Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 23


The heat was stunning in its intensity, and the light reflected off the sand like black glitter. Instead of dull, thick particles, the sand was made of fine grit like tiny pieces of shiny mirrors. I had to trigger the eye protection on my exosuit to help filter the intensity.

“You do not have to go out,” Garjah said.

“We want to.” I patted Bouncer on his side and walked down the metal ramp that led out of the ship. We’d gone only a few steps when he began trotting ahead. I gasped. Those rigid ears that had stood so tall the whole time were flopped forward midway down, creating a shade over his face.

And his entire body had darkened. The red was so dark it resembled thick blood, stripped of all its oxygen. The lighter stripes just developing stood out in greater contrast. “Wow. I didn’t know he had the ability to change his pigmentation.”

“Cerops can manipulate their coloration to help adapt to their environment, to attract mates, or to ward off predators.” Garjah stayed beside me, swiveling his head back and forth while I knelt to examine Bouncer’s skin.

“I can’t wait to write this up.” I took some notes, but then movement on the horizon caught Bouncer’s attention before it Garjah saw it. “The changes to his skin and ears protect his eyes. He’s cooler to the touch already.” My voice dropped to a murmur. “Fascinating.”

“Many of the animals on this planet are adapted to the dual suns.”

“Yes, but most species are more specialized to their local region. This is a separate hemisphere.”

“Cerops roam this entire planet.”

“I wasn’t aware of that.” I tapped that note in. “What other animals survive here.”

“Watch him.” Garjah pointed one hand at Bouncer. “His senses are stronger than either of ours.” We began walking away from the ship.

“You can find our way back, right?”

Garjah looked amused, his lips curling up. “You think that will be hard to spot?” The ship wasn’t cloaked, and it stood taller than most of the shiny dunes gently curving in rounded pillows all the way to the cliffs.

“I learned a long time ago that distance and landscape can be deceiving.”

“How did you learn that?”

Before I knew it, he had me telling him all sorts of stories about my youthful misadventures. I’d visited many places in the universe. It was harder to pull stories out of him, so I settled for details of the planet around us.

We followed Bouncer over the top of a hill and started down, our feet digging in divots. Garjah left wider, deeper holes behind him as we walked side by side, tracking downward toward the harder packed sand at the base. There were rocks and even a few small plants tucked against them.

“I don’t detect much wind.”

“No, the cliffs protect this area of the sands, which is why we land the ship here. The sand is sharp and the weather can be dangerous during storms when it is whipped up into the air. It is rare a storm makes it through the shield of the tall mountains.”

Bouncer had made it to the bottom and bounced, glancing up at me then darting toward the rocks. One ear would briefly pick up then cover his eyes again. “Do you think he found something?” I chuckled.

“Sindranth live within those tube plants under the rocks.”

The plants he mentioned were translucent, with thin tubes sticking out of unfurled leaves that had a deep vee in the center of each feeding down toward the center. Small holes were bored into each tube. Black shapes circled inside the tube.

“The black things are sindranth?” I leaned in close, and Bouncer crept in next to me, quivering. “No, buddy, I don’t know what these are and if you can eat them.”

Garjah snorted. “Cerops can eat anything.

“Well all right then.” I reached for the tube and yanked, but it stretched in my hand and didn’t come out. The sindranth inside were hard and writhed against my palm. “Oh, ew.” I let go and several round black shapes feel out of the holes in the plant. They curled, uncurled, and writhed in the sand. It stuck to them but that didn’t deter Bouncer. He pounced and slurped two of them up at once.

“Insects are so disgusting.” I should take a sample, but I didn’t want to.

“You study animals.”

“I prefer to study larger predators within an ecosystem and the mammals that are their immediate prey. I’m only doing an overall study on Ardra because it’s an unknown and there was no team on my ship to come with me.”

“Who teams of humans will come here?”

