Shelter

Authors: AmyJ, Toadie, & Karl W.
Rating: PG-13
Archiving: This story is not available for archiving at any other sites  ©2002
Challenge: The first section of this story is the same for all three authors. The purpose of this exercise was for each author to devise their own ending. You can see the ending each of the three authors wrote by clicking on the links below.

“Look! Don’t turn away!” 

Rahban paced in front of their assembly. This face was maroon with anger. His jaw thrust forward as he snarled.  

The front low was Mirna’s squad, now missing a member, like a mouth missing a tooth. 

Mirna stood at attention, small chest heaving. Her blood pounded in her temples. She could taste its copper on her tongue. There was a ragged hole in her lip. Her small body ached in an off key chorus of bruises and scrapes from the combat drill. Certainly her heart would explode soon and she would be on the deck, along side the body of Cadet Aidan. 

But she dared not move, dared not avert her eyes from the small still body on the floor. Microts before he was one of them, moving and alive. Aiden was the agri-recruit, rotund with ruddy cheeks and hair that was Tech-stock yellow. The one that told fantastic stories in hushed whispers to the other cadets at Downtime. Now he was … 

“Dead!” Rahban snarled. Full of disappointment and anger, his meaty voice echoed through the hangar and makeshift training field. “Cadet Aiden is dead. You are not! Remember this! This can be you! This will be you!” 

One of the others began to cry. It was not a natural sound. It was a muffled mewl, harbored deep in the throat. She had done it herself, but not for cycles now. Only babies cried… babies that missed their mothers and were raised soft on a planetside merc-colony. They were conscripts and inductees. They were not bred Peacekeepers like Mirna. 

There was a flourish of pride that always came with that thought. But now she felt nothing. Inside was as blank as the stare on Aiden’s dead gaze. 

The driller continued, “Never forget. Never show weakness. What is Decca?” 

They erupted in the recitation: “Decca twenty. Lurge eight. Death through weakness. Glory through strength!“ 

“Did Cadet Aiden obey Decca?” 

“Sir, no, sir!” 

“And that is why Cadet Aiden is dead!”  

She inhaled sharply, waking. The grip of the memory was hard to leave.  

Forget where I am. Not good. Lost too much blood. 

Then on top of that. Him! 

Mirna thrust her shoulders back, sitting up against the wall. Her head whipped around, seeking his shape in the semi dark. Before the sun outside sank below the horizon, there had been enough light. Now the room was a milky flickering blur. The only illumination was cast by the fires in the ruins outside.  

She squinted, shifting forward despite the pain in her ruined leg. The shattered bone in her thigh ground together, sending a spectacle of pain along her spine. She swallowed the groan. 

“Relax,” his voice carried to her in a whisper. “I’m right here, G.I. Jane.” 

She frowned. Obviously he was mocking her. But the term meant nothing. Another reason to not trust him despite his entreaty to lend aid. Her hands splayed out against the dirt. Panic threatened until she seized upon the cold hard lines of the pulse gun. Its dread weight was a comfort. 

Good. He hadn’t moved. How long was I out? There was a cool dread that came with that. She shook her head, shrugging it away. 

“Look. I’m not your enemy.” There was a shift in the shadows. The crunch of gravel. She leveled the pulse gun’s aim at the thick blackness where his chest should be. 

“Stop where you are.” She hissed. “I will fire.” 

The sounds of movement stopped. He was loud and lacked stealth. This was no deserter. Even a marginally trained tech would have taken the advantage of her injury, relieved her of the weapon.  

“OK. I get it. But you’ve got to stop pointing the pulse gun at me. Believe me I’m not what you should be worried about. It’s getting out of this… tomb.” 

“Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not a threat to me.” Mirna spat. “I told you. Retrieval is on the way. I’ve already called for it.” 

“Don’t hold your breath.” 

“What does that mean?” She scowled at the darkness. 

