Chapter One

Aug. 18th, 2018 12:22 am
keaalu: Fractal flame that slightly resembles feathers (Apophysis - peacock)
[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] runsfromsilence
Title (chapter): Runs from Silence (01)
Rating: PG-13
Notes: Jess and Teeja are late getting "home" to their ship, and get waylaid by something in a cage. Jess isn't sure if it wants help, or just to eat them... but he feels obilged to let it out anyway. Teeja is outraged!

All right, this is the only chapter I PLAN (keyword: plan) on posting until I get the first draft finished. Mostly because I don't know if I ever WILL finish it, because my writing productivity is very low these days. (Lots of demands on my time, less energy to spend on them all, I suppose?)

Anyway! Welcome. The tiny germ of inspiration for this came from another author's story, but I can't talk a lot about it without giving away the kernel of the plot (the reveal of which doesn't occur until about halfway through).


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“Jess! Will you stop dawdling? You’re gonna make us late – again.”

Technically, Jess and his friend Teeja were already late. It was the only reason they’d risked the ire of harbour police by sneaking through a hole in the fence, instead of make the long slog through security.

But Jess didn’t need to know that – he’d only end up making them later. The laima’s lackadaisical approach to timekeeping was a regular source of the vulline’s anxiety, and tonight was no different. That she’d managed to drag him away from the town centre festivities at all was a small miracle.

Autumn had finally landed, and the Festival of the Twin Moons was in full swing. The city centre was heaving, with what felt like half the population of the entire continent coming to join the biggest party in the hemisphere. It was the only reason the interstellar shipping harbour was so quiet – cargo-loading had finished early, and crews were either preparing to depart, or taking advantage of the festival for a bit of well-earned downtime.

Jess, naturally, was taking said downtime when they should have been leaving. Never aiming higher than his job as a cargo handler had never instilled any sense of personal responsibility in the spur’s dark head. Teeja still wasn’t sure why their planetary visit had been scheduled for such an inopportune time, because the first officer knew just as well as her that Jess wouldn’t be able to help himself.

She glanced back over her shoulder to find Jess had stopped, again, and now stood looking lost in a dirty pool of light from a half-lit floodlight above.

“Jess-!” she hissed. The early autumn chill made her words emerge in small twinkling clouds. “Pity’s sake! What are you standing around for?”

“Didn’t you hear that?” The spur turned briefly to face her, pointing vaguely off into the distance.

“Hear what?” She folded her arms over her chest in a vain attempt to keep the warmth inside. “The unmistakable sound of the captain docking my wages because you made us late off the berth again?”

He flapped an annoyed hand at her and turned to peer back into the gloomy avenues between the stacks of cargo. “It sounded like someone calling for help.”

“Someone? Like who? Did you forget the port is closed?” For a couple of heartbeats, Teeja just stared at him, her large ears twitching subtly in an effort to pick up the sounds her friend had heard. “There’s no-one here. Come on.”

Jess bared his teeth in an uneasy grin. “Then ain’t it more important that we quickly go check it out? Some poor soul coulda been stuck and yelling since festival started.” He carefully avoided elaborating on the fact that Teeja, whose hearing was infinitely better, had apparently heard nothing. “Let’s just get a quick eyeball.”

The vulline watched him wheel about, and head deeper into the stacked cargo, vanishing into one of the dark avenues. She cursed him softly under her breath. “Jess. It was probably just some poor docker that didn’t manage to get the time off work. We can notify security on departure!”

He didn’t reappear, though. She followed him into the lane, uneasily. With no lights to illuminate them, and only the thinnest rinds of new moon in the sky above, the endless rows of shipping containers stretched up and away until they vanished into the dark. Anything could have been hiding in the gloom.

At least she didn’t have to worry about getting run over by a tractor. Small blessings.

“My cousin in departures control only agreed to waive the fine if we made a half-hearted effort to get back to the ship on time-!” she reminded, in an uneasy half-shout. “We’re already late!”

Jess was already an indistinct figure several dozen gangling strides ahead. “So you head back to Vee-Six, and let ‘em know I’m just behind you? The pilot can start prepping the engines to go, right? I’ll not be long, I think it came from just down here. There’s a light ahead, see?”

The pool of light revealed itself to be at the entrance to a large warehouse. Livestock, the big sign above the door read. The main roller door was partially open, and the soft clicks and squeaks of mostly-slumbering animals echoed from within. Jess paused outside.

Teeja finally caught up with him. “So you heard an animal,” she said, flatly. “Mystery solved. Can we go, now?”

“Maybe, I guess?” Ignoring the Permits Required for Entry sign, Jess headed through the open door. “Gimme the count of one hundred to check, eh? I’ll let you know.”

