Most Fridays you can find some flash fiction on Jemima’s blog. She follows a dude called Chuck Wendig – this is one of his prompts, drawn from two lists of words with one drawn from each at random. Big Pete and the Swede have featured in these stories before – you can find the links to them in the Menu bar above (Flash Fiction).
This is around 1700 words, and is set after the first book in the series.
“Suffering snakebites, Dolores, how do I know?”
“Well, I thought you might. “
“I was under the impression you knew everything,” put in Lars, winking at Dolores as he said it. It earned him a dirty look from Big Pete, who had just failed the ‘name the constellation’ test she’d given him.
“There are a good many constellations that haven’t got names at all.”
“Why not?” Dolores was genuinely interested, even though teasing Pete was her second-favourite pastime.
Pete shrugged. “They just don’t.”
Lars Nilsson, also known as the Swede, leant over between Pete and Dolores as they sat at the console of their second ship, tethered at a distance from their primary mining vessel, in synchronous orbit, such as it was, around the asteroid currently being surveyed. Big Pete and the Swede were the richest asteroid miners in the sector, on account of their uncanny ability to mine pure orichalcum, in quantity, from rocks most miners wouldn’t touch. Lars brought up a star chart of the Farsight system, where the Academy was situated, then swiped it to reveal the view from the planet itself.
“This is the constellation chart at Farsight, and everything’s labelled. They’ve got folklore going back millennia, stories that tribesmen told.”
“I didn’t think the tribesmen had been there millennia before the Academy was founded.” Pete was still smarting from not knowing the constellations of the Viridian system.
“Er, you may be right. No matter. Here, Dolores, you can see that most are labelled, with nice lines showing the shapes.”
“Praxis the Hunter,” Dolores read, looking at the diagram connecting stars in the night sky. “And just how to you make that shape into a hunter? It’s more like a spider!”
“True. But that’s how they were named. You need a lot of imagination on some of them. But here are his shoulders, and one arm raised, look, and the other arm held out for balance…”
“And usually only magnitude 6 and higher stars are included,” Pete added, not wanting Lars to steal all Dolores’ attention. It was his lesson, after all.
“Why?” Dolores was a good student. She had already passed her preliminary pilot exams, and was licensed for taking their ship on instruments into and out of grade 3 and better spaceports. To get through the next stage she had a lot of homework to do.
Pete sighed. “Another good question. I suppose they are the ones most easily seen with the naked eye from any planet with a decent atmosphere.”
“Well, maybe we could invent new constellation names for Viridian, then, if nobody else has bothered. Are they the same from Pleasant Valley and Sunset Strip, or do they look different?”
“I’ve never noticed.”
Dolores shot a look at Pete. He sounded dangerously close to a mood, and he was the most even-tempered miner around.
She swung herself off her stool and noticed that Lars had already retreated to the galley. “I’ll go and tend the plants,” she said, and slipped through the hatch to their habitat dome.
“Tea,” said Lars, pushing a mug of brew in front of Pete.
“Ta,” he responded, taking the mug and burying his moustached lip in it. He stared glumly at the screen, which he’d pulled back to the Viridian system view of the stars. “I never look at the stars when we’re planetside.”
“I have. Mainly on Sunset Strip. I don’t think I’ve looked at them on PV. You’d probably get a great view of them in the desert air, though. They twinkle on Sunset. Atmospherics.”
“Anything exciting to look at?”
“You see the galaxy more or less edge on, like a river with a large lake in it. There’s a variable fairly close to the centre with a short period; it’s noticeably brighter some nights than others.”
“Which one is it?”
“Never checked. There are a couple of nebulae that look like misty patches. They’d probably be good in a scope. I don’t think anyone’s done the folklore of the stars of the Viridian, though.”
The pair sat in companionable silence for a while. They were used to long periods when nothing happened. Pete fiddled with some star charts on his screens, while Lars pulled up their newly installed hepreader and started turning the pages.
“Guys…” Dolores called through from the dome. “Take a look at this.”
They followed each other through to the geodesic structure they’d added to the back of their mini-space station. It was just an experiment, trying to grow real food while they were mining. So far, so good. It also had a great view of their sector, the green debris clouds outside the orbit of the twin planets, their distant star, and out the other way, the asteroid belt, near space and the constellations beyond.
“Look there. I don’t remember seeing a hole in the stars before.” The guys followed Dolores direction, shielding the sides of their eyes from their sun.
“Well, that’s the direction of the orbital axis of the galaxy,” Pete said, checking the location by eye. “There shouldn’t be as much up there as over there, for instance,” he added, pointing to the river effect of the clustered stars towards the centre of the galaxy.