“I mean. Before fate so humorlessly decided to make us hidey-hole partners, the Scarrans disrupted comms. Your message didn’t get out. This place is cut off.” 

Her eyes narrowed. She shifted once more. There was no such thing as even marginal comfort. “You’re lying.” 

“I am not lying.” An adamant grinding of gravel brought him a few steps closer. She raised the pulse gun. He paused. “Hell… Stephen King couldn’t cook anything up better than this. Try your comms and find out for yourself.” 

“I don’t know who that is. But they will come… they have to.” Her voice trailed off into a tremulous cough. She grimaced at the weakness in it. They had to. But still she knew he spoke the truth. If there were one thing she knew, it was that Scarran attacks were predictable in their staging. The first target to be taken out would be planet wide communications. 

Within microts of their arrival, the Scarrans had triggered massive explosions, intended to destroy the infrastructure and keep the occupants from fleeing into the outlying ports. But in this instance it worked too well. Around them rested the remains of one of the largest structures of the government complex. 

He moved again. His sounds brought him further away. For once she could see him clearly in the light that trickled down from the hole in the ceiling of the chamber. His dark hair was coated with the same thick dust that drifted in the air. He was clad in a black duster and the mismatched pieces of various uniforms.  

He craned his neck up, trying to peer into the space above in the low ceiling. It was far too small to squeeze through. 

“What are you doing?” She asked. 

“Looking for a way out.” 

“It’s useless. You should conserve your energy.” 

“For what? The dance contest?” He said sarcastically. 

“Fine.” She huffed, lowering the pulse gun to her lap. There was no energy left to argue. She felt the grayness invade her vision. Mirna ran her free hand over her face, trying to drive it away. A resonant buzz had begun to invade her hearing. She shut her eyes. 

Only distantly did she realize that the sounds of his search had stopped. His voice was suddenly closer. 

“Hey… you ok?” 

Mirna sat up. Blacked out again? She grabbed for the gun. He was faster. His hands seized both her wrists. 

“Just… chill! I’m not going to hurt you.” 

Mustering her strength, she tried to twist away. She turned her arm, pushing against his thumb, but he was faster. He released one wrist long enough to swipe the gun away. Mirna lunged forward, unable to gather the momentum to rise. Her attack fell short. She rolled sideways, injured leg colliding with an outcropping of rock. The pain was exquisite. Stunned and gasping, she lay on her side, his boots denches from her face. 

“Look.” He stooped over her. “I’m not going to hurt you.” 

Mirna recoiled, moving to the shelter of the wall. He looked at the pulse gun thoughtfully before tucking it behind his back beneath the duster. 

“I want to help you.” 

She slouched against the wall. Chin tucked against her chest as she glared up at his dim shape.  

“Okay?” 

She said nothing, only stared. 

“You’re bad off. At least let me—“ He reached for the makeshift dressing on her leg that was now saturated with blood. She flinched. His hands drew up, palms flat. “Ok. No touch. I got it.” 

With a loud frustrated sigh, he settled back on his haunches and rested his forearms on his knees. He ran a hand over his face. 

“My name is John.” He said slowly, as if he were addressing a child.  

Mirna regarded him and then returned to staring at the blackness. “Mirna Desavet. Corporal. Municipal Control. Arachnid regiment. Delan—“ 

“Name. Rank. Serial number. That’s just great.” He muttered, straightening. Once more he ventured off into the dark. He paused in the circle of light cast from above, odd look of realization on his face. 

“Wait a sec.” He pointed a finger at his sternum. “Do you know who I am?” 

Mirna looked at him. “No. And I don’t care to.” 

A strange self-effacing smile spread on his mouth. He erupted in rich sardonic laughter. The sound of it rang against the pitted walls. “Oh. That’s rich!” 

“Shut up! They’ll hear you.” She glowered. 

