*This is my November short story. I am running behind because of Nanowrimo, but did I mention I wrote 50,000 words last month?*
Until that day, fear had been an idea, a concept. Now it was real: a feeling I would carry inside me for the rest of my life. The day began innocently enough, with my father and I going through our normal daily routine. We barely spoke. We ate breakfast. And we drove to the bookstore in quiet.
This is how pretty much every day of my life had started since I can remember. And most days ended with the two of us closing the shop in quiet and returning home without saying a word. Ever since my mother passed, my dad didn’t talk much, not that he’d said much before.
Tonight, though, I wouldn’t be riding home with my dad. Tonight, I was being held captive in the high school gymnasium with every other person in town; well, maybe not every person, just those who hadn’t been killed already.
In the morning when we arrived at the shop, my dad went to the office in the back and shut the door. He and I were the only employees, but he always said he was doing manager duties. I didn’t really care. It was his store.
I set about making coffee and turning on lights. After turning the chairs over and taking them off the tables, I went to the counter at the front to open the pile of mail that had been waiting since yesterday. There wasn’t anything important in the stack, so I recycled what I could. Then I just took my seat behind the counter and dreamed of something more interesting than this life I was stuck in.
The first explosion shook the store, but to be honest, I didn’t even know that’s what it was because I’d never experienced anything like it before. The second explosion rattled the big window in the front so much, I thought it might break, but it held.
I stood there doing nothing for what felt like several minutes but in hind sight was probably only a matter of seconds. Then I saw people running down the streets.They all looked terrified. I looked out the window.
As I looked at the alien, it looked back at me. It was at least seven feet tall and covered in scales that appeared metallic. It had two large eyes that took up most of its face. Its appendages were humanoid but elongated. Each finger was at least six inches.
As I stood there gaping like an idiot, it made a sound that shattered the glass. I shielded my face with my hands and arms, and in that moment, it reached in and grabbed me.
Having extra long and slender limbs didn’t mean the creature wasn’t strong. It grabbed me with one hand and didn’t even bother placing the second one on me. I couldn’t get out of its grip no matter how I flailed.
It held onto me until a hovering vehicle of some sort pulled up along side it. It casually tossed me and I was pulled in by some sort of tractor beam. Inside the ship were people I knew.
After that,we were all dumped in the high school gymnasium. Now we are all just sitting here. If we make a sound other than breathing, they just kill us.
It flashed through the sky and then was gone. Lucy was sure she had seen a UFO and was equally sure aliens were here to secretly make contact with a human being. Maybe they would choose her. Maybe she would get to visit their ship. Maybe she would finally get away from this place. She was tired of being lonely and isolated. She was tired of talking to herself.
Even an alien encounter would be more exciting than her life. No matter what the outcome.
20 years ago
Lucy woke up late — again. Her boss would be furious. She quickly dressed and headed out the door. Her new job was exhausting. It was all the interacting with people that was wearing her out.
This was her third job this year — and it was only April. So far this one was lasting longer but she could feel the toll is was taking.
“Have a nice day.”
“Thanks for visiting the zoo.”
“Here’s a map.”
She said those three things so many times every day. Why couldn’t a recording do it?
The one redeeming factor for her new job was break time. On her breaks she would sit and watch the hippos. She wanted to watch them all day.
It was odd because before starting at the zoo, she’d never even seen a hippo. Her parents never took her places. They’d both worked so much on their rare days off, they just wanted to be home.
Perhaps that’s why all her jobs were places that families tended to visit together.
If she had a therapist, she might have asked her that.
Lucy walked through the grocery store selecting what foods she might eat this week.
After she’d collected enough, she went back to her house.
Two years ago she’d finally gotten up the nerve to move from her old apartment into an abandoned house.
She’d picked one in a nice neighborhood within walking distance of a grocery store, a home depot, and several clothing stores.
20 years ago
It was already turning into another typical day.
“Thanks for visiting the zoo.”
She’d gotten lucky though. Her boss was out sick so she didn’t get yelled at for being late.
