Free SF Serial: “Orphan’s Prey pt. 4” by Lawrence Dagstine

*Science Fiction Serial – New Installment – First Draft*

ORPHAN’S PREY #4

Last Time (part #3): https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/09/02/free-sf-serial-orphans-prey-pt-3-lawrence-dagstine/

For a reptile such emotions were not like him; then again, perhaps he did not try hard enough to show emotion.  Along with his predictions in the weather, and for as long as he could remember, he had experienced premonitions instead.  If the premonition seemed genuine, his chest unit would emit a strange glow, and he would utter a warning of disaster to the rest of the tribe.  Very rarely did the Vendragon take him seriously, and very rarely did they act on it.  His forebodings were never specific, the calamity either absurd or nameless, so it was unusual that he did not speak of any premonition in the days or hours before Arim—a most treasured farmhand assisting their nascent culture in advancing agriculturally—was attacked and fell from that high cliff.  And never in his wildest dreams, he thought, could he predict that, even now, the two orphans he searched endlessly for might bring with them a terrible but ancient disaster.

 ORPHAN’S PREY #4

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

Blake discovered that there is a point beyond which another blow to the spirit is almost meaningless because it cannot be felt.  Helping his sister cope with the jaw-dropping size of the storm—though the gravity of its suddenness was what was most startling—no shelter from the wind-driven onslaught in sight, and instilling a renewed sense of faith and meaning in the importance of survival, the boy led the way through the wastes as any adult leader would.  This was not the same frightened little cherub from two days earlier.  This was not the same eavesdropping eight-year-old who cowered only in the safest corner of an overturned transport, as shadow monsters with an insatiable taste for fluid waited for their next meal.  No, this was a child who finally came to the realization that, in this unnatural environment, the odds were stacked greatly against him.  He had no choice but to push on, even if it meant dragging those he loved dearly along with him; his sister obviously loaned him some of that inspiration and courage in order for this sparkling change to take place.

The fast-approaching clouds, with their thunderbolts and swirling snows pulverizing the landscape, looked like an entity unto itself.  During the late night scramble, above the four-thousand-foot high stretches of sand and rock, the children progressed hurriedly through a dark expanse of steep ridges and intertwining cliffs, upward rather than down across the valley floors.  Blake assured his sister that the higher you were, the safer it was.  So Chandler had told him.  Long after the bluffs were in complete shadows, Chelsea had watched the rapidly changing weather with a solemn look on her face.  One minute it was one season, the next it was entirely the opposite.  It went from hot to cold and cold to hot, to just plain damp and icy again.  It was uncanny, especially at this height.

“Fog thickens and encircles the thunderheads first,” Blake pointed out from atop a thin ledge.  They both stopped for a quick breather. “Or maybe the other way around.  Sorry, sis.  I’m kinda tired now.” He nodded toward the sky. “Streamers.”

“Streamers?” The girl was confused.

“Yup.  See them?”

“I suppose,” Chelsea said, though she still didn’t know what he was talking about.  Practically gasping for air, she’d run so far and fast that she could barely concentrate on the present moment.  Fearful of the climate, and being lost on account of her brother, she also felt displaced. “What about it?”

“Think of them as a main storm body within another storm body.”

“Then they should be carrying warning features.”

“Maybe.  Chandler wouldn’t have thought so,” the boy admitted. “Oh, and see those big dark masses over there?” His finger was outstretched and pointing. “They’re the real soldiers, carrying the big muscle, all the moisture and all the winds.  If they want to, they can regroup, break out the lightning and hail, and really kick ass”—he paused, shaking his head gently in awe—“and with more power,” he went on, “than you can believe possible.  More energy released, too!”

Chelsea nodded. “I see.”

“Moisture inside the fog cloud condenses with the help of little specks of mud and dust,” the boy added, “and as it rises in an updraft it turns to ice.  Then maybe it comes down, builds up more moisture, and goes up again, swirling around and forming more ice.  Up and down, back and forth, growing and getting harder all the time.  That’s how you get hailstones the size of pterodactyl eggs.”

Chelsea was smiling lightly. “I told you, bro.  Pterodactyls are extinct.”

“Oh, well, the hail’s still big.”

“I bet.” Outside, the girl continued listening quietly, her eyes on the distant horizon; inside, she was growing impatient. “Chandler taught you this?”

“Yep, he sure did.  And those big ol’ fog clouds aren’t static either.  Somewhere inside they boil and churn.  Like you said, enormous magnetic forces are at work”—he paused again, this time to show off his necklace as it slowly drifted away from the collar of his shirt by some invisible force—“updrafts, downdrafts, sudden cooling, sudden warming, generating enough electricity to light a whole solar city for a few nights.  Come on, look at the rope around my neck, sis.  You know there’s some evil at work here.” He tucked the chain back in; the way he’d explained it sounded like it was a good thing.

