Freebie Mondays: From the Ashes (Story 13 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: From the Ashes (Story 13 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 installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: “fingers grasp a warm mug as steam rolls into the chilled air.”

This story actually ties in with my Celestial Serenade series. It takes place between books 1 and 2!
. . .

A thin grey line of steam curled above the glimmering cream-colored ceramic, swooping and swirling before the weight of Salis’s breath drove it away. With a soft sigh, he set his hands on either side of the mug, letting them hover a few inches away from the heated surface to absorb some of the ambient warmth.

The juxtaposition of strong heat and sharp chill momentarily caused him to shiver, but he drew his shawl closer about his shoulders and shrugged it away. He curled his fingers slowly around the handle of his mug and inhaled deeply of the liquid inside as he raised it to his lips.

A single sip was enough to infuse his limbs and torso with both renewed warmth and fresh vitality. He savored the lingering taste as it washed across his tongue, and lowered the mug carefully back to the table in front of him.

This had become his morning ritual, the reminder that he was alive, that time marched forward after coming perilously close to halting.

There were plenty of other reminders in his life, some of them far less pleasant. The chill, for instance, indicated the strain on the system that regulated the ship’s environmental controls – a reminder that they crammed far too many bodies into a space made to carry a third as many.

A reminder of the lives we saved, he countered sternly, another mantra he had adopted for whenever his mind started to wander.

In truth, he liked the chill. It reminded him of winter and snowfall – and the winter that had permeated his heart until his sister found a way to thaw it.

There his thoughts encountered a fuzzy line, a wave of pain it could not yet cross, and he turned his eyes, instead, to the reports gathered in front of him. He skimmed the first few paragraphs, waiting for the words to sink into his brain before he allowed himself a second sip from the steaming mug.

Coffee was the one thing they had yet to run out of. It was the first plant they grew in their newly converted hydroponics bays, the plants’ progress obsessively monitored by the scientists managing the new agricultural efforts. There were strict rations in place for every form of foodstuff carried in the massive cargo bays, but coffee was one of the most jealously guarded.

Later, when he was eating another tasteless nutritional supplement bar, he would lament the lack of fresh vegetables as the budding plants struggled to take root beneath artificial sunlight lamps. But when he reflected on all the things they’d left behind and all the changes and sacrifices they had to make to survive the depths of deep space, a single cup of coffee a day was always the hardest to stomach.

He recalled the days when he could easily throw a second pot into the machine, keeping his mug ever-full so that the liquid went cold long before it ever ran out. But thinking about those days inevitably led to a flood of other memories – of calloused hands wrapping around his while he was in the process of adding honey to his fresh brew, and gentle strength pressed against his back.

Again, his mind encountered a painful haze it could not navigate and, again, he withdrew, using the hot liquid and its heated vessel to ground himself in the present moment.

Unless he could find someone who did not want their daily coffee ration, this would be his only cup of the day. He had learned to make it last, to savor as many sips as possible. It slowed his work but, in the end, that wasn’t the worst thing either. There was always more work, after all, and people could only process so much information in any given span of time – as he kept trying to impress upon Anten.

He made it through the first document on his list for the day and halfway through the second before a sharp thud interrupted his focus. When he turned to glance over his shoulder, he expected to see Anten Larath, his brother-in-law and the governor of this particular fleet of starships, emerge from his bedroom. After all, his day should only just be starting. But instead, he shuffled through the main entrance to their quarters, muttering all the while. His cane bumped the doorframe several times on his way through, and it was clear the man was growing frustrated with his inability to move with as much ease as he used to.

Many things have changed.

“Do you need help?” Salis asked, unable to keep a tiny hint of amusement from creeping into his voice. Not so long ago, he would have taken this opportunity to mock Anten. What a child I was.

The venerable Councilor Larath shot Salis such an acid glare, a younger version of him might have withered on the spot. But today he merely clicked his tongue and shook his head. “I keep telling you, I will assist you whenever necessary. All you have to do is ask.”

