Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Destination: Hyaris

Bips the penguin looked out the porthole into the deep blackness of space. Stars twinkled in the distance, seeming colder than they did on Earth.

“What happens when we get there?” asked Bips.

“We get a new home.” Cpt. Flip was in charge of the mission. She knew everything about it.

Bips thought of Earth. “Will it be different from our old home?”

“Not really. Not much.” Cpt. Flip shrugged, more or less, as much as penguins can shrug. “There will be less radiation, we hope.”

Bips wondered if less radiation were a good thing. It was the nuclear winter that had led to the penguins’ rise to a spacefaring species, after all. It was all that stray radiation that had allowed them to multiply across the whole Earth.

Bips wanted to ask more questions, but Cpt. Flip was glaring at him. He thought better of continuing to annoy her, and instead waddled off the bridge and into the long tube that separated the living quarters from the rest of the ship.

“Hey, Bips!” Mizzles, his good friend from hatchlinghood, caught up to him. “Did Flip say how long?”

“No, I didn’t ask.” Everyone on board was excited about landing soon. The journey from Earth had not been a short one. “She seemed annoyed with me.”

“Well, she has her flippers full, doesn’t she?” Mizzles rocked from side to side. “I mean, the big day is almost here. Our new home!”

“Yeah.” Bips couldn’t quite share his friend’s enthusiasm. “Are you worried?”

“About what?” Mizzles cocked his head. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

“I dunno.” Bips shuffled his feet. “What if it’s too hot? Or too cold? What if there’s nothing to eat?”

Mizzles waved a flipper. “The scientists have thought of all those things. They wouldn’t steer us wrong.”

Bips sighed. “I wish I had your confidence.”

The alarm pinged loudly, causing both penguins to jump. A tinny, recorded voice squeaked through the passageways. “Approaching destination. Prepare for atmosphere entry.”

Mizzles looked at Bips, his eyes gleaming. “It’s time! We finally made it!”

Bips nodded and they both filed into the living quarters to huddle with the rest of the nonessential personnel. Old instinct grouped them into a large circle, its members shifting their weight from foot to foot.

The ship vibrated hard, tossing back and forth as it tore through the new planet’s atmosphere. The living quarters became uncomfortably hot, and penguins began to shuffle away from each other. Some hid their heads under their flippers. Bips was thankful he had outgrown such chickish behavior.

With a final lurch, the ship came to rest, throwing most of the penguins into a pile against one wall. With effort, Bips slid out from under his fellows and glided on his belly to the door.

Cpt. Flip stood at the ship’s main hatch, making notes on a pad. Slowly, penguins filed in behind Bips, until the whole ship’s population stood before Flip, shuffling anxiously.

“Friends!” she cried. “On this great day that will go down in history, we arrive at our new home. It has always been the destiny of penguins to reach across the skies, to find and colonize new worlds. Today, we take our first step. Welcome to your new planet!”

She flung open the hatch, and a blast of noxious gas hit Bips in the beak. He tried to cough, but sputtered. As much as he breathed in, he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. His vision clouded, then went dark.

In millennia to come, visitors to Hyaris, the small methane ice planet in the Phagus system, would marvel at the well-preserved wreckage of the alien ship. Its black-and-white passengers and crew, their bodies mummified by the planet’s dry conditions, raised more questions than they answered. Why had these beings traveled to Hyaris? Where had they come from? Why had they landed or crashed on the planet? Why had they opened the door without appropriate protective suits?

The answer, of course, is because penguins are stupid. But the intergalactic community could not have known that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bear's Gift

Long ago, Bear was a small creature, no bigger than a fox. She ate flowers and leaves and berries, and sometimes scavenged the carcasses of prey that larger animals had killed. Bear was mostly happy, but she was also afraid. Wolves terrorized her, snapping their razor jaws at her. Mountain lions chased her, screaming with rage. When these things happened, Bear would find a small hole or crevice to hide in until they had gone. She had claws and teeth, yes, but the other animals were so much bigger they scared her.

One day, as Bear was looking for something to eat (her tummy was rumbling ferociously), she happened across a wounded deer. The deer hadn’t been taken down by wolves or lions. Bear could see blood on the jagged edge of a stone, and a great gash had been opened in the deer’s leg.

The deer started as Bear sniffed close. The bitter scent of fear tinged the air.

“Don’t worry,” said Bear. “I won’t hurt you. I’m just a bear.”

The deer’s eyes grew wide. “Your teeth and claws say you’ll hurt me.”