She tried to focus on that to get her through the day.
On her break, she put a hoodie over her zoo uniform. She’d learned to cover up as much khaki as possible or people would ask her a thousand questions. Her first two days she’d spent her breaks answering inane questions.
As she sat by the hippo habitat, she longed for quiet.
She tried to ignore the sounds of children and families. She tuned out the city noise in the background.
She longed for silence.
As she sat there, she watched the hippos. One female hippo waddled towards the water and dove in.
Lucy caught her breath.
This was her favorite part. Hippos were amazingly graceful in the water.
If she’d ever seen Fantasia, she might have imagined them wearing tutus.
Her alarm beeped reminding her it was time to return to work. As she stood up and stretched, she noticed how quiet it was.
She looked around. She was utterly alone. Not a single person was in sight.
All she could hear was the animals in the zoo. No cars. No airplanes. No people. Nothing.
20 years of quiet. 20 years of being alone. As far as Lucy knew, no one was left but her.
Was that even possible? Who knew? It’s not like she could ask anyone.
It was better to focus on what she did know.
She’d seen something in the sky. She should get to higher ground and watch for it.
Maybe she could signal it.
As she sat in her house, she heard something outside in the yard.
She looked out the window and couldn’t help herself. Her laughter startled it away.
It was a flamingo — in St. Louis.
After the first few days of being alone, Lucy had gone to the zoo and set the animals free and then never returned. She didn’t want to know which had survived and which sat in their cages without the will to seek freedom.
She had that in spades. She wanted someone, anyone, to talk to.
So, this month I am actually trying and succeeding at getting things done when I mean to. Starting with getting my short story prompt posted early. Without further ado, here is July’s prompt:
“The yellow lines on the highway sped by in a blur, and we flew through the night, and we felt free. But we weren’t, and we knew it. We were running away from something, and running away was never the path to freedom. I thought about telling John to turn back. I thought about suggesting…”
I can’t wait to get into this one. I feel like it has the potential for some sort of paranormal or sci-fi element. If you haven’t read any of my previous stories of the month, my stories do have a tendency to have a sci-fi or fantasy bent to them. Last month’s story “Crime Scene” didn’t start that way, but it eventually got there.
In addition to my story of the month, I am participating in Camp NaNoWriMo’s month long writing challenge. I am using one of my previously posted stories as a jumping off point for a novel — “Unicorns Are Really Vampires.” If you are participating too, good luck with your project!
I’ve lived in this town my whole life, and most of the time that’s fine by me. But in late fall when the sky fills with birds migrating south for the winter, traveling thousands of miles, I get homesick for places I’ve never been. Places like Egypt, Rome, Paris, anywhere but here.
In this town, every day is the same. I’ve known everyone here my whole life. No one ever leaves this place and no one ever comes here to stay. We get a fair number of tourists, but even that number dwindles every year. What used to bring people here just isn’t that exciting anymore. In a few more years, this town will be relegated to the same status as the “Home of the World’s Biggest Ball of Yarn” or “The World’s Largest Rocking Chair.” It will be another roadside attraction that collects dust and a sometimes road trip stop for hipsters and low-income families.
I was born after the crash, so to me, the site is nothing more than a local landmark. Since the crash site is damn near the center of town anyway, it provides a really useful directional tool for giving directions. “Take a right at the crash.” Or, “Left past the crash and then there’s the Piggly Wiggly.” I don’t think many people really think about what the crash represents anymore; for better or worse, it’s become a backdrop to our everyday lives.
The crash in our town was one of the early ones, which is what garnered it the little bit of fame it does have. It’s also one of the most intact sites still in existence; the others have been pilfered by tourists, the government, and collectors.
When I say that most people don’t think about the crash much, that of course doesn’t count the exception to that rule — the TRUE EARTHERS. They are a fanatical group born out of the time following the aliens coming to Earth. Once the crashes started becoming a frequent thing, international forces rallied together and negotiated with the incoming aliens. And despite the majority of people wanting to handle things peacefully, there were those who opposed the diplomatic approach.
