Open for Suggestions!

Confession time: I totally cheated on the last two stories. Both were 11 pages. I cut a full page from the beginning of Rural Stars before had finished and I still couldn't get it down to 10. Outside Procedure was almost 10 pages, but I really didn't want to leave it on a cliffhanger, so I stuck a few more paragraphs on the end so everyone knew how the arc wrapped up.

In general, I don't really like putting limits on my stories. I figure it's done when it's done, and then I can go back and refine it as needed. But that's kind of not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is to get me used to working in a limited format. So, hopefully I'll do better with this next one.

I'm going to be out and about this weekend, so I'll choose a suggestion tonight (Thursday), which will hopefully be up around the 10th. Feel free to leave suggestions below (or on my FB and G+ pages like you guys usually do :P ), and of course, if you have any questions re: suggestions, please see the FAQs.


Story 4

Little-known fact: Action-mystery is one of my all-time favorite genres to write.

As I was trying to create the characters for this story, a thought occurred to me. I already had a story about a pair of cops who occasionally deal with weird crap. So I decided that rather than build new characters for this tale, I'd pull them in and let you guys see a bit more of them. This led to me rereading my other cop story. It could maybe use a rewrite. And probably several more pages to flesh things out better.

But this isn't about that story. This is an entirely new story. Or maybe just a new chapter in these character's saga.

It was a lot of fun to write. I expect I'll see more of these two in the long run.


Outside Procedure

Terry inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled slowly through his mouth. They always made this part look so easy in cop movies, but it never was in real life. Your heart pounded in your ears. Thoughts of the unknown tugged at the corners of your mind. The perp knew they were there. What if he was armed? They were always armed. What if he was waiting for them just on the other side of the door? Breathe in. Breathe out. Follow procedure.

“This is Detective Wilson of the Los Angeles Police Department,” he shouted. “We have a warrant for the arrest of Neil Billings, and we know you're in there. Open the door and come out with your hands up!”

He looked across the doorway. His partner, Bruce, shook his head. Billings wasn't coming out, and in the time it was taking them to follow procedure, he could be sneaking out the back door or setting up traps or.... Breathe in. This hadn't been standard procedure from the start. They had been asking questions at a neighbor's house when they saw him walk by. For a moment, they had locked eyes, and then Billings had taken off. Bruce and Terry had not hesitated to follow. Billings was an incredibly dangerous man. Breathe out.

They should have covered the exits and called for backup. First mistake. Too late now. If they didn't move quickly, that mistake might be their last.

Terry nodded toward the door. Bruce returned the nod. He stepped back from the door frame and kicked the door firmly just below the handle. There was a splintering sound as the lock gave way and the door swung open. Bruce held his gun ready and stepped into the house. Terry slid out of position to follow, but Bruce wasn't there anymore.

Terry kept his gun ready, eyes scanning. The living room stood before him. Bookcases lined the walls. An overstuffed couch and a coffee table sat in the middle of the room. A hallway led off to what looked like the dining room and kitchen. Stairs led to the upper floors on the left. A door to a closet or a bathroom was closed on the right. Nothing moved. There were no footprints on the carpet and no signs of life.

“Bruce?” said Terry softly. There was no answer. Cautiously, Terry stepped through the doorway.

He instinctively ducked his head and closed his eyes as he was hit by a blast of heat and light. When he opened them, the living room and the house were gone. Sand blew around him and the sun beat down overhead. A few feet away, Bruce was standing with a hand shielding his eyes, scanning the horizon.


The big man turned. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming, Terrence.” He grinned and gestured at the desert landscape around them. “I don't suppose you thought to bring water with you. Or maybe a plane to get us out of here.”

Terrence looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a door open onto an urban street, but all he saw was more sand. He waived a hand behind him experimentally, but all he felt was air. “Have you figured out where 'here' is?”

Bruce shrugged. “My hot-shot detective skills tell me it's a desert,” he said. “One of the sandy ones.”

“Good job, smart-ass. Any idea where Billings is?”

Bruce gestured at the ground with his gun. “Well, boss, one of the great things about sand is footprints are really easy to find in it. Barring that, if you squint over at that huge dust storm coming in, looks like there's some sort of civilization there. And I don't know much about dust storms, but I don't think standard-issue detective-style business suits over Kevlar are going to be much protection.”

“And the wind will blow away the footprints.”


Terry holstered his gun and headed off in the direction of the footprints. “Couldn't have done this without you, rookie.”

Bruce grinned wolfishly and holstered his gun. “Glad you finally see it my way, old man.”

