Welcome! This is my monthly free short story page. Every month I will post a new story here, but it will only be up for seven days, so read it while you can!
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And now, the story…
Cole Douglas finished his afternoon jog through the scrub grass of the foothills. Half-assed job they did of terraforming Ganymede back during the great Deuterium Rush thirty years ago. Even the sky never got more than pale blue, which Cole blamed for his heavy breathing after only ten miles. Thin air from the bad terraforming, not age starting to rear its ugly head. Air didn’t even taste fresh from last night’s rain. It had that cloying little tang like he was around mold.
Besides, Cole was only fifty, not an old man yet.
Hands on his hips he walked in circles. No good going back to the bar sucking air like he was. Couldn’t let the locals think he’d gone soft. Never hear the end of it then. Not that any of them had a right to point fingers about going soft. They liked their safe isolation on an ignored moon well inside Earth-controlled space, but not one of them ever served in the forces that maintained that safety. Much less faced five wars over twenty-five years and retired a full captain like Cole.
But he didn’t mind a little teasing. They valued their privacy like he did, so none of them ever asked stupid questions about his service. They knew him as the bartender, and that was the way Cole liked it.
An orange flash high in the sky drew Cole’s attention. He shaded his eyes and tried to look closer, but it was gone. Looked like an atmospheric entry, but the color was wrong and it was nowhere near the right trajectory to come near the little landing field the locals laughingly called their spaceport. He couldn’t even hear a hint of its engines, just the three-note trill of a nearby spar-owl.
Could be low on fuel, he thought. Must be a first-timer.
Cole made his way down from the scrub and across the pale dirt toward the converted shuttlecraft that served as his bar. From the outside it looked like a bright red egg standing sideways on crab’s legs. Cole grabbed a sharp rock and gave another halfhearted scrape at the Richardson Aeronautics logo, still mostly legible on the side. Cole called his bar The Final Resting Place. The locals just called it Richard’s.
Cole scrambled up one of the crab legs to the cockpit up front where the egg tapered. He punched in his lock code and the canopy popped open, letting him into his sanctum sanctorum. Cole had only needed the controls that handled lights, power and comfort for the shuttle, so he had torn out most of the others to make room for his bunk and the hull-metal service chests that stored his clothes, books, vids and mementos. But Cole did keep the transmitter functioning, a superstitious fear going back to his days as a green private when the platoon transmitter got hit and…
Cole shook his head. That was all behind him now. He stripped for a quick chemical shower and came out smelling like cheap aftershave, too much musk and too little character.
He dressed in the spacer standard flexcotton long-sleeved shirt and slacks, his bright blue and dull grey, respectively. He entered the kitchen and supply area, converted from the former passenger cabin. He ignored the lingering grease smell from last night’s sausages and fakeeggs and threw some prefabs in the heater so any early customers would have at least something to chew on. He was running low on local beer. That Henderson better not be late with his drop tomorrow.
Cole flicked on the lights in the main bar – once the cargo bay – and checked the levels of the bottles behind the converted chunk of hull he’d salvaged from that wreck an hour south from the ‘port. Those all looked good, so even a run on beer wouldn’t leave him dry. By reflex he also checked his old service weapon, an FMA 387 Hard Beam Rifle, kept under the bar. He kept the weapon ready for duty, though he never needed it, unlike the chunk of ship antenna he used as a club.
All ready, he flipped the switch to open the cargo bay doors and crossed between the bolted down tables and collapsible chairs to kick down the emergency ladder. He never lowered the cargo ramp, and the locals never asked him to.
An hour later, Cole was laughing along with a handful the locals about a tour ship that came through last summer. The crowd that night was all-human, as usual. Officially Earth Gov. got on well enough with most of its neighboring sapients, but none of them ever asked to settle in Earth-controlled space.
So the crowd was a typical spread of a dozen locals near the bar, and close to twenty travelers near the back, usually smugglers and the sort who liked the way Ganymede thumbed its nose at government. Even the local governor hated reporting in to Earth, and ignored the regulation to maintain a standing militia. Who needed a militia when Earth had a military that covered a fifth of the Milky Way?
Cole didn’t like breaking regs, but it wasn’t his call to make.
“Any of you see that entry today?” asked Cole, interrupting old Zed’s wide-eyed depiction of a rich, confused tourist. “Way off north, like the pilot doesn’t even know where to land.”
