Lawrence Dagstine’s Bimonthly Serial – Don’t Miss Out! Part One link below:
“Vendragons live in the grassier regions—probably further north. They rely on our knowledge of agriculture. Supposedly, they thrive off it.”
“Yeah, but couldn’t we still head in that direction? I mean, somethin’ made that smoke.”
“Oh, Blake! It’s much too far. We should wait for a scouting vessel.” She started to undo the knots in her hair. “Go back to sleep. I’ll take first watch. Besides, the distance of these plains are farther than you think. And who knows what manner of beast created those rings. For all we know it might be the same kind of creature that attacked us, burning carcasses and picking on flesh.”
The boy went scared and silent.
She hoped she spoke with conviction, but after what they’d been through, it disturbed her to know that her brother’s thoughts had been running so close to hers.
They settled down by the fire, and before long their breathing grew slower and deeper. After a while, Chelsea couldn’t stay up any longer. Eyelids falling, she reached for her brother’s swollen hand. Normally he’d have snatched it away, but he didn’t now. A veil of mist drifted over the moons that scattered the night sky, and the children slept…
Orphan’s Prey – Part Two
by Lawrence R. Dagstine
Chelsea woke in the twin lights of dawn and reached for her brother. He wasn’t there. She quickly looked around her, then scrambled to her feet. “Blake? Blake! Where are you?” For a terrifying moment she thought he had set off by himself had gone on about those smoke rings and the Vendragon for a good hour. But then she saw him, a dozen or so yards from where the fire had been, staring out across the desert. In the faint light, with his red vest and tan khakis, he looked taller and older.
Displeased, Chelsea clenched her hands into fists and plodded over. “Blake Prittengayle! What are you doing?”
He didn’t move but kept staring ahead as if in a trance. “Looks like some abominable wasteland, don’t it,” he said, without looking up at her.
“Abominable?” Chelsea vested a short laugh. “I can’t believe you know what that word means. Come on.” She led him back to the campsite. He moved like a tiny sleepwalker, then he started to shiver. She lowered him to the ground and cradled his head in her lap, just as their mother used to. After a while his shivering stopped.
“Chandler told me what that word meant,” he muttered under his tongue.
“Did he now?”
“Uh-huh. Also, the air smells funny. The weather’s gonna change seasons again soon. The air is salty, like there’s somethin’ big on the way. Chandler called it pre-cip… pre-cipi…”
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“Blake, what were you thinking of running off like that?”
He slowly got to his feet. “I don’t wanna live on Ragnarok. We don’t belong here!” His eyes were serious, then he faced the distant mountains. He remembered the out-colony stories he had heard at the sanctuary from those who were older, those who had gone walkabout with their siblings or cousins on foreign worlds, only to take part in alien ceremonies or have relatives sacrificed in accordance to them. One boy, eleven, who he shared bunks with, had returned to the freighter after four months of living on nothing but insects. A salvage team had found him naked, soiled from head to toe and huddled up in the corner of some old cave in the side of a cliff. He came back without his twin brother or his two older sisters. There was no trace of the adopting species, no documentation. The only thing the boy had to remember them by was a photographic imprint locked into a small handcrafted identification bracelet.
“I don’t wanna end up like Louie,” he finally said.
“Louie?” Chelsea was silent for a moment. “Oh, yeah… Louie Peder. The other kids used to make fun of him. They used to call him Stinky, because he never bathed or washed. But after he came back from that extrasolar rock, after his sisters and brother went missing, he just wasn’t right again. He stopped talking. Kids stopped making fun of him. They stopped bothering with him altogether.”
“Hey, let’s go south! Back to the transmat station, where the Keeper let us down. Plus the air’s not as salty there.”
“But the freighter is no longer above the planet,” Chelsea tried to explain.
“So, maybe it’ll come back when it finds out what happened to us. The Keeper has rescued stranded kids before.”
