THERE WILL BE TROUBLE
by T. E. Sanders
I knew it was a terrible idea even before I said it. But now it was out. One of the moons of this forsaken planet had risen, so I could see Stony’s face in the light. But no, true to his namesake, his face was as stony as ever.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
Why would anyone think this was a good idea, especially Stony? It took what felt like a full minute before he opened his mouth to speak.
An arrow appeared at his throat where the suit seal ringed his neck, blood pumping from around the wound. I jumped back behind the nearby rock wall of the ruins we had been using as a base camp. I noticed blood and checked myself. It was mine from an earlier cut on my arm that had reopened when I landed. It was only a trickle. Strange to feel relief and desperation at the same time.
I looked over to Stony. He was on his back, still moving, but exposed to the entrance. I watched as the hand he had around his neck slid down to his side. He went still.
He didn’t move, and neither did his chest. Damn, he wasn’t breathing, but there wasn’t as much blood as expected. Asphyxiation? I peeked around the edge of the wall and could see at least three hostiles. We thought it was only the two of us left from the seven aboard the Schrodinger, but it appeared we had company after all. These newcomers didn’t show on our initial scans, but then, who knew what kind of life signs these creatures would transmit?
I looked around our camp area—or I guess I should say, my camp area unless I got to Stony soon. The space was a sparse and dusty ruin of rough-hewn stone walls and floor. The lack of ceiling let in the bright purple moonlight. Surveying the area revealed little, just our cracked and useless helmets lying together to one side of the rock floor. On the other side were our backpacks. There was nothing but rations in those, and though they were indeed bad, they only seemed bad enough to kill someone. The only other thing I spotted was a pile of baseball-sized rocks next to me, so I grabbed one and threw it at the nearest head I could see bobbling above a boulder. I heard a crack and a yelp as I jumped out, grabbed Stony, and pulled him back behind the safety of the stone wall.
Just as I had feared, Stony was gone. Blood oozed from around his wound, the pumping action ceased. So much for my idea. It required two people… two people whose blood still pumped. The blood from my arm had trickled down my fingers and joined the blood pooling on the ground next to Stony’s neck. There must have been just enough because it formed a thin gravity-defying stream flowing through the air toward a man-sized dark swirling hole hovering at the back of the ruins.
I dragged Stony closer to that silent black hole we had found hovering there upon arrival. It was partially exposed to the entrance, so I couldn’t get right in front of it without becoming a target. It didn’t matter; there wasn’t currently enough blood. I closed Stony’s eyes with my fingers, bowed my head, and put my hand on his chest.
An arrow hit the dirt next to my feet, interrupting my reverie and sending me jumping back closer to the wall and away from the portal. That was Stony’s word for it. I called it a black vortex. He insisted I was being too verbose, but whatever, it was just me now, so viva la black vortex, and this black vortex was unlike anything I had ever seen. We had thrown rocks into it, but despite the vortex’s solid appearance, they just went through and landed on the rocky floor of the ruins. It was by accident that we even figured out the key.
I could hear voices outside the entrance now, gruff but unintelligible. The language wasn’t one I had ever heard, but then, we, or er… I was on some uncharted planet in some uncharted backwater system. Poor Stony, or maybe lucky Stony, depending on how you looked at it. It was all down to me, and I needed to get the hell out of this place.
“Hey, you out there. What are you afraid of? I’m right here!”
I heard a reply, but it sounded more like someone dropping gravel into a toilet and less like speech. Ever the type to run headlong into crazy ideas, I jumped out and landed in the middle of the entrance, exposing myself to the hostiles. A moment passed, and nothing happened, so I stuck out my tongue and jumped back to the side again. An arrow landed where I had been, but it was delayed. I had taken them by surprise. Good. They could be manipulated. I jumped out and back again and again an arrow landed where I had been. I did that over and over, each time moving deeper into the ruins, forcing them to shoot higher. I hugged the wall out of sight and moved back closer to the entrance, then after a brief pause, I jumped out. As expected, the shot came too high and almost grazed the top of my head. I exaggerated a fall, flying backward off my feet and landing on the dusty rock floor. That did hurt a bit, so my yelp was real, but the arrow never touched me.