My heart began to race and sweat broke out on my forehead and drops trickled down my back. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but if I said no and they came? They would, especially once Sonez reported my ruse. “They will. At least a ship.” I held up a hand. “I don’t know when but—” My voice choked off.

Garjah’s eyes widened bigger than I’d seen before. “Essell!” He grabbed my wrist in one hand, holding it so tight I could feel it through my exosuit, and then flipped my arm over. “Is that normal?”

In the palm of my glove was a hole.

I tried to answer him but couldn’t. My throat wasn’t working. I couldn’t speak, and the sweat began to drip off my forehead, blinding me inside my helmet. I managed a shake of my head, stabbing at the release for my glove.

A faint clicking marred the smooth retraction, and I stared in horror at my palm. Under the pink skin was one of those black shapes, and it was moving.

I couldn’t feel it, couldn’t move my fingers, and disgust and panic sent my stomach into a churning vortex. I was going to vomit, or faint, or both. 

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 22


“Garjah, it looks like you have a new friend,” Timok teased.

“He just smells Essell on me.” Garjah had both pairs of hands lifted away from Bouncer who was looking up at him. “Cerops are predators, primarily hunting by sound but also by sight and smell. He’s using smell, that’s all.”

“He’s hunting you?” Seedrah’s voice rose.

“No, you fool. He thinks Garjah is his other parent. He’s adopted Essell as his pack, and something about Garjah tripped that caretaker role for him as well.”

“Smell, I’m telling you. I helped Essell walk on the way here.” Garjah crossed his upper arms. “He is not attached to me that way.”

“I’ve hypothesis based on past observations. The cerops do mark each other, yes, but that is not something which can explain the bonds between pairs and their offspring.”

“But Bouncer was rejected from his family. If they have these bonds, why didn’t he have them?”

Timok shrugged. “His pack could have died. Or he was pushed out for more favorable offspring. These are still animals, driven by instinct.”

“Aren’t we all?” I muttered. “The instinct to survive is usually strong.”

“As individuals and species.” Timok inclined his head. “I knew you would understand that lesson.” Without saying anything else, he turned and walked out of the hold.

And with that cryptic statement, I suddenly got a whole subtext I’d missed before. Timok was a scientist. But even without overtly stating it, I’d just received a huge warning. It hadn’t even been subtle. Or maybe I wasn’t the first species they’d caught they didn’t want to reveal their existence. Was it a friendly warning or an official one?


The Four Arms on the ship did not like it when I walked around with Bouncer. They’d turn around and go the other way unless Garjah or Seedrah were with me. Mostly we stayed in my quarters, Timok’s lab, or the hold where we had a space set up to let him exercise.

His only left my side when Garjah was around. He only ate from me or Garjah. Timok studied us. I studied them. The best part was all the data Timok gave me. The animals and plants on Ardra I hadn’t explored yet was extensive.

It turned out we moved to the northern continent. The lush plants were long gone. High cliffs and extensive black sands dominated the landscape.

“What are we doing here?” I asked.


“Can we go outside the ship? Bouncer needs more exercise. I’d like to do more hands on research as well.” Timok told me that Garjah normally went out to oversee the crews, but with me on board he’d sent out Seedrah instead.

“You don’t want to go alone?” Garjah asked. He sliced off a chunk of meat. One for himself, one for Bouncer who sat next to our table.

“No. Navigation is disabled on my equipment, and I don’t know the area. There’s no food, no water. It’s too hot out there for Bouncer to survive for long.” Maybe I should just come out and say it. “If you guys ever do let me go, I’ll have the research I need to make my name. I won’t give that up to run away and die on some foolhardy escape attempt.”

Garjah put down his blade, raising his brows. “I wondered if you’d ever say it.”

“I wonder if you’d ever tell me if I’m going to be a captive forever.”

“That is not my decision.”

“Right. Roles and all that. You’re security. You make sure I’m not a threat and then someone else decides Tell me, why hide your species from the rest of the universe? What is so scary about everyone else that you lurk out here on the fringes?”