By the time they reached the town, the winds had kicked up considerably. The sky overhead had turned from a blindingly clear blue to a dusty brown, and the footprints they had been following had disappeared as the sandy landscape began to shift like a gently rolling sea. Terry held his sleeve in front of his nose in a futile attempt to lessen the amount of sand he was breathing in. He and Bruce had considered taking off their jackets and using those, but decided against it in favor of keeping their shoulder holsters concealed. There were no procedures for what to do when one found one's self spontaneously in a desert, possibly in a foreign country, in the middle of a dust storm, but he was pretty sure asking for shelter while brandishing a gun wouldn't be very well-received. Not that looking like a pair of FBI agents was going to help much.

The village was surrounded by a wall of tightly-packed, sand-colored brick. A pair of heavy wooden doors stood in an archway, blocking the entrance.

“I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Auntie Em,” said Bruce, then he broke into a fit of coughing.

Terry didn't respond. He walked up to the door and pounded on it with his fist. They needed to find shelter or they might not last through the storm. He pounded on it again.

There was a creek of hinges and a peephole slot opened. Dark eyes looked out. “Please, let us in,” said Terry, pushing aside the thought that the doorman probably couldn't understand a word he was saying. “We need to take shelter from the storm.”

The slot closed. Metal grated on metal, and one of the doors swung open just enough for the men to squeeze in. A man wrapped from head to toe in loose cloth stood behind the door, holding it against the wind. As soon as they were inside, he pushed it shut. The storm was hardly any better inside. The man motioned for them to follow and ducked inside a building built into the wall. Terry and Bruce exchanged glances, squinting at each other through the sand, then followed.

The man shut the door firmly behind them. Outside, the storm beat at the building, sand rasping against stone, making the heavy wood shutters on the windows rattle. Inside, the room was small and only lightly furnished. An arched hallway led away from the room, sloping gently with the curve of the town's wall. Two chairs sat at a heavy wooden table. A stone fireplace was nestled in one corner like some sort of huge bird's nest. A basin and a pitcher sat on a smaller table near a large ceramic jar. The man unwrapped the cloth from his face. He drew some water from the jar and poured it into the basin, then dipped a towel in and ran it over his hands and face. “You are not from here,” he said in clipped English.

“Hey, this guy's almost as good as me,” Bruce muttered as he brushed the sand from his shoulders.

Terry raised a hand to silence him. “No, we aren't,” he said.

The man nodded, apparently ignoring Bruce's comment. He rinsed the towel in the basin and handed it to Terry.

“Thank you for letting us in, “ Terry continued.

The man shrugged. He refilled the pitcher and began pouring water into a few ceramic cups. “Ba'atar said to make sure you were taken care of if you came. I am simply following his wishes.”

“Ba'atar?” asked Terry.

The man nodded and handed them each a cup. “He said if men in foreign clothes came, I was to offer them shelter until the storm had passed and he could meet with them. And here you are, so I have given you shelter.”

Terry tapped his fingers on his cup. “Who is this Ba'atar?” he asked. “How did he know we were coming?”

“Ba'atar is a wanderer who comes through here from time to time,” said the man, “usually when something has happened that we cannot fix. He said maybe some men had followed him through the doors between the worlds. Given your dress, I must think he meant you.”

Billings. Of course he had expected them. They had chased him right to his front door. But now what? There were no procedures for what to do when you spontaneously found yourself being held prisoner in a desert town in God only knew where. Breathe in. It was easier without the sand constantly blowing around him. Investigate. They still had their guns, and this man, at least, looked unarmed. Then again, Billings had killed four men without firing a single shot.

“You said he shows up when something happens that you can't fix,” he said. “What happened this time?”

The man swirled his cup gently and stared into its depths. “There were criminals, terrible men. He had tracked them here, and then he chased them beyond the doors.”

Terry and Bruce exchanged confused looks. “The doors between worlds?” asked Terry.

The man nodded. “Ba'atar holds the keys to the doors. It is how he comes here, even though most everyone else has forgotten our village exists.”

“Is that supposed to be a metaphor for something?” said Bruce.

The man's eyebrows crinkled up. “A what?”

“The doors between worlds,” said Bruce. “I mean, does that mean he has a jet or a car or something that can get us out of here?”

The man blinked in apparent confusion. “He holds the keys to the doors between worlds. Forgive me, I know little of the language beyond the doors. Perhaps the keys are called 'jet' or 'car' there?”

“I sure hope so,” said Bruce, “though usually the only thing we call keys is keys.”

This wasn't getting them anywhere. They may have been trapped, but this man at least seemed willing to provide them with information. And information could save their lives. Breathe out. Take a step back. Get a feel for your surroundings. “Where are we, anyway?'” he said. “Does this place have a name?”

“You are in the town of Al'eratish in the Desert of Forgotten Ways,” said the man.

