Crimson Streets: “Island in the Sky” by Lawrence Dagstine… (appearances)

My pulp adventure story ISLAND IN THE SKY is now uploaded, as of August 20th 2017, at the weekly pulp adventure-pulp noir fiction webzine CRIMSON STREETS. Edited by Janet Carden. Island in the Sky is a story of zeppelins and floating islands and a race of savages amongst the clouds. Inspiration for this one comes from such timeless movies as Indiana Jones, Rocketeer, and even the Tom Baker Doctor Who story, The Power of Kroll. Not to mention paying respect to such classic authors as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Jules Verne.

Crimson Streets publishes a new short story every single week, fifty-two weeks per year.  Hard, gritty fiction, which packs a punch.  The story has an illustration by Toe Keen.  I’ll leave a direct link and banner down below.  Enjoy.

CRIMSON STREETS

Edited by Janet Carden

Crimson_Streets

“Island in the Sky”

by Lawrence Dagstine

CLICK HERE: http://www.crimsonstreets.com/2017/08/20/island-in-the-sky/

With Illustration by Toe Keen

 

More short stories coming soon…

New Entries: “Appearances”

 

 

UPCOMING STORIES: “Crimson Streets”

Pleased to announce I will have a short story coming to the “pulp adventure” and “pulp crime” market, Crimson Streets. The story will appear at some point in 2017. It is a pulp adventure story, written in the vein of classic authors such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Jules Verne. Stay tuned for more information.  Crimson Streets – Pulp: it’s More Than Noir is a weekly online publication.  Their goal is to bring pulp literature back to the masses, but, in this day and age, in a more web-friendly format.  Just click on any banners or links below, and see what Crimson Streets currently has to offer.

Short Story Coming Soon to:

CRIMSON STREETS

Crimson_Streets

Pulp: It’s More Than Noir

http://www.crimsonstreets.com

 

New Entries: “Acceptances”

Amazon Kindle: “New eBooks by Lawrence Dagstine…”

Well, after a year in the making, the six-novellas project comes to a close.  Six brand new releases for Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Kobo, Sony eReader (via Smashwords), Apple iPad (Smashwords), Smashwords.com, and I’m sure over the next few weeks a couple of more.  I have a wide range of science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, satire and suspense titles available (including the almost-40,000 word A CHILD WEEPS IN MOSCOW), some inspired by authors like George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.  Quality fiction with characters and plots that boldly go where no other (at least I hope) author has ventured before.  I’d like to take this time to thank my cover artist Bob Veon, and fellow editor Edith Marlowe.  With that said, these titles below are only 99 cents to $2.99 each, worth the price, and a welcome addition to any eReader.  Just click on the buttons beneath the covers to access the ordering page for your favorite reading device.  Or go and visit my eBooks & Kindle page (up on top).  Most of all, happy reading!

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How Jones Goes by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “How Jones Goes”

Price: SCIENCE FICTION (FREE on Smashwords)

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In the late 21st century, overpopulation is a problem.  There’s also the problem with mental health.  In one particularly unusual asylum, there is Dr. Born (psychiatric intern) and Dr. Bloch (sexologist).  And then there’s Jones.  You have not met anyone like Jones.  You see, it’s not every day that patients claim they are from Mars.  And it’s not every day they come and go as they please.  A science fiction story filled with loads of satire (and lots of oddities that will make you shake your head) by speculative fiction author, Lawrence Dagstine.

A Child Weeps in Moscow by Lawrence Dagstine

A Child Weeps in Moscow by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “A Child Weeps in Moscow”

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Alien possession meets alternate history, in this communist tale set in 1923 Russia, about a boy named Abraham (Abe), whose parents suddenly disappear one day.  Like many of the adults throughout Russia, they are being taken away in the night by a special police force put together by Lenin’s “new” government, a government put together after the arrival of spacecrafts with biomechanoid origins and higher intelligence and influence.  Aliens the citizens simply call, The Invaders!

Klara Izolyev, Abe’s teacher, tells the boy that the only way he can learn the truth about the Invaders is to go to Moscow.  There he will learn what they really want on Earth, what role they play in the current socialist movement, and possibly find his missing parents and sister.  There he will fight starvation, arrest, combat homelessness, and meet an even more influential figure.  Arkady, the leader of a Moscow street gang, whose parents have also been taken away.  Together they will all journey to find the people they once loved, discovering just why the aliens are so interested in helping Lenin.

The Mysterious Lady of the Caribbean by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “The Mysterious Lady of the Caribbean”

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Mercer Hollingsworth is not your typical pirate; he’s more a buccaneer of the freelance sort, with a bit of the old hero in him.  No job is too big for his merry crew, so long as it helps bring down the Great Armada and plenty of booty is involved.  But when he brings his own wench aboard, members of the crew start disappearing.  Who is this mysterious young woman? Why does she sing so much? Why is Mercer still alive? When they find themselves stranded on an island in the Caribbean, blood and death will go hand in hand, as the wench reveals her true form and purpose in this speculative pirate story.

“The Paraplegic” by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “The Paraplegic”

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“Doc, I’m telling you.  I just woke up in a hole in broad daylight.  No memory!”

When Herbert was told he had amnesia, he knew things were bad.  When he couldn’t feel anything below the waist, he got scared.  When the doctor told him he’d be paralyzed for life, he got depressed and wanted to die.  After all, no one wants to be a paraplegic.  But what made him crippled so suddenly? Did somebody do this to him? And if so, why? Now in the hospital, undergoing intensive surgery, little does Herbert know that the force responsible isn’t done with him, not by a long shot! Something’s coming back.  There’s a little unfinished business to take care of, and it comes in the form of vampires.

