“In This Together”
by Robert Allen Lupton
Mom and Dad were at the Federated Planets reception and I was stuck with the stupid babies in the nursery. They get to meet the representatives of forty intelligent races who invited Earth to join their Federation, and I get spend the day with ducklings, fledglings, fawns, colts, puppies and whatever else people call their babies on other planets.
It isn’t fair. I’m twelve. I’m not a baby. I can fly a ship, program the interstellar flip-jump drive, and do quadratic equations in my head. I’m going to join the Defense Alliance when I’m eighteen, just like both of my sisters. I studied and took target practice with them. I did the same workouts they did. I’m going to be a pilot.
The nursery was divided into sections based on what we breathe, temperature requirements, and gravity. I was lucky we were on Preeka, the fourth planet orbiting Lyra 4, an insignificant star in in the constellation, Lyra. The gravity is eighty percent Earth standard and the temperature and atmosphere are almost exact matches.
My fellow inmates were two fluffy bunnies, a talking stork, and three leathery unhatched lizard eggs. I couldn’t pronounce their names, so I called the rabbits Flopsy and Mopsy. Flopsy whined about how hard it was to keep his fur clean. Spruce complained about fluffing her own feathers. She said the humidity on this planet made her crest droop. Cece, my Constant Companion, translated so I could understand them. They were younger than me. They weren’t old enough to be paired with a Companion like Cece.
Cece hovered near my right ear and said. “Kera, our ship reports several Mord warships have popped out of flip drive and attacked the planet. They’re focused on the reception.”
Cece is a golden sphere the size of my fist. She knows everything; all I have to do is ask. She provides instant communication with my parents. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and she constantly monitors news, weather, and just about everything else.
She’s bright gold and quicker than a hummingbird. Cece reminds me of the smallest ball in the game wizard children played on flying broomsticks in those old movies, the golden screech or sneak? It might have been a stitch; I’m never sure.
The sky, crisscrossed with red laser beams and bright blue tractor beams, filled with smoke. The fires across the city lit up the night. Small Mord attack ships streaked across the city firing as they dodged the defensive barrage from the ground forces.
It was terrifying, but girls don’t become pilots by letting fear make decisions. “Cece, call Dad.”
Dad’s voice spoke from the golden orb. “Kera, are you alright?”
“I’m okay. Cece can monitor the attack using the weather satellites. The Mord are focused on this city. What should I do?”
“Stay where you are. The Mord will break off the attack before long and your mother and I will come for you. Stay away from windows and …”
Cece said, “Communication is terminated. The Mord have blocked most frequencies. Satellite imagery confirms the reception location took several direct laser strikes. It appears to be destroyed.”
Red lights flashed and sirens sounded. Cece said, “We are ordered to evacuate immediately.”
Our nursemaid looked terrified. She said, “I’m going for help. Stay here until I come back.”
She ran out of the room. The building shook, the lights went out, and something crashed against the door. It was jammed closed and I couldn’t open it. There were footsteps in the hallway, but no one tried our door.
The rabbits and Spruce, the stork girl, huddled under the table. I checked and they weren’t injured. The lizard eggs weren’t broken. I pounded on the door from our playroom into the hallway and shouted for help, but no one came.
Cece said, “Data update. Our ship will send evacuation shuttles to six predetermined locations in two hours. The closest recovery point is seven miles from here.”
“Show me a map.”
Cece projected a display in the air. A bright red line marked the shortest path to the recovery point.
“Cece, order transportation.”
“All public and private transportation is disabled. Repair estimates exceed the time allotted for rescue departure.”
“Are we supposed to walk?”
“I suggest you run. We should leave now.”
My clothing wasn’t suitable for dashing through a warzone. I found a jacket. It was a little large, but it would do. Our nursemaid left her backpack. I emptied it. There were food bars, but I didn’t know if I could eat them. Water is universal and I loaded a few bottles.
My shoes were fine. There were gloves in the jacket, but they only had three fingers and a thumb. The thumb was a little off, but I could make the gloves work. The native population are primate based, but their legs and arms are really long. They have four toes, not five, and extra elbows and knees.
Flopsy and Mopsy didn’t wear clothing, their fur was enough. The only thing the stork wore was an identification bracelet.
