Every Friday I post a short story here for free. It stays up for one week and then I replace it with another one. Enjoy this one while it lasts!
The air was thick with moisture, cold and dark as a shadowy tomb. The cargo hold echoed with the whisper of claws against metal grates.
Devyn heard the drips. Alone in the dark with alien monsters hunting her Devyn feared death.
In the dark, with no one to help and monsters after her, Devyn was trapped.
Droplets of water ghosted over her skin, an icy mist in the cold air.
Dancing on the Edge of the Waterfall
By Meyari McFarland
Devyn shut her eyes, held her breath. The air was thick with moisture, like standing outside of the shower as the water pounded down and steam rose to fill the bathroom. It was a cold moisture, though, not warm and welcoming. She could have sworn that there were droplets running along her arms but when she rubbed one hand over her wrist her palm came away dry.
The hold was dark, lights on dim to conserve energy. They’d all agreed that there was no need for bright lights in rooms that weren’t currently used so everywhere, not just the hold, dimmed the lights after they left the area. That made the hold a shadowy tomb full of nightmare fodder when she opened her eyes again. The little girl who’d been terrified of the dark screamed inside of Devyn for her to turn the lights on so that the monsters wouldn’t get her.
Lights wouldn’t protect her from monsters. The ‘monsters’ they’d picked up were sightless, claw-bedecked beaked monstrosities that enjoyed gnawing on plastic and skittering through the ducts. Even if Arlana thought they were no different than rats, Devyn had private intentions of wiping every single one of the little monsters out before they made planet again. Stupid things didn’t breed fast, didn’t seem to breed at all, so it shouldn’t be hard.
Somewhere, deep inside the echoing cavern of a hold, a water drop pinged against metal. A leak. Three seconds later another ping echoed, as loud as a shout in a silent room and three times as hard to trace given the way the sound bounced off the walls, the crates, the curve of Devyn’s ears.
“I have a leak,” Devyn announced over the comm.
“Fuck, where?” Isleen demanded.
“I don’t know,” Devyn said as she pulled out her scanner. “Three second interval, somewhere in the hold. That’s all I’ve got so far. It’s damp as hell down here, though. It’s been going for a while.”
She went silent as a double ping echoed through the hold. Devyn cursed under her breath as she set out down the main aisle of the hold, scanning for any pooling of water. Unlikely given the grates under their goods but you never knew. There were places where the floor was solid. Not many, mind you, but a few that had been designed as spots to hold high priced goods that Isleen had never managed to book. Nya had taken to storing crates of dehydrated food there strictly because it was easier on her weak leg to walk on solid plates than open grates.
“How much water are we talking?” Riley asked. Even over the comms her voice came out gruff and so deep that you’d suspect vocal cord damage.
“Too much,” Devyn snapped as her sensor pad came back with entirely too much water under her feet. “It feels like I’m in the middle of a waterfall in here. I think it’s all pooled in the pit under the grates. Not sure yet how much but even with the spin of the hull we’re talking enough to nearly fill the pit.”
That set off a wave of cursing from the others, Isleen loudest and longest of them all. As the captain she’d cursed at them all for wasting water over the last few months. Their supplies always seemed to evaporate without a trace and now Devyn knew why. They really needed to invest in upgrades to the water control system. The money hadn’t seemed justified when all it took was hooking up to a floating asteroid and draining water off it, filtering the supply, but this much water was more than a mere drip.
Somewhere a pipe had broken. Had to have. Which meant that they had a huge mess that they had to vent out of the hold somehow.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to be as easy as just opening the hold doors and dropping the force field for a few minutes. Most of the cargo at the moment was perishable, prone to spoilage if the temperature got too high. Or the humidity.
“I’m going to check the order,” Devyn said. “Humidity might already have ruined the load.”
“It wasn’t that bad when we loaded it last week,” Arlana complained. “Seriously, it can’t be that much water in there.”
“Come check for yourself,” Devyn replied as she strode up the aisle, turned onto one of Nya’s solid bits of deck. “Nya, the bird-rats have been at your food in AB-12. I see bits of food strewn across the deck.”
The floor was covered with a sticky purple and yellow paste made Devyn’s boots cling to the deck. Thousands of little footprints, three toed with long claw scrapes, filled the paste. One corner of the crate was gone, gnawed away so that the bird-rats could get in at the dehydrated food. Devyn wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it but the bird-rats had plenty of water to rehydrate the food so obviously they’d ferreted out everything they could eat.
