This story is by Christopher Pate and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The scout ship hung nearly a light-year out from Sol’s golden brilliance. Black as the endless night in which she lay, the small ship neither glittered in the dim starlight nor emitted any warm glow from errant signals or waste heat. She was a cold hunk of detritus mimicking trans-Neptunian objects’ frigid, unhurried dance. She watched and waited.
Scout First Class Emerson shifted in the pilot net and struggled to remain alert. He had to stay watchful if he was to do his duty here on the edge of interstellar space: to watch for the Intruders – inscrutable slayers that popped out of interstellar space and destroyed anything human. Since their appearance five years ago, everything Earth had thrown at the threat had, at best, come to a draw. The last battle had taken the combined might of the Saratoga and Liberté to destroy three black, glistening Intruder ships, but at the cost of both battleships and all hands.
He scrubbed his bristly face and rubbed eyes that burned and his head that ached. Awake for nearly 48 hours; it was time for rest and a hot meal. He scanned the visplates once more for Intruder emergence into his sector. Everything appeared normal for this region of space. A few icy rocks tumbled nearby at a pace that would have made a glacier seem a raging torrent, interstellar winds roiled at the heliosphere’s edge, and small gamma radiation spikes echoed the birth and death throes of far-flung stars.
Emerson spoke a word, and the low-grade AI took over as he pushed toward the galley. The portal irised open, and a furry blue blur slammed into his chest, tumbling him into the bulkhead.
His assailant purred loudly enough to be heard on Pluto and bumped its furry head against his face. Slitted, dark golden eyes glittered as a graceful predatorily lined head rose to push whiskers, tufted ears along Emerson’s chin, and a long tail lashed while fur flamed iridescent azure. A white-fanged maw split the sanctum of silence with a loud, prolonged meow.
“Horatio!” He said in a scolding tone. “Slipped out again, huh?” The admonition carried a grudging hint of respect. The spacer suspected as he rubbed his furiously purring companion under the chin; the cat did it purposefully to provide his human crewmate some diversion. No matter how he tried to corral the cat during his watch, Horatio’s innate abilities and enhanced intelligence made every attempt futile. This long into his tour, it had become a game between the two and helped the scout retain some sanity on the edge of the Great Lonely.
Emerson clutched the cat and pushed off, twisted through the door, and landed feet first on the galley’s curved wall. Horatio sprang away. The feline’s fluid zeegee grace still mesmerized the spacer. The big blue tom had adapted effortlessly to zero gravity and landed on a tiny table that jutted from a surface perpendicular to the floor on which Emerson stood. The cat dealt with all the accompanying forces from his leap so smoothly and imperceptibly it seemed mystical. The tom’s eyes glowed expectantly.
The spacer grinned as he opened a panel and sorted through rations. The blue feline arched his neck and bobbed his head to peer past the human to catch a glimpse of the stores.
“Whaddya say, Horatio? Our ninth tour is nearly done. We’ve done our bit. Our sector is unbreached. Earth sleeps well, and they have us to thank, hm? Well, at least in part.” He chuckled and placed two shrink-wrapped packets on the table. The cat’s ears pricked up, and he sniffed the packets eagerly.
“Tuna for you and a steak for me.” He sighed. “Well, not real tuna or steak, but spacers can’t be picky, eh? Besides, after our next tour, we’re gonna retire to that little piece of land on Mars. Then it’s nothing but the good stuff for us, pal.” The cat mewed and pawed at the packets, looking from Emerson to the cooker.
“Okay, okay.” He tossed the smaller one in the cooker and tapped the controls. “And how about an algae beer for me and a little faux milk for you, hm?” At this, the feline’s eyes widened, and he yowled loudly.
“Alright!” He held his hands up and then removed a bottle and a small container of cream from the chiller. He tapped the bottle’s reflexive material and took a long pull. Horatio wasn’t pleased with the delay and pawed Emerson, eyes narrowing. The man grinned and belched heartily. He thumbed the cream container so that one side became permeable. The feline lapped and purred. He had just taken another swig when Emerson’s world suddenly turned upside-down, and he slammed into the bulkhead and fell into blackness.
