Short Fiction: Reciprocal Pilferage

Complements: EMERALD WAKE

Most of the rotating globes of free-floating pudding hadn’t been touched. Flan was always a big hit with the passengers, but they never went for the tapioca. That was fine with Linesman Singer. He’d made a habit of popping up for dinners and brunches at the zero-gee EyeCity lounge, ready to lend the cooking staff a helping hand with dish outs. It was easy work, always coming down to Singer reassuring the odd patron that eggs used in the floating island dessert were indeed free range. Post clean-up was tiresome, so Singer was never turned away. For his trouble, there was access to all the tapioca he could carry.

Usually.

While spooning in several mouthfuls, Singer glanced over at the assistant hoovering up blobs of wayward sweets. The fancy orbits the sous prepared only lasted the initial buffet pass. Rogue crème droplets freewheeled in all directions. The vacuum pack hummed softly, inhaling briskly as the nozzle hunted them down one at a time. He was making his way inexorably towards Singer.

The spherical room was clearing of clientele. A few were dotted here or there, but staff had free lanes of traffic. Singer could see the white clad crewmembers flitting about with platters and trays. Cleaners tidied the area with baker’s racks. Most of them kept away, busy elsewhere.

A loud voice spoke nearby, startling the unusually vigilant Linesman.

“Call me Clark,” said someone familiar.

Singer looked into the vaulted ceiling – situated below him at this perspective – and nearly swore. Mr. Ras was just wrapping up a conversation with a gaudily dressed woman. He floated, looking like a bent mantis. The woman was enjoying his company, thumping his chest in a jovial way before heading off.

He looked his way. Singer’s throat clenched on a bunch of coconut cream. Mr. Ras was his supervisor. Somehow he’d found him.

Singer left the spoon to twirl away as he oriented to meet his approach. Mr. Ras didn’t seem particularly happy, but that was hardly a change. Time to get grilled. Just please… please tell me to finish up here before reporting to my station.

Linesman,” Ras said. “Report.”

Always so formal. Ras never used names, other than relaying orders about an outside party.

“Hey supe,” Singer swallowed. “I mean, sir.”

He’d return the gesture.

“As much as I like to see the… ah, initiative to satisfy the needs of our inside customers, we have a situation.”

So this wasn’t about him being away from his post?

“What’s going on?” Singer raised an eyebrow to feign interest.

“Some alien naturists are outside Catseye’s hull. They’ve been plastered there for dangerously prolonged periods.”

“You mean alien passengers?”

“Obviously. Catseye Star-liners are equal opportunity partners. We do not discriminate on grounds of creed, religion, origin or genus. ‘Bilateral symmetry or naught, we’ll see you to your destination and back.’”

“Oh, right. Obviously.”

Ras lifted a hand to brush a knot of food away from one ear.

“We need to get them moving again. It’s everyone’s duty to perform adequate safety regulations per individual alien-entity norms. We can’t endanger life through inaction, even when deemed culturally unsound by corresponding species.”

“That serious, huh?”

“These barnacles have been in string-shadow for the past 17 hours. That’s pushing well into tolerance thresholds.”

Jesus. This guy doesn’t even need to use a handheld Portois to sound like a jerk. It’s like he actually cares to remember this jargon! Impressive.

“We’re nearing the point in-voyage that the window will completely close on their outside excursions. Thanks to inverse-square law, they can’t ‘rough it’ this far into interstellar space. We’re sailing too far from Sol’s rays to keep them adequately engaged and energy-filtrating.”

Singer nearly scoffed.

“What are they, plants?” Crap. He’d said that aloud.

“Life forms of all types: animal, vegetable, mineral and variational-hybrids thereof are completely acceptable.”

“Okay, right. So – beam them a frequency. Tell them to get back inside.”

“This species is no-comm.”

“What?”

“They do not interact in the same frequencies as vocalizers.”

“So shoot a firework. Something.”

“These barnacles respond to proximity and intent. We need to send an able-bodied crewman for a vicinity conference.”

It felt as if Singer’s feet fell away from him, or would have if he wasn’t floating to begin with. The gruel in the pit of his stomach suddenly turned to ice.

“You aren’t saying – I can’t go out there!”

“It’s mandatory, Linesman. You have to step up to regulations.”

“I’m not even certified for spacewalks!”

“You will use a Bathy Tube. All highly automated.”

“But what about… them?” Singer indicated to the still industriously working kitchen staff.

“Their insurance coverage won’t allow them to take such an untoward risk.”

Singer didn’t think his heart could sink any lower.

“But you, Linesman, are not encumbered by such policy.”

Singer made to throw out that this should be security detail’s problem, or it fell under navy jurisdiction, but he realized that the lounge was a self-contained ‘hub’. They were more or less detached from the bulk of Catseye.

Which was exactly why Mr. Ras should never have found me here.

EyeCity café itself was casting the shadow over the naturists. Management would send a nonessential-someone close at hand. Especially if it meant security wouldn’t be put off lining up an expeditionary force en masse. What quaint hypocrisy.

The Linesman wasn’t getting out of this. He didn’t have a choice, but Singer would kick and scream the whole way…

“What about air?” said Singer.

“Your tube will recycle latent oxygen. The air you breathe out is mostly oxy anyway. There is plenty of time.”

“Controls?”

“Preprogrammed coordinates.”

“Return trip?”

“Already scheduled.”

“The aliens?”

“Just get close and they’ll disperse. Probably just need a reminder; but scrape them off the plating if you have to.”

Singer winced. He was drawing a blank. There really wasn’t much room to weasel.

“And you’re sure about him…” Singer gestured toward the vacuum-laden crewman, who was currently elbowing his device in attempts to bring it back to life.

“He’s a union member. Can’t touch him.”

Goddamn it.

It was almost calming. Singer’s perspective lazily shifted as his one-man craft corkscrewed round and round. The Bathy Tube was slipping along a sophisticated ‘string’ that reached out across Catseye’s many hubs and luxurious condominiums. The linked network diverged like an insane technological spider web. Most of it lay hidden by the trackless distances and snuffing black void, but every so often a glint of light caught in such a way that Singer was treated to a dazzling spectacle.

