Salomar and the Bird

Submitted into Contest #8 in response to: Write a story about an adventure in space. ... view prompt

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Science Fiction

Salomar Barak groaned.  The groan pulled her into consciousness.  She opened her eyes, surveyed her surroundings, and almost cried.  The freighter, her freighter, her beautiful Flaming Salomardor lay scattered about her, broken into hundreds of pieces. Held upside down by the safety webbing of her captain's lounge, she looked over what remained of the cockpit.

“Computer?”

“Yes.”

“You still work?”  For a moment, Salomar dared to hope.

“Not for long.”

“What happened?  Where are we?”

“One, what happened? Unknown sound blast as we jumped.”

“Energy blast?  Sound?  From who?  From where?  I don’t remember any ships in our gate.”

“Records indicate blast from this ship.”

This ship?  How?”

“Two, where are we? Planet unknown.  Not in my charts.  Air is compatible for humans and other life forms.  No time to discover if life is on planet, or what kind.”

“Computer, is any of this ship salvageable?”

“Negative”

“The cargo?”

“Unknown.” 

At first, the monotone voice of the computer was reassuring. As the gravity of the situation sunk in, Salomar wished for better news.

“Damn!  Of all the unknown, uncharted planets I had to pick for a crash, it had to be a water-world.  How can anyone survive, breathing this wet air?”  She listened, and heard none of her cargo call.  She also heard no noises from the water indicating flesh eaters at a feast.  Swallowing the pain of losing her ship, her savings, and her dreams, she cut the webbing of the Captain’s lounge and lowered herself into the water.  Carefully, she picked her way through the flotsam and jetsam of what had once been the beautiful Flaming Salomardor.  She allowed her tears to fall.  

The air, foul with a green fog that drifted aimlessly in layered tendrils, caressed her with inquisitive fingers.  The water was warm, and where she stood, was shallow.  And one or the other, or both, stunk of rotten eggs.  The sunlight added an eerie glow.  To the west, mountains loomed. 

“Warning!  Warning!  Warning!  Fuel pod leak.  Fuel pod leak.  Warning!”

“Frap!  Just what I need.  I can’t even stay at what’s left of the ship until rescue.  Not that there’s much to stay at.

“I’d best check the cargo before I take off.  I doubt any of His Royal Majesty’s Pet Purple Birds survived, but on the chance one did....” The thought, muttered, trailed off into swallowing silence.  

Salomar waded to what remained of the cargo bay.  Several broken eggs coagulated on the surface of the sea.  Nine dead birds floated among them, dead parents guarding their equally dead children.  “One bird missing--probably trapped under something.  Well, I can’t stick around looking for it, even if it is a royal bird. A royal pain, if you ask me.”  She slogged back to the cockpit and searched out her emergency kit.  What she found was already waterlogged into mush and useless.  The beacon was dry, and as long as it remained dry, would work.  She hoped.  She quickly stuffed a few rations not yet soaked into her ship-shirt pockets, along with a small signal light, and prayed the pocket seals would hold.

“Computer?”

“Warning!  Warning! Warn….”

“Oh, shut up, will you?  I know about the leak.”  The computer did not shut up.  

The action of her movements, the focus on what needed to be done dried her tears, but did not ease her pain.  All her life she wanted to go to the stars.  She saved every credit she could earn.  She hired onto a freighter and gladly did whatever scut work she was assigned.  Her own time she spent at the computer learning all she could about each and every job it took to run a ship, and how to pilot a ship through the void.

She applied for a job in hydraulics.  No one liked hydraulics – literally, the ‘stink’ job on board.  Accepted, she soon was in charge.

When she applied for communications, she was turned down.  Too valuable in plumbing, they told her.  Before they docked at the next port, she requested a meeting with the Captain.  She told him her plan, to learn all the jobs necessary to run a freighter, showed him her transcripts from the training, and told him of her dream to own and pilot her own freighter.  She also told him she would be looking for another ship when they docked, and would he please write a letter of recommendation for her.

By the time they docked, she worked split shifts between hydraulics and communications.  It took 10 years to work her way through the ship and to save enough credits to venture out on her own.  She was grateful her Captain had enough faith in her to help underwrite the Flaming Salomardor, and that he sent her what trade he could. He was probably her best, if not only, friend.  Piloting a small freighter did not lend itself well to friendships.  Let alone relationships.

With a sigh of resignation Salomar turned for one last look at what had been her home, her life’s work, her dreams. It was not easy to say a final good-bye to her freighter. 

She hadn’t gone far before she realized she couldn’t hear the voice of the computer and it’s incessant warning.  She was truly alone.  Even the sound of her voice seemed swallowed by the eerie fog.  The mountains, when visible, looked like abandoned black dragon scales stuck vertically in long dead and cold molten rock.  Salomar saw no signs of life.

“I do believe, in the vids at least, this is where the monster rises from the sea to eat the maiden.  Thank the gods I’m no longer a maiden.” Her attempt at humor failed to raise her spirits. 

