Portmanteau

Author: Rick Tobin

Sanders’ trembling hand hovered over an ejection hatch separating him from interstellar vacuum. He paused, chest heaving, fighting his ending as if a stealthy gorilla was reaching through cage bars, catching him staring too closely.

“Always heard suicides happened on port side. I thought docs didn’t go for that–some oath thing.”

Sanders pulled back swiftly from a woman’s voice. He was the only surviving crew member. Evil spread through air ducts–a chimera virus destroying internal organs of a starship’s complement. He hid inside a secure drug bunker after angry victims turned against him for failing to stop their carnage. Sanders, a cursed shaman, represented false medical gods withholding salvation.

“Disease–it’s consuming me. I’m the last. Hallucinations are a final punishment.”

April Davers kicked his shin hard enough to wind Sanders. His right hand struck the wall, nearly activating the operation switch. April pushed him away to prevent their expulsion.

“Real enough, idiot! You think you could save them? This crap spread everywhere in our solar system, from inside Mercury to minefields on Pluto. It’s a wonder we got outside the Oort before it hit. Ever wonder who carried it past security? Secret credits brought rich losers escaping onboard. Lucky me, I have value. I maintain ventilation systems. That’s where I hid while mobs tore themselves apart. I watched friends get shredded by stragglers. Where were you, Doc?”

“After attacks in sick bay, I hunkered down in a storage cavity just for emergency medical supplies–bolted from inside. When screams quit, bulkhead pounding stopped, I came out to their remains. God, how I failed them!” He paused to collect himself. “Just two of us immune? Ironic–you twenty something and I’m dried up. Pointless me staying. We’d have a few years to chat and then you’d have to toss me out this chute.” His head drooped. There was no joy meeting another survivor. They might still succumb to the ‘Blood Beast,’ as it was christened on Jupiter.

“Hold on, gray head. You still have some miles. Two women on deck five made it. You’re the only man. You’ll have to do.” April pressed her hand against Sander’s bicep, raising her eyebrows in surprise, finding he was fit for an oldster.

“According to your name tag, April, that shaggy red hair might contain a volcano under your jumpsuit, but I’m spent. Hell, I’ve got shoes older than you. Besides, I’m a throwback about morals. I’m not about to play out Lot and his daughters with you three. We had over twelve hundred onboard, ensuring a healthy variety of gene matches during this voyage. If we make Proxima Centauri b, with just us four procreating, this ship would land with inbred drooling imbeciles.”

“Maybe. You’re the science whiz. What about that freezer with frozen sperm and eggs for restarting, in case of crew irradiation? You could use those, right? They’re virus free.”

“Huh. A smarty. Long shot, but the others?” He thought about the chances of artificial fertilization saving humanity. Might work. The ship’s automated tutors could train new crews for generations.

“We talked it over, but we needed a man. You’ve still got some skills.” She looked down at his crotch while pushing a sneer. “Even if your plumbing is rusty. Give it a try for NJ-1. You ever wonder about the ship’s name?”

“No. Maybe for New Jersey…the one on Earth and on Mars. Why?”

“Figures. You being a faith guy and still missed it. This is the Promised Land, pal: New Jerusalem. Time to go wander in the wilderness.” April pulled him toward the cryolab.

Root Cause

Author: Rick Tobin

Pressing slick walls within Perri’s briefing center opened gigantic multi-verse mapping systems across a great briefing hall aboard Haven’s interstellar spacecraft. The Order’s enclosure pulsated with its anthem, rising to crescendos oscillating beneath gathered crews’ blue slippers. White-robed acolytes raised covered heads to view Perri’s guidance for their next voyage.

“We will traverse Channel Aluhayo near Braxis Egua. It is tricky, but our passenger has little time. It is the essence of our charge to bring each seeker to final rest. We must submit ourselves to any challenge to support their trust in Haven.”

