Inktober Day 1: Swift

Here we go, day 1. This is longer than I expected! But this introduces our heroes, so it goes. I haven’t had time for a thorough re-reading or much in the way of editing, so my apologies for any glaring errors. Bear with me as I do some character- and world-building, as most of this is done on the fly.


Continue reading Inktober Day 1: Swift


Inktober 2017

There’s this thing called Inktober, which is a fun little drawing exercise for artists. Thirty days of prompts are provided, and each day the participants draw something inspired by the prompts. A couple of years ago I adapted something similar, called Writoween, and wrote a bunch of little flash pieces, some okay, some meh, over the course of the month. I think maybe I’ll give it a shot again this year?

inktoberI’m kind of thinking though – what if I do one story, using these prompts as sort of chapter titles? At the end I would have something like a 20,000- to 30,000-word novella. Crazy? Or just crazy enough to work?

So I’ve spent yesterday and some time today throwing together a little outline, doing some world building, and some character creation. This material is pretty outside my typical comfort zone, so who knows how it will turn out? It may be terrible. It may be readable. We’ll see! There are witches.

I have, at this moment, the first 13 days plotted out. Hopefully that will give me the proper skeleton to hang some skin on. Wish me luck! Or abject failure, whichever would amuse you more.

Janelle of Titan

Janelle had never been in this particular set of caves before. The unfamiliarity put her ill at ease, and she led with her pistol. Wendy only griped once that they’d have to edit a lot of her creeping for time.

The cave walls were rough, full of jagged holes and alcoves. She periodically came across short branches off the main tunnel that narrowed to gaps too small for her to traverse. She released probes at these spots and let them scurry off into the darkness. Humans wouldn’t pass through those crevices, but natives probably could, their spindly bodies clacking and contorting in ways no human matched.

The temperature steadily dropped as she went deeper and deeper. Her connection with Wendy crackled in and out.

“I’m losing you,” Janelle muttered.

“Just keep your camera rolling,” Wendy said. “We’ll cossshhhhh shhootage later.”

That was the last she heard from Wendy. Janelle pressed on, glancing occasionally at the status of her recorder, represented by a tiny box on her heads-up display. Its green recording light was steady, but the uplink signal flickered weakly until it eventually died.

This was hardly the first time she’d been out of contact with her producers, but this was the first time in an unexplored area. She set her jaw. It was fine. She was fine. She’d been in scarier situations when she was 16 years old.

She began to see the graffiti. A common enough sight in Titan caves, but the sheer volume of it stunned her. The ridged circular pattern of Titan symbols crowded the walls until there was hardly any open wall exposed. Stranger still, she began to see human text etched into the walls, too. Names and dates, seditious proclamations against the colonial government. There were numerous references to 8/15, a great disaster of a decade ago, when a colonial methane collector had crashed and exploded above an unapproved settlement in the Eastern Reach, which hadn’t been too far from these caves now that she thought about it. An accurate count of the casualties had been impossible, since nobody had even known the settlement had existed, but it was estimated that thousands had died. Janelle vaguely remembered the news footage, the somber newscasters and the irate pundits who claimed the colonists shouldn’t have been there to begin with. She stopped and placed a hand against a swirl of Titan symbols, reading them with her fingers: solidarity and union, peace and prosperity.

Gradually, the tunnel widened and she saw a light ahead. She slowed her pace, hugging the wall for what little cover she could manage. The entrance spilled onto a ledge that stretched off in either direction and overlooked the greatest cavern she had ever laid eyes on. Easily as large as some of the mid-sized settlements on the surface of Titan, hundreds – thousands? – of buildings stretched off beyond the range of her viewfinder. Most were the typical carved domes that Titan natives grew and shaped from the surface of their moon, but some were obviously of human design, smooth and sharp, with human-sized doors and windows and stairs. There were lamps! Scattered through the streets and clustered around the human structures. Titans had little use for lights, being almost entirely blind.

It was a city. Janelle saw homes, shops, things that looked like factories and storage silos. Water towers. People moved among the streets, mostly on foot or on small powered cycles. Not just humans, or Titans, but both, weaving among each other, waving to each other, stopping to speak.

Her goggles told her it was there, but she stepped to the edge of the ledge and reached out. Her hand tingled through her gloves, and she felt warm air brush her fingertips. Somewhere in that city was an environmental colony shield. Where could they have procured such a thing? How did they get it down here? Janelle felt numb. She stepped back and sat heavily, her pistol hanging in her limp hand.