“Family Reunion” by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “Family Reunion”

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When Kendra was a teenager, she got raped and knocked up more than once.  When she finally found the courage to run away with the children, she went back to school, got a job, and set up a nice life for herself far away.  The children are now eight, and Howard has come ‘home’ for what he feels belongs to him.  He swears he’s a changed man, he wants to get married and be a dad.  Even if it kills! He wants this reunion to be one that Kendra and the kids will never forget… should they live to tell about it.

"The King of Trumpeters" by Lawrence Dagstine

“The King of Trumpeters” by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “The King of Trumpeters”

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Salamand (Sal) was a slippery donkey, and a troublesome one.  Escaping one bad owner, only to find himself in the hands of another.  But after being sold to a nice couple, he swore he’d finally escape and start the perfect coup.  The one that would help all donkeys take over Jerusalem and the human race.  The plan might work, as humans are stupid creatures; might even give Salamand the edge he needs.  After all, what could possibly go wrong in a parody?

"Overcast" by Lawrence Dagstine

“Overcast” by Lawrence Dagstine

Story Name: “Overcast”

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It’s not every day that a 1920’s flying ace risks his life to bring a plane down safely for a little girl.  But when a horribly disfigured Sal and Lillian land in the remote, snowy mountains of Montana, a friendship will occur, a bond like no other.  As the winds blow and the snow accumulates, the pilot will do everything in his power to get this child down harsh ravines and rocky slopes.  Through darkness and despair they will do whatever it takes to stay alive.  A bittersweet story of survival, with an emphasis on the importance of not giving up and working together, no matter what age group you are.

Moscow Novella

Or purchase the NEW 150-page print version of Child Weeps in Moscow for $5.95.

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Other New Entries: “New Releases, eBooks & Kindle”

If you can’t find a Dagstine story on a particular reader or android device, just get to me at Facebook or Twitter.  Every few weeks I will be ironing out formatting issues, adding on stuff, and working out other kinks.  Family Reunion and King of Trumpeters will also be available in print sometime in March or April.

Coming Soon: “A Child Weeps in Moscow” by Lawrence Dagstine

COMING SPRING-SUMMER 2013

to Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Sony eReader, Kobo…

Coming to e-Dagstine.com Download Center, coming to eBooks & Kindle (and as a chapbook).

In the vein of George Orwell’s 1984

“A CHILD WEEPS IN MOSCOW”

A Novella by Lawrence Dagstine

ChildWeepsMoscow

Alien possession meets alternate history, in this communist tale set in 1923 Russia, about a boy named Abraham (Abe), whose parents suddenly disappear one day.  Like many of the adults throughout Russia, they are being taken away in the night by a special police force put together by Lenin’s “new” government, a government put together after the arrival of spacecrafts with biomechanoid origins and higher intelligence and influence.  Aliens the citizens simply call, The Invaders!

Klara Izolyev, Abe’s teacher, tells the boy that the only way he can learn the truth about the Invaders is to go to Moscow.  There he will learn what they really want on Earth, what role they play in the current socialist movement, and possibly find his missing parents and sister.  There he will fight starvation, arrest, combat homelessness, and meet an even more influential figure.  Arkady, the leader of a Moscow street gang, whose parents have also been taken away.  Together they will all journey to find the people they once loved, discovering just why the aliens are so interested in helping Lenin.

Official soundtrack for… Mysterious Lady of the Caribbean (teasers):

Also coming in 2013, and a MUST READ!

For fans of Weird Tales & Pirate Fiction

“THE MYSTERIOUS LADY OF THE CARIBBEAN”

A Novelette by Lawrence Dagstine

MysteriousLadyoftheCaribbean

Coming Soon to: New Releases, eBooks & Kindle

Fiction Excerpt: “Vampires in America” – Part 8

Welcome back to the Official Homepage of writer/artist Lawrence R. Dagstine.  Stay tuned here in the future for lots of wonderful free fiction, essays and excerpts, and most of all, digital releases you can download at cheap prices.  Get your Kindles, Nooks, and other eReaders ready.  Below is an installment from Part 8 of a work in progress, entitled: “Vampires in America.”  Historically rich, definitely weird, and what will be an unforgettable adventure in its entirety.

VAMPIRES IN AMERICA

Part 8.  Fiction Excerpt.

 

Bruce turned it into a hard day, bullying and ragging the other vampires.  He made Tom his special target.  Tom took the abuse without any attempt at fighting back.

In Fort Wayne a new locomotive came on, and so did a new crew.  The conductor was a nervous man, small and dumpy, constantly checking his watch.  The engineer, a homely, lanky young man, stood outside the train trading jokes with the fireman.

There were also several new passengers: a bearded preacher, a printer from Peoria, and a fearsome-looking riverboat man named Joe Tide, a burly fellow in a red shirt and yarn suspenders.

Tower wandered out from the lunchroom and came back to the boxcar, where J.C. was sitting in the open door.  He offered her half his sandwich.  She refused him without a word, jumping down and running off to join Samantha at the outdoor pump.

“So when are you going to tell them?” Samantha asked.

“Tell them what?” J.C. said.

“That you’re a female.”

“When I feel like it.  If I feel like it.”

“I’m sure most of them know.  The way they stare at you.”

“Let them think what they want,” J.C. said.

Finally the engineer and the fireman climbed up into the locomotive and the train started.  Some time after ten in the evening the train began to slow down.  The vampires awoke and opened the door to peer out into the dark countryside. “What is it, Miss Simpson?”

“There ain’t no town here, Miss Simpson.  Look.”

