‘Her Father’s Herd’ is the product of a writing challenge where I attempted to write 1000 words based on five random images. The result was one of my better stories.
Her Father’s Herd
by J. Aurel Guay
Andair looked over the level asteroid field, feeling the silence and emptiness of space. Her long graceful build matched that of the lance she leaned upon. Through her narrow visor her deep amber eyes watched carefully over her herd of dromonids.
‘That bastard of a brother should have been her by now,’ she thought to herself.
The goliath beast she stood on moved suddenly, forcing her to regain her balance despite her exo-suit’s automated gravity simulation. This dromonid had always been her favorite. She wasn’t quite sure why but, ‘Big Ben’, as she called him, had caught her attention the first day she went to check on the herd with her father. She was still small enough to fit in the shuttle beside her father back then. But father never came to the asteroid fields any more. In the wake of his failing health Andair and her brother Olen had taken it upon themselves to watch over the herds.
‘Poor Ben,’ she thought, walking to the edge of his rocky dome. Looking down she saw the nearly endless stretch of tentacles that trailed down to the stars from beneath the beast. Ben had been uncommonly listless and slow of late, even for a dromonid.
“Shuttle,” she commanded as she stepped off the edge and floated weightlessly beside her favorite pet. “Tell Olen to hurry up, one of the drom’s is sick. I’m doing an inspection.
An affirmative tone chimed in her ear while the space craft that idled nearby carried out her command. Andair motioned gently with her hands as though she were swimming. Her automated suit responded in synchrony, moving her down alongside the massive dromonid. Dwarfed by its eye-spot she couldn’t help but feel some connection with the creature as she passed below him.
“Don’t worry big guy, this won’t hurt a bit.”
Her father had always talked to the dromonids too, despite their deafness to sound. Finally nearing his underside, Andair un-holstered a tranquilizer gun from her hip. Between the rings of tentacles thicker than her own body, she could see the burning glow of his rock eating furnace. 85% of a dromonid was refined rock, but here, near his fiery mouth, she could find a suitable place for her dart.
Andair held her breath and pulled the trigger. The gun shuttered silently and the dart sped toward its mark. Her aim was good. On impact the dart released a second burst that drove the needle and its sedative deep enough to reach the creatures living tissues.
Slowly the red glow of Big Ben’s mouth faded and the swaying tentacles ceased their movement. Andair moved among them, swimming gracefully like a wrasse among sharks teeth. Approaching his slumbering core she shone her spectral torch up into the beast.
The light revealed the inner network of organic tissues that spread through the rocky creature like a fine web. In his very core she finally caught a glimpse of what she was looking for. While the raw ore accumulated by the dromonids was the larger bulk of what they would be harvested for when mature, it was their crystalline core that was of the most value. Big Ben was quite old and should have had a large enough crystal to power a frigate cruiser. Andair sighed at the thought of giving up Big Ben, parting out his corpse to the highest bidder. But without the credits gained from the herd, her father would never be able to get the treatment he needed.
Shining her light across his crystal Andair paused. Something wasn’t right. Instead of a large solid crystal brimming with energy, Andair saw fragmented shards scattered around his core.
No, it couldn’t be. One by one the fragments began to twitch and move. Flipping a switch on her torch the image changed and she could see the writhing elongated shapes twisting and twitching within her beloved dromonid.
For a brief moment fear and grief threatened to overtake Andair.
“SHUTTLE! Call the herd away!” again the affirming tone responded, this time followed by the musical trills representing the replication of the electromagnetic dromonid language and their responses translated back in her ear buds.
Already the scabers were becoming restless inside their silent host. Their energies churned as they writhed. Before Andair could escape, her beloved dromonid was burst open spilling his infectious cargo into the void.
Exposed to the unimpeded radiation of space, the scaber’s eel like bodies burned with a brilliant orange and left trails of glowing debris. With only moments to survive outside of a host the parasites wasted no time.
Andair was caught in a swirling tumult of rock, dromonid tendrils, and streaming scabers. She would not get out of this by mere space swimming. Using the propulsion unit in her suit she sped out of the debris. Once clear Andair quickly took stock of the situation.
In the distance she saw her small shuttle diligently leading the herd away as it continued its musical calling. Closer, she saw the slow herd of dromonids marching silently after the shuttle, between herself and the herd a glowing swarm of spiraling worms was speeding toward her families livelihood.
She had to stop them. Without a hesitation she hurled herself after the swarm. Racing ahead, she positioned herself between the scabers and her herd. Readying her father’s blast pistol Andair fired a series of blasts. A few of the creatures burst and fell behind the accelerating school, but there were too many.
Adair couldn’t let them past her, she couldn’t let them infect her family’s herd, her father’s only hope. The creatures approached. Andair holstered her blaster and raised her lance. In an instant she was enveloped in a swirling glow of undulating creatures that raced past her. Her lance swung and cut down a swath scabers, their bodies bursting open on contact with her pointed spear. Again and again she swung and struck. The space around her became scattered with the broken and dead corpses of the creatures. A pitched cry rang out in her ears buds.
One of the Dromonids had been hit.
She had drifted much closer to herd than she had realized. Another dromonid cried out as a scaber impacted its thick hide and began to bore its way within. Ignoring the shuttle, the dromonids responded. Instead of hanging down like lazy strands of ivy, their long arms stretched out in every direction. Moving their bulky heads into a cluster they formed a massive tangled net of swaying tentacles. Their out turned mouths created a burning core with which they tried to incinerate and devour the scabers before they could infect. Many of the parasites burned up or were deflected by the swaying limbs, delaying their journey just long enough for the extremes of space to do their work. But it was not enough.
Scaber after scaber found its mark, and bore into Andair’s herd with their own fiery mouths. Motion from beside her pulled Andair back from the horrific scene. A massive tentacle was swaying toward her, she dodged just in time, only to be impacted from behind. But it was not a dromonid that had struck her. With a burst of energy the scaber opened its fanged mouth and began to tear through her exo-suit. Twisting and turning she could see the burning tail of the creature swaying behind her, but she could not shake herself free.
Andair swung her lance wildly behind her back. With relief she felt it make contact and a small puff at her back as the scaber’s fire went out. Red alarms flashed in her visor and alert tones sounded in her ear buds, but instead of fear, a strange calm blackness overtook her and all was silent again.
Awoken by the noise of gurgling, hissing, and monotonous beeping, Andair’s eyes snapped open. Directly in front of her, above her rather, was positioned a small square window. Through it she could see the gold tinted shapes of people looking down at her.
“She’s awake! Oh, thank God.”
“Father!” Her voice sounded muffled in the dense air of her confining cylinder. “What happened? Where am I?”
“It’s Ok ‘Dair, you’re at the Medic post.”
“Scabers! The herd…” weakness started to overtake her. She saw Olen by her father’s side, guilt and worry written on his face.
“It’s OK, its OK-” Her father paused to cough coarsely before continuing. “All that matters is that you are safe. Don’t you worry my dear. We will be OK… We’ll find a way.”
But his face betrayed the lie. Coughing again he slumped back into a chair, clearly exhausted. Darkness overtook Andair once again. Drowning in the noise of the life supporting machinery she closed her eyes in restless sleep, sleep filled with broken dreams and lost hopes.