“I know, but it looks more than empty space. It looks like a hole.”
“Oh, yeah! I’ve seen that from Sunset.” Lars said. “It looks different out here, though. More…” he tailed off, wondering how to describe nothingness. “Aramintha called it Heaven’s Inkwell. She said it reminded her of going to school. They used pots of black dye called ink and dipped pointed sticks in it to make writing.”
“I didn’t think Aramintha came from a backward planet.” Dolores frowned.
“She didn’t. It was after they’d been assimilated. The freedom fighters lived in caves.”
Neither Pete nor Dolores commented. It was a familiar enough story. They gazed at the Inkwell for a while, then Pete went back to the console.
“You ok living up here?” Lars asked Dolores.
“Yeah, it’s fine. I don’t know how you boys stay sane, though. It’s pretty boring.”
“We’re not working much this shift. We’re more testing out this ship, seeing if we like the set-up.”
“Lars…” Dolores broke off, frowning at the hole in space. “Is it my imagination, or..”
Lars looked up at the Inkwell. As far as he’d paid any attention to it, he’d put it down as either an empty spot in line of sight space, or a dark matter cloud. Now he wasn’t sure it was either.
“Come back with me,” he said, encouraging her with a hand on her arm. He guided her through the hatch, slipped through it and locked it behind them. “Pete…”
“Analysing!” As usual, their space sense was in tune with each other, and they slipped into a shortened form of speech.
The three stood or sat round the console, checking different instruments and screens. Dolores simply scanned the area, noting three other minercraft within manoeuvring distance, but not close. Lars raised the shields on both the primary ship and this one, then slipped out and toured the galley and living quarters before regaining his place. “Secured,” he muttered, and prepared a number of flight plans.
“It’s not a dark matter cloud, but it is a cloud of some sort, travelling at warp 2.5 and accelerating.” Pete tapped a few more screen functions.
“Warp 2.7.” It definitely was accelerating.
“What is it?”
“Composition … Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, trace elements… Structure doesn’t register on the scanner. It’s like a human without a bodyform.” Pete twisted his lip making his moustache wiggle, a habit he had when perplexed. “Shields?”
He leaned across Dolores to look at Lars’s screen. The visual showed a black screen with stars around the outer edge, stars that were rapidly being eclipsed. “Hang on,” said Lars, and the screen changed, showing red and yellow centre with blue and purple on the cloud edges and black where the stars had been. “IR… interesting.”
“Is it alive?”
“If it is, I hope it’s sentient.”
“Closing fast! It’s not that big – it’s close – hang on!”
The dark entity swerved past them and continued on its way. The miners and Dolores looked at the trail of viridian dust clouds roiling in its wake, once they’d regained their equilibrium as the ship bobbed around with its tethers twanging in the emptiness of space.
“Incoming!” Pete announced and slapped the shield type to ‘sticky’ in order to collect whatever had been ejected by the cloud in their direction. They watched as a small spherical object attached itself to the outside of the ship, held in stasis by the shield.
“Is it safe to bring in?” Dolores asked.
“Seems like a message pod,” replied Lars, frantically dashing his hands over various sensors, trying to make out what was going on.
“Shall we bring it in?” The miners exchanged long glances. Pete turned away and set the retractor arm to fetch the pod and put it in a tool airlock. Lars went to retrieve it. He came back with the silver sphere in his hand, and a wry smile on his face.
“Remember what happened the year before last?” he asked Pete.
Pete rolled his eyes. Dolores looked blank. She’d been planetside then. “Don’t ask,” Pete said to her. “Open it, then.”
Lars opened the pod. A silvery cloud came out of it, smelling of cinnamon, apple, and gingerbread. A tinkling sound seemed to play a tune in their heads, complete with words.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a happy new year.”
Lars turned the empty pod in his hands and looked at Pete, who shrugged. “Nice of him to drop by again,” Lars said.
“I suppose that’s the secret of all those simultaneous present drops,” Pete replied. “Non-corporeal super-light-speed travel. In an energy field.”
“Yeah,” said Lars, patting the console. “I’ll settle for my body, thanks.”
Dolores slipped her arms round both their waists. “Happy Christmas, guys. Do I gather you’ve met before?”
“You wouldn’t believe it.” Pete said, and stopped any more questions with a kiss under some hepactic mistletoe which Lars thoughtfully conjured up out of the system for them.
(c) Jemima Pett 2014 with some thanks to Professor Fred Hoyle