I wanted a weapon, but there wasn’t much in the nursery. I broke a leg off a table. A club wouldn’t be much use against laser beams, but a girl’s got to try.
“Okay, Cece. Let’s go.”
Spruce waddled to the door. She chirped and Cece translated. “You aren’t leaving us here?”
I’d never planned on leaving them. I pulled my left earlobe to signal Cece to communicate on a sub-vocal level. “Wait, Cece. I can’t leave them.”
“Agreed. These are children of diplomats whose support humanity requires to join the Federation. Assistance is wise.”
I didn’t want to be responsible for talking rabbits and the stork girl, but Dad taught me being brave isn’t about not being afraid; bravery is being afraid and still doing what has to be done. I tried to keep my voice from quivering. “Of course not. The three of you will come with me. We have less than two hours to meet a rescue shuttle. We have to hurry.”
Mopsy said, “I don’t want to go. My parents said to stay here.”
“I don’t think anyone is coming. We’re on our own.”
A laser beam took out the exterior wall and sliced away support beams and part of the floor. The floor tilted and most of the furniture disappeared out the open wall and fell to the street. I held the door frame to keep from sliding and grabbed the stork by one leg. Mopsy said, “We’ll go. I changed my mind. I don’t want to stay here.”
Cece said, “Kera, don’t forget the Quant eggs.”
“You mean the lizard eggs?” I’d forgotten the Quant eggs. I’d never live with myself if I left anyone behind. Quant approval was very important. Besides, I wasn’t abandoning anyone, even if they hadn’t hatched yet.
“Don’t move,” I said and crawled across the slanted floor. The box of lizard eggs was caught against a broken pillar, otherwise it would have slid out of the room and the eggs would be scrambled on the pavement. I wrapped my legs around the pillar and loaded the three eggs into my backpack. They were green, leathery, and the size of softballs. I tossed out three water bottles to make room. The bottles rolled across the floor and dropped off the edge of the room into the dust and smoke. I didn’t hear them hit the ground.
I slipped when I tried to crawl upward toward the hallway. “Cece, I need some help.”
Cece streaked to the table and a moment later a rabbit tossed a rope made of blankets, sheets, and tablecloths torn into strips and tied together. Flopsy wasn’t strong enough to throw the rope to me. The rabbit tried three times. After the third toss, Flopsy tied the rope to the table, wrapped one end around his six fingered paw, and said, “Catch me.”
Flopsy bounded twice and I caught him. “My sister and the stork girl have the other end. The floor is steeper than before. I think the building’s falling over. We should go now.”
Cece hovered above me and said, “He is correct. Structural failure in seven minutes.”
I followed the rabbit up the rope of torn bedding. I still couldn’t open the door. “Cece, are there any adults in the building?”
“According to infrared scans, there are only four life signs in this building.”
Nice. The locals forgot us when the evacuation order sounded. No reason to cry about it. Whatever we do, we were going to do it without help. “Cece, can we lower ourselves to the next floor?”
Cece flew into the smoke, returned, and said, “Yes, you can.”
We crawled to the edge of the room. The walls were gone. I tied the rope to a steel brace and dropped it into the room below us. I lowered the rabbits one at a time. Spruce glided down. I had to leave my club behind, but I slid down, crawled across the floor, and opened the door into the empty hallway.
Cece projected the building plans and highlighted the shortest path in bright red. I ran down the hall and into a stairwell. The stairs were steeper than the ones on Earth. The local humanoids are taller than people from Earth.
The stork led the way. It was fifteen stories to the ground. She spread her wings and drifted in a lazy spiral. The rabbits took each floor in two quick hops. I struggled to keep up. “Cece, they’re faster than me.”
“The rabbits are from a planet with twice local gravity. One theory is that they are short because their planet is a high gravity world. This has not been proven. Storks can fly faster than you can run.”
“Thanks, Cece, good to know I’m the weak link in this chain.”
“You’re welcome. There is no contact from your parents. Communication channels remain non-functional. Everyone is on their own. I can’t tell anyone our location. Help is not coming. Proceed to the rendezvous point for retrieval. Exit the building and turn right. Most of the locals are dead or hidden. I do not detect Mord in the area, but their typical invasion strategy is to land ground troops immediately after a laser assault.”
