soap opera – but that didn’t make the countless nights they’d spend watching and rewatching episodes, huddled in the tent they’d stitched out of discarded suit patches, any less wonderful. The way Grace cried when Sarah walked out on Jason so Doctor Carlo wouldn’t send him to Mars, every damn time. Even when they both knew it was coming.

It was those memories – Grace’s smile, the way the station lights glittered on Grace’s blond crew-cut, the feeling of Grace’s back against Rava’s as they slept – that kept her sane until her charge reached 5%. With less than an hour of air, she fired her thrusters and ground her teeth.

Rava was drifting back toward Horizon Station at last, but Jupiter’s almost inconceivable bulk felt claustrophobically close now. Too close. Could its gravity be pulling her in? What would it feel like to be crushed at four times station gravity, or would she burn up first? How badly would that hurt?

Rava squeezed her eyes shut. The suit assured her its trajectory was correct, and she had to trust it. She had to trust she would see Grace again.

Drugs hissed, breathing slowed, and Rava drifted through void. She imagined herself floating in a cool sea – not that she’d ever been in one, just seen one on Atlas Peaks – and imagined Grace floating beside her. Imagined clutching her warm hand.

Rava drifted with her phantom Grace, surprisingly content, until the beep of an oxygen warning opened her eyes. Had she slept? She had slept. Horizon Station was larger now, ten times the size it had been, but she was still so far away. Too far away.

Her air gauge blinked red and her thruster charge remained at less than 1%. She knew then either her batteries or absorbing panels were fried, probably by the intense heat of the dissipation port’s discharge. Rava could not gain any more velocity than she had. She wasn’t going to make it home.

She’d tried. She hadn’t given up, not ever. That counted for something, didn’t it?

She hoped Grace would find a way to get along without her.

Rava’s heavy eyelids drooped as a dot separated from Horizon Station. Rava assumed it was just some chunk of debris a third-ringer had tossed out a cleaning vent, illegally, but it looked too dull for that. Not shiny enough. As it grew, the dot squirmed. It had arms and it had legs. A person? A suit?

“Rava?” Grace’s tremulous voice was barely audible over the static-y suitlink. “Rava!”

“Grace?” Rava knew she was dreaming, lost in carbon-monoxide induced bliss. There was no way Grace would have remained outside the station for over four hours, looking for her. No one would do that.

“Rava!” Grace’s voice was stronger now, loud enough for Rava to hear it clearly over the air alarm. “Stay there! I’m coming! Don’t flail!”

“I’m not flailing,” Rava whispered. Unexpected droplets wicked off her eyelids and floated between her face and helmet. Dammit! She couldn’t afford to cry right now.

Grace was the size of a lug nut. Then a hull patch. Then a person, a real person. Grace threw long arms and legs around her, and even through the suit fabric Rava imagined her warmth.

“Don’t move!” Grace ordered. One of her gloved hands clumsily jammed a linktube into the backpack of Rava’s suit, failing again and again. Stupid lack of gravity. Finally, the linktube snapped into the ring.

Rava’s air warning faded as the tank inside Grace’s suit circulated air between them, heady, wonderful air. Air that smelled like grease and sweat, that smelled like Grace. Rava breathed deep.

Droplets floated before her eyes and Grace did too. If she was dreaming, she refused to wake up.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Grace whispered. “I thought I’d killed you, Rava!”

With the viewports of their helmets pressed together, with the helmet lights highlighting Grace’s light brown face, she was almost obnoxiously beautiful. Droplets floated inside Grace’s helmet, too.

As Rava floated in the arms of the only woman in all third ring she would trust with anything, even her life, regret and guilt flooded her like suit drugs. How could she have been so stupid for so long? All their arguments, all her complaints, all her nitpicks – those were the words of a bloody idiot.

“I love you.” Rava clutched Grace and shouted. “I love you, Grace Tano!”

Grace managed a half-giggle, half-snort as they drifted toward the bulk of Horizon Station, together.

“Well.” Grace beamed at Rava through floating tears. “Duh.”

THE END

 

About the Story:

The theme for this month was “Young Love” which initially prompted a lot of hand-wringing from the usual participants. I think we’ve all seen examples of stories with young characters in love that didn’t work for us, and initially, I had no idea what I was going to do with this one. Eventually, I focused on story first, theme second, and ended up settling on the inner monologue of a young girl drifting away from a space station.

Once I’d settled on that idea and the drama it inspired, it ended up being incredibly easy to imagine the thoughts that might go through the mind of someone facing a slow death alone in the dark, in particular thoughts of those they love (as many might guess, the movie Gravity also provided inspiration). Thus, what I thought would be a difficult theme ended up coming together nicely and rapidly. Once I understood the challenges Rava faced, her love for Grace came naturally and was easy to incorporate into the story.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14204983@N06/3338434326″>Outerspace – Earth</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Next Great Adventure

Writing Prompt: Mighty Beasts

NextGreatAdventureCover

There were many ways to die inside an undersea research facility. Crushed beneath a poorly stacked food crate. Asphyxiated due to a faulty CO2 converter. No one had ever told Commander Mark Sullivan what to do if a mile-long leviathan crushed his station.