“So... is that in, like, Africa, or the Middle-East?” said Bruce.

The man stared at him blankly.

Terry thought back to the house and the blast of heat that had met him when he stepped over the threshold. “No,” he said. “It's beyond the doors between worlds.”

“Christ, Terrence, not you, too.” Bruce sniffed at his cup, and Terry noticed he had not touched its contents. He didn't blame the younger man. One got suspicious of a lot of things when they were saddled with him as a partner. Bruce, unfortunately, seemed to get suspicious of all the wrong things.

“Those men your Ba'atar was chasing,” said Terry, “what was their crime?”

The man stared at the floor and said nothing for a long moment. Bruce tapped a foot impatiently, but Terry leaned back against the stone wall and waited. The man's eyes flicked to them and then back to the floor. “They showed up in the desert and asked for shelter, much like you did,” said the man. “Of course we took them in. There is little around here, and if one does not know the desert well, it will take their life without mercy. But they were not men like us, nor like we had seen before.”

“So their crime was being different?” said Bruce.

“Perhaps,” said the man. “Every man has a fire inside him, but the fire in these men was too great. It overflowed from them through their skin, and with it they scarred those who did not bend to their will and consumed those who dared to challenge them. Then Ba'atar came, and they fled through the doors. Until then, we had thought only Ba'atar had that skill.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow, then shook his head and rubbed his temples. “I know I'm going to regret asking this,” he said, “but how did this Ba'atar drive off men who could apparently turn themselves into fire?”

“Ba'atar is a man of many skills,” said the man. “He also has a great fire within. He has never used it to hurt any of our people, but he used that and his blades to drive them away.”

As Bruce groaned outwardly, Terry groaned inwardly. This was why he never got any promotions. Somehow or another, it was always the weird cases that ended up on his desk. And now he wouldn't just have to figure out how to explain being dropped into another world. He was also going to have to amend all his previous reports on this investigation to somehow account for people who could turn into fire.

Because those kinds of things totally flew with the Los Angeles police department.

“Is it too late for me to wake up and find this is all a dream?” said Bruce. “I want to go back to Kansas now, Auntie Em.”

“If you wish to go back, you will have to wait for Ba'atar,” said the man. “Unless you, too, hold the keys to the doors between worlds.”

Terry took another sip of his water and licked his lips. “Look, Mr.... I'm sorry, I don't know your name.”

“My name is Oton,” said the man. “I am the gatekeeper of Al'eratish.”

“Gatekeeper Oton,” said Terry. “Nice to meet you. I am detective Terrence Wilson, and this here is my partner, Bruce Sutter.” He swished the contents of his cup. “Oton, would you perhaps have something a bit stronger around here?”

Oton made a gesture Terry decided to take as apologetic and looked away. “We only have water in the gatehouse today,” he said.

“Pity,” said Terry. He really could use a stiff drink right now, even if drinking on the job was highly frowned upon. “Look, we know we're not really in a position to negotiate for things here,” he said, “but is there any chance we could get a little privacy for a bit?”

“Ba'atar was clear that you should not be treated as prisoners,” he said. “I shall retire to the other room, but please call me if you need anything further.”

With that, he bowed through the arched hallway and disappeared.

Terry pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down. Bruce was still rubbing his temples. “Well, hot shot,” said Terry, “it seems like we've got until the sand clears to figure out how we're going to get home and how we're going to successfully take into custody a man who is is these people's hero, a swordmaster, and can also become fire.”

The winds outside lessened from a howl to a hum, and Oton returned to the room. If he had overheard anything they had said, he gave no sign of it. Presently there was a knock on the door. Terry and Bruce jumped to their feet as Oton opened it.

The man who entered was garbed in loose, flowing cloths like the ones Oton wore, but his eyes were a sharp, almost unnaturally pale blue, and his face was unmistakable. A pair of short blades were strapped to the small of his back, in plain sight.

“Neil Billings,” said Terry.

Billings nodded. “I go by many names, but that is the one you would know me as.”

“I'm Detective Wilson and this is Detective Sutter. I suppose you know why we're here.”

Billings nodded again. “But I'm afraid I cannot let you take me into custody, detectives. I'm sorry your world got caught up in this, but I assure you I only did what I had to do. Those men I killed were not men as you know them, and their crimes spread across more worlds than just these two.”

“Oton told us a little about it. It seems all our investigations into deaths of civilians burnt and maimed beyond all recognition were for nothing,” said Terry. “Our world is just a bunch of innocents who got caught in the crosshairs of some sort of interdimensional battle.”

“Something like that,” said Billings.

