Archive | September, 2011

Short Story for September – Episode Two

17 Sep

TWO MOONS

 Copyright J. Dianne Waye September 2011

Contains Mature Subject Matter

This story is the second episode in the yet-unnamed sci-fi series, following after Tiger Lilies.

 

 

One false step, one mistake.  That’s all it took to place me between life and death, in this unforgiving solitude.

The waterfall beckoned, luring me with sweet promises of relief from the sweltering jungle heat.  Between tall trees dripping with moss, cracked shale glistened with the river’s progress.  Two chalk-white moons hung in the emerald sky, alone and exposed in daylight, abandoned by the company of stars.  Like Miller and me.

A vine twisted and snagged my ankle, snapping me up like a sprung trap.  I hung upside down, winded, disoriented, blood pounding in my ears.  The empty waterskin – the purpose of this venture – tangled around my neck and swung like a pendulum beneath my head.

I wasn’t going to call for help.  Not yet.  Not without trying to figure it out for myself.

Several long creepers trailed from the trees, almost close enough to reach.  I started the slow swing, stretching out my hands, reaching.  Scaly and thin, the first one came loose and fell to the ground when I tugged.  The next one held steady, anchored firmly in the canopy.  I dragged myself upright, hand over hand.  My ankle swelled from the pressure, sprained by the whiplash effect, but not broken.  I pulled out my knife and sawed away at the knot around my foot.   Green sap oozed from the slash, sticky residue dulling the blade. 

I wiped the blade clean on my fatigues and gripped the knife handle in my teeth.  Too late to worry about a poison ivy rash; not too late to worry about ingesting toxins.  My left limb tired from supporting my weight, so I tried to switch arms.  A tendril wrapped around my wrist, trapping me.

To every action there is a reaction.

I sheathed my knife and pulled out my revolver, waiting for the swaying to still, and fired.  Hard not to miss, at point-blank range.  The rope broke, releasing my foot.  I danced and dangled like a mad parody of a hung corpse.  The grip on my wrist released, plunging me onto the forest floor.

Bashed head, swollen wrist, twisted ankle.  My ego suffered the greatest damage.  I had panicked, wasting precious ammunition.

The canopy overhead stirred, as if set in motion from the wind.  But no breeze penetrated this crevasse.  A hissing noise rose, sinister like a rattlesnake; the forest floor writhed with coils and ropes coming alive.  I blasted another shot into the deepest verdant spot.  Foliage and bark floated in the air; green amber wept in gleaming puddles.  But the noises stopped dead.

“Eva.  Eva.”  Miller’s shouts echoed off the cliff wall, louder each time, no longer drowned by the pounding of the waterfall behind me.

“Don’t come in here.”

He paused, riveted by my tone, hesitating.  Captain Miller, Lord of War, held hostage by indecision.  Surveying the scene, analyzing the odds with his detached objectivity, he pulled out his revolver and aimed at a tree trunk.

“No – don’t,” I screamed, too late.  I covered my head as leaves shattered and scattered.  The tree groaned, sighed, and toppled across the pile of vines.

Silence fell, an uncanny void; even the pounding water muted.  Overhead, the palms leaned to block the sky; I shivered.  Miller pushed the log my way, tightrope-walking across it until he loomed over me.  His hands, strong and competent, reached out to jerk me free.  I swung onto his back, arms gripping his neck.

I closed my eyes as he balanced across the trunk.  If he fell into this snake-pit of roots, there would be no one left to rescue us.

His boots thumped on bouncing wood, then he lowered me onto bare wet rock.

“Can you walk?”

I tested my foot, not wanting to take off my boot because of the swelling.  I wouldn’t be able to get it back on again.  “No.”

“Did you get water?”

“No.”  Useless, and a liability.

“I warned you it was dangerous.  I ordered you not to go off alone.”  Brown eyes, made hazel by the jungle gloom, narrowed.  I waited for him to bark drop and give me twenty, or whatever he said to keep his troops in line, but he looked up and away, distracted.  The reprimand on his lips died.  “What the hell?”