So distracted, she didn’t hear the clatter of chiton until it was just a few feet away. She jerked her head up, startled, and found one of the largest Titans she’d ever seen crouched beside her, its wide but flat body suspended on half a dozen thin, multi-joined legs. It’s head, a bulbous protrusion framed by a pair of cone-like eyes and bristling antennae, cocked curiously at her.

Astride the Titan’s back was a human boy. He was bundled in a thick wrap not too different from hers, though it was bulkier and heavier, making him look like a big, fat tick on the back of his comrade. He pulled his face mask down to reveal dark skin and eyes. He looked at her with naked hostility.

“You’re that lady from TV,” he said. “Janet.”

“Janelle,” she said, her voice feeling thick and heavy in her mouth. She still felt dazed. “What…what is this place? What are you doing here?”

The boy leaned out and spat a wad of gum at the cave floor. “This is Unity City. We live here, no thanks to you.”


Who’s got two thumbs and names the Seven Samurai as his fave?

The synthmonks of distant Kova set out on their journey numbering fifteen, but only seven reached Horn Pass and then our little village, striding in with clothes tattered and skin scorched and scratched. Gentle but steady rain had drenched the valley and surrounding mountains for the past several days, leaving them drenched and spattered with mud. The one they called Hallr stood beside me, nodding as the group filed into the empty house set aside for them.

“Lucky number,” Hallr said to me. “Seven is good. Seven will be enough.”

I asked, “Why not just bring seven to begin with?”

Hallr rubbed his bald head. “If we had brought seven, but lost eight on the way in, you would owe us one monk, no?” His smile crinkled his entire face.

The bandits had beset them on their journey, lobbing mortars and flaming arrows onto the paths leading through the mountains. Small raiding parties harried the travelers at night, easily dispatched or repulsed but wearing the monks down until casualties were certain.

Hallr’s eyes looked out past the thatched roofs of our village to take in our little valley in the fading evening light. Beyond our little collection of homes and barns lay the fields, and beyond those were the hills, gently rolling up to the mountains. It wasn’t visible from here, but the small creek that wound through the southern portion of the village could be heard quietly gurgling over a rocky bed and splashing through the wooden gears of the mill.

“You have a lovely home,” Hallr said. “In the morning, we will seal it off from the world.”


Clouds still lingered in the sky the next morning, but the rain at least had stopped. The monks emerged from the house at dawn, greeted by almost the entire population of the village. New clothes were offered, along with food and drink. All were politely refused.

The monks spread out among the village, looking for all as though they were taking a leisurely stroll through a familiar home. They frequently stopped to chat with a villager or admire a garden. I walked beside Hallr as he made his way toward the tavern, which served as a sort of gateway to our little town. He turned and waved to two of his fellows who stood in the central square, just a few hundred yards to the north.

“Is everyone within the limits of the village?” Hallr asked.

I nodded. “Yes, ever since they burned the Genaw farm.” I pointed south, where an anemic trail of smoke still led to the sky.

Hallr clapped his hands together. “Good. We shall begin.” He waved again to the monks in the square, who waved back and set about drawing complicated patterns in the dirt around the well at the center of town.

To the south, something rumbled, and my heart nearly seized. It was the same awful sounds that had emerged from the hills the day the Genaw family had been almost entirely massacred in their home, the same that had come to their town and wrenched me up off the ground and threatened to repeat the atrocity on the entire village if their ransom were not met. That terrible screech of metal, rattle of bones, the heavy tread that shook the valley.

I took a few steps back. “We-we should…” I stammered, unsure of what we should do. “They’re coming.”

“They said they would, did they not?” Hallr asked. “Best to take murderous bandits at their word.”

Hallr sat in the middle of the hard-packed dirt road, crossing his legs beneath him. “You may retreat, good Umi. See if my comrades need assistance. Speed is, I believe, of some importance now.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked. They’ll be here at any moment!”

Hallr waved over his shoulder without looking back. “I will provide you and my fellows enough time to seal off the town.”

To the south, the bandit horde burst through the trees and onto the road. Leading them was the metal monstrosity, a machine that formed a sort of black metal exoskeleton around its operator, who floated immersed in a vat of bubbling green liquid embedded at the center of its torso. Bones and paint decorated the outside of the beast, and glowing veins of the green ichor snaked through its appendages. Legend spoke of how the green liquid eventually disintegrated the men who operated the beast, after which the skeleton of the operator was added to the decorative horror and a new devout was selected for the honor of possessing the machine. I had no idea if any of that was true, but I had definitely seen how the machine’s claws treated anyone who got in its path, and needed no further reminder of its evil. They called it a Jagannath, and I had seen three of them in hills since the bandits had arrived.

