Congrats, River! I’ll be sending that out ASAP! Thanks to all who participated. Happy reading!
2020’s the year to learn about what’ll happen after the apocalypse, and you’ll have no better chance than now – Lethal Impact, an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts, is nearly here!
Lethal Impact officially releases on 30 September, 2020! I have no idea how to get universal links, but here’s one to American Amazon!
But yes! Come one, come all, and have some fun! And, what’s more, I’ll give away a couple prizes (ebooks of both Lethal Impact and Dark Divinations, a publication that includes another of my shorts) to a randomly selected person who comments on this post before next Tuesday, October 5th! If you’ve already bought a copy, I’ll earmark you for an ebook copy of anything I publish next. 1 person will win both books, and one person will win just Lethal Impact. Sorry, not going to do paperback right now because Amazon’s a butthole and I don’t want to present a different reward for international people.
Still not sure you’re interested? Well, let me give you a little… somethin’ somethin’ right here, right now. Behold: the opening passage of my little contribution to the apocalypse, A Little Less Conversation.
“Would you like to mate?”
I gulped. I couldn’t let him – it, her, whatever – know I couldn’t mate with a psychopathic slug even if I wanted to. After I thought a couple seconds, I answered, “No.”
The human fleshbag in which my supposed boss resided lifted a brow. Nothing salacious, nothing even sensual, just a motion to show his piqued curiosity and mild discomfort. “You performed your job adequately, and I have had the correct hormonal injections to perform my part. It’s time you were rewarded for your troubles.”
“No. I don’t want it,” I responded. I fished around in my human brain, looking for answers to satiate his confusion. “Is there any reason I must accept payment for services rendered?”
“Why would you not?” He tapped his ballpoint pen, likely stolen from the human who’d previously lived in that husk, onto a pad of paper. “It takes a lot of nurgles to infest an entire planet, and a zertig like you needs to birth a lot of nurgles before you can be promoted to a remelp like me.”
I swallowed, said nothing. The silence lasted a long time, longer than a normal human would have accepted, but the remelp wasn’t bothered by it.
After a while, his demeanor darkened, his eyes squinted. “You’ve been around those pesky humans too much, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered. It was true, and this way I didn’t have to tell him I was one of those vermin. “The humans don’t interact the way we do. Their relationships are marred by unique feelings which I have difficulty grasping. I wish to understand these concepts prior to the encephalization of Earth’s nurgles.”
He lifted a chin. “Ah. You want to birth your nurgles in mid-flight on the way to the next planet.”
Good enough. I’d be long dead by the time they left for the next planet. “That would be a fair trade, yes.”
“I’ve never heard of this happening before. Everyone wants to birth more nurgles. But I suppose it is a loss I can cope with – you are our primary spy amongst the human resistance faction, and birthing nurgles would remove you from that role. Use your clever emotions to bypass their defenses. Convince them to come out of hiding so we can finally rid the planet of those meddlesome people.” He scribbled something with his pen and motioned for me to leave, so I obeyed his directive and exited the office.
That’s right, Covid-free fun, right here on the internet. Good luck!
Some of you may have been alerted on Twitter that I got a second story accepted into an anthology released by Dragon Soul Press – and it’s here on Kindle and paperback preorder!
In this post-apocalyptic anthology, nothing matters except survival.
In a world full of humans pitted against each other, how can there be anyone left to trust?
This book contains 16 stories by different authors, of which yours truly is one, about post-apocalyptic struggle.
As more marketing shenanigans for this book starts happening, you’ll start seeing more from me!
This story was continued from Joanne the Geek’s part 1, which you can find here or by reading just below:
One (Joanne’s Part)
One sunny afternoon Jennifer was happily walking along the footpath only to find a crowd of people suddenly run past her in abject terror. Mystified, she managed to stop one of them. They were pale and seemed terrified.
“What’s happened?” she asked him.
“This portal opened up and these creatures from another world appeared. They were huge with long tentacles and large legs like leathery tree stumps.” he exclaimed. Jennifer let him go, and he ran off in terror following the others.
“Right.” she said. Someone had to do something about this, she thought. She strode off home. She went into her bedroom closet and fished out her old battered cricket bat. “I’m going to hit those freaks for six!” She stomped out of the house.
Jennifer walked down the road until she could see a glimmering portal that pulsed with a bright light. Before it were either two or three creatures that were as tall as small office blocks. They had dark leathery skin, massive tree stump legs (as already mentioned), long protruding arms, and their heads were a mass of long writhing tentacles. Jennifer watched them, and instead of feeling scared, she felt angry. She walked towards them until she was sure she had gained their attention.