Somehow, those topside left that out of the emergency manual.

Claxons blared as Mark led his survivors through the increasingly deformed plastic corridor connecting Central Command with Hydroponics. Again the monster outside Echo squeezed, compressing his undersea facility with tentacles thicker than corridors. Metal buckled and plastic popped.

“Could we get someone to shut off those goddamn alarms?” Chief Engineer Jean Rosseau shouted over the racket. “They’re making my headache worse!”

Undersea Research Station Echo was a cluster of domed habitats that would very soon be a cluster of metal and bodies. Mark didn’t know how the tentacled monstrosity crushing his station had come to be. He just knew he had to get his surviving crew to Hydroponics before they all drowned.

Plastic buckled and the frothing ocean burst from a rip between bulkheads. Mark’s husband, Desalination Officer Ron Sullivan, slogged through rising water lugging a metal backpack. Ron squirted superheated quickseal above and below the water. He stopped the cold ocean at their waists.

“Won’t hold long,” Ron said, gasping as he recovered from wielding the bulky sealer. He glanced into the dark behind them. “Where’s Rosseau? Angeloro?”

“Not drowning,” Science Officer Angeloro said as she hopped around the corner clutching Rosseau’s shoulders. “The water helps. It’s easier for me to move when I can float.” Despite her mangled leg and bloodied face, Angeloro remained as calm as any of them.

“We’re going to make it out of here,” Mark reminded the survivors. He forced himself to focus of those still alive and not the twelve others, now floating in briny seawater behind the sealed hatches at Central Command. “If we keep our heads, we survive.” He couldn’t save people who were already dead.

Ron grimaced at the sealed round hatch ahead of them, at the baleful light casting shimmering red across the seawater flooding the corridor. “Rosseau,” Ron said, “might need you to override this hatch.”

“Keep your pants on, Sully!” Rosseau handed Angeloro off to Mark and sloshed through the waist high water, broad shoulders squared. “It’s not as simple as changing a filter, you know.” She grunted and pulled at a deformed plastic panel beside the doorframe. “Dammit, man, help me get this off!”

“You know,” Angeloro said quietly, “the thing crushing our station might be one of those unknowns topside warned us about.”

“You think?” Mark didn’t have any idea what was squeezing his station to death – a giant squid? A giant octopus? – but he did know it was cracking Echo open like an oyster shell. Nothing was strong enough to do that. Nothing from Earth, anyway.

“Either way,” Angeloro said, “it’s vital we get logs of this attack topside. In case you didn’t notice, this leviathan went after our communications tower first.”

Mark fought a chill as he helped Angeloro toward the sealed hatch. “Which implies intelligence.” That made it even less likely the thing strangling his station had originated on Earth. “You think it’s alien?”

“If you mean extraterrestrial,”Angeloro said, correcting him with the calm indifference of a woman who remained as precise as her undersea experiments, “I’d say there’s a very strong possibility.”

“Well,” Mark said, as Ron and Rosseau snapped off the stubborn panel. “That’s terrifying.”

Rosseau swapped out wires as bits of panel sparked. The corridor groaned and shifted as the monster outside squeezed again, like a boa constrictor wrapping itself tighter around prey. Another bulkhead popped, seawater frothed, and Ron sprayed quickseal while shouting curses at the sea.

The light above the hatch chimed green as seawater sloshed up to Mark’s armpits. Ron grimaced and shrugged off his metal pack. “That’s it.” He took a shuddering breath. “I’m out of quickseal.”

For one blissful moment, Mark was alone with Ron as they climbed Mount Everest together. It was adventure that had driven them together, adventure that led them to accept a year-long tour on an undersea research facility. Echo had been one more mountain for them to climb.

Strained machinery groaned as the hatch leading into hydroponics rattled open. Mark felt a tug that quickly became a riptide. He locked his arm around the guardrail at the elbow and wrapped his other arm around Angeloro’s slim waist.  “Hold on!”

Water pulled. Mark’s fingers and arm and elbow hurt as hissing seawater struggled to rip them away from the bulkhead. Finally the current slacked enough for Mark to unclench his pulsing, pain-filled arm. He and Angeloro sloshed through the ankle deep water that had equalized between Hydroponics and this corridor. It seemed Hydroponics was, as Mark had hoped, intact.

This dome made up Echo’s center, protected by six other slightly smaller domes in a hexagon formed of metal and plastic corridors. Mark had known this would be the last dome to crack. What he didn’t know is how much time they had left. Small windows topped Hydroponics and Mark could just make out the mottled purple body of the leviathan strangling his station from above, bathed in emergency lights.