Teeja loitered in the doorway, short tail twitching subtly, eyeing the rows of crates and cages with dismay. “We don’t have the right credentials to be in this warehouse, anyway.”

Jess glanced back at her. “S’fine. There’s no-one around to see us, remember?” His bluster wasn’t very convincing, though, and his hunched shoulders spoke of discomfort.

“Exactly! What if something falls on your head? There’s also no-one around to hear us yell for help.”

Their speech had disturbed a small flock of domestic venca fowl, who were now climbing the bars of their crate and cawing at them, softly. The little animals often mimicked the sounds around them, and their noise right now sounded suspiciously like sentient voices, shouting nonsense.

“You sure this wasn’t what you heard?” Teeja peered in at them, leery of getting too close; little hands reached out through the bars, determined to grab her jewellery.

“I don’t think so. There was only one, and it felt loud.”

Felt loud?” Teeja echoed, but before she could challenge him further, her comm began to warble in her pocket. “Gavos – that’s Mara. She’s going to want to know where we are…”

Leaving Teeja to fend off the first officer’s demands to know why in mercy they weren’t back at the ship, yet, Jess edged a little further into the warehouse. The atmosphere in the building had a strange weight to it; he felt like he was being watched, and not by an animal.

Part of him – a very large part of him – wanted to take Teeja’s advice and finish the short journey home. A warehouse full of nothing but livestock shouldn’t leave him feeling like all his nerves were being stretched out like bowstrings.

But that tiny residual portion of his psyche wanted to know why. Something had pulled him here, and he knew he’d feel uneasy for days if he didn’t figure out what.

But it was all just animals.

Right?

“…anyone here?” he called, quietly.

From somewhere close at hand there came a tearing, creaking sound.

Jess jumped harder than he would have liked.

“What was that?” Teeja demanded, in a stage whisper.

Jess didn’t reply. Ignoring the way he could feel his heartbeat echoing subtly into each breath, he pushed deeper into the gloomy building. The rough concrete floor suddenly felt very cold under his toes.

And around the corner, tucked away deep within the warehouse, he found the source of the noise.

In the far corner, lit by a single bald shaft of artificial light spilling in from a high window, stood a large solitary crate. Made of rough wood, battered and filthy and haphazardly bored with an array of small holes for ventilation, it had clearly been subject to a lifetime of use and abuse. One corner had been completely splintered and crudely repaired with a couple of nailed-on slats. The rest looked held together primarily with staples and rope. Broken slats left narrow voids that sucked in the light.

The remains of a dirty blue tarpaulin shrouded the rear of the crate, but the occupant had evidently shredded the parts it could reach - scraps of torn blue fabric lay scattered across the floor, fragments of it still protruding from the holes in the container.

Whatever was inside the crate didn’t appear to have got through unscathed, either. Dark brown spots and smudges of what looked like it might be blood discoloured the outside, and a thin trickle had puddled ominously under one front corner.

Not entirely sure why he felt the urge to do so, Jess approached it. He stood an arm’s length away, and stared down at it for several seconds, not sure what to do next.

Teeja put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a little tug. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here,” she whispered. “Mara’s having a litter already.”

Jess gave her a glance; her thin gingery pelt had all bristled up around her face, leaving her looking like an alarmed thistledown. “All right. Just gimme one moment…” He inched as close as he dared, and peered inside. “There’s someone in here.”

“It’s a livestock shipping container, in a livestock holding block. Were you expecting it to be empty?”

“I didn’t say an animal. I think it’s a person? Kind of?”

Teeja hesitated. “…a person?”

As though in answer, a large, bloodshot blue eye pressed as close as it could against the gap in the crate, making Jess jump back and collide with Teeja, startled. She gave a squeak of alarm and would have bolted if not for having him cling to her.

The creature managed to squeeze out a dry, painful sound that could have been anything from a groan to a cough to an attempt to speak. It slotted a set of large, blunt fingers out through one of the gaps and curved them over the broken wood, tugging backwards. The wood creaked, but in spite of the crate’s overall damage, it had little impact. The creature coughed again, a fracturing bark through a sore throat.

Jess examined the broad digits without getting too close. They looked big; definitely bigger than his slim fingers, tipped with blunt claws that could have done some serious damage if they managed to get hold of his softer bits. It was easy to assume their owner might be likewise on the large side. He swallowed hard, his throat dry.

Its meaning was obvious. Get me out. It looked like it had been battling the crate on its own for some considerable time already. Blood and splinters clung around the ragged claws.

“She’s tearing herself to pieces, trying to get out of there,” he said, quietly.

She?” Teeja echoed.

Jess gave her a funny look. “Figure of speech?” He didn’t sound too certain, though. “I think it was her that I heard shout.”

“Except we just heard it bark. That didn’t sound anything even like words.”