And there were the stars; always the stars.

The Linesman wouldn’t have it. Any of it. He was still gritting his teeth at Mr. Ras. Clark Ras, that uncaring tool of a manager. Singer would start using his name. Just to spite him. Yeah, that’s right Clark. How professional indeed!

It felt as if a cloud passed overhead. His world dimmed perceptively. It took a moment, but Singer realized that he had passed into the café’s shade. EyeCity would have loomed behind, if he were able to turn and see. The dining craft wouldn’t dwindle much, which should have been reassuring.

Below – ahead, Singer saw an angular structure. It was probably a casino. It was daisy-chained into an arched semicircle, looping off into Singer’s personal horizon. In one direction he could make out the signifying moniker of a fitness center; a wide swath of stylized pink cladding specified the facility.

Nebu-Liners always made sure to keep things appealing to the eye. Shuttling passengers had discerning tastes after all.

Singer spotted the naturists.

Mr. Ras had called them barnacles. At this distance, they looked more like starfish to Singer. They could have been black scuffs on the bulkhead, but as he approached, Singer could make out the slightest movement darting through their spindly bodies. Probably guzzling all the sunlight they could. Yet, for some reason, they made no attempt to exit the shadow.

How any living thing could survive in a void was amazing. Singer glanced at a readout. It flickered red, just as Ras had warned. It was the radiation detector. When buildup became hazardous, the light would steady. Singer would have to “get back like it was yesterday” once that happened.

Singer tried not to think about all the energized particles tearing through him, but it was a lengthy descent.

Before long, the Tube was scooting free into a noiseless landing. The Coriolus effect drew him down as effectively as gravity. It was that same rotational momentum that kept the string taut without actually touching anything. Motive roadways, some called them.

If all went well, he’d be heading back up again.

There was a sense of urgency as Singer watched the string recede, like a fisherman’s line in slow motion. It was the casino. It was orbiting, ushering him and the naturists away. The spin wasn’t fast enough to get the aliens into sunlight on time.

They’d need a little bump.

Singer goosed the treads a bit and felt the reverb up through his seat. The flexiglass screen wobbled and he was underway.

Progress was akin to a slug on a wall. The uniform ‘skyline’ made movement hard to judge, but touchdown was good and close. There wasn’t a lot of time to prep for contact. Singer was on top of them in the next moment.

There wasn’t a reaction, much less a greeting. Singer wasn’t sure if they knew he was there. Maybe he’d snuck up on them? Hard to gauge when they didn’t have backs.

The Linesman parked the tube a few feet away and folded his arms across his chest. How easy was this supposed to be? Something about proximity. Not that a horn would be of much use out here. Singer edged forward a few times, practically dancing on their root-like toes. Nothing.

He tapped on the inside of his cage.

Nothing.

The aliens were dark. Not exactly space-black, but pigmentation must have been crammed wholesale into every square inch of skin. Or was that exoskeleton? It bloated and twisted like gelatin, but Singer instinctually associated it with hardened chitin or bone. Perhaps he’d find out with a handshake.

If only he could make it that far.

His hands were probably too clammy to use the external enviro-gloves.

The naturists appeared like lopsided mounds of stringy antennae. There was no symmetry to them. All of the seemingly random offshoots or tuber-like growths undulated in the same motion he’d seen from above.

They moved together. Every last one of them; and there were a lot of the creatures – every one of them flexed as one. That was their only saving grace. A kind of uniformity was at play that told Singer that these were indeed intelligent beings.

What the hell were they doing? On the face of it, Singer might guess they were waving. But that was humanizing something that wasn’t human. Not even close. The naturists were filtering or filtrating… whatever Ras had said. Only…

Shouldn’t they at least be facing the sun? Don’t dandelions turn?

Would they really need to dance about like idiots to get the energy practically humming around them at all times? Even now, the ambient radiation was intense. Plenty to gorge on ‘til bursting. If your species was into that sort of thing.

The naturists were up to something else.

Wait.

They had been waving at him. During his spiral descent, the vines or appendages or whathaveyous – they’d been fixated on his approach. Maybe if he wasn’t moaning about Mr. Ras at the time, he’d have seen it.

They weren’t focused on him now.

The aliens faced away from the direction of the casino’s rotation. Back the way they’d come.

“Hmm,” Singer mused. He busied the Bathy Tube into a protracted roundabout turn. He’d look behind him.

Immediately, he was startled to see a single alien naturist suspended in the void. It was tucking itself into a bowl, probably feeling the full brunt of the Coriolis effect. Pale pouches, like a car’s airbags, were deflating and retracting from view as he watched. It was going to land nearby.

How it was able to navigate through space, in the buff, would forever be a mystery to Singer. The thing brushed by so easily, it was almost narcissistic. The being was close enough that he might have been able to touch it, had he taken to using the enviro-gloves from before.

It brought something with it. Clutched in an array of florets, Singer could see a frosted cylindrical casing. He saw the word “Neapolitan” clearly on the side until the creature landed like a willowy parachute. What would a space-plant want with ice cream?

Singer’s mouth started watering.

There was movement all over the place. The naturists began scuttling back and forth with what had to be excitement. A few reached out to the newcomer with – reassurance? Gratitude? A few even expanded their internal gas bladders and launched away. They weren’t heading into the light.

The bulk of them scooted across the ship’s hull, heading towards the loading dock. They were going inside.

Linesman Singer was dumbfounded. What was going on out here?

Something clicked. These guys were raiding EyeCity’s storeroom. Or perhaps one of the supply tugs that came and went periodically. Management had sent Singer out on protection detail. He wasn’t here to commune. He was here to scare them off because actual security didn’t want to get their hands dirtied with alien politics.

As much as human rules applied aboard the Catseye, you’d always find rules being bent to keep the clientele happy. Hell, ritual raids might be the naturist’s way of complementing good service. You didn’t want to undermine a good reputation. The company could sacrifice a few choice goods if it meant they’d get a whole planet of paying customers.

A lone alien stayed behind. It curled its tendrils, facing him. Inviting him. Singer leaned to one side and could see the ice cream bearer leading the group. Neapolitan sounded very good right now.

