The last place Simon expected to wake up was on an alien spaceship, but there are worse ways to start a NaNo novel…
This is the daily posting of my 2016 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) attempt at a novel. It’s a brand new world and new fictives and although I gave a shot at planning things (see: Chasing Falling Stars), it’s another pantsing effort. So MuseFics away! 🙂
Read at your own risk/amusement: There will most likely be spelling and grammatical errors afoot as well as flat out bad writing, info dumps, plot holes, contradictions/retcons, uneven characterization and pacing.
Daily Wordcount: 3,952
Total Wordcount: 16,082 (includes Title, Chapter Headers, etc.)
Of Dark Horses and Longshots
“So, you’re not sick anymore?” The Muse looked around at the odd setting. There were rows of long tables covered in white cloth and a plethora of computer equipment. “And where are we again?”
“Hackathon.” Said the Writer, not looking up from the notebook. “I’m volunteering, which is 99% sitting around waiting to be useful and 1% frantic scrabble.”
“Well that’s… nice?” The Muse grabbed a seat at one of the tables full of ghostly shadows of laptops and programmers. “They don’t mind us being here, right?”
“Not unless Cat and Simon start roughhousing. Again.” The Writer peered around suspiciously, but the fictives were thankfully absent.
“So are we getting started on that outline then?” The Muse eyed the giant pile of notes.
“Yup! So set the timer, it’s time to catch up!”
Waiting-by-the-water wasn’t quite sure what he had expected of the new crew member, but not this. He twitched whiskers in amusement at the memory of the creature enthusiastically throwing itself into working out an amalgamated version of their two languages.
The first thing they’d done was have Simon trade the face paint for hand gestures. It was a bit of a learning curve on both ends, but incredibly simpler. The cat hadn’t been much of a linguist before, but found it was a fun puzzle trying to work out what could be chopped from his heavily layered language and still keep the heart of the meaning.
The ship had kept out of the conversations and Cat had a feeling the mechanical beast was sulking. Their own efforts at communication had been a resounding failure, but if the ship had it put in even a small bit of effort over the years the cat had been onboard there was a possibility that they could have developed a similar system. Oddly the ship seemed to place the blame solely on Cat for not making a stronger attempt.
The ship had focused on communicating primarily with the previous crew member and Cat’s ruff shivered a little at the bitter memory. The movement confused the human who shifted to confused-concerned stance, with false markings that leaned towards worry that it had done something to offend.
Cat shook his head, mimicking it’s negative, and the human relaxed. The cat had been trying to learn the alien language as well, although they had both given up on trying to pronounce the words and settled on generic noises.
It was interesting how well they could communicate given the significant difference, although Cat chalked that up to the incredible effort the human was making. He had expected the same situation as the last few crew members, where they each talked to the ship and not each other.
He would have loved to explain what was going on, have true conversation about the ship and their lives and what it all meant, but that was beyond them still. But in a five-day if they had come this far… Cat held out hope that they could develop the language to the point of true conversation.
But for now, they concentrated on the basics. Cat shook himself out of his meandering thoughts and got back into the serious business of trying to work out a way to do conjugation.
“You are doing a lot of POV hopping,” the Muse pointed out. “Is that even necessary?”
“I think it’s needed, there’s no real way to intuit what Cat is thinking and it gives more depth of story when I use Ship.” The Writer leaned back and looked over her notes. “I might clip it back down again in the edits, but for now it’s a nice way to expand on things.”
“So I take it this book is going to end up with a lot of DVD extras?” The Muse mused.
Ship was not unhappy, per se. He wasn’t programmed with true emotions, but over the years he had grown into his own approximation of them. Or what passed as emotions to his new charges.
There were days when he regretted the loss of his original crew, it was hard to interact with aliens without having to modify his base programming. Looking back at the code he used to run and the code he ran now… it was a little like loss to see how far he had come.
There was always the reset switch, of course, or in a less drastic measure the other AIs that currently slumbered awaiting activation. Those were meant as teachers and caertakers for the generation of embryos in his hold that waited to be born.
If they ever would.
The sensors that watched behind them never blinked, never looked away from the shadow that followed them. It had been there since they journey started and would be there until something happened to break the stalemate.
Ship pulled his processing away from that endless loop if what-ifs that he had no solution for. The two current crew members seemed to be getting along, but the last one had caused such issues he wasn’t satisfied with maintaining only two at this point. Better to add a third, even if it had to be contained within one of the rooms.
But that meant stopping for another search and the shadow behind them was still too close.
The ship weighed the options, but he didn’t like the probabilities entwined with having such a minimal crew.
He keyed in the speakers in the common room where Simon and Waiting-by-the-water were working.