Bear shook her head. “My teeth and claws are for grabbing berries from the insides of bushes. I don’t kill.”

“I’ve seen you eat animals.” The deer’s voice shook.

“I have eaten dead animals,” said Bear. “You are not dead. You have nothing to fear. I am not going to eat you.”

The deer’s eyes were still huge. “Then leave me for one who will. I am finished, whether by your claws or the wolf’s.”

Bear turned and began to walk away. She stopped. She sighed. She turned back.

“No, you’re not finished.” She sniffed the deer’s wound. “Your wound is fresh and clean. I will find herbs to stop the bleeding and ease your pain. I’ll be back soon.”

Bear didn’t have to go far. She tugged some moss off a few stones and pulled some bark from a willow tree. She brought the bundle back to the deer. The deer was busy licking blood away from the gash.

“Good, that’s right,” said Bear. “That will help clean the wound. When you’re finished, I will pack this poultice for you. It will stop the bleeding and help with the pain.”

The deer’s eyes, still wide with fear, flicked back and forth between her wound and Bear. Finally, she leaned her head back, her eyes on Bear’s paws. “I’m ready.”

Bear had crushed the moss and bark into a soft mass while she waited for the deer to finish. She now pressed the mass into the gash in the deer’s leg. The deer jerked but stayed put.

“There, that should hold.” Bear straightened and backed away. “How does it feel?”

“Better.” The scent of fear dissipated somewhat. “Thank you.” The deer’s eyes were dark and calm as she looked at Bear.

“Be well,” said Bear. She turned to leave. There was light enough yet to find a few berries for dinner.

“Bear, wait.” The deer’s voice stopped Bear. Bear wondered how long she would need to stay with the poor animal. With a sigh, she turned.

There was no deer. Instead, a forest spirit stood where the deer had lain. Tall, branching antlers sprouted between her golden tresses. She seemed suffused with light, and a light breeze swirled around her. Bear’s breath nearly stopped in wonder at her magnificence.

“Bear, you have been kinder to me than all the other creatures.” The spirit’s voice was like a harmony of birdsong. “I was lamed in my corporeal form as I ran through the forest today. I thought I could not return to the world of spirits. Your kindness saved me in more ways than you could have known.” She smiled. “I would like to grant you a gift. Anything you want, name it, and, if it is within my power, it shall be yours.”

Bear found that it was hard to get her mouth to work, so awesome was the spirit. “I…I don’t know. I want for so little. The forest provides all that I need.”

“You are never unhappy? Never afraid?”

“Oh, I am afraid most of the time,” Bear admitted. “My claws are sharp, but small. Many animals would kill me if they could, but I stay in holes and caves most of the time, where they cannot reach me.”

The spirit beckoned Bear closer. Bear felt herself move as though she were floating above the ground.

“Dear bear, what if you were larger? What if you were the largest animal in the forest? Would that help? Would the other animals leave you alone?”

Bear considered this. “Yes, probably they would. How large?”

“I can make you larger than a man. Larger than I am. Larger than the trees of the forest.”

“Maybe only the small trees!” Bear put her paws up. “I think I’d destroy everything if I were too large.”

The spirit laughed. “Larger than the small trees, then. And master of the forest. All will tremble before your power.”

Bear cocked her head. “I won’t have to eat them, will I?”

The spirit shook her head. “Not if you don’t want to. You can go on as you have been, eating what the plants offer and what others leave behind.”

“And maybe fish. I really like fish.” Bear’s mouth began to water at the thought.

“Whatever you like.” The spirit leaned forward and kissed Bear on the nose. A warm, tingling sensation spread from Bear’s nose throughout her body. She watched the ground fall away, and suddenly her head was brushing the branches of the tree next to her.

Bear turned her paws over. They were the same familiar shape, with the same old scars. But now they were large, fierce, ferocious. Bear took a step and felt the trees around her shake. She shook her head and let out a fearsome, echoing roar. A dozen birds took flight in fear, crying their terror as they winged out of sight.

“Oh, thank you!” Bear grinned what must have been a terrifying smile at the spirit. “This is wonderful!”

The spirit bowed. “May you always rule, dear friend.” She stirred the breeze at her feet and let it whisk her away into the air.

Bear has been the greatest of the beasts in the forest ever since. She still eats mostly berries and animals that have already died. And, of course, fish. But the other animals no longer terrify her. Wolves and mountain lions flee at her approach. And when Bear goes into a cave it is to sleep and dream of the beautiful forest spirit, whom she once helped.