An orb of light flashed behind one eye.

Inside the tube, a steady red glow shone against the Linesman’s face. He wasn’t exactly ignoring it.

A little acute radiation syndrome wouldn’t hurt any. He’d probably just get a stomach ache. Maybe a little quarantine time to himself. That wouldn’t be so bad. He’d get some ice cream out of the deal.

Just like getting your tonsils out.

Short Fiction: Lunch?

Lunch?

Complements: Photios

The Star-liner “Catseye” wouldn’t stay in drydock for long. She’d stop over just long enough to pick up her final bevy of passengers before setting out for Epsilon Eridani; a young system renowned for spectacular solar displays. It was a short round-trip pass, perfect for adventurous senior citizens and soppy honeymooners alike. Eridani was one of the closest stars that Catseye Cruise Ships offered clientele voyages to, yet it was still a grueling 10 month affair for Linesman Singer. With no vacation prospects for non-naval crew, Singer would take every opening he got. This contract had him all lined up until November.

He glanced at his wrist-chronometer and wagered he had a good ten minutes before a castoff order was piped through the PA. He’d make it. Singer was faster than a bunch of octogenarians whose flash of late-life insight saw them dovetailing their pointless existences with an equally pointless “escapade into space.”

His stomach growled.

Linesman Tam was still chattering in his ear. Singer had told her not to come, but since when did anyone ever listen to him? The older woman cast looks over her shoulder as they drifted through the dimly lit corridor of this unnamed space station. Unnamed because it wasn’t humanmade. Unnamed because it was probably only pronounceable if you had sixteen collated tongues. The hexagonal tube made him uneasy. It made Tam downright jittery. He could hear it in her voice.

“Why is it so d…dark?” she said.

“Just be thankful Celsius is smiling down upon us,” Singer hissed. “Dark we can handle. But cold…” He trailed off as he neared an entrance plank jutting surreptitiously out of the wall.

“Here we are.”

“What’s that? Is that the canteen?” Tam said, fumbling for something at her waistband.

“Sure is,” Singer replied. “It’s a doorway.” He floated towards it at an angle. It was covered in thorns, which probably gave traction to the designated alien species that used it. Singer didn’t care. He’d been told that they served Earth delicacies. Fast food.

Thank you Catseye and your many sister yachts. Octogenarians gotta eat.

Linesman Singer anchored himself and began kicking at the plank. The noise he made rattled his companion as she brought her Portois into view. She flicked it open and fingered the screen until it sputtered to life.

“You still keep that thing?” Singer said between grunts.

“Travel advisory states: Condition Orange, graded C,” Tam said.

Singer paused long enough to shrug.

“The Mammalogue Rough-Toothed Ringed Leatherglutton is in rut. They’re cleared for this branch of the station!”

Singer kicked harder.

“This is their ‘estrus cycle’.”

“You know, all that, what you just said? That’s just noise,” Singer said through clenched teeth. “I’m getting my burger. Shipboard accommodation comes out of your pay. You do realize that, right?”

Tam’s eyes stayed averted; illuminated from below.

“I know what I’m doing,” Singer said, redoubling his efforts.

A great squeal sounded and half of the wall folded in on itself like an ornate amalgam of dominoes. Though clearly distressed, Tam followed her younger coworker inside. The Portois started flashing red.

Within was a galley, if you could call it that. It was pressed flat, top to bottom. It reminded Singer of being inside an empty tyre on its side. There was movement all over, but it was gloomier in here than out in the hall.

“Allotropic gasseomorphs primarily exchange thermoception for visual acuity.”

“Shut up, Tam.”

She was quoting again. He hated when she did that.

“It explains why the lights are out,” Linesman Tam complained, looking up. “We aren’t supposed to be here.”

“There’s a bunch of creatures hunched over that hole over there. I bet that’s where the food comes from.”

Singer pushed away from the wall, but was instantly halted when Tam clasped his shoulder.

“Are you insane? If you get caught–” She recoiled, throwing a hand over the ship’s ensign emblazoned on her right shoulder.

“Go ahead. Waste your time. We’d be lucky to even find a human in here, let alone one who could trace us to the Catseye.” Singer glanced down at his own badge. Like they’d even see it!

“Why the hell did you even follow me, Tam?”

A heavy shadow fell over the pair of crewmates. Though the murk seemed to deepen, Singer turned and was able to see an enlarged being hovering nigh-motionless above them. It didn’t seem to breathe, but the rise and fall as it bobbed made Singer venture that the thing was – smelling them. It flipped a muscular appendage into a nook in the floor and pulled itself a little closer. It was shaggy, and smelled of rust and melons.

It whistled something out of a flume-like series of grooves along its ‘side’. Tam started fumbling again.

“I take it this is your Spikey-Tailed Mammal Podge?” Singer said without turning.

Tam thrust her twinkling Portois high overhead. Her lip was a severe line.

The rush of air congealed into a heavily accented form of English.

#forms of beverage# #meat grind# “Disclosure: humans served here” *HUNGER!*

“Whoa, hold it, fella.” Singer patted his hands through the air. “We’re here for the baconnaise and sirloin. Back off.”

Tam tried to speak, but was unable for the first time since he’d known her.

“That thing translating?”

The wooly figure of the alien split like a torn seam. The two crewmembers looked into an unfurling carapace. Like a silent snarl. Those were definitely teeth glinting in there.

“Listen, if I don’t get pension for this cruise, you sure as hell don’t get to eat me.” Singer frowned. He folded his arms across his chest and the chronometer started peeping. Castoff in tee-minus.

Damn it! He’d wasted his lunch break again.

Short Fiction: Squids Make the Best Captains

Squids Make the Best Captains

Complements: Mattias Ormestad

I gunned the SCUE Sub for the only observable point of light in the entire ocean. This was our last chance. People had died getting me this far. I wasn’t about to fuck up now.

Sonar blips told me I was still +10 kilometers away from source/0 central. What I saw was a staging area. Its blazing lights illuminated some kind of dig site. There was heavy machinery. Display was pinging something big. Big? Right. 0 central was a cyst. A tiny, puckering gouge of dirt that was probably the last vestige of humanity on this entire moon. All pressed flat by hundreds of cubic meters of sunless depths. And a kilometer of ice as a cherry on top.

