This story was written as part of a short story challenge, where I had to write 5 stories in five weeks following along with a class of fellow writers.
A good challenge.
At the time, I was focused on post-apocalyptic scenarios. Each apocalypse is slightly different, but every story focuses on a young man coming of age in a bizarre new world.
In some cases it was a new post-apocalypse Earth. This story is different. In “Centurion”, I asked myself, what would it be like if a man and his son were sent to colonize a new world alone. What if they were pioneers, and their job was to terraform the world for the rest of civilization to come?
I chose a water world. And off I went.
Enjoy this short read. There are five more like it from the collection, Boys & Their Monsters, which you can purchase in my bookshop or from your favorite ebook or paperback retailer.
by M.G. Herron
I was sick and tired of being tired and wet.
“Alpha Century,” I said. Although we’d only been on this waterworld a couple months, it felt like a hundred years.
It was an inside joke now, but Dad had laughed at me the first time I asked him if we were moving to “Alpha Century.” My face had burned while he threw his head back and worked the fit out of his system.
He didn’t hear me this time. Around the corner up ahead, he hacked his machete into a Twitching Vine that had wrapped itself between two broad leafed trees. Moss, climbing up the visible sides of both thick, deeply ridged trunks, gave off a luminescent turquoise glow that always reminded me of the neon lights that still blazed along the skylines of the dying cities of Earth.
“Alpha Centauri is how you say it,” Dad had said when he finally stopped laughing. “But there’s no reason to be ashamed, Josu. If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, that just means you learned it in a book. Do you know what Alpha Centauri looks like?”
Boys & Their Monsters$2.99
I remember my face flushing, shaking my head. He swiped at my forearm, where I had molded my tab. The screen lit up as his hand came near it. Dad twitched his fingers and the cyclopedia I’d been reading on Alpha Centauri zoomed away. He fed in an audio query and was rewarded with a hi-res NASA star map. His fingers chose a certain star, seemingly at random, from a pile of them. The screen zoomed in on a solar system where several colored marbles orbited a massive yellow sun. The star at its center was labeled Alpha Centauri, while the planets were labeled with random strings of numbers and letters.
“There’s liquid water on the fourth planet. It doesn’t have a real name yet, but anything is better than living in this anemic dustbowl. I got us two one-way tickets. It’s the opportunity we’ve been looking for, son. A chance to start a new life.”
“I don’t want to leave.” I looked away from him, watched the dust blow across the pavement in familiar tesselated patterns. In the cul-de-sac at the end of the street, the kids played street hockey, their faces masked with the smartcloth bands that did a mediocre job of filtering out the everpresent dust.
“There’s nothing left for us here, son. This world is dead.”
“The President says we can fix it.”
“I don’t know if even he believes that.”
If Earth was a dried husk, then Alpha Centauri four was a bucket of primordial ooze. No solid ground to set your feet on within a hundred miles of our rig except this soggy little island. I knew this now. We lived here.
My shoulders sagged. This fishing trip had taken longer than usual. My feet squished in the marshy soil as I walked back toward the Twitching Vine.
“Woa!” The cry startled from my mouth as a dark brown cylinder crashed through the jungle adjacent to the path. I gestured madly at the tab on my wrist, to send the warning noise we had agreed on to Dad, but the device glitched.
“Dad, look out!” I ran as I yelled.
I caught up to him a moment later. He stood calmly, aiming the aural blaster at a thick patch of vegetation. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that he was safe. There were no hospitals on this planet either—not within a hundred miles. This sopping wet planet was humanity’s new frontier, and we were among its first human inhabitants.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Don’t know.” He shook his head and lowered the blaster. “Doesn’t seem very interested in coming out. What’s he hiding from?”
“Could it be a lizard?”
“Little bigger than the lizards we’ve seen so far…”
“Is there another way around?”
“The beach route will add hours to our trip. I’d prefer not to risk traveling at night. We’re still learning the rhythms of this place.” My dad had been a mechanic back home. He knew how to catch a fish and build a fire, but he was no survivalist. We were always careful.
The thick vine continually shifted and rewove itself where Dad had been hacking at it with his machete, already beginning to repair the damage the blade had done. The movement of the vines helped to mask the position of whatever creature was hiding under there. I wondered if that was a survival mechanism, too. I once read about symbiotic creatures that lived on the backs of whales on Earth, feeding on them and cleaning them. Did this creature and the vines have some sort of evolutionary agreement? And if so, what did the vines protect it from?
I slicked a sheet of moisture off the screen of the gesturetab with the edge of my hand. I tried to bring up the flashlight, to see into the undergrowth, but it wouldn’t turn on. I smacked the screen with the palm of my hand.
“Come on,” I said. “You piece of crap.”