“Damn those things,” Nya complained. The words held little heat. “How much did they get?”
“I’d write off the whole crate, honestly,” Devyn replied and then grinned as Nya cursed a blue streak over the comms. “There’s too much on the floor for them not to have gone all the way through.”
“There’s only a handful of them,” Arlana protested. “Maybe ten or so. They couldn’t eat that much, Devyn.”
The hold echoed with thump-hiss-thump as Arlana opened the door and then strode in to find Devyn. Her footsteps on the grates echoed far more than Devyn’s did, legacy of her size. Where Devyn was small, barely five foot and thin boned as suited a born and bred spacer, Arlana came from one of the heavier planets. She stood twice Devyn’s height and looked like she was made of solid rock. Hard glossy onyx, Devyn mused as Arlana turned the corner and spotted her by the crate of no-longer edible food.
Her eyes narrowed. She’d pinned her long curly hair up into a tight bun today, covered that with a net so that it wouldn’t drift when she worked in the weightless section of the ship. Devyn pursed her lips against saying something about that choice. She preferred Arlana’s hair down but practicality did have to come first, even if Devyn liked to be able to run her fingers through Arlana’s hair, to touch and caress her neck.
“This is too many footprints, Devyn,” Arlana whispered. Her cheeks went brown as she paled, the blood draining from her cheeks. “They’re too small.”
Devyn opened her mouth to ask why she was whispering but something skittered under the grates. Then something else. And a third, a fourth, then a rushing wave of tiny bodies that made the hair stand up on Devyn’s arms.
She stared at Arlana who slowly stood, face nearly gray now she’d gone so pale. As Arlana began to back towards the door Devyn followed her. Devyn tried to walk lightly, softly, quietly so that the bird-rat babies, if they were babies, they had to be babies, wouldn’t hear but the sticky paste made every step suck and slop so loudly that there was no hiding her movement.
“Go!” Arlana shouted.
Devyn ran for the door before she consciously registered the rising chitter of thousands of voices coming at her. Beaks, beaks, those tiny beaks, they could chew through hardened plastic easily. They’d bit through skin and bone without any problem. And the claws, those would tear and shred both Devyn and Arlana until there was a new sticky patch, blood red with scattered bits of bone sticking out white from the mess.
“What’s wrong?” Isleen asked over the comms.
“Hundreds!” Devyn gasped. “They’re breeding in the water. We have to get out of here!”
“No!” Arlana shouted. “We can’t let them out! Seal the damned doors!”
Devyn screamed at her but the chittering rush of hundreds of tiny hungry monsters behind them overwhelmed everything but the need to run. The hold was huge, hundreds of yards wide by nearly a thousand yards long. They had half a mile of space to run but no idea how many of the pits under the grates were full of water, full of monster babies.
The hold echoed as the locks sealed all up and down the walls. The overhead door, used for lowering bigger loads in by crane, creaked and then thunk-thunk-thunk locked tight. At the same time the constant hiss of air, so steady that it became invisible, stopped. In the silence left behind by Isleen sealing them in, the sound of Devyn’s whimpers was as loud as a shout.
So were the rising cries of the monsters.
Too many, far too many, hundreds, thousands easily. Devyn risked a glance over her shoulder and screamed. A mass of tiny snapping beaks and flashing claws was rolling towards them. The mass of babies mixed into a roiling mass that leaped and surged over one another as if they were a tidal wave instead of individuals.
“We’re going to die!” Devyn screamed at Arlana.
She didn’t look back, didn’t stop, didn’t pause. Arlana’s long legs carried her so much faster than Devyn’s shorter legs that Devyn sobbed. Behind her the monster babies chitter turned into a crooning howl filled with snapping beaks and the scrape of claws against the grates.
It was too far and not far enough. Why run? The hold was huge but it was still only half a mile long and Arlana was pulling further and further ahead with every step. Tears blurred Devyn’s eyes until one of the babies appeared out of the gap between rows of crates. It leaped straight at Devyn, beak gaped open and toe-claws curled back to slash her open.
“Get away from me!” Devyn shouted at it.
She swung her pad and hit the baby so hard that it ricocheted off the big crate of fine wood from Earth. It bounced and then fell, still, little beak open and neck bent at an impossible angle.