“Pods.” Mark pointed to the two closed hatches on the far side of the Hydroponics dome, metal circles surrounded by green emergency lights. “Each has enough oxygen for four people.”

There were pods across the facility, of course – every dome had at least two – but Mark suspected the other pods were already lost, crushed just like Central Command. Ron took Angeloro’s other arm and together, the three of them sloshed through ankle deep water behind Rosseau. They hurried beneath heavy gantry after heavy gantry festooned with hanging vegetation. Humid air choked everything.

Something groaned outside the station, a chilling sound like a great whale. It was loud enough that when it finally stopped, Mark couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in his ears. The whole room buckled. Rosseau turned, shouted something, and then a falling gantry crushed her like a grape.

Ron screamed beside Mark as they stared at where Rosseau stood one moment ago. Mark willed Rosseau to rise from that gantry with a smirk, howling like a madwoman and grateful to be alive. Rosseau didn’t rise. She wasn’t going to, and now that gantry was between then and the pods.

Mark pushed forward, pulling Angeloro and Ron with him. Seawater continued to rise, lapping at their thighs, and that told Mark Hydroponics had new leaks they couldn’t seal. Mark left Angeloro with Ron and dived, two minds working as one, and wriggled beneath the gantry. He popped up on the far side.

Ron and Mark locked eyes, and Angeloro didn’t argue or question them. She closed her eyes and dived. Ron dived and Mark did too, and a moment later Angeloro surfaced, gasping in Mark’s strong arms.

“Move!” Mark shouted at his husband.

Ron dived, but as soon as he went under the room buckled again. The gantry shifted and Mark’s world stopped. Then Ron burst from the water, facing the metal gantry and clutching it like a drowning man.

“Okay!” Mark shouted. “Time to claim our medals!”

Ron grunted as he wrapped his upper body around the gantry, but he didn’t push off. “Gantry shifted as I came up.” He looked almost embarrassed as water swirled. “Trapped my leg.”

“Well,” Mark shouted, “we’ll untrap it!”

“No time.” Ron grimaced at seawater sloshing about at Mark’s waist. “Get to the escape pod.”

Mark glowered at him. “You don’t give the orders down here.”

“We’ll get him out together.” Angeloro dropped off him into water high enough to let her float. “On three-“

“No.” Mark pointed at the green circles. “You get to those pods.”

“Respectfully, sir-“

“You said it yourself,” Mark interrupted. “Something extraterrestrial snapped off our communications tower. Someone has to let topside know what happened down here.”

Angeloro looked between the two of them. “Is that an order, sir?”

“It is.”

Angeloro pushed off him and splashed away, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed. She dove into a strong breaststroke, fighting swirling seawater to reach the half-submerged escape hatch. Not looking back.

Mark clutched Ron’s hand as Angeloro struggled with the panel. It opened, water rushed inside, and Angeloro did too. As the hatch closed, she watched them both and sketched a shaky salute.

A thump echoed as Hydroponics groaned and Angeloro’s escape pod whooshed away. Safe, Mark hoped, from the thing that struggled to drown them. Above them, plastic windows crackled and split.

“What’s next, commander?” Ron asked, as seawater rose to their necks. “Where do we go from here?”

“Where else?” Mark closed his eyes as bulkheads shifted and popped, squeezing his husband’s hand and sagging against the metal gantry. “Our next great adventure.”

Ron squeezed his hand back. They had done all they could, together. Topside would learn the truth.

The frothing sea crashed down.

THE END

 

About the Story:

With the theme “Mighty Beasts”, my mind initially defaulted to dragons (which I’ve seen more than often enough) or classics such as Godzilla or King Kong. The one thing I did know (from seeing similar movies) is that any drama to be found in a story about some sort of massive creature would come from how those tiny humans it attacked reacted.

Once I’d decided I was going to do the typical “ground level” kaiju story (seen in the newer versions of Gozilla, Cloverfield, and similar films), I tossed around ideas until eventually settling on something closer to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in this case, a monstrous aquatic creature that could believably be hiding in the ocean depths.

Finally, I’d had the last lines exchanged by Mark and Ron in my head for several months (I’d initially concepted a far different story) but the closing dialogue ended up fitting very well in this one. People who would volunteer to man an undersea research station strike me as both risk takers and adventurers, and I tried to write characters who fit that mold.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/27677464@N06/2805510789″>under the ocean.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

Steelheart

Writing Prompt: Write a story inspired by the title of a popular book, but ensure it has nothing to do with that book.

Disclaimer: This story shares nothing with the book “Steelheart” by Brandon Sanderson other than the title. This month, our contest theme was to take the title of a popular book, use it to inspire a short story, and make the story have *nothing* to do with the book. No association with the actual book or its author is intended.

SteelheartCover

Nurse Mandy led Sammy to the park two weeks after the fatal accident. Sammy could finally walk to it without feeling faint. The bandages under her sweater and around her chest constricted movement.