“You’ve got to let that thing go,” Dad said. “No internet here, anyhow.”
“It’s still useful.”
“It’s useful when it works. When it doesn’t work, which is most of the time, it’s a dangerous distraction.”
“I’ll take it apart and dry it out again. It’s supposed to be water resistant.”
“Water resistant doesn’t mean waterproof.”
“Maybe Americorp can send a replacement on the next supply run.”
He just stared at me.
Bubbles shifted under the screen where I pressed against the tab with my fingertips. Beads of water had worked their way into the array of sensitive internal electronics.
I sighed. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
I peeled the tab off my arm. I felt like naked without it. I closed my eyes for a second, applying all my willpower to stem the flow of tears. Damnit all if at that moment I didn’t crave the dry dust-filled air of Earth, a plentitude of electrical sockets, and hi-speed internet. Even the sight of those blasted dust-filtering masks would have made me smile.
A high-pitched cry sounded at the edge of my range of hearing. My heartbeat kicked into a gallop as my eyes opened. I looked around: jungle on all sides. Did the creature hiding in the vines make that horrible noise?
“What was that?” I asked. “It sounded far away.”
The screech came again. Closer this time.
“Take this,” Dad said, handing me the aural blaster while he dug around in his backpack for his other gun—the one with live ammunition.
He carried the gun on his belt the first couple trips to the island. The opposite shore had a ton of the yellow tri-finned fish that tasted like halibut with a hint of cinnamon. But we had determined it to be safe, so he started carrying it in his backpack instead.
He finally managed to pull a long-necked pistol from the bottom. He checked the clip and slammed it back into the gun with a reassuring metallic click.
The banshee screech pierced the air. Dad slammed back the slide of the gun and pointed it at the canopy. It was a big whopping kicker of a firearm. I’d seen that thing blow fist-sized holes in sheet metal. It would rip right through the flesh of any creature.
But I knew my dad. He wouldn’t use it unless he had to. So I held the aural blaster ready, pointed up at the canopy, too. He stood to the side of me and slightly back, so he was behind the barrel of my blaster where his ears would be safe.
“Steady,” he said.
You know what else we did on the rig besides sleep and eat the fish we caught and keep the rig running?
Target practice. Lots of it.
Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my hands shook like a storm.
The trees with the glowing turquoise moss swayed as something large and heavy settled down atop their upper branches. A giant, sharp beak poked down through the blanket of leaves. Its maw parted. Snapped together.
A pathetic whimper came from beneath the Twitching Vines.
“Now!” Dad said.
I pulled the trigger. Two thousand decibels of sonic rage kicked out of the barrel of my aural blaster. The targeted cone of sound rocked the whole canopy up. It lifted the giant pterodactyl-thing into the air.
The oversized bird cawed madly as it righted itself and settled back onto the branches. This time the beak stabbed down through the canopy and screeched at the same time. The snapping maws clapped together inches over my head as I ducked.
“Hit it again, Josu!”
I aimed up, pulled the trigger once more, then once more after a pause to adjust my grip. Each time the branches shook and a shower of leaves rained down around us. I kept shooting until the monster had flapped up and soared away across the island.
“Woo!” Dad was yelling. “That’s my boy.”
My heart slammed in my chest. I grinned madly. Even though Dad was there, he hadn’t fired a shot. It had been my aim with the aural blaster that saved us.
Then I yelped and jumped a yard back. Something wet and cold had lashed across my shin.
I looked down. It was the brown creature, reaching out with a pink tongue to lick my legs. I tensed my whole body, but let it get closer. It kept licking me, like it was trying to say thank you for saving its life. I looked down and caught it staring into my face with its glowing turquoise eyes. When I pushed its head away so it’s cold, slobbery tongue was out of licking range, it rubbed up against my leg and got me all wet anyway.
“I think he likes you,” Dad said.
“What is it?”
“Or she? It looks kind of like a seal.”
“Or a dog.”
“Weird shaped dog.”
I cocked my head at the creature. It was vaguely dog-sized. It had wide, webbed-hands that were more like flippers than paws, though. Iridescent blue spots ran down its sides, like the moss on the trees. Its back sloped down at an angle, which made me think that it spent a lot of its time in the water. Did it need to stay wet all the time like a seal?This place was so wet all the time that probably wasn’t a problem for the creature. I was wet all the time here, and I wasn’t even trying to be.
Dad holstered the gun—on his hip this time—and took his machete out to resume hacking at the Twitching Vine. It only took a few slashes to part the curtain. The rent he’d made before had been torn further open by the ruckus with the bird and the aural blaster.
“Let’s go,” Dad said.
“Bye little buddy,” I told the creature.