“Simon, please inform Waiting-by-the-water that we will be stopping for search.”
“I thought we were only having two crew members,” said the Muse as the Writer looked up from the keyboard with a yawn.
“Then why is Ship suddenly looking for another?”
“Because Cat and I were attacked by shadow things.” The Writer said, as if this somehow explained everything.
The Muse attempted to subtly look for hidden NyQuil bottles.
“Look, I didn’t have a lot of subplots thought out, this is… a subplot.” The Writer said. “Might not be the best one, but I need anything at this point. I’m four days behind at this point, editing is for December. For now, words.”
Simon tried to find a way to translate what Ship had said, but a lot of it turned into pantomime. He was a little annoyed that the voice hadn’t simply spoken in the cat’s own language. They might not have the best communications, but it was probably better than what they had worked out so far.
Once the cat had gotten the jist, it turned and started yowling at the ceiling with dramatic pattern flashing and posturing. Simon had no idea what he was saying, but it was easy to see the cat was upset about something. The faint citrus scent that spiked the air confirmed it, Cat only smelled like that when he was seriously frustrated.
The voice in the ceiling yowled back a bit, but Simon had no way to follow that. The language tones all sounded upset, so it was hard to pull the emotional context out. The conversation or argument was short and cat turned away with a huff.
The cat looked over at Simon and very carefully went through a simple conversation, pausing every so often to wait for Simon to either nod in understanding or to ask for clarification. The basics seemed to be that Ship would be doing something dangerous and they needed to move to a room Simon hadn’t been to before.
That was alarming, but most of the last week had been alarming and Simon was starting to get used to being stressed out. With a sigh he got up and followed the cat down the corridors to a circular room that was ringed along the walls with long couches. Cat hopped up onto one and stretched out for a nap.
Simon wasn’t sure quite what was going on, but he’d brought his tablet with him and he sat down to pull up the ship’s blueprints. Most of those hadn’t been translated into English yet and other than determining that the new room was at the center of the ship, he wasn’t able to discover anything else about it.
With a frustrated snort, he pulled up Ship’s translation program and started up where he had left off the night before. A lot of it was still simple stuff. The program would show him a picture and he’d type in the name of the object. Then there would be a short series of still photographs and videos that he’d have to describe what was going on. Then another battery of question and answers.
The more he used the program the more sophisticated the interaction became, but it was still a slow process. Compared to Simon’s language building with Cat it was also incredibly more boring, although probably more productive.
This time he tried to steer the program into talking around subjects based on the room. Which turned out to be an interesting combination of twenty questions and hotter-colder. In the end he was able to unravel that the room was some sort of safety location, better protected than other portions of the ship. It may or may not be an escape pod, although that concept didn’t seem to be one that the builders of the ship had envisioned.
Which meant they were either incredibly confident in the integrity of the ship or it was an incredibly stupid oversight.
He still hadn’t figured out the purpose or even type of ship yet. He’d asked several times, but both the tablet and voice from the unseen observer refused to clarify. Yet another reason he was trying to establish proper lines of communication with Cat. The feline seemed very familiar with the ship, even if it was obvious it had not been built with his species in mind.
There should have been no way to tell when the Ship had ceased acceleration, but the lights suddenly dimmed and Cat grumbled in his sleep.
A glowing three dimensional representation of what appeared to be their position in space slowly faded into being in the middle of the circular room. The flashing light that Simon guessed was the ship suddenly pulsed brighter and a series of smaller flashes popped in and out of being on the map, each one briefly encompassing a planet in the nearby systems.
This continued for a few minutes, the flashes expanding in a bubble around the ship. The suddenly the map cut out, the lights flicked as the ship lurched sideways.
Cat yowled unhappily, claws dug into the couch and fur rippling in static waves from his ruff to the tip of his tail. It was making Simon a little seasick to look, so he concentrated on holding onto the couch himself as the ship dropped sideways again.
“What’s going on?” Simon demanded as a disturbing series of noises came from outside the room.
“I miscalculated our lead,” said the ship, unapologetically. “I’m recalibrating from search mode, please standby.”
“Lead, what lead? Is something attacking us?” There was another violent shudder and Simon rolled off the couch onto the floor.
The voice didn’t answer, but the lights cut out completely and there was a lunge forward, or what felt like forward. After that the movements stopped and the lights gradually faded back on.
Simon waiting until Cat’s coat had settled back to mostly black with only a few starbursts of static before he tried to catch the feline’s attention.
“What the heck?” He waved an arm encompassing the room and the now missing hologram.
Cat huffed and looked thoughtful.
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Simon said with a sigh and made the hand signal for ‘unable to translate’. He looked over at where the door they had come through had been, but the wall was still blank. “Are you going to let us out anytime soon?”