Terry crossed his arms and paced across the room, keeping his breathing level. He was only going to get one chance at this. “Detective Sutter,” he said as he paced, “what is standard procedure in this situation?”

“Well, boss, usually I' think we'd-- holy shit!”

As Bruce spoke, several things happened very quickly. Terry reached the far wall and pivoted on his heel, pulling his gun out of its holster. Billings's eyes went wide and he reached behind him toward his blades. Terry leveled the gun at Billings and pulled the trigger. And Billings burst into flame.

Terry dropped the gun and held up his hands. Rapidly-warming steel pressed against his throat as waves of heat washed over him. Through the flames, Terry could see Bruce fumbling in his suit jacket for his gun. “Leave it, Bruce,” said Terry. “We're obviously well out of our jurisdiction.”

The pillar of fire before Terry shimmered and condensed. Billings stood before him again, blade still pressed to Terry’s neck. “What is the meaning of this, detective?” said Billings. “Answer quickly.”

Sweat beaded on his forehead that had nothing to do with the warm air still swirling around him. Breathe in. “Oton here said there's a fire that burns in every man's soul, and that yours was particularly great,” he said. “I just wanted to see if it was true.”

“Was it too difficult to simply ask?” said Billings.

“He also implied you used it to keep the peace and not to hurt innocents,” said Terry. “You'll forgive me if I was a bit skeptical of Oton's explanation. In our world, people don't usually turn into fire or jump through the doors of urban houses into the middle of deserts.”

Billings's cold eyes pierced his, but Terry stared back with a level gaze. Slowly, Billings lowered his blade and stepped away. Terry exhaled slowly through his nose. Behind Billings, Bruce stood with every muscle tensed like a startled cat, and Oton had pressed himself as deeply into the corner of the room as the stone would allow.

Billings sheathed his blade and Terry slowly bent to pick up his gun and put it back in its holster.

“I cannot let you take me into custody,” Billings repeated.

“As I said, this is out of our jurisdiction,” said Terry. “Right now we just need to get home and figure out our paperwork. Oton suggested you might be able to do something about that, too.”

“Of course,” said Billings. He turned to Oton, who had begun to crawl out of his corner. “You have a room we can use?”

Oton nodded and gestured down the hallway. “Second doorway,” he said. “No one uses that room anymore.”

“Be sure they continue that tradition at least until sunset,” said Billings. He started toward the hall, then stopped. “I'm sorry I could not come sooner, Oton. Do not let that room stand empty forever.”

He continued down the hall, and Terry and Bruce fell into step behind him. Terry cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Oton. The man was slumped in the corner, face buried in his hands.

“His son was one of the ones they killed,” Billings said softly.

They entered the room and Billings shut the door behind them.

“So,” said Bruce, “how does this work?” He still hadn't quite shaken off the shock from the scene earlier, but his voice, at least, was not shaking.

“You stand back,” said Billings. “I go first. You follow after. Quickly. The door will not stay open for long.”
With that, he pulled a book from the folds of his clothes and set it against the door, balancing it underneath with one hand. With his other hand he opened it, then flicked the pages. They began turning of their own accord, faster and faster, while Billings muttered under his breath in a strange tongue. Terry heard Bruce sigh in annoyance beside him. Terry said nothing, but stood and watched.

The book slammed shut and seemed to dissolve into the door. Billings lifted the latch and pushed it open. “Follow quickly,” he called over his shoulder.

“I hate magic,” said Bruce.

“Yeah, just wait til we get to the paperwork for this,” said Terry. He took a deep breath and stepped through the door.

The smell of smog and car exhaust assaulted his nostrils. He was standing in the middle of the street near Billings's house. Billings was already on the sidewalk dressed in plain clothes. A moment later, Bruce stepped out of nothing and blinked at the change of surroundings. Terry waved a hand at the space Bruce had stepped out from. There was nothing there.

“It only works one way,” called Billings. “And you might want to step out of the street.”

Terry and Bruce made their way over to the sidewalk.

“You are back in your world,” said Billings. “Now I must return to mine. Believe it or not, I have paperwork of my own to take care of.”

“Every world has its semantics,” said Terry.

Billings laughed softly. “Believe me, you have no idea,” he said.

He raised his hand in a small salute, then headed up to the door of his house. Again he removed a book from his clothes and performed the same strange ritual on the door. Then he opened it and stepped through.

“Well, it looks like we managed to track Billings to his house,” said Terry. “Care to put your hot shot detective skills to use and poke around a bit in it?”

Bruce had taken a seat on the curb and was dumping the sand out of his shoes. “I think I'm good for the day, boss.”

Terry nodded slowly. “Yeah, me too.” He kicked at Bruce as he walked by. “Common, rookie. That paperwork isn't going to rewrite itself.”