“Those mountains don’t look more than ten, maybe fifteen kilometers off, shouldn’t take too long to reach, unless I have to swim a good portion of it.”  Alone, she began the long wade to the shore, humming a long forgotten nursery rhyme under her breath.

Salomar screamed.  Heart pounding, knife drawn, she wheeled in a defensive crouch to face the monster attacking her back.  “Oh.  It’s you.”  She looked into the face of the missing bird.  Wading silently behind her, it pecked at her shoulder.  “Well, guess we’d best see if any of your feed survived, then we need to get out of here.  This water is creepy, and I smell the salt of a leaky fuel pod.  Wouldn’t be nice to be here when the damn thing blows.”  Salomar and the bird returned to the ship to search for the food.  The computer still warned all who listened.  Or didn’t listen.

The bird stood quietly and looked at the carnage of dead clutch-mates and broken eggs.  Salomar could not see the mourning heart of the bird.

She found some dry seed and quickly jerry-rigged a pack from seed bags and rope to sling over the bird’s back.  She took the beacon from her arm pocket and hung it around the bird’s neck.  At almost three meters in height, there was a better chance of it staying dry on the bird, than in Salomar’s sleeve pocket.  On their way out of the cargo area, she came across one of the silver and gold leads, meant only for the royal personages to handle, and fastened it on the jeweled harness worn by the bird.  The jewels and cut metal reflected the green haze in laser sharp spears.

“Well, bird, anything as valuable as you must have a name, but damned if I know it.  So I’ll just call you Bird, and you may call me Captain.  Now, let’s head for those upended dragon scales that pass for mountains.

“With those bright red and purple feathers, you must be a male.  It is the male isn’t it, that is the brighter colored? Perhaps I should call you Mister Bird.”

Bird stopped to look at her, first with his right eye, then with his left.  Then he turned and continued walking.

“So, Mr. Bird, why does the Emperor want you?  You appear too beautiful to be used as a beast of burden, even though circumstances beyond my control have unfortunately placed you in that capacity.  And with the jeweled leads, you obviously aren’t meant for food.  So, you must be a pet.  A toy.  Must be nice to be the Emperor’s toy.  You’re too passive to be a guard bird.  Or, maybe you were to be a present for the Empress?  Ah, I bet that’s it, eh Mr. Bird?” Salomar prattled, just for the sound of a voice. On board the ship, she and Computer had carried on conversations, but here, in the shallow sea, she felt the aloneness.

The sun lowered until it seemed to balance precariously on the edge of the world.  Through the ever-present mist, it appeared to rest there just a moment before tumbling into darkness.  

There was no moon visible for this strange world.  No stars shone through the mist.  The mist glowed softly green, almost casting enough light for Salomar to see where they waded.  She turned on her light; the mist threw it blindingly back at her.  She turned the light off, and placed it back in the pack. 

The only sound was the soft sloshing noises Salomar’s legs made cutting through the water, and her voice when she spoke.  There were no jumpers from the water.  No breakers to be heard crashing onto the shore. Bird made no noise at all.

The water, at its deepest had been to her waist, at its shallowest, to her knees.  The water felt slimy, and began to eat her clothing.  Her legs started to cramp.

Once full dark set in, Salomar noticed tiny lights darting in the water. 

“Well, Mr. Bird, it appears we have company.  I thought these waters were void of life, but there seems to be a great deal of life in them.  I hope they don’t have a strong liking for human. Or bird.  Let me know if they start to nibble on your legs.  They seem to be staying away from mine.”

Bird ignored her and continued to walk.  He made no effort to escape.  He stayed with her; seemingly glad for the company, and the sound of a human voice.  He walked next to her, matching her pace, rather than being led, or trying to lead.  

Quiet, the bird focused on Salomar when she spoke, first with one eye, then with the other, as if absorbing every word, every nuance.  When Salomar finished speaking, the bird would turn its head forward, and continue toward the westward mountains.

“You know, Mr. Bird, I thought you were the dumbest cargo I’d ever hauled.  But I’ll be honest—you are fair company—a lousy conversationalist, but fair company.  When we get off this forsaken planet, I shall personally ask His Royal Emperor Audubon the Eighth to see to it that you never lack for any of the comforts.  And, by golly, if he’s willing, I just may petition him for you.  Would you like that?  Would you like flying about space in a proper ship hauling freight and taking time to see the sights?  We’ll tour all the exotic planets. But no water planets, ok?  Maybe even find you a mate.  Then the three of us will see the Galaxy.  How ‘bout that, Mr. Bird?  Sound like fun?” Bird ignored her questions.          

“Soda biscuits!  I should be so lucky.  With my luck, I’ll be tried for destroying His Royal Birds.  I wonder who shot us, anyway.  And why?  And why just as we jumped?  Are we getting any closer to those damn mountains?  It’s hard to tell, in this slimy, foul mist.” 

