It was a temperamental habit, but it was the only one clean. Her best still in the hamper, soiled from fixing sinks in the Novice’s Hall.
She smoothed down the restless veil and handed the doorman her ticket.
“Not an act.”
He arched a brow and read her pass. “Sister Marion?”
He quirked a brow and opened the door to let her join the throng of contestants.
She ignored the whispers and only looked up enough to find a seat.
She jumped and glanced up into a face with more metal than skin. “Yes.”
“Cool.” He sat. “I did a paper on different monastic orders for school.”
She appraised him anew and wondered what middle-school would have students doing such papers.
“That real or a costume.”
He grinned. “Even cooler.”
They sat in quiet as his fingers drummed out a rhythm.
“So what makes a Nun come to a singing competition?”
“God called me.”
He laughed. “Like on a cellphone?”
She pursed her lips and he leaned back from her glare.
“Not a phone. Signs.”
He leaned forward. “What kind of signs?”
Would it hurt to tell him? Probably not. “My parents passed recently.” He made a noise of condolence. “That same day I heard an announcement for this competition. I knew it was God freeing me from my family obligations and providing me an opportunity at my dream.”
Just then a woman with a clipboard stepped into the room. “Gabriel Kingsley?”
The pierced youngster bounced up and waved as he disappeared through the door.
All too soon he was back, beaming.
“You got in?”
“Naw. They said no.”
He shrugged. “That’s OK. It was a blast anyway.”
She was next.
The three panelists eyed her curiously but refrained from comment.
She stepped up and sang. The power flowed and she felt alive.
She sang her second. Heads bobbed, toes tapped.
When they asked for her third she knew she was in. God had led her here and his grace lifted her up. She had never sounded so good.
“Thank you Sister Marion. Keep practicing. You’re almost there.”
She didn’t remember the walk out. One moment she was in shock and the next Gabriel was at her elbow.
“You going on?”
“No.” She blinked up at him in the thin winter sun.
“Aw, that sucks.”
“How can that be? How can God lead me to this exact spot only to have me fail?”
“Maybe he meant something else. Maybe you were supposed to meet me?”
A bus pulled up and a billboard covered one side. It had a list of requirements for the kind of people being looked for. She met every one. If offered adventure and fame. She wanted it.
“Have you ever wanted to go to Mars?”
He blinked and looked between her and the advertisement. “Seriously?”
She smiled up at him. “One should not ignore God’s signs.”
Salt. Pain. Wet.
I inhaled, relieved I could.
One eye opened, then the other. I tested the limbs.
Observe. Report. Those were the orders.
The limbs moved and I crawled out of the wetness. Sand slid under my belly.
A tiny creature approached. One claw large the other small. It tasted like salt too.
With movement came memory. This planet was ringed with devices. Far more than I’d anticipated. There was a ping, a shudder, and then the view went black, blue, black, green, blue as I tumbled planet-side.
I didn’t trust my lower limbs until I knew from what the pain stemmed, so I crawled into a thicket of shrubs. It was cooler, not inner cave cool but better than the broiling surface the soft shells preferred.
That my ship was unreachable was a given. Without a favorable report from me there would be no additional visit. My silence would be taken as failure and the whole sector scrubbed.
The dominate species had put thousands of trinkets in orbit, so they had the means. If the ancients showed favor I could find my way back to the stars.
Sound reached me. I know the dominant species here is a soft shell that communicates like an unchallenged, all noise and waving limbs. It was not the primary language I had learned to distinguish. Perhaps the secondary.
Yes. The secondary.
“Yes. Right here, but out there.”
I peered through the brush. Two ugly soft shells stood on the sand and pointed out over the water. One was tethered to a smaller multicolored creature that moved its snout over the tracks I had left during my haste to flee heat.
Leaving a trail was a junior scout mistake and one likely to cause me trouble.
As if the ancients had heard me the smaller creature began to make a hideous noise and pull the soft shell it was attached to towards my location.
I crept sideways until I was in a wider clearing. Running was not an option, not that I would have chosen it anyway. I had the claws of six challengers adorning my halls and a seventh pair on my belt. I did not run.
The soft shells followed the loud creature right to the clearing. I gave a warning scent and the smaller creature quieted and hid behind the soft shell’s lower limbs.
I would have to make note that the creatures on four limbs seemed to understand proper communication where as the ones on two did not.
I searched for a proper response but could find none for ‘slow down’ and ‘defecate’.
“Peace,” I rasped.
That seemed to relax them.
This word I was familiar with. It was promising.
I pointed with a mid limb towards the water. “Ship.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah I saw your ship splash down. Cool,” said the tethered one.
No scent glands and noisy definitely like the unchallenged.
The other one spoke for the first time. “Are you alone?” I felt more authority in his tone.
“For now.” I stood to my full height and towered over the soft shells. New authority had to be challenged to see if it was worthy.
The noisy one stumbled back, bleating its word for defecation and holding a small rectangle up in front of it like it would ward me off.
The other put his hand on a device at his midsection. “Whoa. Easy. Peace.”
I stayed still. “Ship. Lift. Go.”
“We get your ship out and you go away. Is that what you’re saying?”
I thought I was clear. Perhaps repetition was a custom.
“What happens if we can’t fix your ship and you’re stuck here?”
I’d die alone and judging from the environment probably from the heat. This was an end I did not want. One only became an ancient if they died in battle.
However, they did not need to know this. “More come. Eat you.” I snapped my top claw at him and he ran.
Not authority enough.
The star went down and the temperature became bearable. Small creatures roamed. Once I figured out the skins were removable I found them tasty if a bit salty.
Shortly after first light came more soft shells, many more. The planet’s single star was not yet overhead so the temperature was tolerable and at their request I ventured out onto the white sand. This was a good sign. Violence was not conducted over white ground.
Soft shells surrounded me with devices at the ready. Their fear permeated the breeze. If they thought numbers would sway me they were mistaken.
One in particular stank of terror and trembled. The device in his hands, a weapon I presumed though I could not see an edge for cutting, jerked up towards my throat. I snapped it in half without leaving so much as a scratch on him. Honor points to me.
The others brought their weapons up just as a cry came from the vehicles beyond.
The thrum of authority was unmistakable and all weapons lowered.
A soft shell, slightly smaller than those ringing me, stepped forward. It took me a moment to realize it was a female. Odd to see an egg bearer without wings.
“Peace. We wish Peace. I am Sargent MacTavish. May we have your name?”
I told her my name but I knew it would be unpronounceable to her kind. She listened intently anyway.
“May I call you Zock?”
It would have to do. “Yes.”
She nodded. “If you remain on this planet others of your kind will come and eat us. Is this what you told the officer yesterday?”
“What if we do our best but can not repair your ship? Can you communicate with your people and tell them not to come?”
She sounded like authority but her worthiness was in doubt. “You are in charge?”
“For now, yes.”
I took a slow step towards her. “You can command my ship to be raised from the salty water?”
She stood her ground. “I can.”
“Then do so!” I snapped my claw close enough to her face for her to feel the air move.
Weapons lifted all around but she did not flinch, nor did she take her eyes from mine as she ordered her people to stand down. “I can also have you shot dead and we’ll take our chances on if you’re telling the truth or not.”
She was worthy.
I sat back on my lower limbs. “If my ship proves unrepairable I will try to communicate to my commanders.”
I retreated to the cool shade as the sand area became overwhelmed by scurrying soft shells. I was still unsure if they, as a whole, would be allies or just another food source but at least I knew a few were worthy of further study.