This post first appeared on Patreon for patron viewing only on 22 January 2016. It will be set to public viewing there, shortly after this post is live here.
‘skipper is my latest short story single ebook. It weighs in at 5000 words — the first third, roughly, is previewed below for your reading pleasure. I’m asking 99 cents, but if you’re one of my Patreon patrons, who support me with a monthly contribution to the Poor Starving Writers With Families Named S.A. Barton Fund, you can download it in PDF for free. Here’s the link to the post on Patreon with the PDF link (viewable by Patrons), and here’s one to the part of my Patreon page where I explain why I think it’s worth your while (viewable by anyone who clicks the link).
The ebook can be gotten at Smashwords, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Google Play Books, and possibly other places as well — drop me a line if you see it elsewhere (“Talk to Me”, at the head of this site) because the way ebook distribution works, you never know exactly where it might turn up.
And finally, before I post the preview of the story, a few words. The idea for ‘skipper comes from a conversation I had with one of my Twitter friends, @Gurdur (who also keeps a blog on a wide range of topics — go check it out). Avoiding spoilers, it involved sea life, stone axes, mating rituals, and distinguishing instinct from sapient volition. I was happy to provide him the manuscript on paper, months before anyone else had occasion to see the story. At this writing, he still is the only person to have a print copy, and he will probably remain so until the possible future time I include it in a paperback collection.
And now, the preview:
When you fire an escape pod at a hundred meters altitude, there are three basic options. One is you go in an upward trajectory. Pods are designed for use in space, generally in close proximity to a larger vessel that may imminently explode. So they accelerate hard. Planetside, assuming one standard gee, even a cheap escape pod with short boosters (which was what we had) will kick you up at least a couple thousand meters. That allows enough freefall time for the emergency parachute to open, saving your lives. And freefall time is your only option; while a pod does have a drive aside from the booster, it’s just a basic ion drive that tops out around a thirtieth of a gee. Useless planetside.
Options two and three are not as good. Two, you go sideways and crash before the chute can slow you enough for a soft landing, or worse, the pod skips like a stone across the surface of the planet. Maybe the chute stops you before the pod comes apart like a snifter thrown into a stone fireplace. Maybe it doesn’t. Odds for survival are low. Option three, the thruster burn fires you straight down into the ground and you make an impressive crater, out of which the natives (if there are any, and there were where we were landing) might pick shiny bits of metal and carbonized beads that used to be bone fragments.
In our disastrous atmospheric entry, we were spinning on our long axis, like a bullet fired from a rifle—which of the three options we got would be up to chance. That the escape pod fired at only a hundred meters altitude tells you we didn’t have time to halt the spin. We had to jump in and take our chances.
The four of us got lucky. Except for Buddy, owner and captain of our doomed surveyor ship Nosy Bastard which was now an expanding cloud of fragments in orbit. When we landed—hard—the tail came down on the shoulder of a boulder. The pod flipped and landed nose-first, and his restraint popped open; there hadn’t been time to double-check latches, just to pull the bar down and hope. He fell across the cabin into the equipment locker and broke his legs. Then the pod tilted on its rounded nose, slowly, slowly, then a sudden drop and thud on its side, dumping a yowling Buddy into the wall—now floor—and breaking his elbow.
“Uh-oh,” I said into the sudden shocked silence, mild words covering a renewed internal panic. I was the ship’s medic, because I had taken a six-hour first aid course while Buddy was filing our flight plans with the Exploratory Commission. I knew the state of the ship’s medical supplies—a small plastic box bought at a discount warehouse, good for small cuts, bumps on the head, stomach upsets, allergic reactions. Not so much for broken bones.
The plan had been to buy a proper medicbot after the EC paid us for our findings from this mission.
“Get me a real doctor, dammit,” Buddy said for the third time, after gasping in pain when I tied off the sling his arm was in. I had already splinted his legs with poles from one of the two dome shelters in the survival supplies. Maybe we could improvise new poles from native plants; we’d seen plenty of yellow from orbit; the local star was a red dwarf with a similar, distant binary companion. The redder native light seemed to have produced a chlorophyll-analog that reflected farther down the spectrum than on good old Earth.
“Buddy,” Dan said, exasperated; his twin sister Danielle shushed him before he could say more.
“N.T. is doing her best, Buddy,” Danielle said. “She’s a Xenoculturist, not a doctor.”
“I know,” Buddy said, and sucked air through clenched teeth. His face was ashy with shock; silver pain-sweat glittered in the dark nap of his hairline. “This hurts like hell.”