The wet dog thing sat and watched me with big sad eyes as we walked away.
It was already starting to get dark as we trudged through the jungle back toward our boat, which would take us to the rig.
Every once in a while, we were forced to slow down to hack our way through another vine, or clear the path. The foliage grew back over the small game trail we followed so quickly you wouldn’t have thought it impossible if you didn’t see it for yourself.
Each time we paused, I looked back and saw two bright turquoise specks shining just off the trail.
“I think the dog thing is following us.”
Dad grunted. He was intensely focused on the trail. It was getting darker. I’d never say it out loud, but Dad had been intensely focused on a lot of stuff since we arrived. Yeah, I know, survive and all that, make sure the rig continues to pour the terraforming chemicals ceaselessly into the atmosphere, make sure we have enough food to eat and clean water to drink. But if he wasn’t working, he was lecturing me about detaching myself from Earth tech and becoming self-reliant. And if he wasn’t lecturing me, he was trying to cheer me up.
What I would have given for someone else to talk to.
I looked back but the turquoise eyes were gone now. We marched onward through the muck. My rubber boots were heavy and caked with mud. I leaned against one of those big tree trunks with the phosphorescent moss, and banging the mud off my boots.
“Look out!” Dad shouted.
Three shots fired from Dad’s pistol. I dove, rolled through the muck, and came up a few feet away from the tree. The pterodactyl was flapping up, turning, and screeching. A fist-sized hole in the membrane of one of its wings showed cloudy grey sky through it, but that only seemed to piss it off more.
The pterodactyl pulled its wings into its body and began to drop. Straight at me. I guess I was a smaller, more vulnerable target. Or Dad had the real gun. Or it was still mad about when I had socked it with the aural blaster.
For whatever reason, that thing divebombed at me. I pulled the blaster around. Dad fired at the creature from where he stood. I think a few bullets even hit home, but it was coming in hard, oblivious to the pain. I held my ground like Dad had taught me, aimed the aural blaster up, and pulled the trigger. The blast came out like a whimper. Too late, I realized the barrel was filled with mud from my evasive dive.
The dog thing bowled into the backs of my knees, knocking me down and saving my life. The dactyl’s claws reached out, but they only managed to slide along my back and leave long, bloody scraps that burned with a vengeance.
Then something else grabbed the collar of my shirt, something wet and cold. I yelled, and suddenly I was being jerked through the muck, pulled into the jungle. The dog thing was dragging me toward another patch of Twitching Vines nearby.
In a half dozen tugs, he—I could see its boy parts swinging under it from this awkward angle now—had us both concealed under the Twitching Vine. The light was mottled under there, but I could still see enough to clean out my aural blaster. Meanwhile, the dog thing continued to lick me. Its tongue searched and found the scratch marks the pterodactyl had left, and where it licked me the burning subsided. Something in its saliva was antiseptic, maybe.
“Good boy,” I said. “Thanks buddy. You saved my life.”
He licked my face. I guess that meant we were even.
But Dad was still out there. When I poked my head out, the dog thing whimpered, grabbed my shirt in its jaws, and tugged back. I gently disengaged.
“I know, it’s dangerous, but my Dad’s still out there.”
The dog thing spread its jaws, full of molar-like plant-crushing teeth, and let out a yawn that turned into a pathetic whine.
The aural blaster was clean now. My eyes swept across the jungle, searching for Dad. I didn’t see him until another round of gunshots rang out from my right. The dactyl swooped down at him like it did me, but he hopped around nimbly, kept moving and emptied half a dozen rounds at the screeching predator. A few struck home, and green blood dripped from its torso. Finally, the dactyl seemed to sag in the air. It turned and retreated.
“Josu!” Dad yelled. “Josu where did you go?”
Keeping the retreating dactyl in his line of sight, Dad edged back toward the Twitching Vines where the dog thing and I were hiding. The stupid vines were everywhere on this little island.
“Thank god. Are you okay?”
“I think so. He dragged me to safety.”
“No kidding,” he said. “Look, we can’t wait much longer. Let’s make a run for it now while that bastard is still licking its wounds.”
I nodded, swallowed past the lump in my throat, then crawled out from under the vines.
“Come on boy,” I said to the dog thing.
He whimpered in response.
“Come on, it’s okay.” I showed him the blaster. “I’ve got you. Show him your gun, Dad, tell him it’s going to be okay.”
“We don’t have time for this, Josu. That giant bird is going to come back any minute.”
“We can’t just leave him here! He’ll get killed.”
“He’ll be fine. He survived this long, didn’t he?”
I had to concede that point. He was fast, and clever—but he couldn’t watch his own back, could he? How much longer would he last out here, even with a symbiotic defense mechanism like the Twitching Vines? I couldn’t leave him there.
