Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

[EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT] From Beyond The Sun SF- “Respite” by Autumn Rachel Dryden

 Beyond The Sun is an anthology of space colonists stories currently being funded on Kickstarter. Editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt really needs your help to make it happen. Writers include Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Cat Rambo, Jennifer Brozek, Jamie Todd Rubin, Brad R. Torgersen, Jean Johnson, Erin Hoffman, Jason Sanford and more. If the project is funded, it will be released either print on demand by the editor or with a small press. The goal is to pay the authors and artists to illustrate the stories at professional rates. In this economy, many small presses are struggling, so the editor felt the concept and talent deserved better than token rates and decided to bring it before fandom and ask for support. There are some great prizes, including special artwork, signed copies, and more available to backers.

But as an extra incentive, we’ve been given this exclusive excerpt of one of the stories to share with you.

For information on the anthology and Kickstarter, including a full list of writers and artists, bios, guidelines and rewards, click here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/601968027/beyond-the-sun-anthology  The project has 9 days remaining to fund and has raised $1424 of the $5000 needed so far. This promises to be an exciting collection.

For glimpses at Silverberg’s story including accompanying illustration, go here. For links to stories by other invited writers, go here. Another story will be excerpted on SFSignal later this week.

Meanwhile, here’s a glimpse of the kind of stories you can expect to see there.


RESPITE

by Autumn Rachel Dryden

The wagon rumbled and crunched over the scupp shells in the sand. Each time Ann and Edward felt one of them crack under the wheels they shuddered. The hatching could begin at any time.

The two of them sat silent and tense on the hard wagon bench, their simple black and white clothing a sharp contrast to the dun of the beach dunes and the purple shells thrusting up through the sand all around them. Ann clutched her swollen belly protectively, though she knew she would not be able to save the babe within if the scupps hatched before the wagon reached the shelter of the cliff caves.

“We left too late,” Edward said. It had become a litany of sorts.

“We’ll make it,” Ann replied, because they had to try.

Edward whipped the scaled backs of the placid undru pulling the wagon. Ann could have told him it would do no good; the beasts were doing the best they could already. He glared at Ann’s belly before quickly looking away. His look cut Ann to the core. He’s wishing I wasn’t here with him, slowing him down. He wishes we had never tried to have this child.

“And if the babe comes early?” He was taking out his helplessness on her.

“I’m still glad we’re having a child, Edward.”

“I don’t think you will be after we’ve been eaten alive by thousands of flying crab-things, shooting out of all of these scupp shells. Especially if we might not have been eaten if you hadn’t slowed us down with a premature labor.”

“I’m not going to go into labor. Edward, why are you being so hateful?” If I’d known you were like this when I met you, you wouldn’t be the father of my baby.

“That should be obvious to the whole world, Ann. We’re doomed out here, and we’re alone, and if you weren’t pregnant none of this would be happening.” His arms gestured to include the horizon. Ann thought that he was pushing things a bit. The hatching would happen whether she was pregnant or not.

“May I remind you that I didn’t get pregnant all by myself?” She was getting angry at his selfishness. “And that the main reason we came to Respite was so that we could have freedoms denied to us on Earth—such as having children? That used to matter to you, Edward.”

“Freedom is no use if you’re dead.”

“I’d rather die free than live in the kind of bondage we were under on Earth. I’m still glad I came.”

“The scupps are glad too. You’ll be a nice meal for them, I’m sure.” His lips tightened into a thin line. He didn’t look at her. She stared at him, in shock that he could be so uncaring. This place was changing him. And not for the better.

“That was completely uncalled for. You don’t have to take your fear out on me.”

“So now I’m a coward? I’d like to see the man who wouldn’t be afraid in my shoes.”

“That wasn’t my point, Edward. I’m frightened as well. But tearing each other up is not going to solve anything, or help us survive this. I haven’t given up yet. But I need you to not give up either.”

Edward said nothing more, but his lips were still tight and he began to whip the undru again. Normally Ann would defend the animals, but in this case it was either her or them, and she was tired of Edward taking it out on her. Let the undru have their turn. They had thick scales after all. And whatever Edward might do to their bodies, their hearts could not be touched by him. If only humans could protect themselves so well.

