Our congratulations to Vincent L. Cleaver, winner in October’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
Charles Malosh – Cell Service
For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:
Vincent L. Cleaver
“Baker, are you still asleep?”
“Well, I was…”
I turned out of my bunk and hopped to attention. Boris scowled at me.
“I’m not your sergeant, or your valet. Next time, I’ll just eat your pancakes, h’okay?”
Boris can make some mean pancakes. Surprising what you can do with spirulina flour and sugar. I’m sure I don’t want to know how he faked the other ingredients; we’re light-years from cackle-fruit, just for one example, and months since we polished off the last of the egg-substitute. The man is a culinary ninja, a kamikaze, mad, eee-vile food scientist!
Even cold, they ate.
Our breakfast nook doubles as the cockpit, or the cockpit doubles as our breakfast nook. I get those two mixed up… I sat sideways in the right seat and the view outside, port and east, was stunning. It was local morning, we had adjusted mission-time to the twenty-three hour day and this latitude, what we were calling Landing Bay on the east coast of a land mass in the southern temperate zone. Two suns chased each other around and around in a tight, thirty-eight hour orbit, and set the ocean on fire.
Pancakes and a sunrise to die for. I fucking love the United Peoples’ of Earth, all nine billion and change, and the Interstellar Survey Service!
“You say something, slacker?” Boris asked, and held out a hand for my plate. “C’mon, my dishwater is getting cold!”
“Alright!” I laughed and I caught a hint of a smile on his face as I handed him my plate… and then our strange new world moved. Earthquake! Alarms sounded, demanding our attention but we were both just a little bit busy. I rode with the rolling and bucking and somehow got myself turned back half around and buckled in, pony tail coming lose and getting in my face. Damn regulations and their sweet reasonability! Mentally, I put myself on report.
Things calmed down and I said, “Boris?”
“Here. Mostly.” He smiled. “Hmm, h’okay? Also, you look beautiful, Katya…”
He was a mess. Blood, an astonishing amount of blood, ran down his face from a cut at his blond hair-line. He had a black eye and didn’t seem to be tracking but he hauled himself into the left seat and started to buckle himself in, then stopped, looking outside.
“I know. I’m firing up the lockmarts right now…”
I had already seen the seismic readings. An 8.3 centered half a dozen klicks outside the rapidly emptying bay. There was a tsunami happening right on top of us. I stole a glance at what he was seeing as I gave up on the balky No. 3 fusor, which refused to break even, and prepped the reaction mass pumps to start sending water to the aerospikes. Something bigger than our lander, something vaguely cthulhu-like and not yet identified by our initial survey, lay beached and stranded. I could empathize with the terror and despair it must have been feeling as the water stopped receding and came back in.
The engines kicked in and smashed me into the right seat, four gees as the lander grabbed some sky, and then more alarms. Thrust cut out and we landed, hard and at a steep angle. I over-rid the emergency cut-offs and started to recite Joes’ Prayer.
“God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life—”
Up we went again, staggering sideways. The wall of water swept over my ginormous new friend and hit our beach, thirty meters higher than the top of our hill. We climbed, just barely above it, and then the engines cut out again and down we went, into the backside of the wave.
I woke up to pain and to a keening sound which I took for pain. It wasn’t coming from inside the lander. Boris groaned and cursed in Russian, I guess it was cursing, so I knew that he was alive and not too bad off, at least for now.
I was still strapped into the right seat, facing the cockpit windows and now also facing down at the beach; ten or twelve meters below. The lander made some unhappy noises and we shifted, dropped a meter and came to a full, sharp stop. Boris groaned again, like he meant it this time.
“Katya, how bad is it?”
At least he wasn’t swallowing his articles, like an ancient 2-D cold war spy movie. He was worried, though, to keep calling me Katya. He tried to be more formal.
“Well, I wouldn’t make any dinner plans…”
“That’s what I like about you Ka- Baker. All sunshine and optimism.”
I twisted about and looked over my left shoulder and then my right. “We seem to be wedged in good-”
The lander shifted again, dropped another half meter.
“-maybe not to so good, in a cleft in the rock-face of the cliff a hundred meters north of our hill. Good news is the ground is getting closer; bad news is we still have ten meters to fall.”