“Blake, there is no way I am going back through those crystalline wastes. And there is no way I am going to risk both our lives going back near those giant stones in the bluffs. That’s where we first spotted those monsters.”
“Ahh, Chelsea, please!” The boy practically begged. “We have plenty of daylight to guide us, and lots of rest!”
“And what about your hand? Last I looked your knuckles were almost flattened, all black and blue.”
The boy held his hand up for her to see. “Look! All better. I don’t even need a bandage.”
She had known it was coming, especially since the talk the night before about the smoke rings and the northern part of the planet. “That terminus could be anywhere from a couple of hundred miles to a whole thousand behind us. We never kept track. We were inside the vehicle the whole time. It took almost three days to get where we are now, and using a durable transport.” A brief pause. “I know you’re not that stupid. There’s no point in even checking our rations. We’d surely die of hunger and thirst.”
“No nutrient packs or water?” the boy sulked.
“No nutrient packs, I’m afraid. And not really enough water, to be honest.”
“We could die of hunger and thirst the other way, too, sis. Or we could get the rover’s touchpad working again. Least while it’s still sunny.”
“Idiot! You mean the navigational router? Not even the best mechanic in the Cat’s Eye could get that infernal taxi and its low-tech components to run again. Don’t you remember what that thing did to it?”
There was a moment of significant silence as the memory flashed back.
The girl braided and unbraided her hair. She was intelligent—so was the boy when he wanted to be, eager and far beyond his years—but her life as an orphan had done nothing to qualify her to make this sort of decision. So why would Blake be any different? Deep down she was scared like him, only less easily at times to show it. All she knew in this strange world was that she had to protect her brother, no matter what the cost. “Okay, suppose,” she said slowly, “we stay here one more night, find some kind of cave or shelter in the vicinity of these hills. After all, I think I noticed some cliffsides. We have plenty of flares. We can find some use from all this Yurga brush. Give your hand another day to heal, maybe collect some herbs or plantlife and make weapons out of the crystals. If a scouting vessel doesn’t come by tomorrow morning, then we might as well head back to the transmat. Hope that the Keeper or Koral are there waiting for us.”
Blake nodded. “Fine.”
But no rescue came. They spent another night in the bluffs, sitting beside the fire again, waiting and hoping. They examined the flora they had collected, separated what could be used as food or an ingredient and what could not. Wrist encyclopedias helped them achieve this function. As handy as the schooling devices were, there was only so much memory it could hold and only so much knowledge it could provide. That whole day picking, and straight into the night, Chelsea was frightened the monsters would come back—out of all worries, that remained her constant—while Blake complained that the air got chillier at times and smelled saltier. Whenever she looked down at her wrist, she tried to pull up info about the planet and its meteorological phases, its orbit, and other asymmetries. Nothing. No factual data relating to the worlds in the surrounding nebula. Not even an out-of-place singularity in which she could barter for a clue. Whenever she tried to be smarter than the device, punch in a successful tag or keyword, she got nothing. There was absolutely zilch on the tornado creatures—she had figured as much—and nothing even remotely resourceful on the Vendragon. With its miniature data core, it was pretty much only good for geological referencing: rocks, minerals, botany. Blake’s was slightly bigger but malfunctioning because he wore his on the hand that got injured.
In the early morning hours of their fourth day, toting extra satchels of herbs and shrubbery, they set out to walk to the south. The now longed-for terminus of their dreaming which lay beyond a ridiculous amount of horizons, and an expanse of miles they could not possibly fathom, they walked. They carried with them spears which they had carved and built by hand: part jagged-edged crystal, part disposable laser cutter. But even with the lighted, armor-piercing weapons, from all paths the odds were still too overwhelming. They were not stacked in their favor this day just like the rest; it was a merciful thing they didn’t realize that they had about as much chance of getting to their destination as a soldier ant crossing the cold, terra-formed wastes of New Sedna.