The sad little park was mostly empty, a large square of TrueGrass with a fluffy purple-frond tree in its center. The plastic-y walls of the hospital surrounded it, closing it forever away from actual nature. Like Sammy, this park was a prisoner locked inside sterile walls, stuck beneath a damp gray sky.

There were only two other people in the park, and no children. A lady with a gleaming metal arm. A man walking on whirring metal legs. Broken people, now fixed, on the outside anyway.

“How do you feel?” Nurse Mandy asked, as they settled on a bench. “Can you breathe all right?”

Sammy nodded.

“Tightness in your chest? Pain in your arm?”

“No.”

“So far as we can tell, your prosthetic heart is keeping up with blood flow, even under exertion.”

“Okay.”

“That’s a good sign, Samantha. It means your body isn’t rejecting the device.”

Sammy wished it would. If her body rejected the metal box the doctors planted inside her shattered chest, she could see her parents again. Sammy still thought it was Mom every time she heard soft slippers, and Dad? Dad would bring her ice cream.

Not anymore, though. Not since the accident, twisted metal on a highway surrounded by flashing lights. The drunk driver had survived, of course. Sammy’s parents, her real heart? Not so lucky.

Sammy’s prosthetic brain, the tiny cerebral implant that governed her thoughts and emotions, still functioned fine. Doctor Samuel had inserted an algorithm to firewall Sammy’s grief – grief hindered healing – yet Sammy still thought about her parents so much. If it hurt like this through the firewall, how badly would it hurt without it?

“We can sit here as long as you like,” Nurse Mandy said. “I wish we had some sun for you, but it’ll be a few more days before the clouds clear off.”

“That’s fine.” Sammy didn’t care about the sun, or the clouds, or even rain.

“Would you like to walk around a bit more?”

“No.”

Nurse Mandy wasn’t the worst of them. She didn’t poke Sammy with needles, or scan her with cold metal pads, or ask how she was feeling today. Mandy just believed things might get better if Sammy worked hard and thought positive. Which made Mandy an idiot.

Thinking positive and working hard wouldn’t give Sammy a family again. Adjusting to a lonely life with a cold metal heart wouldn’t make her stop dreaming about Mom and Dad, wouldn’t rid her of the ache that came when she waked, not crying – because of the firewall – but empty.

“So,” Nurse Mandy said. “What’s the first thing you’d like to do when you get out?”

“Out?”

“Yes, when you leave the hospital. What would you like to do first?”

Sammy didn’t say “Go jump off a bridge” because they’d send her to see the creepy child psychologist. She didn’t say “find the man who drove into our autocar and stab him” because that might earn her a trip to the rewriting center. She considered, and said “Maybe I’ll get a dog.”

“That’s an excellent idea. Any particular breed?”

A pitbull would latch onto that drunk driver’s arm, rip it right off. A doberman might chew off his face. “I don’t know. Maybe a labrador.” One of Sammy’s school buddies had one of those, slobbery and happy and always wagging its tail. Stupid as a brick, just like Nurse Mandy. Filled with pointless optimism.

“My nephew has a black lab,” Mandy said. “They love water. You two could go swimming together and there won’t even be any scarring, thanks to RealFlesh. I remember when we didn’t have prosthetic brain firewalling, or autoDoc surgery, or RealFlesh. Difficult times. When you think about it, we’re very lucky.”

Sammy didn’t scream at her. I’m fourteen and I’ll never have parents again, and once this firewall goes down I’ll cry myself to sleep every night, but sure. Tell me about my dog and swim lessons and how great it is to have RealFlesh. That makes up for everything, doesn’t it? Makes it all better.

Aloud, Sammy said, “I guess we are.”

Two men entered the park who weren’t nurses or doctors, wearing suits. A girl who might be Sammy’s age walked with them, vaguely Asian. She had dark eyes and a bandage around her head.

“Who’s that?” Sammy asked.

“Don’t worry about those men. They won’t bother us.”

“I meant the girl with them.” Mandy really was an idiot.

Mandy lowered her voice. “That’s Katherine Lambda.”

Sammy was recovering at Lambda Center. “Oh.” So this girl’s father ran the place. Must be nice. “What happened to her head?”

“I can’t talk about another patient,” Mandy said. “I can assure you she’s fine, however.”

Sammy stood up. “I’m going to talk to her.”

“Samantha,” Nurse Mandy said, “I really don’t think-”

Sammy beelined for the men in suits, who moved between her and Katherine Lambda. One raised his hand. “Stop right there, ma’am.”

They were certainly polite. Sammy wondered if they hid guns in their jackets, and if they’d shoot her if she ran at them, screaming. If they shot her, she might see her parents again.

Katherine cut between the men and patted their arms. “Please stop that. I really don’t think the heart patient is going to murder me.”