I didn’t use sonar much. I didn’t need to be told to “Use her sparingly.” Hell, turning the broad emitter was just a practice in futility. There was no point in ‘looking over my shoulder’ as I fled. So onward I plunged.

I’d piloted skuas before. SCUE submersibles, an acronym for Single Cabin Undersea Exporters, were the bread and butter of Terra’s ongoing presence in aquatic alien environments. Everything changed seven months ago, when contact was severed. Now they pulled double duty. The little subs served as liaisons between outposts, as well as traditional hauling. No-one built a sturdier craft. Not with dollars on the line. Word spread slow, but consistently at first. All sector teams were accounted for, until the first month passed. Accusations flew. Unaccounted subs were the start of it. You couldn’t blame shit pilots forever.

The skua handled like its bird namesake. The maneuverability is what caught my eye in the first place. Vindicated my trade. It dove and weaved, expertly propelled by a hydrojet system. Just what I was used to.

She was capable of three cruising speeds, but I had her cranked. The hum of brinewater that flooded the ventral intakes sounded odd. But I didn’t worry; I just wasn’t used to hearing it like this –

Skua’s were wet deck machines, capable of cabin flooding per navigator necessity. This one had been enclosed while dry. It last saw use to a human. There wasn’t time to vent or mix ratios. I’d scrambled in through the diving bell, unawares. No time for arguments.

I could dry-live for days. No rush there. I could scoop gasses and breathe for maybe half that. Runs were rarely that long. This one wouldn’t be.

The unwavering light from 0 central stabbed out at me from the oppressive black sheet. Unchanging but near. It had looked the same at 100 kilometers. Only a wayward ping told me of progress. That and the ant’s crawl of uneven benthos my spotlights illuminated below. The sea floor dragged on and on.

It’s amazing my ancestors called places like this home. My tutors bred me well.

The overhead panel began chattering a disjointed rhythm. Again. As before, I decided to disregard it. I already knew it was seismic. I was aware that ground penetrating beams would just relay the same message. It would scream at me that the moon’s interior was coming to life. That, or a sizeable chunk of it. I’d already pushed my sensors well into this maelstrom. Anything at a distance was unreadable. A garbled mess of conflicting data points and readouts. It was a wall of distortion, but it was moving. Passive listening put it at +1,000 kilometers at present. At the start of my flight, it read +1,050. Whatever it was, it was gaining.

The mechanical squeal grew piercing, forcing me to lift a limb in response. I toggled the output to shut the damn thing up. The modulator ticked but remained unaffected. This was serious. I found myself nosing for another control. Maybe a little sonar peep was in order…

I was no coward, but I hesitated longer than normal. In the following and expectant silence, I knew the emitter was swiveling into place. The display sputtered to life and I did a double take. Heavy green splotches denoted something, some things, maneuvering out there in the black. I would have sworn aloud, if it didn’t take so much concentration to guzzle o2 in air.

Rechecks and triple takes didn’t make the problem go away. It only hammered home a simple, upsetting truth. I wasn’t moving fucking fast enough. The objects that approached were different than the Wall. They moved with a fluidity and precision that indicated life. They separated, flitted about, and cavorted like a pod of whirling porpoises. Or like hounds on a scent.

Nothing on this moon moved like that. The only complex life discovered were sea skaters; multi-limbed creatures analogous to insects. They clustered amidst the ice shelves, far above where tidal friction actually made it warmer. Only the odd corpse drifted down this far, like rigor mortis snowflakes. They fed the teeming yet primitive biospheres of the bitter ocean floor.

As I read shot after shot, ping after ping, I felt in my gut that I was dealing with something familiar. Whatever was out there tugged at my natural instincts. Gracefully pleading for me to sympathize. Damn it, was I identifying with auditory discharges? The thought unnerved me. I wasn’t going to escape. These – things, were going to get me. Try to run as I might, I was swimming through soup; like a bad dream.

I had to make a stand. Right now.

Surging forward in the cabin, I grasped the controls with a series of tremulous limbs. I panned the sonic emitter before anything, for I knew I’d be facing my invisible adversary soon.

No – adversaries. Thankfully I’d brought some backup of my own.

I kept a grip on the depth-leveling system, sweeping the skua into a low glide above the lumpy bottom. With a few fancy stunts, I could kick up substrate. Make some nice cover for a getaway. But for now I kept horizontal. I’d stow that move in my bag of tricks.

Time to put this SCUE through her paces. I fell onto the conn, working my multiple points of leverage to their fullest extent. I had to maintain momentum to have any hope of reaching 0 central. Leaving the engine tank wide to the elements would be key. I needed to liberally drown the pump, while at the same time tightening the crafts expulsion nozzle.

With a flick, I tightened the aperture. I prepared for a maneuver that could very well knock me senseless inside this metallic can. In that moment, I cursed the human that had last used this submersible. He might be a tutor, but fuck him all the same.

Though fear flashed up and down my pigments, I acted. Pushing her so hard I nearly choked the throttle, the skua tucked and rolled in one effortless movement. In that same instant, I initiated the reversingbucket, expelling a torrid flurry of water in a forward spout. I steadied myself inside the machine, momentarily perplexed. I’d done it. As she reoriented, I realized that I was drifting in the same direction as before, impetus maintained, only now the skua was propelled rearward across unseen plains; towards my lit destination. Without affecting thrust, I had managed to fare the craft backwards.

The tumble was a classic ploy, familiar to all swimmers. Mundane. Humans could even master it, though no-one took to it with such practiced ease as my kind. My dry friends could never hope to whip about so quickly.

Filling the compartment with water would have been a start.

One of the display panels illuminated emerald green when the blast of sonar filtered back into perception of the skua’s sensor equipment. No need to look. I knew they’d be on me.

I’d cut my speed in half.

Another prompt indicated the echoes were less than a hundred meters away. Damn. Yet I could see nothing. Only relentless black.

