The Cliffs of Karkoom

Weiland Fell dangled over the cliff edge at a near-suicidal angle. Only his safety harness and a strong rope were keeping him from taking the headlong plunge. Below him, on a crumbling ledge, was a young, human, girl. Her long dark hair was blowing softly in the breeze, as was her rosebud pink dress. If she’d been standing anywhere else, Weiland would have been moved to say she was pretty, but here and now, all he could think of was just how precarious her position was.

Just how she’d come to be on the ledge no-one was sure, though the rest of his team were looking into that, leaving the difficult job of getting her to safety down to him. It was a role he’d performed successfully many times since joining the search and rescue squad on Linella Five, but this particular one was taxing, even to him. He’d hoped he would be able to reach her without needing her to do anything, but that was clearly not the case.

He hoped she’d be cooperative.

Using a voice pitched low and calm to avoid startling her, he called, “Hey there. My name’s Weiland. What’s yours?”

She glanced up at him. Her up-turned face immediately told him that she was even younger than they’d feared.

“I’m Magda,” she answered. “Can you help my Ma-ma?”

“Your Ma-ma?” Weiland repeated. He could see no sign of anyone besides the girl, which begged the question: where was Magda’s Ma-ma?

Even as he wondered, Magda was nodding her head vigorously. “She fell.” And she pointed to where the ledge-edge was freshly scarred. “She said we were going on a journey.”

Cold sweat trickled and pooled around Weiland’s spine as he realised just what Magda most likely meant. The confirmation of his theory came a moment later when the dispassionate voice of his CO crackled through his ear piece and announced, “We’ve got a body at the bottom of the cliff. Looks like the Ma-ma was a jumper.”

Weiland dismissed that knowledge and turned his attention back to Magda. “We’ll help your Ma-ma in a moment,” he said. “But first, how about we get you back up here?”

“I can’t leave!” Magda exclaimed. “What about Ma-ma?”

“I’ll help her once I’ve helped you.”

The expression on Magda’s face told Weiland that she didn’t entirely believe him.

At that moment, with a dull roar, more of the ledge broke away in a shower of pebbles and dirt. Magda screamed. Weiland’s heart leapt into his throat as for a few precious seconds he thought she would go with the newest fall, but the crumbling stopped about a foot away from were Magda stood.

Trying to keep his voice steady, he said, “Magda, I want you to reach for my hand.”

“But, Ma-ma!”

“I promise, I’ll look out for her,” he said, even as he stretched out his arms towards her. “Now, reach for me, Magda.”

More of the ledge slipped away. Magda now only had a bare inch between her and the increasingly friable edge.

“Magda, reach for me, please,” Weiland begged.

Still she stayed where she was, transfixed by the crumbling edge.

“Magda! Please!”

Weiland strained and reached for her. If he’d been just a little taller he might just have been able to reach her without needing her to even lift her arms, but as it was, he needed her to reach up. And just when he thought she wasn’t going to move, she finally seemed to realise what it was he wanted her to do. She turned and started to raise her arms—

—and in that second, the rest of the ledge gave way, taking Magda with it. She didn’t even have time to scream.


“You realise that there was nothing else you could have done?”

It was two days later and Weiland had been called into his CO’s office for a final debrief after the débâcle at the cliffs.

“The transcripts of what you said and did are absolutely by-the-book,” the CO continued. “If anything, I ought to be putting you up for a bravery award. Not many beings are capable of hanging upside down over the edge of a cliff like that.”

“It wasn’t brave, sir, it was futile.”

The CO, a human by the name of Gibson, rolled his eyes. “This was not your fault. If you want to blame someone, blame the kid’s Ma-ma for being a jumper and for taking her daughter with her.”

Weiland said nothing. He’d spent the last two days looking into Magda and her Ma-ma. It was a sad story all the way around. The Ma-ma had been only barely out of girlhood herself; an ex-slave who hadn’t adapted well to freedom, she’d ended up as a slave of an entirely different sort, and that, in turn, had led to pregnancy and Magda. She’d tried to make things work once Magda was born, but in the end, she hadn’t been able to cope – hadn’t known where to turn for help. In the end, she’d felt her only option was going to the cliffs at Karkoom and jumping. Not for the first time, Weiland cursed the people of his home planet for what they’d done to a sapient being and cursed his own inability to save Magda.

“I’ve put you in for reassignment.”

Gibson’s voice broke through Weiland’s thoughts and dragged him back to the here and now. Belatedly he realised his CO had continued to talk, even while Weiland’s own thoughts had wandered.

“Reassignment, sir?”

“Yes. I think some time away from here and from this unit would do you good.”

“Punishment duty?”

Gibson’s eyes rolled again. “This is not a punishment. It’s more like a leave of absence. The garrison on Paradise Falls is in need of a new second in command; you’re qualified for the post and you need to get away from Linella Five.”

Weiland’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “Paradise Falls? That’s—”

“The armpit of the universe?” Gibson suggested, looking amused.

“I was thinking of somewhere anatomically lower than that, sir, but yes.”

“You need the time away,” Gibson repeated. “Which would you prefer: six months of enforced leave or being two-i-c on Paradise Falls?”

When Gibson put it like that, there wasn’t much of a choice. Enforced leave would be far war worse. Just endless hours of nothing to do but think about how badly he’d screwed up. At least being on a garrison’s staff would keep him occupied.

As if he could read Weiland’s thoughts, Gibson nodded. “I thought so. You ship out at the end of the week. Good luck.”