I considered sending Cece for help, but there wasn’t anywhere to send her until the retrieval shuttles landed. There wasn’t any point in sending her to the rendezvous point to wait for the shuttle. It would only stay on the ground long enough for the people who made it to board. I needed her to guide me.
I checked to ensure the eggs were undamaged, tightened the straps on my backpack, shoved open the door, and said, “Let’s run. We’ve miles to go and not much time.”
I ran through the smoke and dust. Cece activated her nightglow mode and I followed her. I felt strong. I ran easily in the lower gravity. It was a good thing I’d spent at least an hour every day on the human hamster wheel in the high gravity room during transit. I might be twelve, but I could run seven miles, especially since I weighed sixty pounds on this planet instead of seventy-five.
Flopsy and Mopsy bounced alongside me. Stork girl glided overhead. “How far, Cece?”
“At current speed, proceed straight for twenty-one minutes. At that point, you will turn right and cross a vehicular bridge over a canal. I will tell you when to turn.”
Cece led me around the rubble of collapsed buildings and burning vehicles. Flopsy and his sister bounced down the street like children on a playground.
“Cece, I don’t see anyone.”
“It appears the native population is hiding. I am still unable to track your parents, but it is possible we will encounter diplomats en route to our chosen retrieval point.”
“Let me know immediately if you spot anyone who can help us.”
I wiped my eyes and caught a glimpse of the bridge. My tears had to be from the dust and smoke and not because the Mord zapped my parents along with the representatives of a few dozen civilized races. Mom and Dad were smart, they’d be fine. The only way I could help them was to save myself.
“Mord forces have landed. Each soldier has a location transmitter and I have accessed their tracking program. The Mord have occupied the bridge.”
I slowed down, but kept moving. The schedule wasn’t going to change because the Mord were on the ground. “Is there anywhere else to cross the canal?”
“Not for several miles.”
Cece projected a map of the city with the canal crossings highlighted. The recovery point was a bright green flashing dot about five miles from the teardrop icon that showed my location. I tripped and fell while I searched the image for another canal crossing. Flopsy and Mopsy helped me up. The rabbits were strong. Must be the low gravity thing.
Mopsy squeaked in panic and Cece translated, “Gotta go, gotta go. I smell Mord. Gotta go.”
“Give me a minute. We have to find somewhere to cross the canal. We can’t just run, we have to know where we’re going.”
I focused on Cece’s projection. I traced the canal in both directions. The next crossing was five miles away. It might as well have been on another planet. One thing Mom taught me was that when you only have one choice, make it and move on.
“Flopsy, can you swim?”
“You mean swim, like in water? Not very well.” He ruffled his fur. “We get waterlogged.”
“I don’t see any other choice. I could tow you one at a time, but I’ve got these eggs. Cece, how far across the canal?”
“One hundred and three meters, seven centimeters and …”
“Close enough. We don’t have time for me to make three round trips across the canal.” I enlarged Cece’s projection. Boats were docked along the canal.
I ran and Flopsy and Mopsy ran with me. “Cece, are the boats operational?”
“The boats are powered by the same broadcast energy that powers all land vehicles. The Mord disabled the broadcast towers.”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“No is correct.”
The closest boat was a ferry. It had two decks and hundreds of seats. Every seat cushion was a flotation device. I fitted a device on each rabbit and put one around my waist. The large floating cushions draped like tarps on Flopsy and Mopsy. Mopsy wiggled her fingers and said, “We can’t swim wearing these. I can’t even move my legs.”
“Hold each other and don’t let go. I’ll tow you. At home, I swim every day.”
I found a storage box under a seat. It contained first aid materials and a few tools. I took a roll of tape, a wrench, and a screwdriver. I think it was a screwdriver.
I put my shoes in the backpack and sealed it. I hate to run in wet shoes. I taped Flopsy and Mopsy together and hooked my arm inside the straps. I said, “Hold your breath.” Mopsy shrieked when I pulled them into the water. Cece flashed a soft yellow light when I surfaced. The stork girl circled above me. I followed the yellow light.
