Eliazer Bronn hated the color blue.
His hatred for the unfortunate color was as acute and all-encompassing as it was pointless, as deeply felt as any love he’d harbored in his life, and, at the moment, it had so overshadowed every other aspect of his soul’s convictions as to become the whole of his personality. He was not hating so much as he was hate, a small, weak and useless unit of that feeling, primed and loaded like the laser cannons of a warship, aimed against the color blue and all its compatriots.
The forest that surrounded him just so happened to be blue.
The broken limbs of the looming trees bled blue, a visceral shade of indigo that cut a deep swathe in the teal-tinted jungle. The ground was midnight blue, almost black where it was torn up in thick clawing ruts, still smoking from the recent screaming heat, and littered with torn metal plates and scraps of red-hot machinery.
And at the end of that long gash ripped into the careless blue forest, sat a heap of twisted metal that, only minutes past, had been Eliazer Bronn’s spaceship.
The Last Chance was making small settling noises as the heat of the planet’s atmosphere began to siphon off its sides, making the surrounding air wobble like a watery reflection. Eli, standing back on unsteady legs and clutching a dripping arm, watched the red-edged bits of his ship curl in upon themselves.
He would have screamed, but the blunt-edged impact and terror of the crash had driven all the air from his lungs. He wanted to kick the bits of broken engine at his feet, but his legs were trembling and distrustful of themselves. He wanted, very much, to fight something–anything–but the only things around were trees, and he felt foolish enough already without trying to punch a tree.
There was a deep groan as the Last Chance sank lower into the soft blue earth. Shards of shattered glass fell free, tinkling to the ground with unnecessary cheer.
Eli let out a rage-filled roar and kicked the nearest bit of machinery. The compression box flew satisfyingly far into the jungle, but the roar stuck in his throat, catching at something which had been sitting there ever since he’d felt the sickly jerk as his ship had been pulled out of his control. Bending over to retch on the blue dirt and choking on burning acid, he felt the idiocy of his little tantrum like a brand between his eyebrows.
The ship eased itself another centimeter into the dirt.
* * *
By the time the sky began to darken with evening, Eli felt as empty as an abandoned mine shaft. He’d run out of energy to feel sorry for himself. It was a strange feeling. He was no stranger to exhaustion; Colony 9 had worked its inmates to the bone, and it had been rare that he’d had sleep or food enough to truly shake the persistent tiredness. He’d been able to work through it, though; dreaming of the day he’d buy his ship and be free, never stuck with his feet in the dirt of an alien planet again.
Pieces of that ship were now scattered over the ground, as trapped here as he was; and for once in his life, Eli could not stir himself to work through the apathetic laziness that made his limbs feel as though they’d been made of clay.
He kept moving as well as he could. He picked the shards of glass and rust out of his wounded arm and bandaged it. Ate one of the thin plastic-wrapped meal packs he was able to scrounge from the ship’s only partially-wrecked hold. Cramped as it was inside the ship, it was better than facing the disgusting blue of the jungle. He rolled a spare blanket onto the floor of the hold and fell asleep.
* * *
He awoke to the sound of something banging against the side of the ship. He listened without emotion for a moment, dream-hazy and blinking until the sound brought him to attention with a start. Something was hurting his ship. The varied possibilities of robbers, aggressive wildlife, and automated wrecking crews sped through his mind. The hold was stupidly lacking in weapons–why had he never bought a gun, damn how expensive they were, he should have been able to guess he’d need one–and he tore through it, frantic for something he could use instead. After a brief search, he tore a loose board from one of the meal crates. It was short and broad and over-light, but there was a half-rusted nail sticking from the end of it, so it wasn’t utterly useless. Eli gripped it tight and hoped that whatever was attacking his ship was small and easily frightened.
From the hold, he made his way carefully through the twisted hallway into the cockpit, and crawled through the shattered windshield, landing softly on the moist forest floor. The action brought back unpleasant memories of being flung free of the ship as it tore through the trees, but Eli swallowed them back. There were worse things than memories afoot.
The sound had changed. It was more hissing than clanging now, and a screech of tearing metal whenever the hissing stopped.