“Look I don’t know where you freaks are from, but I’m not letting monsters like you take over our world. We’re already have enough monsters here to deal with.” she told them while thinking of the current assortment of world leaders. “So be warned. I have my cricket bat!” She held her cricket bat aloft in front of them. The monsters stopped in their tracks, as if unsure with what they were dealing with.
“Ge dthrth dltyz fkywfhg sdhtu!” the one closest to Jennifer said. As it spoke, from what Jennifer assumed was it’s mouth, the ground shook around them.
“Nope. Didn’t catch a word of that! Go back through your portal now, or I will take drastic steps!” she warned them. The ground shook around her again, as they all seemed to be laughing at her now. “Well I did warn you!” She gripped the handle of her bat with both hands and began running at them. As she ran the cricket bat began to glow…
Two (H.R.R. Gorman’s Part)
The earth, which had shaken as the monster spoke, began to crack beneath her feet. Roots split and shivered as something beneath the ground pushed itself up.
Jennifer rolled to the side and held her cricket bat at the ready. The bat glowed even brighter now and tingled in her grip.
Once the earth had sufficiently broken up and the thing beneath the surface was visible, the monster pointed at it. Its tentacles writhed in a flurry as it said, “Ue kthgyn wysdht dhutyk!”
Up from the earth rose a transparent sphere glowing a faint blue. Two humanoid figures stood inside the bubble, and one flicked his fingers to cause the bubble to dissipate. The man, robed in a smooth, blue cloth and a rosy sash, raised a slim hand against the monsters. The hand glowed brightly.
“Wkusdth grnsthyk pyblsdth, shtrydk sythyd,” the monster said, somewhat morose and pleading. Some of the creepy eyes on the ends of tentacles looked to Jennifer as if begging. The monsters retreated into the portal once more, and the fantastical apparition disappeared.
A thin woman, her ears long and pointed like the man’s, stepped from the bubble she’s appeared in and put her hands in a prayerful position. She bowed to Jennifer, smiled, and said, “Chosen one, we have protected you now, for you will soon do much to save us from those creatures.”
The man stepped off after her and licked his lips. Though he possessed an otherworldly beauty, Jennifer noticed his teeth were all small and sharp. Or was she just imagining things?
“And just who do you think you are?” Jennifer asked. She still held up her bat, noticing it retained its glow…
Thanks for sticking around for this story! If you’re ready for more, I’m nominating Chelsea Owens to keep the party rolling. Will she keep the story going, or will she finish it? HAVE I BROKE IT TOO FAR!?
(If you’re not up for it, though, let me know and I’ll nominate someone else – I just seem to remember you are ok with “finish the story” things).
Glass separated Vanna from the grown-ups as it always had, as it always would. She placed the flower in a box which sealed shut at the press of a button, then waited while the grown-ups investigated it through their gloves.
“Exquisite,” Dr. Baglioni said. His eyes, soft and rich brown, looked to Vanna with curious need. “Where did you find this?”
“Beatrice gave it to me – and she wonders when you’ll believe that she’s real.”
A scowl. “Beatrice is our moon, where we live. It can’t give you flowers. Are you lonely, Vanna?”
“No, but… I got you this flower. Twelve kilometers that way.” Vanna pointed south of town.
“That’s mighty far. Are you sure it’s safe?”
Vanna nodded vigorously. “It’s an easy walk. I can wear a tracker if you need me to.”
Dr. Baglioni lifted the flower and examined is pristine, blue petals. “We’ll prepare for the journey this time – as we would have last time, had you told us your plans.” He gently replaced the flower on the bottom of the air-tight box and pulled his hands out of the gloves. “I don’t want you to get hurt out there with none of us knowing where you are.”
Vanna saluted him. “I won’t let you down!” She smiled and leaned up against the glass. “Can I have my supper now?”
“Of course.” Dr. Baglioni smiled, selected a few packages from a shelf, and placed them into an air lock where Vanna could get them. “Wait just a moment – I’ll get you the other things you’ll need.”
Though she immediately sought a couple candies from the little package of food, Vanna nodded in acceptance of Dr. Baglioni’s plans. She slid on the tracking bracelet when it came through the slot, then accepted the food, water, and heating elements from the doctor. “All you want’s the flower?” she asked. “Then you’ll believe me about Beatrice?”
“Just bring me another flower, and you can tell me more about your Beatrice.”
With a stiff salute, Vanna responded, “Aye-aye, chief!”
“See you tomorrow, kiddo.”
Vanna ran through the streets of the city, back to her heated lean-to. She saw lights in some of the windows, saw the movement of shadows within. Grown-ups lived behind the glass windows, and sometimes other kids she could never know peeked around curtains.