The train came to a full stop.  When J.C. and Langley leaned way out the door, they could see lanterns bobbing far down the track.  A man on horseback and a horse-drawn wagon came into view.  Two bearded men got down from the wagon, and the engineer went out to meet them.  The vampires whispered amongst themselves: Were they outlaws? Was it a robbery? Even worse, were they vampire hunters?

The two men walked back to their wagon and returned carrying a pine box about four feet long.  The baggage car door was opened and the box put aboard.  Then the horseman and the wagon rode off.

As the engineer climbed back up into the cab, J.C. suddenly jumped out of the boxcar and dashed toward the baggage car.

“J.C.!” Emily shouted after her. “Get back in here!”

“I want to sleep by myself once.  I’m not hurting anybody, Miss Simpson.” Grabbing the corner of the door, J.C. scrambled up into the car.

The train shuddered, slipped forward, shuddered again.  Emily took a deep breath and leaned against the slats of the boxcar.  She would talk to the vampire again in the morning.

*   *   *

J.C. was alone in the dark baggage car.  It was a little frightening, even for a vampire.  She groped her way through the car and found an old blanket that she folded up to use as a pillow.  She slid several trunks around until she made herself a nest.

As she slipped closer to sleep, her mind began to move back to the afternoon with the actors, their gestures, their bright costumes, their bits of song.  She had been crazy to get up and sing with Drew.  She didn’t want to have anything to do with actors or dancers, with their fake tears and their motioning protests of love.  She was moving west, where there were no theaters or dance halls, no orchestras or ballets, away from her mother’s crying, away from the arguing voices.  The high-hatted men standing in the half-closed door, not letting her mother close that door, not letting J.C. sleep.  J.C. was going away, into some wilderness, where there was stillness.

She woke with a start.  There was a sound in the baggage car, the sound of something moving.  J.C. lay very still.  It wasn’t a rat; no, it was something heavier.

She heard it again.  This time J.C. moved quickly and silently among the trunks.  She knelt beside the pine box that the bearded man brought aboard.  She put her ear to the box.  She heard breathing.

J.C. sat silent for a moment.  There was something alive inside.  Perhaps another vampire? An animal? It made her angry.  It was terrible to nail up an animal like that; there weren’t even any air holes.

She knocked softly on the box.  The sound of breathing stopped.  J.C. knocked again; there was only stillness, the click of the rails beneath her.

J.C. felt along the dirty floor of the car, patting the bags and trunks till her fingertips found the handle of a hoe.  Using the sharp edge as a wedge, J.C. pried under one of the boards.  Finally she pulled the board free and stared into the eyes of a man curled tight inside the box.

“Who are you?” he hissed at her.

J.C. moved back, grabbing the hoe and displaying her fangs. “Who are you?”

The man began to work his way out of the box, squirming painfully.  He was black. “Yo’ one creepy little man.  What side you workin’ fo’?”

J.C. held up the hoe in a swinging position. “I’m not working for any side.”

The man stretched, grimacing as he felt the lower part of his back.  He was almost six feet tall, in overalls, no shoes.  He scrutinized J.C. “You’re just a young vamp, ain’t ya?”

“Anything wrong with that?”

“No.  Just that you should look what you’re doing with that hoe.  You’re likely to bang somebody back of the head.” J.C. lowered the hoe a bit. “What’s your name, vamp?”

“J.C.  What’s yours?”

“My name’s Nester.”

“Where you coming from, Nester?”

“Now, why would you want to know that?”

“No reason,” J.C. said. “Where you going, then?”

Nester sat down on one of the trunks. “Same direction as you, I guess.  I’m going north, to Canada.”

“Nope,” J.C. said, putting down the hoe. “You’re going west.  To Danville.”

Nester frowned. “West? Well, there’s a reason, I know there is.  They’ll put me on another train.  I been on so many trains, you wouldn’t believe it.” He went to the door and peered out into the night. “They wouldn’t be trickin’ me.  Ain’t no way to be runnin’ an underground railroad, though, you gotta say it.”

“So you’re not a vampire yourself?” J.C. asked.

“Heck no.  I’m human as human gets.  Why?”

“Vampires sometimes sleep in coffins.  It’s something I heard once.  Don’t know if it’s true or not.”

Nester looked back at J.C. “I heard the same thing.  But what are you doin’ in here?”

“I got tired of the others,” J.C. said.

“What others is that? Oh, wait—”

“We’re all orphans.  Really nasty vampires made us like this.  You know, turned us.  So they’re giving the young a second chance.  They’re placing us out on farms with human families.  They think it’ll make us better citizens.  But they’re all no-good vampires, and I couldn’t stand ’em anymore.”

“I can see that,” Nester said.  He arched his back, feeling with his hand. “Oww, I got a crick back here.  Anybody in charge of you orphans?”

“There’s a lady in charge of us.”

“Is she human?”

“Unfortunately.” J.C. rolled her eyes.

Nester laughed. “Don’t sound like you like that lady.”

“She’s a little churchy, but she’s all right.  Just that I don’t know that I should trust her.  She says she’s gonna find us homes.  And she doesn’t know, really.”

“If she says she will, she will,” Nester said firmly.

“Oh, come on, you don’t know any more than she does!”

“You believe in her, that’s all I’m sayin’.  That’s the only chance you’ve got, young man.”

The car swayed.  Nester stumbled and then regained his balance. “If we can’t believe in people, we all stuck.  You take me now, J.C.  I made the break to freedom.  But to make it all the way, I need other folks, all kinds, black ones and white ones.  Green ones if I got to.  Folks I never laid eyes on in my life.”

“Hmm,” J.C. said skeptically.