Hiss. Bang. Screech. Hiss. Bang. Screech.
With growing apprehension, Eli slow-stepped toward the sound, raising his board as he did, until there was only one corner of ship between him and it. He paused for a moment, stomped a heavy boot over the pounding of his heart, and took a breath.
He swung around the corner with a wild leap and a war-cry, board readied to bash in some unknown monster’s head.
The monster leapt away from the side of the ship, recognizable at first only as a mass of blood-red hair and a body that was small enough to stop Eli in his tracks. The war-cry died in his throat, and he stared down at the thing which stared back at him.
It was a girl.
Her eyes flicked silently to the board in his hands, and he in turn frowned at the ion laser in hers. It was alive and buzzing, blue light-beam active and deadly, and the metal sides of the Last Chance bore a perfect square cut-out, still glowing with heat.
“You’re scrapping my ship?” He shouted.
The girl, evidently judging that he and his board were no great threat, shut off her laser and scowled at him.
“It’s not your ship. Crashes are fair game.”
Eli’s knuckles went white around his board. Not his ship. No, he had only sweat and bled and starved to earn it. He had only given up twenty years of his life working for it. Not his ship, indeed.
“Not while there’s someone still alive inside!” he shouted.
The girl’s scowl disappeared in a flash, and she stared at the Last Chance with an air of surprise.
“There’s someone inside?”
“Me!” Eli snapped, waving his board. “I was inside. And asleep. I thought you were some kind of forest monster.”
The girl snorted, putting her laser back into a pouch at her hip.
“Well. I’m not a forest monster. I thought this was an abandoned ship.” she gave the Last Chance a regretful look. “Sorry,” she added, and as insincere as the apology sounded, it cut the feet out from under Eli’s rage.
“That aside, then, hello!” she said brightly, extending a hand. “The name’s Ketzal. What’s yours?”
He found himself shaking her hand, drawn into an assumption of friendship that he’d never agreed to, with no notion of how to go back to wherever the mistake had been and correct it.
“Um. Bronn. Eliazer Bronn.”
“Eliazer, huh? There’s a name. Where are you from?”
“From? Oh, ah–”
He stopped, distracted, when Ketzal turned away from him and knitted her fingers into a tenuous grip on the ship’s seams. She hefted herself up by it, scrambling a little as she climbed, and for a moment, all thought was driven from Eli’s mind as he stepped forward, ready to catch her in case she fell. She didn’t, though; she made it on top of the ship, sitting cross-legged on the uneven surface and grinning down at him. Her ropy red hair looked like an illustration from the days when mankind had yet to map the galaxies, and still thought that there were creatures besides themselves out there, in the stars.
She was looking at him, expectant, and he stopped thinking about aliens and galaxies.
“Colony Nine,” he said, and cursed himself as soon as he did. He wasn’t from Colony 9, even if he’d spent more than half his life there. He was from Red 16, and had spent every hellish year in Colony 9’s mines trying to return there, though he barely remembered what Red 16 was like. He remembered that it was home, and that had been enough.
He’d been more than halfway there. If he hadn’t crashed into this damned planet–
“Colony 9…that’s a mining planet, isn’t it? That’s cool.”
Cool? Eli scowled up at her. No, it was not cool. It was the opposite of cool. Men and women alike had died there, crushed by collapsing tunnels or poisoned by bad air or trapped in shafts too narrow to turn around in and there was never enough to eat and the wages had been a pittance.
He was too tired to argue.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh. Everywhere, I guess. I was born on a floating intergalactic base and I’ve been traveling ever since I can remember. Kind of an adventure thing. Where were you headed, when you crashed?”
“Red 16,” Eli found himself saying automatically, and cursed himself again. He didn’t have to answer. It wasn’t an interrogation. He could hold as much of himself secret as he liked, if he could only keep his mouth shut. He asked a question of his own in a spirit of vengeance.
“Where are we now?”
Ketzal looked around, her expression taking on a mischievous glint that had him cringing in expectation of some inane answer like ‘in the middle of a forest, hadn’t you noticed,’ but she seemed to think better of it.