Early on it was clear that the aliens meant no harm. The crashes were their ships malfunctioning entering our atmosphere. Ships that arrived later landed successfully and brought a small number of aliens to live among us. They now live among us and for the most part it’s a peaceful existence.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone likes them here. As I said, the True Earthers would like to kill all the aliens. They don’t believe we should share our planet. They believe the aliens are just the first of many invaders.
And today must be my lucky day because as I’m standing at the diner counter, in walks the head of the local chapter of True Earthers. I close my eyes and wish to be anywhere but here. All I can think is please let me really be sipping coffee in Paris or standing in the dry air of the Sahara. Anywhere but here. I hear Dirk walk through the door and make his way to his usual table where two others are waiting for him. I muster my patience as best I can and grab a menu.
“Here you are, Dirk. Would you like to hear the specials?” I ask.
He looks up at me slowly and snatches the menu from me. “No specials. I will look at the menu for a bit. Scurry along little worker bee.”
“Just let me know when you are ready to order.” I walk away but don’t’ return to my place behind the counter. Instead, I head in the back to the kitchen. I wave at the cooks as I pass through to the dish room. There is my best friend, and one of the few aliens who still lives in our town.
“Guess who is here, worker bee?” I say loaded with sarcasm.
At the sound of my voice, Glek looks up. He grins in that overly toothy way that all his kind do. He looks like your stereotypical “little gray man.” Except, I wouldn’t call him little; he is actually a couple of inches taller than me. He is just absurdly skinny. The other exception to the “gray men” stereotype is that the aliens who landed on Earth don’t have solid black eyes. Like us, they have pupils and irises. Glek has blue eyes like me. It’s one of the reasons he and I became friends in kindergarten.
Glek and I always mimic the weird linguistic choices of the True Earthers. We both find their terminology ridiculous. True Earthers refer to non-threatening non-believers, like me, as worker bees. I don’t know why they use bee hive terminology as part of their belief system, but they do.
“Well, little worker bee, you could always say you have a head ache and go home. Just don’t deal with him today.” When Glek started talking, he was grinning, but that changed as he went on. He knew that Dirk and I didn’t get along.
“Not a bad idea.” I said. But I sighed and added, “I need the money though.”
Glek nodded his understanding, “Don’t we all, little bee.”
“See you later. I better get back out there.” I said as I left the dish room and returned to the front of the diner.
The rest of my shift was mostly uneventful. Dirk was in a more pleasant mood than usual and didn’t harass me. He didn’t even use one derogatory term to refer to me, which he did on most occasions because I was friends with Glek. At the end of my shift, I waited out by my car for Glek. He was coming over to watch the newest episode of our favorite show.
As Glek came out of the restaurant a large truck came around the side of the building. I looked up and Glek hurried over to me.
“Get in the car and get out of here.” He told me as he practically shoved me in the car.
I pushed back. “No. I will not leave you here alone.”
By this point, the truck had pulled up and was blocking the only route out of the parking lot anyway. The engine remained on as three True Earthers hopped out of the truck. All of them were carrying bats of one sort or another. Dirk, their fearless leader, was carrying a cricket bat.
“Where the hell did he get a cricket bat?” I said not really processing yet what the purpose of the bat might be.
Dirk and his goons came closer. When they were about 20 paces away, Dirk said, “Runaway little worker bee.”
Instead I stepped closer to Glek until we were shoulder to shoulder. I looked at him and said, “Not running.”
Glek just nodded at me.
What happened next was not surprising. They beat us. I blacked out and the last thing I saw as I slid onto the pavement was Glek next to me oozing green blood.
We both woke up a few days later. We were hospitalized for some time before we could get around again. As soon as we were able, we gathered up everything we owned and drove out of that town.
Dirk and his men didn’t get in any trouble even though everyone knows who beat us. As we left town, I could see the crash site in the rear-view window. I hoped it would be that last time I would ever see that site again.
