Welcome back for today’s stories!
This week’s prompt was: “Write a story using the words ‘traitor’ and ‘sky.’ (courtesy of @writingprompts)
Today we have two short stories, both science fiction but still taking the prompt in different directions.
“I’m telling you,” Gretchen fumed, “that traitor left us here deliberately and just flew off into the sky without us.”
“I’m sure it was some kind of misunderstanding and she’ll be back soon,” Henry said placidly, sitting on his log in the middle of the forest and continuing to read a novel on his handheld viewer.
Gretchen sighed, loudly, and went on pacing the clearing. How someone as trusting as Henry had ever got into the pirate business amazed her on a daily basis. It was a wonder no one had killed him before this, although his ability to fix literally anything broken on a spaceship, from the engine to the ever-important coffeemaker, had probably preserved his life more than once.
She blamed herself mostly. It had seemed like the smart choice to go with the captain down to the planet to pick up the pay drop. To make sure nothing disappeared before it got back to the ship. She’d even volunteered, for space’s sake. In retrospect, it seemed painfully obvious that the captain would see this as a good opportunity to split the money two fewer ways.
“She’s not coming back, Henry,” she snapped. “And unless you know how to build a spaceship out of rocks and twigs, we’re stranded.”
“There’s a spaceport twenty miles north of here,” Henry said placidly, scrolling along on his viewer. “If she’s not back soon, we can start walking.”
Gretchen was somewhat mollified by this. “I guess we can look at the angle of the shadows and work out which way is north…”
“We could do that,” Henry agreed. “Or I can modify my viewer to pick up the energy signals coming from the port. It will be spotty at this distance, considering the density of the trees, but it should be enough to guide us.”
“You could have mentioned that to begin with,” Gretchen snapped, but was so relieved to have an actual plan that there wasn’t much heat in the words.
Gretchen would have started walking right then. Henry didn’t feel certain the captain wasn’t coming back for another two hours, and then it took more time to modify the viewer appropriately. They finally set out at dusk. They both had lights on their viewers, and Gretchen was unwilling to wait for dawn on a planet where she couldn’t remember how long the night was.
The signals from the distant city were as spotty as predicted, but they popped up often enough that they could follow them like a trail of bread crumbs, periodically picking up another ping and adjusting their course as called for.
Gretchen didn’t know how much time had passed or how many fallen branches she’d scrambled over before Henry said, “Hmm, that’s odd…”
She waited a beat, and when he didn’t follow that up with anything, she asked, “What is?”
“Oh—I’m getting a new signal. It seems to be both smaller and much closer. Like maybe someone’s living near here.”
The possibility of getting help—maybe a ride to the port?—that was not twenty miles away was too enticing to resist. It’s not like Gretchen didn’t wonder why someone was living out here in the middle of nowhere. But she still had a blaster at her belt, a decent amount of credits hidden on her person, and felt confident in her ability to threaten or buy help from most people.
The trouble was the most aspect.
When their new destination came into sight, it looked downright promising.
“That’s a modified ship, isn’t it?” Gretchen said, studying the sloping lines of the metal building in front of them.
“I believe it’s an Excelsior 3.4,” Henry said with a professional air. “Or 3.5. It’s hard to tell without being able to see the dorsal fins.”
“Uh-huh,” Gretchen said, eyeing what appeared to be a modified docking port at the front of the dwelling. “Those are big front doors.”
It should have warned her. She spent days telling herself that it should have warned her. But in the moment, after hiking through a cold, dark forest with the only other sanctuary miles away, to find someone with spaceship-level technology in the middle of what felt like the backend of nowhere was as enticing as a cottage made of candy.
So they knocked on the front door. Though Gretchen at least put her hand on her blaster.
Their miscalculation became obvious the moment the door opened, to reveal a very large, very snaggle-toothed, very reptilian Nthrpcian.
Not all Nthrpcians were hostile. “Sorry to bother you,” Gretchen said, already edging backwards, already easing her blaster out of its holster.
The Nthrpcian grinned, showing way too many teeth. “Now don’t you little humans look tasty!”
“Run,” Gretchen said curtly, because clearly this was not one of the enlightened few Nthrpcians who had decided not to eat other intelligent species.
Henry was naïve but good at taking orders, and it all might have been all right if Gretchen had turned around. She might have outrun the creature. Instead she opted for the strategy of drawing her blaster and backing-up. She meant to intimidate the Nthrpcian into not following them.
Unfortunately, more used to spaceship decks than forest floors, she tripped.
The Nthrpcian was on her in a second, scooping her up in a claw almost as big as she was, and carrying her struggling into the modified spaceship. The fact that Henry got away was only small consolation.
Likewise, it was only slightly heartening when she was dropped into a cage, rather than a boiling pot of stew.
The Nthrpcian stared at her with large yellow eyes, and Gretchen tried to stare back defiantly. The creature had snatched away her blaster, and seemed unlikely to be open to bribes.
“Look at you,” the Nthrpcian said in scolding tones. “You’re so thin! You don’t eat enough!” This sounded so much like Gretchen’s grandmother that it was disconcerting. Though her grandmother had never followed the remark up with, “You’re hardly worth eating!”
“So you could just let me go,” Gretchen suggested.
The grin was back, more horrible than before. “Or I could be patient.”
And so Gretchen found herself in the humiliating position of being fattened up for dinner. She had been abandoned, hiked through the woods, had her weight criticized, and now she had the prospect of being force-fed who knew what until she was eaten herself.
This was definitely in her top five worst days ever.
The next night was slightly better. Mostly because the cage, built against what was obviously a former ship bulkhead, had a viewport looking into the forest, and Henry arrived there some time deep in the night.
“I have a plan,” he announced, once he’d woken Gretchen up and she’d come over to the window.
