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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cloudstorm

The heavily gloved red fist came at her quick, sticking Maya in the eye just before she had a chance to dodge. Thankfully, she had on headgear, so while the blow jarred her head aside, she wouldn’t end up with a black eye. She threw her own arm out, striking her opponent in the ribs. He doubled over in pain briefly, and that’s what she wanted. While he was distracted trying to block another blow she sent to his ribs she shot out her other arm straight towards his head, slamming her gloved fist into his hear and knocking him back a step or two. That was when the alarm claxon went off.

Her and her opponent stopped, turning to look outside the boxing ring at the small group of people watching their boxing match. One of them, a tall man in the same blue jumpsuit the rest of the people were wearing, stepped forward.

“Okay, Maya and Pyotr,” Richard said. “Sounds like play time is over. Back to work everyone.”

“You mean we’re here?” Maya asked. “But I was winning!”

“You only think so,” Pyotr said in his heavy Russian accented as he exited the ring. “Now come, girl. We are at Jupiter. This is much more exiting.”

Maya had to agree. This was the culmination of all their work, and she wanted to see it with everyone else more than she wanted to finish the match. She shucked off her gloves and exited the ring right behind Pyotr. She took off the headgear but, like her fellow boxer, didn’t bother to head to the shower rooms to change into her uniform. She was a little embarrassed to be at this historic moment in her sweaty work out clothes, but it was too important to take the time and change first.

“Here we are gang,” Richard said. “After a year of travel, the Zeus has finally arrived at Jupiter. We’re going to be the first people to ever see the planet up close, folks. Let’s make it worth it.”

Everyone nodded, but no one moved right away. They all were watching out the view port to see the majestic sight before them. The swirling orange and yellow mass that was the largest planet in the solar system loomed large before them. They were finally here. The mission was to take samples of the clouds and see if maybe they could penetrate and find out what truly lay beyond them. So far, every probe that had been set to the gas giant stopped sending signals as soon as it entered the cloud layer, and none of them returned.

“Okay everyone,” Richard said after a few moments of silence, “It looks like we have an hour before we hit atmo, so let’s get to work. Maya and Pyotr, go shower and get into uniform. Everyone else, you know what to do.”

Maya and Pyotr nodded and turned to leave the observation room. Richard turned to watch them go, a slight smile on his face.

“Oh, and you two,” he said, causing them to pause and turn to look at him. “Please don’t take a shower together, we really don’t have the time.”

The two flushed and ran out of the room to go to the showers.

“Well,” Maya said in Russian, “that’s the trouble with living on a small ship with twelve people over a year. No secrets.”

“Da,” Pyotr said. He smiled at her. He had taught her Russian during the trip, and she had picked it up very quickly. It was one of the many talents that had landed her on this mission.

A short fifteen minutes later, Maya was out of the shower and dressed. She didn’t even wait to see if the large Russian was done or not before heading towards her station. Maya went down a deck to the engine room. She saw Rick there already, sitting at his station monitoring several screens that all displayed charts and graphs on them. She came up behind them to get a look.

“How’s things looking, Rick?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said without looking at her. He tapped a few buttons on his console and one of the monitors changed, showing a blow up of a particular chart with a large, red bar shooting straight up. “Looks like we’re having some increase in our intake of hydrogen since we got close to ol’ Jup out there, but I don’t think it’s anything we really have to worry about.”

Maya crouched down and looked. She nodded, agreeing with his assessment. But, they were about to hit the atmosphere of the gas giant.

“Shut down the scoop anyway,” she said. “If we’re getting this much of an increase just being close, imagine what will happen when we actually hit atmo.”

He nodded and clicked a few more buttons. The glowing red bar stopped rising, indicating that the hydrogen had stopped being collected, and turned blue. She turned to another consol on the wall and punched the button.

“Engineering to Commander Davis,” She said into the wall device. “We’ve shut off the scoop due to an increase in hydrogen, but otherwise, we’re nine by nine.”

“Rodger,” Richard said over speaker.

The next forty minutes went relatively smoothly, the engines only needing minor adjustments to make the transition from pushing off another planet to pushing against this one to slow down. By the time the countdown started before entry, the ship was exactly at the speed it needed to be.

“4… 3… 2… 1…” came the voice of one of the other three women on the Zeus. “Contact. We have entered the atmosphere of Jupiter.”

A cheer went up that could be heard not only over the speaker but also up and down the corridors of the small ship. Maya and Rick moved to the only window in engineering to watch the swirling colors that appeared as they entered the gas giant. It was mesmerizing. Until the ship shook. Lightning flashed outside the window, and Maya and Rick were thrown back. She hit a desk with her shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain. She couldn’t see where Rick went.