Once terraforming tech was developed and improved on, everyone assumed the entire surface of Mars would be re-scaped and colonized. In reality, the harsh Mars environment was too overwhelming for the best tech. In the end, only about 2% of Mars was terraformed. Of the people who helped terraform, many remained behind to join the first colony rather than return to Earth.
The original colony consisted of only 10 families from Earth and the handful of terraformers. Amongst the adults was an ornithologist, Dr. Eva Devens. She and her family were selected to be a part of the colony because she was going to observe birds and how they adapted to the Mars environment.
Even in the year 2150, how birds used Earth’s magnetic field to navigate was a bit of a mystery. Dr. Devens was tasked with finding out if the birds behaved similarly on a new planet. In truth, she didn’t expect most of the birds to live through their first year.
So, along with the first colonizers of Mars, traveled 100 eggs. All were carefully monitored and were being incubated to hatch shortly after the colonists settled. They were 50 species of birds that could fly, and a good portion of the eggs were Psittacines, or birds of the parrot family.
Dr. Devens had personally selected all of the eggs, and she was very fond of parrots. She admired their beauty and intelligence, plus she believed they had the right kind of plucky attitude that could help them survive on Mars.
The trip to Mars and initial settling was uneventful; everything had logistically fallen into place. About 2 months after the colonizers arrived, the eggs began to hatch. The birds were raised in an enclosed environment until they were ready to leave their nests. Then they were released into the large forested region of terraformed area. Dr. Devens continued to feed them to help supplement their diets and many of them thrived.
Of the original 100 eggs, only 82 hatched, and of those 82 birds, 77 were released into the forest. Dr. Devens had implanted every bird with a tracking device prior to release. She carefully monitored their behaviors and movements. When she was in the forest observing the birds, some of the parrots and macaws showed signs of intelligence that surprised Dr. Devens.
In particular, a pair of African Grey Parrots and a group of various colored Macaws would gather around her every time she came to see them. She assumed that this behavior was just a part of their curious nature. She talked to them and even sang sometimes. And she was not surprised when they learned to mimic her words.
The first year on Mars passed and in the spring, many of the birds in the forest laid eggs and the first generation of Martian birds were born. As Dr. Devens was collecting data in the forest, she noticed that the size of the parrot and macaw eggs were considerably larger than she expected.
When the babies hatched, they surpassed their parents’ size within a matter of months. By the time they were a year old, they were roughly the size of a beagle and each weighed about 30 pounds. The exponential change in size was unexpected and Dr. Devens could not find a logical explanation for it. None of the other birds who had survived showed any physiological changes. Not only that, but no other species of animal brought to Mars had changed in any noticeable way.
In addition to an overall change in size, they demonstrated remarkable dexterity with their wings. Dr. Devens often observed them picking things up and moving them about. The new generation definitely demonstrated amazing strides in intellectual development. Back on Earth, the average parrot was said to have the intelligence of a human toddler. This new generation was more equivalent to human teenagers.
Of course, these changes were recorded and the information was forwarded to scientists on Earth. The birds would even join Dr. Devens when she would have teleconference sessions with Earth. The interviews were recorded and aired globally. Somehow, a new race of intelligent beings was emerging on Mars, and everyone on Earth was captivated with them.
By the 10th year on Mars, the parrots outnumbered the humans in the colony. The most recent generation to hatch was closer to human size and very clever. Each generation inherited their instinctual behavior from their parents, but they also seemed to pass along knowledge. Dr. Devens noted that the younger generations learned speech easier and much quicker than previous generations. However, other than Dr. Devens, the settlers were not as fascinated with the changes in the birds.
A meeting was held to decide what to do with the growing population of anthropomorphic avian. As the colonists gathered, one of the young African Greys who called himself Dale joined the gathering.
He was just over 5 feet tall and had predominantly grey feathers all over his body and bright red tail feathers. On his face his coloring was lighter, highlighting the observant intelligence behind his eyes.
“This meeting is to establish a course of action,” said one of the colonizers.
“I don’t see that anything needs to be done,” said Dr. Devens.