Swarming around the feet of the Jagannath was a squad of half a dozen of the bandits, clad in pieced together leather armor, wielding clubs and axes and other crude, deadly weapons. They spread out around the machine as it plodded forward, jeering at the monk sitting in the road. Hallr stood, his arms held loosely at his side.

One of the bandits stepped forward from the group and cried a challenge to Hallr. I noticed that the man’s head was shaved, and a mocking approximation of the starburst tattoos the synthmonks wore was splashed across his head. The man grinned and pointed at his head, then obscenely gyrated his crotch in Hallr’s direction. These men had killed eight monks in the past few days, and had no fear of them now.

Another of the bandits stepped forward and spun a rifle from his shoulder in one fluid motion. He snapped off a shot in Hallr’s direction. The monk’s hand lashed out, faster than I imagined possible, and he plucked the bullet from the air. The man’s aim had been off, and I realized with a shock that Hallr had just saved my life. The monk looked handed me the round pellet, red and scorching in my hand, and smiled. Beyond, the pipes in the Jagannath’s legs hissed and began to pump forward, picking up speed.

“You should go back,” Hallr said. “Let my friends know that the tavern needs to be included in the shield. I will be needing a mug of your town’s finest brew when this is over.”



Kids and robots are a winning combo for me, hopefully you guys don’t get sick of them. This is me taking a stab at writing a deaf protagonist, so I tried to emphasize the other senses and not mention sounds. It’s an interesting challenge and something you don’t see too often. I like the idea and the scenario, so I may return to this one some time.

Billy was perched on Kacee’s dome, his shoes only slipping a little on the scuffed chrome of his robot pal’s head, working at unscrewing the tiny bolts that held the burned-out light panel in place, when the Pinkertons bombed the picket line outside of Houston’s. Billy felt the world shudder. Kacee’s dome jerked around, throwing the boy to the ground. He landed hard on his backside, then cried out and covered his head with his arms as the light panel, jarred loose by the attack, fell and shattered on the pavement just a foot to his left.

Billy lashed a foot against Kacee’s legs as he brushed tiny bits of jagged plastic from the folds of his sleeves, but the robot had already turned away, its short, stout legs carrying it toward some commotion down the street. He looked up to the tunnel ceiling, where thin cylindrical tubes flashed a harsh red, beating out a cadence of bitter shadows all around the street. The ground shook, and Billy pushed himself up against the front of the store and watched as emergency crews ran in the same direction Kacee had gone. Billy closed his eyes and tried to shut out the vibrations wracking him from every direction.

After a few minutes, the quiver in the sidewalk lessened, and Billy peeked out into the street. Ambulances had arrived, but the medics milled about aimlessly. He looked down toward where Kacee had fled and saw the mass of bodies.

Dozens of robot forms lay still, various appendages jutting into the air. A few that weren’t dependent on thin, human-like legs, simply slumped on their treads or sagged between their own axles. A few protest placards still raised in the air, gripped by frozen servos. There were no glowing lights, or swiveling antennae. Humans wandered among them in a daze, poking and prodding at their lifeless comrades. An EMP bomb had devastated the picket line.

Billy felt a deep rumble through the street, and looked up the opposite side of the street. He could see the red and blue glow of police clashing with the emergency lights. The cops were coming.

He surged to his feet and ran toward the factory.


Annelie tightened the final bolts, unhooked the battery terminals, and slammed the torso plate down. Her boots rang on the aluminum rungs of her ladder as she descended. Marin watched as she removed the safety goggles and headphones, which were so comically large on her small head that he had to stifle his laughter.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Now,” she said, “we fire it up.”

He looked over the machine hulking above them. It had not moved in at least a century, though it was remarkably intact for all that. A few shallow pits where ordinance had ricocheted away, harmless. A single bullet hole in the canopy. Marin was no engineer. His only part in this had been to tug free the remains of the cockpit’s former occupant.

“We don’t know how to…use it.” He wasn’t sure of the right word. Pilot? Drive?

“The AI will pilot,” Annelie said. She typed something into her computer and a progress bar slipped by.

“The AI?”

“It’ll boot up in autopilot mode,” she said.

“Then it will auto-murder us.”