Chelsea snapped. “Did it ever occur to you that actually looking for a place to hide in the rock face might be an option, rather than a weather report?”

“Huh?” Now it was Blake who was confused.

“You really want to know what’s happening out there, little brother?”

“Hey, how come—”

“No, let me finish!” The girl was fuming. “Because this place isn’t cool one bit, and that’s what you’re making it out to be.  Neither is it rad or awesome.  I know your ego is fragile, Blake, but every so often you need to be kicked in the noggin.  Repeat after me: IT’S OKAY TO BE SCARED!!” There was a stunning silence as they just stood there, long and heavy raindrops sopping their clothes. “Mom and Dad aren’t here.  The Keeper isn’t here.  The Vendragon are a no-show.  The planet itself is unpredictable.  Chandler is dead.  Even the friggin’ information bank on my wrist got wet; damn thing is on the fritz!” She smacked the top of it. “All you can do is talk about how amazing and deadly the climate is? Seriously, I don’t think it gets any more selfish and immature than that!”

After five long days, Blake’s shyness suddenly reappeared.  For a brief minute his thoughts went back to the time spent aboard the Juniper, then his body loosened and he reached around to rub the back of his neck.  He walked up to the top of the ledge, watching the storm-crazed heavens; he was in such a trance he would have probably walked straight off it, so long as he didn’t have to be around his sister.  The moons of Ragnarok were much farther now, and the night continued closing in.  The mix of rain and snow got harder.  The air got colder.  The lower parts of the land became darker.  New stars appeared in the clear sections of sky but eventually those patches, too, were blotted out as the clouds merged and continued their relentless advance.

Some of the showers and hail that evening were mere dustings which held on the chilled ground and rocky ledges.  In other high places the winds dropped as much as five or six inches which, here and there, accumulated in small drifts.  He could only imagine the shape of the marshlands, the lower valleys, and the much flatter plains.

Finally the girl swallowed her awful tongue and approached him. “Hey, listen, I’m… I’m sorry, kiddo.” She suddenly felt terrible for the way she acted. “Being lost like this would pretty much drive any girl stir-crazy,” she carried on in a low but silly voice. “The weather doesn’t help any either.”

The boy did not say anything.

“Come on, Blake.  You know how much I worry about you.  What if this storm caused us to get separated? What if you got terribly ill? What if—”

“Stop!” Blake narrowed his eyes in hurt, but did not turn around. “Why’d you mention Mom and Dad?”

“Huh? Oh, that… It was spur of the moment.  You know, a passing reference?”

“So that gives you the right to preach?”

“I was scared,” Chelsea admitted. “My nerves got the better of me.  I’m soaked to the bone, I’m numb with cold, and I thought you were fooling around.  It felt like it wasn’t the right time for bullshit.”

The boy went silent again.

“Blake, please!”

He crossed his arms and ignored her.  Now his thoughts went back to another time and place, even long before the freighter.  Mother.  Father.  Other family.  He was so young; it was all so hazy.  But there were some memories.  Vague instances that were not really detailed, but they were better than no memories at all.  And there they were again, playing itself out amidst the hard driving rain like some mental hologram.

Blake’s parents had been wannabe out-colonists from the start.  They were like any other family of their generation, saving up their earnings while looking toward the future—in their time, to look ahead was the only way to think—often waiting with prolonged anticipation to see what a new planet in a new solar system would bring.  Jeremiah Prittengayle, a business savvy engineer by trade, dealt in matter transference and rockets.  He believed that the urge to visit the world of your choice, or what could eventually become the fruits of your new origins, was buried deep in every human’s heart.  To communicate with alien races, to explore and inhabit lands many light years away was something to be appreciated.  It was an escape from orthodox living and remedial technology in a Great World Society; some called the lifestyle homogenous.  But, being by nature a self-contained man, he had never asked how other family members felt about it—most of Blake’s aunts and uncles lived in the same block as him—nor would he have cared what their answers might be.

As too perfect as it might have been, and for as little time as he experienced it, Blake wanted to be back in that society now.  Anything was better than Ragnarok.  Perhaps that’s why he talked about the weather so much.  To take his mind off things like Earth, Mom and Dad, Aunt Rachel, Grace and Steven, Grandpa Jack and his funny metal leg, apple pie and real friends, other kid’s laughter.  He remembered his father most from his shaving emulsion, which gave off a peculiar but interesting scent.  His superficial-in-a-good-way attitude second.

He suddenly wept.  But it was a good weeping.