He grabbed me and ran, breath hacking in a parched throat.  I dared to look behind.  The vines were moving, snaking across the broken shale, reaching for us.  One snagged across my neck, tendrils wrapping over my throat, snatching me from Miller’s back.  I thumped to the ground, tearing fingers struggling with the stranglehold.  Miller sparked up his flame thrower and blasted the closest palm, incinerating it.  Trees swayed and groaned like banshees.  The creepers retreated.

Miller picked me up again and followed the river’s edge, as it opened into a torrent of water surging from forest depths.  It plunged into a valley; more jungle that way, an endless sea of green.

Sweating, exhausted, he put me down on a pebbly slope away from the hissing trees, and stopped to fill the water bags.  A single purifier table remained.  He shook the bag, dissolving the pill, and held it to me.  What was the point?  We were going to have to drink the water, sooner or later.  I scooped up a cupped handful of river water and poured it down my throat, returning his cool stare.

Some kind of fruit-bearing plant leaned over the river’s edge.  Miller busied himself, gathering the crab-apple globes.  Starving, I accepted a palm-full of berries.  Tart and refreshing, they filled my stomach and quenched my thirst at the same time.

I wanted to say I was sorry, tell him I was wrong for disobeying his orders, but I didn’t know how to start.  “How do you know they’re safe?”

“I study up on the local flora and fauna before a mission.  This one took half the time, since there’s no fauna here.”

“There used to be,” I said, as I held up a broken fossil, something primitive like a trilobite.  I needed him to keep talking, to keep my crazy thoughts at bay.  “Why do you study so much?”

“I got left behind, once.  Had to survive on my own, fight my way out.  Things like that change you.”  He reached for another handful of fruit, but as his fingers touched the cluster it withdrew, curling away and vanishing inside the leaves.

In the pools of water at the river’s edge, water lilies closed their heads, tucked and folded their petals like they do when dusk falls on Earth.  Tiny Creeping Charlie runners along the shore retreated into their base.  The grass flattened.

“It’s all connected,” I said.  “It’s all one organism.  Each plant reacts to the next.”  Loneliness overwhelmed me – and the fear that we couldn’t fight an enemy we couldn’t understand, couldn’t relate to.  I hadn’t been trained for this – this monster all around us, in the air we breathed.  Carriers of plague, banished from our kind.  No future here, not for us.

I held out the fruit to him, the last of our supply.  It wasn’t fair he wouldn’t get any, now.  And I didn’t need it, any more. 

“We need to go back to the village,” Miller said.  “We can’t keep surveying with your ankle like that.  We need supplies – batteries, communicators, food.”  He fumbled in his pack, turning away from me.

No.  I couldn’t go back to the deserted village, to the ghosts that wandered there.

My hands trembled as I unholstered my pistol.  Cold steel cut into my temple.

“Perez,” he said.  “Don’t be a coward.”  His voice shrilled, rose in anger.  “Don’t give in.”

I shook my head; couldn’t speak, couldn’t look into those eyes.

I am a soldier.  Say it with me.  I am Private 4930 Eva Perez, citizen of Earth.  I am a prisoner of war.  I am strong.  I cannot be broken.  You are my enemy, but you shall not defeat my spirit.

His hand touched my sunburned shoulder, skin flinching from the contact.

“Say it, Eva.  Say the words.  I am a soldier.

Words so softly whispered, barely rising over the bubbling stream.  “I am a soldier.

Our voices rose in unison, the soldiers’ creed our prayer; unifying, solidifying, bringing hope to my soul.

I let his hands move mine away; his fingers slipped the gun from my grip.  Angry, I wiped away unwelcome tears.  “I am a coward.”

“No.  I’m the coward.  I can’t face this alone.  I need you, Eva.  Don’t leave me.  Promise.  Promise not to leave me here, alone.”  He slumped against the rocks, pebbles etching dents into his knees, where he knelt before me.

“I promise,” I said.

The jungle murmured and watched, as the river led us back to the village.  If we spoke, the echo got those trees humming their rattlesnake chorus again.

Grassland finally opened before us; golden wheat fields choked with indigenous plants, weeds or grass or whatever flourished here.  Moss crawled over the village buildings, sinking footholds into brick and shingle, tearing down eaves troughs, spreading wide cracks through the sidewalks – eradicating, on a rapid scale, all traces of the attempt at colonizing.  Waist-high crops rustled on their own accord as we waded towards the gazebo.