She ran across the snowy streets, lightness of her bare feet leaving small footprints behind. It was twilight on her moon, Beatrice, which meant the system’s ever-eclipsed star, Rappaccini, cast long shadows before her. Sometimes Vanna wondered what the star’s brightness would be like if the massive planet Giacomo weren’t always in the way. Pictures of Earth, where all the humans came from, always seemed inviting and cheerful. Bright.
Just like where all the grown-ups lived, behind the glass.
It didn’t take her long to get to her little house. Dr. Baglioni had insisted she take a good sleeping bag if she didn’t want to live in the provided housing, and he’d supplied her with a stove and other equipment to cook her food. But the snow on Beatrice didn’t bother Vanna, and neither did eating cold food.
She ripped open the retort pouch and sniffed what was inside. Beans, which meant the other pouch was probably rice. She dumped them both into the paperboard tray that came with the meal, then doused it in hot sauce. It tasted good and filled her stomach, but she wished she hadn’t already eaten all the candy.
After field stripping the pre-packaged meals, she rolled up on top of her sleeping bag, wished Beatrice and Giacomo a good night, and fell asleep.
Beatrice was a treacherous moon, or so Vanna was told.
She was cold, poisonous, and dark. All the humans, save for lonely Vanna, lived inside their buildings, hidden within towers of glass and stone. Once in a while, Dr. Baglioni or another grown-up would venture outside, but their pitiful suits degraded after a couple hours in the open air. Sometimes Vanna would watch robots as they built new greenhouses or dug foundations for new towers, but otherwise Beatrice was her lone companion in the wild.
She reached the rock formation outside of town and brushed off some of the snow. She touched Beatrice’s frozen body with a bare hand, then pushed more of her weight onto the rock, making sure the moon could feel her pulse.
Vanna felt the moon’s breath through her hand. “Hello, Beatrice,” she ventured to say. “Dr. Baglioni loved our present.” Vanna found Beatrice responded on her own time, so she waited for the moon to think.
Whatever lived within Beatrice answered through a quiet voice made out of snowfall, “Will your Dr. Baglioni stop carving away my flesh?”
“I don’t know,” Vanna responded. “But he’s interested in that flower. He might believe you’re real, if I bring him another.”
“I don’t understand,” Beatrice answered. “I gave you a flower already. How will another help?”
Vanna blinked a couple times. “I don’t really know. He just said he wanted another.”
“He could talk to me,” Beatrice sobbed, “Why won’t he speak with me? Why must he send a child?”
“I don’t know,” Vanna answered. “None of the grown-ups go outside. I alone live outside, close to you, Beatrice. So, you know… I guess I can take him a message. What would you do if he doesn’t believe me this time?”
Beatrice whispered through frosted breath, “I’ll have to get rid of the robots, I suppose. I can’t let the grown-ups, as you call them, keep hurting me.”
Vanna rubbed Beatrice’s rock, thinking the humans wouldn’t like that. “Is there anything short of that? Surely you can strike a deal. Hey – you grew flowers. You’ve grown all these rocks. Could you make them a new tower? One they can fill with the same air that’s behind the glass, the kind they could breathe?”
“I think so,” answered Beatrice.
“Then go ahead and do it. Kill off their robots, then begin growing some walls. I’ll let Dr. Baglioni know what’s going on.”
“Thank you, Vanna.”
Dr. Baglioni frowned behind the glass. “Beatrice said what?”
“She said that she can build your towers for you. We agreed that she could destroy the robots to prove it,” Vanna said. She held out a hand. “Do you believe me now?”
The grown-up’s eyes widened, tears formed in his face. “I believe you, and you have to believe me – this moon is dangerous.” He leaned up against the glass. “She’s already attempted to grow a tower, and… Vanna, it failed!”
Vanna lifted a curious brow and crossed her arms. “Failed? What do you mean?”
“Beatrice evidently decided to finish the tower we’re building in the east side of the city. It was structurally unsound, and it fell into some of our completed towers.” He wiped a tear away. “Seventeen thousand people died before we could seal off the tunnels.”
Vanna shook her head. “No. No, I don’t believe you – Beatrice loves the grown-ups. She’d never kill them!”
“She did!” Dr. Baglioni cried. He lifted up a phial of fluorescent green liquid, rotating it so the viscous fluid slid down the sides of the glass. “I analyzed those flowers you gave me, Vanna – Beatrice is a life form, a film that lives all over the planet’s surface. She’s what makes this planet poisonous and untenable for humankind, but I don’t think she has to be this way. She wants us to die, Vanna.”
“No.” Vanna backed away.