“Alert,” came Richard’s voice over the comm. “We’re experiencing some kind of storm. It’s affecting the ship pretty severely, and electrical systems are going out all over. Maya! What’s the status of the engines!”

She pulled herself up and ran to the console. It was sparking with electricity and totally useless to her. She ran to a port where she could give the engine’s a manual look over. They were sparking as well. This was not good. She slammed the comm. unit.

“Sir, the engine’s are down,” she said. “Whatever’s affecting the electrical systems has also effected the engines.”

“Damnit,” came Richard’s voice. “Then we’re in for a rough landing. Everyone, to the escape pods. Abandon ship, repeat, abandon ship!”

Maya quickly looked around for Rick, and saw him laying unconscious in a pool of blood by one of the work stations. She didn’t take the time to check on his wounds and instead just lifted him up and slung the small man over her shoulder, carrying him to the escape pod.

“Thank God the engineers that designed Zeus had the brains to put escape pods in every section of the ship,” she said as she dropped Rick onto one of the seats and strapped him in. She did the same for her self just as the ship shook again. Sparks flew over her head as she landed in her seat and she knew that the escape pod had been compromised. She didn’t have much of a choice, though. She strapped herself in and punched the big red button next to her seat, and prayed.

The groan of metal rubbing against metal let her know that the release mechanism wasn’t working. She slammed the red button again, and this time, she felt the pod free itself from the ship. It did not have view ports, or even controls of any kind, excepting of course the door controls and the release control. There was also a parachute control for water landings, but she quickly shut that idea out.

She pod shook, and she saw more sparks fly across the ceiling. Whatever kind of storm it was that was happening out there, it was harsh. She gripped the cross that hung at her neck, kissed it, and said another prayer. Another lightning bolt hit the ship, this time sending the electrical sparks flying through her. She screamed and fell silent, everything going black.

***

She awoke with a splitting headache. Did she have too much to drink? There wasn’t that much booze onboard, that didn’t seem likely. She remembered the match, against Pyotr, and wondered if she had lost due to a particularly well-placed blow to the head. Then, she remembered everything else. She snapped upright, regretting it immediately as the pain in her head doubled. She took a few quick breaths, letting the pain reduce itself to a dull roar and pressed the release button on her straps. She looked across the pod to Rick, and gasped. His neck was bent in a way that human necks were not meant to bend. Rick was dead. She tried not to gag, instead going for the door controls.

She was greeted with something she didn’t expect. Green leaves and foliage practically blocked the door from letting her out. Yellow sunlight streamed in from between the leaves, and she blinked. It looked almost like a jungle on Earth. Where was she? She pushed past the leaves and saw that, sure enough, she was in a jungle. A quick glance, however, confirmed that this was not Earth. Oddly shaped flowers and strange looking blue insects abounded. It was all so very beautiful.

She shook her head. Exploration and discovery could wait. She had something important to attend to. She used some rocks to dig a shallow grave, and then buried Rick in it. She lowered her head, kissed her cross, and said a prayer for him again. When she was done she realized that she was hungry. She went back into the escape pod and pulled out the emergency kit that lay within. It had a gun, a first aid kit, a tent and fire building tools and some basic foodstuffs, like power bars, dried fruit and nuts.

This wasn’t going to last her long. And the pods were meant for landing on Earth, where she would eventually get rescued, so there was no way to escape Jupiter with it. She was stuck here. So, she set up a campfire as the sky turned dark, and set about her work. She found a long, thin, hard stick of wood and used the knife to carve a sharp point to the end. She didn’t want to waist the few bullets in the gun hunting. When she was done, she went to sleep inside the pod.

The next morning, she set about finding herself some breakfast. It didn’t take her long to find a small rodent like creature, about the size of a small dog. It looked like a lizard, except that it had six legs and two tongues, one it used to constantly feel around it and the other to feed itself from the fruit it was eating. She threw the spear at it and struck home. She briefly hoped the thing wasn’t poisonous, and set about cooking it over the fire. It smelled fantastic, like roast beef or maybe even chicken. She chuckled over that. She pulled it off the fire and started eating. It had the consistence of chicken, but the flavor was unique. Kind of spicy, but good. She ate with enthusiasm.