Garjah’s thin lips spread in a smile. “You assume we’re not the scary ones.”

I put my fork down. “If so, you’d neutralize races and subdue planets. You display community traits as a species. You need each other. You’re insular. Many races are and join the galatic. So something else is going on. I just haven’t figured out what yet.”

I needed to talk to more of the Four Arms. I hoped making a trip outside the ship would show my intentions, but the words just blurted out of me.

“Tomorrow, early before the second sun gains to much height it should be safe for you both out of the ship. We can explore for a few hours. While it looks barren, there are animals that live among the sand and rocks. I can show you.” Garjah’s change in subject confused me.

“Um, okay. Thank you.”

Garjah nodded his head toward my plate. “You are sated?” I’d finished off the cubes and some of the vegetables.

“Yes. I’m full.” I carefully cleaned my fork to take back to my quarters.

“I will escort you.” Garjah tossed the last of the meat to Bouncer, who yipped as it sailed over the table to my side. He caught it neatly, snapping it out of the air with his jaws and purring as he swallowed it down.

As soon as we got back to my quarters and the door slid shut behind me, I removed my exosuit. Garjah thought I wore it except to bathe, but it didn’t cool me as effectively in the higher gravity. Some of the mechanisms were struggling, so I stripped down to my underclothes and sat on the bed beside Bouncer.

He lay his head on my leg, and I scratched the scaled on the top of his head between those ginormous ears. “We’re getting out tomorrow, buddy. I bet you can’t wait.” I pulled my tablet to me and looked up cerops again. I didn’t think being out in the desert would hurt him, but I’d found him in a jungle. Time to do some more research.

And write up the notes I’d mentally penned on Four Arms.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 21


“What?” All three of the Four Arms stared at me. Bouncer curled in front of me, pressing against my legs. He exposed his fangs and snarled, his ears and eyes focused on the watching group. “Stop that,” I said.

“You are insane.” Seedrah’s eyes were huge. “He should be dead.”

“I am not,” I objected.

“Cerops are vicious. They attack anything between them and their chosen prey. Even though they are smaller than many of the prey animals, a mated pair can take down almost anything.”

“Bouncer has adopted me as a parent.” I wrinkled my nose. “Not a mate.” He certainly acted a lot like the young I’d seen being fed, just bigger. “I’ve raised enough babies to recognize the behavior. He’s never once tried to mount me or lay a claiming bite like many feline or canine species across many planets did.”

Life varied in many ways, but it also had many consistencies.

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Maybe you just never got close enough to them to discover their true nature.”

“Or maybe there’s something about you that’s special,” Timok said. “You reacted to stasis differently than any other being we’ve brought in before. He reacted to you different while in stasis.”

Dropping my arms, I raised my eyebrows. “Well, I guess you have a lot to study, don’t you?”

“You’ll let me? Study you?” Timok’s look turned calculating.

“Turnabout is fair play. You help me learn about Bouncer and the rest of Ardra.”

“Who is Ardra?” Garjah rumbled.

“The planet? That is the designation we’ve given it.” What did they call it? I’d have to ask. “I’ll need some recording equipment, something to write notes. The one I had would be great, I already had recordings and observations on it from before… well, before.” I didn’t want to say they’d kidnapped me, but that’s what they’d done.

“No recording equipment.”

I sighed loudly, and Bouncer’s ears twitched backward toward me before rotating forward again. “Seriously? You can disable it so it won’t transmit and check it whenever you want, make sure I’m not saving any data that would breach your security.” Garjah’s stone face, so rigid when he was in his security leader role, was hard to read. “Please?” I tried the smile that used to get me extra time to read before bed.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But you will check in with before the end of every day. We will discuss what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and what you recorded.”

“How about over the last meal?” Timok suggested. “Since Essell has such a hard time navigating the ship and doesn’t know how to read our language.”