Alarms screamed, and the AI wailed warnings. The room spun as Emerson pushed up slowly. Tiny scarlet globules floated before his face. He was bleeding but was too shaken to localize the pain. The ship bucked again, and he flattened against the bulkhead. The globules splattered down. Down. Gravity or its semblance. He groaned, “What the hell?”
He looked for Horatio but saw no sign of the cat. The breach alarm shrieked a warning about the outer hatch was. He scrambled drunkenly on all fours toward the weapons locker, but the galley door was suddenly wrenched open, and in strode a nightmare.
Over two meters tall, the…thing…was nearly as wide. Almost spherical, covered in short spiky black hair and perched on four spider-like appendages, four more appendages protruded from one side that might be its front. It had no apparent head, but the top portion of the sphere seemed weirdly hinged. As it surged into the galley, the globe split open to expose a cavernous maw lined with brutal tooth analogs and rasping tentacles. Five white orbs perched atop the sphere, and small black dots danced within like insane pupils, wildly scanning the room.
Emerson crabbed backward as he tried to distance himself from the horror. The eyes focused. Each visible pupil swiveled to pin him like a fly. And then it spoke…in his head with a terrible buzzing that threatened to burst his skull. The scout screamed as the thing battered his brain with hateful, contemptuous telepathic messages.
>PATHETIC NETHER CREATURE, PREPARE TO DIE AND KNOW THAT ALL YOUR ILK WILL PARISH UNDER THE CLAWS OF MY PEOPLE<
>click, snzzzzz, bzzzzz<
>THE STARS ARE OURS! YOU MORONIC TREE-SPAWNED PLACENTALS HAVE NO PLACE IN THE CELESTIAL PURITY<
>snzzzzz, click, snzzzzz<
He tried desperately to stand as the monster rushed forward but crumpled to the floor as his knees buckled. The Intruder rushed in; its mouth was a stinking cavern as it bent over him. Emerson closed his eyes.
A sudden weight dropped on him, followed by a deep, angry hiss. The spacer’s eyes opened to find Horatio on his chest. Back-arched hackles up, and tail a vertical ramrod, the cat’s fur blazed like blue fire in the flickering lights. The tom hissed again, trailing off in a low, menacing growl.
The monstrosity skittered to a halt, spidery legs clattering and scoring the plasteel decking. All five eyes blinked rapidly. The thing seemed nonplussed. Emerson heard the hateful, buzzing echoes in his head as if the telepathic bullhorn had turned away from his mind to focus on something else. Yet the cat seemed either not to hear or to care. Horatio gave a rumbling yowl and crouched, hips wiggling. Any Earth creature that knew what was good for it would have bolted at the clear signals of impending violence. The Intruder fluttered its appendages and blinked again. Its vast mouth flapped. Emerson grabbed for his shipmate, terrified that the cat might disappear into that horrid black gullet, but he was far too slow.
The great blue tom leaped. The Intruder backpedaled and tried to bat the azure missile from the air, but Horatio knew his business. His tail whirled and a flared paw slashed. Four deep lines appeared on the loathsome black hide, and thick, orange ichor oozed. The cat landed a few feet from the wobbling monstrosity and spun about, golden eyes smoldering.
The Intruder flailed about wildly. The gashes swelled and blistered. It emitted a high keening whistle and danced about on spidery legs in evident agony, gouging more deep groves in the plasteel. It stumbled from the galley toward the airlock. The bullhorn buzz echoed in Emerson’s skull again, low and fading.
>bzzzzz, click, bzzzzz<
>RIDICULOUS BIPEDS HAVE A SUPER WEAPON<
>OUR MIND WEAPON IS USELESS<
>MERE TOUCH IS TOXIC<
>WE ARE DEFENSELESS<
The ship bucked again, and Emerson floated gently from the bulkhead. He groaned as the alarms trailed off. “God damn Horatio, I’d say our retirement just moved up.”
The cooker chimed, and the scent of warm tuna filled the galley. Horatio preened, purred loudly, and awaited his due.