His ill-timed mirth continued. “Oh. Oh. I’m sorry.” He gasped between bouts of laughing and doubled over with his hands on his knees. “I end up trapped with the only Peacekeeper in the galaxy that doesn’t recognize me.” 

“Stop it! Stop laughing!” Mirna felt her ears begin to burn. 

“You just… just have to be just this side of my life right now to know how funny that is.” 

She reached for the first thing she could find. Her hand seized a rock the size of her first and threw it at him. It struck him squarely in the shoulder with a satisfying thud.  

“Hey!” He cradled his arm and glared at her. 

“Will you shut up?” 

“Concentrate the efforts in the spinward section of the city…” The meaty gurgling voice slithered from above. Scarrans! The creature’s footfalls thudded across the roof of the chamber triggering tiny avalanches of dust and pebbles. 

A second voice joined the first: “My lord… the prisoner said that Crichton’s ship is not at the port. It is likely he is no longer here.” 

“No. He is here. I can… nearly smell him.” 

“Sebacean, lord… that is what you smell… there is a dying one nearby… blood fresh.” A pause. “Hmmm… female too. And something else…” 

An icy finger touched her heart. Eyes wide, she looked at John to see the same realization replace his petrified expression. She held her breath. Mirna slapped both hands down on the wound, trying to cover the blood-soaked dressing. How can you hide from that creature? How can you cover smell from a Scarran? 

“Leave the beast. We must find Crichton. He is the reason we are here… not the soft meat.” 

The sound of their retreating steps was one of the most gratifying sounds in her seventeen cycles of existence. Mirna released the pent up air in a low sigh of relief. 

“Hezmana.” She cursed beneath her breath. 

“Ya. Tell me about it.” John drew closer, hands wrapping around her forearm. “Can you walk?” 

“What? No!” She ripped free of his grasp and fixed him with an incredulous stare. Who was this absurd creature? 

“This isn’t safe. They’ll come back.” He reached for her once more. This time, he grabbed the collar of her utilities. 

“Get the frell off me!” It was less painful to allow him to pull her to her feet. She shoved him away, and retreated to a weary slouch against the wall. 

“Don’t gimme the tough chick act. Those are Scarrans.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. John leaned closer, his face hovering close to hers. “I know what they do to prisoners… especially females.” 

She looked away, unable to bear his stare. He knew her fear and she hated him for it. Hated him for using her own weakness to manipulate her. There was no choice. Slowly, she looked back up at him. She nodded once, sharply. “Alright.” 

“Stay here.” 

“What are you going to do?” 

But he gave no answer. 

He left her side to resurface beneath the shaft of light. Swiftly he produced the pulse gun from the folds of his coat. With a somber studiousness he altered the settings. She realized what he was doing: setting the weapons to overload. He wedged the gun into the mouth of the opening and quickly darted back to the corner. 

His form descended protectively against her before she could protest. The coarse fabric of his coat brushed against her face. His breath came in hot gasps across her neck. Her hands grasped the cold leather of his vest and balled into fist. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited. 

And waited. 

Something was wrong. Nothing happened. 

Slowly, she uncoiled from their awkward embrace. Mirna glanced beneath his arm to the entrance. She could see the blinking red eye of the pulse gun’s compression setting. 

“Nothing’s happening.” She said. “You’ve done this before?” 

“Sure plenty.” John turned. He shrugged as he regarded the entrance. “Well. The first time it was sorta… an accident.” 

“An accident?” She took a faltering step forward, still leaning heavily against the wall.  

“Just… relax.” He waved at her over his shoulder and took a cautious step toward the failed device. “I’m sure it’s just—“ 

The ensuing explosion was a screaming white ball of flame. Mirna ducked against the wall just as something heavy and oddly pliant came hurtling from the dark. As it struck her with a wounded grunt, she realized it was John.


Want to know how it ends? Here's how this particular challenge works. Each of two Karlsweb staff writers has contributed an ending. They're linked below.
Read alternate ending by Karl. Read alternate ending by Toadie.

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