“Only thing I can do is trust, young man, and not be prejudice back.  I been hidin’ in barns, bumpin’ along in wagons with all kinds of octoroons, mulattoes, not knowin’ which way we was headed.  If I can get in a box and have ’em nail me up like I was dead, well, that’s puttin’ yourself in people’s hands.” J.C. looked sour. “You ain’t gonna give up, are you?”

“Did I say I was giving up?”

“You’re gonna find a home, same as me.”

“Mmm,” J.C. said.

Nester draped himself across a pair of trunks. “It’s nice to jus’ stretch out for a little while.”

They both fell silent, the only sound the clicking of the wheels.  An hour could have passed, or even two.  J.C. was almost asleep when she realized that the time between clicks was growing.  The train was slowing down.  She sat upright and looked around wildly.  It was still night.  Nester sat, alert.

“What is it, Nester?”

“I dunno, but I figure I better be cozyin’ down in my box again.  I’m trustin’ you, son, to hammer me back in real good.”

“Sure,” J.C. said, her voice a little frightened.

Nester folded himself back into the box, tucked his head in just as the brakes screamed.  J.C. picked up the loose board with trembling hands.

Nester grinned at her. “It’s okay, son.  You come up to Canada sometime and I’ll take you for a ride on a moose.”

J.C. fitted the board in place.  With the back of the hoe she quickly hammered down the nails.  The train had stopped.  She went to the door and looked out.  There was a group of men on horseback, lanterns at their sides.  One of the men rode down the track, the horse picking its way gingerly.  In the lantern light J.C. saw a badge on the horseman’s chest.

She jumped down, shut the baggage car door behind her, and walked slowly toward the vampire car.  She was greeted with jeers. “Too dark for ya, J.C.?” and “Kinda skeery?” She plopped down on her blanket and said nothing.

The sheriff climbed into the passenger car.  Another of his men poked his head into the vampire car.  He was lean and young, with a big smile. “They tol’ me there was a load of vampire orphans back here and damn if it isn’t true. ‘Scuse my language, miss.”

Emily had pulled her duster around her in her most haughty manner. “May I ask why you’re disturbing us?”

“Oh, we’re just looking through the train, miss.  The sheriff’s received a complaint.  Sorry for waking you up like this.”

The sheriff jumped down from the passenger car, and he and an older deputy walked to the baggage car.  J.C. watched them, holding herself back.  The sheriff stood aside and let his man pull open the baggage car door.  The young deputy noticed J.C. staring back toward the baggage car, and he looked back, too.  There was the sound of breaking wood and then a shout.

J.C. leaped out of the boxcar and ran.  The young deputy stepped in front of the door, his hands held out in warning, but the vampires slipped by him on every side.  Finally he gave up and went loping to the baggage car.

The train’s passengers—human and vampire—gathered in a semi-circle in front of the baggage car.  In the doorway, held by a deputy, was a gaunt black man with a stubble of white beard.  The younger deputy held a crowbar.  Pieces of the shattered pine box lay on the floor behind them.  The sheriff bent down to hand the lanterns to one of the passengers, then jumped to the ground. “Well, that’s it for tonight,” he said. “You can all go back to bed.”

“You can’t take him!” J.C. said.

“What’s that, young feller?”

“Young man’s right,” said Joe Tide, the burly riverboat man, pulling his yarn suspenders. “It’s a free state.”

“That’s right, it’s a free state,” J.C. said. “Isn’t it, Miss Simpson?”

Emily could only stare at the face of the sheriff.

The sheriff answered. “There’s a law, I’m afraid, young man.  It’s called the Fugitive Slave Act.  Any runaway slave that’s caught, free state or not, goes back to his owner.”

The two deputies were trying to get themselves and Nester down from the baggage car without letting go of his arms, and it was about as awkward as a potato-sack race.  They finally all tumbled out, one of the deputies landing on his knees.  J.C. went up to Nester, put her hands on his arms above the deputies’ hands.

The first gray streaks of dawn had appeared on the eastern horizon.  A couple of heads still peered from the windows of the train, but most of the passengers who’d come out to take a look began to drift back toward the passenger car.  Frank Tower and Joe Tide and a few others held their ground.

“Let the man go, Sheriff, what’s it to you?” Tower said.

“The slave people payin’ you off, Sheriff?” It was the fireman.  The engineer tugged on the fireman’s arm, but that wasn’t about to stop the young man. “What’d they give you?”

The sheriff’s face reddened. “You listen to me, you railroad people.  There are laws here, and they apply to everybody.  You, too, Sam,” he said to the engineer. “We’ve been keepin’ our eyes on you.  You run your train through my town, you’re goin’ to abide by those laws.  This here slave is goin’ back.”

J.C. pressed against Nester, staring at the crowd.  No one moved.  Didn’t any of them see? These were the same people who had cried at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who had applauded when the slaves were freed.  How could they not understand?

J.C. spun and kicked one of the deputies in the shins. “Run, Nester, run,” she shouted.  She pivoted smartly and hit the second deputy in the belly with her fist.  The man bellowed, then let go with a sweeping uppercut, catching J.C. under the right eye.  Suddenly she was down on her back in the dirt.

Tower threw himself at the deputy, the force of his rush tumbling the two of them to the ground.  The sheriff tried to move to help, but Joe Tide stepped up and wrapped his massive arms around the sheriff’s middle, lifting him like a bag of flour, squeezing agonizing groans out of him.  The young deputy pulled his pistol, and, as he did so, the fireman crouched down to pick up the crowbar.  Nester stood stock-still, uncertain whether to run or join the fight.

The engineer grabbed Nester by the arm. “You’re coming with me.” He reached over and slapped his young fireman on the shoulder. “Billy, put that thing down and let’s get the steam up.  We’re movin’ this train out of here.”