“Take what might be useful,” Miller said.  “Anything you find.  I’ll see if I can spark up the generator, get our batteries recharged.”

“Should we bury them?”  I limped around the corner of the gazebo in the town square, where the last two members of our away team lay dead in their bio-hazard suits.  Ivy tendrils wrapped around Rogers’ feet, crawling up and across the five steps to the platform.  Rosevelt was buried under the shroud of leaves, somewhere.  It would take some time to wrestle the bodies out of this mess.

Blossoms dotted the stems, pretty long white petals amongst waxy leaves.  Purple fruit, oblong and eggplant-like, hung from thicker stems.  Translucent skin promised juicy contents.  I bet down, fascinated, as the orbs shimmered and flickered with shadows moving within.

“Are they edible?”

Miller shrugged.  “Never saw that on the list.  Better not take the chance.”

Was it a trick of the light?  Or was some kind of insect living inside, like the worm in a Mexican jumping bean?  I plucked one of the eggplants from its stem and cut it open.  Purple juice spilled over my hands, the contents flopping onto the wooden floorboards.  A tiny fetus, a replica of us – revolting, bizarre.

The plants had cut through Rogers’ bio-suit, penetrating into skin, stealing his DNA.  Creating, evolving a new life form.

Miller dragged me off the steps.  His flame thrower blasted, blazing and charring.  The eggplants screamed, high pitched and piercing; I covered my ears.  The roof licked with fingers of fire, collapsing onto the unholy harvest, ending that horrible sound.

I lifted my head, to follow the plume of black smoke carrying away the pungent odour of singed flesh.  Two moons stared down, scarred by a wisp of white trailing across the emerald sky – a shuttlecraft contrail.

Someone else, come to join us in Hell.

A Few of My Favourite Things

15 Sep

Everyone has their favourite tools of the trade – those indispensible items that get the job done quicker, better, easier.  It’s the same for writers.  Here are some of my favourite tools for writing.

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass.  There’s a good reason it’s first on my list.  Get it, read it, live it.  Writing the Breakout Novel is a great book, too.  I could go on all day about Mr Maass.  Read his twitter tips, while you’re at it.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  Editing techniques presented in a clear and concise way.  Simply brilliant.  Wow.  Eureka.

The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.  Add The Well-Tempered Sentence to your shopping list, too.  Grammar and punctuation presented in an amusing, charming way.  Sure wish I had these for textbooks, when I went to school.

Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger.  Ah the screenplay – my first love.  These techniques cross over into novel writing, too.  It’s all about rewriting.

Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guides.  A great place to start if you’re setting your story in an unfamiliar part of the globe.  Maps, photos, history, culture, art, architecture, geography, climate.  Yup – it’s all there.  Oh yah – good for travellers, too.

Roget’s College Thesaurus.  My mangled, beat-up, dog-eared copy has seen better days, but it’s always within arm’s reach.  Can’t beat the detailed explanations – no word processor thesaurus comes close.

Webster’s Dictionary.  It’s massive, it’s awkward, it weighs a ton.  And it’s worth its weight in gold.

 

And here are a few books about writing, from the writer’s perspective:

Bare Bones Conversations on Terror with Stephen King.  Here’s a tip:  don’t read this before bed.

The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon.  Inspired me to tackle my first full-length historical novel.

What would you add to this list?

Now I’m off to wrestle with some man-eating eggplants, for my next sci-fi short story episode of When Mother Nature Fights Back.  You’ll never look at salad the same way, again.

Short Story for September

7 Sep

TIGER LILIES

Copyright J. Dianne Waye September 2011

Photo Credit: Emma Waye

 image1

“Trust me.  Open your eyes.”

I fought against the vertigo, against the instinct to keep my eyes squeezed shut.  Brown pupils flecked with gold greeted me, the rest of his face interrupted by the helmet and gas mask.  The corners of his eyes crinkled, as if he was smiling somewhere underneath all that equipment.

“Now focus on a distant object.  Take a deep breath.”  His knee pressed into mine, long legs crowding the aisle gap between us.  “Better?”

The rolling, lurching in my stomach faded to something I could cope with.  “Yes.”

“First away mission?” he asked.

“First non-simulated drop.”