“No,” she said with a grimace. “I altered its mother board, pulled out the tactical apps. It can’t harm a kitten now.”

The behemoth was terrifying. Slated plates to deflect armaments. Thick arms that ended in heavy fists that could easily crush a car, much less a teenage girl and her father. The domed head bore no expression, only stubs of antennae and a pair of slots for sensors. He wondered at humanity’s tendency to build things in its own image – those sensor slots could have gone anywhere. At the center of its chest was a transparent convex bubble, where a lucky shot had ended the operator’s mission prematurely. On its shoulders were blocky weapons pods, cabinets that opened to reveal bristling rows of rockets. Tubes lead from the pods to a superstructure on its back. Before she’d even started this project, he’d made her crack open those tubes and disconnect the thick bundles of wires inside, and then remove all the remaining rockets just to be sure. They were stacked in a crate well away from the house.

The legs were short, ending in a set of feet that were as much hands, built to climb all manner of terrain. He imagined a legion of these things, clambering over the mountains to rain death on the bustling cities that used to dot this valley.

Annelie stepped back to admire her work. Her computer was bright with green status bars. She’d managed to dig out ancient, jagged bits of shrapnel, yank and replace frayed wires, tear out rusted bits of the chassis. There were plenty of dead warbots in the valley, but nobody had ever bothered to scrape enough of them together to get one going again. Nobody had wanted to.

In the corner of the shop lay a stack of the ablative battle armor that had once layered the battlebot’s torso and appendages. It had been in the way, and heavy, and, Marin hoped, nobody would be shooting at them any time soon.

“Okay. Okay okay okay.” Annelie said, shaking her hands nervously. “I’m gonna do it.”

Marin shook his head. “We should at least-“

She lunged forward and tapped on her computer. Something beeped, and she fell back into a chair, hugging her legs up under her chin.

“Dammit, Ann!”

Something whined inside the old machine, and a hiss erupted from joints that hadn’t received a command in ages. Annelie chewed her fingernails. Behind the transparent canopy, a few panels winked to life, little green lights lost amidst the rat’s nest of wires and newly soldered circuit boards that Annelie hadn’t bothered to hide. Marin took a step toward the wall where his shotgun was propped.

The electronic whine crescendoed and settled. One of the antennae swiveled a full rotation and a green-tinted map of the workshop and their nearby home lit up on the inside of the cracked canopy.

“It’s looking around,” Annelie whispered.

Then it went dark. Marin blinked and let himself breathe. Annelie scrunched her face up.

“What’s…oh!” she jumped up and grabbed a dry erase board that was tied to a loop of wire insulation. Before Marin could grab her, she scrambled up the ladder and threw the loop around the warbot’s head. Marin pulled her down from the ladder and back behind the computer desk.

“Will you stop it!” he said, grunting as she wrenched free of his grip, her eyes on the warbot. “We don’t know what this thing will do. It could easily kill us both!”

“Look!” she cried.

The warbot’s arms moved, for the first time since it had died, of its own volition. It reached up, heavy fingers prying apart. For the first time, Marin saw the glowing circles in its palms, probably a whole other weapon system that they hadn’t accounted for and which probably worked just fine. The warbot grasped the dry erase board, gingerly grasping the marker dangling by a string from one end. It wrote in careful, controlled strokes, and turned the board toward them.

“Hello,” it read. Annelie squealed.


“Perhaps the young ladies should leave,” Ernst suggested. His own voice sounded too loud for this relatively quiet corner of the room.

“The ladies stay,” the pale man said, his eyes flicking briefly to Ernst. The acolyte felt a chill brush through his bones. The man’s pupils were gray and milky.

Marike relaxed slightly, cocking her head. “What is your name?” she asked.

“I am Lucian! Please, sit.” He held up the bottle of wine, but received no acknowledgement from the serving maids.

To Ernst’s astonishment, Marike shifted a chair away from the table slightly with her foot and sat, placing her sword on the table. The women watched the sword while Lucian kept his gaze on the Marike’s face.

“My friend is correct,” Marike said. “The ladies really should leave.”

“But they’re having a very good time,” Lucian said with a pout.

Ernst crossed his arms. Marike’s fingers danced along her sword’s hilt.

“Lucian,” she said. “We both know my sword, a simple weapon of steel, won’t hurt you. However, it will prove quite uncomfortable for these ladies.” Ernst resisted a smile—even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.

Lucien’s face grew cold. “That would be a most unfortunate waste of good flesh.”