I swam. I used one arm to hold the rabbits and one arm to swim. A slow sidestroke was the only stroke I could do and tow the rabbits. I saw Mord searchlights on the bridge, but they watched the streets, not the canal. Mord don’t like water. They look like spiders, big spiders, but they have regular skeletons, not shells like Earth spiders and insects. They’re bigger than me, but smaller than an adult human. They walk upright on two legs and their upper arms are like mine. They have two sets of small intermediate arms. Cece said the small arms developed to carry food and baby Mord through the trees where they live on their home planet. Mord are fast, but a little fragile. Their planet has low gravity and their bones aren’t as strong as ours.
The current carried us under the bridge before I swam halfway across the canal. The Mord skittered on the bridge deck. One leaned over the side and played his light across the water. I stopped swimming, drifted with the current, and tried to look small. He didn’t see us.
I swam for another minute and something brushed my leg. I ignored it and it brushed me again. The texture was rough and scraped my ankle. “Cece, are there creatures in the water.”
“Accessing. Yes, there are a multitude of species. The smallest ones are the equivalent of crawfish. They are compatible with humans. Are you hungry?”
I almost screamed. I love Cece, but she’d doesn’t always understand what I want, only what I say. Unfortunately, those aren’t always the same thing. “Will anything in this canal eat me?”
“The largest predator is a frog-like species. The males are solitary hunters. This planet’s birds and fish are its common prey, but one could pose a danger to you.”
A hand grabbed my right foot and pulled me under. The three floatation devices popped me right back to the surface. It pulled me under again and I surfaced gasping for air. I didn’t scream, I didn’t want the Mord to hear me.
I kicked my foot free from its grip. It let go. I tried to swim away, but it caught me. Cold hands crawled their way up my legs and waist. The frog surfaced. Cece played a red light on its face. Its head was huge and filled with rows of teeth. It held the shoulder straps on my life preserver in webbed hands and pulled me toward its gapping mouth.
Most girls would scream, but most girls don’t plan to be an interstellar warrior. I used the wrench. I hit it between its large eyes and it blinked. I hit it again. It let go and sank under the water. Cece lit the way and I swam toward the far canal edge. The frog resurfaced, grabbed my arm, and fought for the wrench. I twisted and kicked it in the face.
The stork swooped down. She raked the frog with surprisingly sharp claws. The frog rolled over to grapple with the stork, but Spruce gripped the frog by one claw and pulled him swiftly away from me. The frog squealed like a pig.
“Cece, does the stork have claws?”
“The Freld are intelligent carnivores who occupy six planets. They are the alpha predator on their home planet. They have sharp talons with opposable thumbs and razor sharp teeth.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t ask.”
I pulled the rabbits from the water and removed their floatation devices. The stork landed next to me. I said, “Thank you. I’m Kera. Your name is Spruce, isn’t it?”
“Yes. If you hadn’t stunned the frog thing, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to pull it to the other side of the canal.”
“Happy to help. Cece, status update please.”
“You are four miles from the retrieval site. Departure in fifty-six minutes.”
“Spruce, fly above us, but stay close. Flopsy and Mopsy, follow me.”
Flopsy asked, “Why do you call us Flopsy and Mopsy?”
“Those are names for mighty warriors on my planet.”
We followed Cece into the darkness. The air was cleaner away from the burning city, but the moonless night was darker.
Cece said, “Three miles.”
Flopsy and Mopsy jumped three times as high as my head and covered twenty feet on every bounce. I heard a loud thud overhead and Mopsy crashed to the pavement. She’d jumped into a tree branch. I stopped and bent to examine her. “Light, Cece. Give me light.”
Mopsy was unconscious. There was a bump above one eye, blood covered her face, and a bone stuck out of her left leg. I opened a water bottle, tore half my shirt off, and washed Mopsy’s face. I couldn’t do anything about the bump, but I could splint her leg. I called Spruce and she used a talon to slit the empty water bottle from top to bottom. The stiff plastic made a perfect splint.
“Flopsy, hold your sister. I’m going to pull the bone into place. It’s going to hurt a lot, so I want to do it before she wakes up.”