They could be killed. It could be done. Devyn bit her lip and then snarled as she scrambled up on top of the nearest crate. Overhead was the crane they used inside the hold, hanging loose and free. As Devyn ran for it, throwing her pad at the wave of too-close, too-close baby monsters, she counted her steps, lifting her knees and running for all she was worth.
Devyn leaped across space and caught the hook of the crane in the chest.
Gears screamed as she swung and then spun, flying down the track towards the far end of the hold. Beneath her the monster babies screamed and crooned and scrambled up onto the crates only sniff and then surge back down to the grates.
Arlana, they were tracking Arlana now. Devyn cursed and swung and spun, looking desperately for Arlana. She had to be there but no, she was nowhere to be seen. Her heavy boots no longer rang against the deck plates and grates. There was only the roar of the babies and Devyn cursing at them all for being fools, for ignoring the water loss, for not getting rid of the damned monsters when they first infested the ship.
“Arlana!” Devyn screamed.
No one answered, not Arlana, not Isleen or Nya or even Riley who had to be working desperately in the engine room to find some way to save them and the goods in the hold. If any of it could be saved.
The crane slowed as Devyn’s momentum faded, faded, collapsed into nothingness. She dropped from the crane, rolled down onto the decks and started running for all she was worth for the far wall of the hold. There might be a chance there. Maybe, maybe, just maybe. If she could trigger the lock down protocols then the beautiful new stasis fields that Isleen had insisted they invest in would click on and they could freeze everything in the hold in place. It would save them, it would, it had to.
Behind her the monster babies screamed, tiny claws scraping against the grates as they reoriented on Devyn’s running. It had to the be the sound, the vibrations through the deck plates, that drew them. They hadn’t responded to Devyn’s light steps. It was only when Arlana had shown up with her heavy tread that they’d massed to hunt and to attack and to rend, to tear, to feed on them.
But Devyn couldn’t stop. She had to get there and if it was with the monster babies breathing down her neck so be it. They would get her but Devyn would make sure that those little bastards got it, too, one way or the other. If Devyn died, they’d die too.
The end of the hold crept closer, every running step jarring Devyn’s gritted teeth. It felt as though the monsters were right behind her, so close that she could swear that they were on her heels but she wouldn’t look, she couldn’t. Little horrors would make her trip and Devyn wouldn’t allow that.
She ran and ran and then the wall was right there. Devyn smacked into it, grunted with the pain of something in her wrist snapping, then she pushed off and ran towards the control panel on the right side of the hold door, eyes already locked on the big red Emergency switch.
“Take that, you freaks!” Devyn shouted as she slapped it as hard as she could.
Devyn screamed and slapped the button again, again, again. “Work, damn it!”
The monster babies screamed as they ran around the corner. A great dark wave of them slammed into the wall exactly like a wall of water pouring down a too-small pipe. Devyn whimpered. She pushed the stasis field one more time but nothing, nothing, damn it, nothing.
“Die!” Devyn shouted at them.
Her injured, broken, sprained, Devyn didn’t know, her bad wrist screamed as Devyn grabbed the lever to cause explosive decompression. Someone, Isleen? She didn’t know, didn’t care, not with a wave of hungry black-beaked baby monsters scrambling and chittering and running straight at her.
One hard shove up and the whole ship shuddered. Devyn wrapped her arms around the lever, pushing and pushing until the big double doors inches away from her flashed red and then snapped outwards six inches. The air around Devyn shuddered. So did the monster babies who skidded to a stop.
Their heads lifted, beaks open as they cheeped. Devyn clung to the lever, shut her eyes and prayed to the gods of her mother that she had never believed in, not as a child, not now, but someone, anyone, please they had to help. Arlana was out there in the hold, somewhere, maybe alive or maybe dead as the great doors slid back against the outer hull of the ship, exposing the vast emptiness of space.
Then the monster babies screamed as the air rushed around Devyn, tearing at her as badly as the babies’ claws would have. The force field, the one that kept the air in, it had fallen and now there was nothing to keep the babies and the crates of goods from flying outwards. Nothing to keep Devyn from being swept along with them into the dark and cold and endless iciness of open space.
The air was a hurricane around Devyn but she kept her eyes shut as her body twisted sideways in the rush of wind. Kept them shut as her arms screamed and her ears popped and the ship echoed and banged and even the roar of the wind wasn’t enough to drown out the screams of the monster babies as they were swept out of the door and into space.
