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To the Last Drop!

by Joy Smith

Grant fastened the lid of the ship's coffee urn and said, "Sorry, Craig. This is the last of the coffee, and it's over four days until we make planetfall on Valdez."

Craig groaned. "Valdez! I can't live without coffee. What are we going to do?! I told them we shouldn't ship out without resupplying!"

Brom paused and hung in the doorway to the crew's lounge, having dropped down from the bridge. "Well, we can't have any shipped to us. Communications are still down. We can't send or receive. Marla's working on it, but she can't find anything wrong in the ship, and there's no static. We'll have to ration it. You know we couldn't wait."

Craig snarled and left. The rest of the crew of the Winter Quest knew he was going to search the cargo holds. No one bothered to remark on the obvious; and the sonic torpedo prototype was a priority. Grant shoved his empty mug into the washer and growled, "Even if we could hang on without coffee, Craig will whine about it until he drives us crazy."

Brom subbed for Craig on the shuttle's bridge, relieving Marla without comment. She stretched and remarked, "It's still quiet--too quiet." She didn't smile because she couldn't help wondering why, though she tried not to think about the obvious possibility.

Grant was already in the com chair, running through the check-in procedure. He caught his breath suddenly, and the other two turned to him. "We're blind now," he said. "Deaf and blind. I don't like it. It reminds me of..." Then they felt the shuttle tremble; heard the airlock wheeze, saw the bridge door blow open, and suddenly they were hanging, drifting in the darkening air as the shadowy creatures entered. There were two of them--black yet translucent so that you could see the drifting balls of fire inside. When two of the balls floated into the head that still so resembled a human head, it was like a demon's fiery eyes marking down its prey. One of them pushed each human in turn, spinning and studying them.

Marla fought against fainting, against breathing. Brom closed his eyes, held his breath. Grant was the biggest of the three crew members, so he was the most afraid. He couldn't breathe as he fought his fear. The second shadow creature turned its attention to--the coffee urn, drained it into a container and carried it out, followed closely by its companion. Grant pushed against the heavy dark air and swam to the intraship communicator. "Craig, flush the bridge's air. Now. Need fresh air." He doubled over, coughing as the noxious alien air flowed into his mouth and through his lungs. His companions watched, helpless, and tried not to breathe a little longer.

Grant woke later in fresh air and in his bunk. Brom bent over him and said,"Thank God. Now you can drink this milk shake. I've been dribbling it into your mouth for about two hours now. Don't try to talk."

Marla patted his hand; she was sitting on the bed beside him. "Oh, Grant, thank you. I'd rather have died than have them take me, and you were the biggest of us all. I was so afraid they'd take you for sure."

Grant shivered, opened his mouth, and quickly closed it again, but not before the other two saw the grotesque blackness of it. Brom patted his other hand gently. "I think you're going to be all right. Really, Marla," he added. "And not many humans can say they've escaped the Black Reapers. I can't believe they left us and took the coffee. That I don't understand at all."

"They heard what we said at breakfast," Marla said. "They bugged us from outside somehow, killed the radio, and then the video pickups. They wanted to kill us, but didn't want any suspicions that they were this close to a Federation planet. When they spun us, it had to be just a hunting reflex."

Brom looked at Grant. "Makes sense, but the remains of their atmosphere, the effects on our bodies--someone would have noticed that."

Marla shrugged. "It appears they're not real bright, or they're just ignorant. After all, to think we couldn't live without coffee." Then she smiled, after thinking she'd never smile again. "Well, maybe Craig. Where is he, by the way? I was going to ask him to take over on the bridge while I checked on Grant, but I couldn't raise him."

Brom stood up quickly, alarmed. "I thought he was there. I'll take over. You keep holding Grant's hand."

Almost an hour later, she went to the bridge. "He's asleep. You didn't find Craig?! He has to be here; he flushed the bridge and gave us fresh oxygen. They couldn't have taken him?" She swallowed and stared blindly at the screen. "He wasn't even as big as Grant. They need human bodies big enough for wrapping themselves in." She swallowed again and put her hand to her mouth. Brom looked at her in alarm.

"No, not here!" he yelped. "The artificial gravity is better in the head." He looked wildly around for something to give her; but she gritted her teeth and shook her head.

He looked at her, still uneasy. "I wasn't going to tell you yet. Craig's gone after them. He took the torpedo. It might work because of its lock-on mechanism, but he must be crazy. To do that because they took the coffee." He shook his head.

Marla nodded, then stiffened and pointed at the screen. "Look at that," she said. In the screen, a hazy black orb headed towards them.

Brom looked, cursed, and turned away. "I'm rigging the ship to explode. If you want to go to Grant and stay with him, do it now."

"No! Don't you see? We wouldn't be able to see them if they were attacking. So far as we know, no one ever has, and look at that!" She enlarged the picture.

"Ahoy, Winter Quest! Come in, Winter Quest. Don't fire. It's Craig. I got them, the ship, and the coffee, and can you see? I've hung them out to dry."

The pair on the bridge nodded wordlessly. Behind the Black Reapers' ship, trailing out on the antenna wire, eight shriveled human bodies swayed in the gases of the ship's exhaust.

"Uh, I drank most of the coffee. I don't know what we're going to do for the rest of the trip," he complained.

- pSF -

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Joy V. Smith [Pagadan@aol.com] has been writing stories since she was a kid; now she writes fiction and non-fiction.  Her non-fiction, including interviews, has been published in print and in webzines, as has her fiction.  One of her children's stories, Sammy's Beautiful Tail, is available on CD from [www.childrenzbooks.com]. and she has a book upcoming: Building a Cool House for Hot Times without Scorching the Pocketbook.  She lives in Florida with Xena, the warrior puppy.

upcoming fantasy anthology

2004, Joy Smith