Ernst watched the women, but they continued to cuddle and coo over their would-be killer, only occasionally sparing a glance toward the sword or Marike. By the truth, this fiend had them under a potent thrall!

Marike’s eyes roamed over the women. “I agree. Surely you can give them a break. Let them refresh themselves.”

Lucien draped his arms over his companions’ slim shoulders and let his grin break out anew. “I think they’re quite…feisty and well rested as they are, Lady Marike of Mojca. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’ll be testing the limits of their enthusiasm later. For now, however, perhaps we can see just how committed your young friend is to the cause.”

Lucien’s eyes drifted to meet Ernst’s, and he froze. Ernst couldn’t tear his gaze free, but found himself lost in those pale depths. In a flash, a veil was lifted and Ernst saw the brutality of the past few weeks. He saw women with Lucien, heard them crying out in ecstasy and then agony. He saw blood and torn skin. He saw Lucien, standing triumphant and naked over pale corpses. By what right did Marike interrupt the natural order of things? What injustice had they brought to this town in their quest to deprive it of this glorious being? Anger bubbled up from deep within, his vision blurred and shook.

He looked to Marike, his face twisting with rage. He’d spent so many years of his life on a quest for the truth of things and it had all been a lie. Marike looked up at him, her mouth pressed into a firm line. His hand found the grip of the hammer over his shoulder.

She was faster than him, though. She scooped up her sword, sliding it from its sheath and sweeping it in an arc around the table in a single fluid movement. Ernst grimaced as it passed through his heart without slowing. The woman to Lucien’s right cried out and cringed as the blade went through one shoulder and out the other on its path. Lucien’s eyes went wide with shock as the sword sliced through his neck, and the woman to his left ducked as the blade clipped harmlessly through her skull.

Lucien’s head toppled forward to roll across the table. Marike caught it with her free hand.

Ernst’s world snapped back into focus. The anger – the righteous fury! – in which he’d felt so confident just a moment before drained away, leaving him exhausted. On the table, Lucien’s mouth gaped and worked soundlessly. His eyes jerked to look at his own body as it crumbled into ashes. The two young women screamed.

All activity in the bar ceased as the two women pitched themselves from their chairs, shaking off the remnants of the late Lucien and fleeing as fast as they could for the door. For a few silent seconds, all eyes in the tavern were on Marike and Ernst and the disembodied head on the table. Then the barkeep yelled for last call, and everyone turned back to their carousing.

Ernst eased himself, shaking, into one of the vacant chairs. “Blessed Mojca!” he swore. “So sorry about that, Lady. Don’t know what came over me.”

“I’d say this fellow came over you,” Marike said with a smirk. Her voice shook slightly, but firmed up as she spoke. She tapped the top of Lucien’s skull, which now lay still, eyes and mouth agape but mercifully no longer twitching. There was no blood, of course. A dusty grey film appeared at the finely sliced edges of the neck and began to creep upward, giving the appearance that the head was sinking into a pile of dust on the table. Soon there’d be nothing left of the creature but what the barmaid swept up in the dustbin.

Ernst studied Marike’s face. She smiled, but it was a tired, weary smile. There were a few more age lines etched around her mouth and crinkling around her eyes. Though she was only a few years older than Ernst, she looked over a decade his senior. It had been necessary in his case, as he’d been ready to attack her if the spell had not been lifted, but it was a shame the girls had been in the way. No harm to them, of course, but the blade took a toll on Marike whenever it was used on living beings.

He reflexively reached for her hand, which seemed thinner and paler than it had earlier, but she withdrew and stood to sheath her sword.

“We’ll sleep here tonight,” Marike said. “Assuming there are rooms available. Tomorrow we’ll go home.”

Ernst hesitated to stand. “Are you all right, my lady?” he asked, keeping his voice low.  A puff of smoke rose from Lucien’s crumbling eye sockets.

“I’m fine, Ernst,” she assured him, because even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.


Their search, led by Lady Marike’s honed, gods-tuned instincts, brought them at last to the Tender Loin, their third tavern of the evening. It was a rough, rowdy place, a bar largely appropriated by a small mercenary group that operated out of this town. The soldiers and the women who followed them were loud and rude but also generally happy, and mostly ignored the cleric and her acolyte.

Lady Marike had been sober ever since the infamous Kaleedish djinn incident, three years prior, so Ernst handled the drinking for both of them. Her ale, purchased purely for appearances, sat on the table beside her sheathed sword. He nursed his second. He’d had four at the previous taverns and though he was a stout man, or at least stoutly mannish, it took all of his concentration to keep the room from spinning.

