So I’m doing a new writing challenge this month: writing and revising a 1,000 word short story while documenting the process on my blog. In my previous post, I shared the visual story prompt that was issued by the organizers of Writer in Motion. To me, the image could have inspired a story in just about any genre — no doubt, that’s why it was chosen — but obviously for me the choice was science fiction or fantasy. My idea for the story came quickly, and it involves a macguffin that could fit either genre. Here’s the first draft — your comments would be appreciated!
The Watcher in the Vale
by Dan Koboldt
The knock on my door surprised me. Mine was not the sort of place one finds by accident. Tucked in a hidden vale miles from the nearest settlement, it’s not listed on any map I’ve seen. I make no effort to scrub the weather stains from the old stone walls. The unidentifiable shrubs and saplings threaten to swallow the entire structure every year. I do little to stop them. This little hovel is a hard to find as any place in the galaxy.
And still they come.
I yanked open the door after the second knock. A young woman in a Space Corps uniform waited on the other side. She might be early thirties or a bit older; I was slowly losing my ability to tell. Three stripes, so a lieutenant. A bit on the young for such a rank. She had red hair, green eyes, and the unmistakable set of her shoulders of someone who thinks they’ve made up their mind. The familiar smells of ozone and sanitizing foam still lingered around her. Fresh off the shuttle, then. She hadn’t wasted any time.
“What?” I demanded.
My abruptness brought her up short. She blinked, then cleared her throat. “My name is Karina Fawcett.”
“Pleased to meet you.” I made it clear from my tone that I wasn’t.
“I’ve been told that there’s a device here that allows one to see the future.”
“Who told you that?”
She hesitated and looked away. “Just some people I know.”
So much for finding the source of this inconvenient leak. “Fine. Now, go away.” I slammed the door and bolted it. She didn’t knock again, and I hoped that would be the end of it.
That afternoon, when I went out to collect firewood, Fawcett was still there. She sat in the shade of one of the misshapen trees, so still that I didn’t see her until I was halfway down the path. Then I did notice her presence, but I ignored it. She must have picked up on this, because she watched silently as a dragged a large bough back up to the keep and got to work with my axe.
I fell into a rhythm of setting, chopping, and stacking. Working with wood relaxed me. It was good, simple labor. Kept my mind off things. Probably a little too much as it turns out, because I didn’t notice her until her shadow fell across my chopping block.
“I want to look,” she said.
I bent down to scoop up the pile of chopped logs. “No, Lieutenant Fawcett. You think you do, but you don’t.” I turned my back on her and went back inside.
She didn’t bother me again until the next morning. I stomped out to haul water from the well. She was waiting by my door when I got back. Judging by the state of her uniform, she’d spent the night on the ground. The bags under her eyes told how well that had gone.
“You still here?” I asked.
“I want to look.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” she snapped.
“Because it’s true.” I held up a hand to forestall the inevitable protest. “I know, I know. You have an important question and you’re convinced that this is the only way to answer it.”
That gave her a moment’s pause. The look of astonishment said I’d hit pretty close to the mark. Hazard of the occupation.
“Well, it’s true,” she said at last.
Of course it was. They all came this way. Desperate to know what the future held.
“You might see something you don’t like,” I said. That happened more often than people guessed. Even worse was the ones who took their glimpse and didn’t see anything. Given the precise focus of the instrument and the way the timing worked… well, it didn’t take a prophet to know that a null-and-void future was a bad sign. “And whatever you see, you probably can’t change.”
A moment of silence stretched between us. A breeze ruffled the otherwise still mountain air, shifting a few strands of auburn hair across her face. It reminded me just how young she was. So few years under her belt, so much weight on her shoulders. She stood up straighter, stuck out her jaw, and I knew the words coming before they left her mouth.
“I’ve come to look, and I won’t leave until I have.”
I sighed to myself and gave a tight nod. “Come on, then.”
As I crossed the threshold, I brushed a finger across a tiny sensor panel on the door frame. A soft chime sounded, followed by a grunt of surprise. Lieutenant Fawcett, it seemed, didn’t expect state of the art biometric security in my dilapidated little abode. I heaved the bucket of water onto my stout wooden table. My guest only had eyes for the thing that dominated the chamber. An oval, shimmering silver piece of glass precisely two meters tall, mounted into the stone at the back of the keep. The Lens, it was called. So named because it showed you a moment two months, two days, and two hours into the future.
“It’ll only work once for any person. Do you understand?” I asked her.
“You know the words?”
She nodded this time, biting her lip. She looked up at the glass. “Mirror, mirror.”
I didn’t look. I never do. Still, I couldn’t close my ears to the noise. The roar of space engines, the dull thuds of explosions. The screams.
The interstellar war had raged for six years. Last I’d heard, it was going poorly. Wasn’t hard to guess what a young officer from the Space Corps wanted to know. When the vision faded, it wasn’t hard to read the devastation on her face, either.
“I tried to tell you,” I said.
She moved to the door, which I hadn’t bothered to close. I followed her outside. It was midmorning by then; the sun had crested over the high ridge and chased the mist away. She set off at a slow but deliberate pace, heading not back to the spaceport but the opposite way, into the tall and mist-shrouded mountains. Never said another word.
I shook my head and would’ve gone back inside, but I spotted movement from the edge of the vale. A man this time. He wore a different uniform but marched with that familiar, grim purpose toward my door.
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