For a long time the two sat silently on the bench, not looking at each other. Ann wanted to just close her eyes. Every direction she could see only dismayed her more. Under them, ahead and behind, there was nothing to look at but the endless purple shells sticking out of the sand. To their right, eastward, the sand eventually changed to brown hills covered with drooping, dying grass. To the west lay only the sea, salty and warm, harboring its own menaces. Overhead the sun shone harshly down from a wheat-colored sky, refusing to hide any of the ugliness around them.

Ann missed their little farm. It hadn’t been much, but to her it was the whole world. A few acres tilled and planted, a small, struggling crop of grain, some chickens. They hadn’t even had a real house; they lived out of the back of the wagon, and put a canvas cover on it during storms. It had been adequate, or so they thought. Houses and other niceties would have to wait until there was enough food to fill their mouths and that of the offspring soon to come. If any survived.

When the colonists had left Earth, all they knew about their future home was that it was compatible with Earth’s atmosphere and climatic conditions. It had only been a number on a map of stars. They had been granted one small, aging starship with which to limp through the light years until they reached their home. The colonists had felt grateful to get it, and did not complain. The resources aboard the craft had been barely enough to support the lives of the hundred people on it, even in stasis, but they had managed to reach their destination. As a symbol of their new home, each of the colonists had chosen new names for themselves: plain, old-fashioned names. Like the Quakers or the Puritans on Earth. It was a way to return to simpler times. The landing was less than a year ago, but there were perhaps twenty women already pregnant. Ann was the farthest along.

What a privilege to conceive and bear children when she wanted, with whom she wanted. To live a simple life, free of mindless machines and the hive mind of an omnipotent government. Though the scupps were quite a trade off to make.

As if reading her thoughts, the babe within her somersaulted. Ann gasped and clutched her stomach, then laughed. The sensation was so odd. No matter how often she felt it, she never got tired of the reminder that there was life within her womb.

Edward glared at her and said, “How can you laugh at a time like this? We could die, Ann. I thought you realized that.”

Ann sobered a bit, but couldn’t help saying, “Edward, if there is ever a day in my life in which I cannot laugh, that is the day I will die.”

He gave her a look which clearly expressed, you’re crazy, this place is getting to you, but he didn’t reprimand her again.

The wagon jerked, much harder than usual, and Ann grabbed Edward’s arm for balance. Then the wagon was still. The undru strained, trying to pull the cart along, but it wouldn’t budge. Edward cursed under his breath and hopped off the bench, looking at the wheel. It had cracked on a sharp stone sticking out of the sand. The axle was broken. There was no way to fix it.

“We aren’t going to make it,” Edward said. He was staring at the broken axle. Finally, he sat down and began to weep. Huge, racking sobs, tearing through his body. Ann had never seen Edward express so much emotion, and was a bit shocked. Carefully she climbed down from the high wagon bench and joined him. She put her arms around him and said nothing for a time; just held him. Ann’s eyes were still dry, which surprised her. If anyone had told her even a year ago that she would one day be cradling her husband, her strong man, in her arms while he sobbed his heart out to her and she remained unaffected, she would have laughed in their face. Yet the truth was undeniable. She was stronger than Edward.

She realized that she had always been stronger than him, but had never before admitted it, even to herself. Instead she had borne his weaknesses alongside her own strength, defending him, excusing him. What must the other colonists have thought of me? Knowing that I was married to a weakling, yet unable to see it?  Perhaps that was why Edward had been so eager to establish their farm so far away from everyone else. Alone with her, he could be with the one person who did not despise him. But I do despise him. Now, when it is too late. Our fate is already sealed, and by my hand as much as his. Yet I must go on. I must be strong, for both of us.

After she felt he had had enough time to get himself together, she said, “Come on, Edward. We need to go.”

“Go where? How? There’s nowhere to go. We’ll never make it.”

“Edward, stop it. You’re giving up. We still have the undru. And I can walk if I have to. The cliffs can’t be too far off. Maybe a day’s walk or so. We’ll make it.”

Edward just put his head in his hands in reply. Ann sighed, then got to her feet and went over to unhitch the placid, patient undru. They were native to Respite, and had taken the place of Earth oxen, which had not thrived on this planet. They were large, reptilian beasts with short stubby tails and a broad bony plate across their head. They looked more like dinosaurs than anything else, but they were quite gentle and easily tamed. They had stiff overlapping scales, like chain mail, covering most of their body, a natural protection from the claws and jaws of the myriad tiny scupp hatchlings. When the hatching took place, the undru would squat down and curl into themselves, exposing their scaly backs and nothing else to the onslaught. At least, Ann assumed that would happen; she had seen the undru, when frightened, do that in the past. The colonists had not yet been on Respite long enough to really know what to expect of many of the animals on it.