“You’ll do fine, Private 4930 Eva Perez.”  As he turned away, the glare of his interior monitor flashed against his visor, red words streaming in a backwards reflection.  Our orders – for his eyes only.

The siren screamed to brace for landing.  Up and down the row of uniformed troops, a dozen pairs of hands gripped, visors snapped, seatbelts tightened.  The yellow biohazard insignias emblazoned on our suits glowed between the darkness and the flashing warning lights.  Everything shook now, including all the parts of me that hadn’t already been trembling, but I wasn’t alone in my jacked-up adrenaline rush.

The levelling landing feet took over, smoothing out the awkward angle of the cabin.

“Heads up.”

All eyes snapped to attention.

“There’s been no word from the colony for six weeks now.  Unknown if we’re walking into a hostile situation.  Keep in contact at all times.  Role call every ten minutes, on the hour.  Nobody takes a leak without backup cover.  No exceptions.  No distractions.  War zone drill.”

“Sir yes sir.”

The hatch whooshed open, bright light glaring before my visor shifted into polarized mode.  One by one we dashed out, heads low, running in formation, guns ready.  Dash, crouch, cover.  Dash again.

In less than a year the colonists managed to build a town square.  Some shops, some houses, a barn, a bandstand for dancing on moonlit nights while two orbs circled the foreign heavens.  Tall flowers, like tiger lilies, swayed orange and black in the breeze, scattering a dusting of pollen along the sidewalks.  Not exactly Earth, but still lovely.

No signs of life – no bustling humans, no barking dogs, no livestock cropping the overgrown grass.

He waved to me – Captain Miller – last month a title on my assignment roster, now in charge of my survival.

“What do you make of this, Perez?”

My scanner swept over the object he indicated, a brownish-green goo dried up along the thin edges, oozing out of a discarded boot.

“Unknown, sir.  Sending data to Mothership for analysis.”

“Creepy.”  He shuddered, and then stilled himself.  A rag fluttered by; he poked it with the barrel of his gun, lifting it up for inspection.  It was a shirt, soaked with that same crusty mess as the boot.

“Over here, sir.”  The background static didn’t cover the tremor in Private Reese’s voice.

More discarded clothes, this time sheltered from the sun and wind by the overhang of a porch, half in, half out, of a doorway.  Inside the building, clusters of clothes and shoes dotted the floor, like the humans dissolved right where they stood, bones melting away with flesh.

Reese shook his head.  “Impossible.”

“What – who – could do this?” I said.

“Don’t know.”  Miller would have rubbed his chin, but the helmet got in the way.  “Scout drill alpha six.  Start now.”

We scoured the area, sector by sector.  No bombed buildings.  No discarded foreign biological warfare cartridges.  No black scorch of flames.  No buzz of insects in the summer heat.  No birds swooping in the emerald sky.

There were no survivors.  We plotted the location of each possible corpse, looking for a pattern.  Half-eaten meals, unfinished homework, unclosed communicators scattered on the floor.  It was as if they just all turned to Jello right in the middle of an ordinary day.

The emptiness of it all ate away at my soul.

“Troops recall to base.  Begin roll call.”

The drill began, the list of names with a breathless pause between voices, waiting for something to happen, someone to go missing.  We instinctively huddled against the mystery, backs to the gazebo in the village square, rigid in attack formation.

“Incoming transmission.”  Miller paused, riveted by the privacy-mode message broadcasting into his helmet.  The team watched the horizon, while I watched Captain Miller.  He stood erect, and then his shoulders drooped like he was slowly being deflated.  When the signal flashed out, there was almost nothing left to him.

“At ease, people.”

“Word?”

“Mothership has confirmed that the colonists perished from a hostile microbe event, non-compatible with animal cellular structure.  The microbes are carried by the pollen, not released until the flowers bloomed.  A defensive mechanism against invading organisms.”

“Like us.”  Reese swallowed so hard it broadcasted over the headsets.

“Correct, Private.”

“I hate this drill.  Bio-hazard scrub.  Quarantine.  But I could use a good colon cleanse after all that deep-fried briskon on Orion Five.”

Everyone laughed at Reese – everyone but Miller.  His eyes were hidden behind the glare of sunset reflecting off his visor.

Reese headed for the shuttle, a knot of soldiers trudging behind him.  “Let’s get it over with.  At least I won’t have to go through quarantine alone this time.”