It was time to bring out the cavalry. Keep this train rolling. I released the fasteners securing storage space in the back of the sub. Despite the whine of thrust, I heard two distinct clacks. Eyeing my velocity, I was aware that I was still coasting along at quite a clip. I was likely moving too fast, even now. Not a good idea to leave reinforcements in the dust.

Like an afterthought, I realigned a series of plates within the sub’s chassis by flipping an overhead switchboard. The entire vehicle shook. I could almost feel the pools of flowing water course along the outside hull. It juddered again as I sealed valves seemingly at random, jabbing at the center console. It was deliberate. I was creating subliminal eddies along the skua’s exterior. The roiling skeins of liquid swelled up just as the first obie squid flicked into sight off the starboard pane. It wobbled when it caught wash. Dozens more surged up through the vortexes I’d distorted.

Suddenly, the interior was saturated in a riot of color. Obies, short for Orbiters, were semi-intelligent cephalopods bred expressly for hazardous environments. The hardy creatures were outfitted with protective membranes and gill-rebreathers for extended trips. They handled cold better than most squid, myself included.

Obies were much like satellites. They tended to circuit friendly subs in tight defensive formations, their pudgy tentacles and balloon mantles earning them their other nickname, stubbies. They were duty driven, brave, and an awful bore to talk to. And luckily or not, they were positively screaming at me now. The light shows streaming across their pudgy forms were actually a form of pidgin language. At a glance, I could see that most of them were confused. Flares akin to “What’s going on?” and “Where are we?” An honor bound few declared, “What would you wish of me?”

There was no formation in their movements.

An overall sense of bewilderment rippled through the squadron. Then I realized – It was probably the noise. I’d shut off directional microphones before cast-off. A deafening roar had picked up several days ago. Like the sound of endlessly shearing glaciers. The cacophony was probably 10x worse! Per regs, the little guys had switched receivers to wide bands. The idiots would probably go deaf before thinking to downgrade range.

I yelled back at them in their simple tongue, “Turn it the fuck down!” The order filtered quickly through the ranks. They settled, and before long I had them taking up flanking positions with my SCUE. And not a moment too soon.

I found myself avoiding sonar readout yet again. An immature thought emerged. Maybe all of this would just pass me by. I could stay in the depths, protected by distance and anonymity. This lightless world could be my refuge.

I was immediately disturbed; I’d actually taken the idea seriously. Not the most shining of moments –

The obies were probably out there chanting battle hymns, and here I was, so advanced – intelligent, and ready to turn tail. There would always be the side of me that wanted to condemn humanity. My kind hadn’t asked to be here. We never wanted to end up clay in the hands of…

Hands. What a lopsided term. My kind had already been so perverted; we hardly realized.

I read out the sonic returns. It made my hearts chill like ice, but I faced up. We were in trouble. The forms were so close I wondered why we couldn’t see anything. No report from obies. My instruments told me there was enough meat out there to outmass the SCUE three times over. I threw out pings as if they were cannon fire. The tangled mess of signals churned about like a blender. They neared. Then I saw it.

At the furthest extent of the twin-beamed spotlight, the faintest illumination registered. A single figure resolved from the ether, wending like a tumbling torpedo. It was like watching the barest hint of gray on black. Human eyes would have missed it. Then there was a torrent; another and another until a dozen of the shapes romped before my lonely light source. I knew there were more beyond, but no others presented themselves.

They were exactly like torpedoes, which should have put me on alert; yet my sensibilities were still foreign enough from human that I settled on an alternative. They were living. As they neared, I found myself more and more certain. They were squid.

One drifted close enough for detailed analysis. Onboard diagnostic read Mastigoteuthidae, but variables were spiked. The computer’s prediction was all but shit. I’d have to do this myself. What I saw distressed me.

Its skin was translucent, with a hint of an entombed, ashy notochord. A glare of light reflected over its marbled surface. I could see now, all of them, they were completely naked. The revelation struck a blow. It was primitive; a glimpse into time. Nevermind they shouldn’t be able to live out there!

They moved through a complex medium of configurations, but there were no communication buds. No organic or inorganic wavelength patterns, no apparent posturing. These things traveled as a whole, yet appeared individually blind and dumb. I could make out no fins, lobes, or tentacles at either end. No eyes. Just a long seamless fold of jelly which somehow drove them forward.

Jet propulsion?

A pair of them approached, causing my instincts to scream hostility. I didn’t know why. The obies were chattering incessantly now. They’d come to the same conclusion as me. An alien figure dove low beneath my view port. To follow it, I swiveled my sitting harness. Reaching a single limb, I halted my inertia and peered after it. It was licking to and fro near the slowly receding bottom. I could see inside. In the harsh, clinical light given off by the submersible, I could make out the sea bottom behind it!

It was doing something else. A thick, syrupy film was being expelled into the water around it. This wasn’t ink. It spread like molasses. Like a disease. To my shock, the sludge began flowering outward, on its own. Driven by some unknown, external will.

Turning about, I could see all of them. Every one of them bled openly, like some perverse stigmata. In the next instant, they were sweeping down onto us. Almost before I could react. Almost.

The obies had formed a defensive grid. By delegation, they had decided to face this threat head on. I had something else in mind.

I tacked a line of obies for intercept. They dutifully obeyed. A rampant warrior’s call flashed through their ranks before they dove into the fray. I pictured Flight of the Valkyries. No one said obies were subtle.

An arm of the squadron cinched into place, reinforced by another and another, all the way back to the SKUE. Their rotund bodies began to flare in sequence, building up a static charge. With their combined might, they were preparing an arc. Emitters built into their bodies were strong enough to incapacitate a stubborn walrus. Together, they might even deter a starving whale. It was shallow reassurance, but I was biding my time.

For a moment, the posturing seemed to have an effect. The sinister cloud condensed. Comparatively pale in the light, the squids brushed along the periphery. Testing bounds before diving headlong into obscurity. The screen of unbidden sludge was spreading, but it wasn’t advancing.

I was going to make it. I was actually going to fend this off. Whatever it was. Just long enough.