“Ocean horrorshow,” he mumbled. Something like that, anyway. Russian for ‘very good’, ‘excellent’.
“I love it when you talk sarcastic at me.”
“I am giving you the raspberries, but my mouth is dry.”
That wasn’t promising.
“You hurt bad?”
“Is not so very bad. No good for much right now, sorry, arm is either broken or wretch, wretched? Pretty good, bad. Mouth dry, head… spinning. Nausea. Is not good, but I am Russian! I am laughing at suffering… and then I curl up into little ball and cry like little boy.”
He was quiet long enough after that that I got even more worried, then he said, “What is bolshoye racket going on, outside?!”
That was a great question; the keening had stopped while I wasn’t paying attention, but now it was replaced with a lot of crashing, maybe trees, or the local equivalent anyway, snapping. It implied something very big or, as it turned out, a lot of somethings merely big.
What looked like two, maybe three of the cthuloid things which I’d spotted beached by the tsunami draining the bay, lay on the beach. One of them might have been my buddy from before and it was not moving. Another of them was moving feebly, and fading fast.
More tentacled horrors, the size of baby elephants and quick, were doing things around that one and fanning out into the mess on the shore left behind by the waves. Digging a canal to the water, and getting local wood to help, somehow?
The lander slipped again, a two meter drop. We didn’t stop all at once this time, and then several somethings wrapped around the cockpit windows, black lines describing branching fractals. I realized belatedly that they were tentacles which forked and broke down into feathery tips. The keening returned and I knew now that it was coming from above and behind us.
“Hang in there, Boris. Gotta go thank an alien life form…”
“Funny, very funny.”
I got unbuckled and managed to drop to the outer wall, then make my way around to the airlock. The lock was working and cycled straight out, facing slightly up, for which I was extremely grateful. Tentacles found more purchase, slipping inside, and I made sure to close the inner door, a lot of good it would do Boris if we fell the rest of the way and rolled into the surf…
I used a safety line to a fitting inside the lock and hooked another one, just outside the lock, getting an eyeful of the monster beyond our door, and the damage to the lander. We were junk, and the monster wasn’t in much better shape.
It was seeping ichor, or blood, but this wasn’t bright red stuff, instead black and inky, I have no idea why. There was an oily iridescent sheen to it and all those colors, suggestions of green and purple and blue to the inky black stuff leaking out great rents in its’ skin.
The eye which tracked me was as big around as the extra large pizza I’d ordered for some of the crew, on our last night in New York. A goat’s eye with a violet pupil almost like a figure eight. A single round, giant eyelid irised closed, opened again. There was someone, over there…
“You aren’t the one I saw get stranded; it’s dead, like we should be, and you… will be. Why? Why help us, when you’re about out of time?”
Of course it didn’t answer me. We didn’t share a language between us, but I guess we did communicate.
And then it did die.
A bunch of things happened all at once. One of the baby elephant-sized cthuloid things climbed up outside, reached into the airlock and none-too gently pushed me out of the way while it found a grasp which didn’t crush me as it suddenly became a pivot on which the lander swung out and away, way out of the way, to be caught while it was torn from its’ purchase and the lander swung down by still more of the smaller(!) aliens as the enormous corpse slumped and slid past us, rolling over and hitting the beach like a few tens of tonnes of squishy, now inanimate, organic matter. It burst and sprayed and all the while I hung on screaming my head off. A dozen more of the cthuloid things helped get the lander down and sort of upright, on its’ landing jacks, which were still deployed for some reason. I guess I forgot about them. Then the first one removed itself from the lock. I rudely and sensibly closed the outer door, then went back in to see to Boris.
“We were lucky, just lucky. Dumb, small kids and Brits kinda lucky,” I was reporting a little bit later. The Alexandria is headed back in-system and we’ll be rescued presently. Boris is in the little medbay and is feeling no pain. I’m trying to sort through how I feel about it all.
I just don’t know.
What did the monster see in us, in me? They’ve probably been watching since yesterday, since we came down out of the sky, came out of our box, scurrying around, collecting samples. They seem to have two forms; the big ones in the water and the little ones on land. I’m on fire to learn how to communicate with them, ask them ten thousand questions. And tell them ten thousand things. First two being—
Thank you for helping us. And I’m so sorry we couldn’t help you.