Lady Marike’s pale eyes, bright blue points that contrasted startlingly with her nearly black skin, roamed the busy tavern and studied its occupants. She was, as usual, composed and dignified in her hauberk. From under the chain, folded crisply, rose the collar of her station, intricately detailed with the runes of the goddess Mojca, patron of truthsayers and pessimists. The sides of her undercut mohawk had accumulated a bit more dark fuzz than she usually liked on their journey from the capital.

Someone or something was stalking this village, the name of which escaped Ernst at the moment. At least half a dozen young ladies had vanished in the past few months. The local constables, at their wits end since they normally had little to do aside from break up bar fights and chase off bandits, had pleaded for help from the Order. They were no closer to tracking the villain down than when they had first ridden into this town on exhausted, mud-spattered horses under the dawning sun. His armor itched, his beard itched. Ernst was weary, and hot, and at this point didn’t give a shit if they did find the culprit.

The Lady tapped her fingers on the simple wooden crossguard of her sword, gently calling his attention and abruptly ending an hour of silence. “He is here,” she said.

Ernst squinted at the crowd jostling around them. “How can you know?”

“He is stalking this place.” She jerked her chin, and a harried barmaid swept to a stop against their table. Ernst noted how the woman’s eyes flickered over Marike’s fine cheekbones, perhaps trying to ascertain how much flirtation would help her earn a better tip from a customer who wasn’t really even drinking.

Marike leaned forward, holding the barmaid with her eyes. “Is there a man here all in black, with black hair, pale skin. Likely drinking wine, seducing very pale, dark-haired women?”

Ernst grimaced and mumbled, “Offensive stereotype, m’lady.”

The barmaid nodded. “There’s the charmer back in the corner,” she said, pointing a thumb, “Been here every night for a month or so. Takes home a couple ladies a week, seems like. Can’t say I get it. Not my type.”

“My thanks,” Marike said, and she offered a coin, which the barmaid accepted with a smile and a wink. She swayed her hips as she pushed away through the crowd, casting another look over her shoulder at Marike as she went.

“How is it that always happens?” Ernst said with a wave of his hand. “She wouldn’t talk to me with five gold in my fist.”

“To business, Ernst,” Marike said, sliding her sword off the table as she stood. “Try not to grab any ass on the way.”

They pushed their way through the crowd and found themselves in the northwest corner of the common room. The furthest spot from the bar, the crowd was thin and the light dimmer here, the noise subdued. The tables were full of cloaked figures with hidden faces and darkened weapons.

One table stood out, however. A pale young man draped in black sat between a pair of giggling young women, laughing and gesturing wildly, in the midst of some tale. His angular face and narrow eyes swept over Ernst and Marike without losing the stride of his conversation with his guests. A nearly empty bottle of cheap wine sat on the table.

Ernst cleared his throat and said quietly, for his Lady only, “See, hair’s more of a midnight blue, m’lady.”

“Duly noted, Ernst,” she said. Marike rapped the pommel of her sword on the table, startling the women. They cried out and clung to the pale man. Ernst straightened and tried to look imposing, though he felt a bit wobbly on his feet.

The pale man was unmoved by the intrusion. He seemed unconcerned by the visitors, and in fact appeared to appreciate the way the young women pressed against him in fear. “Would you like to join us?” he asked, his voice smoother and deeper than Ernst expected.

“I am Marike, a Lady of Mojca,” Marike said. “I am here as a constable under the authority of the people of this great land to investigate a series of murders plaguing this village.”

The pale man did not wither the way suspects who’d earned Marike’s attention generally did. His smile was fixed as he carefully extracted himself from his companions and leaned forward, placing his hands on the table.

“That’s very dramatic, Marike, Lady of Mojca,” the pale man said. “I imagine if I knew anything about these…murders…I would be quite terrified of you.” Marike held his gaze.

Ernst focused on the man’s words, to let the truth or untruth of them be revealed. He’d been under Marike’s tutelage for almost five years, honing the instincts granted by their patron. He could generally tell, for example, when someone was cheating at cards, or giving a false identity. He sensed nothing out of place here, so either the man was an exceptionally good liar or Marike was wrong – something Ernst had never before witnessed. Ernst also considered the possibility that he was too drunk to properly exercise his training. In any event, he wasn’t too drunk or befuddled to see subtle cues in Marike’s body language, or the tension in her shoulders. She was convinced they’d found their beast.