That got a little laugh out of the locals, but the travelers all looked up. One of them, a gruff looking kid with a scar, even if he was barely old enough to buy Cole’s drinks, said, “I saw it. Snake-head orange.”
Two of the tables of travelers emptied, their occupants hustling down the ladder fast enough to get a smirk or two out of the locals.
“No way it’s the Sarkaanans,” said Zed. “There’s a cease-fire.”
The kid shrugged and went back to drinking, but the travelers all grumbled among themselves like they agreed and needed to adjust their plans. Cole did remember something about new Sarkaanan engines burning orange, but it had to have been a trick of the thin atmosphere. Earth did have a cease-fire with Sarkaan. On the other hand, no one who moved to Ganymede tried to stay on top of the news.
Cole decided it was probably nothing, and distracted everyone by making up a story about how the Sarkaanans were coming to buy jinda weed from the governor.
By the time Cole ran the last drunks out of the bar for the night, he couldn’t get the orange flash out of his head. He closed up the cargo bay and did something he hadn’t done in a year-and-a-half, Earth standard time: fired up his transmitter. A quick call to the base on Europa would assuage any lingering fears.
The transmitter was a simple voice-only model that had controls like ‘power,’ ‘volume’ and ‘frequency.’ Little to go wrong and little to break. But when Cole fired it up, he only got static. On every channel.
That wasn’t right.
Cole popped the canopy and crawled on top of the ex-shuttle, but he found the antenna dish intact and in apparent working order. A quick test even showed power and normal response.
That old pre-combat flutter started deep in Cole’s gut, tightened his balls, made his neck feel exposed and cold. The system check was clean. If Cole could get no signal, someone was jamming them.
Cole slid down the hull and into the cockpit. Jamming meant attack was imminent. He locked the canopy behind him, then stopped. If this was an attack, the Sarkaanans would cut through the locals without effort. Cole couldn’t bring himself to hide in his bar and leave the sheep for the wolves.
Cole grabbed his hard beam rifle from behind the bar, double-checked its charge, and ran for the landing field. Three of the traveler ships had already left but four still had their landing gear down and showed no signs of running. Not that they had any visible weapons either. They couldn’t without Earth Corps stopping them for every little infraction. Cole ran in front of cockpits, waving his arms and shouting, until each ship had someone willing to come talk to him. Four hard looking, dirty, spacer types. Well, three, plus the scarred kid from earlier.
“We’re being jammed,” said Cole.
“Snake-heads coming. We know,” said a woman with short-cropped black hair and engine grease on her face. “Lookin’ for a ride out?”
“I’m looking for help. You use our field, drink in my bar, sell to the locals. Well now we need you.”
They laughed. Well, the kid didn’t laugh, but he did look down and shake his head. They all headed back for their ships, the kid a little slower than the others.
Wolves, thought Cole. Nothing but a bunch of lousy wolves when I need sheepdogs.
There’s just me.
Something cold and fatalistic settled into Cole then. The enemy was coming and he was the only one who could do anything about it, the only gun between the locals and the enemy. But he couldn’t face them, not in civvies.
If Cole was going to his death, he needed a uniform.
Cole double-timed it back to his cockpit, where the only pieces of old uniform he could find were his garrison cap and combat boots. Not enough. Cole dug through his trunks until he found his ancestral kilt, the Douglas family tartan, black-and-gray version. He donned the kilt, boots and cap, picked up his hard beam rifle, and went out to face the enemy.
The night sky of Ganymede glowed with reflections from nearby Io, Europa and Jupiter, more like Earth twilight than the night sky Cole’s ancestors knew. Based on the afternoon entry flare, if the Sarkaanans approached, they did so from the north, past the foothills. But Cole jogged these foothills every day, had done so for five years. No one knew them better than he did.
Cole ran for two minutes to the east before turning north, sticking to a secondary ridge to hide his silhouette from the night sky.
Ten minutes out he saw and heard nothing.
Twenty minutes out still nothing.
Thirty minutes out he smelled Sarkaanan.
Cole’s last tour included six months on the Sarkaanan front and remembered well their dried shrimp and ammonia scent. Cole closed his eyes to listen harder, and could just make out sibilant tones and what sounded like their language. He dropped to the scrub grass, its harsh texture scratching up his knees and calves as he belly crawled toward the sound.