“Blue 12 is what it’s called now,” she said. “The original settlers called it P’Rau-Migal.”
Eli didn’t care what the original settlers called it. He just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible.
“Is there a city nearby? Some sort of settlement?”
If the girl was collecting scrap, there must be someone she was collecting it for, which meant there must be civilization of some kind nearby, and that would be better than nothing. He was tired of blue trees. But the girl shook her head.
“There aren’t any settlements on Blue 12.” she said, with such grave certainty that Eli snorted a laugh.
“Really?” he asked. “Searched the whole planet yourself, have you?”
She raised her eyebrows at him.
“No. That’s just common knowledge. Popular knowledge, even. Every time humans try to settle here, they’re never heard from again. General consensus is that there’s a monster who eats them. The Beast of Blue Twelve. There’s even a film series about it.”
She was looking at him like he was stupid, and he resented it.
“Why are you here, then?” he asked sharply. “And why were you scrapping my ship? What are you going to do with scrap on a planet with no settlements–sell it to the monster?”
She grinned at him.
“I’m here because it’s dangerous, stranger Bronn. Not that it’s any of your business, but I was traveling here to find out about the Beast. The movies are awful, and I want to smash them with facts. My ship crashed the way in. It’s been a week, my rations are low, I haven’t seen a beast anywhere, and it’s boring here. I need to repair my ship, and I was hoping to do it with the parts from yours.” her tone was easy, but she cocked her head at him with an expression sharp enough to slice him in two, and added amiably, “Now, are you going to stop shouting at me any time soon?”
He had been shouting, he realized. And holding a board with a nail in it. He took a breath, trying to tamp down the anger that was still struggling to claw its way up his throat.
“Sorry,” he said. If not a completely sincere apology, it was as least as sincere as hers had been. Perhaps they were even.
“It’s all right.” Ketzal said. “I wouldn’t be cheerful either, if I woke up to someone taking an ion laser to my ship.”
There was a short silence, in which Eli stared out into the blue trees–still waving softly in an unsatisfying breeze. He still hated them. But there was no reason to hate anything else, however much his bitter heart felt like it.
Eli set down his board, sticking the protruding nail into the blue soil and looking back up at the girl on top of his ship.
“Hungry?” he asked.
* * *
“It doesn’t look so bad, up here,” Eli said, half an hour later. Ketzal had given him a hand up, and between that and some lucky scrambling, they were both sitting on top of the Last Chance. There was something about being even that short distance closer to the sky that made everything easier to bear, somehow. After spending years stuck in the innards of the earth, Eli had learned to love the sky.
Even when it happened to be orange.
“Yeah, I get depressed when the trees tower over me for too long,” Ketzal said, licking the remains of her second packaged meal off her fingers. She had been hungry.
Eli nodded. Belly full, his mind was a great deal calmer. Easier to manage.
“Why’d you hate them?” He asked, sudden-curious.
“The Beast movies,” he clarified. “Why’d you hate them?”
She looked at him oddly, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. With a slight frown on her face, she started again, seeming to think while she talked.
“I dunno. They were just…there’s this big old monster, right, that’s been around forever. And in the first movie, it just…kills people. No real reason, it just roars and rages and they die off one by one. And it’s so popular! I just…” she shrugged. In her sharp-edged, wire-thin body, the gesture looked like she was trying to stab the sky with her shoulders. “I don’t get it. It annoys me,” She finished, looking down to swipe some leftover meal residue from the inside of the packet. Eli felt a smile tugging at his lips.
“Ah,” he said. “And clearly, the best way to respond to things that annoy you is to crash a spaceship on an abandoned planet to prove them wrong.”
“Hey,” she protested. “I have theories. This is research that will benefit posterity!”
“Oh! Where to start…okay, so. I looked for the original settlers of this place, and it turns out that the farthest back we can trace is to some race of mystery inhabitants–all they left behind were some outgoing radio signals in a language that no one speaks anymore. It sounds a little like old-style star pidgin, a mix of Russian and Hindi and English, but no linguist can really get heads or tails of it.”
Eli’s eyebrows flicked up. “Foreign species?” he asked.