“Ma’am,” one said, “you can’t-”

“Hello!” Katherine strode close and thrust out her fist. “I’m Kate, but you can call me Katie.”

Sammy bumped Kate’s fist with her own. “Sammy.”

“I know! I heard about your surgery. You’re actually pumping one of our prototypes, not officially released to market. Did they tell you that?”

Sammy glanced at Nurse Mandy, standing by the bench with narrowed eyes. “No.”

“Well, that’s stupid.” Kate stared at her suited men. “We’re going to walk around the park, where you can see us. So don’t follow.” She tugged Sammy after her.

Sammy ripped her hand away. “What are you doing?”

“Not what they’re doing,” Kate said, “which is lying to you. It gets annoying, doesn’t it? Everyone telling you how it’s going to be all right?”

Sammy frowned, but she did follow. Kate led her beneath the tree with the shiny purple-frond things. “Know what this tree is?”

Sammy considered. “Nope.”

“It’s a Blue Chinese Wisteria Tree, or a clone of one. Blue Chinese Wisteria Trees don’t actually exist out in the world anymore, just here. Just one tree in the whole park. How do you think it feels about that?”

“The tree?” Was the bandage on Kate’s head due to brain damage?

“How do you think it feels about being alone, with no family? Should we tell it things will get better? Maybe if it rains a lot? Oh, what if we get it a little tree? Like, a shrub to keep it company?”

Sammy stared at her.

“Will that make the tree feel better when it’s the last of its kind? Without any family?”

Sammy clenched her fists. Was this girl making fun of her?

“I think it’s going to be lonely no matter what people do to it,” Kate said. “I think it’s going to keep hurting and never stop, because that’s what happens when you lose your family. It doesn’t get better.”

Before Sammy could do anything else, Kate spun on her. “I lost my mother and little sister, you know. Two years ago. There was a simNews story and everything.”

Sammy’s fists relaxed.

“Everyone was so sad, but they kept saying ‘It’ll get better, Katie’. News flash! It doesn’t.”

Sammy spotted Nurse Mandy hurrying over. She trembled. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m still here,” Kate said. “I lost my mom and my sister and it sucks, every day. But I’m still here because I don’t want to disappoint them. I’m really sad, but then I think, if something happened to me, how sad would Mom be? How disappointed?”

Sammy swallowed hard.

“That’s why I keep being awesome,” Kate said. “For Mom and Suki. I’m going to grow up and do great things because they deserve to see that happen.”

Mandy arrived. “Samantha, your heart-”

“She’s fine,” Kate said. “But you can take her back to her room now.” Kate smiled and hugged Sammy tight. “Let’s hang out tomorrow, okay? Same place. I’ll bring cookies.” She stepped back.

“Okay,” Sammy said. Her eyes were leaking.

“Awesome.” Kate sauntered back to her bodyguards. “Later!”

“Samantha,” Nurse Mandy said, “you should-”

“Ssh.” Sammy raised a hand and watched the tree. All alone, but still here and absolutely beautiful. Hanging on no matter how much it sucked to be alone. Maybe out of spite.

“Okay,” Sammy said. “Let’s go back to my room now.”

As she led Nurse Mandy down the long hall, Sammy realized she was actually looking forward to the cookies.

THE END

 

About the Story

Steelheart came from a literal interpretation of a book title – a heart made of steel. Our prompt was to take the title of a popular book and write a story based on that title that had nothing to do with that book. Hence, a young girl who is dealing with a horrific tragedy.

The accident that killed Sammy’s parents tore her heart out, literally and figuratively, and I wanted to explore how a person might deal with a horrific accident and the loss that results. As an aside, this story also allowed me to write a “prequel scene” for two characters (Samantha and Kate) that appear in another of my current WIPs.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37221440@N06/7006981173″>ROSE BOUQUET – Pink Heart Focal Bead</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

The Translator

Writing Prompt: Politics, Scheming, and Betrayal

TheTranslatorCover

Hana Varstow steeled herself as the doors to Prelate Garil’s council hall rolled open and a stench poured out: recent slaughter mixed with too much disinfectant. Hana’s gorge hopped but she dared not show weakness, not to the Confederate Elites who flanked her, not to the exhausted Kavil militiaman barely keeping his feet, and not, above all else, to Prelate Garil herself.

The unarmed soldier accompanying Garil was a concession to the Prelate’s station. Hana had suggested it. Their war was over – for now – but a treaty had yet to be signed. This meeting would finalize that surrender or the Confederacy would resume its orbital bombardment. Many more would die.

*Please, Prelate, be seated at the head of the negotiating table,* Hana said. *It befits your station.*

The Confederacy had already taken Garil’s husband, her son, and her army, and then slaughtered her council in this very room. Executed for refusing to surrender. Hana wouldn’t take Garil’s dignity, too.

