Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Weekly Short Story: Ornaments

writing, fiction & once upon a time 5 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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The thing I enjoy most about science fiction these days, I think, is neither the science nor the fiction — at least in the sense of stuff that’s entirely made up. I prefer those aspects to be the backdrop of a story, instead of the story itself.

What I’m interested in is seeing the parts of life that are already familiar, but shown in a new context — especially human nature. I think it’s because I like the sense of continuity. Even if those common factors are less than desirable, they at least show a connecting thread from here to there. You can call it pessimistic, but to me it’s more like verisimilitude.


It had been a long journey. Almost three weeks, even at FTL, but the meeting point alternated each time.

One party travelled 70% of the way, and vice-versa the next time. It wasn’t a balance of power thing; there just wasn’t a convenient place halfway between the two home systems.

The ambassador’s name was Carr, and he was a military man, not even retired yet. That part was a power play, but his counterpart didn’t show any indication of being intimidated. It didn’t show any indication of anything at all, given that it had no face.

Not by human standards, Carr reminded himself.

The endless briefings from Earth’s most noted xenopsychologists, linguists, diplomats, and everyone else still rang in his ears. These conferences took place approximately every five years, which corresponded to a Median Cycle for the Others. They were mostly a formality, and heavily dependent on translators which humanity had automated, but which were still biological for their counterparts.

The Others were as strange as they came. As far as Carr knew — and he knew a great deal — they didn’t breathe. They didn’t have any eyes or ears or mouths or noses, by any terrestrial definition. They communicated by initiating, through an unknown mechanism, a kind of harmonic vibration in their immediate vicinity. The assumption was that they might be liquid-dwellers natively, but there was no way to verify that. They weren’t exactly forthcoming on trivialities.

The treaty had been put in place with surprisingly little difficulty, but only because the human stipulations pertained largely to existing territory, and freedom of movement. The Others cared almost exclusively about resources instead; extraction rights, exploitation, ownership, and off-world trade. When it was drafted and then ratified, the resources they wanted control of were of no interest to humans.

Times had changed. Carr got a tension headache whenever he thought about it. The Others had been clever; he had to give them credit for it. As coy as you like. They had used humanity’s implicit and pervasive prejudice as a stealth weapon.

We thought they were dumb, simple creatures, he thought. Little upright half-whales or whatever the hell they look like, making that weird infra-sound that the computers translate into flat, rudimentary human language. All they wanted was rocks.

The Others even adorned themselves with the minerals. Like jewellery, or some kind of religious ornaments. It was all deliberate, as far as Carr was concerned. They knew how it would look to us. Like the natives cherishing their glass beads.

They sure as hell fooled us.

The efficiency barrier for FTL travel was a brutal spike in the graph. Beyond a certain spatial curvature factor, the energy requirements went off the scale. Diminishing returns didn’t even begin to cover it; it was a virtual wall. A fixed radius of viable interstellar travel within a human lifespan, simply because we couldn’t go fast enough. And the Others let us believe that they were subject to the limitation too, until our science got just barely sophisticated enough to understand the truth.

The worthless rocks were the key, of course. High atomic number, and useless as far as we knew — except if you wanted to break through the efficiency barrier, or the Eff-barrier, or the F-barrier, or most often the effing barrier.

It had been almost fifteen years now since the negotiation when we accused them of withholding knowledge of the true value of the rocks. They hadn’t denied it. When they left, they did so at a curvature factor that made our eyes water. They’d be home in minutes, while we’d still be in transit nineteen days later. Ouch.

They were clever. They were cunning, even. But they weren’t tough. Nobody’s perfect.

Carr waited for the pressure to equalise, and stepped into the conference chamber. The prefab structure was the only thing on the plain of the small moon, and the thin atmosphere gave a spectacular view of the trinary stars in the system, if you cared to gawk at them. He didn’t.

The biofilter field was gently humming away, and the physical shields were intact. Carr’s own security people had been here for six hours already while he busied himself with other things, ensuring everything was up to spec. He could see that his counterpart had already arrived.

The Others didn’t seem to use chairs. Their mode of locomotion was uncertain, too, but they moved purposefully and fluidly using the part of their lower extremities that was in contact with the gravity plating. They wore no clothing, brought no belongings, and bore no emblems except for the little chunks of mineral around what might have been their necks. Carr was pretty sure that the rocks were just a screw you at this point.

“Always a pleasure to see you,” he said, and there was an answering bass tremor which the computer rendered as a depressed-sounding Greetings, ambassador.

“I’d like to talk to you, once again, about the substance designated Natural Resource NR-239-G.”

The Other remained perfectly still, and there was something smug about it in Carr’s opinion. He was barely aware of a series of pulses, and the computer began to chatter.

That matter has already been codified in treaty.

Carr smiled. It was a gesture he knew they found confusing. They didn’t like when the appearances of things abruptly changed. Today was going to be a bad day for them.

“We just wanted to express our concern over the safety of your mining operations,” Carr said, reaching into his case and withdrawing a sample container. It held a very small pile of red powder, the product of more than a decade of intensive research. He held it up for the Other to see, or echolocate, or whatever the hell they did, then he placed it in the drawer below the physical shield. The machinery did its thing, and the container slid out on the Other’s side. The creature grasped it with an eerily deft appendage.

“You should get that analysed when you return to your world later today,” Carr said, pointedly mentioning their enviable transit speed. “You’ll find that it’s a reactant for 239-G. A pretty dramatic one. Our chemists tell me that a microgram of this could eliminate a mass of 239 the size of this building in one hell of a fireworks show — and we have a lot more than a microgram. They think it might also damage spacetime a little.”

The Other quickly lowered the sample container and placed it on the flat surface that served as a desk in front of it, but it said nothing. After a moment, Carr nodded and stood up. Then he pointed to one of the small chunks of mineral that the creature wore.

“There’s plenty of that to go around,” he said. “More than enough for all of us together, in peace and harmony. You might want to consider sharing.” He leaned forward slightly.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a long journey home.”


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.