“Wait.”  Miller cleared his throat, his voice cracked, and he started again.  “You deserve to know.”

Wind rustled through the flowers.  The tiger lilies swayed; a fresh burst of pollen scattered on the air, glazing my visor with sticky yellow dust.

“We can’t go back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mothership deems the microbes too toxic, too risky for decontamination protocol.  The rest of the fleet could be wiped out if we return.  You get on that shuttle, you’re dead.  They’re going to blow it up when it reaches orbit.  A humane end for us.”

“Order them to stand down.”  Spit and sweat marked the inside of Reese’s visor, his breath clouding and vanishing.  He shoved Miller, who raised his fists in defence.  “Tell them.  Now.”

I jumped between them.  “Back off.”

“You choose.”  Miller said.  “Get on the shuttle, end it quick.  Stay here, run out of air, die in your sleep.  Take off your helmet, turn to slime.”

“I’ll take my chances here.  I’m not being murdered by my own kind.”  Reese tore off his helmet, cropped hair plastered to his skull, beads of sweat darkening his fatigues as he ripped off his bio suit.  He took in a few deep breaths and smiled, eyes closing as his nostrils flared.  “Sweet.  Like honeyed roses.”

A spotted rash bloomed on his throat, racing over his chest.  He scratched absently, like working away at a mosquito bite.  Bubbles and blisters formed – painless, because he still smiled.

Weeping puss burst from the blisters, green-brown slime dripped from dissolving skin.  He melted away, like a candle without a flame.

Gone.

Someone poked the sludge with his boot – number 3628 on his sleeve – and he walked away to board the shuttle.  Several people followed him, decision made.

“Anyone else?”

The last three of us shook our heads.

The shuttle doors slammed shut; the engine fired.  The mechanical beast rose into the sky, contrail white against green, to collide with a silver missile.  Red flair, black smoke; the starburst explosion scattering the shrapnel of our destroyed future.

We sat quietly inside the gazebo, four points in a useless compass, contemplating the cold logic of Mothership.

Rosevelt died first, hyperventilating through the remnants of his oxygen, quickly using it all up.  When his life support monitors flatlined and winked out, he looked relaxed like he was sleeping.

Rogers went next.  We’d trained together, hoisted each other over walls at boot camp.  He was my friend.  I held his hand while he let go, wanting to wipe away tears, his and mine, but I couldn’t reach.

My air thinned.  My lungs screamed like a drowning swimmer.  Claustrophobia wrestled with reason – what did it matter how the end came?  I tore off my helmet, gulped in that sweet scent of honeyed roses.  Reese was right.  It was a better way to let go.

Miller reached for my hand, guiding it up to his own helmet.  “Help me,” he whispered, as his fingers fumbled with the air locks.

“Come to join me, for a last breath of air?”  The oxygen made me giddy, like tequila in my blood.  Miller’s face emerged, so handsome in completion; those dark brown eyes flecked with gold, the knife-edged nose.  Hair so thick I couldn’t see his scalp, even with the buzz-cut.  When I touched his cheek, tiny blisters broke under my fingertips, slicking clear fluid across his skin.

I closed my eyes, wanting my last vision to be of his face, beautiful and whole.  The sun must have set; my skin felt cool.  The breeze kissed my skin, drying the sweat of fear, of defeat.

His hand reached for mine, remaining solid.  It squeezed again.

“Look,” he said.  “Open your eyes.”

Dazzling bursts of lights, blue and green and yellow, danced across the night sky.  Aurora Borealis – what would they call it here?

He pulled me to my feet.  Crusty scabs itched like crazy, my flesh pock-marked by the strange invading microbe.

“They won’t ever come back for us, will they?”

“No,” he said.

Tiger lily stalks waved in the breeze, rustling and humming vibrations like a song.  The moons’ light glimmered through petals so thin and transparent, that tiny veins branched out against the velvety softness.  So lovely, so deadly.

His hands caressed my skin, eager for contact, for the companionship of the last living soul.

It’s not wrong to take pleasure this way, so freely given, with someone who could never touch me in that other world.  My hands reached out, dancing across his broken skin, hungry for contact, for joy.  The last human, won by default.

And he was so beautiful, I couldn’t close my eyes.