Dr. Baglioni shook the vial. “We have to kill Beatrice, Vanna. In this vial are some nanobots – if they’re released, they’ll eat Beatrice alive until she’s gone. But we need to start them somewhere Beatrice is known to exist. We need to take them to your site outside of town and release them there.”
“I won’t do it!” Vanna shouted. “Beatrice is my friend!”
Dr. Baglioni put the vial into a sack along with several meals worth of food. He shoved it through the air lock, then said, “If you don’t do it, Vanna, we will. We have the data from your tracker.”
“I’ll tell her to run away! I’ll tell her to hide so you can’t find her!”
Baglioni leaned downward, scowling. “A moon can’t leave its orbit, Vanna. Just beware of Beatrice. Don’t listen to her. If you don’t believe me, go to the east side and see what she’s done.”
With a pout, Vanna grabbed the sack out of the airlock, then she ran away.
“Stupid Baglioni,” Vanna muttered as she ran. Giacomo continued to block the light from Rappaccini, Beatrice remained cold and poisonous. Her footsteps traveled east through the city in search of the ruins.
The smoke and dust rising from the fallen towers made the place easy enough to find. Vanna ran across the empty streets and came upon the rubble.
She bent to see what had stung her foot, only to find something red was on it. It was like blood, like when she dashed a foot or scraped an elbow on a hard surface of Beatrice, but very much greater in volume. She shuffled through the rocks then gasped when she found the destroyed, smashed head of a grown-up. The skin was warm, even though the moon’s atmosphere was destroying it.
Vanna suddenly felt lonely. She had never felt another human’s skin, only had embraces between glass or space-suits. And, here, Beatrice had killed them.
She clasped a hand around the vial of nanobots Dr. Baglioni had given her.
Beatrice had to answer.
Vanna waited patiently for Beatrice to show. At last, she answered, “Oh, Vanna, I didn’t mean to kill them. I thought I was doing the right thing! I wanted them to come outside and play with me like you do.”
“But they can’t,” Vanna cried. “If they go outside, they’ll die. I’m the experiment, the one who can live with your poison.”
“I had to know,” Beatrice rebutted. “They were digging up my bones, making my flesh into their towers.”
“If you want them to come out and play so badly, Dr. Baglioni says all you’d have to do is stop making poison. He says it’s your fault they have to stay inside.”
“I do it, dear Vanna, to keep you alive. Haven’t you noticed, dear child, that the grown-ups won’t let you into their window-world? Haven’t you realized that my poison nourishes you?”
Vanna bit her lip.
“If I stop making poison, they’ll shove you into a cage and keep you there while they enjoy the outside. As it is, you get to do whatever you want.” Beatrice grew another dozen flowers, complete with ribbon and card. “I love you, Vanna. You are more of me than you are of them, my sweet. We could be happy together. Don’t let Dr. Baglioni keep us apart. You don’t need them.”
Vanna opened the flask of nanobots and poured them onto the flowers. “Dr. Baglioni was right!” Vanna shouted. “You are dangerous!”
The sky thundered with Beatrice’s screams.
“You’ll die, Vanna! You’ll die without my flowers, without my poison!”
“I know,” Vanna answered. “But you won’t kill anyone else. I’m sorry, Beatrice.”
While the moon wailed its last, it reached out another bundle of flowers to Vanna. “I only wanted to be loved…”
This was written for D. Wallace Peach’s March Speculative Fiction Prompt. It is also very strongly inspired by my favorite short story, Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. Written in 1844, Rappaccini’s Daughter was a tale that inspired by Indian (like India Indian, not Native American type of Indian) folklore. I hope you enjoyed this overly-long response!
Picture by Natan Vance.
“That’ll be a day’s rations.” I slid the broken toaster across the steel table to her.
No longer so dinged, rusty, and scratched, even a cursory glance showed the quality of my handiwork. She picked up her goods and frowned. “My neighbor said you fixed his for free. Why are you charging me?”
I wiped my greasy fingers off on a towel that hung on a drawer handle behind me. “A week ago I decided to be like the rest of you and make this place do. Even if I want to go home, I can’t without the entire crew. I’m not the captain, so I can’t just order you all to action.” I tossed the rag back down, letting it swing against the cabinet. “I have to start getting payment for my work.”
The colonist, until recently a science officer on our exploration vessel, took out her electronic notepad. She tapped a couple buttons and smirked. “Well, at least you’re finally coming across to seeing sense.”
“It’s not by choice that I’m doing this.” I moved over to another bench, taking up a personal computer that someone had ripped from their old ship quarters. I turned it around, trying to figure out how to fix it without the structure of the ship nearby. “There was never a vote to colonize. We just left the ship, and most of you didn’t want to go back once your feet touched the ground.”