Cole crested the rise of the nearest high top and there they were tucked into a pocket between hills: four Sarkaanans, a ship, and a land-based antenna pack that Cole figured was the source of the jamming. The ship was a ten-meter-long dull orange tube in the shape of a lazy ‘s’, tapering at the front and back. The aliens themselves looked like upright monitor lizards two meters tall (plus another meter of tail), packing those long rifles his last platoon had dubbed ‘Martini-Smiths’ because the firing end looked like a martini glass and no one wanted to make enough ‘s’ sounds to pronounce the real name.
But these Sarkaanans wore no uniforms. They dressed in standard spacer clothes of pale green and dark green, nothing like their official burnt orange garb.
That made Cole realize he had already trained his hard beam rifle on the biggest one. He pulled his finger off the trigger. What if they were travelers? Ganymede was a place for travelers. Maybe they didn’t mean any harm at all. Maybe they were armed because they expected a hostile welcome…
One of them held up a small remote device. The other three looked at the device, then back at the ship. The leader – or at least Cole assumed the one with the remote was the leader – pushed a button, and Cole saw dim flashes along the ship, followed by sounds like pillows slamming against the floor, followed by hints of concussion, just enough to feel like puffs of air on Cole’s face. When the show finished, the ship had collapsed in on itself.
The Sarkaanans had blown their ship. This was a one-way trip for them. Not travelers then. Uniforms or no, they were here to commit an act of war.
What Cole wouldn’t have given for a grenade.
Before he even fell flat to the ground, Cole shot the leader, a flare of pale green and a scent of ozone before the hard beam burned a hole through the enemy’s chest. One down.
The other three dove for cover, slithering toward big rocks with a speed and grace that would have made their ancestors proud. Cole got off another shot, but it went wide right.
Cole did some rolling himself, tucking his rifle flat to his chest and trying to move far enough left that they might not be able to meaningfully return fire. At least not yet.
He stopped after about five meters and took a moment to re-orient himself. No immediate sighting of the enemy, but fewer than a half-dozen rocks big enough to hide behind. No sign of returned fire yet either, which meant they knew or guessed that Cole had moved and were waiting to see his next muzzle flash.
Seconds ticked by. Cole had high ground, but they had superior numbers and superior cover. If he let them wait him out, the morning light would make him an easy target.
Speaking of easy targets…
Cole pulled the trigger and burned a hole in the jammer, silencing a deep background hum he hadn’t realized he’d heard. Immediately he heard the response puffs from the Martini-Smiths. One ball went wide left, but another shattered less than a meter away, splashing acid that hit Cole’s face.
Cole bit through part of his cheek trying not to scream as he squeezed his eyes tight closed and wiped his cheek on a mossy patch of scrub. Pain burned through nerve endings he didn’t know he had, tears streaming down his face as he rolled back down a few turns to wipe his face again, on rougher scrub this time.
Breaths fast and shallow, spitting out blood, Cole finally risked touching his cheek – more fire. His fingers came away bloody, but his fingers didn’t burn. He’d cleared the acid.
Cole spat more blood and blinked his eyes to clear the tears, but he knew he wasn’t ready. If he went back up there before he got his breathing under control, he’d shake or jump at the wrong time and they’d take him down. He lay where he was and forced himself to count breaths: in two three four, hold one two, out two three four, hold one two. Then again. Then again. And over and over until he felt ready.
He uttered a quick prayer that the governor was smart enough to notice the jamming and put in a distress call the moment the frequencies cleared. Cole might have help come in from the outpost on Europa.
If Europa hadn’t been hit.
Cole had to assume he was on his own.
One more deep breath and Cole did a crouch run two dozen paces back to his right before crawling back to his vantage point. No movement.
They were slithering again, two of them moving slowly up the hillside, barely visible in the dim light.
Cole fried the first one, but the second whipped its Martini-Smith around and fired faster than Cole expected. The shot fell short, spraying acid in a circle that ended centimeters from Cole’s nose. Cole gritted his teeth, trying not to jump, trying not to panic and run from the burning acid. The shot had been reflex. The Sarkaanan hadn’t had the angle necessary to have seen Cole’s muzzle flash, at least as more than a suggestion.
Dumb luck that the shot almost killed him anyway, and come close enough to make Cole freeze instead of firing the shot that would have kept the snake-head from reaching cover behind a rock. Cole just had to hold his ground. Two were down.
Wait. Two were down and one there behind the rock. Where was the fourth?