After several seconds of staring at him, Teeja finally realised Jess had already picked up a convenient crowbar, and was examining the crate as though working out which was the best point to attack it.

“Wait- what are you doing?!” Alarmed, she grabbed the other end of the tool. “You can’t be thinking of letting it out-…?! That could be anything in there! It could be a people-eating-monster, for all we know-!”

“I think she’s hurt?” Jess glanced towards the congealed black puddle on the floor. “She’s been bleeding.”

“You have no idea where that blood came from, if it even is blood. It could be from whatever the thing last ate!” Teeja tightened her trembling fingers on the crowbar. “And that might have been the last poor idiot that came snooping in a warehouse he shouldn’t even have been in!”

“And what, she somehow locked herself back up in a crate for the fun of it?”

That might be why it’s in the crate, Jess-!” Teeja snapped, frustrated. She yanked on the crowbar but Jess refused to let go of it. “Because it’s dangerous!”

He stared her out. “Then there’d be a sign, Teej. Maybe a fence. Do not approach, dangerous animal?”

“Why are you suddenly so obsessed with this, anyway? We’re late as [shit] already, Jess.” Teeja steered him into an about-face, so he was facing the warehouse door. “I can’t lose this job, and I can’t absorb any more of your fines. We can tell security on the way out if you’re that worried.” She gave him a little shove, to get him moving.

Behind them, in the crate, the whatever-it-was gave a long, beaten sigh, and slumped out of view, fingers slipping away from the cracks it had managed to tear in the wood.

Something weird tickled at the back of Jess’s brain.

It… wasn’t strictly words. Not as he understood them. But it was definitely a plea for help.

“It’ll be too late, then.”

“…What?”

Teeja turned to see Jess pick the pry-bar back up, and before she could make an alarmed leap to stop him, apply it to the crushed corner of the crate, close to where it had been nailed closed.

With Jess wielding his crowbar on the outside, and the animal shoving with a renewed enthusiasm from within, it didn’t take many seconds to defeat the badly-driven nails holding the box together.

Together, they made enough of a hole for the prisoner to squeeze through. It thrashed clumsily out of the box, spilling through the gap like a desperate newborn, and landing in a painful tangle of limbs on the concrete.

It… didn’t look much like a person at all.

It looked more like an animal. A half-starved one.

Jess found himself suddenly doubting his chosen course of action.

Teeja put Jess between herself and the creature. “Well done. Now we’re gonna get eaten.” Her voice sounded as thin and brittle as Jess’s nerves.

The animal managed to get its forelegs underneath itself, and pushed itself unsteadily to its feet, leaning against the crate while it found its balance. It was big, the top of its back level with Jess’s armpits – it would never have been able to stand upright inside that tiny box. It stood shakily on four long, bandy limbs, with what could have been small arms or undersized wings furled tightly against its back. Its body was slender and elastic, as thought it had been either bred or evolved to run, with a long slim neck that would have probably made it taller than Jess, had it been standing fully upright… but its head sagged low, as though it was too exhausted to hold it up properly.

Unsurprising, considering how heavy that head looked, with a large skull to hold a big brain, and bright, forward-facing predator’s eyes that gave it a look of alien intelligence… and long, slender jaws that no doubt contained far too many sharp, serrated teeth.

Although right now? It looked too tired and hurt to pose that much of a threat. A filthy ghost in the gloom of the unlit warehouse, its pale hide covered in dirt and blood and god-only-knew what else. A collar dangled loosely around the base of its neck.

It took a single uncertain step towards them, flinching when its paw touched the ground.

Both Jess and Teeja took a big reflexive step backwards.

The animal stilled, halfway into making a second step.

For several seconds, they just stared at each other.

“All right. Let’s just back away from it,” Teeja whispered, in as low a voice as she could manage, tightening her fingers around Jess’s arm and pulling. “Before it decides to eat us, yeah?”

Jess finally allowed himself to be led. “…right.”

They backed up the entire length of the warehouse, trying not to bump against the other crates. Even the chattering venca in the entrance had gone spookily quiet.

It stood silently and watched them back away until they vanished from view around a corner.

The instant they were out of sight, Teeja flattened herself against the closest container, and peered cautiously back around it. “Fantastic.” She pursed her thin lips and shot him a glare, although the effect was ruined by the way she trembled. “It’s following us.”

Jess peered around the cargo; sure enough, it was making slow, steady progress down the centre of the aisle, limping clumsily and trying not to put pressure on its right forefoot. It reminded Jess of a pet that had been beaten into obedience, following them because that was the only option open to it.

He had the sudden horrible thought that maybe it had somehow imprinted on him.

Skeida.

He eyed the stacked crates. “Should we let something else out as a distraction?”

“Yeah, let’s just compound the problem. Good plan.”