“Go get help,” she hissed.
“A better plan than that,” Henry said with a wave of one hand. “I’ve been studying this structure. Do you know what the Nthrpcian is using for an oven?”
Gretchen barely remembered to keep her voice down. “I do not want to think about this thing’s oven.”
“It’s at the back of the house,” Henry went on imperturbably, “and it’s a modified shuttle.”
“So, I can get access to it—there’s a passage under the house—and I think I can get it flying again.”
“You’re going to turn an oven into a ship?” Even for Henry, this seemed like a stretch.
“Of course not. I’m going to turn a ship that was turned into an oven back into a ship.”
Gretchen tried to think this one through. “How does that help? I’m trapped in here, and by the time I get to the oven…”
“Nthrpcians roast their food live,” Henry said without any sign of alarm. “So you see, it’ll work perfectly.”
“Easy for you to say,” Gretchen muttered.
There followed an uneasy interval of several days—uneasy for Gretchen, as everyone else seemed perfectly content—as the Nthrpcian remarked each day on her growing weight, and Henry assured her each night that he was getting closer on the shuttle. Gretchen suspected that the Nthrpcian was motivated more by wishful thinking than fact, as she was trying to eat as little as possible to sustain life, and hoped that Henry was more accurate in his assessments.
Finally the day came when the Nthrpcian announced it was time to dine. Gretchen’s last report from Henry was that he was just finishing up—which had better be enough.
She still struggled when the Nthrpcian lifted her out of the cage, because she would have lost all respect for herself if she hadn’t. It didn’t make any difference, and she found herself trussed up and shoved into the oven all the same.
It looked like an oven. She could maybe see how it had once been a shuttle, with the remnants of a control panel at one end, and places in the floor where seats had once been. But the enormous grill filling the space made the ovenness far more overpowering.
“I’m going to die,” she remarked to no one. “I’m going to die and be eaten and it’s all the fault of that traitor captain.”
“Didn’t I tell you everything would be fine?” Henry said, wriggling in through a crack in the outside wall that didn’t look nearly large enough for the maneuver. Somehow he managed it, and went straight to the controls.
“You mean you really can fly this thing?” Gretchen said.
“Of course,” Henry replied, as though it was perfectly obvious, tapping at controls. “Liftoff in three…two…one…”
The world turned into a rumbling thunder and they shot straight up into the sky, the Nthrpcian roaring somewhere below them.
“You’re even smarter than everyone said,” Gretchen told Henry, after he had the ship’s course locked in and was untying her. “The captain never should have stranded you.”
“Or you either,” Henry said, in the tone of one who has received a compliment and feels he ought to return it.
“No,” Gretchen said meditatively, sitting up. “She was right to strand me. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I suppose I owe you now. I pocketed half the pay drop before she abandoned us. So we ought to be able to buy a better ship at the port. Unless you want to keep flying around in an oven.”
(Note: contains some mature language.)
“That traitorous bitch!”
I froze, wishing I could crawl under the control panel and hide. Instead, I forced myself to turn, knowing there could be only one woman who would cause that reaction. “What’s she done now, Captain?”
He crossed his arms over his chest and glared. I hoped he would remember that I wasn’t the problem. “She thinks she can control the sky. Well that’s one thing she can’t take from me!”
I shuddered. The Captain grounded? That was too horrible to contemplate. And it didn’t bode well for me. It’s not much use being First Mate to a ship that doesn’t fly. “How could she possibly do that?”
And why would she do it?
“The Planetary Space Authority is threatening to pull my certification.” The Captain slammed his fist down so hard the arm of his chair bent. I supposed I shouldn’t be surprised. This ship was always on the brink of falling apart.
So, the PSA was threatening to pull his certification. Probably for that crazy stunt he pulled when he landed on this backwater planet. Was it better or worse that she probably wasn’t any part of this? “Um…Captain, why would you think she had anything to do with the PSA?”
He switched his glower from the chair arm to me. “Because anytime anything has gone wrong for the past year, that bitch has been the reason. Well, I’ve had enough. She’s not going to get away with this.”
I winced. The other crew on the bridge were ignoring our conversation, going on with their work as if their entire world wasn’t about to blow up in their face. Well, they’d only been with the ship for a few months, and were used to the captain yelling about something. They had no way to understand just how serious this situation was.
Watching the Captain and his ex-wife’s marriage implode had proven I’d been right not to wed. If those two couldn’t make it, no one could. I glanced at the Captain. He was busy trying to straighten the bent arm on his chair, muttering under his breath about what he’d like to do to ‘that bitch’. The cost of a relationship gone wrong was definitely too high. Space and spouses should never mix.
The Captain’s ex had been the cause of most of his problems, if you blamed his drinking, arguing, and gambling on her like he did. And it was true that she’d taken the best ship and the rest of the crew when she left. But I knew she wasn’t the cause of this.
I wondered if I should contact her. Behind the Captain’s back, of course. It might be worth it. Of course, if the Captain found out, he’d probably be advertising for a new First Mate – as his current one would be ‘accidentally’ left out in space somewhere.
On the other hand, if I didn’t contact her and the Captain did something…unfortunate, that might be my fate anyway. She would never forgive me if something bad happened. After all, she’d made me promise to stay with the Captain and take care of him and the ship. And I had, mostly.
I grimaced as I looked around the wreck of the ship, then glanced at its once handsome Captain. His eyes were sunken and dark rimmed, his skin had a grey pallor from too much drinking, and his hair hadn’t been cut or combed in weeks. Well, I’d managed to keep the Captain alive, mostly.
I looked around again and knew I had a decision to make. Because either she was going to kill me, or the Captain’s recklessness would. Maybe I should just quit, even if that would make me feel like a traitor. Who needed the sky, anyway? Maybe I’d like living dirtside…