The Next Story Will Be...

...about a pair of police officers who bust into the home of a suspect only to find themselves in the middle of a desert, per the suggestion from Guy. It may or may not also include some sort of cute, black-and-white animal as suggested by Becky.

You guys can expect this one around the 24th of this month.


Open for Suggestions!

While there are a few countries I expect to get hits from due to the spread of my internet friends, France and Germany are not on that list. So, if you're visiting this site from France or Germany and are not some sort of spambot, then hello and welcome!

It's time to open this for suggestions again. While February may be the short month of the year, there's still time to complete one more story. So, if you are so inclined, feel free to leave me a suggestion regardless of what country you're from. If you're not quite sure what's going on with all this suggestion stuff, please check out the FAQs.

I'll choose the next topic and post it up tomorrow evening.


Story 3

I tried REALLY hard not to write genre fiction for this one, since I write a lot of genre fiction. I actually came up with something pretty good. But then I decided I didn't like the mood of it, so it has been shelved. Maybe it will come up some other time.

In its place, you get genre fiction.


Rural Stars

Mrrt punched a few buttons on the main console of the ship. A video recorder popped up roughly at eye level. “Greetings,” he said to the camera. “I am Mrrt Ssal'tt'rtu of the interstellar transport vessel Ga'rt Lkks'tt 14, registration RS-LO-8827. It looks like I'll be running out of fuel before I can reach the next fuel port, so I'm going to be setting down on one of the planets in the nearby star system. The coordinates should be included in this file, along with the required information regarding my cargo, ship specs, and insurance information. If you might be able to help me, or at least bring me some fuel, I'd be most grateful. Thank you!”

He stopped the recording and played it back to make sure he didn't look too weird on it. Then he sent the file to the signal beacon and detached the beacon from his ship. It would probably be a while before anyone got close enough to get his message, but he had been traveling close enough to recognized interstellar highways that eventually someone had to come through a backwoods place like this, right?

Mrrt changed his trajectory and headed for the nearby star system. Next time, he would be sure to fill up his fuel tank at Alpha Centauri station.

“It's too cold today,” said Kate. “I want to go home.”

“What, little whiny Katie is too much of a girl to handle the cold, eh?” said Walter. He balled up his fists and screwed them under his eyes. “Waah, waah, little baby Katie can't take the cold!”

“I'm not a baby!” Kate stamped a booted foot, then blushed as she realized how childish that must have looked. “But there's nothing interesting out here. It's all just a bunch of trees covered in snow!”

“A little snow never hurt anyone,” said Walter. He scooped some up in his mittened hands and rolled it into a ball. “Hey, Kate! Catch!”

Kate screeched and ducked as the snowball came hurling toward her. It impacted her pink, puffy coat and fell apart. She brushed the snow off and scowled at Walter. “That was mean!”

“Then go back home,” said Walter. “I am going on an adventure. No wussy girls allowed.”

“I'm not a wussy girl!” said Kate, and she scurried after him.

Mrrt rolled his vocal chords in a sound of frustration. He had finished scanning the most promising of the planets. The first one was too hot. The second one was too cold. The third one had the right sort of temperatures, but also seemed to be teeming with sentient life. There were laws and procedures regarding contact with previously unknown intelligent and semi-intelligent beings, and while freight drivers were encouraged and sometimes required to take courses on basic interspecies diplomacy, Mrrt had never been much particularly good with other beings. Even when they weren't giving him weird looks for thinking aloud, they made him feel awkward and out of place.

“But what to do? Nothing else is close enough, and this is the only planet that might have suitable fuel resources.” He tapped on the fuel gauge again. A red light next to it was blinking angrily. At this point, he wasn't even sure he could make it back to his beacon and just try to wait things out. “Just have to find a place with little in the way of civilization and land, I suppose.

He located a region on the sunward side that seemed fairly devoid of life, but neither too cold nor too hot to lack what he was looking for, and plotted his landing course.

“Hurry up!” Walter called over his shoulder.

“I'm coming, I'm coming,” said Kate. The snow was not very deep, but it was fresh and she was having trouble picking her way through it and around the various hibernating plants that it hid. Walter, of course, ran ahead heedless of all obstacles, but she wanted to be sure she wouldn't slip. It wouldn't help things if Walter saw her lose her footing. What if she went sliding back down the slope? He'd probably just laugh at her.

She felt something touch the arm of her jacket and another snowball broke apart with a piff. Walter stood some way ahead of her, grinning.

“The longer you take, the more snowballs I can make!” He bent down and scooped up another handful of snow.