“Of course you don’t, but let’s face it. We are currently outnumbered by these birds and…”
The colonizer was cut off by Dale, “Excuse me, but we don’t like to be called birds.”
The collected humans looked baffled, except Dr. Devens. “What would you prefer to be called then?” one asked with sarcastic undertones.
Dale answered, “We call ourselves Psittacines. We are not like the other birds who live on Mars or on Earth. You do not call yourselves monkeys or apes just because you have a common ancestor. We would ask that you show us the same consideration.”
Not one of the humans had a response to that, but Dr. Devens sat there smirking.
Finally after an awkward pause, one the colonists continued, “Let’s get right to the point. Many of us want to return to Earth.”
Dr. Devens said, “You can’t be serious. This is our task. We can’t just leave. Do you realize how much investors spent to establish this colony?”
“As a matter of fact, we do. However, many of those same investors are already in the process of deciding on another place to colonize.”
Dr. Devens was shocked. Clearly talks had been going on behind her back, and decisions were being made without her input.
“If I can add something,” said Dale. “We would also like for the humans to leave.”
Dr. Devens was taken aback by this. “You want me to leave?”
“No. Not you. If you wish to stay Eva, we would allow it.”
Dr. Devens honestly didn’t know what to say. They would allow it? What was happening?
The decision was made and within a few months, the first colonizers minus Dr. Devens and the eggs returned to Earth. The Psittacines and Dr. Devens kept in touch and continued their reports to Earth.
Dr. Devens lived with the Psittacines for the remainder of her life. When she passed away, Dale oversaw her funeral. She was the only human to be buried on Mars.
With her passing, some of the Psittacines felt that perhaps it was time to have less contact with Earth, but Dale felt that Dr. Devens had worked hard to maintain contact and he respected her plans.
The truth was that people were no longer fascinated with the Martian birds like they were in the beginning. Another colony was established on Venus, and there was a thriving colony on Earth’s moon. People were looking to the future and making plans to spread to other planets.
When Dale was nearing his 60th year, the Psittacines were basically at max capacity for the terraformed portion of Mars. Something would have to be done. Dale understood that either they would need to have population controls to prevent overcrowding or some of them would need to move elsewhere.
During a teleconference with Earth, Dale told the scientists his concerns. The scientists sprung into immediate action and began to discuss the possibility of establishing a Psittacines colony on Earth.
Dale was overwhelmed by the support that was shown. He thought they would be quick to reject a new species living amongst them. He even joined the first group of Psittacines to relocate to Earth.
Every year I try to read the Nebula Awards Showcase anthology. If you don’t know, the Nebula Awards are given for Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writing. I look forward to the collection every year. And last year, I started ordering the older copies from Abebooks.com. (I love that site). I almost have every year now.
Anyway, when I read, I have a tendency to compare what I’m reading to other things that I’ve read. I try to judge a book on its value alone but in this case, I can’t help it. So, as I was reading the 2013 collection, I was comparing it to the 2012 anthology.
In all honesty, I thought the 2012 collection was better. Now, to be fair though, there are still some really great stories in the 2013 set that I would highly recommend. However, the new book just didn’t wow me like last year’s did.
Before I talk about some of the stories that I did like, I wanted to add one other thing you should know about the Nebula Awards collections. They usually feature poetry. Yes, you read that right. Sci-fi or fantasy poetry. And I’m here to tell you, it can be pretty weird.
Weird poetry aside, some stories that I think are really great from this collection:
1. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu
This story is truly magical. It’s about the relationship between a mother and her son. I don’t want to tell you more than that, because it’s really, really, really great.
It’s one of those stories that isn’t your typical sci-fi or fantasy story but I’m so glad it’s in this collection.
2. The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
I love this story! I couldn’t get over the complexity of the universe that this author created just for a short story. It’s about a girl and her learning about the past. It’s also about an ice owl, but I won’t tell you what happens other than that.
When I finished reading this, I was hoping there was more. I would love to read a novel length work set in the universe created by this author.
3. Excerpt from Among Others by Jo Walton
This, as you can guess from the title, was a snippet of a novel that they included.