Flopsy looked queasy, but he held his sister. I didn’t know anything about rabbit people anatomy, but I had to do something. I pulled the leg and felt the bones grind as they seated into place. Mopsy woke up for a moment, screamed, and passed out. I wrapped the break as tightly as I could, positioned the cut water bottle, and tied it in place with my shoelaces. The tape was wet and wouldn’t stick to the plastic bottle.
Flopsy said, “She can’t walk. Send the stork or your flying ball for help.”
“I’ll carry her in my backpack. She’ll keep the lizard eggs warm. I can’t send Cece for help, she doesn’t know where to find anyone.”
The pack had several compartments. Mopsy fit in the biggest one and there was room for the eggs in the other ones. I threw away the water bottles. Mopsy weighed about as much as my cat. I sat on the ground and slipped into the straps. I had to roll onto my hands and knees to stand up. I hate to run in bare feet, but I tested my balance and kicked off my unlaced shoes. “Cece, give me an update.”
“Two point seven miles, thirty eight minutes.”
I ran. Spruce flew near my left shoulder and Cece held her position on my right. Flopsy ran at my side. “Cece, give me updates every quarter mile. Are you in touch with the ship?”
“The ship is silent. The retrieval schedule is still posted. It’s heavily encrypted, but it hasn’t changed.”
“Fine, keep lights on the pavement. I have to see. I can’t fall down.”
Cece continued her updates. My feet were cut and bruised before I reached the one mile point. Nineteen minutes until retrieval. Cece announced, “Three Mord between us and the retrieval location. They are moving toward us.”
This couldn’t get any better. Mopsy was broken and unconscious in my back pack. I had a screwdriver and a wrench. My wingmen were a fluffy bunny and a stork who thinks she’s an eagle. I needed ten or eleven minutes to make the rendezvous. That left me eight or nine minutes to deal with three giant spiders. The spiders were armed. Lucky me.
“We can’t go back and we don’t have time to hide. We have to fight. There are three of them and three of us. Flopsy, you don’t happen to have razor sharp teeth and giant claws hidden under that fur?”
“Afraid not. We’re vegetarians.”
Cece said, “Visual contact with the Mord in one minute.”
No time for a fancy plan. Keep it simple. I took off the backpack and laid the unconscious Mopsy on the ground and sat beside her. “Spruce, gain some height. When I hit the closest Mord with the wrench, dive bomb the one furthest from me.”
Spruce nodded and flew into the darkness.
“Cece, stealth mode and watch from the trees. When a Mord is close enough for me to hit, signal me. Hit the middle Mord in the head. Fly as fast as you can.”
“Affirmative. Fifteen seconds to visual contact.”
I lay on the wrench next to Mopsy. Flopsy dragged the backpack full of eggs into the trees.
I heard footsteps. I could see the operational lights on their uniforms. They held weapons in their spindly upper arms. Their intermediate arms carried loot stolen from houses and vehicles.
Their lights blinded me. Their footsteps came closer. Holding still was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Cece spoke in my mind, “Ready, five, four, three, two, and now.”
I swung the wrench and hit the Mord in the leg. It screamed and went down. I smashed his knee. Cece crashed into a Mord’s head barely a second before the stork raked her talons across the upper body of the same spider. They attacked the same one. That wasn’t good. The uninjured soldier stepped toward me and fumbled with his laser rifle. I threw my wrench, but he dodged.
I took three quick steps and jumped before he aimed his rifle. Flopsy dashed out of the woods and crashed into the Mord’s knees like a cannonball and I hit the spider chest high. He went over backwards. His four arms waved aimlessly and clutched at me. His head smashed into the pavement. The Mord tried to sit up, but its head rolled to one side and its arms went limp. It was still breathing when I climbed off its chest.
“Two Mord are unconscious. The one you hit with the wrench has a leg fracture. He is attempting to recover his weapon. You have nine minutes.”
I threw the laser rifles into the trees, grabbed the backpack, and put Mopsy inside. Spruce and Flopsy helped me strap it on and stand up. I patted Flopsy and said, “Nice double team. Thanks. We need to hurry.”
Flopsy pointed to his right foot and said, “There’s a problem. I sprained my ankle when I crashed into the Mord.”
