The result of my fourth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Craig Pittman, Colchek, and Gareth Harmer. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:
The Herbert drifted above the dark forest of thick green grass stalks, a fat red ocarina of metal and ceramic bristling with guns under a cloud-scudded blue sky.
But the only music this vessel played was a fusillade of death and destruction, raking the Weedlands below. One volley exploded scant yards away from Rachard, his face scarred years ago by his first encounter with one of the thousand other Skybellies in the Greater Fleet. Shrapnel tore a hole through his gray Greatest Infantry uniform sleeve, but left him unhurt as he rolled down a ridge, through a rain-swollen gulley, over a cliff.
He landed on his side on a ledge about ten feet down the chasm. Lost his grip on his gunny sack, which tumbled into the shadows below. He heard it thump, peered into the dimness, thought he saw it on another ledge some twenty feet farther down.
He’d climb back up with his rope and hook, but those were in the pack. He’d radio Copse 227 for a gyro, but the transmitter was in the pack.
So now all he could do was wait and pray for help.
“Got a gray whale incoming,” reported the sensors officer on the bridge of the Herbert.
Commander Toltec smoothed the front of his crimson Greater Fleet uniform jacket and gave a curt nod before turning his attention to the viewport. Another Skybelly, plump and gray and lethal as the Herbert, sweeping in from the northwest.
“Redirect cannons,” Toltec ordered the weapons officer.
“All of them?” First Officer Clemeni sounded indignant as she rose from her station and turned to stare at the commander.
She’d only been his second-in-command for three weeks, replacing Immons, who had died in a mortar blast from the Sacama at the Battle Over Sandfall Watch.
Toltec didn’t appreciate her penchant for insinuating his incompetence. He had shown patience the times it happened at Night’s Rise and the Bloody Knife Hills. He could brook no more, he thought, lest he risk a loss of confidence among the rest of the crew.
“Identify that Skybelly,” Toltec demanded of the sensors officer, keeping his eyes on Clemeni.
The answer didn’t surprise him in the least: “The Sacama, sir.”
“The Sacama,” Toltec repeated. He glowered at Clemeni. “Redirect ALL cannons,” he told the weapons officer. Then, to his first officer, he said: “The insects in the Weedlands are of no concern with a true threat like the Sacama looming. Question my orders again and we’ll see how well you can fly.”
But Clemeni wouldn’t let it drop. “With all due respect, Commander, the Grays on the ground should be given no quarter. The Sacama could be part of a diversion. You’re playing right into their trap.” She took a step closer to Toltec, adding, “I’m not suggesting that we focus all our weapons on the Weedlands, but perhaps devote only half our cannons to the Sacama?”
The enemy whale grew larger in the viewport as the Sacama and Herbert closed distance between each other.
“They’ll be in range in thirty seconds,” the weapons officer announced.
“I won’t have it,” Toltec seethed between clenched teeth, staring at Clemeni. He told the weapons officer: “Lock all cannons on the Sacama and fire at will while nav takes us on a Peregrine Loop. Engage!”
The Sacama had other plans, it seemed, slowly breaking away in a broad arc in an apparent effort to evade any oncoming salvos from the Herbert. Bright sunlight flashed off the gray ceramic coating the metal of the enemy vessel’s hull as she angled back to the north.
An alert klaxon wailed just before the sensors officer reported: “Missile fire from the Weedlands, south and southwest.”
Toltec’s stomach sank. “How many?”
“All of them, I think,” the sensors officer replied. “One hundred and fifty.”
The weapons officer called out: “Deploying countermeasures!”
“Oh, excellent,” the sensors officer said. “Down to one hundred and twenty.”
“Time to impact?” Toltec asked. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Clemeni now, but he could feel her eyes on him. She’d been right. Now his pride may have doomed them all.
“Eight seconds to impact.”
Rachard watched at first in awe and then in abject horror as the Herbert struggled and failed to avoid dozens of incoming missiles as they homed in on the blood-red Skybelly, burst through the hull, and shattered the craft into so much flaming junk.
Flaming junk that suddenly plunged toward the Weedlands.
“Sha-sha.” He gasped the vulgarity with the reverence of a prayer as he hunkered down, hands over his head, head between his knees, eyes closed, waiting for death to come.
Something heavy struck him, he smelled wet canvas and fuel fumes, and then darkness came.
Maybe, Alenna Clemeni thought as she awoke on her back on a rocky ledge, I could’ve handled that better.
The Weedlands on either side of the gorge blazed with the last vengeance of the dying Herbert.
Maybe she should’ve asked Commander Toltec for a private audience instead of calling him out in front of the bridge crew. Maybe she should’ve drawn her service weapon and shot him in the head, saving all the worthwhile lives.
