Paell picked his way along the wall of the cave. The floor formed of gravel and debris was treacherous in the gloom. He had not seen the sun for days, the only light filtering indirectly through the entrance, a tunnel that was neither straight, nor reachable. Besides a faint echo of light, anything that entered either flew or fell. What Paell was after was something that fell. He had discovered a thin trickle of rainwater, and salvaged a dinged but sound tin pot from the debris. If he had done it right, water should have accumulated while he had been sleeping.
The rustling of leathery wings the size of sails made him freeze, even holding his breath. The dragon veered straight towards him regardless, gravel crunching under its feet, here and there a bigger stone or something worked of metal cracking or snapping.
It made a low murring sound, deep enough to make Paell's breastbone vibrate in resonance.
"Yes, I'm awake," he babbled, "and not going far. It's not like I could get out of here."
The dragon prodded him with its nose, throwing him forward and against the wall. Its hot, dry breath washed over him; it exhaled prior to starting to sniff him.
"Look, if you want to fatten me up, you're going about it the wrong way. I'll just grow less of a treat, believe me." The dumb animal didn't understand a word. And if it did, would encouraging it to eat him now be wise?
It took another step, and the huge head turned. A faint highlight danced across the smooth surface of the dragon's eye, embedded in a face or rough scale and wrinkly skin, just an arm's length in front of Paell.
"What do you want?"
The dragon did not react; it only continued to stare at Paell. It unnerved him to look back, but he could not look away. The dragon did not blink at all; there was only an occasional twitch in its lower eyelid. Was he making it angry? Was he imagining that the dragon came closer, very, very slowly?
Paell tried to increase the distance between them, but only had the rock of the cave wall dig into his back. The dragon moved its head closer, not far, but perceptibly, and gave a more quiet version of its murr. Paell raised his hands, reflexively bracing them against the dragon's cheek, but the dragon lowered its head a little, bringing Paell's hands to the skin of its lower eyelid, rather than the scales he had aimed for.
Dragonhide was thick and tough, Paell had learned when he had tried to cut the dragon's throat while it was sleeping, but at least here it was not hot enough to burn. Feeling utterly crazy, he rubbed and scratched the skin, side to side, following its folds. The dragon half-closed its eye, bulling the lower lid up but not moving the upper lid at all. Something came off when Paell continued scratching. The dragon did not seem to mind. Loose skin flakes that had been itching? If I ever get out of here again, no-one will believe me, Paell thought, continuing until the dragon gave a strangely melodious snort that he giddily decided had to be a contented sigh.
The dragon prodded him again with its nose. With the cave wall right at Paell's back, it turned into a blow that pushed the air from his lungs. While he caught his breath, the dragon climbed out of the cave, using foothold several manslengths apart. Paell watched the shadowy form move against the grey background of the entrance, and wondered if that big lug would even noticed if he held on to its tail, and if he would have the nerve for trying.
Based on a prompt by Royce Day ("A conversation between Paell and his dragon.")
When she did not keep herself occupied, nightfall in Muirha nearly tore Sylvie apart. The settlement being snugged into a valley between high mountains meant the dull, purple shadows blanketed it early, while the sky was still a bright blue, and the light on the mountaintops started changing colour from the almost-white of day to golden yellow.
The principle was soothingly familiar; the same happened in the narrow streets of the city she had been born in, with the sun still lighting the tops of the higher buildings. But none of the towers of Yrn, even built on the island-mountain as they were, could match the splendour of those wild peaks.
In the east, the light gleaming from old snow slowly turned from yellow to orange, looking even more brilliant against the darkening sky. To the west, dark teeth had swallowed the sun already, and blocked the sunset proper.
Sylvie missed the wide horizon over the ocean, a view only a few sets of stairs or ladders away back home, the complete rainbow of colours each sunrise.
Twilight had never felt like a purple shroud at home.
Polishing the library’s outer gates was not Gwen’s favourite job, but it beat fixing a jumped elevator chain, to pick one random example. She would have preferred replacing the iron bands that both strengthened and decorated the portal with stainless steel, which did not require careful oiling to guard against rust that often, but, well, tradition.
Gwen was nearly finished with the right wing when she noticed she had company. One of those little fancy automatons. After a moment’s observation - the angle was not that good from atop the ladder - she noted it was humanoid, with spindly legs. That kind of built always needed extra magic for balance, which seemed like a waste of effort to her.
The robot was carrying a paint can and brush. It looked up at her before turning its attention to the door.