The stench of dried shrimp and ammonia hit Cole’s nostrils as the fourth Sarkaanan hissed a war cry and leaped to attack, claws ready and ridged mouth wide to bite. Cole swung his hard beam rifle around, but the Sarkaanan knocked it out of his grip with its tail.
Then the Snake-head landed, some hundred and thirty kilos of angry muscle digging claws into Cole’s shoulders and mouth coming down at his throat. Pain screamed through Cole’s shoulders, but the cry that came out his mouth was at least half fury.
Cole slammed his forehead into the snake-head’s jaw, spoiling its strike and making it shake its head, a gesture that, from a human, might have indicated that it was dazed. Cole wasn’t sure about that, but he slammed his boots into whatever portion of its anatomy he could reach. It was enough to knock the Sarkaanan off of him, though it raked its claws across Cole’s torso, tearing his kilt and carving red gashes as it fell.
Cole’s entire existence was pain and blood. Even his vision began to go red and a lightheaded feeling tried to settle in, to tell him to lay down and go to sleep. But Cole kept pushing, forced his arm to go for the skean dubh in his boot.
The Sarkaanan leapt mouth first, going for Cole’s exposed belly. Cole’s shoulder gave out, wouldn’t pull, but he managed by an act of will alone to clench his bicep, whipping his boot knife into the throat of the Sarkaanan. Cold blood gushed over Cole, mixing with his own, then some hundred and thirty kilos of snake-head, now dead weight, landed on him.
One more, thought Cole. Just one more.
Cole wriggled out from under that body without his arms helping. He couldn’t feel his fingers now, and the blood coming out of his shoulders looked darker than it was supposed to. Or maybe the whole world looked a little darker that it was supposed to. And it rang, too, a high-pitched whine in both Cole’s ears.
But none of that mattered. One more Sarkaanan was incoming, slithering closer. Cole couldn’t see it yet, but he felt it. It had to be taking the cautious approach until given the all-clear. That’s how Cole would have handled it.
On the ground next to Cole was his hard beam rifle. His FMA 387 Hard Beam Rifle. ‘The best tools for the best men,’ the slogan said. But Cole didn’t feel like the best man right now. He felt pain, but muffled, like it was on the other side of a mattress, and that wasn’t right either.
That was right. One more snake-head incoming, and Cole’s weapon was on the ground next to him. But his shoulders didn’t want to move, didn’t want to pick up the rifle. Not good enough. Cole rolled onto his side and swung his arm over, making his hand land on the rifle. The snake-head had to be getting close. With deliberation, Cole made every numb finger close on the muzzle, then twisted his body to pull his arm and bring the rifle closer.
One little movement at a time. Pick up that rifle, mister! No one dies on your watch!
Then the rifle was in Cole’s hands, held up as though presenting arms on a parade ground, though the arms shook too much for good form and the grip looked bloodless.
Cole heard the scrub grass crunch to his left, smelled the dried shrimp and ammonia. No thought, no looking. He just did his best to swing the rifle left and ordered the finger he couldn’t feel to pull the trigger over and over, letting off as many hard beams as he could before the world went black.
But then it went black.
Ammonia smell woke Cole, and the red inside of his eyelids told him there’d be light when he opened his eyes. His whole body felt strapped in like he’d been taken prisoner. He could hear movement, but no voices yet. He sniffed deep but only got the ammonia. No dried shrimp.
Cole opened his eyes and saw the soul lifting sight of the inside of a triage boat, a battlefield shuttlecraft. The movement was a medic laying out fresh bandages, a woman old enough to have twenty-five years of service herself.
“Hey, you’re awake,” said the medic with a smile so bright Cole felt a little better already. Or maybe it was the numbness through most of his body. She continued, “Glad you could join us, Captain Douglas.”
“Glad … to be here.” Why did he sound so weak? He hated sounding weak. Then it came back to him, the acid, the fight… “Status?”
“You’ll live, Captain. Though you’re going to need a little help tending bar. Hell of a job back there. You took down a Sarkaanan infiltration team single-handed. That must’ve–”
“Who … called you?”
“He did.” The medic pointed to the doorway, where the kid with the scar stood, lingering near the hatch like they might recruit him if he took two steps inside. “Refused to leave your side until you woke up.”
Cole started to ask a question, but the kid spoke first, with an almost embarrassed shrug. “If I let you get killed I risk the next barkeep not stocking the good whiskey.”
Cole tried to laugh, but couldn’t manage more than a smile. “You can have a bottle on the house.”
And if you missed the last few, you can get them here…