“I do not want assistance,” Anten snapped, though Salis was familiar enough with this particular mood to know his brother-in-law’s anger wasn’t meant for him. “I want to be able to navigate the halls of this damn ship without having to move at a snail’s pace.”

“It will come with time,” Salis reassured, his tone soft and suddenly serious. “The doctors are ready to operate any time you deem you can manage the recovery,” he added, but he got no further before Anten cut him off with a sharp hiss.

“Surgery is the last thing I have time for. And I’m sick of entertaining this nonsense. Already this morning there are a pile of proposals awaiting my approval. There’s been an outage in the secondary engine bay, and Maribel is still having difficulty re-wiring the emergency systems so that they don’t overload when we balance the med bay’s energy requirements.”

For a moment, it seemed Anten would give up his journey across their living space and flop onto the couch. But he twisted his lips with stubborn determination and hobbled all the way to Sails’s side before dropping into a chair.

Salis rose, pulled a bottle of water from their refrigeration unit, and slid it across the table in Anten’s direction as soon as he returned. His brother-in-law accepted the gift with a glare, though after the first few sips he muttered a soft, “Thank you.”

Salis flicked a wrist to dismiss the need for gratitude and adjusted the screen he had been working from so that Anten would see the contents of the report spread across it. “I have been reviewing the latest set of proposal submissions-“

“You don’t need to do that,” Anten interrupted. “I told you, I can handle-“

“This isn’t about whether or not you can handle the workload, Anten. You don’t need to prove to me – or anyone else for that matter – that you’re still the same old tenacious councilor you always have been. This is about the fact that there is far more work than any of us can tackle without pooling our resources. Besides, as you have already pointed out, there’s a list as long as the Stargazer of proposals awaiting your signature. It makes no sense for you to dig through early drafts which aren’t yet ready for action. Let me make certain all the contingencies have been considered before you waste your time sending people back to the drawing board.”

Anten’s mouth fell open as though he were going to deliver one of his patented lectures – the sort Salis had often endured while he was still of school age – but he snapped his jaw closed halfway through Salis’s speech and merely stared at him in wonder until he finished speaking.

“Am I dreaming?” he murmured after a moment, his voice filled with genuine curiosity.

“No,” Salis replied acidly. “Don’t think I’m such a foolish old hen that I can’t see what’s going on around me. Everyone spends their days rushing around until they drop with exhaustion just trying to keep up with the highest priority tasks. I might not be an engineer, I might not understand how to keep this bucket of bolts running, but I can read.”

A hint of amusement momentarily tugged at Antent’s lips, and Salis knew exactly what he was thinking. Has hell at last frozen over? Salis, acting responsibly? How in the world could that be? The man who had spent months wallowing in self-pity in the wake of his life’s last major event, the man who hadn’t even been able to get out of bed unless his sister practically dragged him, was now concerned with his share of the workload.

But Anten is right to some degree when he says we don’t have time. Everyone has to pull their weight and contribute their share. For someone with no practical skills outside of organization, that means being available wherever my hands or wits are needed.

Salis had learned quickly that he wasn’t a leader. But he made a great assistant. He could follow instructions, and the list of tasks he could now perform without  supervision was growing. He might only be able to prevent other members of this crew from overworking. But if that was the case, he was going to do his damndest – especially if that crew member was Anten Larath.

“Well, I had no idea you felt so strongly about this,” Anten admitted. “I thought you would prefer to spend your time down in hydroponics. Or the med bay. You’re growing fairly popular in the infirmary.”

“There are plenty of hours in a day and days in a week for me to lend my hands to those departments,” Salis replied primly. “And if either says they are in need of my services, I will certainly make my way with all haste. But the day has only just started by the reckoning of the ship’s chronometer, and the person in most need of a break in their workload is you.” He shot Anten a look that dared him to try claiming otherwise.

“It might be more efficient if I only had to deal with the most polished of proposals,” Anten mused, absently tapping the base of his chin as he considered the possibility. “I will admit, I miss the days when I had a team of assistants to help sort the priority of these sorts of tasks.”