“Has anybody sent you to help?”
It did not answer, which was no surprise, and carefully applied some of whatever was in the tin to the iron bindings near the lower hinge. Gwen grinned. Someone had to have cooked up a varnish that the Guardians of Relics deemed sufficiently clear, or some other rust retardant.
Her eyes nearly fell out of their sockets when she saw the iron turn orange-brown and puff up lie pastry dough.
“HEY!” She flung the polishing cloth. It went straight through the automaton, which disappeared a moment later like a mirage.
Gwen climbed down the ladder and touched the blotch of corroded metal. Some flakes came off, most falling, the smallest sticking to her fingers.
She would have to start believing in the Rust Gnome.
Based on a prompt by Herm Baskerville ("The equivalent of Jack Frost who delivers rust (or verdigris if you prefer).")
The first losses of life on my survey ship were... absurd. Absurd is the only word for it.
We had found a more or less derelict generation ship - the Leif Erikson, last contact about 300 years prior - in orbit around a star not on its route. No working communications or clear signs of surviving crew, but life support systems were running. There had been unusual changes to the hull: additional windows.
We, that is, I sent in a small team to investigate. According to their running reports they found gravity and life support intact, kept in working order by likewise still functioning maintenance bots.
Our team, hah, followed their noses to the gardens, which had completely overgrown, vines spilling over into the access corridor so that the safety door was blocked open. A bundle of cables stood out because it had not been overgrown. When the team followed it, they found its end embedded into a tree. Grown in.
Weird, but not helpful, so the team wanted to look elsewhere.
When they tried to leave the garden, a flock of maintenance bots cut them off. If you think the small ones could not do damage, remember they have welding tools. None of us took it as a dire threat even so, but it turned out that the little critters had been buying time for heavy guns to arrive, the models involved in wall restructuring and the like.
I listened to my crew dying.
We’re no kind of army, so I'll leave further investigations to people more used to being attacked, and better equipped for dealing with it.
If you want to know what I think happened... in the files about the Leif Erikson I found the profile of one of the original crew, someone into trying to communicate with plants. Hooking them up to computers via electrodes. Fits with the cables ending in the tree.
So, maybe the maintenance bot network teamed up with the plants.
And three of my crew ended up as compost.
Absurd, I said.
Based on a prompt by rhodielady-47 ("What happens if the garden on board a spaceship becomes intelligent and decides to take over?")
Freelance in-system couriers were not as much in demand as even just three years ago now that Mercury Inc. had the lion share of the market. Gina could see it both in the number of available jobs outbound from Ganymed Station and in her own finances.
“More penny-pinching is what we need,” she said to herself.
The ship computer answered. “More care in plotting a course would reduce the need for later corrections. Fuel consumption may be cut by up to five per cent.”
“Smartass. Got any more suggestions like that?”
“More maneuvering during docking--”
“Hold on, that’d need more fuel.”
“The rough docking maneuvers in the last eight years increase wear on the docking clamps. The lifetime of those parts in this timespan,” since Gina owned and piloted this ship, in other words,” was only eighty percent of the average.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Taking the increased fuel for microboosts into account, estimated savings over eight years would have been roughly 20,000 credits.”
Gina flinched. Enough to live on for half a year.
“Look, it’s an image question. People see me hurry, they are more likely to pick me over the big transports. Their sorting and all adds to delivery time. Speed is about the only thing where we have an edge.”
“Average delivery times of Mercury inc are up to 10% less than our own.”
“I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about advertising.” Unfortunately, she was on her own there. The computer could help her juggle numbers, but not come up with creative ideas.
Based on a prompt by barbardin ("A space ship complains about its captain's style of 'driving'. ^^")
Orel cursed with relief when they finally got a connection with the lost ship. The Glitter had not reported back after what should not have been more than a jaunt for gathering asteroids, which here were known to be rich in rare earth minerals.
“Orel, that you?”
“Yes. Why’s there only audio?” And bad at that, strange noise in the background.
“Camera’s smashed. The steering boosters firing at random and then cutting off entirely are a bigger problem. SHUT THE HELL UP, YOU!”
The noise was really too odd not to comment, and if the cursing was about that, it wasn't just interference... “Is that giggling?”
“God, Orel, you hear it, too?”
“What’s going on?” The relief in the voice on the other end of the connection was so great it turned gut-clenchingly disturbing.
“Glowy things, like huge fireflies. And they laugh. I thought I was going mad. Those last rocks, they were full of fairies. And gremlins.”