“Repairs are in progress.” The overhead voice said. “Access to the crew quarters should be restored before your normal bedtime however food services may be delayed.”
Cat looked over at him with a curious chirp.
Simon did his impersonation of a frustrated-disappointment huff and drew ‘failed hunting’ slash marks down his right arm. After a moment’s thought he went with a ‘safe den’ circle and dots although he wasn’t sure how to approximate a time period.
Cat’s ears flattened and he bared teeth at the ceiling with a muttering yowl.
There was an answering growl from the ceiling and Cat turned away, curling into a ball on the couch and sulking.
Simon sighed, without Cat to talk to it was going to be a long afternoon.
“Wow, we leave you alone for a few days and you actually start getting stuff done.” Simon said with some amused amazement as he and Cat wandered into the shadowy hackathon room. “Maybe we should leave you alone more often.” He poked one of the programmer shades, but his hand passed through the competitor.
“I blame the DayQuil,” said the Writer, not looking up from the keyboard.
“Well at least you can’t blame us,” said Cat as he summoned the couch in an empty area against one wall and flopped on it in a boneless sprawl. “For once this is all you.” He dug out a bag of beef jerky from the interdimensional cushions.
“It’s not the most exciting of scenes,” Simon said, pausing behind the Writer and reading over the bits he’d missed. “We hide in a room, something vague goes on, and we keep hiding in the room.”
“I’m trying to figure out how much to explain to the reader at the time and how much to fill in later.” The Writer said, eyeing her notes. “I was going to swap to a Ship POV to round out what’s going on, but I’m honestly thinking of maybe just changing the POV to omniscient third once this draft is done.”
“I like having my own POV,” said Ship as he zipped in from the mists. “It makes me feel more rounded as a person.”
“Which you’re not,” grumbled Cat.
“Semantics,” interjected the Writer. “Just because he’s not organic doesn’t mean he’s not a person.”
“If I can’t kill it, how is it alive?” Cat sniffed, and refused to look at Ship.
“You aren’t that low tech a civilization!” The Writer objected. “You can’t seriously be that tied to the idea that only organic sentience is a thing.”
“So, I hear we’re headed planetside?” Said Simon, who looked at the banquet style seating considered summoning his comfy chair. After a moment he gave up and just sat down at the table.
“We were attacked by something in the mists.” The Writer said after a grumpy glare at Cat. “I need to figure out what they were.”
“You were what?” Simon eyed the story fog with alarm.
“Not here,” she said. “Out at the every edges of the story. I think they’re important, but I don’t know how.”
“Can’t we just leave them out there?” Cat said with a grimace. “Getting pummeled by semi-invisible wildlife was not a lot of fun.”
“I don’t think so,” the Writer glanced at the corners of the hackathon room where the fog was darkest. She was pretty sure there wasn’t any movement in those shadows. Probably.
“Then set the timer and let’s get going.” Said Simon.
The afternoon passed slowly, but Simon used it to try and force feed the translation program all the concepts he could think of surrounding space battles. Even with the additional vocabulary, it still wouldn’t tell him what was going on, but he was narrowing down the possibilities.
Something was out there that could -and would- do damage to the ship when they slowed down. He had no idea what it was, possibly another spaceship or some vacuum-based lifeform, or environmental stress, or even an issue with this ship when the components weren’t under constant acceleration.
Whatever it was, there was a chance it could kill them and there was nothing Simon could do about it.
Cat woke up from his grumpy nap a bit later and they tried to work out how to talk about what had happened in the room. Posture and markings added depth to the verbal elements, but Simon still wasn’t able to tell the difference between Cat’s words. The best they could do was map out basic emotional contexts and pantomime the objects and actions they were describing.
It was a little like building sign language from scratch, but since they had such a limited set of things to talk about, it should be possible. Theoretically.
After a long and rather frustrating conversation Simon worked out that this stopping and searching was a normal occurrence, but only happened when they needed new crew. The voice in the ceiling was refusing to answer any of his requests for clarification, although Simon wasn’t sure if that was because it was busy repairing the ship or just disinclined to help them.
Cat was not happy at that and was quite adamant that the entire time he’d been on the ship they had never had more than two crew members. Simon had a feeling this was because the alien hadn’t gotten along with any of the other crew, and he wondered if this was the time to bring up whomever had been in the crew before him, but stamped down that spark of curiosity.
The feline seemed to like him well enough, but there had been no explanation of what had caused it to kill the last crew member. As much as he was walking on eggshells now, Simon didn’t want to introduce any additional tension.
