16 October 2009

"Broken Morning"

By Curtis C. Chen

There's a unique color, the dark blue of distant mountains behind fog, that Helen has never seen in a city. It's not the most important reason she left, but it is the one she remembers every morning.

Today, there's noise. Percival's whinnies draw Helen out of the tent. She sees a bright orange dot in the sky, trailing a corkscrew of smoke. There's no chance it's natural.

"Well, Percy," she says, "we'd better make sure that doesn't burn."

No aviation alerts have appeared on the datalink. That either means nobody's noticed the falling star yet, or nobody wants to talk about it. She tweets her status to the nearest ranger station and rides into the forest.

Helen is surprised to see that none of the timber downed by the crash is burning. The pilot must have doused the engine fire before hitting the ground—which means a dead-stick landing. That's no mean feat.

She ties Percival to a tree about fifty yards from the wreckage, then checks the load on her revolver. The wolves get bolder all the time. Helen holsters the pistol and moves forward, stepping around debris.

This is no ordinary aircraft. The tail number isn't a civilian series, and the engine pods have no air intakes. The cabin hatch has been blown open. Helen's reaching for her penlight when a woman springs up on the other side of the fuselage.

"Stop right there!" the woman shouts. She's holding a shotgun and wearing combat fatigues.

Helen raises both hands and studies the face: sharp nose, pale skin, angry blue eyes, blond hair. Nothing like Helen, who is short, stocky, and dark.

"Who the hell are you?" the woman asks.

"Just passing through," Helen says. "I heard the crash and thought someone might need help."

The woman's eyes flick from side to side. "You a park ranger or something?"

"Nope," Helen says.

"That your horse back there?" the woman asks.

Helen shifts her weight slightly, feeling the ground. "I call him Percy."

"Well, me and 'Percy' are going for a little ride," the blond woman says. She starts walking backwards, limping.

"You need a doctor," Helen says.

"And I'm going to get one," the woman says. "Don't worry, I'm sure someone tracked me on the way down. They'll find you in a few hours."

Helen keeps her hands in the air and stands perfectly still.

Halfway to Percival, the blond woman turns and starts running. She probably figures she's gotten far enough away that Helen can't catch up. She didn't count on Helen having bullets.

Helen draws, breathes, and fires two rounds into the blond woman's back. The woman stumbles and falls. Her shotgun topples into the dirt.

Percy is still braying when Helen reaches him. "Hush," she says. "I wasn't going to shoot you."

The blond woman groans. "You... bitch..."

Helen looks down. "Don't worry. I tagged you with tranquilizer pellets. The authorities will be here long before you wake up. Maybe they'll even bring a doctor."

The woman swipes at the air and closes her eyes.


Photo credits: "Mount Hood seen from OHSU" by Cacophony; "Texas cowboys 2" by Pschemp; editing done with GIMP 2.6.0