Freebie Mondays: Not Again (Story 1 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: Not Again (Story 1 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea).

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this first installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt here was: a cat warns that a volcano is about to explode. (I decided to go full crazy with it!) (Incidentally, it is tangentially related to this this old random picture prompt.)
. . .

With a soft hiss and a click, one of the screens at the workstation shifted, drawing the technician’s attention. Rather than peer at the new image displayed on the screen, he eyed the source of the change – a small, creature covered in multi-colored tufts of fur. Its ears were perched atop its head, a pair of pointy triangles currently shifting rapidly from side to side, and its tail was so thick and spiked that it appeared half the size of its regular body.

Agitation, the technician reminded himself. This beast was particularly emotive and if one misread the signs, they tended to find themselves on the far end of its razor sharp teeth and claws.

One of said claws was the source of the tapping, which had yet to cease.

“Yes?” the technician prompted, sensing that the cat – his mind finally supplied the proper term – would not be satisfied until it was able to voice its concerns.

“Tronifar is erupting,” the cat announced primly, its voice a lyrical feminine tone despite its obvious displeasure.

“What?” The technician’s eyes swiveled toward the screen and blinked rapidly as he attempted to process the images.

Smoke billowed from the top of a mountain in great dark plumes, like blighted fingers reaching from deep within the earth. He vaguely recalled that this cloud would be filled with ash and chemicals that were likely to choke the organics who lived nestled at the base of the great, sloping cone. To say nothing of the lava that was bound to flow in the cloud’s wake.

“Again?” he snarled, putting so much pressure on his writing stylus that it snapped in half. “What in all blazes is Dotheng doing over there? This is the third time! He does realize that these things are supposed to be once in a millennia events, doesn’t he?”

The cat shifted her head in a way that suggested a shrug, despite the fact that her shoulders didn’t actually move. It was a good thing they made use of such a vast variety of forms for their technicians these days, or it would have been impossible to tell what any of his companions was thinking at any given time. He had lucked out, perhaps, gaining a form with two arms and opposable thumbs.

Of course they were all just images. Beneath the thin vainer that concealed his true nature from outside observers, all of his original limbs and organs maintained their proper places. But they had to telegraph their movements to match the forms of their cloaking illusions, which made some agents’ lives far more difficult than others.

“You’d better contact him, Vonst. It may already be too late to divert the side effects of this disaster.”

Vonst made a deep rumbling sound in his throat to express his displeasure. Of all the people assigned to their watch, Dotheng was the one he hated talking to the most. “I guess you’re right,” he grumbled, resisting the urge to demand that Wynrin handle the call herself. She had other duties, and this disturbance had probably delayed them long enough as it was.

“Would you mind establishing the connection?” he asked as he shifted the contents of several of the other screens to bring up the latest readings. He would no doubt need the science to combat whatever whim had stolen Dotheng’s senses this time.

“Sure,” Wynrin replied and began tapping buttons where her small appendages. Her tail had shrunk back to its original size and her ears were now mostly pointed forward, a clear sign she was starting to settle. “You should be good to go,” she announced after a moment. Then she hopped down off the console and padded away, perhaps to ensure he didn’t suck her into the coming conversation.

“What’s going on?” a booming voice demanded over the speakers, filling the entire room with sound. It echoed so loudly off the sensitive equipment, the mic began issuing feedback, forcing Vonst to fumble with the buttons that would mute everything until it returned to regular working order.

Of course, he had to rush to unmute the speakers as quickly as he muted them, or he would miss Dotheng’s rant.

“Dotheng,” he shouted to cut through the man’s irate greeting. “It’s Vonst calling from Stamrey.” Currently, Stamrey outpost acted as the center of operations for this particular monitoring sector. Which theoretically meant that every agent was supposed to comply with their requests. Dotheng was something of a rebel, though. Or maybe he considered himself an artist. Either way, he was finicky, and he didn’t like to be told what to do.

To drive the point on, he clicked his tongue, then sighed, as if he were bracing to repeat a conversation he’d experienced dozens of times. Which he had, though only half of them had taken place with Vonst.

The screen in the center of Vonst’s console flickered and the image of the smoking mountain vanished, replaced by a figure so bright, its shape wasn’t immediately apparent. Vonst had to adjust the display output before the figure of his colleague fully resolved into a visible image.

Dotheng’s cloaking form was even stranger than Wynrin’s. Its outline flickered, as if it weren’t quite solid of form. It was bright and seemed to shift brighter or dimmer depending on his moods. At the moment, it glowed red-hot, a sure sign he had his dander up. It did not exude smoke the way the mountain did, but it did appear to be made of jagged flames. Fire Elemental Vonst’s analytic brain supplied, though he couldn’t remember whether or not they were native to this plain.

While it seemed fitting that a creature made of pure fire would have been stationed inside a geological formation that often spat fire and brimstone from its rim, Vonst wasn’t sure who suggested Dotheng for the post. His temper far too closely resembled the volatile nature of his cloaking form. Though I suppose no one wanted a powder keg at the main hub. We’d never get anything done.

“Yes, Vonst?” Dotheng retorted, reminding Vonst that he still hadn’t answered the agent’s question. “What do you want this time? Can’t you see I’m in the middle of an extremely sensitive experiment?”