She laughed as she went to the door of my little cave, holding her toaster tight. “You’ll see that everything’s fine. It’ll be ok – you’ll get over your fear soon. There are no such thing as ghosts.”
Once the makeshift door closed behind her, I groaned. At least she didn’t prod or poke fun, but her faux pity didn’t sit well with me. I gritted my teeth and reached for my tools, giving extra care not to harm the computer I worked on.
My tool slipped out of my hand. I tossed it against the wall.
This planet seeped despair. The vegetation, though complex, grew small and weak. The green leaves quickly faded to deathly brown, and the skeletons of ancient trees reached up only part of their old height. The animals and alien creatures that had once inhabited this planet still haunted the place. I could feel their malevolence with every breath, the grave planet entombed with the dead of an ancient race.
The breathable atmosphere, reasonable weather patterns, and similarity in size to our faraway home attracted us to this planet. After years of traveling, searching, and living cramped inside our ship, the chance to stretch our legs and breathe the air of a planet once more was too much to ignore.
I should have voiced my opinions then.
I closed my eyes and took up my tool again, continuing my work.
“This is goodbye.” My mother nuzzled up against me and pulled me in tight, close to her. The scent of her perfume clung to my uniform. “I’m so proud of you.”
I gulped. After months of training, backing out now would never do. “It’ll be ok. I’ll be back home eventually, and I love you, Mom.”
She gave a brave harrumph. I may come back home, but time dilation due to faster than light travel would mean she’d likely not be there to greet me.
Then again, I may not come back home.
She wiped her nose, removing the mucous. “Don’t let any of the aliens kill you. Fly smart, fly safe, and fly fast.”
I nodded and moved around her. Smoke bellowed out of my ship’s engines.
“I’ve got to go, mom.”
She held me tight, planted her lips on my forehead, and I broke from her hold.
The rolling, dusty sound of the wind carried over the entry to my cave. I listened to my door jar as the planet’s lonely voice whined for attention.
The repair business came in spurts. During the next lull I needed to reinforce my door. For now, I pulled my blanket up around me and crept out of bed. The lights came on automatically, brightening slowly from a dull warmth to a more appropriate shine. The door moved more, but the lights banished the ghosts from my room. I shivered, cool air of the night coming in through the cracks around my door.
I held the door still, and the rattling stopped. An extra bar and the rattling would probably stop, perhaps a rubber gasket to seal from the air that came in. I let go of the door.
I jumped back from the door, starting a bit before I realized the noise couldn’t have been caused by my release or even my abode. I flicked open the lock and pushed down on the metal latch, then pulled open the steel door taken from the room on my ship.
The colony – a collection of alien-hewn caves and portions of metal salvaged from our ship – appeared in good condition. The colony’s lights remained off and dim for the night, and the air smelled as fresh as it had the first day.
Movement above me made me look upward. Something in the sky, far up above me, sparkled. It streaked quickly down and the flames grew in intensity. Somewhere, probably a few miles to the southeast, the source of the light probably landed.
Quickly I receded into my abode, blanket still wrapped around me. The lights turned themselves off when I clicked, and I fumbled blindly on my tables. Eventually I came across an old, metal tube, and clasped it. I expanded the telescope, now certain I had the right object, and returned outside.
I looked up, the last of the fiery remains in the sky, and trained my sights on it. I turned the ancient tool, focusing the light in the lenses, and blinked.
Ghosts or no, the ancient whispers of the windy planet were the least of our worries.
I moved the scope to the right, left, up, and down. I closed it shut with a snap, then hurried to the Captain’s cave.
I held my breath. Though not as solid as portrayed in pop culture, the rocky barrier at the outer edge of the solar system loomed large ahead of our ship.
We kept the lights, both internal and external, off during this perilous part of the journey. Even the heat that kept us alive and that was emitted by our computers had a chance of giving us away, but this was our best and possibly only chance.
“I don’t see them,” she said, her voice a mild, hushed whisper. She closed the shutter on the window, what little light that came from stars instantly cut off, and handed back my telescope. I held it tight, glad to retrieve my heirloom.
I wanted to peek out the shutter. I wanted to chance looking through the glass, but I knew the risk we’d taken by opening it in the first place. “They haven’t said anything yet.” I put the telescope in my bag, removing its temptation. “If the aliens were going to stop us from leaving the system, you’d think they’d have shown up by now, right?”
I could hear her move, perhaps with invisible answer. “The first ship we launched came back saying we’d all be killed if anyone left. ‘Stay home, spaceman,’ they said. What if that was our only warning?”