A twig snapped behind her. She grabbed her spear and jumped to her feet. She saw something moving slowly out of the brush. It was sleek and black, with green eyes. It looked like a large cat, maybe a panther, but it also had two tails and six legs. It wasn’t growling at her or showing its teeth, however, and as she watched, she noticed that it was limping slightly on one of its legs.

It’s injured, she thought. It must have been drawn to the smell of the food. She pulled off one of the lizard’s legs and tossed it to the other side of the fire, in front of the creature. It smelled it and then sat down and started eating. She noticed that it never took its eyes off her. She ate her share while watching back. When she finished, she tossed the rest of the lizard at the creature and watched it devour it. After it was done, it sat with a rather contented look on its face and began to clean its paws and face.

Curiously, she walked closer to the creature. It watched her, but continued to clean. She came up to the middle leg. She saw that it had a good sized gash on it, that was still bleeding slightly. It growled as she started to touch it, and she looked right back at it.

“I can fix this,” she said to the beast. “It’s not too deep, and my first aid kit should help.”

It continued to stare. She got up slowly and went back to the pod to get the first aid kit. She returned half expecting to see the creature gone, but instead it was still lying there, staring at her. She came back up to it slowly.

“This is my first aid kit,” she said, showing it to the beast. “I’m going to pull stuff out of it to help your leg.”

She started by putting some salve on the wound, and the large cat let her, only sniffing some as she did so. Then, slowly, she wrapped the bandage around the wound, and with the exception of a growl when she wound it too tight, the beast stood still for the whole procedure. She smiled down at it, and it just licked its lips. It had been a long day, so she crawled back into her pod and wet to sleep, keeping the fire lit for the beast.

The few days went pretty much like this: She would wake up and hunt, bring back two or more lizards or a strange creature that looked like a cross between a bird and a bat and cook them. Her and the creature would share the food, and then she would go to bed. On the fourth day, the beast started to walk, and she took off the bandage.

“Okay, Bagheera,” she said, choosing a name for the creature from her favorite Disney Movie. “Let’s see what you can do.”

The creature tested the new leg for a bit, and then sprang off. She followed with her spear, but it turned out to be not needed. The creature led her to down several paths and to a river. She had followed it further than she had been away from her camp so far, and she was a little nervous that she wouldn’t find her way back. There was no sun in this sky to guide by. When Bagheera stopped, he was looking down a small hill to a herd. The beasts that made up the heard looked like a cross between a dinosaur and cow to Maya. One of those would feed the two of them for a month!

“Good job, Bagheera,” she said, and the two of them started down into the crowd.

She followed the cat as it started to pick out a choice looking creature that was slower than the rest of the herd. They stalked around, Maya following Bagheera’s lead. As they circled, Maya heard something snap that didn’t sound like a twig, but before she could react, the trap had sprung and the two of them fell into a deep pit.

Both she and Bagheera attempted to climb out of the pit, but it was too deep. Even if she attempted to help the cat by lifting it, the pit was still too deep. She slumped back, the cat curling up in her lap, and she sighed deeply. Whoever built this knew what they were doing. It didn’t take long before the creators of the trap came to pull them out.

They were vaguely human-like, with a head, torso, arms and legs, but beyond that it was obvious this was no human. The skin was a dark, brick red. The face had three eyes in a line, and two long slits instead of a noise. The hair was short and bristly. The chest was bear, but they all wore bandoliers across them. The arms ended in three fingered hands and the legs ended in feet that resembled the hands to the point that Maya suspected they could be used as hands.

There were three of them, and they spoke to each other in a strange language. Maya sat quietly as they pointed to her and Bagheera, and then left, probably to get help. Sure enough, a short time later, five more of the aliens were there to get here. She couldn’t believe her luck. Since landing she has made more miraculous discoveries. A real planet under the clouds of Jupiter. Life on that planet. And now intelligent life. But instead of greeting that life as an ambassador to Earth, or having any hope of bringing these discoveries back to Earth, she was now their captive.

The aliens threw a net down that effectively captured her and the cat, and hauled the two of them out. They spoke to her, but she shook her head.

“I don’t understand you fellas,” she said. “None of you by chance speak English, do you? Or maybe Spanish? Russian? Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

They seemed frustrated by her words, and started to shove and poke her.

“Hey,” she said, pushing back. “Stop that.”

One of them, pulling her out of the net, tried to grab her arms and pin them behind her back. She threw him off and gave him a right jab in the ribs. He stumbled back and she sent a hook that landed square with his jaw, dropping him to the ground. Another came up to her and she swung an uppercut into his jaw that threw him back a couple of steps. She followed quickly, staying inside his reach, and threw punch after punch into his ribs until he finally fell. She turned around, her hands raised in defense, waiting for another to come after her. She saw the remaining men just staring at her in shock. Finally, one pointed to her and said something. Another stepped forward and pulled something round and black off his bandolier. He threw it her and before she knew it, she was covered it a dark, sticky goo that constricted around her, preventing her from moving.