Prelate Garil sat, soldier at her side. The Elites flanking Hana shouldered their rifles and took up position by the door, sending a clear message. No one left this room without the Confederacy’s permission.

*Where is your High General?* Garil stared at the silent Elites. *Or was this simply a pretense to reunite me with my council?* There might still be blood on her chair.

*The High General has been delayed,* Hana responded in perfect kavish, skating along a lie. *He appreciates your cooperation in avoiding further bloodshed, and will arrive soon.*

*You speak our language well.* Prelate Garil’s own kavish had a lyrical lilt to it, despite the fact she’d been up for over a day, and it was obvious she was a talented speaker. *Did they enslave you, too?*

*I am a loyal citizen of the Confederacy,* Hana said, because she wouldn’t put it pass the Confederacy’s infamous ISec squads to have installed archiving devices. *We better mankind.*

*Of course you do. You were courteous enough to shoot my husband in the head.*

Hana said nothing else. The Confederacy wanted loyal city states, not bombed worlds, and both Prelate Garil and High General Tourmaline would agree to that. So long as she reminded them, often.

The militia soldier standing by Garil, a towheaded man young enough to be Hana’s son, looked dead on his feet, but pride and rage kept him standing. Last night, the Confederacy had killed all his friends.

Finally, the room rumbled as Tourmaline’s shuttle landed – twenty minutes late. Shortly afterward the High General strode into the conference room, flanked by Golden Elites, and wrinkled his nose.

“What,” Tourmaline asked, in confederese, “is that godawful smell?”

*Took your time, didn’t you?* Garil said. *Massacres to conclude?*

“High General,” Hana said in confederese, “Prelate Garil of Kavil bids you welcome. She looks forward to negotiating Kavil’s surrender and incorporation into the Confederacy.”

“Tired of getting her ass kicked, is she?”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General apologizes for the delay. He wanted to personally assure our ceasefire agreement carried across our fleet.*

Garil scowled. *What are a few more bombs between friends? I think we still have a few hospitals.*

“The prelate only wishes to avoid further bloodshed,” Hana translated.

“Fine,” Tourmaline said. “Tell her to get out of my seat.”

“High General,” Hana said, “I should first clarify kavish customs. In kavish society, it is the supplicant who sits, to show humility. The victor stands in judgment.”

Tourmaline glowered. “You should have mentioned that earlier.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “Fine. The bitch can sit.”

*Wants me to move, does he?* Garil asked.

*In respect for the brave kavish who fell defending your planet,* Hana said, *our High General refuses to sit in judgment upon you. He will stand for these negotiations.*

Garil raised one elegant eyebrow. *A … surprising concession.*

“What did she say?” Tourmaline demanded.

“She looks forward to your terms.”

“Good.” Tourmaline crossed his arms and leaned forward. “Concession one. She disarms her people.”

*In the interest of avoiding any further bloodshed on both sides,* Hana said, “the High General asks that all private citizens turn over their guns.*

*So you can slaughter us face to face?* Garil scowled. *This is a rough planet. My people need guns to defend themselves.*

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate does not refuse, but she does ask that Confederacy soldiers take over the defense of the kavish wheat farms. There are hundreds outside the walls.”

“Why do I give a shit about their wheat farms?”

“Local predators may otherwise devour their wheat, leading to famine,” Hana said. “The kavish shoot those that come near, but cannot protect their farms without their weapons.”

“I’m not tasking my Elites to guard a bunch of dirt-mucking farmers!”

“Then perhaps,” Hana said, “we could allow some kavish to keep their rifles? Outside the walls only, for protection from predators?”

“Fine.” Tourmaline waved her off. “Our new taxpayers can’t pay anything if they starve to death.”

*Prelate Garil, the High General understands your concern,* Hana said. *As a compromise, the Confederacy will allow your citizens to keep their rifles, so long as they carry them for defense and only outside city walls. You must not brandish them within the city.*

*He really agreed to that?* Garil narrowed her eyes.

*He understands your citizens must protect themselves.*

Garil considered, lips pursed. *Agreed.*

Hana nodded to Tourmaline. “The prelate appreciates your understanding of her people’s need to protect their farms, and offers thanks.”

“Concession two,” Tourmaline said. “She appoints an ambassador of my choosing as Protector of Kavil.”

*The High General asks you coordinate with our ambassador to ease your government’s transition into a partnership with ours,* Hana said. *So we can both benefit from your Confederacy membership.*

*So long as I pay my taxes?* Garil asked.

*Your taxes ensure the Confederacy protects your planet from pirates and skitterships, Prelate,* Hana reminded her, *and also grants you access to medical advances and gene therapy.*

Garil rolled her eyes. *I don’t think that’s what your High General said.*

“She’s refusing?” Tourmaline asked. “Remind her I have an orbital cannon pointed at her capital.”

“High General, she only worries for the ambassador. The kavish have a complex system of government, with ancient relationships and customs that can be difficult for outsiders to grasp.”