The fireman let the crowbar drop, and the three of them raced toward the front of the train.

The young deputy was frantic.  He ducked and darted, gun in hand, afraid to shoot into the tumbling, twisting fighters, and finally, in frustration, fired a shot in the air.  Instead of stopping anyone from fighting, the shot seemed to galvanize the bearded preacher, who picked up the crowbar and started running at the deputy.  The young man dropped his gun and ran down the track with the preacher in hot pursuit.

Emily tried to herd the vampires back toward the boxcar, holding the crying J.C. by one arm.  Tower and the other deputy were on their feet now, their hands at each other’s throats. “You really don’t want to make me angry,” Tower said.

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Because I could just tear your head off if I wanted to.”

The train whistle pierced the air.  The engineer leaned out, waved for people to get on board.  The other passengers and the vampires started running for the train.  Tower had his deputy down on the ground again, and Joe Tide, the sheriff grasping in his arms, staggered toward them.  With a great shout, the boatman dumped the sheriff on the deputy and then secured the pile by throwing himself on top of them.  He shouted to Tower, “Go on, get on the train, I got ’em!” Sprawled across the two lawmen, the boatman held them fast.

“Wish I’d thought of that,” Tower said.

The train made a jolt forward.  Down the tracks, the preacher dropped the crowbar and came running.  There was a sprint now for the slow-moving train, Tower in the lead, the preacher behind.  Heads at every window of the train urged the runners onward.  Joe Tide staggered up and started running, too.

Emily and the vampires pulled Tower and then the preacher up into the boxcar.  Joe Tide, slower on his thick boatman’s legs, seemed to be losing ground, with the sheriff and his deputies only paces behind.  The vampires leaned out of the car, exhorting the boatman forward.  Gasping, he summoned up one last burst, caught Tower’s hand, and struggled up.

The train picked up speed.  The young deputy kept gaining; he was running alongside.  When he tried to climb aboard, a kick from the preacher sent him sprawling.  The train, under full steam now, sounded its whistle in triumph.

*   *   *

Inside the boxcar bedlam reigned.  The vampires piled on Tower and Nester and Joe Tide and the preacher, shouting over one another for attention.  Only J.C. sat by herself on a bench, sobbing softly.  It was Emily who first noticed.

“J.C., are you all right? That man didn’t hit you hard, did he?”

J.C. looked up and tried to stifle her sobs, but couldn’t entirely.  Emily’s mirror lay across her legs.  J.C. picked it up and stared into it.  There was no reflection. “I don’t even know what a puffy eye looks like!” she said.

“You can’t be worrying about how it looks, J.C.,” Tower said. “You handled yourself like a real man out there.”

“But I’m not a man!” J.C. sobbed. “I’m a female! A female monster!”

“A what?” Tower said.  Bruce laughed.

“Oh, J.C.!” Emily said.  The vampires all stared at J.C., but she refused to look back at any of them, instead gazing in the mirror and wishing that a reflection of her could have gazed back.

“Now doesn’t that just beat everything, Pledges,” Langley said. “J.C.’s a bloody faker.” Emily quickly hushed them both, and the only sound then was the rocking of the car.

It was Nester who finally spoke, glaring at Langley and Bruce. “You think that’s funny? If she says she’s a female, she’s a female.  This here vampire got me out of the hands of that jailer, so you all leave off gawkin’ at my friend.”

“Come now,” Emily said. “Let’s settle down.  You all need some rest.” The vampires slowly went to their blankets, casting sidelong glances at J.C.

When the train came to a halt again, the prairie was ablaze with a fierce morning sun.  There was not a building in sight.  A number of exhausted passengers stumbled out into the sunlight.  The engineer and Tower and Nester walked a distance from the train.  They stood talking quietly.  The passengers lined up along the car, speculating on the conversation among the three.

Dr. Walcott said, “That engineer’s just loco.  His job is gone once the railroad hears about this, you can bet on that.”

“He’s a brave young man, if you ask me,” said one of the other passengers.

Nester turned and shook hands with Tower and the engineer, then raised his hand toward the train.  J.C. raised her hand in return.  Joe Tide and finally, reluctantly, Dr. Walcott did the same.

Then, as naturally as a man would slip into a pool of water, Nester bent down over the side of a ridge and vanished.

*   *   *

Ten miles east of Danville, a dozen armed horsemen and a couple of wagons were gathered around the water tank.  As the train eased to a stop, a strong-looking man with a mane of wavy white hair hitched up his belt and walked toward the locomotive.  He wore a sheriff’s badge.

The engineer and the fireman climbed down from their cab, eyeing the horsemen.  The sheriff took off his hat and scratched at his wavy white hair. “Hello, Sam,” he said. “We heard there was a little trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” the engineer said.

“What we got over the telegraph was that there was a slave on the train, and when the sheriff from the county over there tried to take him off, some of you boys got in his way.” The sheriff narrowed his eyes. “Tell me, Sam, you had a slave on this train?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And he’s not on the train now?”

“No, sir.”

“And do you know where he got off?”

“No, sir.”

“Mighty puzzling.” The sheriff turned slowly and faced the passengers crowded together on the steps of the train. “Any of you know where that slave might have got off?”

No one spoke.  Wind rustled the trees down by the stream.

“It’s a mystery, I tell yuh.” The sheriff rubbed his nose. “Sam, I’m afraid you’ll have to be comin’ with us.  If any of the others here were involved, well, that’s none of my business.  They didn’t put it on the telegraph, but I’m going to tell you something, Sam, you can just bless your stars that you got arrested in the right county.”

“What about us, Sheriff?” shouted one of the passengers.