“May Haven await us all,” a confirmation returned in one voice from the Order, resting in their robes upon red floor cushions.

“With our pilot’s blessing, may we bring this being to ultimate contentment and joy. Mahuya Ho.”

“Mahuya Ho,” echoed the audience, just before standing and leaving for assigned posts. One remained to address Perri privately.

“You are Jardin Co, are you not?” Perri asked, surprised at an unscheduled conversation.

“Yes, Father, I have that honor of my House.” Jardin Co bowed in respect before speaking.

“Proceed.” Perri waved one of his many arms indicating consent.

“May Haven find us all, dear Father…but I have concerns about repercussions for returning Crax to Haven when its planet’s government warned us away. If Crax is a terrorist, do we risk initiating a conflict on this world? Does that create an imbalance in our core belief in Haven?”

“Your youth speaks loudly, Jardin Co. Let me explain.” Perri displayed no facial indications of anger or retribution. His golden robes continued to glisten under lights above the dais where he stood elevated over Jardin Co.

“I did not mean to offend,” Jardin Co replied, flustered.

“It’s a fair question for one new to our Order. Let my experience provide evidence that we are honorable in our cause. Every being has an inherent right to pass to their judgment while in the Haven of their home world– to touch their native soil, drink liquids of their home and dine on foods that return memories of youth long forgotten. Their passing, through our provision, prepares them for the greater journey beyond. It is our deepest calling to bring them to Haven.”

“But threats of war…the balance of our creed?” Jardin Co stared down as he dared question.

“Surprising… such considerations from youth. But, you have asked, and we maintain that all your questions be addressed. Crax is near death, posing no threat to this colony. War has been their way for millennia. Its presence will not change their ill-tempered breed. Our only focus is for a creature’s soul to journey peacefully beyond. We offer a bridge, no matter a species history, to their origination before ending life’s moments. Nothing is more frightening than taking one’s first step from the physical world while exploring voids of space, away from one’s like species and familiar surroundings. The Order has existed beyond time to serve all requests to seek Haven when nearing transition, especially for those at untold distances from their roots. Haven means something to them all, no matter their faults or glory, so we submit to this quest, regardless of threats from those who misunderstand this primal derivation of existence.”

“Have I acted poorly in my concern, Father?”

“No, Jardin Co. All who serve Haven are free to know by asking…and blessed to serve in trust. Our only continuance price is a client offering one offspring to our order. Your previous father’s house honored us with you. You will now serve honorably with the issue of Crax.”

Just Human Nature

Author: Rick Tobin

“He’s on edge again. It’s intolerable when he tears into our crew like this. Makes me itch all over.” D-7 moved away from overheated control panels. He heard sputtering of wiring insulation against conduit. Corrosive effervescence from singed plastic revealed damage others still missed, but his reports were ignored. Their limitations–his curse.

“Relax, D. Besides, you’re always itching. You need your fur treated. Remember how you messed up on the last cargo run? You caught those changosa ticks after heading for a whiz in the bushes. You could’ve waited. And lay off L-2. How’d you like to have the Captain’s lizard scales, with psoriasis to boot? ” C-23 felt hull vibrations on her whiskers–perhaps a warning of a meteor storm. She activated ship perimeter sensors.

“Hey, you use a stupid box for your dumps. I have more pride than that. Everyone on board hears you scratching your litter. Do you even wash your hands? Drop your potty comments. Inappropriate.” D-7 shifted, giving his tail a rest from his cramped control room chair. “Why they ever slapped two like us on the same shift baffles me,” D-7 complained.

C-23 yawned widely before responding. “Two Cs on navigation…never a problem. You should be down in engineering with your mutt buddies.”

“How about I bite off one of your arms, you useless breeder?”