We were probably close enough to 0 central to expect reinforcements. Any moment now. They had to know the SCUE was out here. The phalanx of obies was bristling. You could see it for kilometers. A request passed down the line like dominos. I readily acknowledged. A pulsing flash of red undulated down my tentacles.

I told them to fire.

The obies released a yellow-hot javelin straight into the midst of the unknown. Then all hell broke loose.

A contingent of faceless squid shot into view, pulling porous streamers of slime like distended contrails. It was a living entity, clasping out voraciously. The speed was – primal. One torpedo raked a group of obies that struggled to scoot away. It was like watching insects flattened by sap. Struggling, screaming in their luminous way, the squid knew they were doomed.

Even at the distance, I could see the little fucks. They called for their brethren to fall back. “Protect the pilot,” they said. “Protect the pilot.”

Requests for orders filtered back to me. I ignored them. My eyes were fixed on the cloud. The tiny creatures trapped within, looking for all the world like dumplings in a stew. They spoke to me across the gulf. I knew they spouted encouragements. Even as the clipper-streamlined predators descendent upon them.

I finally saw the tentacles, expelling forth like an inverting stomach. The obies were torn to shreds.

The attack was relentless. Obies regrouped and fought as best they could, but it was hopeless. Inside, I placidly watched the chaos unfold.

Now that they were so close, closer than ever before, I was entranced. There was such purpose to their motions. A mindless hedonism. The violence tugged at a place long forgotten.

One hesitated, seeming to notice the SCUE for the first time. It twirled in slow motion, carried along on a centrifugal axis. I could have touched it. A beady eye rolled into view. A black, cancerous growth. In that instant, I knew it saw me; relayed a message to something hideous and unseen. I didn’t want to know. As desperately as I tried to shut myself to this entity, something persistently nagged.

I was looking into a mirror. One cracked and malformed, but a mirror all the same. Whatever alien intelligence had forged these creatures, twisting their bodies to unknowable form and function, I suddenly realized I was no different. We’d both been taken from something purely cephalopod, and molded into something other. Just as humans had done to my kind, the Cloud had twisted them into a facsimile of itself. A sick parody.

Amidst all this, I held fast to this fact. I’d use my spite and disgust to drive me on. It seemed apropos.

Better than to be lost in fear.

At any moment they would turn on me. Those cruel freaks. I knew I didn’t have much time.

I was at the conn again, using every limb I could spare. I kicked the engine in the teeth, spinning the skua into an abrupt dive. At the throttle, I cut the intake and then inundated it again. A diagonal sweep of drift almost drove me into the sea floor. Almost. A scar chewed down into the sediment, driven by the sheer force of my inertia. It was a brushstroke across a canvas. A ruddy column of debris shot up, blinding me instantly. And hopefully blinding everything else. It hung heavy, the spotlights glared against a living brine of sifting bacteria.

Sorry guys, I thought to the obies. I have to get the hell out of here. Somehow, I knew they’d understand. They’d fight the good fight until the last. It was bred into them.

Making sure to stick the leveler, I flopped out of my harness and reeled along the floor. The skua drifted precipitously.

Time was short. Not having bones could be a bitch, but I couldn’t stop now.

I pulled myself bodily through a hatch, no longer thinking of my imminent death. No longer caring.

Progress was painful and slow, but I reached the hull. I had to crawl through a stanchion that blocked off the bay housing for the diving bell. Once inside I paused for a split second.

By doing this, I was going to damage the SCUE sub irreparably, if not destroy it outright. I was naked. There had been no time to suit up. I’d be at the mercy of the elements. The cold would bite through me in an instant. Probably kill me from exposure anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. And that was optimistic. I was less than +10 kilometers away from home base. I wasn’t going to make it, but I was going to try.

Clambering into the diving bell, I looped a single limb to the control switch. The silence was tranquil, but outside was anything but. I prepared myself.

A steady hiss fluttered my funnel groove like a deep unending sigh. I had to completely expel any unequal pressure. A gift from my human patrons.

I’d plied these depths before, fully clothed and packing a heat shield. I hadn’t liked it then, either. This would be painful. I hoped the shock wouldn’t kill me.

The gas stopped, I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I’d been grinded beneath a boot. Time to act.

I overrode the safety locks with surprising ease. No getting away from it now. The bell lurched downward with a sudden acceleration. There was a clang and a groan, and a rush of water. Then I was pulled savagely into a frigid embrace.

I was ready for the pain. Nascent adrenaline surged through my expanding tendrils, fueling me.

Swelling myself out, I took a deep sift of brine across my gills. It would have to do, but fuck it was cold.

I spun in one smooth and practiced motion and jetted into the night. My fins flapped out, fully extending for the first time in a long time. One last gulp and I propelled myself into the alien sea. I ignored the earsplitting concussion as the skua imploded.

It would mask my departure.

Ahead of me I could make out the staging area of 0 central. A single light, seemingly faint, yet compellingly near in the close, impending dark.

This piece of fiction was inspired by one of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Challenges over at terribleminds.com, 2nd Game of Aspects. Though she ain’t so flashy at over 3,500 words. Gotta work on sticking to spec!

Aspects chosen were Lovecraftian, Bottom of the Ocean, and Some Kind of Alien Virus or Parasite.

Short Fiction: Troglobite

Troglobite

Complements: Yoeri Vleer

A tiny figure emerged into the broken and decrepit hall that was once an exhibition wing of The Museum of Natural History. Any such label was lost to the ravages of time and linguistic change. The figure, which called itself an “Initiate”, would have struggled with the flowing vowels of such ancient text. The rituals and rote prayers imparted throughout childhood had left her with a staccato tongue, perfect for After-Noon Audience, but not much else.

She moved swiftly past hollowed alcoves that once housed dioramas of Mesolithic life. Plastic representations of maize fields tended by double-over Olmec farmers. Their painted backdrops were nothing more than plain gray swaths, cracked by centuries of neglect. None of this registered to her. They were as they’d always been. She was not aware that anything could be otherwise.

Before her, she clutched a circular pan. Initiates immemorial had proffered offerings upon it. Its face was milked over by countless scratches. Etchings carved from dread talismans to permineralized fossils; even cradle-boarded skulls of children. Detestable things. For generations, Initiates hadn’t seen anything so intricate. Brethren and Sistren long past had seen to abolishing such evils. Yet it was upon this offering that the lonesome figure gazed. She was transfixed by something she had not seen before.