I nearly goggled at him. What was he doing?

“Good. Last meal.”

“What about Bouncer? He can’t survive on his own, so you can’t let him go. I don’t really like him in a cage, even if this one is nicer.” I looked around at the small space, barely big enough for him to roam a few paces in each direction.

“Let’s do some tests,” Timok suggested.

Garjah argued with him and Seedrah for a few minutes, and I only objected when he suggested provoking him by poking him with something. “Do you really think a crew member will poke a wild cerops if he’s loose on the ship instead of running away?”

“He makes a good point, Garjah,” Seedrah said. “I would run.”

“You’d be a fool to turn your back on predator.” Garjah made his pronouncement and Seedrah’s skin darkened. But he didn’t argue, standing with his back to a wall several body lengths away from the cage. He held a weapon ready to stun Bouncer back into stasis.

“Ready?” Garjah asked.

“I trust Essell.” Timok stood equally distant from the cage, Garjah to one side. He was calm, but I was surprised. He trusted me? Why? He didn’t seem all that impressed with humans when I first overheard him. What had changed? “I trust he’s learned what being foolish about his safety can lead to.” Ahh, there it was. The snark. He was downright caustic in a way you couldn’t really call him out for.

Still. “Thanks. I’m opening the door now.” I reached through the bars on the front and undid the latch, sliding the lock to one side so I could crack open the door. Bouncer stayed beside me as I opened the door and stepped out slowly.

“Move so you’re not between him and Seedrah.”

I tried to follow Garjah’s directions, but Bouncer was careful to stay tucked against my side. From the way he kept an eye on the young alien who wasn’t quite as stable with his weapon as I’d like, he knew where the threat lay.

“Interesting. We knew they were intelligent and postulated a bond of some sort that allowed them to hunt as a single unit when pairs were mated, but we never studied the young ones with parents. He almost anticipates your moves before you make them.” Timok absently tapped two of his hands together. “Do you feel anything from him? Anything foreign at all?”

“What? No.” I had adopted a rather large predator quickly when before I normally would have steered clear, but… “I can’t feel anything.”

“Hmm, maybe it’s subconscious.”

“Let’s test him. That’s why he’s out of the cage, right?” Garjah said impatiently. He stomped suddenly, and Bouncer tensed but only pressed tight to my thigh. Timok proceeded to set off loud sounds of varying pitches while Garjah made sudden movements.

The only one that caused a reaction was when Garjah grabbed me. Bouncer thrust himself between us, baring his fangs. But then his nose wrinkled. He rubbed his head against my thigh, sniffed again, then swung his head toward Garjah. The snarling stopped, and his ears pricked up. He took a step closer to Garjah, sniffed, then yipped before rubbing against him.

“What is he doing?” Garjah’s eyes were shot wide.

“I don’t believe it.” Timok barked a laugh.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 20


Seedrah once again came at a trot, bringing my exosuit. We made our way slowly to the hold, and I tried to memorize the symbols on the walls for the journey. It might not be in aid of escape, but I needed to study these aliens. Their culture was very similar to most bipedal races, their interactions and basic mannerisms mostly within the norms.

They had fairly standard emotions and expressed them in ways I could understand. Their culture was gregarious, and they worked as a community. They clearly showed disfavor toward outsiders—or at least humans and the races we knew, since none of them had told us about Four Arms—but they weren’t xenophobic to the extreme. I wasn’t imprisoned, experimented on, or killed.

Go me.

But they weren’t just going to let me go. I had to hope that there was something I could do that would lead me to an answer that would resolve my precarious situation. If only I could get used to their gravity… the weight of it was exhausting, and just eating a meal and walking to the hold had already exhausted me.

Hopefully my suit would protect my body some. At the hold, I removed my foot coverings and placed the disk with my exosuit against my chest. Depressing the command sequence, it expanded, first wrapping up and around my shoulders and ribs before it began to slide the plated shielding around my exposed limbs.