“Folks, I hate to slow down your trip this way, but we’re arrestin’ your engineer.  Anybody that wants to ride into town with us and make other connections is welcome.  Otherwise, sit tight, and they’ll have another crew out here this afternoon.”

Emily decided it was best that she and the vampires would stay with the train.  The other passengers were leery about being stranded out in the country.  All of them except for Frank Tower, Joe Tide, and the preacher elected to take the wagons into Danville.

There was a great flurry of activity as baggage was lugged onto the two wagons.  Joe Tide was fuming, ready to fight this bunch of lawmen, too, but the engineer calmed him down.  They’d gotten a man free, that was the point, and, anyway, if there was going to be a trial, he had a better chance in Danville than a lot of places.

The vampires looked on in awe as the horses and wagons rumbled off.  The engineer waved back, grinning, then pointed across a field, where a quail was flying low, heading for safety.

*   *   *

When the horses and wagons disappeared from view, Bruce spat, then kicked at the ground.  Tower broke the silence. “I’ve never seen such a sad bunch of faces.  If you ask me, you should be proud of yourselves.  There’s a man free somewhere north of here, and maybe he wouldn’t be if it weren’t for you.  You should be proud of this train.”

“So? So what if we are?” Bruce said.

“So maybe you’d like to have your picture taken,” Tower said. “It’ll be my going-away present to all of you.”

The words stuck in Emily’s heart.  She stared at Tower.  He smiled back. “Emily, I want you in the picture, too.”

The vampires’ spirits rose instantly.  They lined up in front of the boxcar, squeezed in when Tower told them to squeeze in.  Eventually they were all as gravely still as anyone could ever want, holding until Tower told them that was it, and then they let out a whoop.

They crowded around the mercury bath, badgering him with questions.  When the plate was mercurated and washed, Tower let the vampires decide on a case.  After a fierce debate, they chose one that had a harp embossed on the outside and purple silk lining inside.  Tower handed the finished daguerreotype to Emily.

They all pressed around.  Didn’t J.C.’s shiner finally show up good now, Langley said.  And wasn’t Langley’s grin weird, like a skunk eating sand, Pledges said.  After they had tossed all the barbs they could think of, they went running off into the woods.

Emily stayed behind.  Tower was busy repacking his equipment.  Emily stood fingering the harp-embossed case.  As she watched him snapping down the legs of his tripod, she felt enormously drawn to him.  There was so little time, she thought, and she was letting it slip away.

Suddenly he turned back to her. “You know what I would like, Miss Simpson? I’d like to take a walk with you, before the new crew shows up.  Just you.  No vampires.  How does that sound?”

There was no mistaking her look.  Her face was shining. “It sounds wonderful, Mr. Tower.”

As Tower leaned his tripod against the passenger car, there was a shout. “Miss Simpson! Look what I brought you!” Samantha ran across the clearing, waving a nosegay she had made out of mullein, stock, and cornhusk twisted with grass.  Pledges was a minute behind her, walking carefully with his hands full.

“Look here, Miss Simpson!” Pledges held up a handful of acorns. “There are lots more.” Pledges suddenly eyed the two of them. “Where are you going?”

“Mr. Tower and I were going for a walk.”

“What for?” Pledges said.

“We thought we’d look for some of those acorns.”

Samantha wrinkled up her nose. “By yourselves?”

“But how can you find the acorns if we’re not along?” Pledges pleaded.

“I don’t think we could,” Tower said, smiling.  He took Samantha’s hand, then put his arm around Emily’s waist. “So I think you two should come with us.”

 End of Part 8.

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…

Free SF Serial: “Orphan’s Prey pt. 3” – Lawrence Dagstine

Science Fiction Serial Part 3

First Draft – Follow it from the beginning…

Orphan’s Prey 1: https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/04/20/free-sf-serial-orphans-prey-pt-1-by-lawrence-dagstine/

Orphan’s Prey 2: https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/06/10/free-sf-serials-orphans-prey-pt-2-by-lawrence-dagstine/

Who are the Vendragon?

So self-assured, she was, only hours earlier. So brave and self-confident. So virtuous and independent at the right moments, yet obviously weak during others. 

She suddenly found herself pressing her hands to the sides of her head—she’d never done something like this in front of her brother—almost sick with discomfort.  She saw the expression on the boy’s face, then her own, only in her mind’s eye, weak, scared, unprotected, and she realized once more that they were just small children, incapable of much, and just how alone they really were.

 

ORPHAN’S PREY

 by

Lawrence Dagstine

A rather large, muscular, adobe-colored lizard was awakened that same night by what sounded like distant explosions.  From behind the controls of his land scout, the startled iguana with the reddish-brown leather armor and twaddle-speaking tongue realized it was thunder reverberating among the low cumulus that was some hundreds of miles wide.  There was the pitter-patter of rain pellets on the vehicle’s front looking glass and hood.  A break in the drought? No, couldn’t be; Ragnarok should only be so lucky this time of year.  All the water in the universe couldn’t fix that recurrent problem, only toss it a band-aid.  Hence the greenhouses, pipelines, and special sprinkler system back at the city.  Fog clouds approaching? Maybe.  It was a more logical bet.  In sandy, mountainous regions like this, a heavy thunderstorm or methane-mixed hail shower could be an isolated occurrence or a signal that a new front was moving in—or yet another unwanted season.  Whichever it was, the lizard was glad he was snug inside his tracker rather than camped out in a dry marsh or deep desert valley where the storm was picking up speed and strength.  As for how bad conditions would get, he’d just have to wait and see.

“Fog billows?” asked a similar life form from a standard operating panel in the rear.  Unlike the front of the vehicle, there were no visual systems or radar maps or even a looking glass to peer out of.   Compared to his much taller partner, this reptile’s armor was grayish steel, the portions of scaly flesh that was visible a mustard tone.