 —

Seismic quakes pulverized much of the Museum, shaking loose foundations that might see it into an uncertain future. Long before, every square inch had been picked over with dogmatic determination. Casualties from long years of robust practice and erosive steadfastness. Ancient sins had been prioritized; dismantling the most evil of aggressors first. The most heretical objects were held aboveground. Such brazen lies were cast before The Truth, tested, and summarily burned away.

 —

Her feet wended through much traveled paths. They were holy alleys that pressed the green vegetation flat, like game trails. Her movements were dreamlike. Much practiced and performed with little afterthought. Elders spoke of accompanying assistants whose ceremonial drums kept the wicked at bay. But she was alone. Past her feet, she could still make out the worn pattern of a thousand soles.

It was these quakes that shattered most of the evil sequestered below. It was this very evil that still remained. Beneath the Museum lay countless vaults, many of them either destroyed outright by the elements or sanctified by the just. Others lurked where they had not yet tread. Hymns and prayers attested to the heaviness Initiates bore as they spread the truth into these long tortured places. Light spread into the darkness, where faith was but a candle’s flicker.

 —

The central promenade was gutted. The tiered hall was split open to sunlight. Heavy shafts slanted serenely as the sun fought higher into the sky. The opening was congested with life. Vines snaked down, tasting the moist darkness below. Overgrowth sought purchase amid support pillars and stairwells. Cracked exit signs were the homes of fungal colonies. Sea birds called shrilly, coming to and from their nests. As she neared the veil, the Initiate eyed a plinth in the center. The altar.

 —

It was these quakes that had effectively cut off the remaining vaults from purification, allowing time to flow, softening the tyrannical grip of scripture. The wheels of doctrine rusted. Without execution, practice waned. Creed, once tightly bound by contest, became lethargic and spread thin by contentment. Black and white began to see gradients.

 —

Before stepping forth, the Initiate dipped the offering ever so slightly. An item tumbled along the tinny surface, bumped against her chest, and fell away. She moved, bound by ceremony. Stepping to the illuminated dais, she bowed her head in supplication. She thought of the place’s import as she placed the tray upon the faded platform. When she was on her knees, chin-to-chest, she heard the discordant hiss. The offering had been judged. They said the acrid stench was righteous. She bowed, stood, and bowed again before backpedaling from the lazily spiraling mist.

Once again in the dark, the Initiate paused. She relished separation. A strange sense enlivened her. Stooping low, she retrieved the tiny artifact that had fallen. She studied it fixedly. While treading resolutely from the sanctum, the Initiate placed a tiny fossilized trilobite behind her ceremonial sash.

Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge: Noir, dinosaurs, and — childbirth?

Over at Terribleminds, authorial sage and all around penmonkey, Chuck Wendig is hosting a literary throwdown. Titled “A Game of Aspects”, he asks his fellow monkeys to come up with a piece of flash fiction that combines several strong — and sometimes seemingly conflicting — aspects of genre, elements, and themes. I’m all for a library where readers could find a directory that covers all stories with deep space naval battles, magical garden gnomes, and thrilling police forensics within a single volume! It’s an interesting take of storytelling, and I’d love to dip my toes into the deep end. It’s a good enough excuse for me to put some actual story content here at Outwardbounder!

I was only partly brave with my selection process. I just couldn’t let go of the chance to write about dinosaurs. “Write about what you know” and all that.. I rolled the die and came up with “Noir” as my subgenre and “Childbirth” as a theme/motif. (Alright, more of a motif..) I took my stapler and had at it. I went to town and eventually came up with “Nobody Trusts a Talonfalcon”. Talonfalcon, Maltese Falcon — Yeah, maybe I should have tried a little harder… It’s Noir! Anyways… I’m actually kinda proud of what came out at the other end of Chuck’s inspiring take on the creative process. A tale of a couple ‘wise guys’ that find it hard to agree. One thing is for certain; their job just got a little more complicated.

Hope you have some hardboiled fun.

Nobody Trusts a Talonfalcon

Complements: k.l.macke

Rex McBain had boarded the Ithaca with one thing in mind. The next guy to make a crack about small arms gets it. He was tired of hearing it. It didn’t help that he fit the bill so perfectly. Large, meaty torso balanced on lumbering tree trunk legs. If he paused, he could still hear the laughs. Rex was ready to cave in another nose or two and Erle knew it. Erle Brice; The John. He’d stayed astutely silent over the matter. Oh, sure; he was cordial. Talked about what they were up against. Asked plenty of questions about the dean they were looking to nab. The right questions. Erle Brice knew better than to rib a man like Rex. He was a goddamn insurance agent. Collateral was his mother’s maiden name.

The two men halted in the dim illumination filtering down the foredeck. Through a wordless exchange, they knew it was time to wait up. It was past midnight now; the only opening they’d get. Yet they waited. Only a few cabins showed any life. Rex took care of patrols. He was The Heavy. The larger man looked down at Erle.

“So tell me,” he said in his deep basso, “How many soon-to-be widows see you about life insurance?” Swell, small talk. The shorter man was agitated, fidgeting and looking around. After a tenuous chuckle, he decided to change the subject.

“What do you think, Rex? This job can’t be passed down by naturalists. Naturalists! We’re talking about the loons that fill museums with skeleton deans that still drag their tails.” His derision trailed off. He craned his neck away from the big man’s direction. “Say they won’t change ‘em until it’s proven! Some kind of “scientific integrity!”’

“So what? Long as we get our lizard,” Rex said simply. The silence seemed to stretch after that. Erle cleared his throat, but was interrupted by a jarring clamor. A rustle behind the two men. Rex bulged his eyes with what could have been rage. It was Charlie. Finally. Why’d he come from that goddamn way? Rex was boiling. They’d split at the transom a long time ago. Charlie’s face and hands appeared pure white in moonlight. He was hunched and they could see him quivering. The Inside Guy looked shaken. His fists were bunched in a familiar way. Rex always pictured him carrying a pair of die. Old habits.