“Eh,” Ketzal replied, screwing up her nose and waving a hand dismissively. “Doubtful. Probably just some of the old empire-builders and one of their lost societies. Anyway, they can’t send anything to the surface of Blue 12, but from the outer atmosphere, there’s no sign of any building projects, and there should be. If, that is,” she held up a finger, “The planet was ever occupied at all. I think that this entire planet is a conservation forest, or maybe private hunting grounds, for some person or society long dead. The garbled radio signals are probably ‘no trespassing’ signs, and the so-called Beast is probably just a security system of some kind, still operational.”
She sat back as though she was anticipating applause; but Eli was staring over her shoulder.
Around Ketzal’s second mention of radio signals, something had rustled in the trees. He’d kept listening, even as he squinted to try and make out what it was; but when it stepped free of the trees, the whole of Eli’s interest had fallen away from trespassing signs and security systems to focus in its entirety on the creature at the edge of the forest.
It somehow managed to look like a cobbled-together mass of parts, even while it moved with a kind of easy grace that Eli had hitherto associated with snakes and dancing women. It had the legs and body of a deer, but a humanoid torso where the neck ought to have been. Its head was perfectly round; two dull, dead eyes and no mouth, and it was crowned with a set of perfectly curved, deadly-sharp antlers. He thought it was alive at first, until a step made it glint sharply in the sunlight. It was metal, though rusted and old. Moss and weeds were growing on it; some kind of flowering vine had wound itself through the antlers, drifting around the creature’s head like a veil.
Its head turned slowly towards them, camera-lens eyes staring blankly into Eli’s own. It seemed dangerous to look away.
“Ketzal,” he said softly. “I think you’ve got your Beast.”
Ketzal turned to look. The machine was a bright speck of red and silver at the edge of the blue forest, and though he couldn’t see Ketzal’s expression, he saw her back stiffen as she locked eyes with it. Then she relaxed.
“That doesn’t look like a security enforcement bot,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll bother with us.”
Eli, still haunted by the emptiness in those not-quite eyes, gave her a look that she missed.
“Are you sure?”
“Completely. Look at it. It’s built for agility and blending in with the wildlife, not terror and destruction. I bet he’s some kind of ancient mobile security camera.”
She turned around again, grinning at him as though he was child frightened by a warp-rat.
“We’re in no danger from that thing.”
“Um,” Eli said, eyes still fixed on the thing at the edge of the woods. It was studying the deep ruts in the earth, the broken and still-bleeding trees, following the path they cut to the Last Chance. Expressionless though its face might have been, something in the way it raised its head to watch them once again seemed anything but friendly.
“Are you really sure about–” he began. The machine tossed its head, a flash of knife-sharp prongs in the sun, and charged.
Eli only had time to yelp an incoherent warning before the beast collided with the ship’s side, rocking it out of its earthen grave and throwing Ketzal and Eli free. Eli had a brief impression of seeing the world perfectly upside-down, the branches or the trees reaching root-like to drink from the sky, before the ground knocked the air from his lungs. His head felt as loose as an unscrewed lug nut, and there was dirt in his mouth, but he was on his feet again before he was able to properly think.
Ketzal was struggling to get herself upright, looking as dazed as he felt, and he took a few stumbling steps towards her to help her up.
“What the…” she whispered, staring.
The beast was attacking the ship. There was a terrible, grinding screaming as its antlers tore the metal like paper; delicate hooves trampled the remains flat. There was a fury in the way the thing worked, as though the existence of the Last Chance was a personal insult.
Every blow to the ship was a blow to Eli’s heart, and he watched with shaking limbs.
“We have to run,” Ketzal was saying. “If that’s the beast, we’re gonna be next.”
She had a hand on his arm, oddly warm against his skin, trying to pull him away; but the impact of being thrown from the ship had taken all the strength from her, and all the mobility out of him.
“Come on,” she said. “We have to get out of here, come on–”
Eli read the panic in her voice, but it meant nothing to him. The dark-eyed, soulless thing was methodically ripping apart his ship. His ship. The ship he had worked for, twenty years wearing away the skin of his fingers and the bones of his back in the stone-shafted mines. The ship that had seemed like freedom when he stepped into it for the first time. The ship that had been taking him home. All being shredded and stamped into the blue unworthy earth of an abandoned planet.