There had always been insight into his family: his great-grandfather’s journals which, unfortunately, he had left behind on the Juniper.  He wondered if the diaries were still there, tucked between the metal frame and mattress of his bunk, or if some other youngster had come along and found it.  Would the new child have thrown it away? If he lay down to read it, what would he have thought afterwards?

Of his mother, Courtney Prittengayle, he remembered her soothing voice and the way she embraced him.  She gave the best hugs.  The soft teddy bear kind.  Both she and Rachel had been the daughters of a once-famous geologist.  Though the man had died well before his birth, Blake recognized who he and Chelsea inherited their instinct and desire to adapt from, and when and how to use it.

He remembered being a toddler in the backseat of her father’s ship, vacationing one year in the icy plains of Europa.  He must have been about two-and-a-half.  Chelsea was probably about his age now.  His mother had skills as a navigator and pilot; so did Rachel.  Looking back, she flew the sleek white craft with precision, something he was sure that, as an adoring mother, she did many things.  She’d glance over her shoulder and smile at him, and he’d laugh back.  That feeling of events gaining the upper hand was always with her, but she knew when to push it aside, settle down, and study her surroundings.

“Honey, look, a wilderness!” She pointed downward.

Blake’s father peered out from his side. “Oh yeah, look at that.  Real trees.  They must be rooted somewhere in the ice.” He turned around to face the children. “Look kids, a forest on Europa.  Isn’t it breathtaking? Maybe one day when you grow up both of you will visit a sphere just like this.  Who knows, maybe you’ll even live on one.  Wouldn’t that be exciting?”

The boy nodded cheerfully at the time.

Chelsea was awestruck.  She had opened her eyes as wide as possible, then stuck her forehead and freckled nose against the special glass. “Awesome! Do you see that, little brother?” She tugged his shirt to the point of wrinkles. “Do you see the sculptures and waterfalls? It’s beautiful!”

“Wowww!” The boy sat up on his knees, amazed, then giggled. “Beautiful!”

“Baby, sit down and put your belt back on,” his mother ordered.

“Yes, Mommy.”

“Come now.  You too, Chelsea.”

Blake had lifted his head as far as his neck would stretch.  He just managed the tip of his mother’s shoulder; he never quite understood what went on in the front seat.  He had seen a visual system come down with elaborate keys.  Some were heat-operated, others you just had to blink commands.  They were topographical maps, as Chelsea had told him, and even his father had a virtual one open on his lap.  The contours crowded close on the atlas like holographic shapes and symbols.  It indicated oceanic rifts and icy basins, steep mountainous slopes or sheer cliffs; but the reality of their exploration were the rock faces dropping into darkness, bottomless canyons into which the sun would penetrate only for short hours or even minutes a day, rocky slopes too steep for a human to stand on.  Like Ragnarok, these seemed features of another world; they were features of another world.  In north-facing crevices and hollows, the last Jupiter year’s freeze-over held.

“Looks like we won’t be able to bring her down there,” his mother said.

“Should we take her back to the rough country?”

“We may have to, dear.”

“Mommy,” Blake muttered.

“Oh, almost forgot, darling.  Oxygen.” His mother handed his father a special mask. “You too, Chelsea.  And give your brother one.” She already wore her own, and her voice was muffled. “The atmosphere is dense in this area.  We’ll be up about twenty thousand, and the deep pockets can sneak up on you.”

“Mommy,” Blake repeated. “I have to pee.”

The boy had eventually put on the mask without another word.

From this height, any basins or frozen lakes they passed looked small indeed, toy representations of the real thing; a child’s model platform suddenly came to mind.  There was the wintry stream that was supposed to feed the lake, and there were its countless tributaries and dry ice cracks, some gleaming faintly with heat-generated water, some flowing now but easy enough to pick out from the way they extended across the landscape like branches from a tree.

Where they were now, thousands of feet above the highest ranges, the view was breathtaking.  More sheer slopes and more steep cliffs, some snow-blanketed, others mostly ice-covered, with indentations stretching to the poles as far as visibility went.  It was through this unknown, tangled mass of blue and white, Blake thought, that his parents and others like them had found their lonely way.

His father tapped his mother on the shoulder. “Look, Courtney, there’s the air tower.  The hotels and shops must be just beneath it.” He turned slightly and hollered, “Hey guys, keep your masks on.  We’re almost there.”

From the distance, much of it looked like a metallic ski resort. “This is so cool,” Chelsea said.

“Honey, you think checking in early will be a problem?”

“Nah, shouldn’t be,” the man said. “We can always come back.”

Beside him, the woman seemed to be waiting for some kind of signal. “Maintain this altitude, but swing back over the basin again,” she said, throwing some control switches.  At once the horizon shifted as they began a wavering turn.