“I don’t care what the locals get up to,” Tourmaline said. “She can handle city law. Just make sure she recognizes my ambassador runs Kavil in all global matters, including Confederacy law.”

*Our new ambassador will facilitate communication within the Confederacy*, Hana told Garil, *while you continue to handle local matters of state. Is this acceptable?*

*Another concession I hadn’t expected,* Garil almost smiled. *Very well.*

“The prelate agrees to defer to the ambassador in all matters of Confederacy law, High General, and looks forward to educating him on the more delicate matters of kavish internal affairs.”

“Poor bastard.” Tourmaline chuckled. “That’s all I have, other than the boilerplate. You have the treaties?”

“Two copies,” Hana produced them, “in confederese and kavish.”

These treaties were nearly identical to those Hana had brokered – on High General Tourmaline’s orders, of course – with the last three planets the Confederacy had conquered. The people on those planets, unlike Hana’s now dead world, remained alive and fed, if not entirely happy.

“You verified she understands it?” Tourmaline demanded.

“Yes, High General.” Hana bowed. “The Prelate understands perfectly.”

“Then tell the bitch to sign away her planet.”

*Prelate Garil,* Hana said, *the High General appreciates your cooperation. Again, he honors the sacrifice of your soldiers. If you have no further concerns, he asks that you sign the treaties now.*

*So he does.* Garil stood, eyes hard, and for a moment Hana was terrified that she had failed. Garil would die rather than surrender and, with her death, doom Kavil’s people.

*Tell your general he is a skilled negotiator.* Garil walked over and signed one treaty, then the other.

“High General,” Hana said, “the prelate thanks you for your gracious invitation to the Confederacy.”

“Whatever.” Tourmaline signed both treaties. “Get these ratified, Hana. I’m heading back up.”

Hana bowed deep. “I will see it done.”

Tourmaline left and his Elites did too. The room emptied. Hana rolled and pocketed the treaties and then bowed to Garil. *The High General wishes you long life, and hopes you will soon come to understand the benefit of living under the Confederacy’s protective wing. You are free to leave.*

“it seems I’m having dinner after all,” Garil agreed, in perfect confederese. “Care to join me?”

Hana barely hid her shock. “I’m … not sure that would be wise, Prelate. Appearances-”

“Are important,” Garil agreed. “In fact, they’re everything.” She offered a slight nod, a gesture of sincere respect from one of her station, and headed out. *Thank you. For saving my people from my rage.*

Hana looked after her and swallowed, picturing her own dead world. *It was the least I could do.*

THE END

 

About the Story

The theme for this month was “Scheming, Politics, and Betrayal”, which didn’t immediately conjure an idea to mind. After a day or so of mulling it over, I fixed upon the theme of translators and how they must do convert words in one language to another – especially words and concepts that may not have an equivalent in the other language. Then, of course, the idea came about to explore how a translator could influence post-war negotiations without obviously appearing to favor either side, and this story emerged.

This also gave me the chance to experiment with alternate dialogue tags (using * * for Kavish, and ” ” for Confederese) and from there, I simply had to decide how my character, Hana, would translate the statements from two people bent on further war in an attempt to broker peace and save innocent lives. This, to me, incorporates all the themes of the prompt – politics, scheming, and betrayal, though in this case, Hana’s “betrayal” of General Tourmaline could arguably also be considered working in everyone’s interest.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/20679178@N00/376908263″>On The Shores of Darkness.jpg</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Hitting the Arch

Writing Prompt: Space Opera

HittingTheArchCover

When the enemy bombardment finally stopped, it left Captain Diego Harker’s scout ship drifting in the void. He ran his hands through his black hair and waited. They had evaded the enemy fleet. Now, they had to warn their own.

“Give me our energy reserves.” Together, their shields and engines had burned unprecedented mass. His ears still rang from the impacts, but they were alive.

“We’re empty, cap,” Carter said. Diego’s XO was all bare skull, bent frame and hard eyes. “It’s all burned.”

Without the shielding from their universal reactor, any further impact would turn their ship to scrap. That had been a big enemy fleet. “Suggestions?”

Laster spoke first. “We can burn anything for fuel, right? Let’s burn our rations.” He was nineteen, fresh out of gunnery school. He shaved his head to look like Carter and that pissed Carter off.

“That much mass would get us two burns.” Carter steepled his meaty fingers. “Three, if we’re lucky.”

“Not enough.” Woo rubbed at his eyes. The math to elude the enemy fleet had almost finished him. “To hit the archway we need at least thirty, and what would we eat?”

“Each other,” Laster quipped. No one laughed.

“What about our bulkheads?” Woo asked. “Can’t we pull off some scrap?”

“You pull anything off the inside of this ship, you’ll kill us all!” Mainard was a good engineer, but he had a temper. “We’re built lean. Nothing here can burn.”