In the late afternoon they arrived back at the scene of the incident, only along a much higher tract of land; the rover was just over some dry sandy hillocks. Had they been mindlessly walking in circles? Regardless, Chelsea stood on her tippy toes to look over the rocks. The moment she saw the monoliths her anxiety level rose again. Blake began to set aside a couple of water canisters, some wireless provisions, and the weapons they had put together the night before. Then they approached the edge of the nearest ridge and peeked down. They lay quietly on their stomachs and just watched. There were no signs of life, but Chelsea still remarked in a low voice, “We shouldn’t be backtracking let alone stopping here. Not even briefly. Those things live here. I just know it.”
“Oh, come on, sis,” Blake said. “You knew we had to come back this way, and I still think we should go down there and disconnect that touchpad, otherwise look for some kind of communicator.”
“Again, what good will an inoperable router do us?”
“If we get it working it’ll lead us in the right direction. Duh!”
“Is it worth sacrificing your life for? Oh, you can be so stubborn at times, little one. Scared one minute yet outwardly brave the next. No, bro, as your older sister this is where I put my foot down.” She grabbed his wrist with force and, as he pulled away, she fell backwards in the dirt. His encyclopedia unit detached easily and was now in her hand. “Blake, get back here this instant!” He started running downward along the dust and crystal-lined ridge, handmade spear in tow. The pulverized vehicle was less than a quarter-mile away. “Blake, please, don’t!” Hesitant to raise her voice any louder, she hurried after him.
Back at the wreckage, the boy stood quietly facing the rover. A single tear fell from his eye; moments later more followed. Chelsea finally caught up with him; so did the terrible memories of days past. Together they turned their attention to the upended vehicle, the broken glass, and the headless driver, whose lanky frame was still sticking a few feet out. Much of his synthetic tubing was shriveled up, the plastics and operating fluids dried out from prolonged exposure to the heat. The girl wrinkled her nose, while continuously stealing glances over her shoulder. Unlike before, the monoliths now interested her. She wondered what had caused such tall and magnificent bricks to melt from within.
“He ought to be buried,” Blake said.
“Chandler was a machine.”
“Doesn’t matter. He was still encoded with feelings. That makes him just as human as us—and he was my friend!” The boy wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “He deserves a funeral. Even in a place like this.”
“Yes, but how?” The body was too heavy to carry back up the trail, and the ground at the site of the accident happened to be hard. “Listen, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll make a pulley out of what’s left of the truck’s door. Seems durable enough.” She looked up at the sky. “The suns are currently with us. It’s that or nothing, kiddo.”
Blake gave a nod of approval. Then he went to the vehicle to retrieve the touchpad and scavenge for items his sister might have otherwise overlooked or considered worthless. Afterwards he had to admit reluctantly that she was right: the corpse was heavy. Panting and straining, they heaved Chandler’s remains onto the top of the blue-tinted door. In the end, they raised the zyranium stretcher along a ramp and atop a high flat-surfaced boulder. So flat it resembled a slab in midair. Once it was clear of the ground, Chelsea crossed her fingers and hoped that the strange alien creatures who walked by wind and shadow wouldn’t mistreat the rest of the body.
The boy didn’t want to chance it. “Burn it,” he said, swallowing hard.
“Are you sure?” Chelsea asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
The girl approached the boulder, leaned up against it, stood on the balls of her feet and raised the spear in her left hand. The laser cutter at the tip of the weapon worked in conjunction with the lime crystals and ignited Chandler’s dismembered form. Then she returned to her brother’s side, and together they watched the flames. A few minutes later she climbed into the back of the rover again and checked the power cells. The solar reserves were exhausted. Looking up, however, she noticed a small bulb on one of the contorted operating panels. A distress beacon—the silent kind. It was glowing green. Perhaps Chandler knew the moment they were attacked to throw it on. Perhaps help was already on the way. She parted a smile.
Perhaps there was hope yet.