The novel is now on my “To Read” list.
The excerpt introduces us to one of the main characters, a girl, who is about to go to boarding school. I can’t add more than that, not because I don’t want to give anything away, but because there’s not much else to go on from the snippet. I have to admit one of the reasons I say this is worth reading is because it peaked my curiosity and now I need to know what happens.
4. “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Steinmetz
If you only had time to read one story from the collection, this would be my choice.
Unlike some of the other stories, this story is more typical. It has some known sci-fi devices. It is set on a space station. There is a war going on that involves two different factions with different belief systems.
What isn’t typical about this story. The main character is a girl who lives with her female relatives and together they run a “truck stop” in space. In particular, their station is known as “Sauerkraut Station” because they serve sauerkraut that they make themselves right on the station.
I can’t explain why exactly this was my favorite out of all of them, other than I just thought it was really well written. For a short story, it was very complex.
5. “Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen
This story is about our world after aliens have arrived and blocked out our sun. In order to survive, the humans that endure are forced to live deep in the ocean near vents that produce heat.
The story is also about the generation of children who are born down in the ocean. They want to see the sun. They form a “cult” like group that worships the sun. Eventually, the teens steal some subs and make their way to the surface because no one has been to the surface in years. Guess what they find when they get there…. I’m not telling. Read the story. It’s good.
There are many more in this collection but I felt like those five were the highlights. One of the things I love about the Nebula collections is a lot of time the stories that are featured aren’t your typical sci-fi and fantasy. There aren’t a lot of dragons or light sabers. Instead, there are a lot of characters in a vast array of settings surviving and being a part of some very unique universes.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I have often heard that Dune is the best sci-fi book ever written. That’s a tall order to live up to over 40 years after it was written. I think I went into it expecting something else and that might be part of the problem. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, because I did. I loved it. I just don’t think it is the best sci-fi book ever written. I don’t think I can comfortably give it that title.
Is it worth reading? Yes. Will you like it if you don’t like sci-fi? Maybe. Is it one of the best sci-fi I’ve ever read? Yes. But, there are still things about it I didn’t like.
I want to end this post on a good note, so for starters, let’s talk about what I didn’t like about Dune.
1. The plot focuses on a made up religion. I felt like there were things that weren’t explained enough for me to believe the religion was as important or world changing as it was meant to be. 2. The group called the Bene Gesserit. I didn’t quite understand their end game. They are one of the many groups of individuals that are plotting to control the reigning members of the worlds of Dune. The general idea is that they are striving to preserve certain blood lines. Even after reading the whole book, I couldn’t figure out why they would want to do this. It didn’t seem clear to me. 3. The made up words are very distracting at first. When I first picked up this book, I spent more time looking things up in the glossary at the back than actually reading it. Herbert makes up more than just a religion. He created words that only have meaning in the context of this book and at first I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. To be honest, I felt like some of the made up words were unnecessary.
In the end, those are very small things that I didn’t like about Dune. And I don’t often find a book that I love 100%.
You might be wondering, what did she like about this book? The answer: everything else.
As I said, I wouldn’t feel right saying this was the best sci-fi book of all time. But I would definitely put it in the top ten must read sci-fi books for fans of the genre. I would also say that this is a book that even those who aren’t fans might actually want to read. Fiction that is written for a specific genre or that gets labeled that way after its written doesn’t often fall into what I call the Literature with a capital L category. For me, Dune does cross into that category. There is something more to this book than just space battles and fictional tech.
1. Dune is a story about politics, religion, freedom, ecology, all thrown together by an overwhelming amount of subterfuge. 2. I love that the main character, Paul, is like a nexus with all the forces at work in the novel either working through him or against him. 3. Dune is smart sci-fi. It’s thought provoking and well written. It’s not just a means for laser guns and space craft.
In the end, I would say read it if you love sci-fi because it is considered one of the most significant sci-fi novels ever written. I would also say read it if you are looking for a great story involving an entire planet finding freedom via the help of a mere boy.