She saw that they had thrown one of those things on Bagheera too, though it appeared that he managed to get in a few good swipes himself. She smiled at that. They carted the two of them to some kind of wagon. She wished she knew what it was they were saying. If she could communicate with them, maybe she could find a way out of this. The wagon was pulled by one of those cow-dinosaurs, and after an hour, hooked up with a whole caravan of wagons, many of which had cages holding people in them.

Maya started when she saw that the people in the cages were different from the ones that had captured them. Not just a little different, like the different races back on Earth, but whole other species different. They were extremely human-like in appearance, with light green skin and sparkling blue eyes. They were exotic, and overall rather attractive as a people, given what she saw from the twenty or so that were in the cages.

They threw her into a cage as well, with Bagheera, on a larger dinosaur like creature that resembled a triceratops. Only one other person was in the cage with them, another of the green skinned people. After their captors left them alone and the caravan started marching again, the man they were with pulled a canteen from the floor and poured the water over the binding that held her in place. Quickly, the whole thing left her body and reconstituted into a ball.

“Thanks,” she said, but he obviously didn’t understand. “Can I have the canteen?”

When she pointed to it, he finally understood and handed it to her. She used it to release Bagheera. When he immediately moved to the back of the cage, she smiled.

“It’s okay,” she said. “This is Bagheera. He’s with me. With me.”

She shook her head when she realized that he didn’t understand. She shook her head and kept Bagheera on the other side of the cave. She curled up on the cage floor next to him and slept. The caravan pulled to a stop when the sky turned dark, and she awoke to rough hands pulling her out of the cage. They took her to a pit and threw her in. She saw that another person was in the pit as well, a very large, muscular green skinned man. The outside of the pit was surrounded with the red skinned people. She understood instantly. This was a fight.

The man charged her, probably wanting to get her in a hold. He was pretty slow, however, and she quickly ducked to the side. He did manage to get a slap on her back as he went by, and it took everything she had not to fall to the ground. She spun around quickly, her arms up in defense. This guy was strong. She needed to end this quickly. And so she did. The guy charged her again, and this time she charged back. She ducked his swing and placed a hard jab at his ribs. She followed up with a jab at his stomach, which caused him to double over. Quickly, she hooked down at his face, hitting him right above the eye. She hit him again and again in the face before he got in a wide swing, hitting her in the face hard and pushing her back.

She wiped away some blood from her mouth but when she looked at her opponent, she saw that he was more beat down than she was. She smiled. She knew she had won this fight already. She charged him this time, blocking a week, slow swing by him and hitting him hard with a hook to his face. She followed up with some body blows, and then jabbed at his nose. He staggered back, and she went in for the kill. Jab after jab into his face she went, hitting him as hard as she could, finally breaking his nose and spraying blood all over both of them. She stumbled to the ground and stayed there. She took a step or two back, whipping the sweat away from her face.

She looked up and noticed for the first time that the crowd was cheering. For her. Several of the men that had captured here were shaking hands with a fat, older man. At least she assumed it was older, because his hair was gray. They had set this up. They were showing off her fighting skills. She wasn’t quite sure why, but it gave her a very bad feeling.

They returned her to her cage, and the man in it came to her to check on her injuries. She was okay, but she let him anyway, because he was actually pretty good looking, and really it was rather pleasant. She fell asleep not long afterwards.

For the next several months, things continued just like this. The caravan would stop every few days, outside of a town she presumed, and they would throw her into a pit, where she would fight some other prisoner. Sometimes, it was a green skinned man, other times a red skinned prisoner. Occasionally, it was another woman, but not often. Always, she had no choice but to fight. During this time, the man she shared a cage with taught her the language all these aliens seemed to share. He was called Ryss, and informed her that the world she was now trapped on was called Dyphon according to the natives. He was just as fascinated by her as she was of him and his world. It didn’t take long before the two of them started talking to each other romantically. From the point of view of the other, they were each exotic, and it was exciting.

“So, you still haven’t told me who these people that hold us are,” she said one night in their cage, Bagheera laying between them.

“They are slavers,” he said, then explained the word he just used.

“Slaves?” she said. “That’s what we are? We’re going to be sold?”

