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”

 

 

Tightbeam #268, November 2013… (appearances)

My science fiction story, The Starship Hanoi, is in the current issue of Tightbeam.  Tightbeam is the official zine of the National Fantasy Fan Federation (N3F), an organization created in 1941 with a very large audience in SF fandom (it’s also a club with dues); Tightbeam has been around since 1960, and has a pretty healthy circulation at numerous SF/F conventions.  They have fiction, non-fiction, book reviews (all mostly unsolicited), and con reports between their pages.  My story is about The Vietnamese Life Cycle and what inertia will bring to an Asian colony (and culture) in the far future.  It’s a story of the burdens of technology and progress, really.  Links to free download and N3F website below (also in print).  Issue #268, edited by David Speakman.

TIGHTBEAM #268

***November 2013***

Official Zine of the National Fantasy Fan Federation

TightbeamJPG

The National Fantasy Fan Website (est. 1941):

http://www.N3F.org

Tightbeam (est. 1960, free download):

http://n3f.org/2013/10/tightbeam-268/

Other New Entries: “Magazines”

Free Ebooks: “Family Reunion” by Lawrence Dagstine – Aug. to Sept. 2013 ONLY!

Autumn is almost here! And September is suspense month! If you like taut thrillers in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock and Mary Higgins Clark, then for the next 40 days you might like my family dynamic-inspired novella, Family Reunion.  But only from August 20th thru September 30th (up till midnight), and only through Smashwords (Mobi, Epub, etc.).  After that, Family Reunion goes back up to the already low price of $1.99.  Own a Kindle or a Nook? Just enter the following coupon code at Smashwords.com: BS62W …And meet “Howard” for free, the man who would KILL to be a husband and father, and for forty days and forty nights.  Most of all, happy reading.

FAMILY REUNION

A Family-Based Suspense Thriller 

FREE for Aug/Sept. 2013, FREE thru Smashwords

FamilyReunionKindle

SMASHWORDS COUPON CODE: BS62W

Smashwords_Tall75

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.

Other Ebooks Available:

Lawrence Dagstine on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Kobo, Smashwords, and the Apple iTunes Store:

Amazon      Nook      Kobo      Smashwords      Apple

http://www.amazon.com/author/lawrencedagstine

Smashwords: “The Paraplegic” by Lawrence Dagstine – Now Available!

For only 99 cents, you can now own my vampire novelette, The Paraplegic.  Available at Smashwords.  Just click on the picture below, or, see what other low-cost titles I have available.  I even have a free science fiction story you could try out, and in the coming months I will be downloading more stories at no cost (usually under 5,000 words); I’ll also be coming to Kindle, Nook, Apple, Sony, Kobo and Nexus.  Novelettes and novellas will always be at the right price.  Quality, plot-driven stories, characters we care about: because that’s what matters first and foremost.  Science fiction, fantasy, horror and more in Mobi, ePub, PDF, and a variety of other formats.  You’ll be able to order them direct from here (eBooks & Kindle), or be redirected.  Also be sure to follow me on social media platforms such as Facebook & Twitter.  There will be cool contests in the coming months and free reading material will go out to my 5,000th Facebook follower and my 500th Twitter follower.  Cover art by Bob Veon.

THE PARAPLEGIC

Now Available at Smashwords – ONLY 99 cents!

TheParaplegic

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.

Get your favorite Dagstine stories in under a minute. Click below: Smashwords_Tall75

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…