Only one man had seen a hatching and survived; he had managed to find shelter in a hole in the ground, blocking it from the inside with rocks as the scupps swarmed all around it. The scupps were purple buzzing flying discs the size of Earth locusts, that had lots of tiny black claws and a mouth like a crab, except that crabs didn’t fly and eat people. The man, Daniel, had returned to the cliff caves that were the landing base of the colonists and told his frightening tale. He had been exploring the coast in an area where none of the colonists had yet been, when one morning he noticed a few purple spots in the sand. He examined a few, and found that they were all large shells, larger than a man’s head, buried in the sand, and burrowing to the surface. Over the next few days, the shells stuck farther and farther out of the sand until they were completely exposed on the surface. There were now thousands of them. Then, they hatched open, revealing the swarming death within that shot towards the sky in a cloud.

He was lucky to survive, in his hole in the ground. The others who had gone with him had not been so lucky. Only their bones remained to show they had ever existed.

Word was sent to all the outlying farms, to watch for the scupp shells and stay away from the coasts, and to return to the cliffs as soon as possible, since no one knew how widespread the hatching would be, or how many more times it would happen that season. For some reason, the scupps seemed to stay out of caves during the one hatching that Daniel witnessed. The theory was that because the caves were bare rock there was nowhere for the scupps to burrow to hibernate and transform, before again rising to the surface. The shells could be cracked with a hard blow, but there were too many for that to be effective. The colonists in the cliffs were experimenting with ways to kill the scupps before the next hatching, but so far had been unable to find anything that worked.

Ann and Edward had received the warning, but Edward insisted that they were far enough inland that they were not in immediate danger. Besides, the grain would be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks. They were probably okay to wait until their crop was ready to go back to the cliff caves. Ann had reminded Edward that they had to cut back to the coast to reach the caves; the nearest inland route was many miles longer and impassible for the wagon; a road had not yet been cleared through the thick vegetation. Edward had been confident that they could make it, though, so they had stayed. And I stayed with him. I could have left; could have made him leave. But I didn’t. I thought he was the strong one then.

Yesterday morning Ann had found a purple spot on the ground near their well. Edward had examined it and their worst fears were realized; it was a scupp shell, barely peeking through the earth. Immediately they threw their few belongings together and loaded the wagon, catching the chickens as fast as they could. They had been traveling steadily ever since, even through the night. They had only stopped for brief intervals to rest and water the undru. As they traveled, the shells became more and more plentiful. Now, as Ann looked about her, most of the shells were at least three quarters of the way through the sand. How much longer did they have? Would it be long enough?

She tied their water skins and some of their blankets on the back of one of the undru, to serve as a sort of saddle. Undru weren’t ordinarily ridden by humans; their backs were a bit too broad and their scales were intensely uncomfortable to sit on. Ann felt that in this instance she had no choice. She couldn’t walk far or fast enough to beat the hatching, and needed to ride.

“Edward, I need you to help me mount.” During Ann’s exertions, Edward hadn’t gotten up. He simply sat, staring at a scupp shell near his feet. Now he rose wordlessly and helped Ann clamber up the back of the undru. When she was sitting unsteadily on the beast, he stopped moving again. “Let’s go, Edward.” He seemed drained; the anger was gone, but so was his will to live, apparently. Why wouldn’t he fight?

“Edward, I don’t want to leave you behind. You are my husband.”

“Some husband I’ve been to you.”

“We don’t have time for this right now. We’ve got to get going. If you aren’t going to help yourself, help your child. The baby needs you to not give up.”

“It won’t matter whether I give up or not. The end result is the same.”

“It will be the same if you don’t get moving. Help me, Edward.”

He said nothing, but his lips were once more in that tight line she had come to hate. He turned away. Ann finally let herself get angry. “All right. Stay here then. I’m taking the undru. No reason for innocent creatures to die along with you. Goodbye.” And if the child is a boy, I’m not going to name him Edward.

She tugged on the reins of the undru she was riding, and it started plodding northwards again, its companion rumbling forward with them.

Comments are closed.