First Contact

The floraship passed through the outer reaches of the system unchallenged, its outermost leaves rustling nearly imperceptibly in the solar winds stretching from the local star. Jada pressed her hand against the wall and closed her eyes, smiling as she felt, through the rough wooden bark alloy, the ship’s delight in experiencing this first kiss from a new sun.

The bridge was a bustle of activity as they approached the most distant planet orbiting this star. A dark, frozen ball called Al Thalim J-2, they’d probably encountered a hundred just like it. But Jada always enjoyed these first steps in every new system. So many possibilities, and the ship loved drinking from each star they encountered.

Iro, First of Navigation, stood at the center of the bridge, deeply in his element. His gaze swept in every console even as his head was turned toward the wide window set high in the wall. Al Thalim J-2 drifted in frame, wobbling slightly as the ship made minor course corrections. Text and numbers projected on the window described various properties of the planet’s orbit and ship’s relation thereto, approach vector, and so on. To Jada these things were largely meaningless, as her skills lay in other things. But she always enjoyed watching the crew work.

As the science crew labored at their stations, reports began to coalesce in the air before Iro. His eyes dropped from the window to read them as they appeared, the lines on his wrinkled face deepening as he absorbed their collective knowledge. He nodded, as if seeing something he’d expected, and called to her.

“First of Study,” he said, and Jada cocked her head to indicate that she was listening. “Ready your team. It appears this planet is not so dead as it appears.”

Jada grinned in anticipation, felt the leaves woven through her hair shiver. “I’ll get them together,” she said with a salute. “Have the shuttle prepped.”

The Study team was a small, close-knit group of operatives. Jada was their organizer, and had worked with their biologist, Trint, for over five years. Trint was the oldest member of the crew and had threatened to retire every single one of those years. Possed, geophysicist and meteorologist, was hardly more than a sapling, but had excelled—indeed, broken records—at every test the Exploratory Service sent her way. In fact, it was her multiple specialties that kept their team small, as she could perform the work of several other specialists. Renid, a botanist, and her brother Wixt, a physicist, rounded out the team. Renid and Wixt rarely spoke to anyone other than each other, and even then it was often through unspoken twists of their eyes or subtle movements of their twigs. They were an odd, awkward branch of the crew, but they worked, and Jada wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Study team had its own specialized shuttle, equipped with sensor bundles the standard shuttles weren’t. They’d named her the Sunpod, and the twins had silently decorated the exterior with bright hues and swirling patterns that distinguished her visually from the other shuttles scattered throughout the ship’s crown, docked at various branches closest to where their crews might need them. At her signal, the team met outside the bridge and boarded the nearby pith-lift. As the lift carried them through the hollows of the ship to their destination, Possed studied their target on her handheld.

“Standard ice ball,” she muttered, scrolling through the stats.

“Hope everyone brought a coat,” Trint said. Renid cocked her head at Possed, who shrugged and looked to Jada.

“There’s an energy source,” Jada said. “It’s not large, but there’s something down there.”

Possed’s handheld pinged as it updated from the ship’s main feed, and she nodded. “There it is. It’s well beneath the surface, though.”

“It’ll be up to you guys to figure out a way to get us down there,” Jada said. As the diplomat of the group, most missions she just coordinated (or herded, as she liked to crack) the scientists as they worked. It was rare that her talents had an opportunity to shine, and she was excited. Possed, who’d joined the team only 6 months ago, had never been on a contact mission at all, and even the twins had seen her work her magic only twice.

Possed looked around at the team, her nerves showing in the way her bright white blooms opened and closed repeatedly. “What if they don’t want visitors?”

Jada checked her flechette pistol, snug in its holster in the small of her back, and patted the youngster on one shoulder. “I’m the diplomat,” she said. “It’s up to me to make sure they don’t mind.”

The Hunt for that Vicious Bastard, Kadiis O’len

My metal companion spoke, breaking hours of silently trudging through this snowy hellscape.

“The birds have gone, Miss,” said Carson-5, its voice box crackling. Icicles shivered with the echo. The machine came to a stop with a hiss of hydraulics. Steam rose from puddles of slush pooled around its oval-shaped feet. Dull and grey, Carson-5 measured ten feet to the top of its cube head, which was little more than a speaker and pair of antennae. Broad shoulders supported long arms that ended in modular stumps equipped via a backpack cargo pod. The torso narrowed sharply before flaring into wide hips and a pair of segmented legs. Carson-5 was a standard scout and exploration unit, built to withstand any environment and keep its human masters alive. It wasn’t one of the kill-and-detain Yeager-7s most bounty hunters pal around with, but I got a great deal during my last trip to Earth—this particular Carson-5 had failed two previous owners.