“Then we’ll know if they spotted us because we’ll be dead.” I swallowed, then reached a hand out to her. “I told my mom not to be afraid for me, but I’m scared now.”
“Me too,” she said. “I just wanted to explore the universe. I don’t want to get in some alien’s way or colonize a planet they want for themselves.”
I heard her choke, a sound larger than what we were allowed right now. “Sometimes I wonder if signing up to explore for the rest of my life was a good idea.”
I took her and clenched tight, letting her know I was there for her. “We’ll come back home. We have to, if we want to give our knowledge back to our people.”
“It won’t be home anymore.” I heard her sniffle, felt her shake. “Everyone we love will be dead by the time we get back. We may just as well never return.”
I paused a moment, the released her and gave a nice rub. “Aww, don’t say that. That’ll mean the aliens have found and killed us. The ship’s well put together, and we’ve got plenty of mechanics to keep it running.”
She cracked open the shutter again. “Running…”
“You can’t be serious.” He blinked his eyes.
I reached to his computer and dimmed his lights, hoping nothing leaked from his office outside. “The computers picked up the explosion. I saw the falling debris, and I used my telescope to see them.” I released my breath, then took in a new one. “The aliens are here. I saw their ships – beautiful, like arrows – and they’re fighting above us. If they finish battling each other and notice us, we’re dead.”
The captain brought up information on his computer. I leaned over, seeing that it was data from the listening posts, and that the microphones had picked up the explosion. “I asked electrical to reduce power production and all the computers to keep the lights off until morning.” He pointed to me with a pencil. “Tomorrow, you lead an expedition out to the debris field. I want to know what kind of aliens are fighting above this planet, and if there’s a chance they’ll come back.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
I felt the ground – it’d been years since the last time I’d done so – beneath me. The radiation stung slightly, but I’d live. Nothing a few med packs couldn’t handle, nothing a bit of soil treatment wouldn’t cure.
I breathed in deeply, then took a step further. The air sat heavily in the lungs, whipped wickedly over the ground. Twisted metal spiraled upward, melted into useless chunks that corroded and rusted.
Shaped stones sank into the ground at even intervals, tightly packed together. I scanned further out, the field of dirt and unnatural carvings continuing out as far as I could see. Behind me was the same thing, a few larger, stone monuments erected in the empty field.
I walked to a cave. The square entry, hewn from a marble, no longer housed a door, but it could be repaired. It smelled musty and ancient inside, but these cave-like structures could easily provide shelter for a few days.
I coughed and turned on my flashlight. The cave walls were lined with drawers, each tiny and labeled with a faded, scratched tag that glimmered in a fools’ gold alloy. I took the handle only to break it off, but the lock – mechanical, simple, ancient – had similarly degraded. I pried the drawer open, and dust flew out at my face when it soon fell clattering to the ground.
I trembled. The debris field burned hot with fire, the explosion destroying several of the thousands of endless tombs that covered the grave planet. My team held close their lanterns, carried tightly their rations. The wind whispered and wailed hateful sounds, cautioning against error now.
I reached down and pulled up a piece of duller metal, finding it still warm to the touch. Underneath the soil had been scorched. I sighed and picked it up, putting it in my bag. “The pieces are too small in this area. There’s nothing we can learn from this.” I looked to my small team, each of their faces fearful. “Get as much metal as you can. We can use it to repair our ship. I’m going to go a little further, see if there’s something bigger.”
“But what if the aliens see us?”
I spat on the ground. “This was always a bad idea. Always.”
I marched up the hillside. Tombstones – definitely tombstones, definitely rocks that marked the placement of alien bodies – lined every inch and crevice. In the sides of the mountain, where it was too steep to place the larger stones, the ashen drawers were carved. Bones, degraded textiles, meat, and alien jewelry sat in coffins that my feet tromped over.
At the top of the hill, I saw the largest mass of the ship. It sat in flames in the next valley, so I waved my team on. “Careful,” I said. “Take cover if anything moves.”
The cockpit of the tiny, alien ship glowed red with lingering heat. Nearby, made of what seemed to be a strange, brown leather, was a piece of furniture that I had to assume once held the alien’s body.
It wasn’t burned, but nothing sat there now.
My heart throbbed quickly. “Scatter,” I ordered. “Get back home. The pilot survived, and the colony’s too close by. We’ve got to liftoff.”
One of my troop shook her head. “They’ll see us. We have to hide.”
“We can’t send back a message. We have to go-”
All of us clung to each other as we heard movement. Metal rattled, and strange lungs coughed.
A body rose from the wreckage. It was tall and slender, walked on two appendages, and used another two appendages to remove some of its clothing. It cut a parachute off from its back and shook out a last, bulbous appendage that was topped with fibers.