Outside the boy was packing the router all snug in his satchel. He deposited its energy cubes in his vest pocket. Hopefully it could be fixed. Hopefully he’d be the one to mend it, and, if so, put it to good use later on in their travels. Then he stared back up at the burning body. He remembered Chandler’s singsong kindness: the ancient stories of wonder and the furtive bites of jerky and candy that caused intoxicating laughter. What he did next was partly instinctive, reminiscent of his days aboard the Juniper. He began to pray and hymn; it was the special prayer which, according to keepers and lonely orphans, would exorcise a new home or planet of its evil spirits and bad elements. Just like the one that caused Chandler’s death.
The girl came back and watched her brother. She felt torn in two; as if half of her was standing dry-eyed beside a spread-open coffin intoning an Earth requiem, while the other half was dancing around gaily and celebrating life.
The boy’s harmonious devotion ebbed and flowed between the smooth cadences of what the Keeper had taught him of religion. When they were residents of the Juniper, the children had a much simpler name for it. They called it Faith Class.
Chelsea patted her brother on the shoulder and, giving him as much time alone as he needed, went to inspect the monoliths. She raised her arm to the first and largest of the great green stones and punched a few buttons on her wrist encyclopedia. When Blake had finished, he’d gotten off his knees and caught up with her. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she replied without looking back. Her tone was matter-of-fact.
“Looks like somethin’ to me,” the boy said nosily.
“Just surveying, really.” Chelsea remained unconcerned, but her intuition would have told another story. “See this? According to my cyclopedia this is some form of granite with an igneous outer layer but an internal heating source.” She held her wrist out for her brother to see; Blake shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve never seen anything like it in text cards or disks.”
“You mean like volcanoes?”
“Kind of, I suppose. Also, these blocks have their own magnetic fields—small, mind you; practically dwarf-sized—but given their geological shape over time they probably act as nothing more than a wind receptor or miniature power conductor.” When she leaned in closer the key drive containing her life essence flipped out of her shirt and clung to the great stone. “See what I mean?”
“Whoa!” The boy was taken aback; he, too, felt the rope around his neck being tugged and pulled. “You think they have somethin’ to do with this planet’s crazy weather system?”
“Maybe. Magnetic properties are very common among these types of stones: Earth, Mars, Ganymede, Titan, Upsilon, Epsilon, Centauri, Andromeda—they’re all over. Scientists and colonies from across the stars have proclaimed they even have the ability to metaphysically heal the sick.” The girl was confident she was on to something. “But all the suns and moons in the Cat’s Eye,” she went on, “all the heat generated in Ragnarok’s core couldn’t cause melting of this magnitude. I just know it. No, this was a very different kind of combustion. Or at least something along those lines. A very powerful force from within, and that force absorbed the special properties these stones give off and used it to burst free.”
“So somethin’ lived inside this big rock, huh?” Blake looked up at the tall stone and rapped the side of it. He counted twenty more within a few yards of where he was standing.
“Or slept,” Chelsea said. “If you want my opinion, they might even be some kind of age-old resting chamber or husk.”
“Nah, couldn’t be.”
“Bigger?” The boy’s eyes widened. “Worse?”
“Yes.” Chelsea went back to her wrist and ran another analysis. “And very much alive.”
After she finished scrounging around for more data, she shut the device off and flipped the top panel shut. She stepped back from the monolith and observed it some more. For a moment it reminded her of an extraterrestrial Stonehenge, an ancient Earth supposedly known for its magnetic and metaphysical properties. Then she pretended it was a giant sandstone coffin; the eerie comparison caused a sudden shiver to run up her spine. She soon realized that anything else than what she’d discovered so far was just a mystery or worthless knowledge.
Blake was already halfway up the trail. “Come on, sis! We’ve got a lot of walking ahead of us.”
Chelsea eventually caught up. “Oh, here,” she said, going into her knapsack and tossing something his way.