And maybe he could’ve listened to her. Maybe he could’ve given his ego a back seat to common sense. The war, going on seven years now, held few surprises for the combatants. Numerous Skybellies before the Herbert, both the red and the gray, had fallen for the same trick.
Eventually, the Sacama‘s commander might have a bad day and meet a similar fate.
She felt a fierce pain in her left leg. Broken in the landing, no doubt. Her bag, which she’d managed to snatch in the few seconds before the Herbert blew apart, should hold a splint kit.
Her fingers crept along the surface of the ledge until they touched canvas. She found the strap and tugged the sack onto her stomach.
It was gray and bore the double boot logo of the Greatest Infantry.
“Are you gramand kidding me?!” A woman’s voice, shouting from somewhere below Rachard’s ledge.
He wasn’t dead.
And now he wasn’t alone.
And he was wearing a hat? No. Not a hat. A sack. He rolled aside, clutching the strap, and worked his way into a seated position against the cliff wall. He looked down at the red canvas sack with the winged logo of the Greater Fleet.
Rachard leaned over the edge to look down at his companion in peril. He shouted: “Got your bag! Seems you’ve got mine, eh? Neat trick. Tell me there’s not a God, now, bloody red heathen!”
“If she exists,” the woman below snapped back, “she’s an ironclad bitch to do this!”
He tried to ignore the obvious blasphemy, instead venturing: “Well, he does not suffer from a lack of irony, to be sure.”
She opened the gray sack and dumped the contents on the rough stone of the ledge. Some ration packets, a canteen, a coil of rope and a hook, a transmitter encrypted for the infantryman’s biometrics, and seven gold-foil framed holy icons.
“Maybe I can pray to the magic sky ghost to fly me out of this hole,” she mused bitterly.
Rachard rummaged through the Greater woman’s bag, carefully setting each item next to him as he proceeded: a canteen, a splint kit, a handful of ration packs, a transmitter attuned to the fleeter’s biometrics, and six bottles of painkiller pills – perhaps intended for an unholy suicide ritual mandated by the heathen commanders to avoid capture.
“Who doesn’t pack rope?” the soldier groused.
“Throw my radio up,” the man on the higher ledge urged Clemeni. “Cushion it with ration packs, tie the rope to it, and throw. Easy, right?”
Right, she thought. Give up my food and the rope. Give him a means of reaching the enemy commanders so they could rescue him and either kill or imprison her.
“Drop my radio to me,” she countered. “Much less trouble.”
Given the glorious promise of Heaven or imminent threat of burning Hell, Rachard would never surrender that radio into the hands of an enemy who would see his people exterminated.
Just a few minutes ago, after all, she’d been aboard the notorious Greater Skybelly Herbert, gazing down at the Weedlands in atheistic condescension, blithely scorching the world with cannon fire.
“Stalemate, I suppose,” he said, with a weary sigh.
Clemeni grunted at the zealot’s foolishness, the sort of blind, stubborn devotion that justified their subjugation.
It always baffled her that people like him could put all their faith in a mystical, unknowable sky ghost, while proving so reluctant to bow under the undeniably real blistering onslaught of the Greater Fleet. She didn’t begrudge the soldier’s beliefs, really. She just hated the haughty insistence that it somehow made his people better than hers and gave him some grander destiny.
She knew better. Her father once told her a truth that she carried with her to this day. He’d beaten Clemeni’s mother for the last time after Mom accidentally burned the Givna warbler. The lawkeepers had arrested him once, but it hadn’t been enough. So she, at age thirteen, had gutted him with a meat fork.
As he lay dying, he muttered: “Little by little…we all become monsters.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked the man on the ledge above. “Pray your way out of this?”
Rachard felt sorry for the woman. And that reaction surprised him. The godly commanders of the Greatest Army had taught the troops to fear and despise the faceless heathens arrayed against them by the Prince of Darkness. He should quietly condemn her to the waiting Abyss and turn his thoughts inward to contemplation and meditation.
But now, even in a situation where they must depend on each other for a chance at survival, she belittled his faith in an obvious attempt to make her feel better about the grim situation.
“You’re not helping,” he said. “But, to your point, at the very least, prayer would not *hurt*. My name’s Rachard Limn, by the way.”
“Oh, I don’t give a gramand’s shit who you are,” the Fleeter snarled. “I just want to get the muck out of this chasm and back to my people.”
At that moment, a pair of gyrocopters whirred into view from the north and south over the conflagration caused by the Herbert‘s demise. One of the spindly vessels bore the gray colors of the Greatest military, while the other was a soot-smeared red of the Greaters.
“I suppose God answers prayers of all kinds,” Rachard muttered.