What had to be eyes, white with dark, circular centers moved rapidly.
I chirped, whining, scared. I felt the tentacles from my friends clench me tighter.
The alien grunted and pulled an object from its hip. I recognized the creature’s brown, peachy skin from descriptions given by our species’ first captain. The alien pressed a button, then spoke, “I am Captain Bill Aster of the 502nd battalion of Terra Nova. How dare you defile our home?”
My friends shoved me from our pile, squelching as my body – bulky, compared to the alien’s, and brilliant orange – spewed forward as representative. “It wasn’t our choice,” I said. “We just wanted to explore, just see what was out there.”
“I recognize you. You’re some of those curious little aliens, from iota sector.” The machine translated a laugh, but the eerie sound the alien made in the background caused me to shiver. “Those dirty rat bastards from New America reported that they’d told you to stay home, and you disobeyed their unusually wise advice, didn’t you?”
I wrung my tentacles together. “Is it even fair to keep us jailed? Confined to our home planet?”
“Out of all the planets you could have settled, is it fair you chose Earth?” The alien stepped forward, a tiny appendage pointed at me. “This is the planet every species but yours spawned from, and it’s the planet to which our dead of Terra Nova deserve to be buried on.”
“It’s ok,” I protested, waving my tentacles in surrender. “We’ll leave! I swear!”
“I don’t let the New Americans live or die here, not if I can help it, and those mongrels can claim genetic heritage to Earth. You think I’m going to let some dirty alien away with defiling our graves? With disrespecting our dead?” It reached the empty hand to a new object in it’s belt. “I hope you don’t have blood, otherwise it’s going to spill all over our soil.”
“No, please, we didn’t mean any-”
But ghosts can only whisper and hide, and the tales of the dead – even my own – only blow over the fields and tombs of the grave planet.
Father Richard bent down to one knee and released Binnea’s minimally cleaned claw. “The real ‘Father Richard’ is a disembodied brain in our ship, up there.” He pointed to the sky where millions of stars twinkled. One of them was Sol, star of Earth, I supposed. “When the ship arrived, it cloned up several bodies, all the memories of which were connected back to the original brain. If one considers the continuity of memory to be indicative of life, then Father Richard can’t die until the ship is destroyed. All the Father Richards on this planet are one – it’s as if you cut off one of my arms, Binnea, but it’s not like murder. Not like you feared.”
I formed fists. “Is this the way your god is, then?”
The priest nodded. “Our God lives in each of us, as He does in each of your people who believe. Destroying this image, as you have, can’t kill the god. I do as He wills simply because He wills what is right.” He put a hand to the side of my face, rubbed some of the fur gently. “Are you worried? Worried that your people’s ways will disappear?”
Unable to do anything, I chirped a cry and nodded yes.
“What would you want us to do instead?”
“Go away. Let us be happy.”
The priest smiled. “If we leave, the electrical plants leave. You won’t have the night heaters.”
“Then just give us the night heaters-”
“That’s what school is for. So you can make your own night heaters, so you can learn to plant your own crops, make your own writings. Would you rather us leave you for thousands of years of frozen nomadic life?”
“Then come in. I’ve got a nice stove, and I can make you some warm milk while you wash up.” The priest stood and waved for us to follow.
The child in front of me lifted a brow, skeptical. “And that’s how come you and Binnea got to be Wise Ones? Because you followed the star to the God?”
I shook my head. “Oh, no. We were wise before, understand, because we figured the humans’ puzzle out. We used our clues.” I handed the kids some candy. “And that is why we do a scavenger hunt for Christmas on this planet. So be smart, right? Use the clues I gave you, and find as much candy as you can!”
I watched as my own children scattered to the wind, chasing after the bright star and checking their instructions for clues.
Merry Christmas to all, and may your own traditions be wondrous!
“We’ve got to run!” I said. I sheathed my own bone claws and shook Binnea by the scruff, but my friend remained stunned.
More lights turned on in the nearby facility. Shadows fell on the windows as the humans inside hustled.
I shook Binnea again. “They’re coming – we’ve got to leave!”
Binnea pulled its claws close to its chest. “I think that was Father Richard.”
“No – no way. He’s still back home, a day away.”
The humans burst out of the door. It was possible for us to run – our skating was faster than their running – but they would have mechanical beasts that could soon find us. We’d have to sleep when it got much colder, whether the humans did or not.
The humans moved their torches to shine on us. I looked at Binnea’s claws, covered in the glistening red goo from the dead human.
“Children!” a voice asked, “What have you done?!”
Binnea shook its head. “I didn’t mean to! The human just snuck up on me! Please, don’t shoot!”
