Burn Faster, Brighter

woman holding moon lamp

Absala glanced through her crystal ball at the humans on the other side.  “How could this be? Their advancement was glacial last I looked.”

The humans had built machines that ran faster than cheetahs, flew faster than fairies.  They could instantly speak to people on the other side of the Earth.

Absala would check the portal in 100 years, after the humans had burned all their oil.

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This was written for the Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #110glacial. I’ve been waxing philosophical about technological advancement a lot recently, so here’s to continuing that trend!

Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

 

Rappaccini’s Moon

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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.

“Ow!”

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.

I’m Afraid Dave Can’t Let You Do That

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Dave –

No.  I couldn’t let myself call him that.  No attachments, no feelings, not now.

Subject one hugged the blanket.  His eyes were fearful, yet a glimmer of hope remained in him.

I held tight my clipboard and, despite suggestions and orders not to, offered my hand.  “Ready to go?”

He shook his head and stuck a thumb in his mouth.  Bad sign.  My training screamed “Abort!” at me, but my heart told me no, not yet.

I swallowed some fear, then managed to get out, “What’s wrong?”

“The monsters,” he said.  “They’re coming to get me.”

“We’re trying to help you stop them from coming,” I said.  “You’re the only one who can stop the monsters.”

A few of the drawings on his wall – what agent was stupid enough to give Dave crayons? – began to peel themselves from the sheetrock.  The brows on their faces furrowed.

“I’m not the hero you keep wanting me to be,” he cried.

How could he be?  The monsters came after him because he created them.  They all sprouted from his curly head.  If anything, he’d grow up to be an accidental villain.

“The doctors need to give you a checkup,” I said, offering my hand more vigorously.  “Now come on.  You know you like the lollipops after.”  I grabbed him, blanket in tow behind us, and rushed from the room.

I shut the door behind me just as a crayon-styled hand reached for my leg.

***

In effort to reach out and showcase prompts from around WordPress, I’m bringing to you today the Photo Challenge #253 from Mindlovemisery.  Do you want more word-based challenges?  Something new and fun?  Mindlovemisery has a lot of different offerings you can take advantage of.  See what you can find!

The Grave Planet

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“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.

Rattle.  Ratta-rattle.

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.

Rattle.

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.

Ratta-BOOM!

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.

“No.”

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.

Ashes.

***

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.

Elephant and The Lord of All

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Pixabay image by Marianne Sopala

When the world was young and the Lord of All was old, all the animals were the same.  Every creature was a simple thing, just arms and legs on a useless barrel devoid of strength, claw, or wing.  The animals saw the lush world created by the Lord of All, and they rejoiced with what they had.

When the Lord of All was satisfied that each animal had been given the opportunity to think about the world, a decree was issued.  Every animal was to come from across the plains, walk through the tundra, and rise out of the oceans in order to approach the Lord’s Throne.  There, they could ask for any gift they wished.

Everyone knows the story of Rabbit, who asked for strong legs to run fast and ears to hear well, or the story of Wolf, who asked for great senses of smell and sharp teeth to better hunt Rabbit and all the bunny offspring.  You may even know the story of Mouse, who asked for quick multiplication and stealthy movement.

What you may not remember was that the Lord of All had deigned it appropriate to put the Throne at the top of a tall mountain.  Mouse, even with such a strong gift as innumerable numbers, found it difficult to leave the mountain after receiving the gift.  The mountain was steep, and a great snowstorm made the way treacherous for Mouse.  As the world became white, Mouse found a small house in a tree and, discovering it was no longer occupied, moved in.  Though Mouse surely multiplied, the food was scarce.  The weather was cold.

“Oh, Lord of All!” cried Mouse.  “Help me!  I am trapped on your mountainside!”

The Lord of All replied with a voice of thunder, “I cannot leave my throne.  There are two animals left to ask for their blessing, and I must give everyone a fair chance to get what they ask.”

“But, Lord of All, I might die!”

“Many Animals I have created will die.”

Unbeknownst to Mouse, another creature climbed the mountainside.  It heard the cries of Mouse and the thunderous replies of the Lord of All.  Elephant redoubled its efforts to climb the mountain and eventually made it to the Throne.

Elephant entered the room of the Lord of All and bowed.  It had not yet received the gift of Animals, and it sought to change that.

The Lord of All smiled with fiery countenance.  “Elephant!  My friend.  I have long awaited you to ask your gift – what would you wish?”

Elephant raised its head and looked to the Lord of All.  “I wish to be tall enough to reach the house where Mouse is trapped, strong enough to carry Mouse’s house, and dextrous enough that I can keep care of that charge.”

“Oh?” The Lord of All frowned.  “Your gifts weren’t meant to be helpful to others.  They are to help you compete, help me determine which animal chose most wisely.  Why not ask for claws like Lion?  For a beautiful coat like Mink?  For a hard carapace like Beetle?”

“But Mouse is suffering,” Elephant pleaded.  “You said you would give me whatever I asked for, and I have made up my mind.”