“I see that, Dotheng. But didn’t we already run this particular experiment? I’m looking at the temperature and atmosphere readouts and I don’t think we missed anything.” Though the main thing their supervisors were interested in was the reactions of the organic beings that lived near the volcanic cone.

For some reason, they kept coming back, though the spitting fire and raining rock had wiped out their homesteads several times within historical memory – thanks to Dotheng’s unpredictable nature.

“Do you have the full list of project goals sitting in front of you as well?” Dotheng replied tartly. “Why don’t you stop with this foolish inquisition and allow me to complete my research notes.”

Vonst bit the inside of his lip and tried counting silently within his head. It was supposed to be a stress-relief technique that anchored people in the moment and helped them focus on the matter at hand. But all it did was remind Vonst that there was little time to prevent the volcano from spitting fire onto their target observation zone yet again, and he had no idea how he was going to respond if his supervisor called to ask why.

“Listen, Doth, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I have to pull the plug on this one while there’s still time to avert the actual disaster. Stop fiddling with the geothermics and let nature take the lead for awhile, okay?”

Dotheng snorted and his cloaking form seemed to flare, growing momentarily a third larger than it started. The effect lasted for only a second, but it was off-putting enough to make Vonst scoot to the edge of his chair just in case he needed to flee at some point in the near future.

“Excuse you,” he snarled a moment later, rolling his eyes to add to the stinging effect of his tone. “We do not yet have a full understanding of the way heat and rock interact at this location, which is why I am checking against the current tolerance levels. Not to mention, we need to know exactly how the chemicals spewed by this cone interact with the surrounding environment and creatures that live within it.”

“You seem to have forgotten that we’re actually here to study the organics you’re about to mercilessly murder,” Vonst retorted, deciding it was best to dispense with all pretense of polite interaction.

“There will be other organics,” Dotheng insisted. “You have seen them return time and again.”

Vonst choked on his next inhalation. “That is not the point!”

Dotheng glanced up from his computer console to stare Vonst full in the face, silently demanding to know what – exactly – he thought the point was.

“Listen, Doth, I don’t make these decisions, all right? I just pass on the directives as we receive them. And I don’t want to know what happens if they scrap this entire experiment, so can you please just focus on what the regional managers have asked for?”

The fire elemental rolled his eyes again. Vonst thought his colleague had grown far too fond of that particular gesture – one that wasn’t really possible in their natural forms. While he was at it, Dotheng had also grown entirely too fond of his current form and the visual effects that came with it.

“Maybe it would be best if we scrapped this whole blending in idea,” Vonst muttered.

“You wouldn’t get any argument from me,” Wynren announced as her small figure padded by, moving in the opposite direction from which she had retreated the last time.

Would Dotheng be easier to manage if we made him look like a cat?

But how would we explain the presence of a cat inside a volcano?

Does it actually matter? It isn’t as if these organics are advanced enough to actually look inside that thing… That was the whole point of stationing one of their observation ships inside it.

A sharp beeping sound intruded on Vonst’s consciousness. He realized that Dotheng had been talking for quite some time and he had simply tuned it out. He glanced at the leftmost screen of his console and curse.

“Shut it down now, Doth. Regional is already on the line.” Vonst cut his call with Dotheng before he could protest, though he suspected it wasn’t going to make the man move any faster.

“This is Stamrey,” he announced, trying to sound pleasant as he answered the incoming call. There was no video feed this time, just a solid black square occasionally broken by a jagged line of static unrelated to the flow of vocals across the line.

“Is there a particular reason Tronifar is belching fire again?” a deep, low voice demanded. It was hard to tell if it was angry or simply naturally pitched that way, but Vonst suspected he was standing on thin ice.

“Uh… I don’t know, actually,” he lied. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of Dotheng but I think there might have been some kind of malfunction?” He hadn’t meant to pitch his voice upward at the end, but it naturally rose as he continued to speak, making the statement sound like a question.

A soft, thoughtful sound answered, followed by a series of muttered phrases, out of which Vonst made out only, unforeseen variables. “Maybe it is time we recalibrate,” the hidden figure on the other side of the call mused on the tail end of a sigh. Then, after a brief pause, the voice said more directly, “Get the situation under control. It’s what the hub is meant for. There is already talk of scrapping this particular method of observation. We wouldn’t want to accelerate that.”

Vonst stiffened. His body beneath the cloak was damp with sweat, and he was starting to feel cold despite the strict temperature control of the office. “Of course. Right away.”

The call cut before he even finished speaking, and Vonst began rapidly typing at his console.

“Wyn!” he hissed urgently. “Will you please help me with these override codes?” There seemed to be no point wasting time trying to reason with Dotheng anymore. He would just have to hope one of his thicker-skinned colleagues would be willing to deal with the resulting fallout of remotely de-activating Dotheng’s research station.

Maybe when this shift was all over, he would take one of what passed for painkillers among this particular organic species and see if it stopped the ache that had been creeping through his cranium for the last few weeks, especially since Wynren’s timely appearance did nothing to ease his gut-wrenching sense of anxiety.

In fact, this particular post came with a bevy of recreational options he had yet to take advantage of. Maybe he’d indulge in one of those during his off hours. If this post ended in disaster, he was unlikely to see another alien planet again anytime soon, so he may as well take advantage of the opportunities while they lasted.

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