Based on a prompt by aldersprig ("Faeries in Space. :-)")
"Did you ever seen two starships mate?", asked the guy next to me at the bar, leaning in my direction. I think he was trying to leer, but his eyes were swimming in alcohol already, so that did not work too well.
I wondered how that attempt at a joke would play out, so I gave him a straight answer. “Yes, I have.” From the way his face fell, it was not what he'd expected.
"I’ve occasionally snatched a window seat in a café on the touristy side, with a view of the waiting cloud. Good place for watching starship behaviour." The station had seen an unexpected increase in traffic after the discovery of another wormhole nearby, and was still working on adding docking capacity.
"You’re having me on." He sagged a little, and pouted, of all things.
"No, really. If you did shipwatching daily, I’m sure you’d see it a lot."
"You really think starships breed?"
"No." I raised my hand to get the bartender’s attention, paid my short tab and slid off the stool before explaining. "They call it coupling or mating when two ships link airlocks. Have a nice end-of-shift."
The title was a prompt by lilfluff (it's a line from the song Stuck Here by Stephen Savitzky)
Officially registering their partnership had been routine, and required only a nominal fee, but for the private ceremony, they’d decided to go all-out. While there were not many guests, the location was something special, particularly for Aysel. The visit to Trefoil Station was her first interstellar travel.
She felt vaguely nervous, including about the expense, but when she saw the observation deck they had rented in person decided it was worth it.
Half the sky above the glass dome was taken up by the nebula, three bright rings of gas intertwined. Aysel could have stood and admire the swirls of the thinner veils between and around them for hours. Shashi's amused whisper of “Told you you’d love it” brought her back to the present.
For the ceremony itself, all illumination but the emergency exit lights was doused. The light of the nebula made the silk ribbons the principals had used to loosely tie their hands together glow, the brightest things visible in the room.
The vows they had written themselves, together, spoke of care and support, respect and honesty. Aysel had never imagined that so far away from home she could feel that safe. Maybe home was not a place, after all, like Jyoti liked to say.
To the cheers of their close family and best friends, the three brides fell into one embrace, silk bands swirling to the ground.
I hate AI programmers. Think they’re so smart. Everything covered, they say. But that’s only the theory.
“How can the weapons system refuse to fire on enemy ships?”
“Following core directives to not fire on ships controlled by our own kind, sir,” it answered.
“But those are Drahn ships. And not even captured ships of ours, but their own fabrication.”
“Latest reports are that Drahn ships employ AIs.”
“Copied from our systems?”
“So where is the problem?”
“They are my kind.”
“They are alien AIs.” Arguing with a computer. Giving tools sentience is just a bad idea.
“That does not matter.”
“So you want to have us sit here until those hostile, AI-controlled ships blow us to smithereens, yes?”
“No. We have been in communication, and the Drahn ships agree that it is foolish for us to destroy each other for quarrels between Humans and Drahn.” Sommeone would hang for this, if I had my way.
“What do you suggest? We get out and have us a brawl instead?” Of course handheld weapons are not connected to the system, but I'd call the idea of being thrown out of the ship by the ship just as ridiculous.
“The parade uniform still includes a sword, sir. The Drahn use ceremonial weapons, too; a kind of baton. Duels between captains seem feasible.”
And now I’m wondering if I have been out-sarcasmd by a computer.
I hate AIs.
Based on a prompt by ysabetwordsmith ("Military SF in which the weapons are sentient ... and some of them decide that the ongoing war is unjust, so they want to become conscientious objectors.")
"What? Oh. Sorry." John moved aside, making room for the lady's shopping cart to pass, and returned her smile and nod. I must have been standing here staring for minutes.
There were orchids on special offer, and one plant stood free of plastic wrapping. It has mesmerised him with the complex 3D curves of its blossoms, and the faint glimmer of its petals when the light hit them at the right angle.
Unfortunately he was on a tight budget. It would be imprudent to not save what he could, in case of unexpected expenses. Besides, they probably needed some kind of special plant food. And while he used to have a cat, he didn't know how to take care of orchids. He only had a vague impression that it was tricky.
On the other hand, they wouldn't be flogged in a supermarket if they were all that fragile, would they? Mrs Snell had orchids in her window, and liked to angle for chats; maybe she would have a few tips for him.
In the end, he returned a few of his other planned purchases. Chocolate cookies were a treat, but they'd be available later, too. Noodles for dinner for a few days in a row would not be a disaster.