One of the humans put down its torch and took out a cloth. It reached out to frightened Binnea’s hands and wiped some of the red goo off. “What you did was very, very bad.”
I raised my hackles and curled my lips. “Does it matter?” I growled. “We just killed your god. Now you can’t have Christmas, and you’ll have to go home!”
The human holding the torch sighed, a strange noise of whistling air. “Then you’ll be disappointed to know humans already tried that, and God came back more powerful, forgiving, and awesome than ever.”
I shook my head and took a fearful step back from the human priest. “Then… then this priest isn’t dead? He’ll come back too?”
“That body is dead, yes, which is very bad. But Father Richard?” the priest moved its light to shine on its own face, then on the face of the priest next to him, and the one after that. All the human faces looked the same, all of them appearing like Father Richard more than a Mother Abigail or Sister Greta. “Father Richard can’t be killed so easily.”
The lights were generated by the human mechanisms, but many were odd: small, blinking, multi-colored lights lined doorways and were wrapped around statues of something I’d never seen before.
Binnea tapped my shoulder lightly. “Look.”
A set of human statues, white like ice carved with extreme skill, were illuminated by flood lights on the ground. The human statues were guarded from the elements by a roof, upon which stood a human with large protusions coming from its back. Above that statue was a bright… star.
I yanked Binnea’s scruff until it fell behind a bush with me. “That’s it,” I said. “That’s got to be what your book was talking about! The baby god is here! What do we do now?”
Binnea shook its head and opened the book. “The next part was about bringing the baby god gifts. I didn’t understand that part. But I think the baby was put in the food trough.”
“They fed their god to animals?!”
“No – at least, I don’t think they did, because he goes on to do other stuff when he grows up.” Binnea poked its head out of the bushes and surveyed the statue scenery. “I think we have to destroy the sculpture in the food trough.”
I gulped This seemed so risky. But what other choice did we have? Bow to our human overlords? No. “Alright. We’ll sneak as close as we can, then claw out its eyes. Destroy it however we can.”
Binnea nodded and flexed its claws. “Alright. Let’s go.”
We slunk across the ice, hiding from the blinking lights by sinking into the shadows. Nothing seemed to notice us, so we stood upon the final approach to the little shack. I noticed now that some of the statues were of creatures – at least, I guess they were creatures, judging by the presence of eyes – I’d never seen before. I held my breath, not knowing their powers.
Binnea steeled itself and unsheathed the bones in its fingers. “Here we go!”
I unsheathed my bones and shredded at the ice sculpture with Binnea. The tiny human sculpture in the food trough was soon blinded then degraded down to ice shavings.
A tall creature took a quiet step, casting a shadow on us. “You rapscallions,” a human voice said, “You’re very far-”
Binnea squealed at the announcement and whirled around, bones still out. Its fingers landed in the human’s chest, which spurted a strange, red liquid all over us.
The human fell limp and slid off Binnea’s bony fingers.
“Binnea!” I shouted. The morning was cold and dark, but I didn’t think it wise to be shouting for a potential traitor when the humans were awake and could hear us.
A rustling in the nearby bushes caught my attention, and I saw Binnea’s head pop up. “Over here!”
I crouched behind the bushes, noticing both our breaths forming mist in the winter air. Binnea’s eyes blinked a couple times as they glittered in the light of Renaux, our largest moon.
“I think I figured it out.” Binnea patted the human book. “The baby appears almost right in the middle, so it was hard to find, but I got to the passage with instructions. Apparently, we’re supposed to follow the brightest star in the sky. That will lead us to an inn with a food trough for farm animals.”
I squinted suspiciously. “That sounds vague and easy to mess up.”
“It’s foolproof. Two separate groups found the baby god – one a bunch of farmer hillbillies and another a bunch of scientists. It’s going to work.” Binnea turned its feet to their sides and pushed forward over the ice. “You coming or what?”
I didn’t argue further. We only had two days to stop this baby god, after all, before it hatched or was born.
We skated over miles and miles of terrain, following the star both of us agreed was the brightest. Daylight took away our guide, but we still had an idea of direction and could use the sun to keep our path straight. We ate some of the food we’d packed, supplemented with the red winter berries on bushes that erupted from the ice beneath. The afternoon sun turned the landscape orange, and the light glinted off the ice with perfect twinkles.
We grew tired by the time night fell, but we kept going, hoping to find the inn described by the instructions. I was the one who pointed through the fog to a bright light in the distance. “Is that one of those human lights?”
Binnea squinted. “Has to be. It’s too bright to be a candle.” It pushed forward on its blade-bone feet, skating closer. “Let’s go check it out.”