SHORT FICTION

Shelter

Twilla’s Beast was hollow-bellied. The lumbering juggernaut was a comfy shelter built just for her. Light years away, in the midst of a war waged in space, an enemy warhead had blown a gaping hole into the back of its head, leaving a gnarly mess of scorched metal, wires and tubes exposed. The damage had prompted the critical system failure that had sent the massive, humanoid robot and its pilot off course and plummeting down into the planet’s atmosphere. Now, on the windward shore of planet E42-Alpha’s western continent, the metal giant knelt as if in prayer, head tilted at an odd angle, blind eyes fixed on the rising sun.

On the seventeenth morning after the crash, the young pilot awoke aboard the metal giant, hunger clawing at her gut. She reached for one of her dwindling rations but what speared in through the cracks of her faulty brain was the memory of honey, sweet and pure. Doing her damnedest to ignore the jackhammer drilling into the left side of her head, Twilla punched the green release button and thanked her lucky stars for that fact that the robot’s basic functions and AI were still intact. The hatch flew open. She tossed her boots out first then out she scrambled. She plopped down onto the pebbly ground and hauled her boots on.

She briefly contemplated her predicament. Beast was still broadcasting a distress beacon. Twilla didn’t have family to miss her, or even friends. She’d been a soldier for as long as she could remember, from the moment she was big enough to reach the controls to pilot her robot. She was simply an asset, a valuable asset. Controllers of her caliber were few and far in between so she could trust in the knowledge that someone would eventually come looking for her. All she had to do in the meantime was survive. Easy enough, she supposed, though it was the waiting that was murder.

The sky blushed. The boisterous sea was vermilion, spitting bloody froth onto the spiky teeth of the shore.

Twilla stood, woebegone morning wind tossing her messy dreadlocks about. She shucked off the sleeves of her jumper, letting the top hang loose around her waist. Her sleeveless tank top which stuck to her torso like a second skin, had seen far better days. Days of fruitless toiling under the glare of the aged sun had given her nutmeg colored face, neck, and arms an almost coppery tinge. Blood had seeped through the thick bandage wrapped around her head and dried. Hunger and the pain in her head made her unsteady on her feet.

“Watch your step.” Beast’s mechanical voice was much like the air forced out of a rusty loudspeaker.

Twilla glared up at the bossy appliance. “What are you, my mother?”

She promptly spun, tripped, and landed on her butt with a pained yelp.

“Ah—” said Beast.

“Not a word!” Twilla growled.

Crow and hunger bitter in her mouth, she sprang back to her feet and dusted off her bruised behind. She stalked over to Beast’s open maw and reached for a gun, the big one because between Twilla and the honey was the garou and his alien wreckage of a juggernaut.

Though, days earlier, the castaways had reached an unspoken agreement to refrain from trying to kill each other, Twilla didn’t trust the alien pilot as far as she could throw him. She hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the reptilian in days and that was just fine by her. She could tolerate being marooned alongside an enemy soldier or two, providing they kept out of each other’s hair. She refused to acknowledge that teeny tiny part of her that was secretly relieved that she wasn’t all alone on this failed terraforming project of a world.

She left Beast behind and headed further inland between two hills overlooking the sea. The knee-high grass was blue and smelled like burned cinnamon. At the edge of the grassy ocean, thickening clusters of spindly trees bent backwards, overburdened by their deceptively cotton candy-like foliage. Puffy clouds hung low. Twilla arched her back and shielded her brows as her gaze swung upward, scanning for maybe a silver lining. The trick was to pretend she wasn’t looking. It was important but she couldn’t quite remember why. Not that it mattered. What mattered right then was the sweet, sweet honey from the mouth of the forest.

Feeling steadier on her feet, Twilla advanced. Nimbly and as resolutely as a tiger, she clambered over jagged rocks and waded through the sea of grass into the lush maw of the hollow.
The garou’s juggernaut, a twisted and scorched heap of metal was sprawled at the loamy foot of the hill like a stepped-on spider. Twilla gave the wreckage a wide berth, convinced its pilot was lurking close by. She fingered the trigger of her gun, just in case the garou decided to end their uneasy ceasefire. Her nose twitched and she grimaced. Something stank to high heaven.

Days earlier, she’d emerged from her robotic cocoon to find the garou waiting with a filthy water bottle in one hand and a dripping honeycomb in the other. She’d gotten her first close-up look at humankind’s mortal enemy.

The garou had greenish gray, leathery skin. Garbed in a tattered robe, he seemed wild and uncivilized. His reptilian gaze was impenetrable. Trying to get a read on him was like trying to peer into Beast’s microscopic soul. He bared his teeth tentatively, offered the honeycomb and water again, and addressed Twilla in a language she didn’t speak. When she didn’t respond, he gestured purposefully again. Twilla drew her gun, circumventing him warily as she exited Beast.

She eyed the garou’s meager offering, “that supposed to be the carrot or the stick?”

The garou set the water bottle down on the ground and took a few steps back. Twilla clicked her tongue in annoyance and fired her weapon. She watched the water bottle explode.

“You’re my enemy!” she declared hotly, gaze shifting back to the garou. She remembered that one fact clearly. “My enemy. Understand?”

He’d retreated wordlessly and Twilla had seen or heard neither hide nor hair of him ever since.

She was halfway between the garou’s juggernaut and the mouth of the forest when the meaning of that god-awful stench finally registered. The fog clouding her brain instantly cleared. She stopped in her tracks and turned around. She hesitated but only briefly before drawing closer to the alien wreckage. The closer she got, the more the dead smell intensified and the more apparent it became that there was no way that the garou could have walked away from that crash completely unscathed.

She found him still sitting upright before a campfire that had long gone cold. Dried green blood crusted at his nostrils. Parts of his neck and arms were missing. Something wormy writhed in the hollow of his eye sockets. Twilla quickly backed away from the corpse, chest heaving, her mind in turmoil. There were other insects besides honey bees on E42-ALPHA, it seemed. The fearsome, flesh-eating kind.

It wasn’t just that. No, it wasn’t just that. She was alone now. Truly alone. Maybe it was just a matter of time before she succumbed to her injuries just like the garou had. She was probably going to die here, she realized with stark clarity. On this strange world. On this wild alien shore.

She turned and ran full tilt across the field of tall, blue grass. She didn’t stop running until she was back by the shoreline and sheltered under the shadow of Beast’s torso. She leaned against her robot, gasping for breath.

“Twilla,” the giant robot’s voice boomed in her ears, “I’m picking up a signal from an incoming ship.”

She didn’t answer. Tears sprang forth, stinging her eyelids. She sank to her knees and trembling, she wept.

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