Kate felt her cheeks flush. She stooped down and gathered up her own snowball, but before she could stand up, Walter hit her with another. “You'll pay for that, Walter!” she shouted. He just laughed. She tried to trudge closer to him, determined to hit him. He scooped up more snow, balled it up, and tossed it at her. She screamed and ducked, and this time it missed.

“Ha!” she said in triumph. She raised her snowball in the air and hurled it at him. It screeched through the air like a rocket. Kate clamped her hands over her ears at the sound and closed her eyes. Then the ground rumbled slightly under her feet. She opened her eyes and peeked at Walter. Bits of her snowball lingered on his hat and cheek, but he wasn't looking at her. Behind him, just over the edge of the slope, a large plume of snow rose in the air and then fell gently back toward the ground.

“What was that?” asked Kate.

“Let's find out!” said Walter, and he dashed over the edge of the slope.

“Hey, wait!” called Kate, and she scurried after him.

“Another successful landing!” Mrrt smiled and patted the console. All systems seemed to be stable and the outer hull and sustained minimal damage. Not bad, considering he almost never landed the ship planet-side. There were docking ports and such for that in most civilized places in the galaxy, and short-range shuttles were far better equipped for frequently leaving and entering planetary atmospheres. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Now, to see about finding some fuel.” He flipped the ship's solar power generators on and activated the pressurize seal on his space suit. It would be no good if he lost basic life support as well as fuel. He picked up a hovering hand cart on his way to the airlock, then headed out.

The displays on the inside of his helmet told him the air was cool, but not unreasonably so. It was probably breathable, too, but Mrrt left his helmet on. Rule number one when dealing with foreign atmospheres was to never underestimate the powers of foreign pathogens. Most of the time they were incompatible with alien systems and just made you sneeze a lot, but some would take you down rather violently or lay dormant in your system until you became patient zero for a massive outbreak. This far away from anything that constituted health care, Mrrt didn't want to take the risk. Besides, his worker's compensation plan was unlikely to pay out if his suit reported that he had done something so stupid.

He adjusted the settings on his wrist scanner. Hopefully, there would be some sort of passable fuel supply nearby and he could get on with things. “Let's see, here...” he muttered to himself. “High water content in the surrounding area.... That would be the snow. Good to know it's not poison or ash or anything. Lots of flora... and... two of the sentient life forms nearby?”

He raised his head and looked in the direction his scanner had indicated. A single figure stood there wrapped in some sort of pink garb that obscured its form, and it stared at him with large eyes. “Erm... well, this is awkward,” he said. “Sorry, being. I come in peace. I just need to refuel my ship, and then I'll be out of here.”

The figure said nothing. It just stood stock still. Perhaps it thought he couldn't see it if it didn't move. He took a few deliberate steps toward it. “Look, I know you are there, but I'm really not qualified for first contact, and I can guess you aren't, either. So... let's just pretend this whole thing never happened. You go your way, and I'll go mine, get my fuel, and leave. Now, shoo.”

He waved his hands in a dismissing fashion at the being. It changed its skin color from a pale peach to something much closer to the white of the snow (perhaps trying to activate some sort of camoflauge?) and opened its mouth.

Mrrt tried to cover his ears as a horrific screech emanated from the creature, but of course his suit covered his head, preventing him direct access to his ears. He tried to regain his senses and shut off the audio receptors when something hit the front of his helmet, covering his vision in a field of white.

“Get back, space creature!” shouted Walter. “This is our planet, and you can't have it!”

He stooped down, made another snowball, and threw it at the creature stumbling around before him. It made a few weird noises and stumbled backward from his assault, tripping over some sort of large, hovering platform it had been pushing. “Ha!” he shouted. “Don't mess with Earth! We'll take you down!” He hurled another snowball.

“Let's get out of here, Walter!” shouted Kate.

“No way!” said Walter. “I'm gonna protect the earth! You have to protect it, too! It's your duty, Kate!”

Kate looked doubtfully from the alien to Walter and back. Then she bent down and patted a snowball together. “Go home!” she shouted as she threw it. “Bad alien!”

The creature was trying to hide behind its platform, but the thing offered very little cover. It bent down over itself and made more strange sounds.

“What's it doing?” asked Kate.

“It's probably trying to blow us up!” said Walter. He dove over the platform and tackled the alien. “I won't let you blow up Earth, you monster!”

“Gereeee nmmrr monster, please tt'mmlekk n'mag!” said the alien.

“It sounds like it's trying to say something,” said Kate.

The alien pulled itself free of Walter long enough to look at her with its large, dark eyes. “Yes! I just d'teree mm rkh translator. Please, don't sl'a rmteet!”

Walter tackled it again.

“Get off of him, Walter!” She grabbed Walter by the arm and pulled him back from the alien. The alien scuttled to its feet and took several very hasty steps backward. It made a sound that could conceivably be clearing its throat and lifted its arm.