Salis swallowed an admonition that they all missed something. No one knew that better than Anten – and no one less wanted to talk about it.

“Well I’m not a team,” Salis admitted. “And I’m not at all qualified. But when it comes to the new living arrangements, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on what we need. The hydroponics bays were easy because we just stole some of the cargo space, but people are going to need more considerations for the spaces where they live. We have to make sure we can get consistent environmental controls, running water and air filtration into every space we want to convert. I think that’s going to end up being the biggest challenge, since we don’t exactly have a lot of extra space to utilize while we’re renovating.”

Again, Anten looked surprised. “I had no idea you were so well grounded in this project,” he said, though clearly there was another set of words that nearly drifted from his lips instead.

Again, Salis allowed a thin smile to grace his lips. “Survival happens to be one of the very few areas in which I consider myself an expert.” After all, he had survived a number of situations he rather thought should have destroyed him, leaving others more qualified to take his place.

But he was here now, and he couldn’t ignore or forget the sacrifices made to bring him this far. Whatever shape this new incarnation of their civilization ultimately manifested, whatever phoenix rose from the ashes of their ruin, he was going to have to find a place to occupy.

“Well, since you’re so well versed on the latest updates, what do you think of our efforts?”

Salis pursed his lips. He knew what he wanted to say, but he worried how Anten would react. He had reasoned and reasonable arguments for everything he thought needed to be addressed or adjusted, but some part of him worried that all Anten would hear was the old Salis, the childish one that always had unreasonable expectations.

“If I’m honest, Anten, I find it lacking. Clearing out the science labs does make sense because we already have plumbing and compartmentalization down there, but most of these living spaces would be huddled near the central portion of the ship. That means the new apartments will never have any of the considerations put into our quarters – no ability to peer outside the ship, for example, and the corridors are going to be crowded with foot traffic. Plus, all of those apartments are going to be very small if we don’t want to move any walls. And I think it’s short-sighted to get rid of all the science labs when you consider how much, you know, science we’re going to need to complete in order to survive this new situation.”

Anten blinked with obvious surprise, then a genuine smile flashed across his lips. “You know, Maribel said a lot of the same things. She’s been trying to negotiate the number of science labs we keep. And I think it would be dangerous to cram a bunch of living spaces into the area where we’re planning to handle hazardous and alien materials. The trouble is, I have no idea where else we should put the new accommodations. And we can’t expect people to keep living in makeshift barracks indefinitely.”

What they needed were bigger ships. They could synthesize plenty of new metal sheets with the resources they had been mining from dead asteroids on their journey so far, but without some kind of port, it was difficult to modify the outer portion of the ship. So until they had the resources for an actual new establishment, they were just going to have to work with what they had.

“Well, I think we’re actually overlooking the benefit of those barracks. We stole that from larger space too. Everything down there is temporary construction. If we want a space that we can reconceptualize with minimal effort and shape according to people’s needs, that’s our best bet. And really, if we’re worried about running out of cargo space, it’s much easier to create a closet than an apartment. We don’t need plumbing for cargo storage. Hells, we could always move each department’s stores into one of their sections. For example, use one of the science labs for storage of science equipment. Then it’s close to where it needs to be, and we can use the bigger space for bigger projects.”

Salis kept his eyes riveted on his computer screen while he spoke, too nervous about Anten’s scrutiny to peer at him. He expected an immediate reaction when he finished speaking, and the lack made his stomach churn. He diverted it by grasping hold of the still-warm mug set near the center of the table. He calmed himself with another deep inhalation of coffee scent and savored a pair of sips before he finally dared dart a look in Anten’s direction.

He expected to find scorn or scrutiny. But instead Anten’s face was lit with excitement. His eyes moved rapidly back and forth, as if he were mentally reviewing the facts set in front of him.