“What birds?” I asked, looking back at Carson-5 through the fog of my own breath. All I had kept track of for the past five hours was the crunch of my own feet plunging through snow. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. My eyes had been glued to the distant mountain, not growing larger with each stride. Miles ahead, at the base of the mountain, was a ranger’s station. Significantly fewer miles behind, the wreckage of my ship, after an orbital collision with a fugitive’s escape pod. Rock. Hard, burning place.

“This planet is home to over 3,000 species of birds, at least fifteen of which inhabit this area,” the machine explained. “I have observed regular calls from many different birds since we arrived. They have been silent for five minutes.”

I stared at Carson-5. It stared into the foliage. Cold seeped into my thermal underwear.

“This is bullshit,” I said, resuming my hike and half-hoping a frozen branch might fall and put me out of my misery. My ship—home—gone. If Kadiis O’Len’s escape pod went down, too, they might never recover any evidence that could be turned in for a reward. If it didn’t, the trail would be cold long before we got off planet. The whole situation made for a frustrating day. “We need a campsite. The finding of which is your job, by the way. Were you bird-watching when Pete Jansen was swarmed by hyperwasps on Terek Prime?”

“Observance of local wildlife is in direct support of my primary function.”

“So that’s a yes.”

“There was a very colorful specimen of Olisp bat I was trying to show Mr. Jansen.”

We marched for a few more minutes, but the silence started to get to me, too. I heard the wind, the creaking of snow-laden branches, the buzz of Carson-5’s servos, the rustling of the blankets I’d wrapped around myself. I came to a halt and peered about.

“So, what preys on the birds here?” I asked.

“There are no natural predators in this area,” Carson-5 answered. “Not since the extinction of the sabretoothed lynx a century ago. The ranger’s station ahead monitors and controls bird populations without–”

“Fascinating,” I interrupted. I eased a hand beneath my coat to grip the pistol at my belt. “I don’t suppose you’re scanning for any largish heat signatures?”

Carson-5 paused, antennae swiveling. A long whir as the robot leaned close, though its inability to control the volume of its voice made Carson-5’s feigned whisper laughable. “There is a humanoid-sized being at close range.”

“How clo–”

The snow not five feet to my left erupted. My attacker—a six-foot, 200-pound hairball—led with paws and two-inch claws fully extended. I caught a glimpse of the breastplate, emblazoned with the curved daggers of the Silvestris Piracy, over his black-brown fur. Kadiis. Then he was on me, claws sinking into my shoulders.

I collapsed under the big cat, thankful at least that thick layers of coat and blanket mostly protected me from his claws. I sacrificed my left forearm to his canines and struggled to get my pistol free, but it was a useless effort. His teeth pierced my arm, and I grunted to stifle a scream. His back claws scrambled to find purchase on my torso. In moments, my intestines would decorate the snow drifts. Where was that damned robot? Did Kadiis have compatriots keeping it busy?

I gave up on the gun and twisted my arm and hips, kicking out with my knees to hurl the Silvestris free. He twisted in mid-air and landed on all fours, already crouching for another pounce. I didn’t bother trying to get to my feet. I met his golden eyes for an instant, and we both knew one of us wouldn’t be walking away from this. He leapt. I drew and put three shots up the breastplate and into his neck. O’Len fell dead inches from my face.

I lurched to my feet, pistol at the ready for the rest of the cat’s posse. Carson-5 stood where it had, arms just now withdrawing from the cargo pod, equipped with a hammer and three-fingered hand that would have been extraordinarily useful ten seconds ago. Carson-5 raised its shoulders in a simulacrum of a shrug.

“Nice,” I said. “That’s great. Fantastic job, partner!” I pointed to the cat’s corpse with my slightly less bloody arm. “You know who this is? This is Kadiis O’Len!”

“From the most–”

“From the most wanted list,” I parroted its voice, “yes! He almost eviscerated me!”

“I could not decide between hammer and plasma chainsaw.”

I sighed. “There will never be a time when the answer to that question isn’t chainsaw.”

Carson-5’s antennae twitched. “I am detecting the return of local fauna.”

“Maybe you’re not totally useless.” I holstered my weapon. “Pick that up. We’ll need it for the reward.”

a writing sketchbook