“Could you say something, please?” said Mrrt. “My translator is almost done calibrating.”

“I was just trying to protect you...” muttered the blue-garbed figure. “And Earth. We don't want an alien invasion.”

“That will do,” said Mrrt. The translator on his wrist scanner seemed to have completed its analysis of the native language. He switched it off. “Let me know if you can't understand me. This program is pretty good, but weird things always come up with new species.”

“We're called humans, alien,” said the blue figure, “and we don't like being abducted or invaded.”

“What?” They thought he was an invader? “That's absurd! Invaders wear all this tactical gear and stuff! And I'm not some sort of weird slaver or pervert that goes around abducting sentient beings for my own ends. That's just crazy.”

The pink figure peeked around the other one. “Then why are you here?” it asked.

“I ran out of fuel. I was hoping I could find some.”

“There's a gas station back in town,” muttered the blue figure.

“I don't think his ship takes gas,” the pink figure said.

Mrrt smiled. “You're right. It's powered by biological material allowed to degenerate to fermentation using natural processes.”

The figures stared at him. The pink one was starting to look like it might make that terrible noise again.

“Wait, wait, wait. Not... beings like you and I. I mean, I guess you could if you wanted to but... no, forget I said that. I mean like rotting plants.”

“I have some grapes in my pocket....” said the pink figure.

“Grapes?” She pulled a small, clear wrapping of some sort out and held it in front of her. He slowly took a few steps forward and looked it over. Several green spheres attached to a branching stem. He scanned them, then frowned and handed the bag back. “Thank you, but I don't think these will quite work. Maybe after they underwent an extensive treatment process, but if I wait long enough for that, my shipment will be late. What else do you have around here? I'm Mrrt, by the way.”

“Just snow and stuff, mostly,” the blue figure said, and it gave the powdery ground a well-aimed kick.

“I'm Kate, and this is Walter,” said the other figure. “Maybe we could find something for you at the grocery store?”

“No way!” said Walter. He pushed his way in front of Kate. “We aren't helping you unless you're gonna give us something.”

“Well, of course I'll pay you if you feel it's necessary,” said Mrrt. “I wouldn't want to steal anything. But I'm not sure what to give you. I don't figure you take galactic standard currency.”

“Do you have a ray gun?” said Walter.

“A what?”

“A ray gun.” He pulled off a layer of cloth from his hands, and Mrrt briefly wondered how they were able to get anything done with so few digits. Walter folded them together with the forefingers extended toward Mrrt. He made an odd sound with his mouth that didn't translate and rapidly pulled his hands back. “Or really, any sort of space gun. That would be really cool.”

“Guns are not cool, Walter,” said Kate. “We don't need a ray gun.”

“Guns are totally cool! Especially space guns!”

“No, they aren't! They're dangerous! And what do you know about space guns, anyway?”

“I know that they're cool. Unlike you.”

Mrrt watched the back and forth, perplexed. He was beginning to wonder if these particular individuals were bonded. He decided not to interfere. Instead, he turned back to his wrist scanner and started scanning again for fuel. “Let's see.... Flora, but not suitable flora. Some creatures of varying sizes within the flora. Ooh, some are even capable of flight. And... something very large moving over to the east....”

He looked over in that direction. A golden brown creature of considerable size had lumbered out of the trees. It raised its massive head and sniffed the air, then let out a chuffing noise and began moving toward them. Mrrt shuffled a bit. The creature watched. Kate and Walter were still arguing. The creature was getting closer. “Um... excuse me,” said Mrrt. Kate and Walter turned toward him. “Maybe this is a stupid question, but... that creature over there, is it safe?”

Kate turned in the direction Mort was pointing and felt the color drain out of her face. Behind them stood a huge grizzly bear. “Walter?” she said. “I changed my mind. I want a ray gun.”

Walter looked at the bear. Slowly, he bent down to scoop up another snowball, but Kate grabbed his arm. “Don't move,” she said. “Maybe it doesn't see us.”

The bear waved its head from one side to the other, then it took a few more lumbering steps in their direction.

“Walter, we're going to die,” said Kate.

“How fast can it move?” said Mort. “Can we get to safety?”

“The town's too far away,” squeaked Kate.

“I'm not afraid of it,” said Walter, but Kate noticed he had gone as stiff as she was.

“Oh, I'm going to regret this,” said Mort. Kate peeked over her shoulder. Did Mort have a ray gun after all? But he was tapping at the wrist of his space suit. There was a noise off to their right, and a panel slid open on the ship. “Quick, everyone get aboard,” he said.