The tongue-tied lizard at the wheel of the land scout looked at his weather gauge. “With precipitation like this”—when he talked his mouth didn’t always move but, rather, an electronic chest unit with a flashing orb flickered—“what else could it be?”

“The way you study natural features,” his friend remarked, “I would have thought something more exciting.  Whatever your definition of exciting is.  You know, Koral, I’m quite surprised you never applied for an Earth visa.  You show a certain kind of enthusiasm for your work.”

Their vernacular wasn’t perfect, the interpretive English and back and forth chitchat a bit skidded; but the chest units helped immensely with vocabulary and pronunciation.

“You mean neurotic?” Koral’s tongue lashed out in slight irritation.

“Mmm, that’s the word.  A human term, too.  I’d bet my green farm that Earth scientists would have adored you.”

“Funny, Bakkra,” he laughed. “I don’t know whether to pat you on the gills for your clever perceptions of me—because I am mostly used to your cynicism—or just go ahead and collect my winnings now.  Heh! And here I thought only the man-droid was able to understand me.” There was a brief pause. “Speaking of which, the synthetic one has not returned or communicated back with our lovely package.”

“He’s a robot.  Robots are late, too, you know.”

“Not this robot.  I was the one the manufacturers hunted down and finally sold to.  I was the one guiding him through the wastes.”

“You seem concerned, and tired.  Should we call off the search?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“They’re that important to you, huh?”

“Yes.  That important.” Koral leaned back in his metal chair and let the ravaging elements unfold before him, while keeping a close eye on the overhead gauges and monitor for something else.

Lightning flashed some more.  The alignment of the bolts, shooting outward from the cumulus in all directions, reminded the lizard of the storm chasing he undertook in his youth; after three hundred and sixty years, one begins to feel old but still take pleasure in the eccentricities of the past.

Thunderstorms in the wastelands of Ragnarok were forever awesome displays of limitless power, he thought, sometimes releasing energy many times greater than the atomic explosion range.  Hailstorms derived of methane were a whole other story.  Still, he knew if you were close to either one, or became trapped in the very center of a fog cloud, there was about them a personal quality.  It was dramatic and inescapable.  It was terrifying but vivid, as if every sudden flash, every strong gust of wind, and every simultaneous explosion that crackled and boomed were seeking you out; after all, it really sought no one else.  The lightning came in multitudes and blinded you.  The thunder wreaked havoc on your ears and deafened you.  The ice-cold rains came down heavily and drowned you.  And on the open plains, the sand-filled wastes, and in hanging valleys of crystal and rock, there was no place to take refuge.

The snow, which frequently becomes spot blizzards with reckless currents of air beyond gale force, could also be merciless and astonishing in its ferocity.  Large, lazy flakes drifting down at first, touching the ground and melting instantly.  But in minutes the fall becomes thicker, more rigid, and the wind-whipped mess pummels the landscape.  The temperature drops rapidly.  Marshes and gullies turn in the twinkling of an eye to great streams of half-frozen mud, which then later break apart from those very same winds and become torrents, rushing steeply downhill unintended, catching up loose rocks, Yurga bush, even boulders.  Other times, the mud is uplifted and snatched from their channels, as if by some godly hand.  Then it is flung into the air with impending force, thus turning it into hail during its whirl around the cloud formations and falling with a shrapnel effect down upon lower elevations of land.  In the midst of the mud particles, an unscented methane composite, laid bare to Ragnarok’s wrath and planetary nature to do whatever mixing and mashing it likes.  Once it falls back down again, hardened and in hail form, it wreaks of the most terrible odor, which can be inhaled up to hundreds of miles away.

Koral always remembered the cloud masses beginning somewhere in the high mountains, never the desert regions or marshlands, and in an almost tentative fashion.  Always the highest escarpments, always the greatest plateaus.  Perhaps that was what made the seasonal irregularities so peculiar, so unrelenting in their expansive devastation.  And you never expected a season to change so fast or, unintentionally, drive through one.  Not unless it was closely monitored or regarded from a distance.

From within the land scout, and up along a high altitude, the now-dozing lizard found such an effect magical.  A swirling, shifting pattern of light, eventually graying, then dulling and, finally, obscuring.  Precipitation from some disturbance in the planet’s magnetic field eventually conjured up the surrounding fog—yes, that had to be it—but he couldn’t be certain.  Neither could his people.  It was just another mystery of the planet, passed down from generation to generation, and his hypothesis was open to much conjecture.  Sometimes there was a break; usually there wasn’t.  Sometimes it revealed uncharted peaks, gorges and canyons, and the Vendragon Township far below, often untouched by the gathering clouds and coming storm.

At times he found such atmospheric wonder indescribable.  He often used worlds populated by humans as a comparison: where Earth’s seasons changed over the course of months, the cycles on Ragnarok could change within minutes if not mere seconds.  He used these comparisons in his teachings.  The Vendragon, whose society already flourished in ways early human colonies had, achieved much knowledge and experience from it.  They took it with them wherever they went; though formally a tribal race, that and available technology became a handed down tradition.

Finally the lizard’s thoughts were interrupted by a voice on the overhead speaker. “Hey, storm chaser! Come in, chaser! What are you chasing after now? Over.”

“Apparently little boys and girls,” Bakkra hollered from the back. “Ain’t that right, Koral?”

The man-sized iguana turned and shot his mustard-colored friend a filthy glance. “Do you mind?” His chest unit flared bright red.

The speaker chimed again: “Check.  Fog clouds reach you yet? Over.”