He felt like doing a great many things with that creature. Running away from it was not one of them.
Ketzal was still tugging on his arm, and Eli wondered briefly why she hadn’t just left him behind yet. She could have run whenever she wanted, if she hadn’t been so hell-bent on dragging him with her.
Something was glinting in the torn-up earth, catching his eye, and he bent to pick it up.
“Leave the stupid ion laser!” Ketzal shouted at him. “We have to go!”
A laser, Eli thought. He switched it on, and it have him two and a half inches of deadly blue light.
Maybe, he didn’t hate the color blue so much, after all.
And without a thought beyond how dare that thing rip up my ship, he shrugged free of Ketzal’s hold on his arm and strode forward.
“Hey, you!” he roared, as the beast tore another swathe into the ship’s engine. It stopped, looking up at him with dead eyes. The flowering vines were bruised and torn, dripping with thick yellow fuel, but they still swung lazily from its antlers as the beast cocked its head. It turned to focus on him, its deerlike legs high-stepping through the wreckage, and Eli tightened his grip on the ion laser.
“Get away from my ship,” he growled. “Now.”
His heart was pounding. The beast looked a great deal bigger now than it had a moment ago, but the rushing in Eli’s ears had drowned out fear and common sense alike.
When it charged him, Eli was anything but ready.
He’d planned the initial slash of the laser from the moment he’d switched it on. As the beast charged, Eli made a desperate slash at its face, across the twin lenses of its eyes. If it was blind, it was helpless, he remembers thinking.
After that, the great sharp-edged weight of the metal monster was on top of him, and Eli had no plans whatsoever. He stabbed and slashed the laser at whatever he could reach. Hot fuel splashed over his face and arms, burning his skin, and for a moment he was utterly certain he’d just done something monumentally stupid. He was going to die.
Then the metal limbs stopped struggling, and the heavy torso fell still. Eli choked on his own breath. As the pounding of his heart faded, the only sounds to greet it was the dull clicking of a recently disabled machine, and the sharp fizzle of temperamental electricity. Filled with a sudden panic at being trapped under the weight of the dead thing, he struggled, trying to shove it away. Hands were helping him, tugging the corpse away as he pushed it, and he was finally able to breathe. Bruised, certainly, but very much alive.
Ketzal was also alive. Eli stood on shaking legs. Between them lay the shell of the beast, clicking out its last.
“That,” Ketzal panted at him, “Was incredibly idiotic.”
The laser in his hand was still buzzing. Eli clicked it off, still staring at the corpse. He felt a sickly bruise forming on his stomach where one of the beast’s hooves had nearly punctured the skin, and remembered the moment of blinding terror when the thing’s antlers were coming at him and he almost forgot how to duck. A few seconds of forgetfulness more, and it would have been his body on the ground, reduced to meat.
‘idiotic’ seemed like a perfect description.
“Should we have run off and let it kill us both later?” he asked, instead of voicing his thoughts. “It was gonna come for us, either way. Might as well…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Words were jumbled, half meaningless, in his brain.
“This is yours,” he said instead, handing the laser back.
The forest was towering again, feeling heavy as the ceiling of a mine shaft above him. Half of his ship had been torn and trampled into the dirt, and the gaping hole left in its side was trailing fuel lines and gears like innards. He was alive, and the thing at his feet was not, but he felt anything but victorious.
“Well then,” Ketzal said beside him. “Looks like we’ve got two broken ships and one ancient, dead…machine thing.” she kicked at it, then looked up at him with a grin. “Between ‘em all, think we can cobble together a working way off this place?”
Eli blinked. The dull hopelessness that had been sneaking up on him stopped in its tracks. He looked at the ground again, trying to see past what was unsalvageable to what was. He saw…parts. A lot of parts.
On the ship’s side, the scrolling script of the painted-on Last had been torn away; it now read, in bold, unaplogetic letters: Chance.
Eli found himself almost grinning back.
“You know,” he said, “I think we can.”
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