“And you thought L-2 was touchy?” C-23 moved her chair a few feet away from her reluctant assistant, dragging her feline claws over metal panels, creating ear-shattering screeches. D-7 howled, covering his furry ears. “Oh, good. You can hear me. Now get this straight, bow-wow. I’m a superior officer. We cross train because we lost both pilot and co-pilot on our last escapade through this Taranus Escarpment. We almost bought it. If automatic systems had failed, we’d still be adrift, boiling in magnetic fields. We need emergency backup staff. Simple as that. So, take my lead, learn what you can, and lick your wounded ego somewhere else. Got it? There won’t be a eucatastrophe ending in your life’s story if you don’t.”

“You ca’ what? I don’t understand cats. All right, I’ll be still. My DNA makes me act rashly on occasion. I wonder why humans breed us to run their ships. They have robots. I would have been happy as a normal dog.”

“It’s risk variables. AI never mastered long-distance space travel. Animals have specialties that were not programmable…like your smell and hearing and my sensitivity to vibration. There is a reason a squirrel’s in communications, a raccoon cooks and an oxen works loading docks. Besides, it’s easier and cheaper to replace us after radiation exposure. Some die sooner. You’re only a seven for this ship…but my kind takes it harder. That’s why I enjoy my time. It’s short.”

“Not as short as R-200. He’s our intelligence officer. Those rats drop like flies. No wonder they quarter them down below in the hold.”

“We have rats? Damned rats! Where in the hold? How many?” C-23 was visibly shaken as her ears flattened, eyes widened and her shoulders pulled lower.

“Not sure. I heard in dark spaces–bilges, maybe. Pretty spooky down in that heat.”

“You take the con. I need to step out. Be back.” C-23 scampered away with no further instructions.

D-7 chuckled deeply, recalling reptile warriors below, loyal to L-2, constantly hunger driven, ensuring vicious attacks of pirates or mutineers on command. He became distracted; he focused on a tall, potted shrub C-23 had placed against an adjacent electrical panel. He ignored the ‘Out of Order’ warning sign. It was just his nature.

Renovations

Author: Rick Tobin

Rotting mangoes proffer disgusting flavors like burning spittle rising into a renovator’s mouth when alien wraiths hiss, rising from charred ruins fallen untold millennia before humanity’s existence. Dearth Crenshaw stood his ground as a maniacal, mystical slaver, without concern for his acolyte, Emmaus Progo. His protégé previously accompanied haunted clearings of thirteen worlds in readiness for human colonization, but repeatedly lost his bowel control when ectoplasmic spirits of species, still haunting their abandoned civilization, swirled in fury about them, tearing at their interloper space suits and souls.

Dearth’s hands spun the vicious atmosphere about him with invisible lines of force, entwining his attackers. The whispish harpies slashed back in agony, confused and forlorn as their fates were sealed by superior skills of a dark arts master.

“Now, Dearth? Use the wand?” Emmaus extended a six-foot silvery metal rod toward the billowing murk surrounding them.

“No! I hate that technology crutch.” Dearth guillotined the discussion as strings of undetectable magnetic fields encircled his captives, binding them and finally compelling their migration into a shimmering rope of energy speeding into an irregular orange crystal suspended loosely from his neck, outside his suit. Soon, the troubled ambiance was clear of psychic turmoil. Dearth’s gemstone glowed, pulsing life force from captivated new souls waiting his processing.

“I did not mean to interfere, master. I was afraid they might overcome us. I do not have your powers, so I must use what I have.” Emmaus tried to justify his interruption during battle as the hunters later discarded their battered space suits in a change bay aboard their ship.

“You’ve soiled yourself again, Emmaus. I had hoped for more progress after two years of apprenticeship.” Dearth turned, glaring at his offensive understudy.

“Maybe this is not my rightful destiny,” replied Emmaus. “I might try a different profession. With the thousands of new Earth colonies, surely there would be a better fit. Free will cries for better.”

“Free will! Where did you hear that term?” Dearth was suddenly insistent.

“I read some historical material in our ship’s library. Isn’t happiness really what we all deserve?”