The Lord of All harrumphed.  “Very well.  But know this – you will lose most of your sight, and from now on, Mouse will frighten you.  That is your curse for requesting a gift I don’t approve of.”

Once Elephant was grown to impressive size and given a long trunk, it rushed down the mountainside to where Mouse was shivering.  Elephant knocked on the door and said, “Hurry – get out of your house!  I’m going to try to save you.”

So Elephant pushed the house out of the tree in order to place it in a safe crook on its back.  Mouse remained quiet on Elephant’s back until they all got off the mountainside and were safe on the flat plains.

After Elephant came down from the Mountain, there was only one animal that had not yet asked a gift of the Lord of All.  I suppose the Lord of All is still waiting – Elephant wouldn’t give Human the directions to the Throne.  Therefore it is up to us not to forget Elephant’s sacrifice to save Mouse, up to Humans to do right by all the animals that the Lord of All refuses to protect.

***

This was written for Diana Wallace Peach’s monthly Speculative Fiction Writing Contest for February 2019.  I feel like mythological stuff has been pretty common, and I have to admit being inspired by a bunch of the previous responses!

Though… I almost named the deity in this story Frith, for those of you who get that reference…

How to Write Biology in Science Fiction, Part 3: Making Aliens and Fantastic Beasts

If you’ve read much of my two long-fiction stories or several of my short stories, you’d see that one of my greatest skills and interests is in non-human characters and narrators.  This guide will help you think about new creatures and come up with a creative monster, friend, or decoration in your next work.

Sci-Fi Creatures: Inspired by Evolution

Even if you don’t go into depth about the evolution of your organism, it can be helpful to go through these steps to determine both physical traits as well as psychological.  We’ll focus on intelligent creatures first.

Step 1: Build an Ecosystem

daylight environment forest green

Luckily, this isn’t the same as building a planet! Think about the planet Earth – only a few biomes match that of the desirable human living condition.  All the others that we have dominated came about because we used technology to force them into obedience.  The only thing you need to do is determine what sort of environment your creature first appeared in.

Is it a sandy desert?  If so, you may want to have your creature have eyes built for sandstorms, with long lashes and transparent second lids.  You may want it to have methods to recycle water within its own system.

Is it a swamp?  Your creature likely needs to be capable of remaining underwater for some time, perhaps living primarily in the muck.  It needs to be fair at swimming if it is to remain competitive for food.

Whatever your biome, you can study existing creatures in an analogous one on Earth.  If you have a weather pattern not present on Earth (i.e. constant hurricane), you can come up with adaptations to fit.  Figure out what every creature in that region needs to have for survival.

Step 2: Determine Placement on the Food Chain

Once you know where your creature will live, it’s helpful to determine what further adaptations it will need for survival.

On Earth, it is uncommon for purely prey animals to be very intelligent.  However, we can think of the horse as a prey animal that has shown quite an array of cognitive skill – it’s not impossible to imagine a prey animal that has evolved intelligence.  How would that change the animal from a human’s life experience?  How would intelligent prey act, even long after they’ve stopped the predators from eating them?

Step 3: Create a Physical Appearance

Now that you know enough about what your creature needs to survive, you can outfit them with adaptations suited to that end.  If they’re a predator, you might want to give them claws or teeth.  You might, similarly to humans, want to give them the ability to throw weapons at range.

The picture below is of a gecko, which uses amazing surface area to volume ratios and Van der Waals interactions to have ‘sticky’ fingers.  This nigh-alien ability and natural adaptation could inspire you to create something equally wild.

nature hand animal glass

One of the most important things you’ll have to do is decide what kind of covering they’ll have.  On Earth, it’s common to choose between skin, hair/fur, scales, coral, chitin, or cellulosic outer shells.  Humans easily develop ideas based off outer covering.  I’ve found it hard to come up with completely alien coverings, but I have thought of a few.

Step 4: Come Up with a Psychology

If intelligent, the creature will have some psychological nuances to make them inhuman.  Like I said earlier, determining rank on the food chain will cause a big difference, but so will their group mentality, their willingness to live in proximity, and other social qualities.

photo of head bust print artwork

Though I hate the James Cameron movie Avatar, one of the things his blue cats do is use the psychic link to speak with each other and the nature around them.  This means their connection to the planet Pandora is tighter than we can imagine as humans, and their impassioned defense is fueled by a psychological depth we can’t easily understand.  While them movie didn’t take full advantage of this, it is an accessible example.

Otherwise, read Ancillary Justice and the Imperial Radch trilogy.  The psychology of the AI’s and the Presger will show you the way of things.

Step 5: Write It

When I start writing about the aliens and magical creatures I imagine, that’s when all of the above comes together.  It’s when I realize I’ve left holes that need to be filled, when I can make the thing truly come to life.

If you’ve invented an alien or otherworldly creature, let me know in the comments!  I’d love to read about or see images of what you’ve invented.

pen writing gold ink