Garjah didn’t look happy as he let me into the new cage where they’d moved Bouncer. It was bigger, so I could stand in it, which I appreciated for him. They weren’t going to keep him in the tiny one that was barely bigger than his body. Timok stood with a fairly standard injector, which he passed over before Seedrah secured the barred door behind me.

“Press it to the shoulder, close to the cerop’s spine.”

Bouncer’s feet flexed as I crouched next to him.

“Did you see that?” Seedrah asked. “He moved! He shouldn’t be able to do that.”

“I told you,” Timok said. Their voices faded into the background as I focused on Bouncer. His color had faded, and I didn’t like it. I rubbed the pebbled skin of his chest, unable to feel it through my gloves but the rise and fall of his ribs was reassuring.

“You’ll be okay.” I studied the injector, which was really just a tube with a hole on one side with a button, putting it to Bouncer’s shoulder and pressing the button. There was a hiss and soft thud I could feel through my glove. Idiot-proof. Or human-proof. Maybe the same thing to them until I proved otherwise, though Garjah did call me wily. I still felt a strange sense of pride in that.

Almost immediately Bouncer’s breathing increased. I dropped the injector out of the cage, then looked around. No food, no water. Saint’s balls, I was an idiot. They’d had him in stasis, but I knew how voracious he was.

I turned to face the bars. “I need food. A lot of it. Meat, preferably alive if possible. He likes grubs.”

“Cerops will eat anything moving,” Garjah said.

“Would you stop being so biased and get me what I asked for?” I snapped.

Pressure snapped around my foot, and I was pulled backward. I landed with an oomph, then fell onto my belly. I rolled, and Bouncer pounced as he’d done so many times in the short time we’d been together I’d actually lost count.

“Essell!” Garjah bellowed.

“I’m fine.” My voice was breathless, more from the shock than anything else. Bouncer was awake, crouched over me, and nuzzling my belly. I’d postulated it was a move young did to induce milk production in the parent, or a scent-marking on a vulnerable portion of anatomy only a packmate would allow.

The whine of a weapon broke up our reunion. Bouncer’s head came up, and he fixed all his eyes on Garjah, snarling with his sharp teeth on threatening display. “You’re not fine.”

“He wants to hurt you, not me. He doesn’t even have his claws out. Wasn’t that what you were worried about?”

Garjah’s hand didn’t move an inch, and Bouncer wasn’t moving either. I couldn’t get up, just crane my head awkwardly to look sideways out the bars. Thankfully, Seedrah came trotting up with a bin.

“Oh good, food.” Bouncer’s nose twitched, and his gaze moved from Garjah to Seedrah. That, if nothing else, proved how young he was. An adult would not waver from the biggest threat in the space, even if starving. But Bouncer’s stomach ruled him, which made me safe. Ish. Safeish.

I still kept my suit and gloves on, after all. Seedrah slid the container through the bars, and I stretched one arm up and snagged it with my fingertips. As soon as I had food in my hands, Bouncer backed off, yipping. He assumed the position, front legs trembling as he laser focused on the food. He was probably starving after being in stasis for so long.

Sliding the lid off, I smiled at the grubs whose mandibles were gone but they were still alive. Perfect. Picking up one of the ugly purple grubs, I didn’t need to worry about my fingers. I avoided the pink slime from the wounded head, tossing it in the air to Bouncer. He lived up to his name, hopping into the air and catching it neatly.

He crunched down, snapping his jaws shut and chewing rapidly. When he sat again, pink oozed from his lips. He wiggled on his forelegs, glittering eyes focused on me, big ears up, ready for another toss. I didn’t make him wait, sending another juicy bug his way. This time I made him leap to the left. Then the right. He didn’t miss a single bug. The final one I let him take from my hand. He licked his lips, then butted my stomach.

“Yeah, you’re welcome, buddy.”

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