As the wind currents moved slowly beneath them, Blake caught the gleam of standing water near the top of a high canyon.  They were coming over the tower now, and although the boy had no idea what his parents might be looking for, he searched carefully every slope, every gorge, every steep drop-off.

That was until they collided with an air pocket.

The sudden force ripped through the hull of the craft; invisible, but the power was tremendous.  Chelsea’s mask flew off and, though strapped in tight, reached for her throat and fell into a state of oxygen-deprived unconsciousness.

His father turned around. “Chelsea? Chelsea! Omigod, Courtney.  You have to bring her down now!” He saw the girl’s head tilted to the side.

The boy grabbed the armrests in fear.

“I…I can’t!” his mother cried. “Nothing’s working.  What’s going on?”

“Blake, whatever you do… DON’T MOVE!” The man had shouted it to the boy with the utmost urgency.

“Jeremiah, we’re going down.  Fast!” There was confusion; it was hard to understand anything over the inrush of wind, which came from the rear.

“Blake, listen to me.  Stay still!”

The boy suddenly stopped and shook his head in silence.  He tried to go back and remember some more but saw nothing that could explain the optical illusion he had seen while in the air.  That and the crash.  Was there even a crash? Were his parents even dead? It was so long ago.

Reality had brought him down to that sodden cliff on Ragnarok so fast and so cruel again, he didn’t know what to say.  There was so much he wanted to understand, but he never got around to reconsidering the past.  Upon their return home, Rachel had disappeared from their lives, too.  He was abandoned by other surviving family and, along with his sister, thrust aboard a ship for orphans, forced to just… deal.

Finally he heard someone say DON’T MOVE again, and with the same insistent tone his father had used.  He turned around in the pouring rain and saw his sister at the opposite end of the cliff.  Frightened, she was backed into a corner by a large and terrifying beast.  It had jumped down from a much higher ledge and almost pounced her.  The creature was feline, but it only had one eye.  It looked like some kind of saber-toothed Cyclops cat; Blake didn’t know how else to describe it.  It stood at least eight feet long and four feet wide, very powerful, with a large ivory horn in the top of its head.  From its sides were long and thin tentacles, three to each and six in all, with fine and sharp pincers at the tips.  The animal raised a giant claw and dug it into the ground with force, causing an upheaval of wet snow and mud.  It made its presence felt between the children; it had noticed the girl first but still left about ten feet open for them both.

Blake motioned with his hands from behind and said extra-softly, “Chelsea, don’t move.” He slipped off his satchel and searched for some perma-flares.  When he saw that he wasn’t the one carrying them, he searched for something else.

The girl stared past the animal at him in fright. “Please, hurry,” she indicated quietly and carefully, then went back to trembling in her corner.

The giant cat displayed its massively long fangs and gave off a monstrous roar.  Chelsea put her hands to her ears and held them there.  It roared and slammed the ground again, then proceeded slowly toward her.  The tentacles at its sides began to viciously click and snap.  The colossal eye widened and loomed in on her, while Blake emptied his bags and looked for something—anything he could use as a weapon.

Seconds later he remembered where he had left the crystal-tipped spear with the attached laser cutter.  It was leaning against the rock wall, just within reach.  He slid across the mud-spattered floor and retrieved it, standing and shouting from the far left side now, “Hey you! Yeah you, ya big ol’ pussycat! Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” He tightened his grip around the base of the weapon, as the enormous beast turned its giant pupil and sharp fangs toward him. “Get away from my sister!”

“Blake, you don’t have enough room!” Chelsea shouted once she was clear of the ledge; she had maneuvered about fifteen feet. “Get out of there.  Now!”

“Keep climbin’, sis.  I’ll take care of this mean ol’ cat.  Just go!”

“Blake, don’t be an idiot!”

The animal started backing him up in a corner—it was either that or face it on the thin ledge—and snarled angrily.  The boy made small pokes and jabs at it.  Instinctively, the cat responded by opening its mouth, cringing its long-whiskered face, and taking quick swipes.  Blake was short and slim enough to pull his body back from the razor-sharp talons that were now swinging right to left and left to right.

Moments later the cat took two steps back and stood up on its hind legs.  It roared ferociously and raised an angry paw that overshadowed the child’s face.  Blake stood on the balls of his feet and, using as much leverage as he could muster, dug the now-heated tip of the spear into the underbelly of the animal.  The cat bellowed in pain, then swung its massive frame back and forth until the weapon broke like a twig.  Blake fell backwards to the ground.  The cat’s paw descended with a mighty thud, tearing up earth and hurling fragments of rock aside.  The boy lay watching beneath the rubble, as the salivating animal opened its mouth wide and came in for the kill.

TO BE CONTINUED…