They weren’t any closer to figuring out what had happened or why before Ship finally opened the door again. The hallway leading from the crew quarters to the circular room was truncated, all of the branching to the other areas of the ship had been closed off with the same seamless bulkhead and Simon wandered how long it would be closed.
The ship remained silent the entire time, but there was a very basic dinner waiting when he got back to the room. Simon was sitting down to eat when Cat stalked into the room on all fours, dinner tucked up against his side by a forepaw. He gave Simon a quiet greeting huff and then curled up on the floor by the bed, keeping his eye on the door as he ate.
Simon had no vocabulary to handle the situation, so he ate dinner quietly, stepping over Cat when it came time to turn in his dirty dishes.
Cat’s dishes were apparently edible, because he was licking his hand-paws clean as Simon returned to bed. Cat rumble-purred as Simon stepped over him and then shifted against the bed until the feline was comfortable, still keeping watch on the door even as he started to drift off to sleep. The ship cut the lights down as soon as they were both in bed.
Simon spent a good chunk of time starting at the ceiling in the dark, trying to convince his inner voices that the fact Cat felt need to try and protect him wasn’t alarming. It made sense to have them both in the same room so they could help each other if anything went wrong, right? He tried not to think of all the lethal events that would be out of either of their controls.
He was trapped in space. With someone shooting at them. And a giant tiger that could still conceivably want him dead was guarding his bedroom. There really wasn’t anything in that list that was under his control and eventually he fell asleep.
“My life really is a bit surreal right now,” Simon said, reluctantly.
“I can’t believe you don’t have edible food containers.” Cat said, still pondering the concept. “Reusing those things can’t be sanitary.”
“I don’t suppose anyone wants to help me figure out how to get you planetside?” Said the Writer with a frustrated huff. “Nothing I can think of makes sense.”
“The probes are all broken?” said Ship.
“There’s too much signal interference?” offered Simon.
“Because you are the Writer and you said so,” Cat said, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, can’t we work out the ‘why’ next month and just skip to the ‘how’?”
“Oh.” Said the Writer who really hadn’t thought about how to get them planetside up until that point. “I suppose Ship could just land instead of sending probes from orbit.”
“That would make more sense,” said Ship dryly. “What with the whole ‘kidnapping people without killing them’ thing. Can you imagine what the probes would have to be in order to find, subdue, and return to orbit with someone?”
“Wait, does that mean you use old crew to capture new crew?” blinked the Writer.
The fictives looked at her for a long moment.
“Oh, yeah, right– they’d just run away and hide on the planet and then you’d have no one.” The Writer blinked. “I blame the NyQuil.”
“Are you sure you should still be writing today?” Asked Simon. “You’ve got all the words you needed for today, plus enough words to help us catch up to where we should have been on Day 9. That means we’re only three days behind now.”
“And you aren’t making a lot of sense,” said Cat. He shrugged when the Writer glared at him. “Well you aren’t.”
“I need a good reason to get you outside the ship on a planet, then I’ll quit for the day. You think you can come up with a better idea, then be my guest.” She sat back in the chair and glared at them.
“Okay, so that scenario would require that a) something outside the ship is required and b) it cannot be acquired via another method.” Cat looked up at Ship. “So what would be on a planet that is imperative to our survival?”
“Food, water, fuel, materials for repair.” Ship rattled off. “Additional sentients are optional as long as you two survive. I can harvest material to create water from the atmosphere. Food is synthesized from the biological matter raised in the greenhouse. Fuel is gathered as we travel through space, via ramjet, or from the atmosphere. Also, material to create repair parts would be easier to gather from small asteroids than a planet.”
“So there’s no reason to land,” said the Writer morosely.
“I can’t think of one,” admitted Ship.
“I can,” said Simon who looked quite smug.
There was a pause.
“Well?” the Writer said.
“It has nothing to do with our survival,” said Simon. “Look, we’re a decoy colony ship, right? So if we’re landing on a planet it’s because either one of their colonies already exists or a ship has crashed there.” He paused. “Or both, I guess.”
“Well that’s a thought.” Said Ship, rather taken aback.
“Wait, how would another colony ship have made it out here before us?” Said the Writer, who liked the idea, but was still a bit suspicious of plot holes.
“Wormhole,” said Simon, crisply.
“A) those are for informational scouting not travel and b) they are incredibly tiny,” objected Ship.
“Yours are,” sniffed Simon. “Who’s to say a full crew of engineers and a more perilous situation wouldn’t have driven them to create a larger one and try and use it?”
“Oooo, I like.” Said the Writer and immediately began trying to figure out how they were going to get from point A to point B in the plot.
“That’s actually pretty good,” said Cat and raised his glass in toast.
Simon was happily smug.