Salomar talked.  It helped her remain awake.  She put her arm about the bird, and used him for support, to relieve the cramps in her legs.  Her voice slowed, then stopped.  Asleep, she slid into the water and floated on her back.  The bird walked, dragging her until brightness on the eastern horizon awakened her.

When she stood, what was left of her suit, floated off in shreds.  She walked out of her left boot.  A few steps later, her right boot stayed behind.  Barefoot, she continued to wade.  The pea gravel forced itself between her tender toes. The sun burned through the mist, blackened her skin.  Still, the mountains seemed no closer.

“Y’know, bird.  Ma was right, I’m thinking right about now.  I shoulda stayed home, married some bloke, and had a passel of kids.  But oh no, I had to do it myself.  I had to go into space.  I had to go into hock, too, but that’s not the point of this monologue.  No, ‘bout now, I’m a wishin’ I’da stayed put—or at least not ventured past the freight station.  I coulda worked there.  That was in space, but closer to home.  But, no....” Salomar spoke softly through cracked lips.  There were breaths between words and many breaths between sentences.  

Her sunburn blistered, cracked, oozed.  She screamed with pain when she fell into the water.  The seawater felt like acid on her burnt and cracked skin. Bird stood and watched, first with one eye, then with the other until she stood, and they continued their trek. 

For the second night, the sun seemed to stop for a moment on the sharp edge of the mountains, as if deciding whether or not to plunge once more into darkness.  For a second night, Salomar looked at the mountains, ever before her, yet never seeming nearer.  

Her legs cramped.  Her body burned.  She stopped.  Bird stopped.  She slid into the water, and with a sharp intake of breath she stood, and shook herself.  “Got to keep going.  We’re almost there.  ‘Most there.”  The bird turned its attention from Salomar to the mountains, and trudged onward.

“Y’know, Mr. Bird, no one said hoppin’ freight around space would be easy, but by the gonads of St. Patrick, I surely thought it would be safer than the Navy.  Those troop fight wars.  About now, though, I wish I’da listened to Ma. Wonder how she is.  A little late to worry ‘bout her, huh?  Probably died years ago.  But I wonder.  She used to make the most wonderful spiced coffee in the Universe.  Sure could do with a cup ‘bout now.  Wonder if she ever forgave me for chasing my dream?”

Bird stopped, looked at her from each eye, and then resumed his walk.

The merciful embrace of fever clothed Salomar in the eerie glow of the mist.  The mist thickened and twirled about her.  She clung to the bird as dizziness swept through her.  She pointed, excitement in her voice, “Mr. Bird, look—there’s Ma.  There’s Ma! Ma? Did you come to save us?  We have to take Bird, y’know. Yeah, we do.”  The mist thinned, Ma dissolved, clarity returned to Salomar.

“Mr. Bird, we’d best get to land before long, or I won’t be worth much. I’m already hallucinating. Wonder when the rescue party will come?  Hope it’s damned quick.  There’s nothing in this water we can eat.  I hope we can find something on the land.  At least water.  Ours is ‘bout gone.”

She opened the canteen, carried on bird’s back, and shared the remaining few drops.  She deliberately replaced the empty canteen on the bird, “We’ll need it on land,” she explained to Bird.  

Chills racked her body as they walked.  “Ma,” she whined, “Ma, I’m cold.  Please, Ma, bring me ‘nother blanket.  I’ll be good.  I’ll stay here, Ma, I won’t never leave you.  Promise.”  

Bird stopped, and watched Salomar carry on her conversation with her long deceased mother.  

Salomar stopped.  “Thank you, Ma.  I’m all warm now.”  Quietly, she raised her arms for a hug as she slid into the water.  Bird watched.  When Salomar did not scream, or stand again, Bird dropped the beacon into the sea then turned and climbed onto the rocks, shook the water from her wings and soared. 

*Prepare my bed!  The human is dead, as are my clutch-mates and the eggs of our young.  I cannot hold my eggs much longer.  Prepare my bed!*

'Afa!  It is Afa!  She comes.  Sing the chorus to Afa.'  The golden male birds lifted their voices in praise and adulation.  An escort soared from the cliffs to guide her to the nest awaiting her arrival.

Afa settled in her nest, drank nectar from the fruit of life, and began laying her eggs.  When her five green eggs were in the nest, and she had slept a bit, one of the golden male choir relieved her of nest duty.

'When Afa has rested enough, we would hear your story, and work it into song.'

*Thank you, golden mate.  I am somewhat rested.  My clutch-mates and I almost didn’t make it.  We were too far from the ship’s navigation system.  At the last moment, we combined our efforts and sent a surge of song strong enough to avert the planned route.  It is my eternal sadness that our burst also killed my clutch-mates.  Our eggs died when we crashed into the Living Sea.

*The humans would have enslaved us for their enjoyment.  They do not understand true royalty.*

The choir looked at one another, then at Afa.  Finally, one dared to ask, 'Afa, what are humans?'

September 20, 2019 17:00

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