“Most likely,” he said. “And you will be sold to a gladiatorial school, no doubt. You are gaining quite the reputation. The pink skinned two eye, they call you.”

“No,” she said. “We’re getting out of here, the first chance we get. I’m not sure how yet, but we’re getting out of here.”

A few days later, the caravan pulled into the spot that Ryss informed her would be the sight of the auction. It was little more than ruins in the jungle, with a city of tents in the middle of it. This was it, though, she knew. They had to escape soon. That night, she noticed something in the clouds that looked like lightning.

“Cloudstorm,” Ryss said when she pointed it out to him. “It is rare, but it does happen that the clouds above come down to the surface. When they do, they bring the lightning and heavy rain and mist. It is harsh weather, and everyone seeks shelter for it. That we will be stuck in one is a bad omen, I think. They will likely keep the slaves outside during the storm.”

“Cloudstorm,” she repeated. “This is our chance.”

Sure enough, Ryss’ words proved true. As the storm drew closer, most of red men disappeared. A few of the green men went with them, but for the most part the slaves were left outside. A guard came by their cage, and she started wailing.

“Please, you can’t leave me in here!” she cried, and shook the cave.

He looked up at her, and she broke out in more wild actions and cries. Anything to get his attention. He came up to the cage, drawing his sword, ready to put her down. Perfect.

“Please!” she cried, “I can’t stand the rain or the lightning! Please, you have to get me out of here! I’ll do anything!”

He poked her with the sword and she backed away, but she continued to trash and make noise. He opened the cage and came in. He threatened her with the blade, and that was all the Bagheera needed to see. He jumped on the guard, cutting him to ribbons in a matter of seconds.

“Come on,” Maya said, and grabbed the guard’s sword. “Let’s get out of here.”

The two of them made their way through the ruins very carefully. She thought she must cut quite the figure, in the tattered remains of her uniform, a sword in hand, black, six legged cat and a green skinned man following her. They spotted a couple of other guards, who were battening the last of the slaves down and moving to shelter. Three of them spotted them and drew swords. She charged.

She managed to take one down quickly by sheer surprise, running her blade straight into his chest. The other two came up to her and quickly she found herself on the defensive. Fencing was not her sport, and she realized that these two were better than she was. She already had several dozen cuts on her, and it would only be a matter of seconds before they killed her. That was when she saw one fall to a blade sticking out of his chest. When he fell, she saw Ryss, holding the sword of the guard she killed in her charge. He turned to face the other guard, and she saw that he was obviously more skilled in the blade that she was. He dispatched of the guard quickly.

“Where did you learn that?” she asked.

“Royal fencing school,” he said. She looked at him and blinked.

“Did I never tell you?” he said. “I am the crown prince of the high city of Kalishmar.”

“A prince?” she said. “No, you never mentioned that.”

He bowed low to her in a flourish that reminded her of some old Errol Flynn movie.

“Now what, oh Prince?” she said.

“Now, we free as many slaves as we can and flee before the storm is really upon is.”

She wondered how long that would be, as rain already w as falling. Strangely, it stung a little. They quickly set to work, and Maya discovered that there weren’t nearly as many slaves as she thought. Only a hundred or so. They freed them all as the rain started to fall harder, and then they lead everyone out of the ruins.

“Where to now?” Ryss asked her.

She looked around, and then spotted something. It was another ruin; something separated from the city, but appeared mostly intact. It was pyramid shaped, probably a temple or burial mound or something, she though.

“There!” she said, and they all ran. The rain was doing more than stinging, she saw. It was burning. Prolonged exposure to this stuff would surely kill someone. As best they could, they rushed everyone into the building. The last of them got in as a lightning bold struck the city ruins, causing a column of stone to fall. She and Ryss were the last ones in. It was cramped, but everyone fit, and the ceiling was still in one piece, meaning they could all stay there safely.

“We cannot stay long here,” Ryss said. “Once the cloud storm has passed, we should leave. They will no doubt look for us.”

“I don’t doubt they will,” she said. “We’ll keep a watch, then. As soon as the storm breaks, we all leave. The question I have is, where do we go?”

“Why to my city of course,” he said. “I know the way. These people are my people. You, my dear Maya, will be a hero.”

“Yeah?” she said. “I like the sound of that. A hero. Okay then, we wait out the storm and flee.”

The two nodded and then sought out sleeping space amidst the rest of the refugees. Maya looked at these people and thought of her situation. She wondered briefly if the rest of the crew of the Zeus survived. She vowed that she would spend the rest of her life searching Dyphon until she found them all.

But that is a different story.

The End

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