“We don’t have real painkillers, just migraine tabs,” I said. “The only other thing I can do is add a sleeping pill.”
“Give me three,” Buddy said. “Knock me—gah!—out.” We compromised on two, because I had the pill bottle and he couldn’t reach it. They knocked him out.
The survival supplies contained, among other things, a pistol. It was simple, made for durability: a revolver firing chemical-explosive propelled slugs, a device invented so long ago that people still traveled by horseback when they were first used.
“Funny,” I said, while Danielle strapped on the holster. “We travel from star to star by wormhole, build cities that span continents, are supported by robots that do all the physical labor. And yet here we are, ready to defend ourselves from native predators with a piece of technology that’s barely a step up from a crossbow. I just splinted broken bones with sticks. So many things boil down to simple, crude solutions, no matter how advanced we think we are.”
“Well, Danielle and I are going to advance up that hill to the north and see if we can see a source of fresh water,” Dan said. “The dry rations might last a month, but the condenser is only built to provide for two people. Why didn’t we get two of them?”
“Same reason we don’t have a medicbot,” I said. “Money.”
“Another crude, prehistoric technology we don’t have a better option for,” Danielle said. They started walking. I sat beside Buddy as he slept, watching him breathe. Two sleeping pills wouldn’t endanger him, I thought, but I couldn’t stop watching, just in case. I let my ears do the ‘watching’ for native threats; all I heard was a soft insectlike song, a bit like crickets but more musical, striking chords rather than notes. It wasn’t close, it was distant; I thought it came from the south.
If our crash site was where I thought it was, remembering the last images from our survey before the Nosy Bastard had encountered the wandering bit of space junk that had junked her, there was some sort of native village in that direction, built in a long strip along a salty seashore. We’d seen buildings of a sort, a conglomeration of stone walls crowded together, hivelike but irregular, hexagons as constructed by drunken bees. They were large enough for humans, oddly roofless, busy with moving shapes that might have been humanoid. In the bay’s tidal waters—two moons, one large, one small, swept around the planet like the hour and minute hands of a clock—a less drunken, nearly perfect tesselation of triangles traced the beachline from within the shallows. Fish traps? We wondered briefly, seeing swirling shadows there, and then had come the shuddering boom, the red alarm lights, the air rushing out cold, the hurry to survive, into the escape pod and down.
Danielle’s shouts woke me; I hadn’t realized I was sleeping. I jerked to my feet in a convulsion of panic, lurching, and fell over.
“What the…” I said, and my words trailed off. Danielle was running down the hill to the north, still shouting my name. Her stride was lurching, a marathon runner in the desperate last leg of the race, exhausted.
Dan wasn’t with her. I ran out to meet her, Buddy forgotten for the moment.
“They. Took. Dan,” she said, chest heaving between words, hunched over, hands on knees. She coughed, spat, then convulsively straightened and sucked in an enormous breath. “We were in a big stand of bamboo-things along a little stream, and I was kneeling down testing the water. I heard a rustle and when I stood up, they were already dragging him off. They’re big, and they’re fast. I never got off a shot. Couldn’t tell which one had him. They headed…”
“South,” I said. “Remember? The shore of the bay, the roofless village? We must have crashed very close to it.”
“Yes, south. We have to go after him,” Danielle said. “Wake Buddy.”
“We can’t carry him along for something like this!”
“But we can leave him locked safe inside the pod. It still has power, and the distress beacon will be broadcasting. We make sure he can reach the food and meds. Turn on external ventilation so humid air can feed the drinking water condenser.”
“And if we… don’t come back?”
“An hour after it receives the distress beacon signal, the message drone we left at the Craze point will retrace our path through the wormholes we followed to come here. Forty days until it reaches civilization.”
“Eighty or ninety days to rescue,” I said, nodding. “The rations ought to hold out that long for one person if it comes to that.”
“And if not, his bones should knit enough to forage before then.”
“If the natives kill us, he’d better not.”
“We need to warn him before we go, then.”
So we dragged him inside, woke him, and told him. We had to keep waking him over and over; the sleeping meds hadn’t worn off. I hoped he remembered what we were saying; I wished we could wait until he was less groggy. But for all we knew, those native things were already marinating Dan for lunch.
We left Buddy sleeping and locked in, and hurried south…
There are 3500 more words where that came from. If you want to read them, head back up to the top of this post and get to clicking links! :)