“Affirmative,” he answered. “Unpredictable weather surrounding just about everything.  All within close proximity of the vehicle, at least, otherwise cloud-to-ground.  Too soon to tell.  Just beginning.  Over.”

“I’m sure the young ones are all right,” the speaker crooned; the voice on the other side tried to be reassuring.

“What makes you think I was worried about that? Over.”

“Have any of our friends made an appearance?” An intense silence followed.

Bakkra was about to say something smart when Koral turned and shushed him. “The man-droid has still not reported back, and no,” he said. “No activity or other signs of life in the region.  Over.”

“Oh, well, still armor yourself.  This storm system reading is immense from our side.  We’re going to catch it for good and for sure, and there’s an airstream behind it.  First snow and ice, then rain and wind, heavy at times.  Even at your elevation.”

“Trust me.  We’ve already felt the thunder.”

“Thunder is nothing.” The communicator cut off for what seemed like two, maybe three seconds, followed by unusual static. “We may lose… you if… you go any… higher,” the voice continued brokenly. “You been feeling tremors? Over.”

“Negative.” Koral flipped a few switches on the overhead panel and fixed the glitch. “Unless there’s something I don’t already know or you’re not telling me.  Over.”

“Hmm, well, we’re still sending two extra rovers your way.  Over.”

“Helpful, Ooglad, but Bakkra and I are all right.  Over.”

“Listen, Koral, I know it’s just a random search, and this cloud build-up is like all the other occasions, but let’s be honest here, you can use all the help you can get.” A brief pause, and then: “Small stuff, under four on the quake register, with sand-shocks set well outside your perimeter.  But why turn down a free assist? Over.”

“Thanks, Ooglad, but no thanks.  Out.” Koral switched off the communicator.

Bakkra was the one with the smug look now. “What did you do that for? You’d have to be mad to turn down a rescue and assist in conditions like this.”

“We don’t need it.  We’ll just stay the night.  The storm will pass, like those before it.”

“For all you know those children might already be dead! Your droid’s bleeper would have picked them up kilometers ago.  This, my friend, is just suicide!”

“Really, Bakkra? How so?” Koral leaned back in his seat once more. “Does this also mean I’m forcing you to commit suicide with me? Because I do occasionally entertain the thought.”

“I guarantee you these children are already worm food or some other kind of beast droppings!”

“I say you’re wrong.” The lizard was terribly amused. “For once in your pathetic existence, don’t be such a coward.  Part of our race’s survival depends on these two kids.  We’ve weathered fog clouds before, and knowing how Ooglad thinks, he’ll most likely still send out that extra patrol regardless of what I say.  He’s crazy and neurotic, too.”

“You’re right,” Bakkra said. “For once you are very right.  That young reptile is paranoid and foolish like you.  But I am not.” Gathering his things, he went on, “I don’t plan on staying here with you.  So, if you will not wait for the assist and accept it, then I will.  They’ll give me a ride back to the city, while you stay out in the hail to wither and die.”

He was prepared to slide open the door and exit the vehicle when Koral jumped up and stopped him. “Oh no, my friend.  You are not leaving this tracker.” The lizard made his presence felt; the air suddenly became hostile and serious. “Not while I am in charge.  I say we weather the storm, investigate these hills and cliffs, and that is final!”

“Let go of the door, Koral.  Things could get messy in a very confined space.”

Lightning flashed just outside; the crackling sound was ear-piercing.  Koral shook it off.  Then he released his massive-sized hand from the door’s grip. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’d ask you to be reasonable but I think you and I both know we are beyond that now.”

The mustard-toned reptile reconsidered. “The only reason you are being this way is because of what happened to Arim.  You’re scared you’ll have to live through a repeat.” There was a brief silence, significant, and followed by what seemed like an even more emotional reawakening. “Your puny brain might not realize it, because it’s crammed deep inside your subconscious—yes, one of your human terms—waiting for the chance to be exposed, waiting for the opportunity to be expressed, and aired in permanent relief.” Then Bakkra put his things down and took two steps back. “There is a cause to your neuroses, Koral.  I see this.  Ooglad sees this.  The whole tribe sees this! They worry about you.  They can see right through your armor, the pain you are suffering, the empty feelings you sometimes emit.  You leave the camps and city grounds to study the conditions out here, bury yourself in your research.  This is your means of escape.  But because Arim perished and you suffer does not mean others need suffer as well.”

Koral did not reply.  Instead, he returned to the front of the vehicle, strapped himself back into his metal chair, and peered silently out of the looking glass.

Bakkra went on, “I will not go.  I will return to my station.  This is a very strong storm formation we are dealing with here.  Hopefully, your instincts are right this time.  I also pray you will not be blinded by pride again.  This stubbornness needs to subside.”

Koral blocked the rest of what he had to say out and stared up at the overhead panels in dismay.  Eventually he closed his eyes and, with the ease of long practice in strange places, went immediately off to dozing again.  In a few hours he would see what effects of the storm he could find, and if the children or the man-droid had left a trail for him.  This time he was prepared.  He had a carry-along machine, lightweight with a strap, which detected alien life forms.

He continued to ignore Bakkra’s petty banter through the night.  He continued to be aware of feeling kinship with the environment and, oddly enough, with the fog clouds.  It was a feeling he found impossible to shake.  Pensively he looked back at the fateful actions that led up to the Arim tragedy.  It was so long ago, uneventful to say the least.  How could the thoughts still persist? Were they really bottled up inside of him? It was his first interspecies “coop”, as most out-colony settlers called it in those days.  The boy was too young.  Sixteen in Earth years.  For every hour the lizard was out there searching for the two orphans he probably thought of Arim and the accident that befell him twice as much, only unconsciously.

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.

TO BE CONTINUED…