I could hear their gravel-like chatter, but no more arrows came. After a moment, I saw movement through the slits of my partially closed eyes. As I had hoped, they sent one out to check if the shot was true. I almost missed my opportunity as the creature leaned down over me. He, she, it? Though humanoid, its face was so unrecognizable to anything I had ever seen, I hesitated while taking in the eyes, of which there were many… and that skin! It was a mottled gray and covered with thin, stringy-fine hair, like a child-sized two-legged naked mole rat, except for that wide head—it had thick, matted hair all the way around. That was all the hesitation I could afford; I had to make my move.
I grabbed the creature around its neck and pulled down into a bear hug. It took a moment before it reacted, but react it did. Though the creature was half my size, it was like trying to hold a struggling wild animal. I had to grab it by the long matted hair on its head with both hands to hold its large, unnaturally white teeth from my face. I attempted to roll over to the safe side, but the struggling sent us rolling back to our starting position with the creature still on top, jaws snapping. And then came the arrows. They rained down all around us. Did they not care about their fellow warrior? Or whatever he was? One did hit the creature in the back, but it bounced off. Come to think of it, this creature’s skin felt alligator thick despite the scraggly appearance. That was going to make what I had to do next much harder.
Again, I attempted to roll away. This time it worked. We rolled to the safe side away from the entrance and came to a stop, the creature once again on top. This was where Stony and I had piled those baseball-sized vortex-testing rocks. I had to let go of the creature’s hair to grab one, leaving me holding it with only one hand. As soon as I let go, it lunged for my face, forcing me to grab and pull its head back again, jaws snapping shut inches from my face with the sound of bone hitting bone. Holding the creature required both hands, but dammit, I needed one of my hands, so I brought my head up and smashed my forehead into the area where a nose would usually be. In this case, it was one of its many eyes. Now, one hand free, I grabbed a rock and brought it down on top of the creature’s head while mentally apologizing, even though it was actively trying to kill me. It slumped, and I pushed myself over, grabbed the creature’s dropped bow and spilled arrows, and shot awkwardly through the entrance just in case there were any heroes heading my way. There weren’t. Maybe they hadn’t realized what had happened yet. They did seem a bit slow, and that just made me feel even more guilty for what I was about to do.
I put my finger on the creature’s neck, hoping it had a heart and that I would find a heartbeat. I didn’t, but the creature snorted. Good enough—it was still alive. The knife Stony used to spruce up our rations and cut rope was still on his belt. I dragged the creature close to Stony and grabbed the knife. I hesitated for a moment and wondered about the creature’s physiology, how different it might be. I took a deep breath and shook my head, knowing time was running out—it was all or nothing now. I ran the blade across the creature’s throat and found it was much easier than I had expected. Once I saw it did indeed bleed as red as anyone, I dragged the creature even closer to the black vortex and watched as the blood pumped from its neck in a flowing stream through the air and into the blackness of the void.
A glow in the center of the void sparked to life like a distant flame. We had seen that spark earlier when blood from the cut on my arm streamed into it, but that accident only tipped us off to how the vortex worked. Stony suggested my superficial cut wasn’t enough to get the thing going.
The more the creature pumped its lifeblood into the void, the brighter the glow became until, all at once, the black vortex exploded into bright, white light, washing away all the long, purple moon shadows scattered around the ruins.
“Yes! Stony, you beautiful bastard, you were right!”
Shielding my eyes, I squinted into the light and thought I could see a green field of grass and flowers and… what was that? People standing around in a circle? It was too bright to tell, but there was something, and possibly someone, inside.
An arrow whizzed by my head and disappeared into the light. I was sure I saw someone on the other side lean down as if to pick something up. Then I heard the gravel-down-the-toilet voices behind me getting closer. This was it. I had only a moment to thank the creature for its sacrifice and to remember the old classic song we blasted as we were getting ready to leave on this mission. The first verse had the question, Should I stay or should I go now? I agreed with the part of the song that came later. It went something like, if I stayed, there would be trouble, but I wasn’t so sure that if I went, it would be double.
I was about to find out.
I jumped through the opening and into the brightest light I had ever seen.