I didn’t say a word. I picked up Flopsy and staggered after Cece on my bruised and bloody feet. It was dark. I had nine minutes to run a mile with two rabbits and three lizard eggs to carry. At least the stork could still fly.
“Bright lights, Cece. Bright lights. If I fall, I’ll crush a bunny.”
Moments later, Cece said, “One half mile and five minutes to retrieval liftoff.”
“Don’t tell me the time anymore.”
I shifted Flopsy over my shoulder and tried to increase my pace. I ignored the pain in my feet. Five minutes to go. I told myself I could stand anything for five minutes.
The landing lights from the shuttlecraft were blurry. I thought it was because of the smoke, but then I realized I was crying. I couldn’t even wipe my face. My hands were full of rabbit.
“Cece, can you contact the shuttle?”
“Communication channels are not open.”
“Spruce, fly to the shuttle. Cece, go with her. There are adults on the shuttle. I won’t get lost, I can see the shuttle lights. Bring help. Hurry.”
They flew for help and I staggered through the dark. I dropped Flopsy when I tripped. I found him and staggered to my feet. My right knee was badly scraped and it buckled when I put my weight on it. I limped forward dragging my right leg behind me.
Spruce landed and matched my stride. She spoke, but Cece wasn’t there to translate. She tried to take Flopsy from me. I pushed her away and screamed, “Save yourself, go.”
She put one wing behind me and slipped her head under my arm. She stood upright and helped me limp toward the ship. There were people in the open doorway.
Cece flashed from the ship. Four people ran behind her. The spotlights were bright. I collapsed on the ground. Suddenly, I felt many hands lifting me and Cece said, “I brought your father.”
I woke up in sick bay on our interstellar transport. My feet didn’t hurt, but they were bandaged. My knee was covered with Falseflesh. A voice said, “Welcome back, Sweetheart. Are you going to hit me again?”
I recognized the voice, it was Dad. Mom was with him. I sat up and hugged them both. “I hit you? I don’t remember hitting you.”
“When we picked you up, I tried to take the rabbits and your backpack. You fought like a tiger to keep them. We had to sedate you so the rabbits could receive medical attention. They’re fine, by the way.”
“I was carrying three lizard eggs.”
“Two of them hatched. The other one should hatch today.”
“And the city?”
“The city is destroyed. Most of the diplomats escaped, but we haven’t heard from your companions’ parents. While you were asleep, the Federation conducted a virtual meeting. Earth has been unanimously accepted into membership. That’s forty races to fight the Mord. I uploaded Cece’s data for them to review. The delegates were impressed an Earth child evaded capture and made it to a retrieval point. They were even more impressed that you saved six other children. I can’t tell you how proud your mother and I are. You’ve been very brave. Nicely done, Kera, nicely done.”
I wasn’t in danger and Mom and Dad were alive. I behaved like any twelve year old and burst into tears. The night, especially the last half mile, didn’t seem real—it was like a remembered nightmare.
Flopsy and Mopsy bounced into the room and jumped into my bed. I wiped my face on my gown, hugged them both, and promised myself I wouldn’t cry again. Spruce was right behind them. She stepped through the doorway and launched herself at me. Her feathers tickled and I started to laugh.
My voice cracked a little. “Dad, can we keep them? I know they’re people, not pets. Their parents are missing and someone has to take care of them. They saved me as much as I saved them. Can we?”
He looked at Mom and she barely nodded her head. “Of course. We don’t leave family behind.”
Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. More than a hundred and fifty of his short stories have been published in several anthologies including the New York Times best seller, Chicken Soup For the Soul – Running
For Good. His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His third novel, Dejanna of the Double Star was published in the fall of 2019. Robert’s stories are in two anthologies: Feral, It Takes a Forest to Raise a Child and Are You A Robot? and has four short story collections: Running Into Trouble, Through a Wine Glass Darkly, Strong Spirits, and Hello Darkness.
Find his work on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/author/luptonra and like or follow him on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100022680383572
Fabulous! I recently finished reading Lupton’s Dejanna of the Double Star, he’s definitely got a gift for story telling, and comes up with some great characters. “In this Together” was a hoot!