Salis chewed his bottom lip, wondering how long he should wait for an answer and, at last, he murmured, “Is this idea stupid?” It made perfect sense to him but, as he had already admitted, he was no engineer.

“What?” Anten seemed startled by the question, confirming that he had, for some time, been lost in his own thoughts. But then he shook his head vigorously. “Stupid? Are you kidding, Salis? This is the best proposal I’ve heard so far. Especially since we already had to get all those environmental controls down there for the barracks. It’d be easy to build an extension and make everything more permanent. The only thing I can’t figure out is how we’ll deal with the displacement while we’re constructing the new living quarters. Much of our population is currently housed down there, and I don’t know that we want to send everyone back to camping in the hallways even if the end result will be more comfortable for everyone.”

Heartened by Anten’s praise, Salis took another sip of coffee and allowed a pleased smile to take up residence on his lips. Maybe he wasn’t as bad at this whole assistant thing as he thought.

“I don’t think it will be so bad actually. If we redistribute the cargo like I suggested, we’ll clear enough space to construct the first set of apartments. And it will be easier to cram cargo into other spaces than people. Once the first set of quarters are finished, we can renovate the cleared barracks space, and so on until we’ve reclaimed all of our makeshift living spaces and spruced them up. By the time we get to the last set, it should be easy for people to double bunk for a couple weeks. Besides, moving will be easier if people don’t have to move the big stuff very far, and we were going to have to re-claim all of those barracks at some point anyway…”

Salis allowed his voice to drift off. Anten was staring at him with such razor intensity, it made him squirm. “What?” he whispered, his confidence suddenly evaporating.

“I just wish I had asked you to help me with this weeks ago,” Anten admitted, and Salis thought he even detected the smallest hint of apology in his brother-in-law’s voice.

“I’m the last person anyone ever would have thought to ask,” Salis protested. If he hadn’t taken it upon himself to start scanning the proposals waiting for Anten’s attention, no one ever would have asked his opinion.

“Well, I think that’s going to have to change in the near future,” Anten proclaimed. “But for now, I’d appreciate if you discussed all these ideas with the crew in charge of the renovation plans. Tell them your version of the proposal already has my approval, they just need to figure out all the engineering logistics – the stuff you and I could never manage on our own anyway. If you’re satisfied with what they send back, let me know.”

“You’re trusting me with this?” Salis exclaimed. “I was just planning to serve as an intermediary-“

“That’s exactly the role you’ll be serving,” Anten reassured. “But you’ve already amply demonstrated you can handle this. And just so you know, if there are any other logistics-related proposals you want to take a glance at…” Anten shot him a suggestive look.

Suddenly, Salis’s stomach was as warm as the mug still clutched between his hands. Until an hour ago, the thing he had been looking forward to most was an extension of their current rations. In a month or two, they should have enough surplus crop that he might be able to add an afternoon coffee into his rotation – the wonders of living as space refugees.

But now he had so much more to fill his mind, things that actually seemed worth getting excited about.

A purpose. And a means to fulfill it.

It had been a long time since he felt the smallest stirring of happiness. Since their flight among the stars began, his focus had been on the smallest sensations, the momentary contentment caused by creature comforts, the only solace many of them had. The more he filled his focus with the day-to-day struggles of survival, the harder it was for sorrow to creep into his mind.

He had lost more than he could catalogue, and he still wasn’t ready to consider the full ramifications of recent events. But now he had something to really dig his fingers into, something he could do about his situation and that shared by many of his fellow refugees among the stars. Something that would create change for the better, one small step at a time.

Like that first morning sip of coffee, it reminded him that he was alive. That he would continue to live until death dragged him kicking and screaming into the void.

Just like he promised.

Anten rose from his chair and shuffled toward the kitchen to prepare his morning meal – such as it would be. Salis clutched his warm coffee mug a tiny bit tighter, then lifted it to his lips, tilted his head back, and shook the last few drops onto his tongue.

Then he set the cooling mug aside and reclaimed his computer. He had work to do if they were going to rebuild their entire civilization. So he’d better get to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.