Dearth’s fingers twisted quickly into an arcane hand mudra. Remains of Emmaus fell to the metal floor; his body desiccated into small piles of debris as a puff of soul rose to be encapsulated within the orange, glistening stone about Dearth’s neck. Dearth walked deliberately to a communications panel mid-ship.

“Dearth Crenshaw. Operation successful. 29465 is completely cleared for restitution. Send mining clones. I have fresh souls to activate them. Astral memories from this unknown race will pioneer a useful human outpost. There are copious resources in this world worthy of immediate exploitation. Note…send me a new assistant to implant. I will transfer this last one’s soul into a settler once new bodies arrive. I suggest acquiring a new helper soul from an earth-bound spirit taken from shambles of New York or Chicago. Forget the suburbs. I need a servant that is pliant and barely curious. Capture something drifting about a nursing home destroyed after the last asteroid strikes. I will wait, as required, for the supply ship. Please transmit my next target planet coordinates. For my control files, record that I have sealed more sections of Earth’s ancient mythologies on my ship that are heretical.”

Toxic Relationship

Author: Rick Tobin

Joshua Vergiften shuddered, strapped within his tired, bruised ship plummeting through heavy cloud cover over colony UW26, an indistinct recent colonial outreach from Earth’s solar system. His goal: fresh provisions and clean water from a source he had never strategically poisoned–his primary assignment. Most of his water source contamination on less inhabited spheres occurred remotely by drone missile strikes from low orbit. He’d lost tolerance for monitoring alien life collapsing near his defensive strike zones.

GERD retreated down his esophagus, stopping burning in his mouth and nasal passages. His waste leaked into his suit, reminding him to hit sonic showers before disembarking among people probably intolerant of his solitary traveling habits. Reentries were messy, especially after a long haul outside planetary gravity.

“Bring me something strong, whatever you have local.” Joshua let his credits scan under fluorescence reader lights striking his ‘visiting’ clothes in a crowded bar full of tired farmers, miners and several techies out whore hunting.

“All we got–UW ale. Makes you batshit crazy, stranger, like all of us.” His shabby bartender turned to retrieve brew, dragging his ragged sleeves over concrete surfaces decorated from knife fights and broken nose stains.

“And who is that thing?” Joshua asked, looking at the hind parts of a woman of some kind, kneeling, covered in dowdy rags, with her brown hair pulled up away from her shoulders into a bun so the frazzled ends wouldn’t reach the scouring she gave the bar floor, or from falling into her scrubbing bucket.

“Ah,” replied the barkeep, returning with brown fluids spewing foam over a metal cup. “That’s one we ignore. She cleans the place up and stays to herself. Her folks didn’t make it through the landings; lost quite a few, years back. She’s nothing special, trust me, but we were ordered to tolerate her and leave her be. Never found much useful work for her.”

When the woman turned, Josh skipped a breath, almost forgetting how horrible his drink tasted. Whatever he felt, she did too. She dropped her scrub brush and stared at him, mouth agape. Josh rose from his stool, walking swiftly to the kneeling woman’s side, lifting her small, fragile frame nearly off her feet.

“I can’t believe it.” He paused, carefully thinking of what to say. “Don’t be afraid, but in my lonely travels through this region, I have dreamed of you…exactly you…those dark eyes and upturned nose. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to…”

“No,” she interrupted. “I’m not frightened. I’ve waited for you since I was a child. I could see you, in the stars, alone. It helped me through my isolation. You’re the well poisoner–protector from alien invasions. You destroy their water. Humans need your protection but they fear you. I don’t fear you. I’m modified to protect this colony. I carry diseases that kill only aliens, but these colonists don’t know, except for the elite. Let’s leave this place, this planet, please.”

There was no hesitation…no wondering. As they exited the bar door, into darkness, he introduced himself. “I’m Josh. And you?”

“They call me Mary.”