“What’s this?” Blake had never seen anything like it; the interior was paper.
“When I went back I found it in Chandler’s overhead compartment,” she said. “I know how close you were to him. Thought you might want it. It’s a book.”
“What’s a book?”
“It’s an antiquity. The contents are paper. They don’t make paper anymore. Not for centuries.”
“What’s an antiquity?”
“Old objects of worth, numbskull.” Chelsea rolled her eyes and laughed. “Books were the things used for entertainment or learning purposes long before touchpads and wrist encyclopedias became necessary. They were meant for the imagination.”
Blake thumbed through the pages. “It has words in it.”
“So do wrist encyclopedias.”
The front cover read: Lord of the Flies
The boy grinned. “Thanks. I’ll treasure it with my life.”
He led the way south into the dry wastes and ridges of sand, crystal, and sprinkled garnet. He didn’t look back, but the girl glanced more than once over her shoulder at the rover and flat-surfaced boulder in the glare of the two suns. In the hours before the double sunset they covered perhaps twenty miles. Chelsea was happy with it. So long as they were far away from the site of the wreckage by the time the primary sun disappeared over the horizon. That’s all that mattered to her.
They found a good place to camp among a cluster of Yurga stalks which rose like pallid ghosts around a depression. There, in this quiet place, other washed out trees and herbs were strewn about. They laid out their provisions, pre-programmed a half-dozen flares and made a giant circle of flames as their fire, then each ate jerky and wuava fruit. With twilight came the stars—millions of them, literally dotting every section of the colored sky. Compared to the bluffs, the wastes were beautiful by moonlight—fourteen moons, upon first count—and the children were settling down contentedly in the warmth of the glowing embers. Here and there the boy went into his satchel and fiddled with the router. But it was obvious he could not get the touchpad working, no matter how hard he tried. The girl, on the other hand, sat thinking about the Juniper, and how she too missed the voices of the kids now. She could hardly believe how far they journeyed. She could hardly believe they were going into their fifth day on this enormous planet.
With the flames crackling in all directions, the children heard a metallic clatter in the distance and saw a light inching across the skyline. It was some time before they realized that it was a rover coming up through the wastes.
They also shared the most unusual feeling that they were being watched.
The girl’s voice was uncertain. “If we ran quickly, do you think we’d catch it?”
The boy said nothing at first, strangely sniffing the air. Very carefully he kicked sand and ash over the fires, extinguishing every single glimmer of flame that surrounded them. His behavior was very weird. After a time the light moved on in the direction of the bluffs. Then, finally, he nodded to his sister. “Koral?”
Chelsea, hardly seeable, shrugged her shoulders. “Can’t be sure.” There was a moment of silence as they stared past each other in the darkness. “It’s late,” she whispered. “I really don’t want to take any chances if we don’t have to. Go ahead. Make another fire.”
The boy smelled the air again, then ran up the rocky ridge behind him. “Salty,” he said. “I knew it. Look!” Not one, but two immense fog clouds were moving across the desert fast. Almost like airborne sandstorms. “Bad weather’s on the way, sis. Pretty low-cast, too.”
“Smells like methane if you ask me,” Chelsea remarked curiously. After a while, the stench had become so unbearable she had to pinch her nostrils.
“It’s in the snow that travels over the endless sands,” Blake pointed out, “and the snow falls within the fog. Never outside it. Chandler told me all about it. It’s an atmospheric phe-nom…phe-nom-e…”
“Yeah, that’s the word!”
“You make that sound as if it’s a good thing.”
“No, it really isn’t.” The boy looked to the plains and darkened horizon. “We need to take cover fast, sis. Real fast.” His voice was full of worry.
With the helpful glare of one or more moons, Chelsea could notice the same in his eyes. “What if there isn’t enough time? What if we can’t find a cave or some rocks quick enough?” She panicked.
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.
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? Nah, 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.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Author’s Note: First Draft