She nearly opened her eyes to watch but no, no, the cold would freeze her eyeballs and then she’d be blind until they got back to base and could get Devyn’s eyes repaired. Her precious lungful of air would be gone as she screamed so Devyn kept her eyes shut and clung to the lever.
Water, that was water, the rush of water surging upwards and out, sucked by the vacuum of space pulling everything into it. Wet at first and then harder, colder, icier as the cold of outside invaded the hold. Devin’s clothes went damp, wet, then froze to her skin but there was no letting go, she wouldn’t, couldn’t, not until it was all over.
Her legs slumped back to the decks, boots clanging only there was no air to carry the sound of the impact. Devyn struggled, got her feet under her and then hauled down on the emergency lever. Let it be enough. Let the babies all be gone, along with their vile parents. Let the ship be safe and Arlana alive, clinging to something but no, she couldn’t have because the hurricane of evacuating air had to have swept her outside along with the babies.
The wall shuddered under Devyn’s arms as she hauled the emergency lever all the way down, locked, shut, emergency over. Her lungs heaved, burning, desperate for air that didn’t exist. Devyn pressed her lips together, counting the seconds as the great doors slowly rumbled shut again. She felt the impact where they met, felt them clamp back down, sealing the hull shut once more.
Air gushed over Devyn as voices erupted over the comm in her ear. She gasped, sagged and then collapsed to her knees next to the control panel.
“Arlana! Devyn! Report!” Isleen bellowed.
“Alive,” Devyn gasped. “I’m alive.”
She didn’t expect a response from Arlana. There couldn’t be one. The monster babies must have gotten her. They must. There hadn’t been a word, not a single word, so her beautiful Arlana had to be gone, eaten, torn to shreds and then abandoned as the babies hunted Devin.
A cough echoed.
Devyn gasped. She struggled to her feet, clothes crackling, eyelashes stuck together with rapidly melting ice. Heavy boot treads shuffled across the grates as Arlana slowly limped towards the end of the hold where Devyn stood, swaying, clutching her injured arm. The stasis field had worked. Their goods were still there, held in place by faintly glowing force fields that kept inanimate objects from moving. Not people, never people, so no, it wouldn’t have worked on the babies and wasn’t that a sign of how terrified Devyn had been that she’d forgotten in her fear for her life, for Arlana’s life.
Arlana’s hair was loose, torn free of the too-tight bun. There were scratches and cuts on Arlana’s cheeks, blood frozen, melting on her cheeks, her neck, her arms. Devyn sobbed, feet moving of their own accord as Devyn stumbled towards Arlana who laughed and cried and held out her arms for Devyn’s rush straight at her.
“Me too,” Arlana said, her voice as rough as Riley’s normally was. “Alive. Barely. Door opened just as the babies found me. Would have died if you hadn’t opened it.”
“Shut up, shut up,” Devyn cried as she clung to Arlana’s neck despite the blood, her wrist, the sound of Isleen cursing, Nya shouting that she was on the way. “Shut up.”
Salt stung in the frozen patches on Devyn’s cheeks. The hold was too cold, air too thin, but it didn’t matter, not anymore. The monsters were gone, purged, or at least cut down enough that Devyn knew they’d get rid of the rest of them. Shouts echoed from doors on either side of the hold, halfway up, maybe more. Devyn didn’t care.
Alive, they were alive and even if the pits still had babies, eggs, whatever those monsters were born from, they could survive it. They would. Arlana was alive and so was Devyn. That was what mattered, more than anything else.
She kissed Arlana’s bloody cheek, laughed as Arlana cursed gently over salt in her wounds. The lights slowly lit overhead, filling the hold with light. Safe. Yes, finally, with Isleen in the lead, battle armor covering every inch of her golden skin, Nya limping and cursing at the grates, and big burly Riley carrying her tool kit as well as Nya’s first aid kit.
“Did it,” Arlana whispered.
“No more monster bird-rats,” Devyn whispered back, laughing and crying and shaking with relief.
“No, no more monsters,” Arlana agreed with laughter and tears of her own.
They sat together on the grates, arms wrapped around one another as the others ran to their sides. Devyn shut her eyes and leaned into Arlana’s embrace. Safe.
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