“The dean, it got Roy,” he said.

“The hell it did,” Rex said. “Go get Roy and stop fucking around. Dean’s this way.” He pointed to the front of the ship.

“Roy? Roy Faulkner?” said Erle. The other men ignored him.

“Pointy end is crest, back end is wake. We meet up at crest to collect the dean,” Rex quoted.

“I’m telling you. Roy and me found the dean. The thing killed him but I got away, I swear.” Charlie’s voice seemed a little too even-keeled to Erle.

“You came from aft-cargo,” said Rex skeptically.

“It’s eating him. That’s why I could escape. It’s still busy below decks” said Charlie. His hands twitched like he was getting ready to throw snake-eyes. Erle stepped forward in the gloom.

“What did it look like?”

“Red and mean; with scaly black stripes,” Charlie said. He eyed Erle, lingering a little too long. He seemed expectant, as if prepared for something to come barreling down on the shorter man at any moment. “There was leathery folds on its throat that ballooned out big when it swallowed Roy’s scapula.”

“You’re a sick man, Charlie Caine,” Rex said. “And you don’t even know what a scapula is!”

“Look, I’m really sorry for Pally Boy, Roy. It was a shame to see him go. But mostly, I’m just sore I didn’t have him in the month’s pool.” Erle blinked, confused. Rex grimaced painfully.

“You sick fuck,” he said.

“We have to go back for the dean, right away,” said Charlie, motioning behind.

“Hold it,” Rex pushed an enlarged hand forward. “The red one ain’t our dean. The one we need is about to brood.”

“It’s a she? She’s pregnant?” said Erle. His mind whirred.  That makes this haul three times as lucrative! No wonder it’s high profile. We gotta talk surpluses when we get back. Should be more coming to us.

Rex wrinkled his nose, but didn’t look away from Charlie. “It was explained, our dean, the one we’re looking at, it’s pure. It’s as true blue as you can get: feathers, small size, the whole kit.”

“Feathery deans ain’t no deans at all,” said Charlie with a hiss. “I’ve seen The Land Unknown. My dad used to take me to dinosaur exhibits. I’m the expert on deans here. Sounds like you’re talking about a talonfalcon.” Erle looked between the men several times. He wondered why he wasn’t told these kinds of details.

“Talonfalcons are deans,” Erle said. He didn’t sound sure.

“I ain’t blowing money on a fancy crow,” Charlie said. He lurched forward and clasped Erle by the scruff. “We’re going back.” He began hauling Erle along the gunwale.

“I’m tired of you and your Hanky Panky. You’re just as bad as that dean that killed Roy,” Rex growled. Before turning to hoof it down forward-cargo, he leaned his severe bulk toward his retreating accomplices.

“Erle, I wouldn’t go with him. He’s got a death pool going. Horrible gambler, but he’s a little too good at his pools. And kid, it looks like he’s got his eye on you.”

After a yelp, Erle yarded himself free for a moment and cast a thumb about.

“I – I should go meet up with Tommy,” he stammered. “I bet he’s got the johnboat in position.” Charlie’s hand came down heavily on his shoulder.

Rex didn’t see any of this. He’d disappeared down a stairwell and into a musty chamber. There was a warbling noise. Rex wound his way through useless crates and boxes, letting his eyes adjust. He found himself in front of a very strange birdcage. It was reinforced with metal, yet seemed worn. Sun bleached. A faded insignia was stamped into the side. Rex could make out the word “Peru”. Inside was his dean. He could have cradled the thing in one arm. Its black plumage fluttered as he approached. The narrow yet long snout tracked his shadow until deeming him too close. It ducked beneath broad primaries on its arm, concealing a row of super-fine razor teeth beneath obsidian feathers. Rex could still see the folded hooks that made up the creature’s three-pronged fore claw. It was clasped delicately over a ball of living goose down. A fledgling peeped. The mother dean chattered and cooed.

“You found her,” said a voice.

Rex turned to see Erle picking his way towards him. He moved cumbersomely.

“Good to see you’ve got some sense,” Rex said.

“I, uh, talked some sense into him.”

As he approached, the little man leaned closer to the folded form of the dean.

“Why, she ain’t so bad. She’s all curled up.”

“I wouldn’t test that,” said Rex, pointing down at the single recurved talon in view. Erle began backing away. A strange slithering sound ratcheted inside the room. All around them. The openness in the air fueled the noise. A heavy brushing like cat’s tongue on sandpaper. There was a click and a thud. The sound of a baseball bat cracking wood paneling.

“Saint Christopher! It’s the mean one,” cried Erle.

Rex saw it. The red scales looked like dried blood in the dark. A scattering of dusky bands would have camouflaged it, were it in its own element. It was a dean. Or what passed for one for ninety-nine percent of the suckers Rex knew. Its four-fingered paws waved pathetically, raking the tops of some cases and containers. The broad, rounded head was wagging blearily at them. Angry eye slits blinked in the diffuse light. Erle caught a forked tongue spring forward in pure reptilian fashion. Rex was looking at the feet. They were the same. Exactly the same as the pint sized feathery dean. Only this creature’s toe claw was held a good six inches off the ground. The dean was moving. Its back appeared too rigid and upright to the two men. A long and bony tail hovered low but the point never touched the ground.

Erle shrank back beside his taller companion. He bumped into an extended oak of an arm. Rex was holding a piece. A blunted instrument in his oversized fist, it shined despite everything. It was already cocked. There was no lead up, no noise before the explosive concussion. No warning. A great flare up of light scalded Erle’s vision. He managed to catch a ferocious snarl peeling back the dean’s muzzle. An equally brutal grimace gnarled Rex’s face. There might have been a scream, but for the rush of four more shots, Erle couldn’t be sure. Several long minutes passed and nothing stirred. Heady wisps of spent gunpowder cloyed the air in front of them. As they danced and swirled into dissipation, Rex and Erle could make out the fallen form of the bastard dean. The head was partly missing.

“Was that really –? Is that what they look like?” Erle said at length.

“I don’t care. Long as it don’t rattle my check,” said Rex.

After a while the cooing began again.