“If we don’t close the archway,” Diego reminded them, “the Imps will bombard Ariadne and God knows who else. Woo, how’s our path on the arch?”

“What path? We can’t path without mass.” Sweat glistened on Woo’s forehead. “With the frequency this particular archway jumps around, we’ll never hit it.”

“So we guess,” Carter said. “Burn once a day, split the difference between the archway’s position today and tomorrow.”

“That’s a sixteen percent chance!” Woo snapped.

“Do it,” Diego ordered anyway.

It didn’t work. The archway skipped five times in twenty hours. Diego and Carter split a ration inside Diego’s tiny cabin.

“We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.

Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

“They’ll mutiny, cap.”

“They won’t. We owe them the truth.”

“At the cost of Ariadne?”

“I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”

“Don’t be an idiot. You go last if you go at all.”

“I’m not killing my crew in their sleep!”

“They’ll understand when it’s over.”

“We’ll draw straws.” They broke the news on the bridge when they rationed out that day’s water.

Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

“But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”

“Eight to ten,” Woo said.

“You said we needed thirty.”

“Learn to multiply.”

“Enough.” Diego held out the straws. They were actually strips of Crack-Seal. “If the Imps were gunning for your families, would you give your lives to stop them?”

Woo nodded. Laster did too. Mainard didn’t. “There has to be another way.”

“Name it.” Diego waited a bit.

Carter drew the short straw. If mutiny was on the crew’s mind, Diego trusted no one else to watch him while he slept. They all went to the reactor room together.

“I’ve got a daughter,” Carter said before he stepped inside. “On Ariadne’s moon.”

Diego’s throat went dry. “You never said one word.”

“Didn’t matter then. Her info’s in my file. Tell her I died saving the universe.”

Laster sketched a salute. Mainard and Woo did too. Diego just squeezed Carter’s shoulder. “She’ll know.”

Carter’s body bought them nine burns. Diego didn’t sleep that night. No one tried to kill him.

Now two days from the archway, Diego conferred with Woo. They had hit forty-two percent. The archway moved that night and Mainard drew the short straw. There was a scuffle.

“You can’t do this!” Mainard shrieked. It took Laster and Woo to muscle him to the reactor room. “It’s murder!”

“I’m sorry.” Diego snapped his holster open and made his face a mask.

“My wife’s on Ariadne! Our son!”

Diego opened the reactor door. “They’ll know.”

Woo lost his grip and Mainard got an elbow free. He almost took Laster’s head off before Diego shot him in the face. Mainard’s body bought them nine burns.

With one day left, they got lucky – seventy-four percent on the archway. Laster pushed away the straws.

“You don’t need me.” He was too calm for nineteen, too ready to die. “You need command and navigation.”

Diego shoved them at him. “Draw a straw.”

“I’m married too, sir. The Imps will bomb her back to the dark ages.”

“Captain.” Woo grabbed his hand. “We’re close, the math is simple. You do the burns. I’ll draw for you.”

Laster moved. Diego blocked him. “I said draw.”

“Put in it my report.” Laster held Diego’s eyes.

Laster bought them nine burns, close enough to warn the archway ahead of the enemy fleet. Diego sent his report with a Commendation of Valor for all his crew, even Mainard. Then he sent a message to Carter’s daughter.

As drones towed them in he and Woo sat on the empty bridge. The garrison captain guarding the archway had known Imps were in the system, but no one had known just how enormous the enemy fleet actually was. Retreating through the archway and collapsing it was their only option. That would keep Ariadne safe for decades.

“Captain,” Woo said then. “You’re from Helio Two.”

“Yeah.”

“Family there?”

“Two sons. My wife is dead.”

“If this archway leaves the network, it’ll take two-hundred years to get back there at sublight.”

“I know.”

Woo sat back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “I’m never getting married. Too much to lose.”

“They’re worth it. They’re the reason I can do this.”

“Then I’m having five.” Woo forced a false smile. “If two got you through this, I’m hedging my bets.”

A rescue ship soon docked. They boarded. Together, they went through the archway one last time.

Diego never saw his sons again, but they knew.

THE END

 

About the Story:

The theme for this month was “space opera” and my starting point was actually the Mass Effect series, which is some of my favorite space opera to date. This story spawned from a rather simple language question – “mass effect” is the way “jumping to hyperspace” is described in that game’s universe, but it got me thinking about engines and, from there, engines that use mass. From there, of course, we go to “what if it could burn *any* mass?”

That idea, combined with the knowledge that war of any sort costs lives on both sides led me to take the (extremely literal) approach of soldiers sacrificing themselves in warfare, but not by bravely charging into enemy fire. By literally giving their lives to ensure their ship got home. When the circumstances are desperate enough, I wanted to explore how people asked to literally feeding themselves to a reactor might react, and how the survivors would deal with the guilt.

Cover Photo Credit:

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/34943347@N04/4413240787″>eric_claeys_-_02</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;