Jess gave Teeja a little shove. “Fine. it’s limping, right? It won’t be able to keep up with us if it can’t walk, and we can just lose it in the cargo.”

The vulline stared at him for a second or two. “You just let it out, and now you’re going to abandon it?”

Jess stared back. “I… uh.”

Why had he felt so compelled to let it out, anyway?

He staggered his way to what he hoped was a passable excuse. “I figured maybe it could go to a doctor? Or-or… someone would find it. Take it to a vet. Maybe?”

Teeja’s expression didn’t change. “Seriously?”

“Well I didn’t think it was gonna follow us, did I?”

“Most of the time, you don’t think, end of story.” She found his hand and gave him a tug to get him moving, and together they made a hasty retreat to the warehouse door. “I told you to leave it alone. How are we gonna get rid of it?”

Jess took the lead, trotting out of the puddle of dirty white halogens at the warehouse entrance and ducking into the void between the stacks of cargo. “We just have to get back to Venture. We can lose it when we get aboard. It can’t exactly follow us into outer space.”

The animal drifted into view behind them, like a persistent ghost, albeit now silhouetted between the neat lines of containers.

“Fine. It’s limping, we can outrun it.” Teeja broke into a jog, overtaking him. “Then when we get back, you can pay my share of the fine, for this jolly timewaste you’ve dragged me into.”

“I-… sure.” Jess fell into an ungainly trot behind her.

The animal moved to follow suit, but staggered and stumbled over its own sore feet, tripping against the cargo. It gave another weirdly-pleading cough of protest-

And Jess felt that same weird tickle at the back of his brain. Something that could have been words, or a feeling, or a mixture of both, and neither belonged to him. His stride faltered. He knew for definite that it needed help.

…Or perhaps this was how it caught its prey.

Jess pushed the thoughts away and lengthened his stride from an uneasy jog to a flat run.

Teeja swore softly – something about only having to run faster than the other person, if chased by a hungry monster – and struggled to match his pace. Her breath came in sharp, frightened pants.

They both heard the animal lurch into a stumbling canter – listened as the slap of its paws on the road surface evened as it somehow managed to hit both momentum and rhythm.

“S’fine. Ship’s just around the corner,” Jess reassured, although his own words were punctuated with irregular gasps. “Mara’ll be there. Door open. All ready to yell at me, I bet!”

Teeja managed a noise that sounded halfway between a curse and a sob. “This thing eats me,” she choked. “An’ I’ll haunt you f’rever!”

Jess squeezed out a laugh, although he wasn’t completely sure what he was laughing at. He didn’t dare turn to see the predator closing the gap between them.

Their ship, a small merchant freighter, came into view around the corner. Venture Six squatted like a huge beetle in a circle of spotlights, waiting impatiently to depart at the head of a wide avenue that had once been bustling with vehicles transferring cargo on and off. Her huge main hatch was closed, her running lights were all lit, and her engines already glowed with the nascent ultraviolet of her ion drive.

Only the small crew gangway was still open on the port side. First officer Mara stood silhouetted in the open doorway, arms folded across her broad chest, drumming her claws against the deck.

“There’s no point running now,” she yelled, spotting her missing crew sprinting for safety. “We’re already late as [shit]! Tempted to leave you behind, next time!”

Then the animal skidded around the corner behind them. The unexpected jink to the left had bought the fleeing crew a few seconds but their pursuer was unbelievably fast, even on wounded paws. It scrambled for purchase, and after somehow avoiding colliding with a parked tractor, hurled itself into the avenue.

Teeja gave a breathless half-wail of fear and reflexively covered the back of her neck with both hands. Jess flung himself to one side, prepared to make a last-ditch attempt to climb on top of the cargo.

It was only when it overtook them that the pair realised it wasn’t interested in them at all.

It wanted the ship.

Mara stepped back, alarmed, realising the big, fast, hungry predator was aiming squarely at her. “Paksha-!” She slapped the controls for the entry ramp, and it immediately began to close.

Seeing the hatch begin to close, the front lip lifting from the ground, the animal put on a sudden desperate burst of speed, determined to somehow make it aboard.

Mara’s nerve failed her. She fled deeper into the vessel.

With one almighty thrust from its hind legs, it hurled itself at the narrowing gap – its front paws hit the closing hatch and momentum carried it successfully inside-

It was moving too fast to do anything to save itself from the impact. It skidded across the deck on feet made slick with blood, and collided side-on with the far wall with an almighty crunch that made the wall rattle.

For several seconds, it sat where it had ended up, slowly teetering sideways and staring at nothing.

Then its wobbly limbs finally gave up, its joints going to water, unable to support its bulk any more. It collapsed on the deck, gave one last shuddering wheeze, and passed out.

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Runs from Silence

August 2018

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