“Come on, boy,” I said. “You’re a brave little dog thing. You’re a survivor, like us. Besides, it’s awful lonely on that rig with no one to play with.”
Something occurred to me. I reached into dad’s backpack and pulled out a plastic baggy we’d used to hold the fresh-caught fish. I pulled off a chunk of fish flesh and held it out to him.
The dog thing crept on his wide feet, inching out from under the vines at last, and took the piece of fish into his mouth. He peered up fearfully into the sky as he did so, but at least for now, the pterodactyl was nowhere in sight.
Dad sighed irritably. “Let’s go. If he follows us, fine, but we’re not stopping or waiting for him.”
Dad began to jog, and I ran behind him. The coast, where our boat was beached, was only a few hundred yards away. The dog thing loped after us. He looked pretty awkward, with his sloping back. His back legs were so much shorter than his front. But he kept up, no problem. He kept sniffing at my hands, so I guess he could still smell the fish.
Finally, the shore came into view. Our boat was right where we left it. The dog thing started whimpering again as Dad and I each grabbed a side of the raft and dragged it back into the water. I looked into the sky and didn’t see anything. The dog thing must have heard it before we did though, because he darted for the tree line again.
“No, boy! Come with us!” He stopped, looked at me, and then darted back into the vines. I went after him.
“Josu, don’t! We have to go!”
The pterodactyl swept back over the trees again, screaming down at me. I pointed the aural blaster at the sky and nailed it good. But this time it must have known what to expect. It tilted away, avoiding the blast, then doubled back and dove at me again.
I was faster this time. I dove to the side, rolled back to my feet, keeping the blaster clear of the sand. The injured bird monster had overcommitted and was now flapping itself up from the beach, blowing wet sand into my eyes with each gust of its wings.
I jammed the level adjuster on the aural blaster to max, stepped inside its reach, and pulled the trigger with conviction. The blast slammed into the ugly bird’s face. Its eyes rolled back into its head and it fell to the sand with a heavy thump. Green blood oozed from both of its ears.
I turned away from the bird’s massive body and knelt at the edge of the vines.
“Come on boy,” I said. “It can’t hurt you now.”
The dog thing slowly crept out of the vines, baring his teeth at the giant, unconscious body of the pterodactyl.
“I know. Take it easy. It can’t hurt you now.” The dog thing rubbed his wet body up against my legs again. “Good boy.”
Dad came up then.
“That was downright foolish, Josu! You put yourself directly in harm’s way.”
He glared. “When that thing wakes up, it’s going to be even more pissed, and now the aural blaster won’t work on it, since you blew out its ear drums. Not smart.”
“Maybe it’ll think twice before it attacks us again.”
He sighed. “Let’s not wait around to find out.”
“Can we take him with us?”
“If he’ll come,” Dad said. “But he stays outside, and don’t think I’m cleaning up after him.”
It took a few minutes of coaxing to get the dog thing into the metal boat. But he finally climbed in with us. Dad lowered the motor and pointed the raft back home. I spotted the steel rig by searching for a black speck on the horizon that poured a thick plume of noxious smoke into the grey sky. I sighed with relief. The plume of smoke spelled hope to me. Hope that soon others would be able to join us on this new world.
At least I had a new friend until then. A mile from the rig, the dog thing flopped his body over the side of the boat and splashed in the water. I gasped, but there was nothing to worry about. He was a great swimmer. We had to slow the boat a little, but he undulated his body through the dark waters with ease. I thought he would leave then, but he didn’t. He followed us all the way home.
“We’re going to have to be more careful now that we know there are predators on the island,” Dad said, raising his voice to be heard over the motor.
“You’re a good shot, son. Next time, I’ll take the long gun and you’ll carry my handgun, if you promise to do some more target practice on the rig.”
That made me feel proud. But also scared. I didn’t want to let him down.
“Promise,” I said. “He can warn us, too. Did you see him on the beach?”
“I did. He heard the thing coming before we did.”
“Yeah.” I yelled over the side of the boat, cheering him on. He went down under the water, disappearing for a moment, then jumped up into the air before landing with a splash.
“You know,” said Dad. “He’s gonna need a name. We can’t just call him boy all the time.”
I thought about it.
“Centurion,” I said.
Dad laughed—at the joke, this time. I smiled, happy to have pleased him. I suddenly didn’t care that I was soaking wet and exhausted. I was just happy to be alive.
“I like it,” said Dad. “It’s a good name.”
Read more by M.G. Herron
This story is reprinted from the collection Boys & Their Monsters. Support M.G. Herron by buying and reading it or other tales of science fiction/fantasy adventure. Available for purchase directly in my bookshop, or shop online at your favorite retailer!