Kate didn't need to be told twice. Apparently, neither did Walter. They all dashed into the ship. Mort hit a button on the wall and the door slid closed with a heavy thunk. “What was that thing?” said Mort.

“It was just a little bear,” said Walter. “I bet we could have taken it out if we had a ray gun.”

“It was not just a 'little bear!'” shouted Kate. “It was a grizzly bear! Even a ray gun might not have taken it-- eek!”

Some sort of liquid was pouring out of spouts on the ceiling of the ship. Kate ducked her head underneath her arms. “What is this, Mort?”

“Don't worry,” said Mort. “It's just the decontamination sprinklers. It's standard procedure and an automated system. It will stop in a minute.”

“We're getting all wet!”

“That's kind of the idea.”

“But it's freezing outside!”

Mort shook his head and sighed. “And I don't suppose your suits have internal body temperature regulators, do they?”

“Internal what?” said Kate.

“I knew I was going to regret this,” said Mort, “though I didn't expect to regret it so soon."

The sprinklers stopped presently, and Mrrt directed them to the heat decontamination coils to speed up the drying process. They were still far to dirty to allow on his ship, but at least they wouldn't be uncomfortable.

“So, what do we do now?” asked Kate.

Mrrt tapped his wrist scanner into the ship's systems. “I should be able to monitor this... bear from inside here. When it goes away, we can head out.”

Walter was giving him an odd look that did nothing to assuage Mrrt's feelings of regret. “I dunno,” said Walter. “Grizzly bears can be very persistent.” He tucked his hands behind his head and leaned against the wall. “We might be here for a while, Mr. Alien.”

“No, it looks like it has already wandered off,” said Mrrt. “I guess it wasn't interested in us, after all.”

“Well, they usually eat fish, I think,” said Kate, “but they're still very dangerous.”

“I see,” said Mrrt, though he wasn't entirely sure he did. “Are you two dry enough now?”

“I think so,” said Kate.

“Good. Then let's get going back outside.” He checked the scanner again to make sure there were no other large creatures around, then opened the door. “The sooner I find fuel, the sooner I can be out of your way.”

“Not so fast,” said Walter. “How do we know you're a good alien? What's this ship for if it's not for invading planets?”

“Oh, I'm a freighter,” said Mrrt. “My current load is very important to my client. They don't like the cold much, though, which is why I decided to land here. That way even if my ship malfunctions, they should stay asleep.”

“They?” said Kate, activating her snow camouflage again. Mrrt lifted up his wrist and pulled up an image, then held it so Kate could see. “My people call them allr'mtae. They're small, bi-winged creatures that help with pollination on some planets, though I hear in some places they're also....”

“Butterflies!” interrupted Kate, clapping her hands together. “Can we see them?”

“Absolutely not,” said Mrrt. “As I said, they are very important cargo. I have to deliver them to....”

“But they're so pretty! They look like those tropical ones you see in the magazines.”

“You have these here?”

“Well, not here-here, and they don't do so well in the winter, but in summer we have monarchs and stuff. They look like these, but their wings are black with orange spots.”

“Then your planet is very lucky. These... butterflies... are a bit of a rarity among populated planets.”

“Oh? That's kind of sad,” said Kate.

“Who cares about butterflies?” said Walter. “I hope you don't expect us to help you find more if yours die. 'Cause we won't.”

“No, no,” said Mrrt. “There are procedures and precautions to be taken before removing a species from its homeworld, and that's not my job. I just ship the things.”

“If we help you,” said Kate, “can we see them?”

“But I thought you had them on this planet.”

“But I want to see these ones,” said Kate. “I love butterflies.”

“You would need to go through an extensive decontamination process to enter my ship, and you cannot touch them! Only look. If you have them here, then surely you know how fragile they are.”

“I'll do it,” said Kate. “I promise. As soon as we find you some fuel.” She turned and headed back in the direction Mrrt had first seen them.

“But what about my ray gun?” said Walter. He took a few steps after Kate, then turned back to Mrrt and raised a hand. “I better get my ray gun.”

“If I can figure out what that is, we'll talk,” said Mrrt.

“Common, Walter!” called Kate. “You better come, too, Mort, since we don't know what you're looking for.”

“Very well,” said Mrrt, and he fell into step behind them. “Let's just try and keep it subtle, shall we? I don't want to cause alarm.”

“Oh, we'll keep it subtle,” said Walter. He ducked behind some nearby bushes, then peeked out and ran to a nearby tree. “Let's go, Kate! We're on Top Secret Mission Project: Get Mort Gas.”

“That sounds disgusting, Walter,” said Kate. “Let's just go.”

Mrrt looked back at his space ship and wondered again if this was the best idea, and then he followed after.